With the NFL season quickly approaching, fantasy draft season has arrived. Examining the running back position, here are a few fantasy football breakout candidates to add to your rosters. While each candidate has yet to breakout into that elite running back category, these players provide the requisite upside to finish as an RB1 in 2020. For full access to Awesemo’s running back projections, check out the Awesemo Fantasy Football Draft Kit.
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Fantasy Football Breakout #1: Joe Mixon
Originally starting out 2019 in a timeshare with Giovani Bernard, Mixon quietly worked his way into a feature back role late in the season. Coming off the board in the late first or early second round, Mixon provides similar upside to backs at the top of the draft board.
From an opportunity standpoint, Mixon looks every bit like a bell-cow back. Standing 6-foot-1, 228 pounds, Mixon crushed the 40-yard dash in 4.50 seconds coming out of Oklahoma. He also turned in back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons in each of the past two seasons.
Still, people remain quick to discount Mixon. Cincinnati’s 17.4 points per game ranked 30th in the NFL last year, and their offensive line finished 26th in adjusted line yards. However, the Bengals return 2018 first round pick Jonah Williams to the offensive line in addition to bringing in rookie phenom Joe Burrow at quarterback.
Cincinnati’s offense already showed shades of improvement down the stretch in 2019. They passed the ball 63.3% of the time (fifth) and ran 65.6 plays per game (ninth). They also eclipsed 30 points in each of their final two games.
Looking at Mixon’s opportunity, his role also grew as the season progressed. In Weeks 1-9, Mixon averaged 54% of Cincinnati’s snaps, but that number jumped to 66% in Weeks 10-17. Mixon’s 15.8 touches per game also ranked 27th in Weeks 1-9, but that number also jumped to 24.6 in Weeks 10-17. In the final eight games, Mixon ranked second in touches per game at the running back position.
With clear upside for a larger role in an emerging offense, Mixon looks like a breakout player in 2020.
Fantasy Football Breakout #2: Miles Sanders
Similar to Mixon, Sanders started out 2019 in a committee with Jordan Howard. As a second-round rookie out of Penn State, Sanders also displayed feature back potential. Standing 5-foot-11, 211 pounds, Sanders turned a 4.49 40-yard dash at the Combine.
Like Mixon, Sanders’ role grew down the stretch after Howard suffered a stinger in Week 9. Prior to Week 9, Sanders averaged just 38% of Philadelphia’s snaps and 11.3 touches per game. From Weeks 10-16 (they sat their starters in Week 17), Sanders notched a 78% snap share and 20.8 touches per game.
This offseason, Philadelphia fully committed to Sanders by letting Howard and his 150 carries walk in free agency. More importantly, Philadelphia decided to ignore the running back position throughout the offseason.
Seemingly locked into a feature back role, Sanders should also benefit from Philadelphia’s up-tempo offense. Last year, they ranked first in plays per game (68.5) and targeted the running back on 19% of their pass attempts. A complete jack of all trades, Sanders even played 7% of his snaps from the slot last season.
With little competition on a strong offensive supporting cast, Sanders stands out a breakout candidate in the late first found of fantasy drafts. Currently, the Awesemo projections as RB7 ahead of this year.
Fantasy Football Breakout #3: Kenyan Drake
Coming over to Arizona in a mid-season trade, Kenyan Drake showed glimpses of feature-back potential. Originally sharing time with David Johnson and Chase Edmonds, injuries eventually thrust Drake into a full workload.
Drake stands 6-foot-1, 210-pounds, with a blazing 4.45 40-yard dash on his profile. While he has only eclipsed 20 carries four times in his professional career, Drake certainly looks the part of an every down runner. Over the final eight weeks of the season, the Cardinals fed Drake 16.4 touches per game.
Looking at the role in Arizona, the Cardinal’s running backs averaged 7.1 targets per game in 2020. If Arizona fed this target share to one back, they would rank only behind Christian McCaffrey in targets per game. On top of the passing game involvement, Arizona averaged the 10th-most rushing yards per game last year (124.4).
While a potential time share with Chase Edmonds remains a possibility, Drake remains a rock-solid pick in the second round. With an ascending offense and less competition, Drake looks the part of a breakout candidate this year.
Fantasy Football Breakout #4: Tevin Coleman
After a breakout performance for the entire offense, the San Francisco 49ers ranked third in the NFL with 29.6 points per game. Largely focused on the run, the 49ers’ 51.4% run rate ranked second in the entire NFL. With Raheem Mostert coming off the board in the fifth round, Tevin Coleman looks like the true breakout candidate in the eighth round.
First, Mostert simply doesn’t possess the size to handle a full workload. Standing 5-foot-11, 186-pounds, Mostert profiles as a change of pace back. Conversely, Coleman stands 5-11, 206-pounds, with a blazing 4.44 40-yard dash.
Hand-picked by Kyle Shanahan, Coleman split the load evenly with Mostert down the stretch. However, the 49ers employed more of a hot-hand approach than anything else. After single-digit carries in the final five games of the year, Coleman erupted for 105 yards and a pair of scores on 22 carries in the Wildcard Round. Coleman suffered an injury in subsequent game, but this speaks to San Francisco’s willingness to use both backs.
From an offensive environment perspective, the 49ers should continue to employ a run-first approach. While Joe Staley retired this offseason, San Francisco managed to land Trent Williams via trade during the NFL draft. With Mike McGlinchey and Weston Richburg on the roster, this unit should continue to dominate.
Between his size advantages and the overall efficiency of the 49ers’ offense, Coleman looks like a breakout candidate coming at a discount ahead of the 2020 season.
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