2019 Fantasy Football Booms and Busts: Running Backs
For the 2019 fantasy football season, HTN contributor Coty Van de Byl discusses booms and busts for RBs, WRs, and QBs in a three-part series.
With Lamar Miller suffering a torn ACL, Duke Johnson is now the number one running back in Houston. This gives Johnson the opportunity to display why he is a first-string calibre player. Splitting backfield duties with Nick Chubb in Cleveland last year, Johnson was the 37th ranked running back in PPR leagues in 2018. Originally, Johnson appeared to be in a similar position in Houston playing behind Miller. However, Miller’s season-ending injury signals that Houston is likely to use a one-running back system with Johnson rather than the increasingly popular committee backfield approach. For fantasy owners, this means that the majority of Houston’s offence that does not flow through DeAndre Hopkins will flow through Johnson, making him a valuable running back outside the top 10.
One key issue to be aware of when drafting Duke Johnson is the offensive line he is working with. The Houston Texans’ offensive line is arguably the worst ranked O-line in the league, depending on the source ranking them. There are two key factors that mitigate the threat of this poor offensive line. First, Deshaun Watson’s mobility takes some of the pressure off. Watson has the ability to escape the pocket quickly generating more positive plays on offence; hopefully some of these plays will result in short passes to Johnson. Second, Johnson himself is a dual-threat running back as his pass-catching abilities nearly ensure he will get a large share of touches on offence this coming season. With both rushing and receiving capabilities, many of Johnson’s touches may be runs to the outside and screen passes, which is great for a running back in PPR leagues. Duke Johnson would be a great fit as an RB2 on most fantasy teams.
Another great running back outside the top 10 is Marlon Mack. In 2018, Mack broke 100 yards in one third of the 12 games he played. However, in the other 8 games, he only broke the 50-yard threshold three times. Mack’s fantasy volatility could disappear with the sudden retirement of Andrew Luck. Without Luck, the bulk of the Colts’ offence will likely be on the ground or short passes as Jacoby Brissett is not dependable enough to have a strong passing game. This means that Colts’ running backs, primarily Mack, will get the majority of touches in the 2019 season. With more of the offensive focus, Mack will be dependable week-to-week for fantasy owners as even if he has a “bad game”, he will still have solid production in terms of fantasy points.
Ranking 21st among running backs in terms of total points, Mack ranked 14th in average points per game in 2018 with 14.84 points. Mack could easily finish inside the top 10 this year as he will now be the key to the Colts’ offence. After doubling the number of carries from 2017 to 2018, Mack’s average yards per carry (YPC) increased from 3.8 YPC to 4.7 YPC. So with more production, Mack only got better. This shows that even with Andrew Luck, Mack was due for a great season. Last year Mack had 195 carries, and with more of a role this coming season, expect Mack to get around 250 carries. Similar to Duke Johnson, Mack is an easy RB2 for any fantasy team this year, but could be an RB1 if you take a wide receiver or two in early rounds.
It may be a shock to some, but Le’Veon Bell is not going to be as good as most think. Per NFL.com, Bell is the 4th ranked running back behind McCaffery, Kamara, and Barkley. Bell has not played since 2016 so there will likely be some rust to get rid of to begin with. Bell is going to have to get used to playing in the NFL again, and with a new team to boot. With the time off he has had, and everything he has to learn to get back to being the Bell fans used to know, it may end up being too much for him to handle in his first season back. Bell is not a bad running back, but he may not finish the season ranked 4th or higher in fantasy as a result of figuring out his New York play style.
Bell is a star-studded running back headed to the New York Jets, and many expect him to perform as well as he did with his former team. Keep in mind we have seen this before with Matt Forte in 2016. With the Jets, Forte had his two worst seasons in terms of total yards and two of his worst three in terms of YPC; Bell could easily follow in Forte’s footsteps. The Jets have a bottom 10 ranked offensive line while the Steelers are in the top 10. This means that Bell will have less time and fewer opportunities to perform his trademarked delay behind the offensive line. Fantasy owners, be very cautious when picking Bell as he may not turn out to be worth the first-round pick he is projected to be.
Jordan Howard should not be high on anyone’s big boards for fantasy this year. If you draft Howard, it should only be in late rounds, in larger leagues. Howard is likely going to find himself in the same situation he was in with the Bears. With Chicago, Howard shared carries with a number of running backs including Tarik Cohen. In Philadelphia, Howard now needs to share the ball with Miles Sanders, Wendell Smallwood, Darren Sproles, and Corey Clement (assuming they all make the team this year).
Howard only averaged 11.25 points per game last year and did not even break 1,000 yards for the season. Since his rookie season, Howard’s total yards, YPC, and number of receptions have been decreasing each year. With more players to share carries with, Howard will likely follow the same pattern in the 2019 season. Howard was on the trading block for some time and all the Bears received in return was a 6th round pick, that could become a 5th round pick. Yes, Howard is a previous pro-bowl running back, but being that the Bears only received a late pick for him, this should signal that the league as a whole does not have faith in Howard moving forward; fantasy owners should believe the same.