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Fantasy Advice (NFL)

Confidence in Their Vets

James Conner. Photo by Brook Ward. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

NFL teams that drafted running backs in the first 3 rounds shook up fantasy twitter, but under the radar, teams that passed on the position made just as definitive of a statement. 6 incumbent starters lifted their fantasy draft stock after dodging a bullet on draft day.

The Chargers, Eagles, Jaguars, Falcons, Seahawks, and Steelers were all teams that could likely add to their running back group and steal touches from the starter. Instead, the teams focused on other needs and the starters came out unscathed. These capable RB2s have now solidified their ADPs as RBs 9 – 24.

Austin Ekeler

An untraditionally small back (5’10” 200 lbs.), Ekeler has never been a season-long starter in his career. He shined this past season when Melvin Gordon held out for the first 4 games. During that stretch, Ekeler averaged 14 carries, 55 rushing yards, and 3.9 YPC. Those games showed mediocre rushing averages, but he excelled in touchdowns and receptions. Ekeler scored 3 rushing touchdowns, 3 receiving touchdowns, and averaged 68 yards and 6 receptions as the leader of the backfield.

His 16-game pace would have netted 224 carries, 880 yards, 12 rushing touchdowns, 100 targets, 96 Recs., 1080 Rec. yards, 12 Rec. TDs, and 4 fumbles for a grand total of 428 PPR points.

Now the 24-touchdown pace is fluky and will certainly come down, along with the receptions with rookie QB Justin Herbert at the helm. But Ekeler is the clear leader of this backfield and the Chargers showed faith in him by not drafting an RB in the first 3 rounds.

ADP: RB 9

Miles Sanders

Eagles Head Coach Doug Pederson prefers an RBBC and so Sanders started the year in a committee with Jordan Howard despite being a second-round pick. But by week 3, Sanders was already becoming fantasy relevant. From week 3 on, Sanders averaged 12.8 PPR points in the regular season and finished with a monster fantasy playoff, scoring 11, 35, and 27 for weeks 14-16.

After Sanders took over the backfield in week 11, he averaged 16 carries, 72 rushing yards, 4.5 YPC, 5 targets, 4 Recs., 34 Rec. yards, and on pace for 11 TDs.

These are the numbers many expect out of Sanders again this year. This will be his first full year projected as the lead back and unlike Devin Singletary, this team trusts the second-year back enough to disregard drafting another rookie RB in the first 3 rounds. This backfield is set with Sanders as the lead and Boston Scott as the relief back.

ADP: RB13

Leonard Fournette

The Jaguars do not like Fournette as their featured back. They’ve openly talked about his laziness and immaturity in team meetings. They tried to trade him before the draft but couldn’t find an adequate trade partner. They declined his fifth-year option and signed Chris Thompson. They’ve done everything to show they do not want him… but still, Fournette falls into the de facto workhorse role again this season. The Jaguars didn’t draft a suitable replacement for first and second downs. Fournette will lose some of his receiving role to Thompson but will otherwise be run into the ground for his final season with the Jaguars.

Last year, Fournette set career highs with 1152 rushing yards, 4.3 YPC, and 76 receptions out of nowhere. That’s 40 receptions more than he’s ever had in a season. While his receptions will negatively regress, his touchdown totals will certainly increase. He only scored 3 rushing TDs last year and will likely triple that to 9 TDs this year if he can stay healthy. Say what you want about the Jaguars offense, few running backs have as guaranteed a role for touches as Fournette.

ADP: RB15

Todd Gurley

Gurley was not trusted as a featured back in his final season with Los Angeles because of his arthritic knee. Now in a new home with the Atlanta Falcons for 1 year, many people suspected they would draft a running back to ease Gurley’s workload and plan for the future. They did not. The focus of their 2020 draft was defense. So, where does this leave Gurley?

Gurley steps into Devonta Freeman‘s role last year. Both backs are going through similar career arcs, each experiencing decline at a rapid rate. Freeman’s YPC dropped from 4.4 to 3.6, part of the reason the Falcons moved on. Gurley’s YPC dropped from 4.9 to 3.8, part of the reason the Rams moved on, it just didn’t justify his large contract.

It’s been 3 years since an Atlanta back has reached 200 carries and with Gurley’s knee concerns the Falcons will try to make it a 4th year, even though Gurley has never had less than 223 carries in a season.

Gurley was sub 900 yards and 35 receptions last year but scored 14 TDs. Gurley’s production is worrisome, but he could experience an uptick in those numbers because the Falcons’ backups are even worse than the Rams had last year. The Falcons’ lack of talent might not afford an easy workload for Gurley. A fresh start in Atlanta, Gurley will try to bounce back from his one poor season despite load management concerns.

ADP: RB16

Chris Carson

The largest question that loomed over the Seahawks heading into the draft was the health of their running back room. Many picked the Seahawks as a candidate to draft a running back because their two viable starters suffered late-season injuries, weeks 14 and 15. Rashaad Penny, the back-up, is still recovering from an ACL tear and might start the season on the PUP list, making him ineligible to play for the first 6 weeks. Carson’s outlook is slightly more optimistic as he’s still recovering from hip surgery, but he will likely be ready for week 1.

Carson has suffered 2 season-ending injuries in his 3 years in the NFL, but the Seahawks showed confidence with Carson as a healthy week 1 starter by waiting to take a running back until round 5. Carson was a top 12 RB last year and if he can stay healthy, he could have the backfield all to himself for at least the first 6 games, if not more. Injuries and fumbles are the only concerns for this top 12 talent.

ADP: RB17

James Conner

Last year, Conner received double-digit carries until the end of week 8 when he injured his AC joint in his shoulder. He could never get right the second half of the season, dealing with shoulder and leg injuries. 3 years in a row the running back has missed multiple games due to serious injury. Conner was the player I was most shocked that was given the nod of confidence to lead the backfield another year.

There is no doubt he is talented when on the field, Conner averaged 15.9 PPR points through the first 8 weeks. His 16-game pace would have netted 194 carries, 760 yards, 3.9 YPC, 62 targets, 58 Recs., 472 Rec. yards, 12 TDs, a total of 253.2 PPR points finishing as the RB9.

This would have given Conner two years in a row as an RB1, instead, he finished as the RB35 because he could not stay on the field. His injury history drags his RB1 status down, but the team didn’t draft a running back until the fourth round of the draft. So, for now, Conner stays the leader of the running back group. The Steelers will likely limit his touches to help him stay healthy all season, but at least they didn’t draft a 1B to his 1A, he is the clear talent leader among this group.

ADP: RB23

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