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NFL Running Backs: Breakouts, Busts, and Sleepers To Consider In Your 2019 Fantasy Football Draft

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Ben Rasa and Nolan Kelly take a look at the AFC South, with their Fantasy Football Team Previews including sleepers, busts & Best Ball Picks

With ESPN and Yahoo NFL Fantasy Football leagues starting shortly, and Best Ball leagues already going, our goal is to prep you early for your upcoming NFL fantasy drafts with our Fantasy Sleepers, Breakouts and Busts articles for each position.

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In our ongoing efforts to cover every angle of the NFL prior to the season kickoff, today we’re revealing our top NFL running backs to target in your 2019 fantasy football draft. There are the obvious NFL running backs everyone will want like Saquon Barkley or Christian McCaffrey following the big numbers they put up last year. But we have a few breakouts, sleepers, and potential busts to discuss in the world of NFL running backs before the roll out of Awesemo’s official season long NFL fantasy rankings, so let’s discuss the guys who could be difference makers at the position.

NFL Fantasy Football Breakouts

Derrick Henry (ADP of 28.9, #13 overall)

Henry enjoyed a mini-breakout towards the end of last season, racking up 585 rushing yards, seven touchdowns and 6.7 YPA over his final four games. Despite losing work to the lesser talented Dion Lewis throughout the year, Henry still finished with 1059 rushing yards, 12 touchdowns and 4.9 YPA, ranking seventh, eighth and third in those categories, respectively. The former second round draft pick accrued 215 carries on the season, but averaged only 10.6 totes over his first 12 games, leaving ample room for improvement from a volume perspective.

Here’s where it gets good: last season, Henry led the entire league in avoided tackles (45) and ranked second in yards after contact (905) and YCO/A (4.21), while only Nick Chubb ranked ahead of Henry in elusiveness rating (89.7) per Pro Football Focus. It’s no surprise Henry finished top 10 against stacked boxes and produced the third most yards against eight-man fronts (553).

The Titans will continue to operate as a run-first team so long as Marcus Mariota (or Ryan Tannehill) are under center. Henry should earn the large majority of work on rushing downs, unlike last season when Lewis out-touched him 135-to-128 over their first 12 games despite averaging a paltry 3.2 YPA. Tennessee has bolstered their offensive line with the addition of Roger Saffold, too, and could be more dangerous in the passing game after drafting A.J. Brown and getting a healthy Delanie Walker back at tight end.

The only knock on Henry is his lack of involvement in the passing game, having recorded only 39 receptions across 47 career games. It shouldn’t matter too much, though, as he could legitimately flirt with 300 carries so long as Tennessee isn’t frequently playing from behind. The Titans have an O/U of eight wins in 2019, ranking right in the middle of the league. Massive rushing volume and potential back-to-back double-digit touchdown campaigns positions Henry nicely for a breakout season at his current ADP.

Spags’ Take

Derrick Henry showed the ceiling he possesses when actually fed the ball at a volume befitting his talent with games of 238 yards on 17 carries vs, an admittedly downtrodden Jacksonville team with four touchdowns in Week 14 and a 33 carry-170 yard effort with two scores vs, the Giants the following week. Titans coach Mike Vrabel declared that the offense, now helmed by promoted tight ends coach Arthur Smith will be built around Derrick Henry. That’s a logical declaration given that Henry averaged 4.9 yards per carry compared to fellow backfield mate Dion Lewis’s 3.3 yards per attempt.

The question for Henry’s week-to-week value, particularly in Points Per Reception leagues, is whether he can establish more of a floor in the passing game with his complete lack of involvement there with just 1.1 targets per game in 2018. Henry perhaps surprisingly had a solid 83.3% catch rate, just behind Lewis’s 87.9% reception clip, so it’s possible that he chips away slightly at the 4.1 targets per game that Lewis received but that still may not be enough to establish the every week comfort you’d like to see if he were going as a top-10 RB overall. But with where he’s being drafted, he has the upside and ability to get exceed his ADP and if he seizes more of a role, he can be a top back in both fantasy and real life in 2019.

Aaron Jones (ADP of 37.3, #17 Overall)

Jones led all starting NFL running backs in yards per attempt last season, averaging a stellar 5.5 yards every time he toted the rock. He was the league’s only rusher with fewer than 150 carries to record 20 or more runs of 10+ yards (22), and he avoided 26 tackles on 133 attempts. For context, Ezekiel Elliott shed 37 tackles on a league-high 304 carries in 2018. Jones’ 0.20 AVT/ATT ranked ninth among all running backs with at least 100 carries.

Had Mike McCarthy not been at the helm in Green Bay over the past two seasons, it’s unlikely that Jones would be considered a breakout candidate heading into 2019. The Packers’ former head coach remained insistent on providing Jamaal Williams with equal work to Jones, which was a clear and obvious mistake to everyone but himself. While Jones racked up an impressive 1177 yards on only 214 carries (5.5 Yd/Att) since 2017, Williams averaged a meager 3.7 Yd/Att with 1020 yards on 274 carries, and was never deserving of equal touches, let alone more carries than his counterpart.

Matt LaFleur will supplant McCarthy as Green Bay’s head coach, which bodes well for Jones’ 2019 prospects. Playcalling, scheme, and offensive line play a huge role in any running back’s success, and all three of these factors should work in Jones’ favor this season. The Packers ranked top-10 in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards for two straight seasons now, and LaFleur is no stranger to getting top production out of his backs (see Todd Gurley in 2017). Spreading out the offense has also been tantamount to finding success in the run game, and the Packers should have no trouble doing so with their personnel. Jones should be afforded every opportunity to produce in an efficient, yet hopefully more balanced offense this season.

Spags’ Take

Reports out of Green Bay have indicated that Aaron Jones has shown up to offseason workouts in the best shape of his career, something that bodes well for his chances to seize the opportunity to be lead RB in Matt LaFleur’s new Packers offense. But much like the aforementioned Derrick Henry, the potential for a time share in the backfield as well as simply seeing more of Aaron Rodgers being given free rein to throw with impunity could loom large for his trustworthiness. Jones’s 5.5 yards per rush was best for a player who received over 10 touches per game, just behind Kenneth Dixon‘s 5.6 yards per attempt overall. His 74.3% catch rate on 2.9 targets show a decent involvement in the pass game that could stand to improve depending upon how the revamped offense shakes out.

Jamaal Williams was a player who received a litany of chances under the Mike McCarthy regime despite mediocre yards per attempt numbers so reading the preseason tea leaves on whether Jones will get an unencumbered shot at the starting job is key to determining if Jones is worth reaching further beyond his ADP on or if he’s a better fit in a stable of backs whom you hope rise above their caste to become a dependable RB2.

NFL Fantasy Football Busts

Phillip Lindsay (ADP of 46.4, #21 Overall)

The term “bust” can be misleading. Giving a player this label doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t provide decent fantasy value, but more so that they won’t pay off their current ADP. Lindsay is being selected in the fourth round as the 21st running back off the board following a thousand-yard rookie campaign, but feels overvalued based on who’s being drafted around him.

His surface numbers were impressive, especially for a player who came out of nowhere, but Lindsay’s performance was less impressive once we dig into some of the advanced metrics. On the season, Lindsay finished 35th in elusiveness rating (30.0) among all rushers with at least 100 carries (Pro Football Focus), and 43rd out of 47 qualified backs in yards after contact per attempt (2.35). Moreover, Lindsay’s 0.11 avoided tackles per attempt ranked towards the bottom of the league, sandwiched in between T.J. Yeldon and LeGarrette Blount.

Another concern with Lindsay is the possible timeshare developing in Denver. Second-year rusher Royce Freeman didn’t post lofty numbers in his rookie campaign, but unlike Lindsay, he ranked 13th in both YCO/ATT (3.22) and AVT/ATT (0.18) across 130 carries. These stats obviously aren’t the be-all and end-all when evaluating running back value, but it’s not illogical to think a 5’8”, 190lb rusher could see some regression in 2019.

Lindsay is also coming off a serious wrist injury and has yet to participate in contact drills. Meanwhile, Freeman is handling first-team reps in camp, which isn’t insignificant given the Broncos’ head coach (Vic Fangio) and quarterback (Joe Flacco) changes. I’d rather draft Kerryon Johnson and Josh Jacobs at a similar ADP, and I’m not opposed to taking a flier on Freeman at an ADP of 122.3.

Spags’ Take

Phillip Lindsay is a decent back overall given his with a more diverse skill set with than Royce Freeman (as evidenced by Lindsay’s 5.4 yards per rush to Freeman’s 4 per attempt) but the opportunity and coaching approach is everything. New head coach Vic Fangio and offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello have both commented publicly about a desire to return to vintage Broncos football with a run-heavy approach and theoretically Freeman would be better equipped to handle that. But Scangarello’s primary background as a play caller comes from college experience and was part of the reason he was hired, an ability to bring a college running style which incorporates outside sweeps and zone runs that play a bit more into the abilities Lindsay has shown.

In the spot where Lindsay is being drafted, there are likely to be better draft picks around him, guys with a more unencumbered role like Chris Carson or serious pass game involvement like Tarik Cohen, that it makes sense to pivot away due to the uncertainty. All it takes is Fangio falling in love with Freeman’s ability to squeeze the air out of the ball while Lindsay recovers from injury to hurt the opportunity for the diminutive second year back in a way that undercuts his currently lofty draft position.

Derrius Guice (ADP of 78, #28 Overall)

Guice was drafted as a top rookie running back option last season before a preseason ACL tear abruptly silenced the hype and ended his campaign before it began. The former LSU star was primed for a solid season as the Redskins’ lead back, but the landscape in Washington has changed since his injury. Adrian Peterson turned in another 1000-yard season at the ripe age of 33 years old, and figures to remain a large part of the offense heading into his 13th NFL season. The Redskins obviously feel good enough about Peterson to have signed him to a two-year deal immediately following his impressive campaign, and if we know anything about this ageless wonder, it’s that counting him out is never a wise move.

Guice will certainly have a significant role in Washington’s run game now that he’s healthy, but he should hardly be considered a feature back given the Redskins’ backfield depth. Making matters worse, Chris Thompson isn’t going anywhere, and should still be handling most of the third down work in 2019. Guice is worth drafting if he slips down the board, but not in the late sixth-early seventh round. Most of his value is tied to Peterson’s early-season performance; if Peterson struggles to churn out yardage, Guice could easily emerge as the Redskins’ lead back. That’s a big if, though.

Spags’ Take

Derrius Guice is picking up some hype again after the train rolled full steam for him prior to last season before injuries knocked him out for the year. And while Guice certainly has the talent of an elite back, pass catching ability aside, he’s being over-drafted right now given the players around him. Adrian Peterson was re-signed by Washington after a hugely effective 2018 season particularly given how impotent the offense was thanks to Alex Smith’s inability to stretch the field. Peterson averaged 15.7 touches per game that he’s unlikely to give up willingly and he also showed some pass game flexibility that the young Guice has yet to illustrate.

Additionally, Chris Thompson is still in the fold and likely to seize some snaps away for obvious pass plays, situations that Washington may find themselves in frequently if they end up playing from behind often as their talent level on both sides of the ball indicates they may. I’d be more inclined to wait for disappointed teams to give up on Guice down the stretch to grab him on waivers than I would be to spend a draft pick on him when you can get a guy with a more assured role like Jordan Howard or James White behind him instead.

NFL Fantasy Football Sleepers

Ronald Jones (ADP of 120.5, #41 Overall)

Jones’ rookie season was a colossal disappointment, totaling only 44 yards on 23 carries and long run of nine yards. Meanwhile, Peyton Barber shouldered the load for Tampa Bay, but was wildly ineffective, averaging only 3.7 Yd/Att across 234 carries. Jones will earn a legitimate opportunity to carve out a huge role in the Buccaneers’ offense in his second season, as they’ve made no significant changes to their backfield and are unlikely to throw the towel in so early on a second round draft pick who has yet to turn 22 years old.

The Bucs should have no trouble moving the football this season with Bruce Arians at the helm, and the coaching staff has apparently been very impressed with the second-year back. There is minimal risk associated with drafting Jones in the 10th round or later, as he’ll be battling for snaps against arguably the league’s worst starter and won’t have to contend with Jacquizz Rodgers on passing downs. We shouldn’t be ignoring Jones just because he turned in one of the most miserable rookie seasons we’ve ever seen.

Spags’ Take

With incumbent starter Peyton Barber having shown little despite a ton of opportunity last year, there’s no question that new coach Bruce Arians will want to take a long look at his options in the backfield and given his lofty draft status Ronald Jones should get a shot. My fellow USC alum Jones was actually pretty solid in pass protection according to Pro Football Focus in a limited sample size with him allowing no sacks or hurries allowed and that bodes well for him being able to seize more time despite both Barber and Jacquizz Rodgers performing solidly as blockers with both over a 93 efficiency.

Jones’ ADP is too low given the decent probability that he can seize a solid share, if not an outright lead back role, in the preseason. And even in a worst case scenario he seems likely to see more red zone opportunities given the likely explosive Bucs passing offense and how inept Barber was in the red zone with his 2.3 red zone rushing opportunities per game not converting much in the way of touchdowns. Jones is a low risk, high upside flyer to take who could find himself an underrated beneficiary of one of the most potent offenses in the NFL.

D’Onta Foreman (ADP off 124.2, #45 Overall)

I was in love with Foreman coming out of the draft, and almost immediately felt justified in my admiration for the young back as he looked impressive as a rookie before an Achilles tear prematurely stomped out his progress. Foreman went on to miss all but one game the following season—he recorded -1 RuYd on seven carries but hauled in two receptions for 28 yards and a score—yet he appears fully healthy heading into 2019.

Foreman’s fantasy appeal isn’t solely tied to his abilities as a rusher; Lamar Miller is averaging a paltry 4.09 yards per attempt through three seasons with Houston, but the Texans haven’t had a viable healthy back to challenge him — until now. Hell, even the supremely underwhelming Alfred Blue saw 150 carries behind Miller in 2018. Foreman has better vision than Miller and is actually more explosive, too.

Ultimately, you’d be rolling the dice on a late-round running back who is being drafted 45th at his position, and is currently lurking in the shadows waiting to rip the starting job away from Miller, who has long overstayed his welcome. Achilles tears are certainly concerning with running backs, but at only 23 years old, Foreman should recover much quicker than other players who have suffered from the same injury. He was an absolute monster in his final year at Texas (323/2028/15), and should have no trouble shouldering a sizable workload if given the chance.

Spags’ Take

D’Onta Foreman appeared primed to take a portion of the backfield opportunity for Houston last season before that Achilles tear knocked him out of the majority of last year and he does seem like a solid option to stash in the hopes he somehow carves out a role for himself. Lamar Miller had a fairly resurgent year by the standards of his Texans stint with 4.6 yards per rush on 15 rush attempts per game but there remains room for improvement, especially if Foreman can improve on Miller’s iffy 6.5 yards per catch. Foreman will likely be an untrustworthy option while Miller is healthy and out there.

But if he’s able to carve off the 11.1 rushes and targets per game that Alfred Blue leaves behind in his departure for Jacksonville, Foreman stands a shot to earn his way into at least a timeshare and possibly more if Miller is hurt or even less effective than he has been in the last few seasons.

Devin Singletary (ADP of 128.9, #56 Overall)

Singletary is also worth discussing as an ultra-late-round sleeper. He’s joining a Bills team that loaded their backfield with two senior citizens in LeSean McCoy and Frank Gore and a perennially unimpressive third down back in T.J. YeldonJosh Allen led Buffalo with 631 rushing yards last season, while McCoy managed a meager 514 yards and 3.2 yards per attempt on 161 carries and Gore was forgettable in his 14th campaign.

While Singletary will have a tough time carving out a huge role early on, his competition in the backfield is feeble at best. He racked up an eye-popping 66 rushing touchdowns across three years at FAU, and is worth a stash with an ADP of 128.9 and as the 56th running back off the board.

Spags’ Take

In terms of SPARQ scores, Devin Singletary doesn’t grade out as an elite athletic prospect with his speed, burst, agility, and power all under the 50th percentile amongst his peers at the position. But the opportunity here is key and he may provide value if the Bills cull their depth chart throughout the preseason process. LeSean McCoy looked mostly washed in 2018, although he did see more eight man boxes due to the lack of a threat Josh Allen presented for most of the year, as in addition to poor rushing numbers he also had less elusiveness than he’s shown in previous years as he ranked 101st out of qualified backs in Pro Football Focus’s Elusive Rating.

Despite his lower tier athleticism and size, Singletary showed an ability to drive FAU’s offense as he accounted for 37.8% of their total yards and touchdowns, which puts him in the 86th percentile of players at his position. Drafters are taking Singletary near the bottom of the running back rankings so while he may be tough to fit on a roster currently given the Bills’ depth chart, Buffalo has a youth movement bubbling beneath the surface that could cause a rise in Singletary’s opportunity as the herd of aging and middling RBs thins out.

Dave "Loughy" Loughran has been a fixture in the daily fantasy community since not long after its inception, quitting his career as a Drug and Alcohol therapist to become a full-time DFS analyst, player and media personality in 2014. Loughy is the host of "Awesemo Radio" on SiriusXM Fantasy, qualified for the 2016 DraftKings Fantasy Football World Championship, and was featured in the Washington Post and other publications for his success as a player. You can find him on Twitter at @Loughy_D where he'll likely be ranting about the miserable life of a Philadelphia sports fan, using "fella" in almost every tweet, or via email at support@awesemo.com.

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