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2018 Fantasy Football Running Back Primer: 3-Down Backs, Handcuffs, and Platoons

Running Back Primer
Ezekiel Elliott Photo Credit: Keith Allison

Usually, I might break down the running backs by different articles for each type of backfield. However, combining them into one large post with each type of running back is actually more efficient and a better piece of reference.

As we all know, backfield situations in the NFL fluctuate more than alliances in Game of Thrones. I put this information out during the first couple of weeks of pre-season. However, there are injuries, cuts, trades, signings and breakouts between then and your draft.

With all of the different backfield types in one post, I can then maneuver whenever there are massive changes. So make sure to bookmark the page because I will update it throughout the preseason up until the first regular season games.

Types of Backfields

We all know about 3-down backs. They seemed to be a dying breed, but it seems like there is more this year than any other season this decade.

Most 3-down backs have a handcuff or backup to pair. The handcuff is how you hedge your bet or ensure the draft capital it costs to select a 3-down running back. You want to reach a round or two on these guys so that you have them available should your workhorse running back get hurt, suspended or God knows what.

Then you have the running back platoons. I used the term in 2013 to qualify the Detroit Lions running back pairing of Reggie Bush and Joique Bell. Starting both of them together led my big-money league team to its first championship. It’s another way to hedge your bets and get the maximum running back production from a team’s backfield.

Lastly, there are the unknown situations. These backfields are filled with uncertainty as of yet. Many of them are headlined by a rookie running back or an older running back who can’t stay on the field or play for Bill Belichick.

2018 Running Backs Breakdown

All Average Draft Position data is from PPR ADP and is up to date as of August 13th.

3-Down Backs: The Workhorses

These are the backs that you start every week, no questions asked, and they will get you at least 20 touches a game.

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Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams (ADP: RB1, OVR1)

LeVeon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers (ADP: RB2, OVR2)

Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys (ADP: RB3, OVR3)

There’s really not much to be said about these three guys. They are the clear top tier to me. We know that they will handle almost the entire workload for their teams. If you get to draft one of them, take him and don’t look back.

David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals (ADP: RB4, OVR4)

DJ is a peculiar scenario for Fantasy Football. No consensus top-overall prospect in recent history has missed basically the whole season. The closest was Adrian Peterson in 2014 when there really wasn’t a consensus top pick. The next season, he was the top pick going into drafts and finished as RB2 overall.

So why has Johnson been dropped down a tier? He had a fluky wrist injury that should not affect him going forward. His offense is still completely revolved around him. His quarterback situation changed, but it was pretty much a lateral move. I have him right with the Top-3 and will gladly scoop him up at the fourth pick.

Saquon Barkley, New York Giants (ADP: RB6, OVR7)

Barkley is the toast of the Fantasy Football town. I’ve seen some analysts rank him higher than DJ or Zeke. I’ve got a little more of an R2-D2 restraining bolt on my enthusiasm for the rookie.

I do agree that he is arguably the best running back prospect since Adrian Peterson. He has every physical gift and statistical production/tape to back it up. I just do not want to hook up my Fantasy season to a running back with 37-year old Eli Manning as his quarterback.

So I’m guessing I will not own Barkley on many teams. However, I cannot doubt that he will be a 3-down workhorse.

Kareem Hunt, Kansas City Chiefs (ADP: RB7, OVR9)

Hunt burst on to the scene to lead the league in rushing as a rookie. After Spencer Ware went down in the pre-season, the Chiefs rode Hunt to 272 carries and 322 total touches. The second most carries a Chief running back had was 18.

Will that change this season? I would imagine Ware will get a little more work. But as of now, Hunt looks to get 300+ touches again.

Melvin Gordon, Los Angeles Chargers (ADP: RB8, OVR11)

Gordon is getting over-looked for sure this season. He has increased his carries, yards, targets, receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns each of his three years in the league. He had the seventh most targets of any back in the league last season, with only Gurley and Bell having more targets and carries.

In fact, he had the second most targets/catches on the Chargers last season. The fourth-most in those categories, Hunter Henry, is already out for the season. Yes, I could see Austin Ekeler getting a little more run. But Gordon is still a bigger lock for 3-down work than the three backs immediately above him in ADP. I would say he is the third safest running back this year. He is the equivalent of going for Australia or South America in RISK: it seems like a small payoff in comparison, but it is usually the start to world domination.

Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars (ADP: RB9, OVR12)

Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings (ADP: RB10, OVR14)

These two sophomore backs are in a similar tier to me. Both players dealt with injuries last year, obviously, Cook’s was a little more serious. (Side note: which would you rather have: a guy that might have a serious injury, knocking him out for the season or a guy that gets minor injuries and is a game-time decision every week?) More importantly, both teams are in a different mindset this season.

These guys play with the two best defenses in the league. Both organizations are Super Bowl contenders after losing in their respective conference championship games last season. I think both teams will dial back the touches on their star runners.

Having Cook and Fournette being healthy in the playoffs is much more important than getting them 300 touches. Both guys will still be 3-down backs, just not to the extent of the top tier.


3-Down Backs: The Possibles

These guys have the early look of being in the group above, but each has a major question mark that might hold them back.

Jerick McKinnon, San Francisco 49ers (ADP: RB13, OVR23)

By all accounts, McKinnon will be a 3-down, workhorse back (San Francisco let Carlos Hyde go) in a potent offense run by a great offensive mind (Kyle Shanahan) with one of the most promising young quarterbacks in the league (Jimmy Garopollo). So what’s the knock?

McKinnon’s career high in carries is 159. He’s never had more than 202 touches in a season. Can his small frame (5’9’’, 205 pounds) hold up with a full workload? Will Shanahan know this would be a long-shot and give him more breaks?

He will still be good. He will catch a ton of passes (94 catches the past two seasons as a backup mostly). I just do not see him getting close to 300 touches.

LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bills (ADP: RB16, OVER27)

I mean, who knows where this is heading? If Zeke got six games for an accusation with no proof that was dismissed completely in court, what will Dictator Goodell give McCoy? Should nothing happen, he’s in the top group. If he is implicated, then scratch him off of your draft board completely, both for Fantasy and moral purposes.

Lamar Miller, Houston Texans (ADP: RB24, OVR55)

Of all of the likely 3-down backs, Miller’s ADP is more than twice as high as any of them. He has officially become under-valued because of never living up to pre-season hype. Hell since I started writing this article, he has dropped FOUR spots in Running Back ADP.

I get it though, there are red flags. He had 25 fewer touches and 30 less carries in his second season in Houston than his first, even though he played in two more games. 2017 was his lowest total yards season in his last four years. I just feel like he will do much better with Deshaun Watson behind center. I mean, he was the RB9 when Watson started and finished the game.


Handcuffs: The Must-Pairs

Not every 3-down back has a handcuff, but every handcuff is behind a 3-down back.

Jonathan Stewart, New York Giants (ADP: RB70, OVR240)

This has less to do with Stewart’s talent, and more to do with the Giants putting all of their chips in a rookie running back’s basket. Should anything happen to Barkley, Stewart will fall into a 20-touch a game role.

Spencer Ware, Kansas City Chiefs (ADP: RB65, OVR218)

Before injuring his leg in the pre-season, Ware was seen as the breakout de jour last season. Personally, I am concerned about Hunt’s overall ceiling of production because Ware is so talented. Either way, If Hunt goes down then Ware would be the hottest waiver wire pickup of the season. I would say he has the most talent of any handcuff.

Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers (ADP: RB60, OVR194)

T.J. Yeldon, Jacksonville Jaguars (ADP: RB61, OVR208)

Both of these pass-catching backs are currently relegated to occasional receiving, third-down roles. Both have the explosion and shiftiness to take over for their respective starters should they be called upon. Yeldon is much more likely to be Fantasy relevant this season, as Fournette will probably miss a few games.

Chris Ivory, Buffalo Bills (ADP: RB62, OVR213)

Ivory is easily the most interesting of all the handcuff options. His ADP is probably going to be the highest as there is still a cloud of uncertainty hanging over the LeSean McCoy situation. I would argue that Ivory is easily the biggest must-own handcuff if you have the starter.

D’Onta Foreman, Houston Texans (ADP: RB45, OVR138)

Foreman has been dealing with injuries, but every single report out of Houston is that it is not a matter of “if” but “when” he will take over for Lamar Miller. However, you must draft him over proven guys like Gio Bernard, Theo Riddick and James White who will have roles no matter what happens to their respective starting backs.

Matt Breida, San Francisco 49ers (ADP: RB54, OVR162)

I think Breida will have the most production of all of the possible handcuff options without being called in as the handcuff. As mentioned, McKinnon has never handled a full workload and has a diminutive frame. I could see the backfield being much closer to a platoon instead of an uneven split.

Latavius Murray, Minnesota Vikings (ADP: RB52, OVR156)

Murray has almost 2,000 total yards and 20 touchdowns over the last two seasons. He is behind a second-year player coming off of an ACL injury. He plays on a team that has the best odds in the conference to make the Super Bowl, so they should be ahead in most games. I will promise you that Murray will have a stud Sunday or two, and should Cook not remain healthy, he will be a weekly must-start.

Handcuffs: The Uncertainties

These guys are behind 3-down backs but it’s no certainty that they would take over the role.
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Malcolm Brown, Los Angeles Rams (ADP: RB102, OVR403)

James Connor, Pittsburgh Steelers (ADP: RB68, OVR255)

Rod Smith, Dallas Cowboys (ADP: RB82, OVR308)

All three of these guys have shown flashes, but all three of these guys could have their spots taken by even younger backs (especially Jaylen Samuels in Pittsburgh and Bo Scarbrough in Dallas). I also think that if someone happened to one of the three best backs overall, then the corresponding team would pick up one of the veterans still available (Adrian Peterson, Alfred Morris, etc.).


Running Back Platoons: Pairing Fantasy Starters

These guys can both be started on your roster from the same backfield.

Alvin Kamara (ADP: RB5, OVR6) and Mark Ingram (ADP: RB23, OVR54), New Orleans Saints

When I first started the Running Back Platoons breakdown, I made a rule that they had to both be easily attainable. What I mean is that they are more of mid-round picks.

Now that the platoon of having two Fantasy-worthy starters has gone as mainstream as craft beer, there’s no way around it. Kamara will be drafted in Round 1 in basically any exercise with at least 10 teams. Mark Ingram would be just after him if he didn’t have a four-game suspension. These two broke new ground last season, both finishing in the Top 6 at the position.

Will they be able to do that again? Absolutely not, even without the suspension. I do think that both will be RB1’s by points per game. I also think Kamara can continue his Pokemon evolution into a Gyarados or something.

Devonta Freeman (ADP: RB12, OVR20) and Tevin Coleman (ADP: RB28, OVR70), Atlanta Falcons

The champs have been dethroned. These two had been the new cream of the running back platoon crop after both finishing in the Top 17 at the position in 2016. It’s not like 2017 was bad for them either, as they both were RB2’s even with some injuries. As far as value goes, they might be the top platoon option. Freeman has slipped to the end of the second, beginning of the third round. Coleman can be had in Round 7.

Jordan Howard (ADP: RB15, OVR25) and Tarik Cohen (ADP: RB29, OVR76), Chicago Bears

Howard was seen as a 3-down guy going into last season, but Cohen burst out in the first month of the year. Howard had a higher usage rate, but less production. Cohen put up a robust 1.02 Fantasy Points per touch while Howard had just 0.67 points per touch. I could see their usage getting closer to a 60/40 rather than the 70/30 of last season. New head coach Matt Nagy knows how to use super-fast, small, scat-back type players (see Hill, Tyreek from last season).

Christian McCaffrey (ADP: RB11, OVR17) and C.J. Anderson  (ADP: RB40, OVR109), Carolina Panthers

All indications are that the Panthers want McCaffrey to be a 3-down, 350-touch type of running back. I just do not see how he will hold up with that high of a workload. I don’t believe that they think that either, otherwise they would not have signed Anderson.

The thing is, McCaffrey does not need that heavy of a workload to be a factor or a Fantasy Stud. He was RB10 last year on less than 200 touches. Only McCaffrey and Duke Johnson were able to be Top-22 backs with less than 200 touches. So ignore the noise, and if you take CMC, take Anderson a round earlier than he is normally going. I would be willing to bet Anderson out-performs his ADP exponentially more than McCaffrey.

Derrick Henry (ADP: RB18, OVR38) and Dion Lewis (ADP: RB26, OVR60), Tennessee Titans

Pictures really can be worth 1,000 words. I don’t know if there have ever been two backs sharing a backfield that are as different as Lewis and Henry. Shockingly, Lewis is the one that outscored Henry 203 to 135 last season. Although Lewis actually out-rushed Henry last season, I think we know the roles these two will play.

Lewis will not have the same type of gaps that Tom Brady afforded him in New England by spreading the field. The Titans are quite a bit more smash-mouth, so Henry will take the lead rushing role early. Lewis and his absolutely obscene 92.3% catch rate from last season will be the scat back and line up in the slot. I could see the diminutive Lewis catching 80 balls this season, while Henry rushes for 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Joe Mixon (ADP: RB14, OVR24) and Giovani Bernard (ADP: RB47, OVR136), Cincinnati Bengals

Many of my fellow analysts and so-called experts believe that Mixon is closer to a 3-down back. I mean his ADP alone would have you believe that you are getting one of such prized commodity. I am not a believer though, and it is twofold.

First, I do not think Mixon can handle a full load. He never once had a backfield to himself in college as he was surrounded by top-notch NFL talent. When he did get the chance last year, it was nothing special. He averaged just 3.5 yards per carry. I mean he had more than 200 touches, more than fellow rookie Christian McCaffrey, but was vastly out-scored. The difference is Mixon averaged just 4.4 yards per touch and .66 Fantasy Points per touch.

The other reason is Giovani Bernard, who once again is being under-rated. Did you know that over his five-year career now, he averages 12.25 PPR points per game? His finishes at the position starting with last year going backward: RB27, RB40 (missed six games), RB16, RB17, and RB13. That is why this is truly a platoon. He has played the third-down role his entire career. This is a platoon I will not own though because I’m not paying the high price on Mixon. However, I will own Bernard quite a bit.

Jamaal Williams (ADP: RB38, OVR96)/Aaron Jones (ADP: RB41, OVR111) and Ty Montgomery (RB42, OVR114), Green Bay Packers

Carlos Hyde (ADP: RB36, OVR91)/Nick Chubb (ADP: RB39, OVR101) and Duke Johnson (ADP: RB34, OVR86), Cleveland Browns

These two platoons are in very similar situations. Montgomery and Johnson look to have their roles safe. I mean Johnson was RB11 in some scoring formats last season. The questionable areas are who to pair with the pass-catching back.

In Green Bay, we should get an idea after the first couple of weeks when Aaron Jones is suspended and Jamaal Williams carries the load. However, we do not get to draft after the first few games. While their ADP is all depressed it would be possible for a zero-RB strategy to target all three guys. It is almost amazing how close their ADP’s are huddled together.

In Cleveland, I think we will have an idea of who will get the early-down work before the last pre-season game. With the extra insight from Hard Knocks, we will be able to see if Nick Chubb can burst out of the gate or if Carlos Hyde can build on his career year last season. Either way, as in their cross-state division rival, give me Duke as a stand-alone.

Isaiah Crowell (ADP: RB35, OVR87) and Bilal Powell (ADP: RB55, OVR171), New York Jets

Marshawn Lynch (ADP: RB31, OVR77) and Doug Martin (ADP: RB53, OVR149), Oakland Raiders

I also grouped these two platoons together as they are filled with older, more veteran and boring Fantasy options. Crowell is surprisingly coming off of back-to-back seasons with more than 1,000 scrimmage yards. Powell would have the same streak if not for missing a game last season. Both of these guys are the type that every one of us has picked up off the waiver wire for a few games, but never truly broke out. In New York this season, with whoever starts at quarterback, there will be plenty of carries and short passes for the pair.

Beast Mode is now a 32-year old starting running back. As scary as that is, I think the year off a couple of seasons ago and the reduced workload (227 touches in 2017) are keeping him going. The Muscle Hamster is surprisingly just three years his junior, but with less than half of the career carries. Martin has always had trouble staying on the field. I think the platoon role is perfect for him, as he has averaged 19 touches per game over his entire career. This role will let him ball out on his 10-12 touches a game rather than worry about energy conservation or injury.

Both of these platoons are desirable because of their cost. They also have younger guys chomping at the bit though (Elijah McGuire in New York, Deandre Washington and Jalen Richard in Oakland). Personally, I would rather have the Raiders’ platoon. Only once in Jon Gruden’s coaching career did he give more than 242 carries to one back, so he knows how to split the platoon evenly.


Crowded Backfields

These backfields are uncertain, as of now.

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Eagles: Jay Ajayi (ADP: RB20, OVR47), Corey Clement (ADP: RB48, OVR135) and Darren Sproles (ADP: RB74, OVR260)

Ask three analysts and you will probably give three different answers on who they want in the Eagles’ backfield. Ajayi did come on later in the season and playoffs as their go-to, but with Sproles back I think Ajayi has a limited ceiling in the passing game.

Lions: Ameer Abdullah (ADP: RB75, OVR260), Kerryon Johnson (ADP: RB32, OVR80), Theo Riddick (ADP: RB50, OVR148) and LeGarrette Blount (ADP: RB49 OVR155)

I would guess that one of the elder statesmen in this backfield gets cut or traded before the last week of camp. As of now, Johnson is the hot name to take. I still worry that Riddick will take too much third-down work and Blount will steal too many touchdowns. Give me Riddick as a late-round, PPR pick.

Buccaneers: Ronald Jones II (ADP: RB22, OVR51), Peyton Barber (ADP: RB59, OVR188), Charles Sims (ADP: RB93, OVR356), and Jacquizz Rodgers (ADP: RB98, OVR345)

Seahawks: Rashad Penny (ADP: RB21, OVR49), Chris Carson (ADP: RB43, OVR123), Mike Davis, C.J. Prosise (ADP: RB79, OVR277) and J.D. McKissic (ADP: RB106, OVR389)

Broncos: Royce Freeman (ADP: RB25, OVR56), Devontae Booker (ADP: RB44, OVR131) and D’Angelo Henderson (ADP: RB88, OVR346)

All three of these backfields will most likely be the new rookie’s to run with. As of this writing, before the first full weekend of pre-season games, none have completely broken out. Some are struggling with pass protection, some are behind on the depth chart, and some are getting out-raved by other players. All three rookies could be every-down, must-start Fantasy options by season’s end. I could also see Barber, Carson, and Booker being the hottest names on the waiver wire by October.

The problem is the cost. I have had a mock draft where I was able to draft all three Seattle guys. In an experts’ mock draft last week I saw them go in consecutive picks. Everyone wants to be the first to be right on these rookies, so their costs have been inflated. I will take the secondary guys at their deflated ADP over the high risk and high cost.

Patriots: Sony Michel (ADP: RB27, OVR63), James White (ADP: RB51, OVR145), Rex Burkhead (ADP: RB30, OVR78), Jeremy Hill (ADP: RB72, OVR257) and Mike Gillislee (ADP: RB95, OVR362)

With Michel missing extensive time now, this backfield is even more muddied but somewhat clearer? Yeah, I know, that does not make sense, but when has Bill Belichick ever made sense with his backfield?

As of now, I think James White is the best value at his ADP. He has the best rapport with Brady and would have been the Super Bowl MVP a couple of years ago if his quarterback’s name was anything else. Burkhead is intriguing, but I can promise that his ADP will skyrocket to where he will not be a solid value by draft day (moved up 6 RB spots since I began writing this).

Ravens: Alex Collins (ADP: RB19, OVR44), Javorious Allen (ADP: RB58, OVR222) and Kenneth Dixon (ADP: RB63, OVR224)

Colts: Marlon Mack (ADP: RB33, OVR83), Nyheim Hines (ADP: RB46, OVR137) and Jordan Wilkins (ADP: RB56, OVR177)

I do not want anything to do with these two backfields. Only once has Andrew Luck led an offense with a running back having more than 820 yards rushing or 960 yards total. That was Frank Gore, who I trust exponentially more than these three guys. Alex Collins pulled off a decent year last season, but now all three of the Ravens’ backs are healthy again. I think both backfields are RBBC’s with no clear breakdown, just whoever has the “hot hand” all season. I’ll be staying away like they are the Upside Down in Stranger Things.

Dolphins: Kenyan Drake (ADP: RB17, OVR37), Frank Gore (ADP: RB64, OVR201), and Kallen Balledge (ADP: RB57, OVR190)

The Dolphins’ backfield is, without a doubt, the toughest to place. I could see Drake fitting into that second tier of 3-down backs after he was RB6 from Weeks 9-16 last season. However, I could also see an even split between Drake and Gore in which they would be one of the best running back platoons in the league. I could see Balledge taking over for both of the previous two guys and becoming the best rookie not named Saquon Barkley.

I really just do not know yet. Personally, I’m thinking (and my Scott Fish Bowl team is hoping) that Drake takes the lead role. I would guess it’s still only a 66% split, with Gore taking the rest to start and Balledge eventually finding a role. But as I said, nothing is clear as of now and you will need to just keep an eye on this backfield field all pre-season.

Redskins: Chris Thompson (ADP: RB37, OVR116), Samaje Perine (ADP: RB66, OVR221), Rob Kelley (ADP: RB92, OVR352), Kapri Bibbs (ADP: RB67, OVR245), Byron Marshall (ADP: UNDRAFTED)

****8/20 UPDATE: With the signing of Adrian Peterson to this group, it is a complete “stay-away” for me now. Thompson is still banged up and not even Jay Gruden knows how the split will shake out.

Finally, we get to the Redskins. I originally had them as a platoon between Derrius Guice and Chris Thompson. Then Guice went and tore his ACL in the first pre-season game.

Thompson is coming back from an injury himself, and he is not a 15+ carry type of guy. Fat Rob Kelley had almost 800 yards and 7 touchdowns in 2016 in some starting duty, so he seems the likely starter for now. I could see Perine, the all-time NCAA single-game rushing leader, working his way into the mix as well.

Hopefully, you are not drafting for a couple more weeks and can watch this situation unfold. Former Redskin Alfred Morris is still available and looked better in his back-up role in Dallas last year than any one of these guys.

Now that you have your running back strategy set up, be sure to check out my Wide Receiver Sleepers, Busts and Breakouts as well as my Top 10 Draft Mistakes to Avoid.

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