Running backs can be a volatile group. Coaching changes, injuries and new signings/draftees can lead to huge swings in a running back’s workload projection and opportunity year over year. For fantasy football we want to be able to identify those players whose current situation (and talent) could lead to a breakout campaign and see them massively outperform their ADP. Regardless of what type of draft strategy you’re employing (zero-running back, pure value-based etc), we’ll identify three potential targets here who could dramatically outperform their current draft stock for fantasy football purposes and help carry your squad through whatever tidal waves the season throws at you. Lets get into some fantasy football breakouts.
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Last Year’s Fantasy Football Breakouts
There weren’t a ton of shocks at running back last season. As always, some highly drafted players ended up getting injured — Saquon Barkley being the best example — and not paying off their exorbitant draft capital. However, if you sift through the rankings, you find a few faces who posted big campaigns comparative to what people expected of them.
Leonard Fournette was a huge bust in 2018, finishing as the RB40 after being a highly touted draft pick for many. As a result, in 2019 sentiment for him was quite low, and he was going far lower in drafts than the previous season. Still, Fournette entered 2019 with one of the best depth charts in the league — i.e. no talent behind him — and was also in a situation where one more bad year may have meant an exodus from the league altogether. He responded by playing 15 games, seeing the third-most snaps of any one running back in the league and rushing for 1,152 yards. If you saw through the overhyped failure from 2018, you likely were able to capitalize on his low ADP in 2019.
From further down the ranks came one of the biggest breakout stars of 2019 in Austin Ekeler. Ekeler’s situation was far easier to disseminate as Melvin Gordon was dug in for a lengthy holdout, leaving just Ekeler and seventh-round draft pick Justin Jackson on the depth chart. Ekeler only matched his rushing totals from the previous year but exploded as a receiver, more than doubling his target totals from the previous year and ending 2019 as RB4 on the season, up from RB25 the year prior. It’s possible another Ekeler-type situation arises this year as players like Joe Mixon and Dalvin Cook have both expressed frustration with their contract situations. This could make players such as Alexander Mattison or Trayveon Williams appealing as late-round stashes in dynasty or early redrafts. Until we know how those contract situations work out, it’s hard for us to label them as breakout candidates, though.
A Note on Running Back Draft Strategy and Rookies
As noted above, running back tends to be a volatile position. Due to injuries, ever-changing workloads and roster moves, running backs taken later in drafts (generally) have a better shot at inheriting a huge workload and outperforming their ADPs, comparative to their wide receiver counterparts taken in similar spots. From 2018 to 2019, five running backs who were not in the top 10 of their position the season prior ended the year as a top-10 running back. Additionally, 11 running backs from 2018 who ended that year outside the top 25 were ranked inside it the following year, compared to just nine who made that move at wide receiver.
Rookie running backs have tended to have far greater success of late than rookie wide receivers too. In 2019 there were three rookie running backs who managed to crack the top 25 running backs by the end of the year, compared to just one at receiver (A.J. Brown WR21). Miles Sanders ended the year at RB15, the best positional ranking of any rookie running back or receiver. The year prior, only two rookies cracked the top 25 at running back: Barkley (RB1 in 2018) and Nick Chubb (RB17). They vastly outperformed Calvin Ridley that season, who was the highest-ranking rookie and ended the year as WR22.
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Awesemo’s Fantasy Football Breakouts: Top Three Running Backs
Singletary ended last year as the RB32, recording 775 rushing yards on just 151 attempts. His 5.1 yards per carry was third best in the league, behind just Raheem Mostert and Derrick Henry. While he was one of the most efficient backs from a yards-per-touch perspective, his upside was capped by a lack of touchdowns, which saw him score just four times on the season, twice on the ground and twice through the air.
The specter of Josh Allen taking all the red zone carries (Allen rushed for nine touchdowns last year) and the fact Buffalo drafted Zach Moss in the third round have people spooked on Singletary. His ADP (49) has been falling gradually ever since the draft and has him situated around RB25 at the moment. There’s a potential opportunity brewing here though where Singletary could end up leaping past many of his peers and into a far higher end-of-season rank.
The Bills more than committed to Singletary last year, cutting veteran LeSean McCoy in the preseason and virtually icing out veteran Frank Gore from the rotation down the stretch. From Week 11 onward, Singletary played at least 71% of the snaps on his team and averaged an even higher rate from Week 14 onward. This move late in the season also coincided with his two best games as a receiver, as he posted six catches in both week 14 and the Bills’ playoff game.
As a receiver, there’s no question that Singletary has talent:
Spreading positivity with the #Bills day 62:
Devin Singletary will be a top 10 back in the league this year. Not to mention, Moss & Motor will be deadly duo for opposing defenses💪 pic.twitter.com/oBoEllysSL
— Kurt Haumesser (@KurtHaumesser88) May 31, 2020
While the Bills haven’t spoken publicly about it, there’s already speculation that they’re likely to use him more in this facet of the game in 2020. He only saw 41 targets last year, but considering that number includes three missed games and a lower snap count the first half of the season, theoretically it’s not out of the question that this mark could double in 2020.
Then there’s the touchdown issue. Despite playing far more snaps than Gore throughout the year, Singletary was out-touched 26-20 by Gore in the red zone last year. With Gore gone, it seems highly unlikely that the Bills will automatically shift all of that work straight to Moss, who will be coming in with far less prep than a normal season due to the COVID-19 crisis. It’s also quite plausible that the Bills as an organization will try to temper Allen’s running a touch for longevity purposes. Allen’s 17 rushing touchdowns over the past two seasons led the NFL by five over that span (Deshaun Watson and Lamar Jackson have 12 over the same period). Regression from him in the red zone would likely directly help Singletary.
It’s unlikely with Allen at quarterback that Singletary will develop a Christian McCaffrey–type output next year, but his workload seems more likely to increase here than decrease. When you factor in his efficiency as a rusher and ability as a receiver, a breakout season seems far more likely than his current ADP is giving him credit for. Devin Singletary is Awesemo’s #1 running back among fantasy football breakouts.
There are certainly arguments one could make about talent being a bit of a limiter to any Ronald Jones breakout year, but as with most fantasy football situations, opportunity trumps talent. The third-year player looked far better in his second season too, going from bust status in 2018, where he averaged 1.7 yards per carry on just 51 touches, to pounding out a respectable 4.2 on 171 carries (with six touchdowns) and adding 31 receptions on 40 targets in 2019.
The hype around Tampa Bay’s offense right now has been palpable all season, but despite that, Jones hasn’t been a part of it for fantasy purposes. Despite Jones entering the year as the No. 1 running back on the Tampa depth chart, and having shown significant improvement through two full years, his ADP (96) has seemingly remained immune to any bump. At the moment names like Jordan Howard and Sony Michel, pure power backs in suspect offenses with limited PPR appeal, are going in front or near him in many drafts.
Jones averaged a stout 9.1 yards per reception as a receiver in 2019, so even a small bump in receiving volume work could make a huge difference in fantasy. Jones’ red zone work could also take a leap up in 2020. The Buccaneers drafted Ke’Shawn Vaughn in the third round this year, but he doesn’t profile as the Peyton Barber power-back successor. Barber, who is now with Washington, out-touched Jones 24-21 inside the 20 last year, but Jones still graded out as one of the best backs in that area. Jones gained 2.2 yards after contact per attempt on runs inside the 10-yard line in 2019, the second highest among 37 running backs who qualified, per Pro Football Focus.
— Jason Shallcross (@Shallcross14) July 15, 2020
What seems to be keeping Jones’ ADP down the most right now is both a fear that Tampa will either sign or trade for another running back (Devonta Freeman and Raheem Mostert are longshots but possible) or he’ll simply lose too many touches to Vaughn. The former is a legitimate worry as Bruce Arians tends to be a “veterans” coach and would likely cede work to the more experienced player, regardless of ability. The latter seems less likely. Jones performed extremely well for Tampa in the red zone last year, improved as a receiver and gained the organization’s trust after a poor rookie year. Vaughn also didn’t profile as a hugely explosive athlete in his combine testing, making him seem better suited to complimentary back status anyways.
There’s risk here that another veteran will land in Tampa and muddies the water for Jones, but also a great chance that the Bucs will simply roll with Vaughn and Jones as their duo at running back, with Dare Ogunbowale also mixing in during pass downs. If that’s the case, Jones feels like he has a great shot to win out here as both the main, early-down running back and red zone back in an offense that most people have pegged for top-five potential. It’s a great environment for a breakout season for a player with a depressed ADP. Ronald Jones is Awesemo’s #2 running back among fantasy football breakouts.
Hyde is a little different from the first two backs we mentioned in that he’ll need a few things to break his way for him to really breakout in 2020. That being said, the situation for him in Seattle seems to be looking rosier by the minute.
Seattle looks ready to begin the year with Chris Carson and Hyde as their top two backs given that Rashaad Penny looks almost certain to start 2020 on the PUP list. Rookie Deejay Dallas is also in the mix here but seems unlikely to climb past two veterans unless injuries to both occur. While the Seahawks still seem insistent on Carson being the teams bell cow, the 25-year-old is still recovering from a broken hip suffered last season and has now taken at least 240 carries in each of his last two years.
A hip injury like that can be a serious detriment for any running back, but especially one who was already lacking great agility or breakaway speed like Carson. The injury hasn’t really pulled down Carson’s ADP (30) much, though, and he’s still going well inside the top 20 running back for 2020 in most drafts. Hyde, meanwhile, is going under the radar despite coming off a year where he rushed for 1,070 yards, put up 4.4 yards per carry (the same as Carson last year) and ranked 11th in rushing grade at his position, per PFF.
The former Brown, 49er and Texan still has an ADP (211) below that of the injured Penny but will be working on a team that had the sixth-highest run play percentage in the league in 2019. Should Carson need extra time to work into shape, or suffer some kind of reinjury in his recovery, Hyde could theoretically be in a position early in season to grab the reins of this run-happy offense.
Hyde’s situation reminds me a bit of Raheem Mostert’s from last season, but he has an even clearer path to glory given the injury issues that already exist in front of him. If you’re looking to load up on running backs late, he’s a name who has multiple paths to breakouts — either through outplaying the incumbent or benefiting from injury issues that already exist. And like Mostert, Hyde is in a run-first offense, ensuring that a breakout will almost certainly occur if he gets that chance. Carlos Hyde is Awesemo’s #3 running back among fantasy football breakouts, though he’ll definitely need things to break right in order to have fantasy value.
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