By: Alexander Amir
Running back is unequivocally the most important position in fantasy football. While quarterbacks are the highest scorers, there is so much depth at the position, especially this season, that late round draft picks and waiver wire adds are often all you need. Indeed, Alex Smith was the 4th ranked QB last season and was drafted, on average, in the 14th round, while Jared Goff, Blake Bortles, and Case Keenum were all top 15 QBs yet weren’t drafted in most 12 team leagues. Running backs, on the other hand, far outscored all the other position players in 2017, as 12 out of the top 15 position players (RB, WR, and TE) were running backs.
Also more than any other position, however, is the impact that scheme, coaching, and personnel have on a running back. In a pass-heavy offense with a star QB, chances are the running back won’t be the focal point. With a weak offensive line, the defense will be able to key in on the position. And with more than one viable starter on the roster, great running backs have to split time and don’t reach their full statistical potential. Today we’ll take a look at three notable running back duos and how they will impact this fantasy season.
1) Alvin Kamara & Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints
Kamara and Ingram made NFL history in 2017 when they became the first pair of running back teammates to each reach 1,500 scrimmage yards in a single season, and also the first pair to each score at least 10 touchdowns in the same season. Generally, in running back duos, one runner gets the bulk of the carries, but Kamara and Ingram broke that mold by finishing the season as the 4th and 6th running backs overall, respectively.
So what does this mean for this year? Kamara was already due for more touches after last season, but with Ingram being suspended for the first four games of the season, Kamara has a chance to take a much larger share of the offense when Ingram comes back. Towards the end of the season their touches started to even out too, with Ingram’s decreasing by 37% from weeks 6–8 to weeks 15–17, and Kamara’s increasing by about 7% in the same span. On the flip side, head coach Sean Payton has said not to expect a large increase in Kamara’s touches in Ingram’s absence for fear of wearing the young running back out.
Given all this information, I expect Kamara to perform similarly as last year. While he likely won’t average the ridiculous 6.1 yards per carry he did in 2017, he’ll compensate with the inevitable increase in opportunity, as he was trending in that direction already last season. I think Mark Ingram reached his ceiling last year, and with Kamara’s larger role in the offense, we shouldn’t expect the same finish as last year. He should be a mid level RB2 while Kamara continues to lead your fantasy team, especially in PPR scoring.
2) Derrick Henry & Dion Lewis, Tennessee Titans
This one is a really interesting situation. Henry and DeMarco Murray last year had about a 45% to 55% ratio of carries plus targets. While Murray averaged 3 more fantasy points per game, Henry averaged more yards per touch and a higher amount of yards created per carry (which is all yards per touch beyond what was initially blocked), suggesting high upside for Henry. Now Murray is gone, and Henry was expected to be the main man in Tennessee.
Instead, the team went out and signed former Patriot Dion Lewis to a 4 year, $20 million contract. You don’t give a player that amount of money to be a backup. Though he was mired in the complex New England backfield, Lewis became the 12th best fantasy running back in standard scoring, averaged 5.0 yards per carry, and was ranked #1 at yards created per carry, according to PlayerProfiler.com. Though his stature and agility suggests more of a 3rd-round running back type, he thrived while getting 14.6 carries per game from week 6 onwards, and showed the ability to handle over 20 carries on a couple of occasions.
With both of these backs now on the same team I think Henry will take a backseat to Lewis. Henry clearly outplayed Murray the past couple of years in terms of efficiency, yet the team still stuck with Murray throughout and now spent a relatively significant sum of money on another back. Lewis showed he can handle three down duties, so Henry’s job is not safe. If Henry were alone in the backfield I think he would be a mid RB2 with upside, and Lewis a high end RB2. Now, both can only be considered a flex play, but I bet Lewis will have the majority of touches after a few weeks into the season.
3) Jordan Howard & Tarik Cohen, Chicago Bears
While Chicago’s offense has been underwhelming over the past few years, none of that is the fault of third year running back Jordan Howard. He broke Matt Forte’s franchise single season rushing record for a rookie, on the way to a #10 fantasy finish in 2016. Despite Howard’s excellent season during which he accumulated over 1,600 scrimmage yards and 7 touchdowns, the Bears spent a 4th round pick on Tarik Cohen, a miniscule running back out of a small school in North Carolina.
Cohen took about 36% of snaps for the Bears in 2017, but was actually tied for 10th in the league for most targets amongst running backs despite a significantly lower snap share than the guys above him. It’s clear that when Cohen was on the field the Bears wanted to get him involved. This offseason, the Bears brought in former Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy to be their head coach. The Chiefs did have the league’s leading rusher last season in Kareem Hunt, but Cohen is much more similar to Hunt than Howard is and seems to fit Chicago’s scheme better. Hunt is extremely shifty with a pass catching presence out of the backfield, like Cohen, and Howard is much more of a north and south type of runner. Nagy has even publicly said that he’s “giddy” about the role Cohen can play in the offense. To top it off, there were trade rumors surrounding Howard this offseason.
With all of this in mind, I would count on Jordan Howard as no more than a low/mid-end RB2 in standard leagues with a downgrade in PPR. It seems like he is slowly going to be phased out of the offense, and Tarik Cohen will without a doubt see more snaps. I’m sure the team will test out the arm of new QB Mitch Trubisky, so Cohen will be on the field in those passing situations too. Unfortunately, Cohen’s sample size last season was pretty small, so it’s hard to predict his production for this season. I’d count him as a Flex with upside in PPR leagues, but stay away from him in standard scoring.