2020 Fantasy Football Running Back Landscaping: Is Joe Mixon ready to make the leap?

Scott Pianowski
·10-min read

Although the NFL season is still months away and is no sure thing to start on time, draft season is much wider in the current version of Fantasy Football. Best Ball drafts are the perfect driving range of sorts for a fantasy player, where you can get in reps and work on muscle memory. It’s never too early to start diving into the personality of every position pool.

I did one Best Ball draft prior to the NFL draft, as wonky as that can be, flying blind on so many player landing spots. But now that the NFL’s draft is done (and free agency is also in the books), I want to earnestly start my seasonal prep. With that in mind, I’ll be running a series of first-look positional previews, my opening thoughts at each spot. Consider these comments in pencil; we still have plenty of time to change course, consider new angles or information.

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My seasonal drafts will come later in the summer and will be the foundation of my fantasy year. But it’s a good time to get to work on the shape of each position. Today, we sketch out the running backs.

(Click here for the wide receivers and the quarterbacks)

I'll introduce the backs in current Yahoo Best Ball ADP order.

And away we go:

The clear elite options

I don’t think we need to say a lot about Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley, and Ezekiel Elliott, the Top 3 players off the board in any format. They play in all situations. They’re game-script independent. If you’re lucky enough to have an early pick, you pounce.

I lean Dalvin Cook (RB4) over Michael Thomas (WR1) because I don’t like to chase running back later. I am not mandating that you have to take a running back in the first round, but if you see a potential bell cow you like, I’ll certainly sign off. Many years ago I signed off on the idea of at least getting that one foundational back — Anchors Aweigh, I called it — and I stand behind it today. Life is so much easier when you have the RB1 solved.

Alvin Kamara (RB5) didn’t get a spike in touches after Mark Ingram left, and his touchdown dip was to be expected after 18 spikes in 2018. But Kamara still gave us 1,330 scrimmage yards in an off year, and he’s had 81 catches every season. Tied to Sean Payton and the Saints carnival, this is a very safe place to park your money.

Derrick Henry (RB6) has to earn his money with a two-down role, but the Titans offense should be a safe bet again. No matter if you believe in Ryan Tannehill or not, it’s encouraging to see a playoff team returning every key member of its offense, offensive coordinator included. We take a PPR hit with Henry, but as a volume and goal-line monster tied to a divisional favorite, I’m willing to take the plunge.

The Packers had a strange free agency and draft period, which puts Aaron Jones (RB7) into an odd bucket. Touchdown regression is a virtual lock, and the Pack probably envisions an immediate role for A.J. Dillon after taking him in the second round. This doesn’t mean you can’t bet on Jones to keep a healthy share of his breakout stats, especially if he can approach last year’s sneaky receiving work (49-474-3).

Good options outside the first round

Joe Mixon (RB8) is on the cusp of being a first-rounder, which might seem off given that the Bengals went 2-14 last year. But Cincinnati probably should have won four or five games given its point differential, and the pieces are in place for a competitive offense. Mixon doesn’t have anyone pushing him, and he’s missed just four games in three years. Cincinnati isn’t going to contend in 2020, but this doesn’t look like a punching bag. I’ll be open-minded with Mixon.

CINCINNATI, OH - DECEMBER 29: Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon (28) reacts after a touchdown during the game against the Cleveland Browns and the Cincinnati Bengals on December 29th 2019, at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati, OH. (Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Things are pointing up for Joe Mixon and the Bengals. (Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Nick Chubb (RB9) was rolling around merrily for a few months, even if the Browns couldn’t really solve the goal-line offense. But Kareem Hunt cut into Chubb’s workload (especially through the air), and Baker Mayfield’s true value remains an open question. When it comes to Chubb, I love the player, but I’m not so sure about the team. He’s more reactive than proactive selection for me, early in the second round.

At times Jon Gruden seems as modern as a rotary phone, but the Raiders bought into Josh Jacobs (RB10) at the start, and the offensive line was surprisingly decent. You like your early round backs to be tied to a better quarterback and a more-likely contender, but the sure-things run out quickly. I’d be more sold on this slot if Jacobs had a clearly defined role in the passing game (20-166-0).

Austin Ekeler (RB11) might look like a screaming value around overall ADP 18, but Tyrod Taylor’s playing style might cost Ekeler a fair amount of catches. Still, Melvin Gordon is gone, and the Chargers have the pieces of a plus offense. If this price sticks into the summer, I’ll have a moderate Ekeler stake. He’s still a cheat code in open space.

Kenyan Drake (RB12) finally had the Dolphins in his review mirror, not to mention his wonky experience with former Miami coach Adam Gase. We know the keys to success in life: Work ethic; attention to detail; and escaping Gase. Drake’s only been in Arizona a hot minute, but we saw the explosive upside late last year. Kyler Murray didn’t seem over his head as a rookie quarterback, and the spread concepts in this offense will present healthy running lanes. Drake’s track record will scare some off, but he’s one of my recommended picks.

Miles Sanders (RB13) constantly flashed as a rookie, and the Eagles depth chart is rather thin right now, though you wonder if they’ll kick the tires on a veteran free agent. If Philly doesn’t make a personnel move between now and August, Sanders could creep to the turn. I’m sold on the player and the talent, but I know this offense has often preferred to live the committee life.

Question marks abound

Todd Gurley (RB14) turns 26 in August, and he’s packed a full NFL life into his five seasons. A rotten Rams offensive line sunk him last year, and his receiving efficiency fell off sharply. Once a story starts to head in this direction for a running back — especially into Year 6 — I’m likely to be out, especially since Gurley’s overall ADP (30) is still expectant.

The Jaguars listened to Leonard Fournette (RB15) offers, but no one was pitching. So now it’s back to the drawing board; a lame-duck back who struggled to score touchdowns last year, and a pass-catching role that’s likely to decline. No one expects Jacksonville to push for the playoffs, either. Fournette still commands a slot around Pick 30; in that area, I prefer to land more of a sure thing, understanding it might tilt my offense towards the receivers.

[2020 Draft Rankings: Overall | QBs | RBs | WRs | TEs | DST | Kickers]

The Kansas City offense is the ultimate toy store, so any back in Andy Reid’s good graces immediately commands respect. But when the Chiefs snagged Clyde Edwards-Helaire (RB16) with the final pick of the first round, expectations immediately ran wild. Damien Williams is an effective player, but he might have a capped upside. And although you can often ignore the majority of coach-speak and organizational gushing over a new player, it was exciting when Reid said Edwards-Helaire could be “better than Brian.” CEH is going to be a Shiny New Toy pick, but that doesn’t mean it’s the wrong play.

Devin Singletary (RB17) is an arrow-upward player, into his sophomore year and with Frank Gore departed. But the Bills selected Zack Moss with a third-round pick, and quarterback Josh Allen might remain Buffalo’s de-facto goal-line back. I’m still open-minded to Singletary at his current ticket, though he might not have the sturdiness for a true bell-cow role. He also had a nasty fumbling problem creep up last year.

Chris Carson (RB18) has turned into a boring value pick, which is so often my jam. Rashaad Penny is coming off a blown ACL, and I never take Marshawn Lynch comeback stories seriously. Carson has his own hip injury to return from, but time is on his side. No one seems to like OC Brian Schottenheimer, but this far down the board, you have to take on some risk. I’ll make a few picks here.

Le’Veon Bell (RB19) was all volume in his comeback season — he managed a paltry 3.2 YPC and saw a dip in his receiving effectiveness. Pick your scapegoat — head coach Adam Gase, the Sam Darnold mono season, or Bell himself. The Jets have a roster that could sneak into playoff contention, but there’s a cloud around Bell that makes me nervous.

Melvin Gordon (RB20), like Bell, went through that holdout life and realized he might have misjudged the new backfield paradigm. Now he’s settled onto a Broncos offense that has a lot of things going for it, if we can trust inexperienced QB Drew Lock. Gordon’s high floor for touchdowns makes him likely to meet his ADP, at minimum. Sometimes it’s fine to make a par.

More Backs in the 20s: Mark Ingram (RB21) is never going to match last year’s dream season, and J.K. Dobbins is probably too good to ignore in 2020. I could live with Ingram as a RB2 if I loved my first option, and he’s reasonable as a RB3, but check the odometer and be reasonable with expectations . . . Jonathan Taylor (RB22) shifts from the Wisconsin line to the Indy beef, a charmed life. I also like to bet where Frank Reich is betting. Marlon Mack is too good to disappear, but Taylor has a shot to be the primary option . . . Everything went wrong in Pittsburgh last year, so give James Conner (RB23) a mulligan. Most importantly, the Steelers did little to upgrade the position. They need Conner . . .

David Montgomery (RB24) was a disappointment in his rookie year, but not a washout. The quarterback play can’t be any worse, right? There’s an angle for profit . . . David Johnson (RB25) has a safe floor for touches, not that it’s fun to ride with Bill O’Brien . . . Raheem Mostert (RB28) has practically seen 50 states in his NFL journey before finally getting a shot in San Francisco. He’s more fun in Best Ball, where you don’t have to call your shot ahead of time. Kyle Shanahan will always find a way to use a backfield platoon . . . D’Andre Swift (RB28) steps into a franchise that’s had little go right with running backs, though Kerryon Johnson put some good runs on the tape the last two years. Johnson also had trouble staying on the field, and although both of these backs excelled in the SEC, Swift was more productive and carries a higher upside. He’ll get every chance to win the job.

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