2018 provided the usual dose of running back surprises, and while several of these resulted in unexpectedly great performances (James Conner at No. 7, Phillip Lindsay at No. 12), there were many that ruined fantasy hopes for unfortunate owners.
Le’Veon Bell owners were the most obvious losers on draft day last year. Leonard Fournette and Devonta Freeman, both popular second or third-round picks, finished as the No. 37 and No. 109 running backs, after injuries derailed their seasons. LeSean McCoy and Carlos Hyde, trusted fantasy veterans, each played in 14 games but finished at No. 40 and No. 44 at the position, respectively.
Simply put: running backs are a volatile and unpredictable group that values consistency from its studs. Here are some players you should be wary of considering their average draft position, potential risk, and inconsistency.
5. Kenyan Drake, Miami Dolphins
Everything seems to be looking up for Drake. The Alabama product was continually frustrated in coach Adam Gase’s offense, rarely averaging more than 12 carries, but performing at a high level given the opportunity. Now Gase is gone, and Drake won’t have to compete with Frank Gore anymore.
The upside for a breakout season is there, but there are also red flags that could result in a bust season for Drake.
Miami’s offense hasn’t improved significantly, and the QB battle between Josh Rosen and Ryan Fitzpatrick doesn’t help to reassure that a jump up from last year will occur. The Dolphins ran the fewest plays in the league last year (878), which was significantly lower than the league average (1,007) and placed them as the only team to run fewer than 900 plays since 2006. Their seven rushing touchdowns as a team ranked last in the NFL, and goal line carries may go to the bigger and stronger Kalen Ballage. It also doesn’t help that the Dolphins have the worst offensive line in football (via Pro Football Focus).
Drake is more of a bust candidate if you rank him as a top-12 running back, like some experts do. However, some experts have him as low as RB49 (via FantasyPros), and either option is a possible outcome. There are too many make-or-break factors, like his workload, inconsistency, and horrendous offensive line to have trust in Drake this season.
4. Damien Williams, Kansas City Chiefs
Running backs thrive in the Kansas City Chiefs’ offense, but they also seem to be interchangeable cogs in the system. Jamaal Charles, Charcandrick West, Spencer Ware, Knile Davis and Kareem Hunt are all running backs who have exploded in Kansas City and have been relevant fantasy options. And then, suddenly, they are replaced by a new name that performs just as well. One injury, one bad game, or one strong performance from another Kansas City back could easily move Williams to the back of the rotation.
Although Williams has a chance to be the main running back out of the gate, Kansas City went out and signed veteran Carlos Hyde to bolster the backfield. They’re paying Hyde more, and he provides a proven goal-line and pass-catching presence. It’s impossible to ignore the torrid stretch that Williams went on at the end of last year, scoring 10 touchdowns in a six-game span. However, that occurred without another option in the backfield.
Williams, along with most of the guys on this list, figures to be a boom-or-bust candidate. Handcuffing him with Hyde would be a smart move, but you may have to draft both of them early, so looking for a more stable situation isn’t a bad idea.
3. Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams
An arthritic component in Gurley’s knee has been the center of attention this offseason. No one is really sure how it will affect him, as the Rams have not revealed too much about the issue, a concerning fact in itself. If there’s any lingering carry-over from the end of the season and playoffs, the Rams could go with 2018 draft pick Darrell Henderson in order to conserve Gurley’s health. Last year’s back up, CJ Anderson, averaged 116.5 yards per game when he filled in for Gurley, meaning that Sean McVay’s system can likely get production no matter who leads the backfield.
This isn’t to discredit Gurley’s talent. The three-time Pro Bowler led the league with 17 rushing touchdowns in just 14 games last year, averaging 4.9 yards per carry and adding valuable production as a receiver (580 yards, 4 TD). It’s difficult, then, to label Gurley as a bust. When he’s healthy and the Rams are rolling, he’s arguably the best option in fantasy football. But when this much risk is present, it becomes tough to sacrifice the ever-important consistency and reliability at the running back position in order to grab Gurley early. Draft with caution and definitely be sure to handcuff him with Henderson.
2. Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans
When Henry put up 238 yards and four touchdowns against the Jaguars, he displayed one of the greatest fantasy football performances of all time. More importantly, however, he bolstered his stat line for the entire season and boosted his ADP for 2019 to round two or three. His full season stat line (1,059 yards and 12 TD) is deceptive. After the first half of the season, he was the No. 49 running back, a forgotten reality that likely cost those who drafted him a valuable draft pick given his preseason hype. His second half was certainly impressive, but there were still some duds mixed in with the big games, including a three-game stretch where he totalled 116 rushing yards. A running back drafted this high simply should not be a bench-level player for the majority of the season, save for a few outstanding games.
Will this finally be the year that Henry is a season-long bellcow? The hype is there, but Dion Lewis is back again, which means there will likely be a committee approach throughout the season and will keep Henry as a complete non-factor in the passing game. The Titans added a couple of weapons to the passing game (Adam Humphries, A.J. Brown) and will benefit from the return of Delanie Walker, meaning they might be working to balance their offensive attack that passed the second-least last season. Let someone else deal with the duds that Henry is likely to put up, and try to make a move for him when you can buy low.
1. Le’Veon Bell, New York Jets
While Adam Gase limited Drake’s feature back opportunities in Miami, it’s almost unimaginable that he would do it to the same extent in his first year with Le’Veon Bell and the Jets. Still, Gase’s offenses have finished in the bottom-half of the league in rush attempts the past three seasons, including a dead-last finish in 2017. It’s worth noting that Gase has already shown discontent with Bell’s contract. The problems go past the coaching staff, though.
New York was among the worst rushing teams in the league last year (4.0 yards per attempt), and while Bell will be a helpful addition to that system, the offensive line is still ranked among the worst in the game (No. 28 per Pro Football Focus). As great as Bell was in the Steelers offense, he averaged just 4.0 yards per attempt in his last season played and put up strong numbers thanks to his immense workload (a league-best 321 carries). Even if Gase does feature him as the lead back, 300 carries doesn’t seem realistic, especially given Gase’s usual offensive scheme and the lackluster Jets offense as a whole. Isaiah Crowell, the “lead” back for New York last season, only had 143 carries as compared to Elijah McGuire’s 92 and Bilal Powell’s 80. McGuire and Powell won’t completely fade away, and a slight committee could form.
Another factor is that Pittsburgh’s offense was filled with multiple weapons that required defensive attention. In New York, Bell should be the defense’s focal point, which he has never had to deal with before. We know the talent is there, but his surroundings and his season-long hiatus are concerning points to consider. A bust for Bell would mean anything out of RB1 range, and the move to New York could definitely bump him out of that tier.