2020 Fantasy Football Running Back Preview: Get at least one RB you truly love, then play the value game

Scott Pianowski
·10-min read

Let’s start with the obvious disclaimers. Every fantasy decision is contextual — you know your league better than we ever could — and any strategy can work if you pick the right players.

That said, we all need a few codes to live by, and here’s one of mine:

If you don’t get running back solved in fantasy football, you’re in big, big trouble.

This is the position that matters most in our fake game; ironic, as we observe the NFL starting to realize the fungible nature of running backs. It’s not easy for a running back to get a juicy second NFL contract, even on the heels of heavy production. We mention that not merely for the interesting dichotomy, but to also reflect that our expectations have changed at this fantasy spot. Bell cows are harder to find, usage/distribution trees continue to get wider, and we’re willing to expect less from the RB2 and flex backs we roster.

This new landscape might cause fantasy anxiety, but I say we should turn into the skid. You might ultimately get to a point of liberation; we need fewer points to compete and our depth searches can be wider and more creative. In recent years, I’ve come to accept this as a feature, not a bug.

But we still need at least one bell cow, and they’re not falling out of trees. So let’s take a good look around.

Big-Picture Strategy

In simple terms, there are probably three paths to early round running back strategy: Take them constantly, take them proactively along with other positions, and eschew them altogether. You might know these strategies better as Robust RB, Modified Zero RB (I like to call it Anchors Aweigh), and Zero RB.

Running back presents problems that other positions don’t. The quarterback pool is overflowing with solid options, and as fresh contributors appear on the wire, they won’t be contested by all managers. The team with Patrick Mahomes, say, probably isn’t concerned with a new, depth QB. Receiver is generally a universal need, but there are so many of them — especially in the widening usage-tree world — that some will fly under the radar. Tight end chasing is like quarterback chasing; there’s interesting depth at many tiers and we generally start one, therefore putting less pressure on the room.

Like starting pitchers in Fantasy Baseball, running back is a daily, never-ending quest for fantasy football managers. No matter how good you have it, you’re looking for depth and future upside. If anyone interesting pops on the wire, you need to consider a move. You probably should know the depth chart of every backfield in the league.

My preferred draft strategy is closest to Anchors Aweigh; I want at least one back who has a three-down role and a path to being a Top 5 RB by season’s end. After that, I’ll be agnostic, play the value game. If I love a tailback at his ADP (after the first round), I’ll consider him. But most of my drafts will start RB-several wideouts or WR-RB-more wideouts.

You can’t have everything in fantasy football, but usually, I start with four players I expect to be set-and-forget. They’re usually one back and three wideouts, occasionally two backs and two wideouts, and once in a while a back, a tight end, and two wideouts. I won’t be drafting a vanity quarterback early — the depth of that position discourages it.

What about non-starting backs with upside?

We also need a discussion about non-starting backs, the high-upside understudies that can be tantalizing in the middle rounds. Not long ago, the prevailing wisdom held that you’d want to insure your star running back by also rostering the presumed backup to that player. I think we’ve collectively gotten smarter about that over the years, and seen that the insurance-draft strategy isn’t +EV in the summer. It’s very difficult for two backs on the same team to have playable value at the same time (so the insurance pick could be a long-term waste of a spot), and often our view of the preseason depth chart is much different from what plays out in-season. Heck, often times a team won’t know its true contingency plan until an injury forces a decision to be made.

You never want to say never, but I will rarely “insure” one of my star backs in the summer — I’ll rarely take his presumed backup. There will be rare exceptions; if I view the running situation to be undeniably lucrative, and if I perceive one player to be the obvious back-in-waiting should the starter get hurt. If I had a Kenyan Drake share, I might take a proactive approach to Chase Edmonds. My Zeke Elliott teams will be curious about Tony Pollard. There are other, fairly obvious, examples.

Tony Pollard #20 of the Dallas Cowboys
Tony Pollard is undoubtedly one of the more popular backups in fantasy. (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

But my preferred strategy in this area is to grab the insurance or upside backs on teams where I don’t already have the primary back. The preseason insurance game is like bunting for baseball — angling for one run. In the summer, I want to play for a big inning. I want to give myself a chance to get as much high-upside good luck as possible.

I’m not dismissing backfield insurance out of hand. Sometime in mid-to-late October, maybe early November, I’ll sound the bell on Insurance Season. At that point, my team needs and winning paths are much more defined, and so are team depth charts. And I’ll be partially through the pesky bye weeks, too.

On the eve of the fantasy playoffs, the shape of your roster should be much different from what you rolled with in August and September. Appreciate and be mindful of this shift.

Fantasy Top-12

2020's Top-12 Running Backs
2020's Top-12 Running Backs

Running Backs to Target

Some managers will shy away from Derrick Henry because of his limited rushing ability. I’m proactive with Henry, noting that Tennessee has a plus line and is winning to run the ball in all game situations, even when it falls behind. Henry’s also the automatic guy at the goal line. I have no problem snapping him up in the middle of the first round.

There’s been ebb and flow to Kenyan Drake’s career, but he was RB4 in PPR scoring after arriving in Arizona last year — a two-month sample. The Cardinals run the Air Raid offense, but it’s also a cheat code for running the ball. Drake around the turn is a pick I can easily justify.

Everything went wrong for the Steelers last year, so throw the entire year out. Pittsburgh still has a plus OL on paper, and there isn’t much challenging James Conner otherwise. It’s not often I want to invest in a third-round RB when fleas start to become obvious and ominous, but he’s an exception.

The Buccaneers had a messy backfield a few months back, but Ronald Jones has done everything the team asked — to the point that he looks like the unquestioned featured back now. With an underrated defense on the other side and the absence of Jameis Winston, throwing Tampa Bay into poor game scripts, Jones has a good chance to beat his gradually ascending ADP.

Miami showed a lot of pluck in a 5-4 finish last year, but that doesn’t mean 2020 will be a contending season. The backfield could offer value, however, with Jordan Howard an established two-down grinder and Matt Breida a versatile support back. There’s almost nothing behind these two guys. The “running back by committee” term used to apply to two-man backfields; now, the two-man backfield is standard. The pejorative committee tag now best applies to backfields that use three or more players regularly. Perhaps Howard and Breida belong in the “boring value” section, but boring value is often my jam.

Non-starting backs I’m regularly targeting: J.K. Dobbins, Latavius Murray, Zack Moss, Boston Scott, Darrel Williams very late.

Pass-Catching backs who have some utility: Duke Johnson, James White, Scott, Nyheim Hines (if you believe Frank Reich; I do), Chris Thompson, DeAndre Washington.

Running Backs to Fade

(Again, I must note one obvious disclaimer. Almost any player becomes draftable if a crazy discount comes about. Stay flexible, maintain an open mind.)

I want to choose my words especially carefully with Clyde Edwards-Helaire, because I see all the fun stuff everyone else sees. Star QB, elite play caller, all those toys. But I never thought KC’s intention was to give CEH the keys to the offense right away, and the talent behind him on the depth chart is better than many realize. CEH can still be a fun fantasy pick in 2020, but I’m reluctant to go for him at current ADP (middle-first round), which is essentially the top of his range.

The downside case for Leonard Fournette is so obvious, it almost feels like piling on to list it out. But that’s the assignment, so get out the clipboard. The Jags had no interest in extending Fournette, and they tried to move him in the spring (no takers found). Last year’s reception count is unlikely to repeat, as new OC Jay Gruden likes spreading receptions around, and has one of his past favorites (Chris Thompson) also joining the club. Fournette’s touchdown luck might improve from last year, but keep in mind Jacksonville has the lowest win projection for 2020. Game flow will rarely be in his corner.

Todd Gurley enters his age-26 campaign, but his knees don’t match that odometer. His body has been through the wringer, his efficiency cratered last year, and the Falcons offensive line was a mess last year (despite pedigree to the moon). I see a Carnival in Atlanta and I want in, but that means I’m looking at Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley. If Gurley can’t keep most of last year’s touchdown deodorant, he’s going to be a heavy loss player in 2020.

Le’Veon Bell had a terrific off-season of conditioning, but he’s still coming back from a 3.2 YPC and it’s an Adam Gase offense. Maybe the Jets line will be significantly improved — it can’t be much worse — and the Jets don’t have major competition for Bell. But if New York is going to score the ball and compete, the passing game has to carry the load.

The Tampa Bay backfield has to be a zero-sum game on a cheat sheet; as I’ve bought into Jones, I’ve been forced to move KeShawn Vaughn lower and lower.

Sony Michel’s summer injury issues might save fantasy managers from themselves. Michel has no receiving skills to fall back on, and the New England backfield probably won’t see as many cushy game scripts as it has in recent years.

Gameplan in a Nutshell

Get at least one running back you love; after that, play the value game. Stockpile as many deeper RB picks among guys who have a simple but plausible path to upside. Try to be a week early on waivers; ask yourself what unrostered RB only needs a very basic break to push him into significant fantasy relevance.

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