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Fantasy Football: Overvalued fantasy football running backs in 2020

Every year, fantasy football drafters invest early picks on players who are expected to improve their fantasy production over the previous year when those expectations aren’t realistic. Other players are expected to continue racking up fantasy points despite a number of red flags.

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A few running backs are currently being selected earlier than they should be ahead of the 2020 NFL season. If these players don't see a drop in ADP between now and your fantasy draft, then they probably shouldn’t end up on your roster in re-drafts — there will be better options on the board.

Here are five running backs I have identified as overvalued for the 2020 season, based on PFF's consensus fantasy rankings and fantasy projections compared to June average draft position (ADP) courtesy of BestBall10s.

Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals

PFF Consensus Rank: RB8 | ADP: RB7

Joe Mixon had a slow start to the 2019 season — he was just the RB36 at the end of Week 9. Things completely changed over the second half of the year, as he finished RB7 from Week 10 until Week 16. Part of his improvement can be credited to seeing 20 more carries than any other back during that time. But Mixon's grades and rate stats all greatly improved, and he finally started seeing the end zone. 

There is certainly reason to be excited about Mixon and the Bengals' offense heading into 2020. Wide receiver A.J. Green and 2019 first-round left tackle Jonah Williams return from injury, while rookies Joe Burrow and Tee Higgins offer reason for optimism. There doesn’t appear to be any new competition for Mixon’s snaps, which gives him a high floor.

The problem is that in order for Mixon to match his ADP, he needs put up last year's Week 10-16 production over an entire season, which is unlikely. While his consensus rankings aren’t much lower than his ADP, our projections put him at RB16.

The first issue is that Mixon is unlikely to see as many opportunities as last year. He averaged 21.6 carries per game, which isn’t very sustainable over the long-term. An improved Bengals offense might get him more garbage time carries, but he won’t see as many touches early in games. The Bengals ran on 44.0% of first quarter plays last year — the sixth-highest rate. With Burrow and an exciting trio of wide receivers, they will likely be passing more. 

The offense might be scoring more touchdowns, but that doesn't mean Mixon will see more opportunities. He had 16 carries within four yards of the end zone last year, which was the second-most among all backs behind only Christian McCaffrey. Only Todd Gurley has seen back-to-back seasons with that many opportunities over the last eight years.

In the passing game, running back Giovani Bernard has typically run more routes than Mixon, including throughout 2019, and all signs point to that continuing in 2020. While Bernard hasn’t been all that effective of a receiver, neither has Mixon. After averaging 1.35 yards per route run in his first two years, Mixon saw a decline to 1.19 in 2019 in his new offense. 

This leaves an increase in opportunity as the only way he can increase his fantasy production. Rushing yards are greatly tied to the offensive line, and the Bengals' offensive line had a combined 46.9 run block grade — the second-worst in the league. The addition of Williams should help, but that's only one of five positions. Mixon certainly has a high floor, but a lot has to go right in order for him to be worthy of a first-round fantasy pick.

Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars

PFF Consensus Rank: RB21, ADP: RB14

Leonard Fournette’s season was the opposite of Joe Mixon’s. After a strong start as the RB5 in PPR leagues over the first half of the season, he finished just RB13 over the second half. Like Mixon, he's being drafted right around where he finished down the stretch.

Fournette caused some of the second-half swoon himself. Jacksonville's offensive line was run-blocking much better over the second half of the season, going from a 52.5 PFF grade in the first half of the season to 67.9 in the second. Fournette's yards before contact per carry remained unchanged, but his missed tackle rate fell by half and he stopped having as many big runs.

The Jaguars brought in free agent pass-catching back Chris Thompson, with whom new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden has spent the last six seasons. Thompson has been Gruden's main third-down back (when healthy) over that time, breaking off 27 explosive plays as a receiver — 12th-most for running backs. Fournette’s 483 routes run were the second-most among running backs last year, but he put up a below-average 1.08 yards per route run. Fournette's pass-catching volume in 2019 was out of necessity — with Thompson and Gruden reunited, there's no longer a need.

As long as Fournette continues to dominate rushing snaps, he can still serve as a low-end RB2 in PPR leagues — even better in standard scoring. No one currently on the roster appears to be much of a threat to the early-down work,  but there were reports he was on the trade block before the draft. The Jags didn't pick up Fournette's fifth-year option, either, so it this is likely his last year in Jacksonville. There's still time for the Jaguars to add a free agent like Devonta Freeman, Lamar Miller or LeSean McCoy, or even give 2019 fifth-round pick Ryquell Armstead more of an opportunity. Fournette is lined up to dominate carries at this point, but there are more things to be concerned about with him than other RB2 options.  

Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Damien Williams, Kansas City Chiefs

PFF Consensus Rank: RB16 and RB44 | ADP: RB14 and RB31

While Clyde Edwards-Helaire is a near-unanimous first-overall pick in rookie dynasty drafts, his outlook for 2020 is a little less clear. Regardless of how talented he and 2019 lead rusher Damien Williams are, it’s hard to imagine so much fantasy production from two players on a team with Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. Last year, Williams had the 22nd-most PPR points per game, while backup LeSean McCoy was 43rd.

In general, the top rookie running backs are being drafted higher than their projected points. While you’re picking for upside whenever you pick a running back in redraft, at these players' ADPs there will be far more disappointments than hits. Edwards-Helaire needs to dominate playing time to match his ADP. Our projections currently give Edwards-Helaire more than twice as many carries as Williams and more than three times the targets. Even with that volume, our projections put him at RB22.

One reason for optimism for Edwards-Helaire is how well Kareem Hunt performed as a rookie in 2017. The difference is that Hunt didn’t have much competition — the three running backs behind him on the depth chart combined for two carries in 2018 and none in 2019. The Chiefs obviously won’t be as run-heavy as they were in 2017 with Alex Smith and Hunt unless Mahomes has a significant injury. The Chiefs' first-half pass percentage of 75.8% in the regular season in  2019 was the most in the league by a far margin.

Similarly, Williams would need to split snaps in order to reach his ADP. Our projections put him at RB62. Even if Williams splits carries and targets with Edwards-Helaire, that puts him closer to RB40 than RB30. Both Darrel Williams and Darwin Thompson remain on the roster after having roles in 2020. The difference in PFF grade between them and Damien Williams was negligible, so it might not even be a two-man backfield. The Chiefs offense will remain one of the most exciting offenses of this era, but that won’t equate to high fantasy points for running backs.

Marlon Mack, Indianapolis Colts

PFF Consensus Rank: RB40 | ADP: RB33

Like Damien Williams, Marlon Mack faces competition for playing time from a highly drafted rookie. But it gets worse for Mack — along with facing competition from Jonathan Taylor, the Colts also have an undervalued pass-catching back in  Nyheim Hines. Mack's fantasy stock was down even before the NFL draft — after averaging 18 pass routes per game over the first half of 2019, that dropped to nine per game in the second half. Hines — and to a lesser extent, Jordan Wilkins — took these pass routes. Even Mack's production as a runner last year doesn't say much, as the Colts' stellar offensive line would have given even an average RB a chance to succeed.

The second-round rookie will be major competition for early-down snaps. Our projections expect 198 carries for Taylor compared to 95 for Mack. Those numbers would need to flip in Mack’s favor to be worthy of his current ADP. It would take an injury for him to exceed it.

The upside for Mack is that he did perform well as a runner last year and should give Taylor a good fight for playing time. Mack had a 27.1% first down or touchdown rate in 2019, which was the best rate for backs with at least 200 carries. Taylor, on the other hand, led all FBS running backs in first downs each of the last two seasons. Wilkins was the Colts' highest graded rusher in 2019 on a limited sample size — this will be one of the NFL's most crowded backfields in 2020.

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