Fantasy Boom or Bust: Running Backs


Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Written by Jason Feiner


Fantasy football is a game of talent, strategy and a whole lot of luck. Throughout the offseason different players are hyped up with the potential for breakout seasons based on past performance, new coaches or new teams. These players have the chance to live up to this aforementioned hype, or fall off a cliff and make their owners avoid them for the rest of their fantasy and pro careers. It is always important to create a team with a reasonable floor and potential to breakout, but it is the athletes wandering the unknown that really gets the blood boiling and puts teams directly in title contention. This group of players, the “unknown,” possesses true boom or bust potential. This group features the 2017 fantasy MVP, Todd Gurley, a player who fell flat on his face in an abysmal sophomore campaign. In his midst are players like Isaiah Crowell, a player who fell off the fantasy radar by an astounding 40 points from 2016 to 2017, Mike Gillislee, who looked to be the New England back to capitalize on LaGarrette Blount’s 2016 workload of 18 rushing touchdowns, but was benched, failing to suit up for the team in 8 separate occasions. The boom or bust players on each roster will undoubtedly have a say in the final rankings and could possibly be the difference between a trophy or ugly punishment. Fantasy is a value-based entity. By reaching for a player with a low floor, the higher the chance for an early season exit but the greater potential for the team. Here are some of the biggest boom or bust candidates at the running back position.


Alex Collins – Baltimore Ravens

Boom:

A 2016 fifth round draft selection, Collins fell out of favor in Seattle and found a home in Baltimore. He was originally listed as the third running back on the depth chart, but with both Buck Allen and Kenneth Dixon lost for the season, Collins got his chance to roll. Receiving double digits touches weekly following the Ravens week five-matchup, Collin’s entered a solid groove breaking out in week 8 to the tune of 143 total yards out of the backfield. After the week 10 bye, he scored in four consecutive games with two coming in week 13 and finished the season with a strong 1,160 total yards yards and 6 touchdowns with a mere 21.9% of his total points coming in the first seven weeks of the season. That production in the second half of the season is the reason we are seeing Baltimore’s running back stock rise heading into the 2018 season. He is a talented player with the potential to be a game changer if given a chance from week 1. He could easily have 1,000 yards, 8 touchdowns and over 200 yards in the receiving game, but are we actually willing to bye Collins at his peak. The Ravens RB possesses an ADP valued at the second pick in the fourth round ahead of Mark Ingram, Jarvis Landry and Brandin Cooks all three were top 10 positional players in 2017. He has the potential for an eye-popping breakout season in 2018, but is he worth the risk?


Bust:

The Ravens isn’t one I’m currently gawking over. They hold question marks at the quarterback position, after drafting the potential Joe Flacco replacement in explosive but mechanically inept Lamar Jackson, and an offensive line ranking in the mid 20’s according to PFF’s 2018 projections, their talent is limited. Although the Ravens didn’t bring in anyone to compete at the RB position this offseason, the Ravens have two veteran runners competing for the spot while attempting to come back from injuries they suffered in 2017. Jim Harbaugh has made no commitment to Alex Collins, and to his dismay, has repeatedly given high praise to 2016 fourth round selection Kenneth Dixon. Slated to start in 2017, Dixon suffered a torn meniscus prior to the season and was lost for the year. It is his second injury at his peak. Dixon looks primed to steal carries and opportunities out of the backfield. It is widely expected Collins will get the first crack at the early down workhorse he will have Dixon and change of pace specialist, Javoris Allen, breathing down his neck. Collins value is overvalued and defined by a season in which he played well in six games throughout the year. I’d be cautious when drafting him to your roster, as it could bite you in the butt.


Kenyan Drake – Miami Dolphins

Boom:

Like Collins, Kenyan Drake finished the 2017 season in impressive fashion. Once Jay Ajayi packed ship and was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles, the Alabama Alum gained a larger role in Miami’s offense while splitting reps with Damien Williams. Once capturing the backfield to himself, he averaged 21.6 touches per game through the final five weeks of the season. After breaking out against the Denver Broncos for 141 total yards and a score in their week 13-matchup, he reached 193 total yards in the week 14 game versus New England. He displayed excellent elusiveness and versatility demonstrating the talent to be a three down back in this league, and now with an ADP in the third round of fantasy drafts, he looks primed to breakout with a full offseason of work in Adam Gase’s system. Right? Well, maybe… Although he has flashed the talent necessary to take the league by storm possessing the versatility and explosiveness to be a three down back, there are a few concerns with drafting Drake that high.


Bust:

I am a big fan of Kenyan Drake the player, however, it isn’t necessarily the player I worry about but the organization. Miami is a dumpster fire in absolute shambles. I don’t trust Gase, Ryan Tannehill is a paper Mache pot that seems to crumble when wet, often falling off and crumbling, and the depth at the running back position is daunting when looking at the new additions.


The first question is: can Drake handle that aforementioned 21.4 touches per game, having been a backup throughout his entire career going back to his Bama days backing up former Heisman winner, Derrick Henry. He has never been a featured back and was drafted to serve as a team’s third down or change of pace back. The next question is will he receive those 21.4 touches per game? Drake enters 2018 with future first ballot Hall of Fame running back, Frank Gore and fourth round runner, Kalen Ballage. Although everyone is quick to write off Gore, he has yet to finish with less than 961 yards and 4 total touchdowns since the 2010 season in which he played 11 games for the 49ers. He is certain to take reps away from Drake as his veteran presence, experience and talent are proven throughout his historic career. He will almost certainly steal a few goal-line carries from the 210-pound scat back lowering Drake’s floor even further. Kalen Ballage shouldn’t be left out of this conversation either. He is a talented runner with a nasty demeanor and a frame that consists of 238 pounds. In his junior season at Arizona State he racked up 14 rushing touchdowns, as he is a likely candidate to vulture touchdowns as well. Drake is a talented player, but his situation is underwhelming in its simplest form. Do not spend a premium pick on Miami’s presumptive starter.


Jordan Howard – Chicago Bears

Boom:

In many circles, Jordan Howard is getting slapped with the Boom or Bust label and this has to with a few different reasons. So let’s get to the bottom of this, shall we? Jordan Howard has yet to finish with under 1,100 rushing yards in any given season. During his rookie year, Howard was unstoppable finishing second in rushing yard with 1,313 yards, while adding 7 total touchdowns and almost 300 yards through the air. Although he finished with 364 less yards in 2017 he increased his touchdown total. In his two years in the league, Jordan Howard has remained a top 10 fantasy running back in standard scoring leagues, and he should remain a high value pick at the end of the second or beginning of the third round, but here’s the tricky part. It isn’t standard leagues that have many fantasy players worried, it is the popular Half-PPR or PPR (points per reception) league formats that have Jordan Howard fall on the downward swing of fantasy rankings. Jordan Howard’s current ADP is with the first pick of round three, similar to that of where he is being selected in standard. This has fantasy owners on edge, and rightfully so with the likes of Shady McCoy and Jerick McKinnon still on the board with high PPR potential. But what is it about Jordan Howard’s pass catching status that has owners so worried. Let’s take a look…


Bust:

Jordan Howard’s production took a massive hit as he surrendered 173 yards through the air and failing to secure any receiving touchdowns. This is by no means a coincidence, either. Jordan Howard has 14 drops over his first two seasons, creating a drop percentage of 21 percent. Matt Nagy, the former offensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs that featured 2017’s leading rusher Kareem Hunt, was hired to be new head coach of the Bears. Nagy loves utilizing backs that can catch the ball, and if Howard continues to struggle, they may lean towards electric pass catching back, Tarik Cohen, a player Matt Nagy is quoted for saying he is “Giddy” to have on his roster. Nagy has previously said, “Jordan Howard is a three down back. We’re gonna do that,” and they have certainly been working on that part of his game, but his drop issues may not be easily fixed as it dates back to his high school playing days. This could be taken two different ways. One, Jordan Howard is the three down back with Tarik Cohen being the team’s do-it-all gadget player, playing all over the offense in a role similar but more run oriented to Tyreek Hill in Kansas City. Two, Jordan Howard will get a shot at being the three down back with Tarik Cohen taking more snaps as the season progresses with Howard continuing to struggle in the passing game. If you’re one who leans toward the ladder, then it is understandable why you may have reservations about Jordan Howard, and trust me, it is okay to be worried… Nothing in fantasy is certain. With that being said, Jordan Howard has a floor that screams 1,200 total yards and around 8 touchdowns making that good for 168 fantasy points or 11.2 points per game. This floor is worth picking as Howard could easily see the type of production Kareem Hunt saw last year in Matt Nagy’s offense. Howard is an easy selection if he is still there in the third round of your fantasy draft. Don’t be nervous, as Howard presents a safe floor with high upside in what is looking like a much improved Chicago offense.


Jerick Mckinnon - San Francisco 49ers

Boom:

A change of pace back who has averaged 10.2 touches per game over his four-year career now has a chance to carry the load as he signed a lucrative four-year 30-million-dollar contract, making him the sixth highest paid running back in the league. Once Dalvin Cook was lost for the year, Jerick Mckinnon took over their lead back role in the Vikings offense. Now in San Francisco, Mckinnon enters the fold as the veteran back on the roster, positioned to carry the load, acting as Jimmy Garoppolo’s safety net underneath. Underutilized in Minnesota, it is expected that Kyle Shanahan, one of the brightest offensive minds in the league, will utilize Mckinnon as a workhorse in each facet of the game. His ability to catch balls out of the backfield is highly valued within the 49ers offensive scheme and their new toy should prove invaluable once the season is underway.


The main reason Mckinnon is receiving so much hype is due to his new coach, Kyle Shanahan. Over the past ten years as an offensive coordinator and head coach in 2017, there have been eight instances his featured back averaged 10+ points per contest. He is known as a running back guru paving the cross roads for his backs to reach fantasy stardom, and McKinnon is in line to reap the benefits. However, there is a fairly large caveat to this.


Bust:

In each of those eight seasons, the same running backs averaged 15.9 touches per game. Can McKinnon reach 16 touches per game, and if he does, can his body withstand the constant contact of the NFL? As I mentioned, his four-year touch average is 10.2 per game and that includes 12 games with 3 or less. McKinnon has reached the 16-touch threshold for a total of twenty times in his sixty-one-game career, with seven coming in 2017. Carlos Hyde’s 16-plus touches in 14 games, last season, is within McKinnon’s reach, but they are a different breed. Hyde stands three inches taller and 30 pounds heavier than Jerick Mckinnon at 5’9” and 205 pounds, a size that doesn’t scream prototypical workhorse. If his body holds up, he will certainly reach the high expectations set before him. Nursing a strained knee diagnosed in practice just days ago, the injury bug is already biting. There is no guarantee. If selecting Mckinnon early, it will be important to secure a solid number 1 back that can be relied on each week.