- Getting a bellcow Running Back Early
- Why handcuffing is a myth
- What to do with Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon?
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As we discussed in the opening of this series, the feature fantasy RB1 provides the biggest weekly and seasonal edge in terms of individual player impact. There’s a reason you’ll only have 1-2 chances in your draft to take a back from Tiers 1-2. I’m also a subscriber in pursuing those backs early and often in drafts. In standard leagues, it’s a no brainer, but even in PPR formats for supply and demand purposes. The reason is that everyone has wide receiver points now in fantasy football with the way the landscape of the league has changed while those top running back points are still a commodity that evaporates quickly.
Outside of a few select formats where I believe “Zero RB” works the most effectively – Best Ball and PPR leagues in which you start three receivers to go along with multiple FLEX spots – I’m almost always taking at least one running back from Tiers 1-2 in the opening two rounds while often taking two if I can. In full PPR formats that start three wideouts, I also have no issues going bell-cow running back to open and then hammering pass-catchers until we clear Tier 6 in the RB ranks. I often refer to that as WR-heavy in writeups while you may see some in the industry refer to it as “modified Zero-RB”.
As mentioned in that early look at player ADP and bust rates, the back of Tier 4 to the front of Tier 6 is filled with highly-volatile options when you line the RB rankings with current ADP. If I’m selecting a back in that portion of the draft, I want to believe that back has a chance to be a true RB1. Otherwise, the wide receivers in that area of the draft are just a much stronger bet in terms of maintaining and outproducing their required draft capital. I’m willing to entertain someone such as Aaron Jones having true RB1 upside, but once we clear him, I’m more or less bypassing that bucket of running backs and looking to load up my depth at the position with RB3-plus types while hitting pass-catchers harder in rounds 4-7.
Of the RB3-plus options I’m looking to add the most to my bench, depth or throwing backs at the wall towards my RB2 spot when I go bell-cow RB1/WR heavy, the most popular guys I’ve been selecting have been Austin Ekeler, Darrell Henderson, Tevin Coleman, Miles Sanders, Latavius Murray, Rashaad Penny, Ronald Jones, Matt Breida, Carlos Hyde, Justice Hill, Jaylen Samuels, Devin Singletary, Dion Lewis, Alexander Mattison, Chase Edmonds, Tony Pollard, Darwin Thompson and Malcolm Brown. Obviously not all of those players at once, but you can spot the theme.
I’m more or less looking to fill my depth with players that can either usurp a fragile lead back who almost is always in that bucket of backs we’re inherently avoiding because of bust potential (Penny, Hill, Lewis), is part of a timeshare but still has standalone value in that timeshare with the increased upside if other members miss time (Sanders, Coleman, Murray, Breida, Singletary), or is a cheaper handcuff to a Tier 1-2 back (Mattison, Edmonds, Hyde, Pollard and Brown). Darrell Henderson and Jaylen Samuels may fill both of the second and third descriptions.
That brings us to handcuffing. While the practice, in general, seems logical – insurance on a high-equity back – you’re actually capping your team upside by limiting your roster. You don’t want to play for a single when you inherently need the early-round running back you selected to hit towards his ceiling. A handcuff is a handcuff for a reason. You’re restricting your roster. He’s not the starter on his team because he’s not as productive a football player as the starter. So you’re not getting a lateral return on your investment that you believe that you are protecting. Your team is still inherently getting weaker; you just hedged a little off the loss. Instead, focus on buying other owners’ handcuffs over your own, in the interest of elevating your entire roster.
What to Do With Todd Gurley?
The hottest topic of the offseason surrounding the running back position for fantasy has been where to accurately value Todd Gurley. It doesn’t help that the Rams ended last season by telling us he was fine, then going out and limiting his touches and playing time throughout the postseason by giving a running back they had rostered for just seven weeks more opportunities. They then double down by suggesting they needed to add a sidekick — not a backup — for Gurley and made it a point of emphasis to ensure the depth they valued this offseason by matching an offer sheet on Malcolm Brown and trading up to pick Darrell Henderson in the third round of this year’s draft.
It’s very clear the signal here is that they want to reduce Gurley’s touches. In 2017, Gurley ranked fourth among running backs in touches per game (22.9) and ranked second last year with 22.5 touches per game. There’s more than enough room for Gurley’s touches to be reduced while also giving him ample opportunity to have enough touches to produce usable fantasy lines. The risk here, however, comes from the distribution of those touches.
By now, you’ve likely seen the analysis along the lines of “70 percent of Gurley’s 2018 output would’ve still been the RB10” or something along those lines. The first issue with that line of reasoning is you can’t just lop off the production from a ceiling outcome and then draft him at that reduced ceiling outcome, while the main issue is that even if you could predict Gurley to have another over-the-top season in production that only loses out on a percentage of touches, what does that really mean for owners in season on a weekly level?
If we know Gurley is going to get 15-17 touches per game every week, then we’re in business still with him having weekly upside. Or at the minimum, a tangible floor per game.
But is this a situation where Gurley gets rested for complete games?
Does Gurley play with the Rams leading late? He was fourth in the NFL in fourth quarter carries last season.
Does Gurley share that elite red zone usage? C.J. Anderson totaled 15 red zone attempts to Gurley’s four during the postseason a year ago.
The when and where Gurley has his touches reduced are the unstable parts of the equation. If it’s sporadic and/or he’s still in danger of missing games outright due to rest, then we have a major issue still in the second round. And what’s worse in that regard is that we have no idea, nor will likely have a true idea of things entering the season, either, outside of hearsay as he didn’t take one single preseason snap a year ago while healthy. If you believe his touch ceiling per week is capped, then so his fantasy value, which makes him extremely tough to draft as the first running back on your roster. I’m willing to entertain Gurley as my RB2 or later, but injury optimism in these situations is a hill that many fantasy players have died on in the past. As someone who covets my early-round picks and wants to spend them on upside, I’m unlikely to use that capital on Gurley and will add Darrell Henderson and Malcolm Brown to more rosters.
What to do with Melvin Gordon?
Melvin Gordon’s holdout is expected to linger into the regular season. After last season when fantasy players were still selecting Le’Veon Bell and then were caught holding the bag when Bell decided to no-show for the entire 2018 season, there’s a lot more trepidation in selecting players in the midst of a holdout.
There a few different circumstances surrounding Gordon than there was with Bell, however. For one, Gordon is actually under contract with the Chargers already, where Bell wasn’t. To reach the end of his current contract in which the Chargers exercised his fifth-year option, Gordon has to play in 2019. The rub with that, however, is that Gordon does not need to accrue a full season under the NFL’s rules for players reaching unrestricted free agency because Gordon already has tallied four full NFL seasons. This is also why Ezekiel Elliott has no true leverage in his holdout. Under that fifth-year option, his contract would rollover should he sit out the entire season and then he’s back at square one here. Again, though, the rules here are completely ambiguous for when exactly Gordon would have to return, but he’s going to need to play at some point this season.
If Gordon and the Chargers don’t come to an agreement prior to the start of the season — and more importantly, your fantasy drafts — then there’s just no way you can select him with a high-equity pick because we have absolutely no clue when his holdout would end. It could two weeks, it could eight weeks. We don’t know. That’s enough for me to take him off my board unless we have new information.
In the event that Gordon is out, Austin Ekeler gets the biggest bump. Not only because he was given the lead back role when Gordon was out last year, but because he also has proven he has standalone value when Gordon plays. Ekeler becomes a full-upside play with insulation. Ekeler was a far cry from Gordon when on the field as the feature back, which is a problem when looking at efficiency stats for these satellite backs. Although a small sample, being exposed to a full workload significantly reduced Ekeler’s effectiveness per snap and touch, something the Chargers are very likely taking into consideration. This is what also gives Justin Jackson a pulse. With Gordon out, I consider Jackson as something like a poorer man’s Matt Breida to Tevin Coleman. Or maybe it’s vice-versa if the Chargers want to keep Ekeler in the role he’s shown the most effectiveness at. But you get the picture. Neither Jackson nor Ekeler project to be feature backs given their tweener size, so Jackson should be in for more work than what he had as a rookie and I don’t believe the split would be as dominated by Ekeler as it was during Jackson’s rookie season.
Auctions and Opportunity Cost
Both Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon are examples of players who are going to come with inherent downside at their draft capital. In snake drafts, you’re going to have to bypass surrounding players that have more stability to select either of them. I talked about this in the open with tight ends, but I use auctions as a way to get these types of players on my rosters because I’m inherently a more cautious drafter in the early rounds in serpentine drafts. I know I’m going to get a lot of binary player choices wrong in those leagues, so I want to spend my top dollars in the wisest fashion.
But in auctions, we’re removing that apples or oranges player selection process to a degree. I’m more apt to remove a large portion of rounds 5-8 from my auction process since many players later carry the same risk and bust rates while accruing as many players as I can from the opening 3-4 rounds. With that approach, I’m more comfortable taking on some of the players I view as having the larger risks not fully baked into the cost for their reward.
The two main early-round running backs I’m targeting more in auction formats over snake drafts are Damien Williams and Leonard Fournette. With Williams, the pro and con arguments are fairly easy. The pro is that he was an electric Alvin Kamara/Christian McCaffrey-type fantasy producer in terms of dual-role usage and limited touches while attached to the league’s best offense. Oh, and he’s in a system that has churned running back production for fantasy no matter where Andy Reid has gone or who he has had. On the other end, he’s a guy with marginal team investment who has never had more than 73 touches in any of his five seasons in the NFL. At his current cost in a snake league, you have to take him over surrounding players like George Kittle, Tyreek Hill, Keenan Allen, and T.Y. Hilton. We have a good grasp of where the floor lies with those options.
For Fournette, the argument is pretty cut and dry as well. Through two years in the league, his fantasy floor has been sensational… when on the field. Through two seasons, Fournette has ranked third and seventh in touches per game while he was the RB7 and RB12 in points per game. Including the postseason, he’s scored 20 career touchdowns in 24 games played and has been a fantasy RB3 or lower in just four of his 21 regular-season games played. Even last season when he returned to the lineup on a disaster of an offense, he reeled off three straight games of 20-plus fantasy points. The Jaguars also reinforced his situation by not adding a pass-catching back to take away snaps and throwing low equity into the players behind Fournette on the depth chart. As a player who averaged 2.8 receptions per game in each of his first two seasons, Fournette also carries 40-plus catch upside, especially now that Blake Bortles and his high scramble rate are gone. You already know the downside. Fournette is a big back with a plethora of lower-body ailments. He’s missed 11 games over two seasons with foot, ankle, and hamstring injuries while going back to his final season at LSU in 2016, when missed six games with an ankle injury. His floor has been being unavailable, which has been consistent over the past three seasons.