Running Back Expose'
A look into 5 Pass-Catching RBs and their fantasy value to you
By: Dan @AWLSabermetrics
August 16, 2019
Drafting Running Back heavy, or the often argued “0-RB” strategy, is still a constant debate within the Fantasy Football community. As PPR scoring is becoming more widely accepted as the “standard” scoring format in fantasy football leagues, coupled with the rise of specialized pass-catching running backs in today’s NFL, knowing how to best value certain players against their counterparts, and even across the positional aisle, can provide you with an upper-hand in draft strategy and attacking ADP values. This article does a quick dive into 5 running backs that are predominantly pass-catchers and will show the value they hold among their peers, but also how they would stack up as a Wide Receiver.
I will present a 2019 stat projection for each of the 5 RBs showcased in this article based upon their career averages, and building in some regression where it’s applicable. Stat projections for these 5 players was not easy my first time around, and I tip my hat to those that project out stats league wide as I have a new found respect to those that do. The projections are a reasonable line of production for all five RBs this year. While I do expect some regression from all 5 RBs showcased in this article, there are no hot takes here as I tried to be pragmatic in all of their projections. At the end of each player profile there is a small wrap up, and where their projected fantasy points would fall historically since 2012.
*All below scores and ranks are in PPR Format. All data was collected from FantasyPros and ProFootball Reference*
Team: Chicago Bears
Weight: 181 lbs.
2017: 144.6 points = RB30 / WR41 / OVR 119
2018: 233.9 points = RB11 / WR15 / OVR 44
Tarik Cohen broke out big in 2018, and I don’t see that changing a massive amount looking ahead to 2019. A big reason for my positive outlook for Cohen is that Jordan Howard, even with all the work Cohen got, still finished as RB20 last season with 180 points. Now, with two capable backs in David Montgomery and Mike Davis taking over for Howard’s role in the offense, I think it is common sense to expect some regression, but Cohen showed too much playmaking ability for him to lose a significant number of targets. I've seen the videos and the hype for David Montgomery, but he is still a rookie and Cohen proved he can make things happen with the ball in his hands.
Tarik’s role in this offense seems to be set as the main receiving weapon out of the backfield, and even with a loss of targets/touches, he still seems poised for another big season as a rock solid RB2.
My 2019 projection for Tarik would be a bit of a downtick from last season, especially in rushing attempts, but still places Cohen with a projected 186.8 fantasy points (a loss of 50 points from last season). Going back to 2012, the RB24 average season is 162.4 points, with the high point being 174.5 by Rashad Jennings in 2013.
Historically, a 180-190 point season would place him in the top 20 of running back scoring, and squarely in the WR30 range (since 2012, WR30 averages 184.5pts) and the closer Cohen gets to 190 points the closer he gets into WR2 range.
The current RB20 based on ADP is Derrick Henry with an overall ADP of 38. Cohen’s current ADP is RB27 and 63 overall. Seven running backs and two full rounds later, Tarik Cohen could be had at discount and is projected to finish as mid range RB2 or as a WR2.
- Current 2019 ADP: RB2 / Overall 63
- 2019 Historic Finish: Top 20RB, WR30 equivalent
Team: New England Patriots
Weight: 194 lbs.
2016: 161.7 points = RB26 / WR48 / OVR 114
2017: 134.0 points = RB38 / WR48 / OVR 139
2018: 276.6 points = RB7 / WR10 / OVR 32
Next up on the RB expose', is none other than Patriots wide-receiver... sorry, running back. To be fair, even his Pro Football Reference page lists his receiving stats before his rushing stats! It's very clear to see that White's 2018 campaign had a significant jump in usage with a banged up Gronkowski, no Edelman for the first four games, and not exactly the most impressive list of wide-receiver options (sorry Chris Hogan), which really allowed White to flourish in the passing game. White was one of Tom Brady's most trusted targets in 2018 and the stats show it. So, before we get into looking at him for 2019, let's do some quick comparisons and breakdowns from the 2016-2017 seasons to get an idea of just how much extra work White received last season.
His 2016/17 averages would equate to a 148 point season average, which coincides to being in the RB28-30 range on average. (Since 2012, the RB30 average points for a season is 144).
As you can see in the table above and gamelog below, 2018 was quite the uptick in usage in both rushing and receiving. The loss of Edelman for the first four games certainly helped White, but looking at his game logs, his usage pre- and post-Edelman wasn’t an overly drastic difference. The downturn in production at the end of the season was more due to being banged up and tired, than Edelman coming back.
Just like Tarik Cohen, it is realistic to expect regression from White who just had a career year finishing as RB7 and would’ve replaced Stefon Diggs as WR10. However, I do not see White taking a massive dive back into the RB3 territory. I am not a massive believer in vacated targets, but the 2018 receiving core compared to the 2019 is not the same. The loss of Gronkowski (72 tgts), Josh Gordon (68 tgts), and Chris Hogan (55 tgts), is very hard to ignore when looking at how White will be used this year. The Patriots did gain N'Keal Harry, but relying on rookie WR's is a notoriously dangerous game. From there, they do not have any sort of Gronk replacement, and their next best WR is Dorsett whose two years in New England have been a disappointment so far.
Much of the narrative surrounding James White this season is that he will see a massive drop in production matching his 2016-2017 seasons. Though I agree he is in store for regressing in both running and receiving stats, I think the fade has gone too far. Michel will continue to the be lead running back in regards to rush attempts, but from there, the touches are relatively wide open. Belichick is a fan of Burkhead, and him being healthy, I certainly see him back in the mix of "steady" usage. The hype is big on Harris, but he is rookie RB that some are expecting him to just completely take over the backfield during the season- I don't see that outcome at all. And with all of that, White proved that he can handle an increased workload for large chunks of the season. White will regress, that seems assured, but he is the #2 running back in New England, and after Edelman, Brady's most trusted target. He will get his rushes, and certainly get his receptions.
My 2019 projection for James White comes to 209.1 PPR points, which accounts to a nearly 70 point drop from the previous season. But I don’t necessarily believe that is cause for concern once you look at historical RB finishes. Since 2012 the RB15 has averaged 199.7 points. A drop of 70 points would still place White as a top 15 PPR running back and a WR24 equivalent.
One of the best parts about James White last season was his ADP compared to where he ended up. James White is currently being drafted as RB26 and 51 overall (interestingly Sony Michel RB23 and 47 overall). James White does not pose the same extreme value that he produced last year. But, do not let that scare you away. He is a player that is being drafted closer to his worth, but still being underappreciated in my opinion. Even with a slightly depreciated ADP, James White provides value at his draft position as I project him to land firmly in the RB2 range- with obvious RB1 upside that we saw in 2018.
- Current 2019 ADP: RB26 / OVR55
- 2019 Historic Finish: Top 17RB, Top 26WR
Team: Los Angeles Chargers
Weight: 200 lbs.
2017: 106.9 points = RB45 / WR64 / OVR 182
2018: 168.8 points = RB25 / WR34 / OVR 89
Next up is a RB from a newly muddied backfield after Melvin Gordon decided to pull a Le’Veon Bell style threat, though we can hope it does not end the same way since it's an entirely different situation. Ekeler is someone whose projections completely rely on Melvin Gordon being present in Week 1 or not. For the purpose of this article, I am assuming Gordon will be playing, as Ekeler still holds fantasy value even with Gordon on the field.
Ekeler was a tale of two seasons in regard to how he was viewed last year in the fantasy community. Prior to Gordon's knee injury, Ekeler was seen as a solid flex option and someone that had some standalone value even though he was not a starter averaging 11.7points in Weeks 1-9. Then when Gordon was banged up heading into Week 10 and went down beyond that, the expected boost for Ekeler was massive, however Weeks 10-14 were a mixed bag for him.
These scores are not terrible, and it is fair to say overall that Gordon going down helped Ekeler, but not by an overwhelming amount considering what the expectations were within the fantasy community.
Onto 2019, the Melvin Gordon hold out situation certainly plays a massive role in his usage, and if he gets traded or sits out, with no major piece coming back to the Chargers in a trade, the Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson show would be a whole new game.
Looking back to the two players above, I’ve built in some real regression to show just how valuable both Cohen and White can be fantasy wise, and that even with a step back from last year they should both continue to dominate, and should be viewed as draft targets. However, Ekeler falls into a different category in this list of pass-catching RBs in this article. I don’t expect a massive amount of regression, but he also doesn't hold the same explosive value as Cohen or White (with Gordon playing).
Looking to 2019, I project Ekeler is going to see a reduction in rushing, with Jackson taking on an increased role regardless of the Gordon saga. But his passing-catching role should still be there, and with Rivers throwing for his least number of attempts since 2009, I expect to see some regression back to the mean and a small expansion in the passing game for the 2019 Chargers.
While I may be more bullish on Ekeler than others, my reasoning is that Rivers should see an increase in attempts to the 540 range which is an extra 32 passes, and though I am not a big vacated targets guy like I mentioned above, by losing Tyrell Williams and an increase in total attempts, 7 extra targets for Ekeler seems more than reasonable.
Projected target breakdowns:
This would come out to 480 attempts with a remaining 65 to be split between Jackson, Green, and others.
This 2019 projection for Ekeler would work out to 155.8 fantasy points. It is only a small bit of regression due to the lack of rushing but balanced with the uptick in receiving work. Ekeler’s ADP seems fairly on the mark currently. He presented much better value a few weeks ago, but as the Gordon drama drags on, Ekeler has been steadily moving up the draft ranks. I think Ekeler is someone that is being drafted closer to his floor than his ceiling, and the possible upside if Gordon misses any games increases my outlook by a very significant margin. I like Ekeler this season as a draft target for his value with Gordon, I love Ekeler this season as a draft target if Gordon misses games.
- Current 2019 ADP: RB33 / OVR75
- 2019 Historic Finish: Top 30RB, WR40-45
Team: Tennessee Titans
Weight: 195 lbs.
2016 (missed 9 games): 54.7 points = RB70 / WR 109 / OVR 293
2017: 197.0 points = RB15 / WR20 / OVR60
2018: 160.7 points = RB28 / WR36 / OVR97
Dion Lewis is another guy that is a little difficult to value going into 2019. The numbers he put up in 2018 are aided by being the starter for several games, which as we know, is no longer the case now that Derrick Henry rumbled to an impressive 2018 finish. However, if we look at the past three seasons (pro-rating his 2016), Lewis can still be a top 30rb in PPR scoring.
For 2019, what we do know is the Tennessee staff has Henry as the lead back, their OC said they want to ride him in his final year of the contract, and as an offensive scheme they want to pound the rock. Now, that all sounds fantastic for Henry, but I don’t think Lewis just disappears from this offense. He is certainly going to take a step back rushing, but unless Henry shows some new-found receiving skills, Lewis still has a set role in that offense. Henry could see 300 carries and that should still leave Lewis with a realistic 100. Now, Henry seeing 300 is pretty aggressive, and for my projections I did not go that high, but I am taking the coach speak to heart on this that he will be leaned on heavily. I think the Titans could move into the 470 rush attempts range for 2019. I currently project Henry to hit 270 attempts, and Mariota is typically good for about 60 attempts per year. That would equate to 330 rush attempts between the two, and still leaves 140 up for grabs. I see Lewis getting a lion share of that number. If you are not a Derrick Henry believer, and I know many of you aren't, that would be even better news for Lewis in 2019.
2019 Titans Projections (Purposely bullish on Henry to show Lewis value)
Lewis is like Ekeler, where I am projecting a much less significant drop in production because, just like Ekeler, I think they will have a set enough role in their respective offenses to still have relatively good fantasy seasons. The Titans will rush a lot, and both Henry and Lewis will see enough volume to both be viable and not eat into each other's production to a point that would significantly drop either value. Lewis, like the rest of the RBs discussed in this article, poses value at his current ADP as he is being drafted as an RB4, but projects to be an RB3 with upside if anything happens to Henry. He is someone that will see steady work for an 11th round pick, and someone I have targeted in every single draft I have done this summer.
- Current 2019 ADP: RB46 / OVR130
- 2019 Historic Finish: Top 36RB, WR 45-50
Team: Indianapolis Colts
Weight: 196 lbs.
2018: 160.9 RB27 / WR36 / OVR
Last up is a player that has received some increased hype over the last few weeks as people finally noticed that Mack is not the receiving threat out of the backfield in Indianapolis, Nyheim Hines is. I find Hines a little hard to project solely because we do not have a large sample size with having only one year in the league, and due to the Mack injuries last year, some of his carries and targets from last year could be a little inflated.
Looking at the 2019 Colts, the defense should continue to improve, Marlon Mack is healthy, but now Andrew Luck's health is entirely in question with a lot of uncertainty surrounding his ankle/achilles/foot...? (or whatever the Colts want to say next). This could be either great news or ok news for Hines. The loss of Luck is something that I think could be more troublesome for Mack, as many have pointed out he was a game-script dependent runner. Hines is the pass-catcher out of the backfield, and if you've gained something from this article so far, pass-catching backs retain value in the RB position.
But, for the sake of argument, let's say Luck is good to go for the season. The world has already gotten a glimpse of what the offense could look like in 2019 in Indianapolis by looking at the shift in Indy play calling during the middle to second half of last season. Luck started out on pace to set the passing attempts record, but once Mack returned, the attempts dropped and the rushing increased. That makes sense to continue this season, and I project a drop of approximately 50 pass attempts for Luck, which would still leave him in the 580-590 targets range. This would still provide plenty of opportunities to feed the many mouths on the offense, including Hines. However, the much like how the 2018 and 2019 Patriots receiving core looks different, so does Indy's. Unfortunately for Hines, I don't think the change is as beneficial. Now he will also have to compete for targets with the likes of the added Devin Funchess and Parris Campbell, the return of Deion Cain and a (hopefully) healthy Doyle. For these reasons I find it hard pressed to think Hines sees an increase in work, and frankly I think I am being generous with 70 targets with all of the outside options that are now present.
In 2018, Hines ended with 160.9 PPR fantasy points which placed him just outside the RB2 range, at 27 overall. The above 2019 projection would net him 146.2 ppr points, a historical RB30 finish. At that range, Hines still presents value to fantasy players as he is being taken as RB44 off the board.
- Current 2019 ADP: RB45 / OVR124
- 2019 Historic Finish: Top 36RB, WR45-50
To wrap this all up, all five of the running backs discussed in this article provide some legitimate value ADP wise, and all five should be targets within your drafts especially in later rounds to help round out your bench as solid plug and play guys. Even with projecting regression for every back listed, each of the five look to remain in the top 36 of the running back position based upon historical scoring as the RB36 avg production is 128 points, with the high mark being Mike Davis last year at 136.8. Take advantage of their depressed ADPs and land solid, safe players, later than you should be able to!
Feel free to check me out and argue with me for all my projections and other Fantasy takes on Twitter @awlsabermetrics
Thanks for reading,