A Shift in the Top Dynasty Running Backs
Previously, I wrote about the movement of the rise and fall of the top dynasty wide receivers. While it is true that long-term value is important in dynasty fantasy football, that does not mean that player values do not change yearly, and even weekly at times. For example, Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen was thought to be a top-five, and even THE top, dynasty wide receiver by many after starting the 2018 season with eight straight 100-yard receiving games. Since, Thielen’s 2018 season took a turn, and he is currently being ranked outside of the consensus top-10 and being drafted, according to recent mock drafts, outside of the top-10 as well. This “phenomenon” occurs across all positions. This article will discuss who has risen and who has fallen among the top running back rankings.
Is Adam Thielen a top-5 dynasty WR?
— FFStatistics (@FFStatistics_) October 10, 2018
This was obvious. The New York Giants phenom running back was named offensive rookie of the year, despite many thinking Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield deserved it, for a reason. Barkley produced the most fantasy points by a rookie running back since 2000. This, in turn, meant he had the top z-scores for a rookie running back, a running back at his age, and for a running back in the 2018 season.
Despite how you feel about the Giants picking Barkley second overall in the 208 NFL draft, you cannot deny that he is an extremely valuable dynasty asset and the Giants seem intent on riding him. Barkley was given the second most carries and third most targets among running backs to combine for the second most touches only to the Dallas Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott. Barkley, however, was much more efficient with his touches, producing a point per touch.
Another thing to keep in mind is that Barkley may have not reached his ceiling. He ran behind a poor run-blocking offensive line in 2018. The Giants’ line ranked 29th in the league according to Football Outsiders DVOA. Barkley also had a relatively poor quarterback situation with the aging Eli Manning finishing in the bottom half of the league in most major statistical categories.
Whether the Giants stick with Manning or draft a quarterback, Barkley will likely be leaned on again. If the Giants improve their offensive line even a little bit, we could see an even better season from Barkley in 2019. And thus, Barkley is deserving of being the RB1 and maybe even the most valuable overall player in dynasty.
2. Alvin Kamara
This is where we start to get the blood boiling a little. I will say, however, that one can argue for any of the next four players on this list belong here. I just happen to be partial to the New Orleans Saints’ Alvin Kamara. Kamara exploded on the scene into 2017. He ended the season with one of the most efficient seasons for a running back of all-time. Of course, Kamara was a top regression candidate for 2018.
Since the NFL merger (1970) there have been 2,173 instances of a running back totaling at least 100 carries in a single season. Of those seasons, Alvin Kamara’s 2017 season ranks best in fantasy points per touch and second-best in yards per touch. pic.twitter.com/qMh2W2BK1B
— Scott Barrett (@ScottBarrettDFB) February 12, 2018
However, Kamara seemed to be in-line for increased touches due to his effectiveness. It also did not hurt that his partner in the backfield, Mark Ingram, was suspended the first four games for performance-enhancing drugs. In those first four weeks, Kamara was not just the top fantasy running back, he was the top fantasy player. Ultimately, Kamara did see his efficiency drop on the season, but still finished as the RB4 due to an increase in touches. He still was far more efficient than the other “elite” running backs in 2018, including Todd Gurley and Ezekiel Elliott.
So Kamara has back-to-back top-five (really top-four) fantasy running back finishes and will only be 24 during the 2019 season. That type of elite consistency is rare among running backs. That alone puts him in the top-five. There is also the prospect of Ingram’s free agency and the potential that he may not come back. While I do not think the Saints let Ingram go without bringing someone in, Kamara has already demonstrated that he can handle a heavier workload this past season. In the first four games without Ingram, Kamara averaged 26 “opportunities” per game. On the season, Kamara received double-digit carries in all but three games.
If the Saints do decide to move on from Ingram and bring someone else in, it is highly unlikely that whoever they add will be less effective than Ingram. Ingram finished as a top-15 fantasy running back from 2014-2017 and was the RB32 in 2018 despite missing the first four games. So, while Kamara may not absorb all of Ingram’s touches, he likely will see an increase. Being the efficient back that he is, this also likely means Kamara finishes as a top-five running back… again.
The Carolina Panthers running back better known as CMC makes the leap into the elite category after his 2018 season. Despite the perception that McCaffrey was primarily a pass-catching running back that would not be a good runner between the tackles, he finished as the fantasy RB10 in 2017. Granted, this was primarily on the back of 80 receptions on 113 targets. This was really thought to be his ceiling. Especially because the Panthers brought in former Denver Broncos running back C.J. Anderson, who was fresh off of his first 1,000 rushing yard season. McCaffrey’s 100 target season also seemed to be an anomaly as tight end Greg Olsen, one of quarterback Cam Newton‘s favorite targets, was out for most of the season. These thoughts/narratives, however, went unfounded.
Anderson saw a whopping 54 total snaps with the Panthers in nine games before being waived. Meanwhile, McCaffrey played in over 91% (!) of the Panthers’ total offensive snaps, including 12 games of over 95% and eight games of 100%. Obviously, this resulted in a huge production jump in 2018 for CMC. He was given over 100 more opportunities in 2018, including both rushing and receiving, and was somehow more efficient with his opportunities.
McCaffrey ended the 2018 season the fantasy RB2, just behind Barkley. After posting an 85th percentile z-score for his age in 2017, McCaffrey produced the second-highest z-score for a running back his age since 2000.
Some may have concerns about McCaffrey going into next season. Quarterback Cam Newton underwent surgery in the offseason to repair cartilage damage in his shoulder. there is some concern that he may miss the season. While it is understandable why this is concerning, it may not have much of an effect on McCaffrey’s production. McCaffrey might actually benefit as he catches most of his balls close to the line of scrimmage. He could be an outlet for a one-year replacement. McCaffrey led the league in yards after catch while receiving 129 air yards.
Even if Newton plays, the Panthers seem to trust McCaffrey with a bell-cow workload. CMC is a contender to reach 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in a season. With that type of upside and at his age, McCaffrey belongs in the top-three dynasty running backs. He will likely finish top-five yet again in 2019.
4. Todd Gurley
Again, I think it is pretty well consensus that Barkley is the dynasty RB1 and dynasty RBs 2-5 are up for debate. I would not fault anyone for having Gurley as the RB2. As it is, he comes in at RB4 on this list. Now, this may be a knee jerk reaction to Gurley’s reduced role at the end of the regular season and in the playoffs. Also to C.J. Anderson‘s success in Gurley’s absence. Regardless, there are some questions about Gurley going into 2019.
The main concern surrounding Gurley is his health. The Los Angeles Rams running back exited their week 15 game against the Philadelphia Eagles briefly due to a knee scare. An MRI seemed to clear him of any major damage. However, Gurley was held out of the Rams last two games of the season with knee inflammation.
Despite the three weeks of rest (the Rams clinched a first-round bye in the playoffs), the Rams seemed to be cautious with Gurley in the playoffs. Gurley carried the ball 16, 4, and 10 times and was targeted seven total times in the playoffs. Meanwhile, Anderson carried the ball 23, 16, and 7 times while being targeted five times. Also disconcerting was the fact that head coach Sean McVay told the press that Gurley would not need surgery in the offseason. This seems to suggest that Gurley was more hurt than he or the Rams were letting on.
That is a lot of explanation for small “fall” in rankings. Gurley was still extremely good in 2018. Despite only playing 14 games, Gurley finished as the RB3. He was the RB1 in fantasy points per game. Gurley was also more consistently among the weekly top-12 than the two guys who finished above him, McCaffrey and Barkley.
As I have said for both Kamara and McCaffrey, finishing as a top-10 running back in back-to-back seasons is difficult. Logically, it would be even more difficult to finish back-to-back seasons as a top-three running back. Yet, Gurley did just that. This has a lot to do with McVay and his offensive scheme. Under Jeff Fischer, Gurley was a good running back. In 2015 and 2016, Gurley finished above the 80th percentile in age-based z-score. Gurley made the jump to elite status after the hiring of McVay, his z-scores jumping to the 99th percentile.
Are there questions about Gurley going into 2019? Yes. But, Gurley’s production has been elite the last two seasons in McVay’s offensive scheme. While it seems like the Rams will spell Gurley more in the future, he is efficient enough that this probably will not affect his numbers a lot. Gurley is still in contention to finish as a top-five fantasy running back in the near future.
5. Ezekiel Elliott
It is probably best to look at these rankings in tiers rather than rankings. Barkley is probably is in his own tier, followed by the four listed after him in tier 2. Rankings make people go crazy, and that is not the point of this article. Think of the players listed here as the elite class of running back. The Dallas Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott is a part of that elite class.
There are questions surrounding Zeke, mainly around his off-field decisions, sure. Before the season, there were also questions about how complete of a running back Elliott really was. But there is no denying that he has been a producer since he entered the league. Elliott has finished as an RB1 in every season of his young career, including 2017, when he was suspended for six games.
What is impressive about these fantasy finishes, especially in his first two seasons, is that the Cowboys did not involve Zeke in the passing offense. In 2016 and 2017, Elliott was only targeted 40 and 38 times respectively. That is far fewer than any of the others in this article. However, in 2018, Elliott saw his targets jump to 95, catching 77.
Beyond Elliott’s off-field issues, he is deficient in one area that the others are not. That is his efficiency or lack thereof. Zeke has been the least efficient of the five in the past two seasons, never breaking one point per opportunity (PPO). While volume is king in fantasy football, efficiency is also extremely important.
However, there seems to be no end in sight for Elliott’s volume. Carrying the ball over three hundred times and leading the Cowboys in targets, Elliott is still a valuable fantasy asset. Because of his increased usage in the passing game, Elliott remains firmly in the top contenders to finish among the top-five fantasy running backs yearly. Entering the 2019 season at the ripe old age of 24, the man known as Zeke will remain an elite running back for years to come.
This seems fairly obvious. Like Elliott, the soon-to-be-free-agent Bell has had his share of off-field concerns. Bell sat out this past season instead of signing the franchise tender presented to him by the Steelers, wanting more money and guarantees. Now, Bell is likely a free agent who probably will not get close to the money he wants. He also has an interest in furthering his rap career, which may be another red flag for some. Finally, Bell has multiple suspensions for substance abuse, yet another red flag.
Unlike Elliott, Bell will be 27 during the 2019 season. Age is a major factor for most dynasty owners when valuing players. Generally, running backs fall off earlier than other skill positions players. Mike Tagliere’s (@MikeTagliereNFL) study on the running back age decline seems to suggest that Bell may have a couple more top-end years before declining. Joseph Juan’s (@FF_Scientist) article on the 1,800-carry cliff seems to suggest the same thing. However, Bell is approaching these respective milestones quickly and likely will begin to decline in performance. According to z-scores of running backs, 27 is about the age that running backs start to decline.
The other aspect of Le’Veon Bell‘s pending free agency is that he is leaving a very good situation. In each of Bell’s last three healthy seasons, he was given 261 or more carries and 94 or more targets (Bell was suspended three games in 2017). His offensive lines ranked seventh in DVOA in 2017, third in 2016, eighth in 2015, and sixth in 2014. This has to do a lot with offensive line coach Mike Munchak, who moved on to the Denver Broncos in the offseason. Regardless of whether Bell stayed with the Steelers or not, his situation was likely to get worse anyway.
With Bell’s red flags, quickly coming up on age and carry cliffs, and likely moving into a much worse situation than he has ever seen in his career, he moves out of the conversation when it comes to elite running backs in dynasty.
The running back simply known as DJ is also getting up there in age. The Arizona Cardinals running back is going to be 27 during the 2019 season. Johnson, however, does not have near the usage that Bell does, having only carried the ball 687 times to Bell’s 1229 times. This is largely due to entering the league at an older age, two seasons after Bell, and missing almost the entirety of 2017 with a wrist injury. This, to me, signifies that Johnson is at less risk to fall off over the next couple of years.
However, Johnson’s efficiency has continually decreased since the start of his career. This last season was Johnson’s worst when it came to efficiency. It is hard to point out if it is because he is declining or due to the offensive play calling. The Cardinals hired Mike McCoy as their offensive coordinator in the 2018 offseason. Due to inept play-calling, the Cardinals fired McCoy after week 7. McCoy has never really been good with running backs, with only four RB1 finishes under him in 10 seasons as an offensive coordinator and head coach in.
After the season, the Cardinals let the coaching staff go. They then joined the “young coach revolution” hiring former Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury as head coach. Kingsbury’s effect on DJ is unknown. Kingsbury ran an Air Raid offense at Texas Tech and leaned heavily on his wide receivers. However, Johnson’s best attribute is his pass-catching. So Johnson’s outlook in 2019 is a big question mark.
Getting up there in age and playing in his third offensive scheme in three years, how Johnson will fare in the next few years is up for debate. And thus he is outside of the elite tier of dynasty running backs.
In 2018, we saw a lot of elite running back play. This play brought two newcomers into the elite tier of running backs while dropping two aging vets out. The NFL is full of young talent at the running back position currently. As I discussed, dynasty rankings, despite common perception, due change frequently. Will the elite tier of running backs stay the same in 2020? I guess we will have to watch to find out.