Running backs are one of the most crucial positions, if not the most important in all of fantasy football. They're also one of the most difficult to draft, given the need for stability and consistency paired with the subsequent desire for a high-ceiling, explosive asset.
A mixture of the two is obviously prized, and it's obviously hard to come by. Those rare blends, like Christian McCaffrey and Dalvin Cook, are sure to go within the first picks of the draft and provide a team with a great foundation. But beyond those locks, there's a lot of uncertainty throughout the fantasy football community on when to draft certain players, how to weigh upside (and downside) and so much more.
Looking at a player's Average Draft Position (ADP) data -- I use the set from Fantasy Football Calculator -- is a helpful way to determine where you should be looking to draft a running back (or any player) you may be targeting. This website collects the results from numerous mock drafts, tracking only the times when a human selected a player (not counting the AI draft picks) in order to record ADP.
In this article, I’ll look at the running backs whose value people can't quite agree on. These are the guys, according to Fantasy Football Calculator, who have the highest standard deviation between their picks.
Not a math person? A simple way to think about standard deviation is the variation of their average draft position. Nearly everyone agrees that Christian McCaffrey should be taken first overall. There is little deviation in where he gets selected in the draft. However, if another running back is sometimes taken in the second round, sometimes in the fifth, and sometimes in the eighth, there is plenty of deviation as to when he’s drafted.
Last year, Kenyan Drake was one of those guys. People were unsure of whether or not 2019 would finally be the year he stopped splitting time with Kalen Ballage and broke out in a big way to lead the Miami backfield. He didn't, as it turns out, but was able to turn around his miserable start to the season after he found new life in Arizona.
Ironically, Kenyan Drake is not one of those highly contested players this year, as people feel pretty confident in his ability after a strong showing with the Cardinals. With a standard deviation of just 4.5, most people can agree that he’s a second-round value in 2020. But that’s certainly not the case for other backs around the league.
Let’s take a look.
These mock drafts occurred within a PPR, 12-team snake draft format from the dates May 16 to May 18, 2020.
Ezekiel Elliott - 8.9 Average Draft Position (5.4 Standard Deviation)
It’s pretty surprising to see such a wide range of draft possibilities for Zeke. In the past four seasons, he’s been in the top six running backs in each and every year in terms of PPR points per game. He’s about as reliable as running backs get in terms of a full workload and consistent production, and the Cowboys are expected to be another top offense in the league in 2020. So why is he outside the top five draft selections when he’s usually a lock as an early first-round pick? And why does his standard deviation tell us that he’s falling to the second round in some drafts?
I simply don’t have an explanation as to why he’s falling out of the first round. Fantasy Football Calculator lists five running backs -- Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley, Dalvin Cook, Alvin Kamara and Derrick Henry -- being taken before Zeke on average. It’s a formidable group, but I still feel that Zeke’s workload and role on his team is bigger than Alvin Kamara’s, and he provides much higher PPR value than Henry.
Verdict: Draft higher than his ADP. I’d feel comfortable taking Elliott within the top five, and even if the Dak Prescott contract situation doesn’t pan out (which I think it will), Zeke’s role with the Cowboys will translate into huge fantasy production as usual.
Aaron Jones - 12.0 ADP (6.9 Standard Deviation)
Jones’ 2019 is an interesting season to analyze. The stat that immediately pops out is his touchdown total. A player doesn’t need to gain a single yard on the season while scoring 19 touchdowns to be a usable fantasy football asset, as that would turn into a little over seven points per week. Thus, if you could rely on any football player to score 19 touchdowns in a season, they would automatically be a first-round draft pick assuming even minimal yardage output.
Thus, I expect some regression on that front. Jones also had two monstrous weeks in which he compiled nearly 30% of his total fantasy points. While these weeks are certainly great, the pace isn’t sustainable, and his totals are buoyed by those massive efforts. To demonstrate this point, it’s worth noting that Jones had five games where he practically did nothing of fantasy value.
If I’m being fair, I could also point out that any of those bad games is just as much of an anomaly as his multi-touchdown explosions.
Other noteworthy aspects of evaluating Jones is realizing that the Packers selected AJ Dillon in the draft in an eyebrow-raising move, and Jamaal Williams is still a solid presence in the lineup. Williams is more than just a running back, as his offseason workouts show, and the Packers have continually kept the backfield in somewhat of a timeshare between Jones and Williams. Williams got almost 150 touches last year, and when the backup is getting that type of volume, it puts a cap on what the lead running back is capable of, no matter how efficient he is.
Verdict: Draft him lower than his ADP. Using the standard deviation, we can expect Jones to be drafted commonly within the range of fifth overall to 19th overall. I’m not sure I’d consider him a smart play in the first round, and so I think the early-middle second round is much more appropriate.
Devin Singletary - 29.4 Average Draft Position (6.0 Standard Deviation)
Legendary quarterback Jim Kelly has made his thoughts known, claiming that if the Bills don’t win the AFC East this year after the dismantling of the Patriots, then “something’s wrong.”
That bodes well for Devin Singletary, the lead guy in Sean McDermott’s physical,defense-first game plan that seems to be a perfect scenario in which a young, high-volume running back can thrive. Singletary split carries with Frank Gore last year, which is good for two reasons: he got to learn from one of the greatest running backs of this generation, and he also has the backfield all to himself this year with Gore’s subsequent departure.
Maybe not all to himself, seeing as Buffalo drafted Zack Moss in the third round, and the rookie is already saying that he wants to be “the most dominant player on the field.” We love the enthusiasm and the eager mindset of Moss, but there’s no reason to think that he’ll supplant Singletary after the season he had in 2019. Singletary’s 5.1 yards per carry ranked third among all running backs who logged at least 100 carries in 2019, ahead of Derrick Henry, Nick Chubb, Christian McCaffrey and others. His workload should be a lot larger than in 2019, and so 250 to 300 carries is not outside the realm of possibility.
So where does this leave his draft value?
Verdict: Draft him around his ADP. I think that the middle of the third round is fine for Singletary, and wouldn’t mind grabbing him earlier on. I think what’s more important for me is that he’s taken before some of the guys who are above him on the ADP list, including Jacksonville’s Leonard Fournette (23.5) and Denver’s Melvin Gordon (27.9).
David Johnson - 37.6 Average Draft Position (6.0 Standard Deviation)
Johnson has been through a rough stretch lately. Most of it has been in regards to his health, as he missed a decent chunk of the 2019 season with nagging problems in his back and ankle. However, this offseason he potentially became a part of NFL history, as he was involved in a trade with the Texans that is largely considered one of the worst in NFL history. It’s May, and they’re still not done letting their anger out.
But for Johnson, 2020 provides a great opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start over, proving some of his doubters and some of Bill O’Brien’s haters wrong. The thing is, he hasn’t been very good over the past couple seasons. He’s averaging just 3.7 yards per carry, while Chase Edmonds and Kenyan Drake averaged 5.1 and 5.2 yards per carry in Arizona, respectively.
He should have a clear handle on the backfield, as Duke Johnson has never been a typical running back and can practically be labeled as a receiver. No one else in the backfield will be a threat for playing time, and this is the thing that Johnson has going for him most. Whether or not he’ll be able to stay healthy enough to lead the backfield in all these games is the biggest question.
Verdict: Draft later than his ADP. The problem with Johnson’s lead back role in Houston is that his injury history suggests there’s a sizable chance he won’t be able to fulfill it. I don’t want to spend a third-rounder or early fourth-rounder on a running back who can’t seem to stay on the field or perform well through minor injuries. His receiving abilities boost his stock, but Deshaun Watson doesn’t look to his lead running back all that often (Lamar Miller: 45 targets in 2017, 35 in 2018; Carlos Hyde: 16 targets in 2019). I prefer a late fourth-round selection for Johnson.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire - 38.1 Average Draft Position (8.7 Standard Deviation)
Absolutely demolishing the SEC in his junior year against some top defenses -- six of the top 20 defensive teams in the nation were in the SEC -- means that Edwards-Helaire has a ton of experience as he enters the NFL. And what a fun situation he finds himself in, too, as a member of the 2019 Super Bowl champions.
Andy Reid spent a first-round pick on a running back for a reason, selecting Edwards-Helaire above everyone else. That can only mean he’s going to lead the backfield after the committee Damien Williams, LeSean McCoy (no longer on KC), Darrell Williams and Darwin Thompson just couldn’t provide the offense with a lead star on the ground. High floor? Check.
High ceiling? A bold check. We know what running backs have done in Kansas City under Andy Reid. Jamaal Charles was the number one running back in fantasy in Reid’s first year, Kareem Hunt was a top-five guy over a couple seasons, and we’ve seen guys like Knile Davis, Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware explode for massive fantasy production without a consistent role.
Verdict: Draft earlier than his ADP. The sky’s the limit for Edwards-Helaire with what should be a consistent role in 2020. I would take Edwards-Helaire over David Johnson in a heartbeat, and a second-round draft value could be coming as the hype intensifies for the LSU alum.
Todd Gurley - 49.6 Average Draft Position (7.8 Standard Deviation)
The biggest question mark over the past year in regards to this former Offensive Player of the Year has been his health. He hasn’t missed too many games, but an arthritic component in Gurley’s knee put him in a questionable fantasy football situation entering last year’s draft.
This year is no different, which is actually kind of surprising. You’d expect a team to make sure everything checks out when signing a running back who was suddenly and surprisingly released by his former team. But apparently, that’s not the case in Atlanta, as offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said that “no one seems to know” Gurley’s health status.
Even though he was relegated to a lesser role last season in a portion of games, Gurley still managed to play through his nagging health issues and score 14 total touchdowns for the third straight season. That knack for finding the end zone isn’t expected to fade away and should help a Falcons rushing attack that was awful last season. They may be willing to rely more on the ground game with Gurley there, considering they ran the ball 21 times inside the opponent’s 10-yard line while choosing to throw it 34 times in 2019.
Verdict: Draft earlier than his ADP. This may sound weird given that I think David Johnson should be drafted later on. But I actually think Gurley could drop further down draft boards if his health remains a mystery, and the double-digit touchdown value and lack of any secondary running backs in this offense gives him a high-ceiling and a floor that, though risky, is worth a fourth-round draft pick.
Kareem Hunt - 64.1 Average Draft Position (7.0 Standard Deviation)
The Browns hung onto Hunt after half of a season in 2019, and it’s fair to say he was a tad underwhelming. Nick Chubb was doing a heck of a job in the backfield, though, and Hunt’s return didn’t transfer too much of the workload away from Chubb. Chubb’s 5.0 yards per carry was far better than Hunt’s 4.2, but Hunt had a greater impact as a receiver in half the amount of games played. Despite ranking fourth in all of football in yards per carry, Freddie Kitchens opted to run the ball just 393 times over the course of the season, which was a bottom-12 figure.
With Kevin Stefanski now running the show, you can expect an offense that utilizes the running backs much more effectively. The Vikings turned the fourth-most opportunities into the sixth-most yards and touchdowns under Stefanski’s guidance, and that was largely a one-man army. Now, with two Pro Bowl talents at his disposal, expect big things from both Chubb and Hunt in a hopeful bounce-back campaign for the 2020 Browns.
Verdict: Draft earlier than his ADP. Hunt’s specialty is his dual-threat nature out of the backfield, and Stefanski should use this quite well. He took Dalvin Cook and upped his receiving output a significant amount in 2019, and though Chubb is fine as a receiver, Hunt is much more dangerous. Even in the crowded Browns offense, I expect Hunt to thrive and prove to the team that he was worth keeping around. As an added bonus, Hunt is a spectacular handcuff. If Chubb misses time? Watch out.
D’Andre Swift - 95.8 Average Draft Position (11.2 Standard Deviation)
According to Fantasy Football Calculator’s data, Kerryon Johnson was being selected as a fourth-round running back in April. After the Lions selected D’Andre Swift, his stock plummeted, and his latest ADP reading places him at the end of the sixth round.
Swift, on the other hand, looks like he’ll be a late eighth-round value but is continuing to trend upwards. Reports on how the Lions will utilize the two dynamic talents will shape the draft stock of these two players, and I’m confident that the ADP for both guys will continue to transform throughout the offseason and preseason.
The Lions had big plans for Kerryon Johnson last season, and some fantasy analysts even hyped him up to be a similar play as Alvin Kamara given his three-down, dual-threat potential in the Detroit backfield. Injuries derailed that storyline, and though he should be healthy come September, he faces a new obstacle with the Lions’ selection of Swift.
I don’t believe Detroit drafted the Georgia product to sit behind Johnson for a year and learn. They want him to make an impact now, and the lead running back job could very well be up for grabs early on in the year.
Verdict: Draft earlier than ADP. If I’m drafting right now, I’m taking Swift higher than the end of the eighth round, but not by much. His ceiling is high, but his floor is low given the possibility of a dreaded timeshare with Johnson. Detroit’s offense is good, but not great, and with two guys in tow, there may not be all that much of an opportunity for Swift to break out if Johnson continues to play well. However, seeing as he is currently being selected outside of the top 100 with some frequency based on his standard deviation, his value seems a little higher than where he's being drafted.