By Jordan Cohn
Running backs are inevitably one of the most volatile positions in fantasy football. Busts in all rounds of the draft seem to occur every year through injuries, a lack of productivity, and younger backs emerging. Doug Martin finished second in scoring at his position in 2012. In 2013, he finished at No. 57. It happens.
But with fantasy football, there is always a positive. Those same busts can turn their game around and provide their teams and fantasy owners a pleasant surprise in the form of a bounce-back season. In 2015, the Muscle Hamster rushed for 1400 yards and found paydirt seven times en route to a First-Team All Pro accolade and a No. 3 fantasy finish.
Here are some prime running back candidates that have the potential to improve upon their 2018 performance and rebound to fantasy prominence.
3. Mark Ingram
Ingram knows how to run the rock. He’s capable of being a bell cow, but playing alongside Saints’ star Alvin Kamara and missing games due to suspension limited his opportunity to do so in 2018. According to Football Outsiders, Ingram recorded the third highest success rate at his position, a statistic representing a running back’s overall consistency. He’s finished well in fantasy and averaged 4.9 yards per attempt (y/a) over the past three years, but a return to top-tier production could be on the horizon for the 30-year-old.
Ingram now finds himself as the feature back in an offense that valued the ground game more than any other team in 2018. The system paid off; Baltimore turned the most rushing attempts in the NFL into the second-most yards and third-most touchdowns. The Ravens’ system that worked wonders on Justin Forsett, Buck Allen, and Alex Collins should allow a proven entity like Ingram to thrive. While the roster is crowded with running backs, Baltimore signed Ingram to lead the attack. Don’t count out a top-ten finish.
2. Leonard Fournette
The Jaguars’ running game finished 30th in rushing yards, played from behind often, had to work with two ineffective quarterbacks. Fournette struggled to find room to run and nursed an injury which limited his sophomore campaign to just eight games.
That said, Fournette would have rumbled for nearly 900 yards and ten touchdowns on the ground had he played the whole season. There is a marked difference between a Blake Bortles/Cody Kessler combination and Nick Foles leading the offense. Although Fournette will still be the centerpiece of the offense, he will have more breathing room beside Foles.
Fournette was largely responsible for the Jaguars’ offense that led the league in rushing yards and was the runner-up in touchdowns in 2017. His bolstered offensive line, including rookie tackle Jawaan Taylor, will assist Fournette in getting back to his rookie-year status. Consider him a late-second round pick and know that he could potentially be a steal.
1. David Johnson
Johnson was by no means bad last season. He dealt with a very ineffective offense, playing against defenses that stacked up the box against rookie signal caller Josh Rosen and running behind the league’s worst offensive line (via Pro Football Focus).
Despite the Cardinals’ lackluster system, Johnson still finished as the 10th-highest scoring running back in standard leagues, averaging 12.3 points per week. In a sense, last season was a bounce-back for Johnson,but in 2019, an even larger rebound should be in store. Just a few years removed from an outstanding campaign in which he registered 2,118 yards from scrimmage and scored 20 touchdowns, a return to dominance is probable.
Arizona’s offensive line was in shambles last season, as only one starter went for all 16 games. The Cardinals added veterans J.R. Sweezy and Marcus Gilbert this offseason, and the rest of the line is back to full health.
Johnson’s health does not appear to be a concern heading into 2019, either. His season-ending injury in 2017 was concerning, but he started every game last year and has not been hampered by nagging issues throughout the rest of his career.
Most importantly, Kyler Murray will take the helm and become the franchise quarterback for a team that has not developed one for quite some time. Defenses will not be able to ignore Murray’s undeniable dual-threat presence, and Murray will look to Johnson as a safety blanket in his debut season. Expect Johnson to return in a big way in 2019.
Others to consider:
● Devonta Freeman → Freeman’s 2018 season was an injury-filled nightmare. Issues with his knee, foot, and groin prevented him from logging any significant playing time, but there is no reason to believe he can’t exceed his career bests if he stays healthy. Tevin Coleman is out, the Falcons offense remains potent, and Freeman is in his prime at 27 years old.
● Jordan Howard → Philadelphia offers a similar scheme to that which Howard played in with the Bears. Its offensive line is once again a top-five unit, and the bevy of weapons prevents defenses from focusing their gameplan on Howard.
● Lesean McCoy → Josh Allen has a full season under his belt, Cody Ford strengthens the line, and McCoy once again leads a backfield where he had immense success in 2016 and 2017.
● Carlos Hyde → Kansas City always serves running backs well, and in 2018’s highest-scoring offense, there will be plenty of opportunities available for Hyde to return to form. Competition for touches will be tough, but Hyde’s track record should be enough to ensure a big role.
● Duke Johnson → Nick Chubb is a phenomenal talent and the definitive lead back to start the Browns’ 2019 season. Johnson has never been a lead back, and so his change-of-pace style could be a dangerous weapon in a loaded offense that will ease the defensive focus on the backfield. However, with Kareem Hunt’s return looming, Johnson may not be content to stay in Cleveland for long.
● Le’Veon Bell* → Bell comes with an asterisk, as he doesn’t have a bad performance to bounce back from. That said, his inactivity in 2018 poses somewhat of an issue. If his durability holds up, Bell possesses talent that other running backs just don’t have, and he’ll be used heavily regardless of the system.