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Doug Orth | Archive | Email |
Staff Writer

Running Back Road Map
All Out Blitz: Volume 141

What is a featured back? In my mind, it's a player who can play on every down and remain on the field in virtually every situation. He's a workhorse if the play-caller allows him to assume at least 60 percent of the backfield's touches and handles roughly 18 touches per week (288 for the season). There are obviously cases every year where featured backs are outperformed by situational and/or change-of-pace backs, but opportunity and volume are typically the hallmarks of the top fantasy backs in the league from season to season.

This week, I want to take the opportunity to help owners understand exactly what they are dealing with at the running back position and why there is so little upside available to most owners. Perhaps it's an exercise most readers don't need, but one other reason I wanted to do it was to obviously help everyone make better lineup decisions.

Below I have constructed a couple tables that lays out each team's backfield, using either my own film study or statistical analysis to determine what running back is the most likely to play in what situation. It is not foolproof by any stretch the imagination and highly subject to change, perhaps as soon as this weekend. There are probably even a handful of teams in which the identity of the true backup could be debated. Regardless, as readers continue through the rest of this piece, I will try to differentiate between the real game and the fantasy game as often as possible. Some player's roles below are educated guesses for reasons that should be pretty clear if readers take a second to think about them. (Le'Veon Bell is an obvious example.)


Blue shade - Starter holds the specific role
Yellow shade - Handcuff/committee partner holds the specific role
White shade - Specific role appears to be shared equally among both backs
Orange shade - A third player holds the specific role

 RB Roles
Tm Starter Handcuff/Backup Early Down Passing Down Two-Minute Goal line Hurry Up
ARI David Johnson Chase Edmonds Johnson Johnson Johnson Johnson Johnson
ATL Tevin Coleman Ito Smith Coleman/Smith Coleman/Smith Coleman/Smith Coleman/Smith Coleman/Smith
BAL Alex Collins Javorius Allen Collins Allen Allen Allen Allen
BUF LeSean McCoy Chris Ivory McCoy McCoy McCoy Ivory McCoy
CAR Christian McCaffrey C.J. Anderson McCaffrey McCaffrey McCaffrey Cam Newton McCaffrey
CHI Jordan Howard Tarik Cohen Howard Cohen Cohen Howard Cohen
CIN Joe Mixon Giovani Bernard Mixon Mixon Mixon Mixon Mixon
CLE Carlos Hyde Nick Chubb Hyde Duke Johnson Johnson Hyde Johnson
DAL Ezekiel Elliott Rod Smith Elliott Elliott Elliott Elliott Elliott
DEN Royce Freeman Phillip Lindsay Lindsay Devontae Booker Booker Lindsay Booker
DET Kerryon Johnson LeGarrette Blount Johnson Theo Riddick Riddick Blount Riddick
GB Jamaal Williams Aaron Jones Williams/Jones Montgomery Montgomery Williams/Jones Montgomery
HOU Lamar Miller Alfred Blue Miller Miller Miller Miller Miller
IND Marlon Mack Robert Turbin Mack Nyheim Hines Hines Mack Hines
JAC Leonard Fournette T.J. Yeldon Fournette Fournette Fournette Fournette Fournette
KC Kareem Hunt Spencer Ware Hunt Ware Ware Hunt Ware
LAC Melvin Gordon Austin Ekeler Gordon Gordon Gordon Gordon Gordon
LAR Todd Gurley Malcolm Brown Gurley Gurley Gurley Gurley Gurley
MIA Frank Gore Kenyan Drake Gore Drake Drake Gore Drake
MIN Dalvin Cook Latavius Murray Cook Cook Cook Murray Cook
NE Sony Michel James White Michel White White Michel White
NO Alvin Kamara Mark Ingram Kamara Kamara Kamara Ingram Kamara
NYG Saquon Barkley Wayne Gallman Barkley Barkley Barkley Barkley Barkley
NYJ Isaiah Crowell Bilal Powell Crowell Powell Powell Crowell Powell
OAK Marshawn Lynch Doug Martin Lynch Jalen Richard Richard Lynch Richard
PHI Corey Clement Wendell Smallwood CC/WS CC/WS CC/WS CC/WS CC/WS
PIT Le'Veon Bell James Conner Bell Bell Bell Bell Bell
SF Matt Breida Alfred Morris Breida Kyle Juszczyk Juszczyk Morris Breida
SEA Chris Carson Mike Davis Carson/Davis Davis Davis Carson/Davis Davis
TB Peyton Barber Ronald Jones Barber Barber Barber Barber Barber
TEN Derrick Henry Dion Lewis Henry Lewis Lewis Henry Lewis
WAS Adrian Peterson Chris Thompson Peterson Thompson Thompson Peterson Thompson

 RBs: Game Script Scenarios
Tm Positive Script Neutral Script Negative Script
ARI Johnson Johnson Johnson
ATL Coleman/Smith Coleman/Smith Coleman/Smith
BAL Collins Collins Allen
BUF McCoy McCoy McCoy
CAR McCaffrey McCaffrey McCaffrey
CHI Howard Cohen Cohen
CIN Mixon Mixon Mixon
CLE Hyde Hyde Johnson
DAL Elliott Elliott Elliott
DEN Lindsay Lindsay Booker
DET Johnson Johnson Riddick
GB Williams Williams/Jones Montgomery
HOU Miller Miller Miller
IND Mack Mack Hines
JAC Fournette Fournette Fournette
KC Hunt Hunt Ware
LAC Gordon Gordon Gordon
LAR Gurley Gurley Gurley
MIA Gore Drake Drake
MIN Cook Cook Cook
NE Michel Michel White
NO Ingram Kamara Kamara
NYG Barkley Barkley Barkley
NYJ Crowell Powell Powell
OAK Lynch Lynch Richard
PHI Clement/Smallwood Clement/Smallwood Clement/Smallwood
PIT Bell Bell Bell
SF Breida Breida Breida
SEA Chris Carson Chris Carson Davis
TB Barber Barber Barber
TEN Henry Lewis Lewis
WAS Peterson Peterson Thompson

I think the usefulness of these tables are obvious, but I will justify it anyway. For reasons we'll get into a bit later, trying to play the right running backs each week is getting harder and harder to do. If we take a minute or two to consider what role each back plays and the likely situation his team will face in a given game (i.e. playing from ahead or behind), it becomes much easier to pinpoint which one could see the most work. It's far from a perfect science since upsets occur pretty much every week, so that great game script that was supposed to benefit Royce Freeman or Phillip Lindsay ends up becoming a negative game script that works in the favor of Devontae Booker. Nevertheless, the process is sound and one that will work more often than not.


Featured backs in the real game

Based on how much of their team's backfield workload they assume and the situations in which they play, I have identified 13 featured backs:

David Johnson, LeSean McCoy, Christian McCaffrey, Joe Mixon, Ezekiel Elliott, Lamar Miller, Leonard Fournette, Melvin Gordon, Todd Gurley, Dalvin Cook, Saquon Barkley, Le'Veon Bell and Peyton Barber.

At first glance, things don't look so bad for fantasy purposes, as every owner in a 12-team league should theoretically be able to land at least one. But as owners of half the aforementioned backs already know, we don't really have 13 from which to choose. Bell has stayed at home preserving his body all season long, while Fournette and Cook have struggled to make it through a full game. McCoy is bogged down by an offense that has little hope of scoring more than one touchdown per game and Barber was usable for the first time in Week 6 largely because of his matchup. Miller runs behind an offensive line that cannot seem to open holes and is already losing work again to Alfred Blue; he could easily be sharing carries with D'Onta Foreman by November if the latter is able to find similar form to what he had prior to last season's Achilles' injury. Very quickly, we have eliminated 46.2 percent of the field.

Johnson has kept his value afloat by scoring touchdowns and is shockingly the overall RB11, but he's averaging 3.2 yards per carry and 15.3 rushing attempts (to go along with 2.8 catches) - well below the workload and efficiency expectations owners had for him entering the season. Mixon missed two games with a knee injury, and one has to wonder if Cincinnati will have second thoughts about slightly lightening his load since he is 0-for-2 in terms of staying healthy for a significant amount of time as the featured back. McCaffrey has the requisite workload, but he continues to get vultured near the goal line by his quarterback.

The true fantasy workhorses (and those who aspire to become one)

Elliott, Gordon, Gurley and Barkley

Will any others join them soon? Let's take a look:

Johnson's schedule lightens up over the second half of the season, but the lack of creativity OC Mike McCoy is showing with his offense probably isn't changing. Many expect Bell to assume the same role he enjoyed in 2017. I don't, and here's why: 1) Bell has stayed away from the team this long to avoid "overuse," so it's clear he's not seeking 25 touches per game; 2) Bell hasn't played football in roughly 10 months. He didn't perform well right away after his long layoff last year and this year's sabbatical has lasted even longer; 3) James Conner has played too well to be eliminated from the game plan completely. These are among the reasons why I would encourage owners to sell Bell the minute he reports because I don't think his stock is going to get much higher if/when owners see him get off to a slow start. It's also why I would encourage owners to buy low on Conner at the same time. Where his current owners may believe Conner will no longer be relevant, I see the best handcuff in fantasy football who might be a serviceable flex and is one (likely) injury away from recapturing RB1 status.

One reason I have encouraged readers to buy Fournette is that he is primed to go back to a full-time role as soon as he is cleared (although it wouldn't be terribly shocking if T.J. Yeldon gets more change-of-pace work than initially expected). The same goes for Cook, who may lose some goal-line work to Latavius Murray but should otherwise amass 60 percent of backfield touches. But let's not kid ourselves about Cook: he might return to a heavy workload sometime in November. In his 1 1/2 years as a pro, he's never played and finished four games in a row.

On the subject of Fournette and Cook, I hear and read the same labels everyone else does. I don't usually buy into a player being "injury-prone" like most people do, as if it is some kind of condition or illness he is predisposed to and can't change. I buy into the notion players can often overcompensate and have that lead to another injury (slightly altering their running style to make running on a surgically repaired knee more comfortable and injuring a hamstring, for example). I definitely buy into and stay away from players who I believe are dealing with chronic injuries, thus I suppose I am willing to give such players multiple chances to prove me wrong in that regard. Either way, I acknowledge my stance on Fournette and Cook makes me a risk-taking owner, but I think it is more about being realistic about the current running back landscape.

I identified the four clear "workhorses" already. I suppose a strong case can be made for Mixon to be the fifth, but we need to see him stay healthy for more than a month at a time while carrying a heavy workload. (Let's also not forget Giovani Bernard performed in a Mixon-like manner when he was out.) The same could be said about Fournette and Cook, but they appear to be the only other candidates capable of being true three-down backs this season with the volume we want for fantasy purposes. So, depending on where owners stand on Bell and Mixon, there is the potential for maybe four more backs who can join our "Big Four."

It probably goes without saying, but I will anyway: if an owner in a 12-team league either has or can acquire two of these eight players - even with the obvious risk some carry - then it behooves them to do so. If one owner has two of them, it likely means at least five of the other 11 do not. While multiple RB1s on fantasy teams do not guarantee championships, they can certainly cover up for a number of other weaknesses on a fantasy roster. Last week, I was able to acquire Fournette and Quincy Enunwa in exchange for Royce Freeman and Corey Davis in one of my high-stakes leagues. Fournette may not be my meal ticket to a title run, but I like my odds with him a lot more than I did with Freeman and the way he is being used at the moment. I made this trade shortly after it was reported that Fournette could sit out until after Jacksonville's Week 9 bye.

If nothing else I have said to this point has driven the point home yet, perhaps this trade will. I was willing to trade my RB2 and WR2 and wait up to four weeks to get a potential RB1 like Fournette. Why? Because I knew to hope for an RB2 on the wrong side of a committee backfield in Denver - whether it makes sense to me or not - was not a good formula for success the rest of the way. Like it or not, this is where the market is at the moment.

Kareem Hunt

"Flawed" fantasy RB1s

Johnson (play-calling), McCaffrey (goal line), Fournette (injury), Cook (injury), Kareem Hunt (passing game usage), Alvin Kamara (reduced workload following Mark Ingram's return), Bell (time away from the game, a potential committee with James Conner)

We've already discussed Johnson. If I thought there was a legitimate chance the Panthers split goal-line work between Cam Newton and McCaffrey, I would include him in the top group, but I don't see that happening anytime soon. Fournette and Cook were also covered earlier, which brings us to Hunt. HC Andy Reid never fails to amaze owners with his ability to forget he typically has a featured back. While Hunt's workloads have been perfectly fine through six weeks, 40 percent of his targets and 50 percent of his catches for the season came in Week 6. In case anyone remembers, one of Reid's main goals this offseason was to use Hunt more in the passing game. He currently has two more catches than his backup, Spencer Ware.

Obviously, if we go by the first month of the season, Kamara belongs in the top group. It's entirely possible he still belongs up there, but projected volume is why I'm keeping him out. What's important to remember, however, is that only Gurley had more touches than he did prior to Ingram's return in Week 5. The presence of Ingram will probably bring his touches down to about 15 per game, and I think Ingram will remain the preferred choice in goal-line situations. If such work becomes a 50-50 proposition, then Kamara belongs in the top group. I just have a hard time calling a back who will probably see about 15 touches per game a "true workhorse."

Assuming my readers are in agreement with me up to this point, we have four clear RB1s and seven others who can make strong cases. Again, that doesn't sound too bad until we consider the playing time of virtually every other running back is either somewhat or heavily affected by circumstance. In most of my leagues, owners will keep at least six running backs on their roster at all times. This means 61 of the 72 backs (84.7 percent) can be considered at least somewhat volatile.

Backs with consistently positive game script

Alex Collins, Sony Michel, Mark Ingram

Short of landing at least two of the aforementioned RB1s, the best most owners can hope for are those backs who are on the better end of a committee and/or consistently play in positive game script. Collins, Michel and Ingram are among the players in this group.

In terms of PPR fantasy points scored by a team's backfield, Baltimore is ranked ninth. Whether anyone wants to acknowledge it or not, the "Charm City" is home to a potential fantasy goldmine. As owners have already discovered, HC John Harbaugh and OC Marty Mornhinweg don't care about fantasy owners and they must not care much about backfield efficiency, given their usage of Javorius Allen to this point. However, Allen logged season lows in snaps (28) and touches (four) in Week 6 in what could be described as easily the best game script the Ravens have played with this season. Did the brain trust finally come to its senses? While Collins didn't exactly tear it up against the Titans, it is reasonable to believe the Harbaugh & Co. can't continue to tell their fans or the team that more Allen is a good thing for the offense. I still think this is Collins' backfield before long - at least until Kenneth Dixon returns and can prove he can stay healthy - but that is merely an educated guess at this point.

The early-down back in New England has run in positive game script so often over the years that casual observers can be tricked into believing he is a workhorse. Michel has the potential to do to be a true workhorse (he is a capable receiver), but Tom Brady is seemingly smitten with James White. Fortunately, there are enough fantasy points coming out of the Patriots' backfield every year to give owners two backs worthy of starting every week. Ingram was treated like a lead back in Week 5, but logic suggests he will be more of a poor man's Michel moving forward. For those that may not remember what I said in the preseason, my opinion hasn't changed on Ingram's outlook. Assuming his current owners held onto him through his suspension and didn't recently acquire him via trade, they have received one solid performance from him through six weeks. The Saints' next two opponents are Baltimore and Minnesota, which rank first and fourth, respectively, in terms of giving up the fewest fantasy points to running backs. Assuming those opponents enjoy similar success holding Ingram in check, most owners will have spent a fourth- or fifth-round pick for a player who delivered one solid fantasy effort through the first half of the season. Making matters worse, owners should assume Ingrams will see the 10 or 12 touches he received during the playoffs last season and not the 18 touches he got in Week 5.

The Exceptions

The sad thing is just about every other player in the table above can be considered a "volatile" back. Of course, there are backs like Carlos Hyde who are averaging 20 touches per game who probably deserve to be included in one of the top three. However, how close is he really to sharing carries? There are plenty of backs with RB1 ability being held back for reasons we may never understand. And there are backs like James White, Austin Ekeler and Tarik Cohen who are simply maximizing their limited opportunities. The last two are classic examples of backs who defy the notion volume is the end-all and be-all of fantasy production. I don't think anyone will make the mistake of calling any of those players an RB1, yet White is the overall RB7 in PPR leagues, while Ekeler is RB17 despite a single-digit performance in Week 6 and Cohen is RB19 despite seeing limited usage in his first three games.


I suppose if there is any good news regarding fantasy running backs and owners desperately seeking to land one off waivers, history suggests at least one will emerge over the next few weeks. I don't think Ito Smith (following the news Devonta Freeman is headed to IR) is going to be that player, although he should be a good pickup for any owner wanting to add a trade chip or some depth at the position. If I had to venture a guess who the next rags-to-riches running back will be, I would first point owners to a group of players from the NFC East. Rod Smith is set up for a massive workload should anything happen to the Ezekiel Elliott, Wayne Gallman proved last year he could produce when given the opportunity and Kapri Bibbs only needs Adrian Peterson and/or Chris Thompson to miss multiple weeks - both are already playing through injuries - to have significant value. Chase Edmonds and Malcolm Brown are also good stashes in deeper leagues.

My best guess, however, is Mike Davis. And if both Chris Carson and Davis fall victim to injury like they did last season, then perhaps Rashaad Penny could go from projected stud this summer to waiver wire in late September to potential stud again around fantasy playoff time. Despite what the box score said last week, a simple look at the play-by-play for the game reveals Penny only had two touches before the final drive. The rookie only played 13 total snaps, meaning he was on the sideline for most of the first three quarters. In other words, Davis didn't get passed on the depth chart and only played four fewer snaps than Carson (27-23). Of course, nothing is forever in Seattle. With that said, Davis looks quick and explosive and plays for a team that wants to run the ball as much as possible. Given Carson's injury history and take-no-prisoners running style, he isn't a great bet to last the season. I've already seen Davis dropped in multiple leagues following last week's disappointing effort. Assuming bye weeks allow owners to stash a player with some big upside, he remains one of my favorites.

Doug Orth has written for FF Today since 2006 and been featured in USA Today’s Fantasy Football Preview magazine since 2010. He hosted USA Today’s hour-long, pre-kickoff fantasy football internet chat every Sunday in 2012-13 and appears as a guest analyst on a number of national sports radio shows, including Sirius XM’s “Fantasy Drive”. Doug is also a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.