News & Analysis

Undervalued fantasy football running backs in 2020

The best way to find an edge in fantasy football leagues is to draft players who are undervalued. Maybe they're coming off an injury, playing in a weak offense or burned everyone who drafted them the year prior. These are players to target in the middle rounds — the suppressed draft cost makes them a value.

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Derrick Henry, Austin Ekeler, Miles Sanders and Kenyan Drake serve as perfect examples of running backs taken later in 2019 fantasy drafts who vastly outperformed their ADP. I've identified five running backs as similar values heading into the 2020 season by comparing PFF's fantasy rankings and fantasy projections with June average draft position courtesy of BestBall10s.

Le’Veon Bell, New York Jets

PFF Consensus Rank: RB13 | ADP: RB20

Bell is being drafted outside the first three rounds in 12-team leagues even though he will continue to see plenty of volume in New York. In 2019, Bell saw one of the NFL’s biggest workloads, accumulating over 300 touches in 15 games. He was one of eight running backs to reach that feat, but the volume didn't translate to fantasy success — Bell finished as the RB16 running behind the Jets’ 30th-ranked run-blocking unit. He only scored four touchdowns and had just two rushing attempts that went for more than 15 yards, which ranked dead last among running backs with at least 100 carries.

The overall production was disappointing, but remember that volume is king in fantasy football, and with rookie Lamical Perine and veteran Frank Gore the only competition for touches, Bell is going to see plenty of work in 2020. He will still operate as the primary pass-catching running back and could finish with a lot of the team target share considering the lack of established receivers on the Jets' roster. Bell’s PFF receiving grade in 2019 (77.3) ranked fifth out of 19 running backs with at least 50 targets.

The Jets’ offense is also due for positive regression — it was bad across the board last season, ranking dead last in average yards per play (4.6). 

In 2017 and 2018, the Arizona Cardinals and Buffalo Bills both ranked bottom-five in average yards per play (under 4.7). In 2019, both teams’ average yards per play increased to an average of 5.25, which was near the league average of 5.39. 

Quarterback Sam Darnold will be returning healthy, and New York has made a significant overhaul at the offensive line position starting with its first-round pick, Mekhi Becton. If the Jets’ offense can be even average in 2020, Bell has a strong chance of finishing as a top-12 option with his work as a receiver and the opportunity to see more touchdowns. Bell’s ADP is RB20, which basically means you're drafting him at his floor — PFF's fantasy projections have Bell 10th in total rushing attempts and ninth in total receptions among running backs. 

David Montgomery, Chicago Bears

PFF Consensus Rank: RB23 | ADP: RB27

Montgomery fell victim to a similar situation as Bell in 2019 — he got the workload with 242 carries and 25 receptions but failed to meet the expectations of an early-round pick.

The rookie still finished the season as the RB24 overall, ranking eighth in forced missed tackles (47) among running backs with at least 25 carries. He struggled to create on his own, as his yards after contact per attempt (2.3) ranked outside the top 70 qualified running backs. He also failed to make big plays with just five runs over 15 yards, earning him the 68th-ranked breakaway percentage (15%). 

The good news for Montgomery is that breakaway percentage is not a stable metric, so there is still a chance Montgomery can create more big plays in 2020 considering he showed that he can be elusive. His missed tackles forced per attempt (0.19) ranked 13th among running backs with at least 100 carries — that’s a much more stable metric for future success.

Nick Foles potentially under center could also increase Montgomery’s role as a receiver. Foles is not a mobile quarterback and will not have the option to tuck and run the ball like Mitchell Trubisky. The veteran also has a history of targeting the running back position — the Eagles heavily featured Darren Sproles as a receiver in his second stint in Philadelphia, and in the three games Foles started for Jacksonville after his injury, running back Leonard Fournette saw a massive 20% target share.

With improved quarterback play, the Bears should be a better offense in general, which means more red-zone work for Montgomery — this is where he'll have to provide fantasy points since he's not the primary pass-catching back. Last year, Chicago's total of 39 goal-line plays (inside the 5) was just 21st in the league. They gave Montgomery his share of tries — 18 carries — but they only amounted to five touchdowns. Last season, running backs with at least 17 carries inside the 5 averaged 8.6 touchdowns.

Montgomery is going to see another heavy workload considering Ryan Nall is his primary backup on early downs. He looks to be a great value going at the end of the fourth/beginning of the fifth round with a potential increase in receiving work and touchdowns. The fantasy projections have Montgomery seeing just over 240 touches in 2020. 

Ronald Jones, Tampa Bay Buccaneers 

PFF Consensus Rank: RB30 | ADP: RB36

Fantasy owners apparently still smell the stench of Jones' poor rookie season despite all the strides he made in Year 2. In nine starts, the sophomore running back accumulated more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage and scored six touchdowns.

Jones showed great improvement as a receiver and rusher, ranking fifth in yards per route run (1.82) among running backs with at least 25 targets. He was also tough to bring down, ranking 16th in elusive rating (59.8), eighth in missed tackles forced per attempt (0.2) and 21st in yards after contact per attempt (3.0) among runners with at least 100 carries.

Jones looked to be the No. 1 running back for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but their drafting of Vanderbilt’s Ke'Shawn Vaughn in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft has made things less clear. Still, the suppression of hype could add value — especially since Vaughn is more likely to work on passing downs.

There's also a chance that Vaughn works in as a receiver, but with so many weapons at Tom Brady‘s disposal, any receiving production may not be reliable on a weekly basis. The Bucs also have another pass-catching back on the roster in Dare Ogunbowale.

With this offense expected to hum, we want the early-down runner and goal-line back on this team — and Jones looks like the clear frontrunner. His fantasy ceiling will rely on whether he gets the work near the end zone, as he split time with Peyton Barber last year in that space. He should see the first crack at the role, considering Jones had the highest missed tackles forced per attempt (0.50) and second-highest yards after contact per attempt (2.2) on runs inside the 10-yard line among 37 running backs with at least 10 attempts.

Keep in mind that Jones also flashed impressive explosiveness in 2019 with the 14th-best breakaway percentage (31.5%) and fourth-highest yards after the catch per reception (9.7). He might not need to see much work in the passing game to be a value going in the sixth and seventh rounds, with the flashes of big-play upside combined with his potential role near the goal-line in a prolific offense.

James White, New England Patriots 

PFF Consensus Rank: RB36 | ADP: RB35

Gauging White’s fantasy value was a difficult task when projecting him with a total unknown at quarterback in Jarrett Stidham. Now that the New England Patriots have signed Cam Newton, White’s role and potential in the offense are more clear — and his outlook is better than before.

White earned PFF’s fifth-highest receiving grade (85.3) in 2019 and will continue to be heavily involved in the offense. The Patriots have not ranked lower than fifth in terms of total targets to running backs since 2015. Over the past two seasons, White only trails Christian McCaffrey in targets (206) at the running back position.

White’s fantasy viability benefitted greatly from being a dynamic weapon in the red zone for the Patriots. He is second to only Michael Thomas in red zone receptions (34) over the past two seasons. During that same timeframe, White also owns PFF’s second-highest receiving grade (86.6) in the red zone.

Most red-zone receptions for all positions 2018-2019
Michael Thomas 44
James White 34
Davante Adams 32
Alvin Kamara 30
Julian Edelman 29

This skill set fits in rather nicely with Newton, who over the past two seasons ranks fifth in passing touchdowns per dropback and second in adjusted completion percentage in the red zone among quarterbacks with at least 70 dropbacks. Newton has also seen his percentage of targets to the running back position drastically increase since 2016 to an average of 25% in his last two healthy seasons (2017/2018).

Cam Newton's percentage of targets to running backs
Season Percentage of targets to RBs
2014 12.00%
2015 12.30%
2016 12.60%
2017 26.00%
2018 24.60%

White’s true fantasy ceiling will always be limited because Newton is a mobile quarterback and the total passing volume of the offense will decrease. White will not league in red-zone targets again in 2020, but expect him to be in the conversation to lead the team in red-zone targets. Newton has targeted the running back position on 26% of his passing attempts in the red zone.

PFF’s consensus rankings currently have White ranked slightly lower than his ADP at 87 overall, but he will rise with this week's Newton news. 

Nyheim Hines, Indianapolis Colts 

PFF Consensus Rank: RB46 | ADP: RB55

Hines is part of a crowded Indianapolis Colts’ backfield but benefits from being the best receiver of the group. He ranked 20th in yards per route run (1.43) in 2019 and will have a new friend in Philip Rivers behind center this year — the former Charger has a strong history of targeting running backs in the passing game.

Hines made the most of his limited touches last year, ranking 12th in fantasy points per touch. With a chance to see more opportunities in 2020, he could have his best season to date.

The pass-catching back should also benefit from some positive touchdown regression based on his projected receiving totals — he caught just two receiving touchdowns over the past two seasons. Rivers has averaged eight passing touchdowns to running backs the past two years. During the same timeframe, Rivers has targeted the running back position on 28% of his passing attempts in the red zone. 

Hines isn't going to be a league-winner because he won't see work on early downs, but considering the Colts’ depth chart is pretty unproven behind an aging T.Y. Hilton, Hines could easily compete for a high target share in the offense. The fantasy projections have Hines catching the 11th-most passes among running backs in 2020 and third-most on the team. 

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