Underrated Upside: Running Backs


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Underrated Upside: Running Backs

Hopefully by now, you’ve already read my recent tome, “Upside Wins Championships,” and have come to the conclusion that that title implies. Today’s article will be a less-philosophical, more-actionable accompaniment to that piece, and the second part of a larger series in which we highlight a number of players who have massive (ideally league-winning) upside and who have underrated upside relative to ADP. Today’s article will focus on the running back position.

Round 1-4 Running Backs

High-end running backs — specifically bell cow running backs — are the most valuable players in fantasy. And it’s very rare to find a bell cow running back or a running back with league-winning upside after Round 4.

We’ll have an entire article dedicated to bell cow running backs later in the offseason, and, specifically, the running backs being drafted in the first four rounds. (These are the running backs you really should be targeting in drafts. I typically avoid these “dead zone” running backs.) But, for now, here are some running backs going Round 5 or later who have underrated upside.

Travis Etienne, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars (ADP: RB22)

Of the 13 running backs drafted in Round 1 since 2012, seven (54%) finished as a top-10 fantasy running back in their rookie season. Although Round 1 rookie Najee Harris is already being drafted that high (ADP: RB10), we have a nice little discount on fellow first-rounder Etienne (RB22).

The downside argument is easy. Simply, RB James Robinson was excellent last season, averaging 101.0 YFS per game on the one-win Jaguars, and he’s not going to go gently into that good night. Further, there’s the risk that HC Urban Meyer doesn’t really know what he’s doing, or he’s going to play Etienne out of position or pigeonhole him into some weird sort of positionless or gadget role that isn’t at all beneficial for fantasy.

I explored the Meyer stuff in detail here. Truthfully, it is very weird. But shortly after writing this article, I spoke to a prominent source familiar with Meyer who said something along the lines of, “Meyer is a well known liar, but he’s also very smart. So take all of this stuff with a grain of salt. I’d bet Etienne is the full-on bell cow at some point in the season.”

So, we can take that a few different ways. If my source is right and Etienne is a bell cow, even if it’s only for the fantasy postseason, he’s a smash-value at current ADP and a potential league-winner. Even if he’s not, even if he’s just in the Percy Harvin/Curtis Samuel role Meyer kept alluding to, that could be an RB1 role. Though both players were WRs in the NFL, Harvin and Samuel both officially played RB under Meyer in college. From 2007-2008, Harvin averaged 24.1 FPG despite handling just 26% of the team’s non-QB runs. In 2016, Samuel averaged 25.2 FPG despite handling just 28% of the team’s non-QB runs. Remember, Meyer had Etienne play exclusively at WR in minicamp, which sort of hints at him taking over this role. Or, at least, hints at major PPR-upside. (Broadly speaking, a target is worth 2.64 times as much as a carry for running backs in PPR leagues.)

And all of this reminds me a lot of rookie-season Alvin Kamara, when he finished 4th in FPG (19.7) at an ADP of “free.” It reminds me of Kamara in the sense that this would be the role you’re hoping for — Kamara’s “scatback-on-steroids” role. But also in the sense that, we should have seen Kamara’s rookie breakout coming. GM Mickey Loomis said, “[We're excited] to get a player we coveted… that I would expect to fill the role that Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles had for us in the past.” Like Meyer’s Harvin/Samuel role, Sean Payton’s Bush/Sproles role Loomis had alluded to was a very attractive one for PPR fantasy leagues. Bush averaged 16.7, 17.4, and 17.2 FPG during his first three seasons in New Orleans. Sproles averaged 17.0, 16.5, and 11.8 FPG during his first three seasons in New Orleans.

Anyway, I think Etienne’s role is underrated. I think his talent is being underrated. I think his upside is being underrated and his risk is being overstated. So, of course, I also think he’s a terrific value at current ADP.

Javonte Williams, RB, Denver Broncos (ADP: RB23)

I tried to make a similar argument for Williams here — that he has underrated bell cow-upside — but it admittedly sounded a little too optimistic and maybe even somewhat conspiratorial. In any case, here it is:

1) The Broncos spent high-end draft capital trading up for Williams at pick No. 35 overall. Clearly they love the player and/or view this as a position of need.

2) GM George Paton repeatedly told reporters they viewed Williams as a “three-down back.”

3) OC Pat Shurmur has a long history of preferring a three-down bell cow running back to a committee. As I explained here, supporting evidence includes Shurmur’s decision to draft a running back top-3 in both of his two stints as an NFL head coach. That also includes multiple NFL insiders reporting Melvin Gordon was signed to be Shurmur’s bell cow last year. (Sources told me later that the team was disappointed with how he looked in camp, so that never materialized.) And it includes Shurmur’s historical usage with the position — in 12 career seasons as an NFL head coach or offensive coordinator, Shurmur’s RB1 has averaged 17.6 carries, 4.3 targets, and 99.0 yards from scrimmage per game.

4) Williams is a high-end talent and a player my model adored. He’s already a far superior runner to Melvin Gordon, and maybe even fellow rookies Najee Harris and Travis Etienne. An excellent short-yardage runner as well, Williams feels like a lock to lead the team in carries and handle the near entirety of the team’s goal-line work as a rookie. He’s much more raw as a pass-catcher, which is likely where Gordon will see the bulk of his work. But, also, maybe not. Over the past two seasons, Gordon ranks 2nd-worst of 92-qualifying running backs in PFF receiving grade (38.6).

Of course the most-likely scenario is Williams is stuck in a frustrating 60/40 RBBC for the bulk of the season. Still, his upside is a bit underrated at current ADP (RB23). But that said, his ADP is nearly identical to Etienne’s, whom I’d much rather have.

Myles Gaskin, RB, Miami Dolphins (ADP: RB24)

Gaskin is one of the most unsexy picks you can make in your fantasy draft. And he’s no doubt at least a little risky as well — it’s exceedingly rare to see a Round 7 RB become a meaningful and consistent producer for fantasy. And even when they do produce, an NFL team is still quick to replace them (see: James Robinson). Per Mike Silver, that was almost what happened with Gaskin this offseason — Miami was going to draft RB Javonte Williams at pick No. 36, before Denver traded up to snipe them.

But Gaskin does have terrific upside. From Week 5 until the end of the season, Gaskin averaged 15.7 carries, 4.5 targets, 19.7 fantasy points, 18.0 XFP per game on a 69% snap share. Across the full season, only seven running backs had a higher Snap%, only four averaged more XFP per game, and only three averaged more FPG. And yet he ranks just 24th among running backs in ADP.

Miami brought in only Malcolm Brown and seventh-round pick Gerrid Doaks to join Salvon Ahmed as competition for Gaskin, so we have to think he remains the heavy favorite to resume the borderline bell cow role he saw in 2020. And the offense as a whole should be more efficient and more productive (meaning more plays and more scoring opportunities for Gaskin) with a healthier and more experienced Tua Tagovailoa, who now has WRs Will Fuller and Jaylen Waddle to throw to.

Mike Davis, RB, Atlanta Falcons (ADP: RB26)

The Mike Davis Argument is a lot like the Myles Gaskin Argument.

1) Like Gaskin, Davis is an unheralded Day 3-draft capital running back.

2) Like Gaskin, he was a bell cow last season, and performed capably, averaging 15.2 FPG across the 12 games Christian McCaffrey missed. For perspective, if extrapolated over the full season, that would have ranked 15th-best. He also ranked 3rd-best of 63-qualifying RBs in PFF’s Elusive Rating (86.0)

3) Like Gaskin, no one really cared. He signed a two-year, $5.5 million contract (only $1.5 million guaranteed) with the Falcons this offseason.

4) Like Gaskin, Davis’ bell cow-potential is far better than current ADP implies. His only competition is Tony Brooks-James (11 career touches), Qadree Ollison (2.3 career YPC), former-WR Cordarrelle Patterson, and UDFA rookies Javian Hawkins and Caleb Huntley. Patterson stealing pass-catching work is probably the biggest threat here. And now Davis will be playing under Arthur Smith, who fed Derrick Henry to 718 touches over the past two seasons. That’s a connection many within the fantasy community have made, but not Smith. He told reporters, “We’re not going to have Derrick Henry here… You’d love to have that, but that’s not reality. The reality is that we’ll get multiple backs in here…”

That’s a significant concern for me, and, so, I’d much rather have Gaskin at a similar pricetag.

Michael Carter, RB, New York Jets (ADP: RB31)

The argument for Carter is somewhat similar to that of Williams and Gaskin/Davis. The Jets liked Carter a lot more than draft capital might imply — though he slipped to Round 4, the Jets had a Day 2 grade on him (they just didn't have a Round 3 pick). Like Gaskin/Davis, there’s really not a lot of serious competition for Carter in New York — he’s already the best running back on the team. The Jets also rank bottom-6 in running back spending, with zero RBs making over $1.2 million. Carter’s most serious threat for touches among Tevin Coleman, Ty Johnson, La'Mical Perine, Josh Adams, and Austin Walter is probably Coleman, who averaged just 1.9 YPC last year and is a likely non-factor in the passing game.

Per Connor Hughes, Jets beat writer for The Athletic, “RB Michael Carter might not start the season as the lead back, but it won’t be long before the job is his. He received the first rep in each of the individual drills, and rotated in after Coleman in team work. He… is so elusive after he gets the ball in his hands.”

I liked Carter quite a bit as a prospect, though I liked him more as a pass-catcher than a runner. And while I also questioned his bell cow-potential, that’s certainly within his Year 1 range of outcomes if only due to the lack of competition at the position. But, realistically, he’s probably going to be stuck in some sort of committee. But even if he is, it’s more than likely than not he’ll he’ll lead the committee. And even in a bear-case projection, he should still receive the bulk of the targets out of the backfield. And that could be a valuable role, as the Jets will likely be passing early and often thanks to a bottom-5 defense.

Ultimately, Carter is a near-lock to beat his ADP and has far more upside than his current ADP implies.

Trey Sermon (ADP: RB29) and Raheem Mostert (ADP: RB32), RB, San Francisco 49ers

If San Francisco has a bell cow this year, rather than the frustrating RBBC we’ve become accustomed to, that RB is going to be a league-winner. It’s highly unlikely, yes, but we’ve seen this before — in 2012, under Kyle Shanahan, Alfred Morris was a league-winning bell cow, as was Devonta Freeman in 2015. Again, it’s highly unlikely, but Sermon and Mostert are both cheap enough and have enough stand-alone value that their upside doesn’t seem to at all be factored into their ADP.

Both RBs will benefit from elite coaching — Shanahan has long been known as the preeminent run game-whisperer. Both RBs will benefit from a pillow-soft strength of schedule (5th-softest). (Mostert’s schedule is most-improved among running backs, and worth an additional +1.3 FPG to his 2020 average.) Both RBs will benefit from near-ideal gamescript — after winning six games in 2020, the 49ers are projected to win 10.5 in 2021 (fifth-most).

Mostert, remarkably, ranks second-best all-time in career YPC average (5.64), in between Hall-of-Famer Marion Motley (5.70) and all-time legend Bo Jackson (5.40). Including the postseason, Mostert averaged 20.0 FPG over his final 8 games in 2019. In 2020, before his first of two I.R. designations of the season, Mostert was averaging 22.7 fantasy points per four quarters. And yet, he ranks just 32nd by ADP.

One of the key arguments for Sermon is an argument against Mostert. Mostert is 29 years old and one of the most injury-prone players in football. (Likely RB3 Jeff Wilson will be out a minimum of six games.) The 49ers clearly like Sermon, a Wes Huber favorite, trading up to take him in Round 3. Is he just another member of a committee? Could he be the starter? He could, though Shanahan was mostly effusive, vague, and non-committal on the subject. But, per Matt Barrows, who covers the 49ers for The Athletic, “The 49ers aspire to have more than 500 rushing attempts this season and, if he’s healthy, Sermon ought to get a big chunk of them.”

I usually avoid running backs very likely to be stuck in a RBBC situation, but I do think both Sermon and Mostert have decent standalone value and a good amount of upside. It’s very rare for two RBs on the same team to finish as RB1s — that’s happened only twice over the past 30 years (the 2017 Saints, the 2020 Browns). That said, if everyone stays healthy, the 49ers’ odds probably aren’t too far off that of the Browns’. (The 11-5 Browns ranked 5th in team running back fantasy points scored last season. The 6-10 49ers ranked 3rd.) Though ADP doesn’t at all agree — Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt go Round 1 and Round 5 (respectively), while Sermon and Mostert go Round 7 and Round 8 (respectively).

Anyway, I’ll have heavy exposure to both RBs in best ball, and not very much in start/sit leagues. But I do think, even in start/sit leagues, both RBs are intriguing and we are sleeping on their upside quite a bit.

Handcuff Running Backs

Drafting a “handcuff” — or, the backup to your starting running back — is typically a low-upside strategy meant to mitigate risk. It’s a sort of insurance policy, reducing your exposure to injury-risk and ensuring production should your starter suffer an injury. However, you can also increase your upside by drafting a backup running back without exposure to the starter. This is nearly a core tenet of Shawn Siegele’s famous “Zero RB” draft strategy.

Handcuff running backs have massive upside should the running back in front of them suffer an injury, but they’re just about always worthless if that doesn’t happen. And, so, the prevailing narrative around drafting handcuffs goes something like this: “You can’t predict injuries, so which handcuff running backs should you target? Whoever is cheapest.” That’s mostly true. But only “mostly.” Here’s what I mean.

Latavius Murray and Other Handcuff Targets

Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray both sat out in Week 17 in 2020. Ty Montgomery, who had a total of -4 rushing yards through the first 16 weeks of the season, totaled 105 rushing yards on 18 carries in their absence.

Alvin Kamara missed two games in 2020. What happened in those two games? Murray handled 91% of the team’s touches out of the backfield, averaging 24.0 carries, 9.0 targets, 153.5 yards, 2.0 touchdowns, and an astounding 34.4 fantasy points per game.

Mark Ingram missed the first four games of the 2018 season (due to a suspension). Over that span, Kamara averaged 34.0 FPG. But he averaged only 19.8 FPG after Ingram’s return.

Although Kamara is clearly the running back to have in New Orleans, Murray might have top-5-overall upside should Kamara suffer an injury. HC Sean Payton clearly prefers a committee backfield, but is willing to adopt a bell cow-approach when there’s an injury to one of his primary backs.

Top-5 upside is rare and extremely valuable. Though the odds of a season-ending injury for Kamara are low, it’s probably still worth gambling on at current ADP. You can make a somewhat similar argument for expensive handcuffs like A.J. Dillon (ADP: RB39), Tony Pollard (RB41), and Alexander Mattison (RB46). And although some will disagree with me, I actually don’t think these RBs have much standalone value without that injury. I just don’t really think it really matters to justify taking them at their ADP. (It’s an extreme example given off-season injuries are even more impossible to predict than in-game injuries, of course, but look at how Darrell Henderson’s value just skyrocketed from a similar ADP to Pollard and Mattison.)

These are the high-end handcuffs, with rare upside, and they’re priced somewhat accordingly. But, there are a few other handcuffs going quite a bit later I like almost just as much.

Devontae Booker (RB61) could be a weekly RB2 in any game Saquon Barkley misses. And I’m pretty confident Barkley is at least limited the first few weeks of the season, attempting a come-back from a torn ACL, given his recent comments.

Samaje Perine (RB68) probably doesn’t have any standalone value if Joe Mixon stays healthy, but I actually think that’s a pretty big “if.” Mixon never underwent surgery for the Lisfranc sprain he suffered last year. That’s a pretty serious injury and one with a high risk of re-injury (whether compensatory or to the foot itself).

Darrel Williams (RB60) has good upside should Clyde Edwards-Helaire suffer an injury and maybe even some slight standalone value should he remain healthy. While I hope Edwards-Helaire becomes a bell cow in 2021, it’s also possible we see Williams resume Le’Veon Bell’s 2020 role, syphoning off touches from Edwards-Helaire.

But, again, drafting a backup handcuff-style running back is typically a poor investment, and I wouldn’t expect to draft more than one or two in a typical league.

Scott Barrett combines a unique background in philosophy and investing alongside a lifelong love of football and spreadsheets to serve as Fantasy Points’ Chief Executive Officer.