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Running back is the most volatile fantasy position from year to year, as injuries and ineffectiveness can turn early-round picks into instant regrets while stars emerge from the deepest spots on the roster.
Let’s take a look at the rushers who are currently undervalued and will continue to be until public perception catches up to the reality of their situations.
Who will exceed expectations?
- Running Backs
Not many 32-year-old running backs would ever be considered candidates to exceed expectations, but there aren’t many running backs like Lynch. After taking a year off, Beast Mode returned to the NFL looking like he had never left, topping 1,000 combined yards and scoring seven times while averaging 4.3 yards per carry.
Lynch forced 50 missed tackles on 227 touches and graded out with the fourth-best elusive rating, according to Pro Football Focus. And he remained a load to take down in the open field, as 305-pound defensive tackle Jurrell Casey can attest after Lynchin Week 1. The only thing that held Lynch back was the Raiders’ coaching staff, who limited his touches in the first half of the season. Despite being eased into the mix in those first two months and missing two games on the year, Lynch still finished as the RB20 in fantasy. So why is he being drafted in the sixth round?
The Raiders’ offensive line didn’t play up to its elite status in 2017, but it was, especially in the run-blocking department. The selection of first-rounder Kolton Miller will either help upgrade right tackle or provide depth behind veteran Donald Penn on the left side. Jon Gruden has gone on record saying he wants to bring back a smash-mouth style of offensive football behind this line, and who better to help execute that approach than Lynch.
If fantasy owners are scared by reports that offseason addition Doug Martin could be a bigger factor in this backfield, recall that the Muscle Hampster has put up two good seasons since arriving in the league six years ago, and he’s averaged 2.9 yards per carry in each of the last two campaigns. Let’s see if Martin can make the team before we assign him a chunk of the touches. Lynch reportedly restructured his contract in March and is now guaranteed $4.5 million this season, a value commensurate to a starting role. He may not have many campaigns left in him, but Lynch has an excellent chance to return top-24 fantasy numbers, making his ADP a two-round discount.
The fact Detroit hasn’t had a 100-yard rusher since 2013 is something the new coaching staff clearly wanted to rectify immediately. Not only did the Lions trade up in the second round to select Johnson, they also brought in veteran bruiser LeGarrette Blount to add to a depth chart that includes pass-catching specialist Theo Riddick and borderline bust Ameer Abdullah. Out of that group, only Johnson projects as a three-down back.
Despite his all-round skill set, unless he blows away the competition in camp, Johnson will likely open the year as part of a committee with Blount and Riddick. The threat of an RBBC is lowering the rookie’s price tag, creating a value opportunity for owners who expect him to earn a larger share of the touches as the year goes on. The 20-year-old’s fresh legs and short-area burst will help him outproduce Blount over time, and his underrated ability as a receiver will loosen Riddick’s stranglehold on passing downs.
Working in Johnson’s favor is an offensive line that should be much improved after finishing 32nd in adjusted line yards in 2017, according to. The return of Taylor Decker and the arrival of first-rounder Frank Ragnow provide a huge boost on the left side, while T.J. Lang and Ricky Wagner will continue to lock down the right, giving Detroit a real chance to sustain its rushing attack.
Rookie runners have been all the rage in recent seasons, with players like Kareem Hunt and Alvin Kamara emerging as league-winning picks in the mid-to-late rounds of fantasy drafts. Johnson has received the least hype of the top running back prospects in this year’s class, but with a potential path to a starting job and an ADP in the eighth round, he could surprise those who doubt the fantasy upside of the Lions’ backfield.
Let’s get this out of the way now: Sony Michel is going to be great. This is not a case against his fantasy outlook, but rather a case for the potential of more than one Patriots back to be fantasy relevant on a weekly basis.
Dion Lewis received all the praise for finishing as the RB12 in 2017, but Burkhead quietly ended the year as the RB38, despite appearing in just 10 games. Assuming Michel steps into Lewis’ spot and breaks out as a rookie, there’s plenty of room for Burkhead to return value as a mid-round pick in one of the league’s best offenses.
Burkhead’s role in the passing game is underappreciated because of the belief that James White will monopolize those snaps. However, White became an afterthought following Burkhead’s return to the lineup, posting just 64 receiving yards to Burkhead’s 126 from Week 10 on. It’s also possible that Burkhead could be used as a versatile red-zone weapon after scoring eight times during his injury-shortened campaign.
In Burkhead, you get an RB3/Flex option capable of delivering RB2 production any given week, while also rostering one of the highest-upside backups available. He would instantly become a top-15 fantasy starter if Michel were sidelined. There aren’t many players in the seventh or eighth rounds who share Burkhead’s fantasy ceiling.
Matt Breida – This isn’t the first time we’ve mentioned Breida as an overlooked fantasy back, but we’ll keep screaming his praises from the rooftops until his ADP rises to an appropriate level. The 49ers are not going to ask Jerick McKinnon to handle 300 touches. Head coach Kyle Shanahan’s history in Atlanta suggests a Devonta Freeman-Tevin Coleman split could emerge, with Breida playing the part of Coleman. If that happens, he’ll be worth far more than a late-round pick in fantasy.
Peyton Barber – Ronald Jones II is the more enticing option in the Bucs’ backfield, but the team plans to deploy more of a committee approach to start the year. It’s a smart decision, since Jones doesn’t profile as a 20-touch back. Barber averaged 4.3 yards per carry over the final five games of 2017 and even flashed some pass-catching skills. If Jones stumbles, Barber could take on a heavier workload that might include goal-line duties.
John Kelly – One of my favorite running back prospects of 2018 ended up in one of the NFL’s top offenses. Unfortunately, the Rams already have a star back in Todd Gurley. Kelly has the tools to become a fantasy star if the opportunity arises, but that will only occur if Gurley gets injured. Whether it’s as a handcuff or a lottery ticket, Kelly offers a significant return for fantasy owners willing to stash him at the end of their bench.
Who will exceed expectations?
- Running Backs
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)
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