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Fantasy Football: Dark horse running backs with top-10 potential in 2020

It is no secret that fantasy owners are starved for running backs right now. Positional scarcity is inflating the average draft position of even running backs with significant red flags, many of which would not have even sniffed the top-20 in previous seasons.

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Savvy fantasy owners who miss out on the few bell cow running backs need not panic. Running back is the most fragile position in all of fantasy football, and league-winners emerge from the clouds every season — Austin Ekeler, Kenyan Drake and Miles Sanders are the most recent examples.

Player ’19 ADP ’19 Fantasy Finish
Austin Ekeler RB30 RB4
Miles Sanders RB29 RB15
Kenyan Drake RB35 RB17

Who will be this year’s running backs to smash their ADPs and rocket up the positional leaderboard?

The following four are prime candidates. Each has an ADP and PFF consensus ranking outside the top-20 but the unrealized upside to finish the 2020 season inside the top 10.

Raheem Mostert (ADP: RB26 | PFF Consensus Rank: RB25)

Mostert is coming off a remarkable season with an 82.8 overall PFF grade (seventh among RBs) and 83.3 rushing grade (fourth). Most impressive was his 29-220-4 eruption in the NFC Championship as the 49ers steamrolled the Packers into the Super Bowl. There are very few running backs that possess 200-yard and four-touchdown upside in any given week.

After emerging as the 49ers' lead-back in Week 12, Mostert ripped off six-straight games of double-digit carries while ranking as the RB7 over that stretch. He was a big-play machine, racking up 10 runs of 15-plus yards (two more than anyone else).

While his RB7 ranking in Weeks 12-17 was buoyed by seven touchdowns, Mostert proved throughout last season that he can score from anywhere on the field. He scored from distance, with six touchdowns of 10-plus yards (second), and from inside the 5-yard line with five carries for two touchdowns.

The cherry on top is that Mostert has already demonstrated top-10 potential without a monster workload. His carry counts in Weeks 12-17 were: 6, 19, 10, 14, 11, 10. Imagine what Mostert could do over an entire season with a wholly reasonable 15 carries per game? He had at least 15 carries in two games last season, rushing for 146 and 220 yards.

The 49ers made their feelings about Mostert known last week when they gave in to his contract demands with additional incentives and a signing bonus. Tevin Coleman will be involved and a likely thorn in Mostert’s side, but Coleman’s 71.5 PFF grade (24th) demonstrates that he is an inferior back to Mostert. Would it be so crazy for the 49ers to lean on what got them to the Super Bowl and ride Mostert as the alpha RB?

The upside here is No. 1 running back on the NFL’s best rushing offense, which has a wizard in Kyle Shanahan calling plays and the league’s fourth-best run-blocking unit. PFF’s projections have Mostert with 1,045 rushing yards and 10 TDs. At a conservative RB26 ADP, Mostert has bona fide league-winner potential.

Derrius Guice (ADP: RB31 | PFF Consensus Rank: RB30)

Injuries have stymied Guice through his first two seasons, but he is healthy heading into training camp with the hope that the third time is the charm. Guice performed well in his brief action last season, recording a 76.0 PFF grade (18th among RBs with 40-plus snaps) while racking up an astronomical 5.1 yards after contact per attempt (first, with a small sample size caveat). Guice demonstrated his tantalizing upside in Week 13 by annihilating the Panthers for a 10-129-2 rushing line.

While the concern with Guice is largely due to injury risk, that is already baked into his very conservative ADP. Other injury risks like Todd Gurley, James Conner, David Johnson and Chris Carson all have ADPs in the top-20. While those backs are certainly more proven, nobody will argue with the notion that Guice matches them in talent.

And yet fantasy owners seem wholly unexcited about the prospect of a healthy Guice, presumably because of his situation in a timeshare within an uninspiring Washington offense. Nobody will confuse the current iteration of Adrian Peterson with the beast of Vikings yore, but he has a very solid 1,940 rushing yards and 12 TDs in the last two seasons. A healthy Guice would blow those numbers out of the water.

Washington’s offense is going to be better than people think. After emerging in Week 9 as the starter, Dwayne Haskins recorded a 73.4 PFF grade (12th) and really found a groove with Terry McLaurin (85.7 PFF grade, sixth). Additionally, new head coach Ron Rivera knows a thing or two about feeding the rock to a talented running back.

Every player, particularly at running back, is an injury risk simply by suiting up every Sunday. If Guice can stay healthy, he will smash his ADP and become a legitimate RB2 with RB1 upside.

J.K. Dobbins (ADP: RB33 | PFF Consensus Rank: RB32)

Dobbins is my pick to be this year’s Miles Sanders — a middle-round rookie running back who seizes the starting role midseason and runs rampant during the fantasy playoffs. His 2019 stats at Ohio State were mind-boggling: 1,208 rushing yards after contact (second), 4.01 rushing yards after contact per attempt (second) and 31 runs of 15-plus yards (first).

The Ravens have PFF’s reigning No. 1 rushing offense, and 2020 should be more of the same with Greg Roman calling plays for Lamar Jackson and the league’s third-best run-blocking unit. Mark Ingram blew away expectations last year with 1,018 rushing yards and 15 total touchdowns, but he will be 31 years old in December and Baltimore drafted Dobbins in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft to be the future at the position.

While Ingram was solid last year (78.7 PFF grade, ninth), he started showing signs of decline toward the end of the year before suffering a calf injury that essentially ended his season. From Week 9 on (including playoffs), Ingram had only one game with more than 80 rushing yards. If Ingram starts breaking down in the middle of the 2020 season, a fresh Dobbins will be ready to pounce.

Though it took a Jordan Howard injury to spark the Sanders breakout, that is part of the beauty in fading a 30-year-old running back. Dobbins will be a key cog in the Ravens' run-centric offense regardless, and playing behind an older back creates an additional path to fantasy stardom. The Ravens have the seventh-easiest RB strength of schedule in 2020.

Phillip Lindsay (ADP: RB42 | PFF Consensus Rank: RB43

Here are the running backs with the three best rushing grades since 2018:

  1. Nick Chubb – 92.0
  2. Derrick Henry – 88.6
  3. Phillip Lindsay – 87.8

Pretty good company for Lindsay, who continues to be underestimated by even his own team considering the Broncos signed Melvin Gordon this offseason.

Talent usually wins out, and I am willing to place my bet on the smaller and more talented player who also happens to have a significantly cheaper draft cost. This story seems all too familiar — fantasy owners reached for Gordon last offseason while overlooking the smaller and more talented Austin Ekeler. Everyone knows how that story ended, and the resemblance in Denver is striking.

Gordon’s play was a disaster in 2019 (66.0 PFF grade, 41st), especially when compared to Lindsay (71.3 PFF grade, 25th). Gordon averaged a pathetic 2.46 rushing yards after contact per attempt (50th) and just 3.8 rush yards per attempt (45th). Lindsay was much better at 2.71 yards after contact per attempt (38th) and 4.5 yards per carry (22nd).

Lindsay is one of only four running backs with 300-plus attempts and zero fumbles on runs since 2018. Gordon coughed up the football four times last year, including an agonizing fumble at the goal-line that cost the Chargers a game against the Titans.

PFF’s Ben Linsey analyzed Lindsay’s performance by highlighting his excellence at consistently avoiding contact. Lindsay has averaged an impressive career 2.4 rushing yards before contact (third), with his 2018 mark the highest by any RB over the last three seasons.

Lindsay has the killer combination of elite vision with game-breaking wheels, making him a home-run threat every time he touches the football — he has 15 runs of 20-plus yards since 2018 (seventh), five of which have gone for touchdowns (second).

With running backs in such high demand, Lindsay is far too talented to be lasting into the ninth round and beyond of fantasy drafts. Gordon was Wally Pipped last year by Ekeler, and it would not shock me if it happens to him again in 2020, this time by Lindsay.

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