As free agency comes to end and the draft inches closer, several running backs switched teams or signed contract extensions. The fantasy implications may be hard to keep up with. To make things easier, I wrote two articles breaking down the AFC running back movement and an article for the NFC running back movement. Each division is highlighted with the biggest signings that will directly impact their running back projections. These notes will help get you in the ballpark of how to think of these backs barring any drastic changes in the draft.
Denver Broncos sign Melvin Gordon:
I like this move for Austin Ekeler‘s fantasy stock. Ekeler moves up as a capable starter who went ballistic during Gordon’s holdout. Ekeler averaged 26.75 fantasy points a game during the first four weeks. Ekeler has a very Kamara-esque role for his team. Both backs are high volume receivers that caught over 81 passes, the biggest question for Ekeler is how often will Tyrod Taylor or a rookie QB check down to their back?
For Gordon, it doesn’t really move the needle either way for me. He’ll come in and likely take over as the workhorse back in Denver with Philip Lindsay splitting touches out the backfield. Both are capable of catching out the backfield and will be good safety valves for young Drew Lock. Gordon stays in a similar split/situation as he did last year with Ekeler.
Los Angeles Chargers extend Austin Ekeler:
Love this man. He way outperformed expectations and pushed to become the starter after being overlooked as an undrafted rookie. I had my doubts that such a small back could handle the RB1 workload, but his receiving chops boosted his fantasy points to 26.75 fantasy points a game. Chargers are likely to add another back but if they stay with the two main backs on the roster, we’ve seen Ekeler outperform Jackson as the main guy and post top 5 numbers.
He’s unlikely to maintain that success but capable of a top 10 RB finish. He was the second most targeted running back in the league last year, but this year he will have a new QB. I think he will still be heavily targeted because he is masterful at that skill set.
Not a direct fantasy target, but I also love the moves of trading for guard Trai Turner and signing cornerback Chris Harris. This defense will be scary good and get the ball back to the offense quicker. They struggled on the offensive line last year, one of the worst in the league. Turner helps improve that position. This roster is well developed, the QB and O-line are the biggest questions for this team’s success.
Kansas City Chiefs pick up 2020 contract option for Damien Williams:
If he stays the only back in town his upside is a game-changer. This was the same upside we were chasing all year last year. After putting it together during the playoffs and being the best offensive player in the Super Bowl, besides Patrick Mahomes, I find myself chasing that hype again. The Chiefs are rumored to draft an RB though, and if they invest in a top-end RB then Williams upside will be stipend again.
Tennessee Titans franchise tag Derrick Henry:
The Titans needed two players back for their offense to run the same as last year. They needed to find a way to get RB Derrick Henry and QB Ryan Tannehill on the team for another season. The team franchise tagged Henry and signed Tannehill to a long-term deal.
Henry was more deserving of a long-term contract because he’s the engine that makes this team move, but second contracts on RBs have proved problematic in recent years. Henry has an aggressive running style that will likely produce again this season, but many wonder how long he can keep it up.
RB production hits like a cliff, the fall from one year to the next is dramatic. Contracts like Todd Gurley and David Johnson seemed like good contracts until the production fell off. Once it did, the team did whatever it took to move on from the player. For now, Henry will be a go. But beware, he is an RB entering his second contract and it’s within this second contract that RBs tend to decline rapidly. He will be a first-round pick in fantasy drafts, regardless of his lack of pass-catching production.
Dennis Kelly also resigned as a versatile tackle that plays on the right side but has played on the left when asked to fill in. The strong tackle will help keep the O-line play consistent again this year.
Houston Texans trade for David Johnson:
Well Bill O’ Brien really bungled this one.
DeAndre Hopkins is no longer a Texan but hey now the team has an aging RB… David Johnson is 28 years old and in his sixth year in the NFL. The last two years, his RB production decreased to 3.7 Yards Per Attempt, which ranks 41st out of the 32 starting jobs in the NFL.
Johnson will be given plenty of opportunity as the starting RB for an RB needy team, especially after the backlash O’Brien got after the trade. It is hard to trust an RB after you’ve seen the wheels start to come off. It’s very rare an RB resurges after their decline. In an offense that’s lost special playmakers and will be behind often because of a porous defense, Johnson will likely struggle as a rusher, but he maintains upside as a pass-catcher.
Johnson remained an RB1 through the first six games of the 2019 season, in part, because he averaged 5 catches and .5 TDs a game. Overall, I think his production comes down, but his receiving will keep his PPR fantasy value afloat. Not a player I am proactively seeking out, but if he continues to fall in the draft, for the right price, I would look at him as a rotational/bench RB.
Miami Dolphins sign Jordan Howard and Ereck Flowers:
It’s not flashy, but it’s a step in the right direction. Both will improve the current roster positions. The biggest splash in free agency the Dolphins made was on the defensive side. They signed Bryon Jones, Shaq Lawson, Kyle Van Noy, and Emmanuel Ogbah. The defense won’t directly impact fantasy players, but it’ll be interesting to see if the Dolphins ask Ryan Fitzpatrick to sling the ball the way he did last season when they were constantly behind.
What’ll be most impactful for the Dolphins offense, is what they do in the draft. They have five picks in the first two rounds which could likely be a QB and RB that they pair together for the future.
New York Jets sign 3 O-linemen to long term deals. George Fant, Connor McGovern, and Greg Van Roten:
The Jets’ only impactful signing on the offensive side has been in their O-line, which needed a lot of help from last year. They ranked in the bottom 4 of the league last year according to Pro Football Focus. This should help Le’Veon Bell‘s atrocious 3.2 YPC but in this new coronavirus world, the offseason will likely be limited and that could hurt the chemistry of the 4 new offensive linemen.
Cleveland Browns sign Jack Conklin:
The north didn’t have any signings that directly impacted the running back position. But the Browns improved their O-line, signing Jack Conklin. This is huge for the Browns. All the hype the Browns got last year was demolished because of a bad O-line and bad coaching; both those positions will be improved this year.
The hardest part of projecting the Browns backfield is the split workload between Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Chubb will continue to get his on the ground, his 5.2 Yards Per Rush were top 5 among running backs last year. Chubb’s rushing volume remains steady. Even with Hunt in the mix, Chubb was still given 144 carries in the 8 games Hunt played. Chubb’s TD production suffered though. He scored 6 TDs the first half of the season and only 2 when Hunt returned.
Hunt does well for the limited role he is given. He siphoned off 3 TDs from Chubb’s heavy workload in that 8-game span. He averaged 12.9 fantasy points per game and reached double digits in 6 of the 8 games. Keep in mind, newly signed Austin Hooper will be a new mouth to feed in the intermediate/short game, but Hunt is too special of a player to ignore completely.