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2020's Best Running Backs in New Offenses

The phrase “possible league winner” gets used frequently leading up to fantasy drafts. Most sleeper lists will mention that a player has “league winning upside” if things go a certain way. Last year I started testing a new theory I had about finding running backs with that type of potential.


It began with reviewing the list from ESPN that showed the most common players on their championship teams (data is pulled from 10 team standard leagues). In reviewing the 2017 and 2018 lists, sitting at or near the top were two familiar names: Todd Gurley (2017) and Christian McCaffrey (2018). Of course, two of the top scoring RBs would lead most of their teams to championships. But I found the similarities in their preseason outlooks interesting.

Heading into their respective seasons, Gurley and McCaffrey shared the following:

• Young with high draft capital (former first rounders still on their original contract)

• New offenses (either due to a head coach or OC change). In Gurley’s case it was getting Sean McVay as head coach and for McCaffrey it was Norv Turner as OC.

• Coming off underwhelming seasons (Gurley due to injury and a Jeff Fischer offense and McCaffrey due to mostly being a pass catching back)

• ADPs in the late 2nd round range (Gurley 19.9, McCaffrey 17.8). This means that they were either drafted as an RB2 or to go along with a WR1 (most likely Antonio Brown).

So, when I started planning for 2019, while there weren’t any RBs who were a perfect match, there were seven that shared most of these qualities. (Preseason ADP and rankings are from Fantasy Football Calculator.)

Dalvin Cook (preseason ADP: 14.6, RB9; Final 2019 ranking based on PPR pts/game: RB2)

Joe Mixon (preseason ADP: 18.4, RB11; Final 2019 ranking based on PPR pts/game: RB19)

Derrick Henry (preseason ADP: 43.8, RB23; Final 2019 ranking based on PPR pts/game: RB4)

Leonard Fournette (preseason ADP: 23.2, RB12; Final 2019 ranking based on PPR pts/game: RB9)

Aaron Jones (preseason ADP 29.2, RB16, Final 2019 ranking based on PPR pts/game: RB3)

Kerryon Johnson (preseason ADP 28.5, RB15, Final 2019 ranking based on PPR pts/game: RB32)

Kenyan Drake (preseason ADP 82.9, RB34, Final 2019 ranking based on PPR pts/game: RB13) – I know it seems like a stretch that I would’ve included Drake but at one point in the summer he had an ADP around 50 before suffering a preseason knee injury. He served as my cutoff point (and yes, I know the only thing that saved his season was a midseason trade.)

Summary: So, I think 2019 was a success for this theory. Three of the top four RBs in PPG are included, one other was top 10 RB, and two caught fire at the end of the season (Mixon, Drake). The only complete dud was Johnson and ironically, he was one of the biggest ADP risers when I was originally putting together my list of targets.

Disclaimer: Doesn't this look like a classic correlation vs causation trap that’s also hindered by an extremely small sample size?

So now that we’ve agreed on that, let’s look ahead to this year.

2020 Candidates

Here’s a quick recap of what we’re looking for:

• Players on their rookie contract with their original team (higher draft capital is preferred).

• New offenses (either due to a head coach or OC change)

• ADPs in the 2nd round or later. We’re basically avoiding the elite RBs and looking for players we can use as an RB2 or paired with a WR1.

• It’s a bonus if they’re a post-hype sleeper that had a down year in 2019 due to injury or performance.

The pool of players looks smaller this year, but they have some potential. Here are the five that I’m seeing (with some brief notes on each):

Nick Chubb (current ADP: 12.2, RB10)

• 2nd round pick, entering his 3rd year

• Finished 2019 as the 11th scoring RB in PPG in PPR leagues (8th in standard).

• New head coach is Kevin Stefanski (from Minnesota) and new OC is Alex Van Pelt (former QB coach in Cincinnati).

• The ADP isn’t quite in the Gurley-McCaffrey range of late second round but it’s still at the point where you can pair him with another RB1(Jacobs, Mixon) or WR1 (Thomas, Hill, or Adams) from the first round.

Summary: There are quite a few variables already in Chubb’s favor without even mentioning any benefit from a coaching change. These include an improved OL (which PFF wrote could be the most improved unit in the league), a revamped defense (at least three projected new starters, a new DC in Joe Woods from SF, and the return of Myles Garrett), the league’s 3rd easiest projected schedule, and almost guaranteed positive TD regression (15 rushes inside the five-yard line, 2 TDs). The argument against Chubb is summed up in two words: Kareem Hunt. I believe in the positives and think he’s in line for a Derrick Henry 2019-type of season.

Miles Sanders (current ADP: 14.2, RB11)

• 2nd round pick, entering his 2nd year

• Finished 2019 as the 21st scoring RB in PPG in PPR leagues (20th in standard).

• So, this might be stretching the criteria here. Philadelphia doesn’t technically have a new OC this year (in fact, they’re the only team in the league that doesn’t have that title). But they have a bunch of new faces. Rich Scangarello is the former OC in Denver and will have the title of Senior Offensive Assistant, which seems to be the closest thing to an OC that the Eagles will have. One report was that it was Scangarello’s close ties with Kyle Shanahan that intrigued the Eagles the most.

• Similar ADP to Chubb above.

Summary: While some fantasy analysts are convinced that the Eagles will forever be a RBBC under Pederson (and view Boston Scott as a legitimate threat to his workload), most Philadelphia beat writers are convinced that Sanders will be the main guy and have a heavy workload. https://www.phillyvoice.com/eagles-2020-training-camp-preview-running-back-miles-sanders-boston-scott/ Sanders is a young, three-down back with great athletic measurables in a good offense. It’s hard to go wrong chasing those types of players.

Leonard Fournette (current ADP: 27.0, RB16)

• The only repeat name from last year’s list. Welcome back Leonard!

• 1st round pick, entering his 4th year

• Finished 2019 as the 9th scoring RB in PPG in PPR leagues (13th in standard).

• New OC is Jay Gruden.

• Somehow his ADP is lower this year despite coming off a much better season than he had in 2018. He’s in a great spot to be an RB2 to pair with an elite RB from round 1 or even an RB3 if you go RB-heavy in the first three rounds.

Summary: The understandable fear is that his passing work will see a significant decline with Gruden as the OC. But those should be offset by the fact that he’s still the clear workhorse back in what could be a very improved offense. Like Chubb, he’s an almost guaranteed lock for positive TD regression after only scoring three last year.

David Montgomery (current ADP: 42.5, RB24)

• 3rd round pick, entering his 2nd year

• Finished 2019 as the 31st scoring RB in PPG in PPR leagues.

• New OC is Bill Lazor, who formerly was the Bengals OC in 2017 and 2018. He’s also been an OC for the Dolphins and QB coach for the Eagles and Seahawks.

• The best thing you can say about his ADP is that at least you’ll have your first three picks locked up. He should be a serviceable RB2 if you want to go WR-heavy or take Kelce, Kittle or Jackson in the first three rounds.

Summary: Just because he qualifies under the criteria doesn’t mean that I must love him. It’s hard to find too much to get excited about with Montgomery. Unfortunately, the first-year production matched the athletic measurables. Betting on him is really betting on the workload and the hope of a second-year improvement. Maybe Nick Foles can raise the entire offense with some competent QB play but that’s not the type of thing I’d want to depend on.

Derrius Guice (current ADP: 71.2, RB31)

• 2nd round pick, entering his 3rd year

• Finished 2019 as the 27th scoring RB in PPG in PPR leagues.

• New OC is Scott Turner, who formerly was the Panthers QB coach (and briefly interim OC).

• With an ADP around the 6/7 turn, Guice is looking like a nice upside pick as an RB3. The problem is that if you go RB-heavy to start the draft, the 6th and 7th rounds can be a prime spot to load up on the quality WR depth.

Summary: Craig Schmucker has already done a great job making the case for Guice (https://www.3brossports.com/post/fantasy-football-for-schmucks-thoughts-on-derrius-guice ). The pro and con arguments are very simple. Fans of Guice will say that when he’s on the field, he’s looked great. Detractors will say that he’s just not on the field enough due to injuries. I think Guice is one of the players that you need to plan to get. Once you get your core players locked up in the first four rounds, he’s the type of high-upside guy to target. You can get him as an RB4 and not have to worry about RBs for the rest of the draft.

Here are the other new OCs and the players that didn’t make the cut due to matching only a few criteria:

Denver – New OC. Melvin Gordon (no longer on rookie contract). I would’ve included Philip Lindsay if Gordon hadn’t signed.

Houston – New OC. David Johnson and Duke Johnson aren’t on rookie contracts.

Chargers – New OC. Ekeler no longer on rookie contract.

Rams – New OC. Akers is a rookie and presumed starter. I would’ve included Henderson if not for selecting Akers in the draft.

Miami – New OC. Jordan Howard and Matt Breida both came from other teams.

Dallas, NY Giants, Minnesota, and Carolina all have new head coaches or OCs but the RBs are projected first round picks.

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