News & Analysis

Running backs most likely to see a bell cow workload in 2020

When it comes to running back production in fantasy football, it’s all about the touches. Players who touch the ball more tend to score more points. Easy game. However, it isn’t always as easy to identify who these bell cow backs are, especially in an era of professional football when committees are the norm in NFL backfields. 

There’s no agreed upon definition of what constitutes a bell cow back in the NFL. We could certainly look to touch volume, but for fantasy purposes we also need to consider the value of these touches. The best way to determine value of caries and targets is by using expected fantasy points. This metric uses historic data to determine the expected fantasy points that should be scored on a carry or target at a specific part of the field. 

So let’s take last season’s expected fantasy points totals at running back and look at the highest team market shares:

Rk Player Tm XPts %
1 Christian McCaffrey CAR 386.6 92.2%
2 Leonard Fournette JAX 300.3 81.5%
3 Ezekiel Elliott DAL 293.8 80.1%
4 Le'Veon Bell NYJ 252.9 73.5%
5 Saquon Barkley NYG 230.3 73.1%
6 Joe Mixon CIN 245.8 72.2%
7 Todd Gurley II LA 216.9 70.7%
8 Chris Carson SEA 232.5 65.7%
9 Nick Chubb CLV 254.6 65.6%
10 Aaron Jones GB 258.1 63.1%
11 Dalvin Cook MIN 249.9 61.0%
12 Alvin Kamara NO 242.0 60.2%
13 Devonta Freeman ATL 191.0 57.4%
14 Mark Ingram II BLT 182.4 56.7%
15 Phillip Lindsay DEN 198.1 54.0%
16 Carlos Hyde HST 165.8 51.8%
17 Austin Ekeler LAC 249.1 51.1%
18 Miles Sanders PHI 209.7 50.0%
19 David Montgomery CHI 210.3 49.6%
20 Josh Jacobs OAK 182.0 46.2%

There’s no surprise at the top, as Christian McCaffrey utterly dominated shares in the Panthers backfield. Likewise, Leonard Fournette had very little competition for touches in Jacksonville. It should be noted that injuries will certainly impact market share numbers, but even with three missed games, Saquon Barkley still ranked in the top five. 

In looking at the numbers above, you’ll notice that only a dozen backs topped the 60% mark. We’re going to use this as our cutoff point for determining potential bell cows heading into the 2020 season. Why? Once we get beyond that range we either see full-blown committees like the Texans, Chargers, Broncos and Bears, or situations like Baltimore where Mark Ingram’s volume was capped by Lamar Jackson

Using the 60% market share threshold and the 2020 PFF fantasy football projections, here are the top bell cow candidates for 2020:

The No-Brainers

Christian McCaffrey

Saquon Barkley

Ezekiel Elliott

Leonard Fournette

Derrick Henry

Barring injury, you can all but ink these five backs in for a bell cow workload. The Panthers claim they want to reduce McCaffrey’s snaps, but the team did not bring in a viable change-of-pace option in the offseason. He’s still going to see a ton of work. The same can be said for Barkley in New York. Elliott does have Tony Pollard as a complimentary piece, but the Cowboys have made it clear that they view Elliott as a bell cow. Jacksonville didn’t pick up Fournette’s fifth-year option, but there’s nothing to indicate that they won’t again try to feed him 300-plus touches. Henry won’t get much done in the passing game, but he’s a threat to top 300 carries again this season.

On the Right Side of the Committee

Alvin Kamara

Dalvin Cook

Joe Mixon

Austin Ekeler

Josh Jacobs

Kenyan Drake

Miles Sanders

Chris Carson

Unlike the top five players, running backs in this group do have another player who will get regular touches in their respective backfields. That being said, these guys are all likely to be in 70:30 or better splits. Kamara topped the 60% mark last season despite splitting the load with Latavius Murray. Likewise, Cook managed to get there even with Alexander Mattison emerging in Minnesota. Mixon has the look of a top bell cow, but the immortal Giovani Bernard continues to be used in the passing game.

The Chargers backfield is going to be interesting heading into this season with Melvin Gordon out of the mix. Austin Ekeler looks like he’s a lock to lead the backfield, but his early-down workload is a bit of a question mark with Justin Jackson and Joshua Kelley in the mix. Jacobs is essentially the opposite, as the Raiders have used Jalen Richard in the passing game and now have Lynn Bowden Jr. as well. Drake figures to be spelled at times by Chase Edmonds in the Arizona backfield. The Eagles don’t currently have a stable mate for Sanders but have been rumored to be looking to add a veteran back. As for Carson, the Seahawks have given him a true bell cow workload in the past but could incorporate a lot of Rashaad Penny when he’s able to return to the field.

It Isn’t Sexy, But…

Le’Veon Bell

Todd Gurley

David Johnson

You aren’t going to get a lot of “oohs” and “ahs” when you put these stickers on the draft board, but all three of these veteran backs are in a position to see bell cow workloads this season. The Jets did recently sign Frank Gore, but Bell will still be very busy. Gurley landed in an ideal backfield this offseason, as he has essentially zero competition for touches in Atlanta. David Johnson will have to compete with Duke Johnson for passing down work, but figures to dominate carries just like Carlos Hyde did last year for the Texans.

On the Fringe

Aaron Jones

Nick Chubb

Melvin Gordon

Any one of these three could end up putting up bell cow numbers this season, but they’re all in situations that we shouldn’t take lightly. The Packers have seemingly found reasons to limit Jones every step of the way in his pro career with Jamaal Williams continuing to see a healthy workload. Green Bay drafting A.J. Dillon didn’t make things any better. Chubb is a stud, but the Browns showed us in the second half of the season that they’re going to use Kareem Hunt, especially in the passing game. Gordon moved from a full-blown committee in L.A. to potentially a very similar situation with Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman in the Denver backfield.

Dark Horses

Clyde Edwards-Helaire

Cam Akers

Ke’Shawn Vaughn

Jonathan Taylor

Seemingly every year we have surprise players emerge in fantasy football. If there’s going to be a new kid on the bell cow block, he’s likely to come from these four players. Edwards-Helaire is going to open the season in a committee with Damien Williams, but the rookie first-rounder has the skillset and pedigree to take over the Chiefs backfield. Akers figures to immediate earn the early-down role and could assume work in the passing game if Darrell Henderson fails to impress. 

While there are some who believe Ronald Jones will make the leap this season, Tampa’s third-round selection of Vaughn is worth noting. As for Taylor, the Colts will likely use a committee with Marlon Mack in the beginning of the season. But much like Edwards-Helaire, Taylor is the superior player. The cream tends to rise to the top.

Projected Points Market Shares
Rk Player Tm ProjPts %
1 Christian McCaffrey CAR 335.5 83.0%
2 Saquon Barkley NYG 295.7 78.1%
3 Ezekiel Elliott DAL 303.9 73.3%
4 Leonard Fournette JAX 239.5 72.5%
5 Derrick Henry TEN 254.8 69.8%
6 Austin Ekeler LAC 253.7 69.6%
7 Alvin Kamara NO 336.4 68.0%
8 Kenyan Drake ARZ 223.8 68.0%
9 Joe Mixon CIN 216.8 67.6%
10 Miles Sanders PHI 239.8 65.6%
11 Dalvin Cook MIN 279.1 64.5%
12 Le'Veon Bell NYJ 226.5 64.3%
13 Josh Jacobs OAK 210 59.9%
14 Chris Carson SEA 207 59.8%
15 David Johnson HST 194.8 59.1%
16 Todd Gurley II ATL 226.9 58.1%
17 Aaron Jones GB 241.9 58.0%
18 Devin Singletary BUF 172.2 57.1%
19 Clyde Edwards-Helaire KC 187.9 55.9%
20 Nick Chubb CLV 240.6 54.7%

 

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