Fantasy football preseason preview: Running backs

Fantasy football preseason preview: Running backs


Fantasy football preseason preview: Running backs


Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL running back has declined as a rusher for the last decade and 2019 saw one of the lowest totals for rushing attempts (in a 32-team league). But there is no denying the impact a stud running back has on a fantasy team with consistently high fantasy points.  Add in their increases as a receiver and the position will always dominate the first round of fantasy drafts every year.

Running Back Totals by Year

There was a minor uptick last year from the historically low number of carries in 2018 but the touchdowns remained higher than most years. It says running backs may not be as involved in moving the ball down the field as they once were, but at least they still get those goal-line carries.

2018 was a high-water mark for running backs as receivers but the trend is clear for the last six seasons. The bigger problem for fantasy team owners is that fewer teams employ a 300-carry running back anymore and the pie is divided among more players.

Top Ten Running Back Totals by Year

The top ten running backs from last season held their own and while they dipped slightly in scoring, at least there were more rushing yards from the group. These last three seasons clearly show the change from 2012 when the top ten backs averaged 297 carries and only 38 catches on the season while 2019 saw the same grouping with only 246 carries and yet 63 catches.

The team listings below show the top two fantasy running backs of 2019 for that team, along with their stats.

Arizona Cardinals

Kenyan Drake – Rush: 123-643-8, Receive: 28-171-0
David Johnson – Rush: 94-345-2, Receive: 36-370-4

There were two notables being carried forward from last year. First, Kenyan Drake finally broke out after spending three and a half years in Miami. He was sent to the Cardinals where he finished the year on a tear with three 100-yard rushing efforts. Granted – he was far less effective against good defenses, but at least he tore up the Browns and Seahawks. He replaced David Johnson as the starter and sent him away to Houston (AKA The Deal of the Century).

Secondly, these Cardinals do not run the ball that much under HC Kliff Kingsbury. They were dead last with only 280 total carries. Their 77 completions to the position ranked No. 15 so there no heavy-use back here so far. Chase Edmonds is the primary backup but was only allowed a handful of carries per game if the starter was healthy.

The Cardinals had the easiest rushing schedule in 2019 of any NFL team. Not to worry, they are still No. 3 this year. Drake was new to the team but his results varied significantly week to week.

Training Camp Needs:  Second-year for the offense means no more installation and more focus on execution. Drake gets his first camp as the starter and there is no real competition for him.

Atlanta Falcons

Devonta Freeman – Rush: 184-656-2, Receive: 59-410-4
Brian Hill – Rush: 78-323-2, Receive: 10-69-1

This will be a camp worth watching. Last year,  Teven Coleman left but Devonta Freeman got even worse, only managed 184 carries with a 3.6 YPC and was released so that the entire league could ignore him.

The holdovers of Qadree Ollison, Brian Hill, and Ito Smith have done nothing to suggest that they are more than mediocre depth. But the Falcons brought in Todd Gurley as the new starter and that should change everything. Or nothing, all depending on which Gurley they got.

His chronic knee situation saw him with only 3.8 YPC and 857 rushing yards last year. He did score 14 touchdowns to salvage his fantasy value. Gurley was a very capable receiver as well but was down to only 31 receptions last season and a career-low 6.7 yards per catch. His 223 rushes also were his lowest ever.

Training Camp Needs:  This is all about getting Gurley up to speed (whatever that is anymore) and able to stay on the field. Chances are that we won’t see a lot of him in preseason games, but it would be far more reassuring to hear that he looks good and fits in before pulling the trigger on him with a draft pick.

Baltimore Ravens

Mark Ingram II – Rush: 202-1018-10, Receive: 26-247-5
Gus Edwards – Rush: 133-711-2, Receive: 7-45-0

The Ravens ended with the most rushing yards – by a big margin – than any other team in NFL history last year but Lamar Jackson’s 1,206 yards was a major contributor. The running backs accounted for 393 carries and 1,954 rushing yards for the No. 7 and No. 3 ranked marks, respectively. There were only three backs that ran the ball – Mark Ingram (202), Gus Edwards (133), and Justice Hill (58).

A great offensive line helped as did a quarterback that prevented anyone from focusing on just the running backs as rushers.

Ingram remains the starter but the Ravens drafted J.K. Dobbins (2.23) to add to the mix. His contribution will come out of Edwards and Hill’s totals. There is room for the rookie to step up into a bigger role but he’ll have the challenge of much less time with the team than a normal rookie because of the COVID-19 situation. That likely means that Edwards will get more work earlier in the year.

Hill was a disappointment but he hits his second season and still has a chance to improve. This offense hasn’t produced more than one back with fantasy value, but Ingram has a history of missing a few games in most seasons.

Training Camp Needs: J.K. Dobbins should see plenty of work in the preseason to make up for his lack of team time before camp. He’s the one to watch. Ingram is signed through 2021 but the Ravens could get out of his contract next year for almost no cost if they want. Dobbins has a chance to do something special on this team, but it may take time.

Buffalo Bills

Devin Singletary – Rush: 151-775-2, Receive: 29-194-2
Frank Gore – Rush: 166-599-2, Receive: 14-100-0

Not a lot of fantasy points from this backfield last year even though almost all production came from either Devin Singletary or Frank Gore. Only producing six total touchdowns was a major reason but all categories were below league averages. Gore is gone but that doesn’t necessarily mean that  Singletary gets any major boost in carries or catches.

Gore’s workload went down as the season progressed and Singletary handled more carries over the final six weeks, but his catch totals went down over that period. And Singletary lost four fumbles over two games when he handled more than 15 rushes. He’s only 5-9 and 199 pounds and there is a concern that he might not hold up to a heavier load.

The Bills drafted Zack Moss (3.22) and he’s a much beefier 223 pounds on a 5-9 frame as well. T.J. Yeldon is still the No. 3 back with minimal use. 2020 will see how well Singletary holds up and also holds on to the ball.

Training Camp Needs: The rookie Moss is the one to watch. Singletary will be the primary back and could improve upon his 29 receptions last year as well. The success (or lack of it) by Moss will influence Singletary’s workload.

Carolina Panthers

Christian McCaffrey – Rush: 287-1387-15, Receive: 116-1005-4
Reggie Bonnafon – Rush: 16-116-1, Receive: 6-57-0

Not much to talk about here. McCaffrey was a fantasy league winner in 2019 and the Panthers added no one to limit his carries or catches. They have moved on to HC Matt Rhule fresh from running Baylor but that won’t impact McCaffrey’s role.

Installing a new offense is likely to rely just as heavily on McCaffrey as the best receiver on the team. They paid him $64M for the next four years – he’s safe to remain the focus of the offense.

Training Camp Needs: Keep McCaffrey healthy. That’s plenty enough.

Chicago Bears

David Montgomery – Rush: 242-889-6, Receive: 25-185-1
Tarik Cohen – Rush: 64-213-0, Receive: 79-456-3

The Bears are onto their third offensive coordinator in the last three years with Bill Lazor (ex-CIN OC) joining third-year head coach Matt Nagy. This is a backfield that has surprised most fantasy leaguers and not for positive reasons. The Bears parted ways with Jordan Howard and moved up to select David Montgomery (3.09) as the primary rusher. Tarik Cohen remains the third-down back.

The Bears had one of the best rushing schedules in the NFL last year but Montgomery was used inconsistently and often ineffectively. He ended with only 889 rushing yards on 242 carries and as a team recorded below-average marks in all rushing categories. Not only did the Bears only rush for six touchdowns, they only managed one over the final eight games.

There are no changes to personnel this year and once again, the Bears have one of the best rushing schedules in the league. A second season for Montgomery may see improvement, but there is yet another new offensive scheme to learn. A potential improvement to the passing game could in turn help the backfield.

Training Camp Needs: Learn the new offense. It would be very nice to hear that Montgomery looks “like he is getting it” but that may be hard to see in this unusual offseason and preseason. Most of the focus will be about the quarterbacks.

Cincinnati Bengals

Joe Mixon – Rush: 278-1137-5, Receive: 35-287-3
Giovani Bernard – Rush: 53-167-0, Receive: 30-234-0

The Bengals head into their second season under HC Zac Taylor and the rebuilding year didn’t go so well. Joe Mixon had a very slow start to the season but finally caught fire in the final month or so when his fantasy owners had already fallen back in their league. But it was a plus to see him with three of his final four games gaining over 100 rushing yards.

Giovani Bernard hangs on as the third-down back but his stats have declined in each of the last four seasons and he never scored a touchdown in 2019. Mixon ends up with around three catches in most games, Bernard has lost all fantasy value in this offense.

Training Camp Needs: No changes in personnel, coaches, or scheme means shaking off the rust. Just stay healthy.

Cleveland Browns

Nick Chubb – Rush: 298-1494-8, Receive: 36-278-0
Kareem Hunt – Rush: 43-179-2, Receive: 37-285-1

The same crew starts this year with Nick Chubb as the primary and Kareem Hunt as the third-down back. For Hunt, he’ll play a full season this time but he was used sparingly as a rusher and did more damage as a receiver. This backfield can support two fantasy starter though Chubb ended with four or five fewer rushes per game and his role as a receiver all but disappeared.

This is yet another offense to learn for the backfield with HC Kevin Stefanski importing the West Coast variant that he used as the offensive coordinator with the Vikings. The backfield gets to use both backs for the full season and that will help diversify their attack, even if it comes at the expense of what Chubb could be.

Training Camp Needs: Installing a new offense usually favors the safer ground game and the Browns were already one of the better rushing teams from 2019.

Dallas Cowboys

Ezekiel Elliott – Rush: 301-1357-12, Receive: 54-420-2
Tony Pollard – Rush: 86-455-2, Receive: 15-107-1

If any player is unlikely to see much change, it would be Ezekiel Elliott. While new HC Mike McCarthy will certainly take an interest in the offense, OC Kellen Moore was retained and enters his second season. Elliott faces one of the better rushing schedules just to ensure that he’ll be productive again.

Elliott carried 301 times last year, second to only Derrick Henry (303). The Cowboys relied entirely on the rookie Tony Pollard as the relief back and he ended with 86 carries. Pollard was little used as a receiver, so Elliott’s share of the workload has not been decreased in any way.

Training Camp Needs: Keep Elliott healthy, install whatever new minor nuances into the offense.

Denver Broncos

Phillip Lindsay – Rush: 224-1011-7, Receive: 35-196-0
Royce Freeman – Rush: 132-496-3, Receive: 43-256-1

HC Vic Fango enters his second season but OC Pat Shurmur (ex-NYG HC) takes his first year there.  The Broncos typically produce upper-half in the league rushing stats and brought in Melvin Gordon to top their depth chart. Though he’s been in the league for five years, Gordon managed a 1,000-yard season (2017) only once and that because it was his only year without missing at least a couple of games. He missed 13 games over that time period but never more than four per year.

Gordon assumes the primary role there and Phillip Lindsay slides back to the third-down back. Royce Freeman’s two seasons haven’t produced much though he managed 43 catches last year. He slides back to the bench for the most part.

A new offense is being installed and Gordon has to acclimate to his new team. Rushing the ball is the activity that needs the least precision, so Gordon still carries plenty of fantasy promise. One of his potential limitations will be the schedule. The Broncos enjoyed one of the lightest slate of games in 2019 but face one of the most dramatic swings now facing the No. 26 rushing schedule.

Training Camp Needs: Keeping Gordon healthy is key and he’s been less than durable so far. The new offense will rely heavily on him and Shurmur wasn’t shy about loading up Saquon Barkley in New York. Freeman has already lost almost all fantasy value and Lindsay needs to show signs that he can remain a weekly consideration if only as a deep, flex play in a reception points league.

Lindsay has been more of the rusher, so any sign that he’s stepping up as a receiver will be a plus for him. But Gordon has caught as many as 57 passes in a season, so he is the only safe play from this backfield.

Detroit Lions

Kerryon Johnson – Rush: 113-403-3, Receive: 10-127-1
J.D. McKissic – Rush: 38-205-0, Receive: 34-233-1

The good news: The Lions used their 2.03 pick on D’Andre Swift our of Georgia. The guy many considered the best back in the draft.

The bad news: When has a Detroit back matter since Barry Sanders left in 1998?

Oh yes, and 2.11 pick from 2018 of Kerryon Johnson is still there as the latest “this is the one” that wasn’t. OC Darrell Bevell is back for his second season and he always used two backs in 2019. But the primary guy would account for around 15 to 20 touches per game, Both Ty Johnson and J.D. McKissic would also end up with four to six touches as well.

The Lions completed just 76 passes to running backs, but seven of them caught at least one and three had ten or more receptions. McKissic was best with 34 catches. Bevell did rely on a single back occasional at Seattle but mostly relied on two backs – or more.

The Lions had one of the worst schedules in 2019 and while it is better for 2020, it still isn’t quite average, let alone anything beneficial. Needing Swift to learn a new offense will start him out slowly, particularly having missed so much potential time from the COVID-19 situation.

Training Camp Needs: Get Swift up to speed. Unless he can clearly show as superior to Johnson, then they will both be used (if not others as well). This is the second season for the offense, so all eyes should be on Swift as the newest element. McKissic is also gone, so the third-down back has to be determined and is likely to be shared between Swift and Johnson.

Green Bay Packers

Aaron Jones – Rush: 236-1084-16, Receive: 49-474-3
Jamaal Williams – Rush: 107-462-1, Receive: 39-253-5

The Packers had long been a pass-first team with Aaron Rodgers but HC Matt LaFleur and OC Nathaniel Hackett changed that as of last year when they went to a more balanced offense, ranking around average in all passing and rushing categories. The one spot of biggest change – running backs catching the ball. The Packers completed 101 passes to their running backs and that boosted the backfield’s fantasy value up to No. 6 in the NFL.

The Packers went to a 1-2 punch with Aaron Jons taking roughly two-thirds of the work and Jamaal Williams ended up with a third. Jones ran for 1,084 yards on 236 carries to lead the team and he added 49 receptions for 474 yards and a total of 19 touchdowns. That left Jones as the No. 2 fantasy back in most leagues for last year.

This is the final contract year for Jones, so he has plenty of incentive to remain productive and the offense came to rely on him more down the stretch. Three of his final four games contained over 21 rushes each, including the playoffs. Conversely, Williams went from double-digit touches to only a handful over his final month.

The Packers also drafted AJ Dillon (2.30) instead of a receiver as a sign that they want the backfield to continue to lead the offense. Dillon is a bruiser at 6-0, 247 pounds and could be a nice complement to smaller yet faster Jones. Williams is likely the odd man out here, especially after declining use last year and the Packers taking Dillon so early.

Training Camp Needs: Figure out how much Dillon can do and how much he displaces Williams. Jones’ role as the primary is a given but how much Dillon is involved will start to be answered in camp.

Houston Texans

Carlos Hyde – Rush: 245-1070-6, Receive: 10-42-0
Duke Johnson Jr. – Rush: 83-410-2, Receive: 44-410-3

Well, that was unexpected. The Texans haven’t featured even an average rushing attack for many years, and their solution was to trade away DeAndre Hopkins and acquire David Johnson.

Lamar Miller was lost for 2019 and has not been kept. Carlos Hyde stepped in and ran for 1.070 yards and six touchdowns but has also been sent packing. The Texans have Duke Johnson but his first season in Houston only resulted in 410 rush yards, 410 receiving yards, and five scores. In a year where they needed help.  Johnson remains the third-down/relief back but that falls outside of reliable fantasy stats every week.

David Johnson had a monster year in 2016 but missed 2017 due to a torn ACL. He’s been unable to return to the same form when he had his only notable year. Still, HC Bill O’Brien is excited to have him and believes he is a three-down back. O’Brien’s decision-making skills have been called into question with the trade as it is.

The Texans are likely to not throw as well without Hopkins and that could force them to rely more on backs as receivers. The Texans schedule is worse this year and that won’t help Johnson run behind what has been a problematic offensive line that is still under work.

Training Camp Needs: Get David Johnson up to speed and hopefully a part of the passing game even if that comes out of Duke Johnson’s workload. The situation is a second chance for David Johnson, but he has to prove that he is healthy.

Indianapolis Colts

Marlon Mack – Rush: 247-1091-8, Receive: 14-82-0
Nyheim Hines – Rush: 52-199-2, Receive: 44-320-0

The Colts have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL and that bears out with their rushing averages. Marlon Mack was finally allowed the primary role and responded with his first 1,000-yard season. Still, he only produced two 100-yard games after Week 1 and he had nearly no role as a receiver.

To help the backfield, the Colts spent their 2.09 pick on Jonathan Taylor. The rookie is a prototypical workhorse back at 5-10, 223 pounds, and runs a 4.39/40. He turned in around 2,000 rushing yards in each of his three seasons at Wisconsin. He won the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s best running back twice.

His only concern is longevity. He left college with 926 carries over three years. Compare that to Clyde Edwards-Helaire (370), D.Andre Swift (440), or Cam Akers (586). With all those miles on the tires, he may be the next Ron Dayne (7,125) or Donnel Pumphrey (6,405). Or the next Tony Dorsett (6,526) or Ricky Williams (6,279). It is a concern but he lands in a very nice spot.

Nyheim Hines will retain his role as the third-down back but likely won’t see much more work now that there are two other viable options with Mack and Taylor. Since Taylor hasn’t been much of a receiver, he’s unlikely to do much on passing plays but should take at least the bigger share of the rushing load from Mack, assuming he gets up to speed on the offense in camp. That should not be a problem for an experienced runner with a great resume’.

The only aspect that is negative is that the Colts enjoyed one of the easiest rushing schedules in the NFL for 2019. For this season, they have one of the worst.

Training Camp Needs: This is all about Taylor and how quickly he can assume a primary role. And if Mack’s workload declines well below fantasy relevance. With a great offensive line, they could be better than their tough rushing schedule anyway. If Taylor draws raves in camp and turns in a few good preseason games, expect him to become a very hot commodity in your drafts.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Leonard Fournette – Rush: 265-1152-3, Receive: 76-522-0
Ryquell Armstead – Rush: 35-108-0, Receive: 14-144-2

Despite rumors aplenty, Leonard Fournette was not traded and remains the primary back for the Jaguars. He’s in the final year of his rookie contract with a lot to win by having a good season. He comes off a career-best 1,152 rushing yards and an impressive 76 receptions for 522 yards. That helped him back into the top ten fantasy backs last year. Fournette has been hampered by nagging injuries and managed to miss just one game in 2019.

The Jags drafted Ryquell Armstead (5.02) last year as the backup but he was held to only 35 carries for 108 yards. Fournette was the workhorse back and enjoyed one of the lighter rushing schedules. That changes back to just an average one for 2020 but Fournette’s role as a receiver kept him relevant last year.

The Jaguars are in HC Doug Marrone’s third season but he hired Jay Gruden (ex-WAS HC) to run the offense for the third offensive coordinator in the last three years.

Training Camp Needs: No depth chart changes here. Fournette has to learn a new offense but gets Gardner Minshew back and that pairing resulted in Fournette placing No. 5 in running back receptions last season. He just needs to remain healthy and have a big year for his 2020 payoff with a new contract.

Kansas City Chiefs

Damien Williams – Rush: 112-497-5, Receive: 30-213-2
LeSean McCoy – Rush: 101-465-4, Receive: 28-189-1

With the high-powered offense scaring every defense, the backfield was one of the most productive until last year. The question as to who would be better – LeSean McCoy or Damien Williams – didn’t have an answer since no Chief’s back ranked better than No. 40 last year. None of them played more than 12 games. Darwin Thompson was their sixth-round pick but did nothing.

Now McCoy is gone and Williams would be the clear primary back. But – the Chiefs spent their 1.32 pick on Clyde Edwards-Helaire fresh from LSU’s National Championship. He caught 55 passes last year which bodes even better for him to take over the backfield in all aspects. This is an obviously dangerous passing team, and if Edwards-Helaire can step up as a receiver, he’ll be a fantasy boon.

There is an opportunity for the rookie to step up and leave all the marginal talent in the backfield on the bench. Kareem Hunt’s first season ended with 272 carries for 1,327 yards and 53 catches for 455 yards. If Edwards-Helaire can do even half as much, he’ll be a fantasy starter. And while Hunt was a third-round pick, the Chiefs grabbed this rookie with their first pick and made him the first back selected in the draft.

Training Camp Needs: It’s all a question of how quickly Edwards-Helaire can get up to speed in this complicated offense. He’s already much more talented and the Chiefs have every intention on making him a big part of the offense. Best case – he blows up in a couple of preseason games and draws good reviews in camp.

Las Vegas Raiders

Josh Jacobs – Rush: 242-1150-7, Receive: 20-166-0
DeAndre Washington – Rush: 108-387-3, Receive: 36-291-0

The Raiders used their 1.24 pick last year to land Josh Jacobs as the first running back drafted. The rookie ran for 1,150 yards over 13 games played and overall, the Raiders ranked No. 4 in the number of rushes. He turned in six games with over 100-rushing yards and was fed over 20 carries in half of his games. His role as a receiver was held to never more than three catches per game.

The Raiders had one of the worst rushing schedules last year and while it remains a bit below average, it is still much better than 2019. The offensive line isn’t the advantage it once was, but at least it isn’t a liability. Playing in a new stadium usually has a negative impact for the first year but the offense is mature under Jon Gruden and they like relying on Jacobs to move the ball.

Training Camp Needs: Josh Johnson remains the only real fantasy play for the Raiders backfield and should improve upon a fine rookie season. Johnson could use more work as a receiver and while they have lots of new receivers to incorporate, that doesn’t mean that Johnson couldn’t see more targets for 2020.

Los Angeles Chargers

Austin Ekeler – Rush: 132-557-3, Receive: 92-993-8
Melvin Gordon III – Rush: 162-612-8, Receive: 42-296-1

The Chargers entered 2019 without Melvin Gordon but it did not really matter. Austin Ekeler stepped up in and added an astounding 92 receptions. Gordon eventually showed up in Week 5 and went on to have a standard season. He’s left for the Broncos now and behind are Ekeler, Justin Jackson, and the rookie Joshua Kelley (4.06).

HC Anthony Lynn enters his third season and has moved on from OC Ken Whisenhunt. Ex-quarterbacks coach Shane Steichen takes over and the offense is not expected to change much.

Germane is the absence of Philip Rivers after 14 seasons and that alone will have a certain impact on the offense. Tyrod Taylor takes over and while he was a starter in Buffalo, he was usually good for around 500 yards and five touchdowns as a runner. That will, at least partially, impact the rushing totals here.

The fantasy production from the backfield was surprising last year given that the Chargers went against one of the worst rushing schedules but they only ranked No. 18 in both carries and rushing yards. Their 148 catches for 1,357 yards led NFL running backs by a sizable margin and most of that was from the Ekeler.

With Gordon gone, the expectation is that the Chargers will rely on a committee of  Ekeler, Jackson, and the rookie Kelley in some yet unknown mixture. Ekeler hasn’t rushed more than 132 times in any season and at 5-10, 198 pounds he may not hold up for much more. Plus he has an obvious role as a receiver. Justin was a 2018 seventh-rounder that hasn’t run more than 50 times and only weighs 193 pounds.

Kelley is bigger at 5-11, 212 pounds and he handled around 230 carries in each of his two seasons at UCLA. He’s no speedster with a 4.49/40 from the combine and he was only the eleventh back selected this year. But he is in the mix with for the big void left behind by Gordon.

Training Camp Needs: It will be interesting to see how much Taylor runs the ball but that won’t be evident until the season. There’s no reason to expect him to throw too much less to Ekeler. The interesting part of camp will be if Kelley shows anything to suggest that he can take a larger role as a rusher or this backfield will be a big committee with Ekeler’s receptions as the only reliably productive part.

Los Angeles Rams

Todd Gurley II – Rush: 223-857-12, Receive: 31-207-2
Malcolm Brown – Rush: 69-255-5, Receive: 2-16-0

This should be one of the most interesting training camps from a fantasy perspective since the departure of Todd Gurley leaves behind a major hole to fill.  His rushing totals waned in 2019 but he still delivered 14 total touchdowns after turning in 21 and 19 over the previous two seasons. As a backfield, they scored 19 times in 2019.

Malcolm Brown and Darrell Henderson return. Brown is an undrafted pick up back in 2015 who just turned in a career-best 69 runs for 255 yards (3.7 YPC). Henderson was the 3.06 pick in 2019 who was limited to 39 carries for 147 yards (3.8 YPC) as a rookie. The Rams spent their 2.20 pick on Cam Akers as the fourth-overall running back drafted this year.

HC Sean McVay expressed confidence in his group of three rushers though two of them haven’t proven to be anything more than mediocre. Henderson was particularly underwhelming and Brown is just a career backup. The hope that anyone emerges into a significant role resides solely with the rookie Akers. The ex-Florida State back was adept at both rushing and receiving.

There is a chance that there is just a maddening committee approach that would erase a major fantasy opportunity. It’s all up to Akers to step up and become a fantasy-relevant primary back and keep the other two in their best-suited roles as backups.

Training Camp Needs: Akers has to get up to speed quickly. He is expected to become the main starter and brings in enough talent to be a big fantasy factor. It’s more of a question as to how long he will take to reach his potential.

Miami Dolphins

Patrick Laird – Rush: 62-168-1, Receive: 23-204-0
Kenyan Drake – Rush: 47-174-0, Receive: 22-174-0

Overall, last year could have gone better. It could not have gone much worse. The  Dolphins used nine different running backs as a sign that they were unsuccessful. Kenyan Drake was sent to the Cardinals at midseason and no back was better than Kalen Bllage with 74 carries on the season. It was a disaster and as a team gained only 834 rushing yards – worst in the NFL.

It was a teardown and set on fire rebuilding year for new HC Brian Flores and no direction to go now but up (actually, or remain bad). The Fins are onto their next offensive coordinator with Chan Gailey being lured out of retirement. The backfield has been remade over in the offseason by adding Jordan Howard and Matt Brieda while the remaining disappointments fall down the depth chart.

Howard was unable to stick with the Eagles and for his fourth straight season, fell in every category. He was limited to only 525 rushing yards, just ten catches and a total of 594 yards.  He missed six games with a shoulder injury but is expected to be healthy again. At 6-0 and 224 pounds, he’s a two-down runner with the size for short yardage.

Matt Brieda joined up after three seasons with the 49ers. He always produced when called on and even ran 153 times for 814 yards in 2018. He brings a better resume as a receiver and at 5-11, 190 pounds, he is more suited for third-down work.

The Fins once again have a terrible schedule. They fall from the No. 23 rushing schedule down to the No. 30 this year.

Training Camp Needs: The prospect of a rookie quarterback going against a terrible schedule is bad enough, but the Fins have to face even worse when they run. Howard and Brieda need to learn the offense and are worth watching, but expectations cannot be too high with this crew so far.

Minnesota Vikings

Dalvin Cook – Rush: 250-1135-13, Receive: 53-519-0
Alexander Mattison – Rush: 100-462-1, Receive: 10-82-0

No questions here, other than when Dalvin Cook shows up. The Vikings are on to yet another offensive coordinator with Gary Kubiak taking over this year. But the turn to a rush-heavy attack paid off with Dalvin Cook enjoying a career year. He also lasted 14 games. Cook missed five games in 2018 and 12 games as a rookie in 2017. Cook was electric last year and averaged 18 carries per game and scoring 13 touchdowns.

Cook also caught 53 passes for 519 yards as a true double threat that kept the passing game alive as well.

The Vikings added Alexander Mattison with their 3.38 pick last year which was prudent given the number of games that Cook has missed so far. He ran 100 times for 462 yards and averaged 4.6 yards.  Mattison only caught ten passes and is not a third-down option. Cook stayed on the field nearly every play and Mattison only offered a few relief carries in most games.

Cook enters the fourth and final year of his rookie contract and has said that he won’t show up at all until he signs a new deal. He is due just $2 million this year and played for only $1.4 million in 2019. Mattison will be a hot commodity if Cook doesn’t sign this summer.

Training Camp Needs: Sign Cook. Earlier than later since the offense will have new nuances to learn. If not, get Mattison practicing with the first-team offense.

New England Patriots

James White – Rush: 67-264-1, Receive: 72-645-5
Sony Michel – Rush: 247-912-7, Receive: 12-94-0

The Patriots are perennially at the top of the NFL for overall running back production even though they rarely feature any runner. 2019 was no different since they ranked No. 2 in fantasy points and yet the best running backs were James White (No. 18) and Sony Michel (No. 30). Rex Burkhead and Brandon Bolden were also involved and yet their rookie back Damien Harris (3.23) ended up as a rare scouting whiff with only four carries.

There are no changes to the backfield, but losing Tom Brady throws the entire offense into an unknown state. Jarrett Stidham is expected to be the new quarterback and he has really no track record to consider. The Patriots offense is wildly mature after OC Josh Daniels’ eight straight seasons so the scheme won’t change. White should remain just as valuable if not more should Stidham end up dumping the ball off even more than Brady did.

The Patriots always have a good offensive line and the schedule is about average like 2019.

Training Camp Needs: From a fantasy perspective, 2020 is all about playing without Tom Brady and what that means. The backfield should be no less important and likely even more. But they’ll always rely on a committee and White carries the most fantasy promise. Stidham should work on his passes to White before he worries about downfield.

New Orleans Saints

Alvin Kamara – Rush: 171-797-5, Receive: 81-533-1
Latavius Murray – Rush: 146-637-5, Receive: 34-235-1

Oddly, the Saints enjoyed one of the easiest rushing schedules in 2019 but dropped in nearly every running back category. There a few mitigating factors like the injury to Drew Brees and Alvin Kamara struggled with a leg injury almost all year and missed a few games. Notable also was the departure of Mark Ingram.

This is the most mature offense in the NFL with OC Pete Carmichael entering his twelfth season with the Saints. There are no changes to the offense in personnel but the team needs to have a healthier 2020 from their top players.

Murray was a capable addition and produced two 100-yard games when he helped replace the injured Kamara. His fantasy output fell just below starting consideration in common games with Kamara, but he was a great start with Kamara out.

The Saints will be even better with a healthy Kamara on the field. His final stats from 2019 were only marginally down in yardage but he fell from 18 touchdowns to only six last year.

Training Camp Needs: Keep Kamara healthy. There is nothing new here and that’s probably a big advantage this season with reduced time for teams to install schemes and introduce new players.

New York Giants

Saquon Barkley – Rush: 217-1003-6, Receive: 52-438-2
Wayne Gallman Jr. – Rush: 29-110-2, Receive: 11-102-1

There’s a new offense for the Giants with the hire of OC Jason Garrett but it will mirror what he ran in Dallas which already takes into account using an elite running back. It may not work out as well for the receivers, given the jump in passing last year with OC Kellen Moore at the help in Dallas. But, Barkley should be very safe in remaining one of the busiest backs in the league.

Barkley suffered a high ankle sprain and missed two games but was hampered by it for much of the year. He still managed to gain 4.6 yards per carry but his touchdown totals fell from 15 to eight and he dropped from 2,028 total yards with 91 catches as a rookie to only 1,441 yards and 52 receptions.

He was the No. 2 best fantasy back as a rookie and looks to reassert himself this year. The Giants had to also fight against the No. 28 rushing schedule last year but get a nice boost to the No. 12 best slate of games.

Training Camp Needs: The new offense should rely heavily on Barkley and there are no new offensive skill players. Camp is all about installing the new offense that should favor the running back.

New York Jets

Le’Veon Bell – Rush: 245-789-3, Receive: 66-461-1
Bilal Powell – Rush: 59-229-0, Receive: 7-33-0

You don’t net the No. 32 ranking in backfield fantasy production without a lot of bad luck. That involved paying a fortune for a rusty running back running behind a bad offensive line in the first rebuilding year with all new coaches. Whew. It was really bad.

The entire backfield combined for only four total touchdowns. Bell played for 15 games and yet only gained 789 rushing yards thanks to a 3.2-yard average on his 245 rushes. He added 66 catches to help but only gained 461 yards from them.

Bell was the heavy-use, primary back (such as it was) and Bilal Powell was next best with only about 300 total yards and no scores. Powell is gone and Frank Gore was added at the age of 37 because he evidently has nothing else to do and nowhere else to go. The Jets also drafted La’Michel Perine (4.14).

HC Adam Gase still calls the plays and the second year has to be better than 2019. The rushing schedule is better and at some point, the offensive line is bound to improve. The Jets were so bad last year that Bell was held below ten carries in most of his games after midseason. He only once ran for more than 35 yards after Week 7.

Training Camp Needs: Gore is not expected to be more than a rarely used relief player though he might figure in at the goal line. Perine is just considered depth for now. Bell has his second year with the offense and just needs to stay healthy and hope the rest of the offense improves around him.

Philadelphia Eagles

Miles Sanders – Rush: 179-818-3, Receive: 50-509-3
Jordan Howard – Rush: 119-525-6, Receive: 10-69-1

The Eagles had long relied on a committee approach to their backfield and likely still will – at least to a degree. The addition of Jordan Howard didn’t do much and he missed six games due to injury. He was allowed to leave for the Dolphins. Boston Scott played well in his brief showings while Darren Sproles finally just got too old and was never a factor. Jay Ajayi tore his ACL in 2019 and returned only briefly last year. He too has been released.

The story of the backfield revolved around rookie Miles Sanders (2.21). He ended with 818 rushing yards and a 4.6-yard average. Sanders became a bigger part of the passing game down the stretch with 23 of his 50 catches over his final five games. Sanders enters the year as the clear primary back who should enjoy an even better year thanks to a workload that will increase – and potentially by a large margin.

The Eagles have Boston Scott as their second back but are expected to end up with a veteran No. 2 at some point, even if it waits until after final cuts before the season starts. The offense is mature with four years of HC Doug Pederson controlling the plays. The offensive line is an advantage and the schedule is roughly average as it was last year.

Training Camp Needs: Same offense but Sanders works out as the primary back. He needs to stay healthy and just prepare for a bigger workload. The offense will likely need to incorporate a No. 2 back if they follow through on plans to acquire a veteran. If they don’t, then Sanders is in for a very busy year.

Pittsburgh Steelers

James Conner – Rush: 116-464-4, Receive: 34-251-3
Jaylen Samuels – Rush: 66-175-1, Receive: 47-305-1

Last year, the offense was running on fumes after Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell were gone and Ben Roethlisberger was quickly lost for the season. James Conner was impressive in 2018 when he ran for 973 yards, caught 55 passes for 487 yards, and scored a total of 13 touchdowns. Last season, he missed six games due to thigh, quadriceps and shoulder injuries and was far less effective even when healthy.

All of 2019 stats should be questioned and taken with a grain of salt since the loss of Roethlisberger started the spiral. The Steelers remain committed to Conner as the primary back. Benny Snell was the 4.20 pick last year and ran 108 times for 426 yards though he had no role as a receiver. Jaylen Samuels was limited to 66 runs but his 47 catches were second-highest on the team.

There was speculation that the Steelers would grab an early back in the draft t compete with Conner but they only selected Anthony McFarland with their 4.18 pick. The rookie is more of a third-down player at 5-8 and 193 pounds. Conner is a bulky 6-1, 233 pounds.

Training CampNeeds: The intention is that Conner returns to being the primary back and he’ll run behind one of the better offensive lines. So long as Roethlisberger looks back to form this summer, the entire offense will get a lift. Unless McFarland surprises, the Steelers will move forward with Conner and Samuels as the starters again.

San Francisco 49ers

Raheem Mostert – Rush: 137-772-8, Receive: 14-180-2
Tevin Coleman – Rush: 137-544-6, Receive: 21-180-1

This is a busy backfield. Last year, the 49ers ranked No. 29 with only 476 passes and yet were No. 2 with 428 rushes. They were two carries short of being No. 1 in running back carries. And yet the highest-ranked running back was Raheem Mostert at only No. 25 for fantasy points. This was a committee approach and both Mostert and Tevin Coleman ran exactly 137 times.  Matt Brieda turned in 123 runs as well. All combined the backfield produced well but individually, none of them ended as a top back.

Coleman came over from Atlanta to reunite with Mike Shanahan but was very average and while he started out as the primary rusher, he ended on a much quieter note. He rushed over ten times in seven of his first nine games. His final eight games contained only one with more than five runs. That was mostly due to Mostert.

After four very quiet seasons in the NFL, Mostert blew up at the end of last year. He was allowed double-digit carries in each of his last eight games and ended with a 5.6-yard average. He scored ten times and all but one came after Week 11. He also rushed for 220 yards on 29 runs in the win over the Packers in the Conference Championship while scoring four times. Mostert was rarely used as a receiver.

Brieda is gone but he had already fallen to No. 3 on the depth chart anyway. Coleman remains though he hasn’t been nearly as productive as hoped. He is still their goal line guy. Mostert is the one that draws the most interest this summer. He ended 2019 on a very high note and is in line for the busiest season of his six-year career.

Training Camp Needs: Coleman and Mostert should command a big chunk of the workload and Mostert has the most potential. The 49ers have new receivers to bring up to speed, so the backfield should remain busy. With Brieda gone, it would be good to see Mostert working on his receiving skills.

Seattle Seahawks

Chris Carson – Rush: 278-1230-7, Receive: 37-266-2
Rashaad Penny – Rush: 65-370-3, Receive: 8-83-1

This was a top backfield in 2018 but injuries became an issue last year. Chris Carson ended the year with a hip injury that fortunately avoided the need for surgery. He’s expected to be ready for camp and the season. Rashaad Penny blew an ACL and is not expected to be back until after the season starts. They even lost C.J. Prosise to a broken arm.

To help out, the Seahawks tabbed free agent  Carlos Hyde who himself was recovering from shoulder surgery. He is expected to be ready for camp and will be the No. 2 back at least until Penny is healthy but could just remain the primary backup. Carson accounted for a career-high 278 runs for 1,230 yards and a total of nine touchdowns last year.

The Seahawks have a very tough rushing schedule this year but the same was true in 2019. Hyde could see even more work if Hyde is slower to pick up the offense than expected, but Hyde could also cut into Carson’s workload potentially. Penny only played in eight games so Carson’s role was bigger in most games.

Training Camp Needs:  The health of all three runners needs to be established. Carson and Hyde are both expected to be good to go, and if so, a committee approach is more likely. Hyde could be a great addition if he learns the offense and gets enough volume of touches to be a contributor.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Ronald Jones II – Rush: 172-724-6, Receive: 31-309-0
Peyton Barber – Rush: 154-470-6, Receive: 16-115-1

The Buccaneers had the worst backfield in the NFL for 2018 and they improved last season if only marginally. HC Bruce Arians and OC Byron Leftwich brought new life to the offense in all phases even if they ended up releasing a 5,000-yard quarterback and acquired Tom Brady.

Ronald Jones was the 2.06 pick by the Bucs in 2018 but he had a very underwhelming rookie campaign that ended with only 23 rushes for 44 yards and one score. He upped that dramatically under Arians and Leftwich when he ran for 724 yards on 172 rushes (4.2 YPC), caught 31 passes, and scored six times. He even notched his first NFL 100-yard game in Week 17 against the Falcons.

Peyton Barber fell to the No. 2 back last year and ended up with the Redskins this year. That led the Bucs to draft Ke’Shawn Vaughn (3.12) who would fill the No. 2 role. Dare Ogunbowale filled in as the third-down back last year but was usually limited to no more than three receptions. Vaughn is the newcomer here and has already drawn fantasy attention in early drafts.

Vaughn has potential. He played four years between Illinois and Vanderbilt and is as good of a receiver as he is rusher. Jones is expected to retain his role as the primary back and should take the bulk of all carries, but Vaughn will also contribute both as a relief back and as a receiver.

The Buccaneers have an average schedule after one of the easiest ones in 2019. The offensive line is still below average and Tom Brady brings in a new element to the team.

Training Camp Needs: Getting Vaughn acclimated to the offense is a priority but Brady and the passing game will command the most focus. Vaughn can help his case with a good showing in preseason games and the Bucs may end up rushing more this year with Brady under center. Arians had a positive effect on the offense and helped bring the backfield into the game plan.

Tennessee Titans

Derrick Henry – Rush: 303-1540-16, Receive: 18-206-2
Dion Lewis – Rush: 54-209-0, Receive: 25-164-1

To his credit, Derrick Henry increased his production in all four years and now is slapped with the franchise tag at least until a long-term deal is done. Under the first year of OC Arthur Smith, he picked up where he left off at the end of 2018 and became the same workhorse beast that he was at Alabama. Henry ran a league-leading 303 times for 1,540 yards and scored 18 touchdowns. Dion Lewis only managed 86 touches and is gone.

Henry will reprise his role as the central focus of the offense and he’ll enjoy a jump from facing the No. 22 rushing schedule strength to the No. 7 best. The switch to Ryan  Tannehill helped open up the offense and finally give the defense something other than Henry to worry about. That helps Henry  – a lot.

To help replace Lewis, the Titans spent their 3.29 pick on Darrynton Evans who was a two-year starter at Appalachian State. He only caught 25 passes in college so he’ll need to work on that aspect of his game. As it stands, he’ll be no better than the relief back behind Henry. The Titans like to run the ball, so Evans could see enough of a role to merit a fantasy roster spot.

Training Camp Needs: Evans only started for two seasons at a small college, so he needs all the camp time he can get if he is to become the No. 2 back. There’s a dearth of any talent behind him, so if he falters the Titans likely will go looking for a free agent. This is Henry’s team and he’s not going to leave much work for anyone else anyway.

Washington Redskins

Adrian Peterson – Rush: 211-898-5, Receive: 17-142-0
Chris Thompson – Rush: 37-138-0, Receive: 42-378-0

This backfield has been below average for a while and cannot seem to get anyone to step up other than the aged Adrian Peterson who surprised in 2018 when Derrius Guice was injured before the season started. Peterson was unable to do as well in 2019 even though Guice disappeared yet again by Week 5.

The Redskins are onto a new head coach with Ron Rivera and he brought OC Scott Turner with him from Carolina to run this offense. The Redskins rank below average in virtually every offensive category for the last two seasons, so any improvement isn’t that hard to make.

This is the fourth new offensive coordinator over the last four years. The system will be new but it imports from Carolina where Christian McCaffrey was the No. 1 fantasy running back for 2019. There is no McCaffrey here, to be sure, and the Skins only change was to bring in Peyton Barber and J.D. McKissic to add to the aged Peterson and always-injured Guice. This offense assumedly goes after a top back next year.

To make this even more confusing, they drafted Antonio Gibson with their 3.02 pick. The 6-0, 228 pound Memphis product was a wideout and listed as such for the NFL draft. He only had 44 carries and 33 catches over his two-year collegiate career but impressed HC Ron Rivera enough to prompt him to say that Gibson had many of the same qualities of McCaffery. More importantly, Turner says they want to be unpredictable on every play which is another way of saying they don’t have anyone worthy of relying on as a primary back.

Training camp has to sort this mess out and chances are very good that by Week 1, we won’t know anything more about who does what and when. The rushing schedule isn’t bad but the offensive line hasn’t been an advantage in a long time. This is easily the most convoluted backfield in the NFL that could constantly change during the season.

Training Camp Needs: Hopefully, training camp will help define at least the top backs in the scheme that might have some fantasy value. Peterson gets a bit worse each year and likely is past any full-time role. Guice cannot stay healthy and is unreliable. Barber was cut since he couldn’t make it on one of the worst rushing teams. McKissic is a third-down type but maybe No. 4 or even No. 5 on the depth chart. Gibson? Complete wild card.

This will be one of the more interesting camps, given all the questions. But it still may not produce anyone with fantasy value.


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