I’m a list guy. I make “to do” lists, follow “honey do” lists, and will take time to read a top ten list of almost anything. This series of articles will bring you a top five ranking about a myriad of topics in the world of dynasty football.
As we inch closer to the beginning of training camps, dynasty owners continue to focus on building competitive teams and that means we begin to cure our collective case of rookie fever and turn our attention to players who can help us win now. While the running back position has been an afterthought for years, the emergence of the “Big Three” along with multiple consecutive highly drafted backs, namely Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott and Leonard Fournette, has given the overall position the relevance it deserves.
Not all backfields are as crystal clear as the Rams, Cowboys and Jaguars though with many teams employing a running back by committee or simply just having a lot of competition for touches. Here is my look at some AFC teams with crowded backfields and how dynasty owners should be valuing the players involved here.
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New England Patriots
Current depth chart:
The Patriots and Bill Belichick annually present fantasy owners with difficult weekly decisions, but the backs who do actually get on the field always produce as part of this high-scoring offense led by future Hall of Famer Tom Brady. In 2016, LeGarrette Blount enjoyed a career season, finishing as the RB9 thanks to a whopping 18 touchdown runs. That number will be difficult for any back to match this season, yet fantasy owners continue to treat former Bills backup Mike Gillislee as a sure thing. He’s being drafted as the RB29 with an overall ADP of 90.5 despite all of the competition he faces for touches. The Pats certainly handled their running back depth chart differently this off-season than ever before, aggressively pursuing former Bengal backup Rex Burkhead, making him the highest paid Patriots back since 2010 when they inked him to a deal in mid-March. That didn’t last long as the team continued to target backfield help, signing restricted free agent Gillislee away from division rival Buffalo and he became the highest paid New England runner in nearly a decade. The Pats weren’t done, agreeing to terms with Super Bowl hero James White on a three-year contract extension. We shouldn’t forget injury prone pass-catching specialist Dion Lewis and special teams wiz Brandon Bolden, but neither have any significant dynasty value at this time and there has even been some word that Lewis could be cut.
According to all reports, Gillislee has the inside track to earn the starting role and would almost certainly see goal line work that led to Blount’s impressive season last year. Again, I don’t expect him to match those 18 scores, but he should see plenty of opportunity. White should control the pass-catching role with plenty of third down snaps and a beat writer recently suggested he’d “won over” both Belichick and Brady. This leaves me wondering how the team will work in Burkhead, who had fantasy owners going crazy for the couple of weeks he appeared to be the lead back. While Gillislee’s value has blown up, White (RB43) and Burkhead (RB64) are both still somewhat easy to acquire and those are the players I’m targeting to get a piece of the Patriot action rather than paying up for the suddenly highly-priced Gillislee.
Current depth chart:
The Bengals used consecutive high draft picks on Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill in 2013 and 2014, respectively and both backs enjoyed huge rookie seasons. Following Bernard’s rookie season in 2013, he was being drafted as a top five dynasty back. Likewise, Hill was the RB3 after his solid rookie season of 2014. Since that time though, both backs have failed to live up to expectations. Bernard has battled injuries while Hill has not been a real factor between the 20s. Both fantasy production and dynasty value of both players has been on a steady decline following their respective rookie seasons. Here’s a look at their dynasty ADP over the past year.
After falling into the bottom third of NFL teams in 2016 based on points per game, the Bengals clearly were looking to improve their offense in the NFL Draft, nabbing speedy wideout John Ross in the first round before selecting running back Joe Mixon in the second. Much has been made of Mixon’s off-field trouble and that will be enough to keep some dynasty owners away, just as it caused NFL teams to reportedly remove Mixon from their draft boards. Nonetheless, he’s in the league now and we must consider his value. It seems that most expect Mixon to quickly claim the starting role, especially considering the lingering injury issues plaguing Bernard. The rookie is already being valued as a top 30 dynasty asset and top 10 running back before training camps even begin, so dynasty owners are certainly expecting big things from Mixon and I would agree with the masses. With that said, I think the discount being applied to both Bernard and Hill is too great. There is a great deal of risk with any rookie, especially one with Mixon’s history, so holding onto previously valuable veterans, or even acquiring them at their newly discounted price is a move that could pay off in a big way. Essentially, I could see a scenario in which all three of these backs is worth more a year from now than they are currently.
Current depth chart:
To some, the inclusion of the Oakland Raiders on this list might be a surprise as many are project a return of Beast Mode status for veteran running back Marshawn Lynch. We all know the story by now. Lynch walked away from the game on Super Bowl night in dramatic fashion, simply tweeting an image of cleats hanging from a wire. Much like Calvin Johnson, Ricky Williams, Barry Sanders and others who retired sooner than expected, fans and fantasy players were not quick to give up the dream of Lynch returning to the field and like Williams did years before him, he has now done just that. Lynch came out of retirement in order to sign with his hometown team, the Oakland Raiders. The Raiders have quickly built an exciting and high-powered offense, nailing the draft picks of Derek Carr and Amari Cooper, as well as signing Michael Crabtree when many other teams thought he was finished. The only thing missing was a strong running game.
Latavius Murray looked the part, but was never able to perform as a difference maker on the field or for fantasy owners. Everyone seemed to know the team would let Murray walk via free agency, but most expected the Raiders to use an early draft pick on a back. Instead, they aggressively targeted Lynch, acquiring his rights from Seattle and then getting a deal done right before the draft.
It is nearly impossible to project just how Lynch will perform this season considering he’s been away from the game for over a year and even in his final season dealt with nagging injuries. There seems to be little in between regarding expectations though. While some see Lynch as a near lock to perform as a RB1 this season, others completely lack the confidence that he can make an impact under these circumstances. It really comes down to Lynch being able to stay on the field and that is impossible to project. If he does, given the Raiders might have the best offensive line in the game and a highly capable passing offense, Lynch should run all over teams.
Count me among the Lynch doubters though and that is the reason the Raiders show up on this list. During their rookie season last year, both backups to Murray, DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard, were surprises and both outplayed Murray in stretches. If Lynch goes down, one or both of these two will see a huge bump in playing time and production and will look like amazing values consider their current ADPs of RB50 (Washington) and RB66 (Richard.) I have been buying each of these on the cheap in all league formats.
Kansas City Chiefs
Current depth chart:
You can’t argue Chiefs head coach Andy Reid has a history getting the best out of his running backs, despite most of those players entering the league with little fanfare. Although he did inherit one of the best backs in the game when he arrived in Kansas City and was paired with Jamaal Charles, but before that, Reid helped turned Duce Staley into a fantasy factor and Brian Westbrook into one of the best in the game. Following another injury to the superstar Charles, The Chiefs and Reid turned to a pair of little known backs, Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West. Both backs surprised and flourished in the run heavy offense, so much so that the team felt confident heading into 2016 with the pair and a banged up Charles.
Following the season, it was clearly time to move away from Charles and after West proved to be a non-factor, the Chiefs had to make a move. They added rookie Kareem Hunt in the mid-rounds of the draft and many are projecting him to steal the job away from Ware early in the season. In fact, Hunt is already being drafted more than a round ahead of the veteran in our startup dynasty mocks, sporting an ADP that makes him the RB27. I am excited to see what Reid can do with the young back, but we might be giving up on Ware a bit too quickly. He makes a nice buy low target for running back needy contenders as training camps begin soon.
Current depth chart:
The Ravens backfield is one of the most confounding in the league. The Ravens throw the ball more than any team in the league and that is at least partially due to their poor backfield in recent seasons. After the Ravens drafted rookie Kenneth Dixon a year ago, dynasty owners were ready to give him the job, but it was the veteran Terrance West who surprised everyone and finished as a low-end RB2 in 2016. Dixon did give dynasty players hope for the future but he was to begin the 2017 season with a four-game suspension (which was bad enough) but he will now be lost for the season with a knee injury.
The loss of Dixon is big but the impact on West will also be felt by the return of former Chargers back Danny Woodhead, who missed the majority of the 2016 season with a torn ACL. Woodhead will certainly hold down the pass-catching role, but he has performed better than expected as a between the tackles runner. Considering all of the available targets in the Ravens offense due to retirements, free agent departures and injuries and Woodhead could see a career high number of looks out of the backfield.
Dixon is currently the RB34 with an ADP of 102 but that number is sure to go down with his recent injury. Woodhead is close behind at RB38. West is the back who sits atop the depth chart, which makes him a screaming value as the RB62 at 190 overall – this number is likely to climb with the loss of Dixon as well, as long as the Ravens don’t add another legitimate running back to the mix.