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Which RBs will Fall from the Fantasy Top Ten in 2020?

By Joseph Hutchins | 7/30/20

There will be nothing normal about the 2020 NFL season, obviously. There will be no preseason, no fans in some stadiums, no guarantee we’ll even make it through a full campaign before losing tons of players to this insidious pandemic. About the only thing we can reasonably count on is that last year’s Top 10 performers, should they successfully evade the virus and a sudden league quarantine, won’t look anything like this year’s Top 10 performers. We know this because I’ve been providing data for nine consecutive years to support that belief. Welcome to Year 10 of the Top 10 Dropouts series, folks, a deeper dive into which stars disappointed last year and which of them might be primed to do so this coming season.

Note: All rankings are based on FFToday’s Non-PPR league scoring.

  Top 10 Running Backs - 2018
Rank Player
1 Todd Gurley
2 Saquon Barkley
3 Christian McCaffrey
4 Alvin Kamara
5 Ezekiel Elliott
6 James Conner
7 Melvin Gordon
8 Kareem Hunt
9 Joe Mixon
10 David Johnson
  Top 10 Running Backs - 2019
Rank Player
1 Christian McCaffrey
2 Derrick Henry
3 Aaron Jones
4 Ezekiel Elliott
5 Dalvin Cook
6 Nick Chubb
7 Austin Ekeler
8 Mark Ingram
9 Chris Carson
10 Saquon Barkley

Who Missed the Cut in 2019 (7/10): T. Gurley, A. Kamara, J. Conner, M. Gordon, K. Hunt, J. Mixon, & D. Johnson

More like who DIDN’T miss the cut in 2019: Saquon, CMC, and Zeke. That’s the list. The rest of last year’s reigning Top 10 backs were doomed by a lethal mixture of injuries, holdouts, suspensions, more injuries, misuse/disuse, and just flat-out crummy teammates or crummy production. After two consecutive years as football’s RB1, Todd Gurley’s decline was mostly predictable, the Rams suggesting early on he’d be more judiciously utilized. He was (about six touches per game off his 2017 pace), but Gurley didn’t help himself by averaging a full yard less per rush. Alvin Kamara’s usage was also down a bit in 2019, though he remained remarkably consistent as a receiver (82, 81, and 81 receptions through three NFL seasons). He’ll probably need something closer to 200 carries to get back into the Top 10.

James Conner carried the ball almost exactly 100 times fewer than he had in 2018, the result of several nagging injuries (knee, shoulder, thigh). We’re projecting him to notch about 150 points this year, which wouldn’t even guarantee him a Top 20 finish, let alone Top 10. Melvin Gordon and Kareem Hunt, conversely, have only themselves to blame for a steep production decline in 2019 (RB24 and RB53, respectively). The former held out the season’s first month and essentially got Wally Pipp’d by Austin Ekeler. The latter missed a full half of the season due to a league-imposed suspension and only garnered 43 total carries (about 5 per game) backing up Nick Chubb.

Cincy’s Joe Mixon carried the ball a whopping 278 times (T-5th overall), but still dropped from RB9 to RB12, a slide I’d blame mostly on crummy QB play. That excuse won’t work for our final RB dropout of 2019, David Johnson. The former Cardinal turned in his worst career FPts/G performance playing next to rising star, Kyler Murray, which includes the partial game production of an exceedingly brief 2017 season. Of the two, only Mixon looks like a good bet to regain Top 10 status.

Most Likely Candidates to Fall from the Top 10 This Year:

Aaron Jones

Aaron Jones, GB: It took regime change in Titletown for Jones to get the workload he richly deserved and the unsung fifth-rounder from UTEP did not disappoint, parlaying a career-high 285 touches into career-high numbers across the board (rushing yards, rushing TDs, receiving yards, receiving TDs, and fantasy points). So why on Earth would one of his most vocal proponents, a deeply devout Packer Backer, no less, suggest he’s ripe for a pullback in 2020?

For starters, Jones’ 19 total touchdowns seems highly unsustainable moving forward. He tied for the league lead with Christian McCaffrey, despite the fact McCaffrey out-touched the Green Bay stud 403 to 285. That’s a difference of nearly 120 touches, or about 7+ per contest, and begs the question: Was McCaffrey’s touchdown rate (4.7%) disappointing or was Jones’ (6.7%) just an extreme outlier? I’m going with the second, more plausible scenario, that Jones scored TDs at an unusually high clip. If you’re needing more historical evidence, Emmitt Smith, who scored more career touchdowns than ANY NFL back, only scored 19 or more in a season three times. Barry Sanders, arguably the most talented NFL back of all time, never did it.

That’s not to say Jones can’t net somewhere between 12-15 six-pointers in 2020, though he’ll have considerably more competition for red-zone touches than he had last season. After the Pack drafted Aaron Rodgers’ understudy, Jordan Love, with the 26th pick of the first round, they nabbed AJ Dillon, a 6’0”, 247-pound brute who will almost certainly be utilized near the goal line. Heck, there’s even an outside chance Dillon, who’s every bit as quick as Jones, could end up being RB1 in GB sooner rather than later. Teams don’t typically waste first AND second-round picks on backups, I wouldn’t think. Be very wary.

Dalvin Cook, MIN: I’m not deliberately picking on NFC North running backs, I assure you, but if Jones and Cook do indeed take the predicted steps back this coming season, the division is unlikely to be represented at all in the RB Top 10 when we close the books on 2020. There’s simply nobody currently toiling for the Lions or Bears who looks capable of cracking that select group and, in fact, the Lions have been repped just a single time this CENTURY...and barely, at that (Reggie Bush, RB10 in 2013).

Cook’s fantasy production leaped by almost seven full points per game in 2019, a remarkable improvement after two, mostly injury-prone seasons. He was the clear centerpiece of a conservative Minnesota offense, racking up 300+ total touches and accumulating 1,654 yards from scrimmage, good for sixth overall at the position. Still, he wasn’t completely able to escape the injury bug last year, suffering a wounded clavicle in Week 15 against Seattle, which cost him the final two regular season games. Though he returned and performed well in the playoffs, Cook has now missed 19 regular season games in his three-year career. That’s about six per year and serious concern No.1.

Serious concern No.2 is the fact Cook wants more money and the Vikes, with all the leverage, have already positioned themselves to move on from him should the relationship really sour. Though Alexander Mattison was only a scroll-down producer in his first year out of Boise St., he was more efficient than his teammate, recording the league’s sixth-best Offensive Share Metric at the position, a Pro Football Network measure of “how much a player’s statistical production [he was] actually responsible for.” Aaron Jones and Cook, by comparison, ranked 22nd and 23rd. Make no mistake: Cook is eminently disposable.

Mark Ingram, BAL: My FFToday colleague, Doug Orth, published a great piece recently highlighting some running backs who were highly dependent on game script last season, either positive or negative (“Stick to the Script” - 21 July). Ingram was one of those backs who benefited greatly, and not surprisingly, from positive game script. As Doug points out, the Ravens possessed the football way more than any other team (average 38:54 per game) and trailed way less often, as well (about three and a half minutes, on average). Baltimore also carried the ball almost a HUNDRED times more than the next closest squad, San Francisco, meaning Ingram had the additional good fortune of playing for the league’s most rushing-dependent offense.

I suspect he will again in 2020, though it’s safe to question just how big his slice of that supersized rushing pie will actually be. The Ravens aren’t exactly stacked at the WR position, yet waited until the third round to draft help (Devin Duvernay) so they could spend their second-round pick on...another running back! J.K. Dobbins laid waste to my college fantasy FB league last year and seems like a good bet to demand touches in this offense (along with Gus Edwards and Justice Hill, who are still around).

Another reason to be leery of Ingram in 2020 is his unsustainable receiving touchdown rate. Though he was a very serviceable pass-grabber in his past life as a Saint, he was targeted only 29 times playing for the Ravens last season. Nevertheless, he caught almost all of those targets (26) and turned five, nearly 20%, into paydirt visits, a career high. By comparison, the aforementioned McCaffrey was targeted 142 times and only scored four receiving TDs. Regression to the mean is real and it’s typically quite ruthless.

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