The Home of Fantasy Sports Analysis

Fantasy Football: Undervalued Running Backs

Running backs are the most volatile fantasy commodity there is. Consider that Todd Gurley, who was the No. 1 overall pick last season, finished 19th in total fantasy points among running backs. Despite his wildly disappointing season, Gurley actually finished ahead of three other running backs drafted in the top-eight in 2016. What made Gurley’s situation unique was he played in all 16 games in 2016, whereas the other three (Adrian Peterson, Eddie Lacy, and Jamaal Charles) combined for just 11. Therein lies the point. The fantasy running back landscape is chock full of minefields, both injury and otherwise. Because running backs are so vulnerable and production so fluid, the odds of a running back going from zero to hero (or vice versa) are much greater than at any other position.

In a standard Fantrax Classic Draft league with eight bench spots, many fantasy owners will try to draft at least one backup at every position. I do not subscribe to this strategy at all. I would much rather draft a surplus of running backs and wide receivers than take backups at less crucial positions. Of the top 12 running backs in total running back scoring in 2016, half were not even drafted among the top 20 running backs. Jordan Howard and Jay Ajayi were two late-round fliers who provided huge production for their owners, while overlooked veterans such as LeGarrette Blount and Frank Gore rewarded their owners as well.

From the Captain Obvious department, opportunity is the most direct route to fantasy success for running backs. There were only 24 running backs in the entire NFL who averaged at least 15 touches per game. Of those, only Rashad Jennings and C.J. Anderson did not finish among the top 24 in total fantasy points. Jennings and Gurley were the only two in the group who averaged fewer than 10 points per game. With so few bell cow running backs in today’s NFL, you want to take running backs who stand in line to get the most opportunities. I can’t pretend to predict which running backs will remain upright all season, but I can attempt to assess which are being drafted outside of where they should be. As is the case throughout this series, ADP information comes to us courtesy of

Mike Gillislee, New England Patriots – UNDERVALUED (23, 4.12)
Mike Gillislee heads to New England after an impressive showing as LeSean McCoy’s backup in Buffalo. In limited action, Gillislee averaged 5.7 yards per carry in each of the past two seasons. He now joins the Patriots as the favorite to replace LeGarrette Blount as the Patriots’ early-down workhouse. Blount parlayed that role into an overall RB7 finish last season, primarily due to his league-leading 18 touchdowns. While that number that seems highly unlikely for Gillislee, there’s still plenty of reason for optimism. Gillislee accumulated 440 rushing yards and six touchdowns over the second half of last season. If you were to simply extrapolate those numbers over a full year, Gillislee would likely finish as a mid- to high-end RB2 in fantasy. Furthermore, Gillislee should see a lot more than the 9.9 carries he had over those final eight games last season. During the last two seasons, Blount carried the ball at least 13 times in 23 of 28 games. If Gillislee proves himself worthy of a similar workload, he could vault himself into low RB1 territory. Though New England has a plethora of capable running backs and their game plans tend to be very specific based on their opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, Gillislee is in a prime position to emerge as New England’s most valuable fantasy running back in 2017.

Ameer Abdullah, Detroit Lions – UNDERVALUED (27, 5.10)
Ameer Abdullah came out of the gate hot in 2016, amassing 120 total yards and a touchdown in Week 1. Unfortunately, his season was cut short soon after, as he suffered a Lisfranc injury in Week 2 and did not see the field again. Abdullah heads into his third season as the favorite to lead the Lions in rushing as he did in 2015, but fantasy players seem hesitant to buy in. There are concerns about his ball security and the Lions do not have the strongest offensive line, but the talent is most certainly there. Abdullah is one of the most elusive backs in the league and is a threat to take it the distance each time he touches the ball. Furthermore, the Lions backfield isn’t exactly rife with stars. Theo Riddick is Detroit’s pass-catching specialist out of the backfield, but Abdullah should see the vast majority of carries. I don’t see Zach Zenner, Dwayne Washington, or Matt Asiata posing much of a threat to Abdullah’s early down work. Though Detroit tends to run the ball less than most NFL teams, Abdullah is still a starting running back in real life and fantasy who is being drafted as a Flex play. Even if given just 12-15 touches per game, Abdullah should reach value and become a mid-range RB2 in fantasy leagues in 2017.

Tevin Coleman, Atlanta Falcons – UNDERVALUED (30, 6.05)
Tevin Coleman finished eighteenth in total fantasy points among running backs in 2016, one spot above last year’s consensus No. 1 pick, Todd Gurley. He outscored Gurley despite totaling less than half (HALF!) of Gurley’s touches. Among top-50 scoring running backs last season, Coleman finished second in fantasy points per touch. Coleman saw his role in Atlanta’s high-powered offense grow in 2016 compared to 2015. Coleman’s touches per game increased from 7.4 to 11.5. This is important because Devonta Freeman, Atlanta’s 1A to Coleman’s 1B, played in all 16 games a season ago. This was not a Le’veon Bell/DeAngelo Williams situation, where one running back’s workload was directly tied to the availability of the other. Williams has averaged 14.24 touches over the last two seasons in Pittsburgh. However, that does not tell the whole story. In games where Le’veon Bell was unavailable, Williams averaged a whopping 22.93 touches. In the 11 games he played with Bell, Williams totaled just 35 touches. Coleman has a very secure role in Atlanta’s attack and makes for an excellent pick regardless of Freeman’s status. Coleman has consistent RB2/Flex value, scoring double digit fantasy points in eight of 13 games in 2016. And if Freeman were to miss time at some point in 2017, Coleman would see a huge uptick in opportunities and would be a weekly RB1.

Jonathan Stewart, Carolina Panthers – UNDERVALUED (40, 8.12)
What if I told you that there was a running back who finished last season in the top-22 in rushing attempts, rushing yards, total fantasy points among running backs, and fantasy points per game among running backs? What if I told you that he finished tied for fifth among all NFL running backs in goal-line carries and tied for fifth in goal-line touchdown percentage among all NFL running backs with at least five touchdowns? What if I told you his coaches have insisted his role will not change in 2017? Would you want this running back? Where would you be comfortable drafting him? Fourth round, maybe fifth? Is that something you might be interested in? Well, boy, have I got some good news for you…

As I mentioned, Jonathan Stewart’s role in Carolina’s offense is not expected to change despite the addition of Christian McCaffrey through the draft. Over the past two seasons, Jonathan Stewart has averaged 17.7 carries per game. All other Carolina running backs have averaged a mere 8.1 carries per game combined, and that number drops to 5.8 in games in which Stewart plays. Not only is Stewart in line for the majority of carries, but he could once again be in line for the bulk of goal-line carries. We’ve grown used to the notion that Cam Newton is essentially Carolina’s goal-line back, but that is simply no longer the case. Last season, Stewart scored nine touchdowns from inside the 5-yard line. Newton had only six carries from inside the five. The worm has turned. It’s the main reason I consider Newton overvalued in 2017, and it’s also why I consider Stewart undervalued. Even if Stewart’s production dips slightly from a season ago, he still provides starter value at a bench-filler price.

Robert Turbin, Indianapolis Colts – UNDERVALUED (67, 14.06)
Remember when I mentioned that Tevin Coleman was second among running backs in fantasy points per touch last season? Guess who was first? Check out the big brain on you! Now, that stat comes with the obvious caveat that Robert Turbin touched the ball a mere 73 times last season. It’s hard to glean much from such a small sample size. However, there are a couple of things to consider as they relate to Turbin. First is Colts’ offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski’s recent comments, where he stated that Turbin “had a hell of a spring.” This comes on the heels of Turbin’s impressive finish to the 2016 season where, even in a backup role, he tallied five touchdowns over the last five games. The other reason I like Turbin this season is Frank Gore. With all due respect to Gore, he is 34 years old. I don’t even know what that equates to in running back years. I do know this: the list of running backs who have produced 1,000-yard rushing seasons at 34 years of age or older has exactly one name on it (John Riggins). I also know that Gore is one of two players in NFL history (Emmitt Smith being the other) who have had at least four seasons in their thirties with at least 250 rushing attempts. In 2003, Smith’s fifth season in his thirties, he suffered an injury in Week 5 and missed nearly two months. Smith finished that season with 256 rushing yards. For his sake, I hope Gore remains healthy and productive throughout 2017. But history is not on his side. Also, it’s not as though Gore has set the world on fire recently anyway. He’s averaged less than 4.0 yards per carry in each of his two seasons in Indianapolis. I believe Turbin is in a prime position to be the featured back in the Colts’ high-powered offense at some point in 2017. Based on ADP, many fantasy owners are skeptical on Gore as well (33, 7.03) but have rookie Marlon Mack (50, 11.11) as the one who stands to benefit. I think Mack will show flashes in his rookie season, but I’d rather own Turbin.

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.