Off-Season Tracker: RB


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Off-Season Tracker: RB

Tom Brolley and I covered every major offensive transaction from this off-season. We broke down all the important free agency signings and trades from a fantasy perspective in articles by position. The articles are ordered by players changing teams ("New Homes") and by players sticking with their 2019 teams ("Staying Put"), and players are ordered by their potential fantasy impact in each section.

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New Homes

Melvin Gordon (Den) — Gordon signed a two-year, $16-million deal to switch allegiances to the Chargers’ division rival.

Fantasy Points: Gordon’s holdout last season may have been ill-fated, but he still got what qualifies as a quality payday for a running back in today’s NFL. In fact, per, Gordon is now sixth among all RBs in average annual value, and fourth among those who aren’t on tags (Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake). Here’s what it says to us — the Broncos don’t trust Phillip Lindsay to be a full-time back, and they don’t trust Royce Freeman to be much of anything. In fact, NFL Network’s James Palmer reported that he expects Gordon to be Denver’s “bellcow,” whatever that means these days.

Last year, Lindsay (51%) and Freeman (50%) split snaps nearly right down the middle, despite Lindsay averaging 4.5 YPC to Freeman’s 3.8, and running for 1000 yards in his second consecutive season. The problem with Lindsay is that, among players with 90 or more targets over the last two seasons, his 6.24 YPR ranks dead last in the NFL. If you expand the criteria to 70 targets? Lindsay drops to second-worst… behind only Freeman (5.75). Over the same span — albeit in a better offense — Gordon averaged 8.54 (while averaging under 4.0 yards per carry in four of his five NFL seasons). And Gordon does have experience running behind a bad Chargers line. With the addition of C Graham Glasgow to the equation, it’s very possible Denver’s line will be an upgrade for him.

Look, we don’t have any illusions about Gordon being an elite back, but he’s averaged about 12 TDs per year over his last two seasons, and he’s one of the most underrated receivers at his position in the NFL. Can he be an even better receiver for young QB Drew Lock? It’s possible, considering he ceded a lot of third-down work to elite receiver Austin Ekeler the last few years. Obviously, he doesn’t have that issue in Denver.

It will be fascinating to watch Gordon’s ADP — the guess here is he’s going to go ahead of Lindsay, with Freeman assumed to be dropping out of the picture. Lindsay is too effective and explosive on a per-carry basis, and this backfield can support two guys. Depending on how early he goes, Gordon could be potentially appealing given the likelihood he gets the calorie-rich work on third down and at the goal line.

Todd Gurley (Atl) — Gurley signed a one-year deal worth up to $5 million with Atlanta after being cut by the Rams.

Fantasy Points: It is such a shame that Gurley — who doesn’t turn 26 until August — has such chronic problems with his left knee, because he was special. But it speaks to how problematic that knee is that the Rams were willing to eat $20 million in dead cap space simply to get him off the roster. The Falcons, meanwhile, are hoping the former University of Georgia star can rekindle some of his 2017 Offensive Player of the Year juice, while putting local fans in the seats. Moreover, what does it say about Devonta Freeman that the Falcons knew the Rams thought Gurley was cooked — and still signed him while cutting Freeman? Yikes.

Gurley played 75% of the Rams’ offensive snaps a season ago when active, but averaged just 3.8 YPC and a career-low 6.7 YPR. While he scored 14 TD — allowing him to finish as the overall RB17 in FPG in PPR leagues — his 2.1 receptions per game were the lowest he’s posted since his rookie year, and half the production from 2017 (4.3) and 2018 (4.2).

Freeman averaged about 17 touches per game for the Falcons last year, and Atlanta has a better offensive line than the Rams had a season ago (it returns all five starters), which could spell some good news for Gurley.

But it’s hard to shake the fact that Gurley had no explosion last year, and the Rams phased him out significantly in the passing game. This seems like more of a PR move than anything for the Falcons, and given the other backs on their roster are Brian Hill, Qadree Ollison, and Ito Smith, it doesn’t seem like Atlanta is done at the position. If they don’t add anyone of significance, Gurley could have some appeal as a “floor” type back, with TDs buoying his fantasy value. If they add a real threat in the draft, his value plummets.

David Johnson (Hou) — Johnson was acquired as part of the package that sent DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona, along with 2nd and 4th-round draft picks in the 2020 NFL Draft.

Fantasy Points: No, we don’t know what Bill O’Brien is doing either. This is the third time in the last eight months that O’Brien has made a trade for a running back, including the Duke Johnson and Carlos Hyde trades prior to the 2019 season (the Hyde trade, at least, worked pretty well for Houston).

At first glance, it seems like DJ is a “throw-in” to this trade along with the picks, but it’s also hard to imagine Houston couldn’t find any biters on a first-round pick for Hopkins. On top of that…Houston is paying all of Johnson’s $10.2 million guaranteed, so maybe O’Brien just really values DJ? If so, it’s fair to wonder how much of DJ’s tape O’Brien watched. Johnson has now averaged just 3.7 YPC over 352 carries the last two seasons, and at points later in 2019, he looked like he was running in mud (and that’s being kind). By the end of the season, he couldn’t even get on the field, as the Cardinals found way more juice in their backfield after trading for Kenyan Drake.

Johnson has had significant injuries in the last few seasons, including a late 2016 MCL sprain, a wrist injury that cost him virtually the entire 2017 campaign, and — although he never actually appeared on the injury report for it — an apparent back injury that sapped him of explosiveness in 2019.

The good news is that despite being benched and/or injured, DJ still averaged 10.3 YPR and scored 4 receiving TD on 36 receptions a season ago. The Texans believe he can bounce back, and to be fair to them, they got a great season out of Carlos Hyde in similar circumstances last year (and the Texans clearly think he’s an upgrade on Hyde, given they’re paying DJ and let Hyde walk).

In addition to being annoying for fantasy for obvious reasons — two D. Johnsons at the same position on the same team? C’mon! — investing in the Texan backfield in 2020 requires a leap of faith. Will David rebound from his atrocious 2019? Will Duke be able to handle more touches than any coaching staff has ever decided he can handle? The initial guess here is the Texans want David to be the “lead” guy, and he’ll likely be going ahead of Duke this summer, but how early will he go?

Jordan Howard (Mia) — Howard signed a two-year deal worth about $10 million in Miami.

Fantasy Points: With the emergence of Miles Sanders, there was no way the Eagles were going to give Howard the money Miami did.

Howard missed six games with a shoulder injury (a particularly nasty stinger) last season, and essentially missed two more — he barely played in the Eagles’ Week 17 game, and then didn’t play in the playoff game. So, in nine games, he posted 119/525/6 rushing with 10/61/1 receiving, and was on pace for an excellent bounce-back season before the injury. However, his injury opened the door for Sanders and Boston Scott to emerge in Philly, and it made him expendable.

How needed is he in Miami? Well, despite playing what amounted to only nine games for Philly, Howard’s 525 rushing yards would have more than doubled Miami’s top rusher in 2019… which was Ryan Fitzpatrick (243 yards). Miami’s top RB in yards? Mark Walton, who had 201 before being cut for off-field issues.

It’s likely Miami — which has 14 selections in the NFL Draft — will add competition for Howard, which will probably push him into the 8th-10th-round range in summer drafts. But the money they paid him suggests a role will be here for him, so despite his lack of juice in the passing game, he could have some low-end best-ball value.

DeAndre Washington (KC) — Washington left the Raiders to join a division rival on a one-year contract.

Fantasy Points: For guys like Washington, who is really “just a guy,” landing spot is so important. And he’s found a very intriguing one. Since averaging 5.4 YPC on 87 carries as a rookie in 2016, Washington has been terribly inefficient as a runner, posting just 195/655/4 rushing over the last three seasons (3.4 YPC). However, he’s also shown some ability as a receiver, catching 88 of his 110 career targets (80%) for 613 yards. He caught a career-high 36 passes on 41 targets in 2019, averaging a career-best 8.1 YPR (292 yards total). With Josh Jacobs injured late in the season, it was Washington who played 64% and 74% snap shares, respectively, in Weeks 16 and 17. He can also contribute on special teams. He’s in the mix to back up Damien Williams and/or a rookie, and his ability in the passing game would make him an utterly fascinating waiver-wire guy in Kansas City’s explosive offense if pressed into action.

Peyton Barber (Was) — Barber signed a two-year deal worth up to $3 million with only $600,000 guaranteed to join Washington.

Fantasy Points: Look, we all know Barber isn’t anything special, but for a guy who has led the Buccaneers in rushing over his four seasons in the league — including as the team’s leading rusher in two of those four individual seasons — it’s a depressing payday. Labor discussions aside, Barber joins a Washington backfield that already has Adrian Peterson, Derrius Guice, and Bryce Love, while also adding JD McKissic this off-season. Barber’s addition is protection against the health of Guice and Love (and perhaps a commentary on the lack of trust the team has in Guice right now), but he’s a mediocre back who is not guaranteed to make the roster.

JD McKissic (Was) — McKissic leaves Detroit on a two-year deal to join Washington.

Fantasy Points: McKissic is one of two Washington backfield additions in free agency, along with grinder Peyton Barber. With the Lions in 2019, McKissic tied his career high with 34 receptions, while also averaging 5.4 YPC on his 38 carries. He’s the clubhouse favorite to take over for Chris Thompson as Washington’s passing-down back, and might have sneaky PPR value if he can fight his way through a very crowded depth chart (Barber, Adrian Peterson, Derrius Guice, Bryce Love).

Dion Lewis (NYG) — Lewis signed a one-year deal with the Giants after being cut by the Titans.

Fantasy Points: Lewis’ role in Tennessee’s offense was obliterated midway through the 2018 season, when the Titans opted to run everything through Derrick Henry. That continued in 2019. Lewis posted 54/209/0 rushing (3.9 YPC) and 25/154/1 receiving (6.6 YPR) on 39 targets in 16 games. He made one start for an injured Henry, posting 15/68 rushing and 1/19 receiving on 2 targets in Week 16 against the Saints. The receiving specialist will compete for a roster spot behind Saquon Barkley with the Giants.

Taiwan Jones (Buf) — Jones signed a one-year deal with the Bills.

Fantasy Points: Jones spent 2017 and 2018 in Buffalo before ending up with Houston in 2019. He had 10 offensive touches with the Texans last year, but had zero in two years combined with the Bills. He must have enjoyed his time in Western New York, because he’s back. Jones is highly unlikely to make a fantasy impact, but he’s earned a reputation as one of the league’s better special-teams role players.

Derek Watt (Pit) — Watt signed a three-year deal with the Steelers, leaving the Chargers.

Fantasy Points: Watt joins his younger brother, TJ Watt, in Pittsburgh. Watt has just 19 carries (1 TD) and 10 receptions in four NFL seasons, but his biggest impact is as a blocker and special-teams player. He appears likely to make the team as Pittsburgh’s top fullback, after the Steelers moved on from Roosevelt Nix.

Roosevelt Nix (Ind) — Nix gets a one-year deal to join the Colts.

Fantasy Points: A former Pro-Bowl lead blocker, Nix has 12 catches, 4 carries, and 2 TDs in a five-year career, all with Pittsburgh. The Steelers clearly thought Derek Watt was an upgrade over Nix, who played in just three games because of a knee injury last season. What’s interesting about Nix signing with the Colts is Indianapolis has not had a fullback in two years under Frank Reich, who also didn’t use a fullback in his two seasons as offensive coordinator in Philadelphia. Could this be an indication the Colts want to run it more with Marlon Mack behind Philip Rivers?

Dan Vitale (NE) — Vitale signed with the Patriots on a one-year deal.

Fantasy Points: The Patriots love their fullbacks, and Vitale gives them another option after they lost both James Develin and Jakob Johnson to IR last year (they used LB Elandon Roberts in that spot afterward). Vitale has 15 receptions and 1 carry in four NFL seasons with the Browns and Packers and is not a fantasy option. He will compete with Develin and Johnson for a roster spot.

Mike Burton (NO) — The former Redskin fullback signed a one-year deal with the Saints.

Fantasy Points: Burton spent last summer with the Saints but ended up in Washington for the season. However, the Saints have not yet re-signed Zach Line, and Burton is the current favorite for their fullback work. Coach Sean Payton always has his shenanigans at the goal line, but Burton has only 17 touches in 65 career games, including a TD reception as a rookie with the Lions in 2015. If anything, he’ll make us mad if he scores a TD in 2020.

Staying Put

Derrick Henry (Ten) — The Titans used the franchise tag — worth over $12 million — to keep Henry in Nashville in 2020.

Fantasy Points: The Titans acted like a typical NFL franchise these days, in signing their QB, Ryan Tannehill, to a mega extension while going year-to-year with Henry, the “less valuable” RB. However, the Titans also don’t believe they can run their offense effectively without Henry, as they think the run game was the catalyst for Tannehill’s resurgence and the Titans’ run to the AFC Championship Game last year. Ergo, Henry gets the franchise tag, while the Titans ostensibly are still open to a long-term deal with their star.

Henry led the NFL in carries (303), rush yards (1540), and rushing TD (16) in 2019. It was the extension of a clear approach the Titans took late in the 2018 season, making Henry the engine of their offense. In Henry’s first 44 career games, when he split time with DeMarco Murray and then later Dion Lewis, he had one game with 20 or more carries. In his last 18 games (three in 2018 and 15 in 2019), he has nine such games.

So it’s pretty clear that the Titans plan on “running it back” in 2020. Henry will do so without the wrench of Lewis in the backfield (cut and signed with the Giants), but he’ll also have to do so without RT Jack Conklin, who signed a deal with the Browns. The question for fantasy is if Henry can continue to produce so much as a runner with little to no impact in the passing game (just 18 receptions in 15 games in 2019). Moreover, can the Titans replicate the success of their run-based offense, something the 2018 Jaguars struggled with following a Cinderella AFC title game run? Henry will be a first-round pick, likely in the 5-8 range, even in PPR. He will be one of the most fascinating players in fantasy drafts this summer.

Kenyan Drake (Ari) — The Cardinals placed the transition tag — worth about $8.5 million — on Drake. He signed it, but still can negotiate a long-term deal.

Fantasy Points: If Drake plays on the transition tag in 2020, he gets a very nice payday, but no long-term security. Unfortunately, that’s what many good RBs may have to settle for these days. At the least, it’s clear the Cardinals value Drake highly, and the fact that they were able to move David Johnson this off-season is fantastic for his value (Chase Edmonds is still around, however).

In eight games with the Cardinals last season, after being acquired from Miami, Drake posted 123/643/8 rushing (5.2 YPC) with 28/171/0 on 35 targets. He parlayed his 18.9 touches per game into the RB3 finish in his time with Arizona. While that did, of course, include a 4-TD game vs. the Browns in Week 15, which skews the numbers… whew! The trade clearly worked out for both Drake and the Cards, and we’re glad the relationship will carry into 2020.

The Cardinals are also expected to have a more explosive passing attack, with QB Kyler Murray entering his second year, this time with DeAndre Hopkins at his disposal. But Drake is the type of back who can contribute in a big way on 15 or so touches per game, because he’s elusive and a good receiver. Additionally, it stands to reason coach Kliff Kingsbury — a disciple of the Air Raid — will want to run more plays than the 62.5 per game he ran in 2019, the 11th-fewest of all NFL teams.

We’ve been burned by half-season superstars before, especially at the RB position, but Drake’s fit in Arizona’s offense is clear, as is how much the Cards value him. Presuming offensive line upgrades in the NFL Draft, Arizona will be one of the hottest fantasy teams headed into the 2020 season, and Drake isn’t likely to make it out of the second round.

Jalen Richard (LV) — Richard is sticking with the Raiders on a two-year, $7 million deal.

Fantasy Points: Grooooaaaaannnn. Richard is actually a pretty good player — he had 160 receptions on 199 targets in 64 career games — and he’s never missed a game in his NFL career. But his effectiveness as a receiver (2.5 receptions per game, 8.6 yards per reception) in his career could cap the upside of the Raiders’ star Josh Jacobs, whom the team insists it wants involved more in the passing game this year. Richard’s receptions fell from 68 in 2018 to 36 in 2019 with Jacobs and DeAndre Washington in the mix, and Washington remains a free agent. There is enough room for Richard to have an impact here, but we hope Jacobs (just 20 receptions in 2018) catches more passes than him this year, or at least it’s close.

Ameer Abdullah (Min) — Abdullah signed a one-year deal worth about $1 million to stay with the Vikings.

Fantasy Points: Abdullah had 23 carries and 15 receptions, with 1 TD, in 16 games a season ago. He occasionally returns kickoffs and is a core special teams player for the Vikings, however, and he’s carved out a role in that department. He’s buried on the RB depth chart behind Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison.

DJ Foster (Ari) — Foster signed a one-year deal with the Cardinals.

Fantasy Points: The 26-year-old Foster is currently the #3 RB on the Cardinal depth chart behind Kenyan Drake and Chase Edmonds. He has not had a touch since 2017 and landed on IR with a hamstring problem after just six games in 2019, but is a core special teams player.

Tyler Ervin (GB) — Ervin signed a one-year deal worth about $1 million to stay with Green Bay.

Fantasy Points: Ervin spent time with both the Jags and Packers in 2019, returning kicks and punts. The former fourth-round pick out of San Jose State has just 22 offensive touches in four NFL seasons, but has earned his keep as a return man and special teams player.

Rod Smith (LV) — Smith signed a one-year deal in Vegas.

Fantasy Points: Smith spent time with three teams — the Giants, Titans, and Raiders — in 2019. The Giants released him following a hip injury, and Smith played almost exclusively special teams with both other teams, with just 1 snap on offense with the Raiders. He’ll be a special-teams ace if he even makes the Raiders’ roster.

Anthony Sherman (KC) — Sherman re-signed with KC on a one-year deal, worth about $1 million.

Fantasy Points: “The Sausage” is a Kansas City fan favorite, as most fullbacks are, but he’s only a wrench for fantasy, if that. In 16 games in 2019, he had just 6 offensive touches, with no TDs. He’s a blocker, special-teams player, and provides coach Andy Reid with some formational flexibility.

Keith Smith (Atl) — Smith signed a three-year deal worth up to $4 million to remain with the Falcons.

Fantasy Points: A former linebacker before converting to fullback with the Cowboys in 2016, Smith has no touchdowns on 22 career touches, but he’s valued for his blocking and special-teams contributions.

Joe Dolan, a professional in the fantasy football industry for over a decade, is the managing editor of Fantasy Points. He specializes in balancing analytics and unique observation with his personality and conversational tone in his writing, podcasting, and radio work.