Last week, I did the first article in a series that takes a position-by-position look at some players to buy and sell this off-season. That piece focused on four running backs to buy, and now we’ll peep four running backs who you may want to sell this off-season.
Knowing when to sell a player can be a tricky proposition. Move a player at the wrong time, and you’ll watch as a league-mate reaps the rewards. Hold on to a player for too long, and you can get stuck with a devalued asset.
Of course, there’s no surefire way to predict the future, but there are various things we can look at to help us make educated guesses. Let’s check out four running backs who may be good sells this off-season.
For the sake of clarity, all average draft position (ADP) references in this article are pulled from our January 2018 ADP data.
Marlon Mack, RB IND
Mack’s rookie year was fairly mundane as he played a part-time role behind Frank Gore, finishing with 358 yards and three scores on 93 carries (3.8 yards per carry) with another 225 yards and one touchdown on 21 catches as a receiver.
It wasn’t a total dud, but nothing really jumps off the page. However, Mack’s current value as RB26 tells us the dynasty community is expecting an increase in production going forward.
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Clearly, a lot of Mack’s appeal is tied to his chances of being the lead back in an Andrew Luck-led offense. Even if we assume impending free agent Frank Gore is out of town, there are still a few issues at play here.
The two obvious ones are Luck’s health and Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay’s recent comments. Luck’s shoulder injury cost him all of 2017, and while Indy is saying he’ll be ready for 2018, the Colts said the same things last summer only to have Luck sit all season.
As for Irsay’s comments, he recently said he’d like the team to take a running back high in the 2018 NFL Draft. That’s not exactly a glowing endorsement of Mack. If Indy does take a running back in one of the first few rounds, that’ll ding Mack’s chances of getting big-time volume, and if the Colts take Saquon Barkley – as some early mocks are predicting – Mack’s value will plummet.
There’s also the not-so-small matter of Mack possibly not thriving in a lead-back role even if everything breaks his way this off-season. After all, he didn’t show very well as a rookie outside of some splash plays.
Since the time Mack was drafted in the fourth round last year, dynasty owners have stashed him in hopes of landing the Colts’ future lead back. Those wishes may never come to fruition, though, and if Mack opens 2018 anywhere but atop the depth chart, it’ll send his value tumbling.
Dion Lewis, RB NE
I love me some Lewis, so I’m going to have to hide this from my brethren at our weekly Dion Lewis truther meetings. But this may be the ideal time to move him, especially now that the community is finally buying in and Lewis is playing a vital role in the playoffs.
There’s no debating Lewis’ ability. When he’s been healthy, he’s been a key part of the New England Patriots’ offense. The Pats have never lost a game in which Lewis has handled more than five carries – a perfect 20-0 (going into the AFC title bout). While Lewis hasn’t been a high-volume back player prior to seeing a bigger workload this year, his bump in carries didn’t hurt his per-touch efficiency as he racked up a sparkling 5.0 yards per attempt on 180 carries (he only had 113 total attempts in his two previous seasons in New England).
So, wait, this is a guy we want to get rid of?
It all comes down to Lewis’ free agency. Headed to the open market, Lewis’ future is uncertain, and the Patriots usually aren’t ones to pay up at the running back position. Lewis could definitely be back, though, as Rex Burkhead is also set to be an unrestricted free agent and Mike Gillislee can be cut after the year with no dead money (James White is signed through 2020).
Even if New England wants Lewis back, they may not be able to afford him as the Pats are projected to have the tenth-fewest cap dollars in the league for 2018. The Patriots may have to choose between Burkhead (RB32 in January) and Lewis, and leaving New England is almost certainly a negative for either player. Not only would that mean probably going to a lesser offense, it would mean they’d be leaving a coaching staff that continually excels at utilizing the talents of their players. Maybe the Pats will keep both. Who knows? But if one of them leaves, it’ll harm his upside.
Admittedly, if Lewis ends up sticking in New England, trading him now could blow up in your face as he was the PPR RB15 in 2017. On the flip side, if he is playing elsewhere in 2018, you may never be able to get as much for him as you can prior to the beginning of free agency, and his price will only get richer with every good postseason performance he delivers.
Jay Ajayi, RB PHI
Ajayi had a pretty crazy year, and his value has dropped a good amount – RB7 last January to RB17 now – as a result of what’s been a step back across the board from his breakout numbers in 2016.
After amassing 1,272 yards and eight touchdowns on 260 carries last season, Ajayi totaled 873 yards and one score on 208 attempts in 2017, adding 24 grabs for 158 receiving yards and one touchdown.
In truth, Ajayi is the type of asset that makes dynasty so much fun. It wouldn’t be too difficult to craft an argument for Ajayi being a player to buy this off-season if you think he’s a good player who is going to emerge as a high-volume back in what was a very good Philadelphia Eagles offense with Carson Wentz under center.
I don’t see things playing out that way, however.
For one, I was always a little skeptical of Ajayi’s 2016 breakout because he relied so heavily on big plays, something that is hard to sustain on a year-to-year basis. Ajayi led the league in 2016 with four runs of 40-plus yards, and he had ten runs of at least 20 yards, the third-most among all backs. He actually had only four games of 80-plus rushing yards that year, but three of them – thanks to long runs – were 200-yard days. In his career, he’s gone for 80-plus rushing yards in a mere seven of his 38 games.
Even during his big 2016 year, Ajayi had just eight weeks of RB2 (top-24 weekly) production and four RB1 (top-12) weeks. He was incredibly reliant on those big plays – and huge weeks – to prop up his season-long numbers. And sure enough, those chunk plays regressed this year as he struggled to an RB36 finish in PPR formats. No back who saw at least 200 carries scored fewer fantasy points in 2017 than Ajayi did.
Hitting pay dirt only twice on 232 touches makes it hard to be a good fantasy producer and was likely some bad luck at play with Corey Clement sniping four scores. But Ajayi put up double-digit PPR points in just five games in 2017 and didn’t have a fantasy day of more than 13.7 PPR points. He failed to record a single RB1 (top-12) week in PPR leagues and had a meager five RB2 weeks on the year. For a player whose value skyrocketed in 2016 based on his on-field performance, I’d expect more than four RB1 (top-12) weeks over the past two years.
Ajayi did see a dip in volume from 2016 to 2017, which should bog down his raw numbers, but his 208 carries were still the 16th-most in the league. The lack of big plays and touchdowns crushed his fantasy upside, though.
In addition to Ajayi maybe not being as good as we thought 12 months ago, there’s also the issue of volume. Ajayi averaged exactly ten carries per game in seven contests with Philly this year, so he didn’t come in and dominate this backfield after the midseason trade – far from it, actually. It was a fairly even split between Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount, who averaged 9.1 rushes per game in the seven games Ajayi played with the Eagles.
To be fair, Ajayi was pretty darn great with his carries, picking up an average of 5.8 yards per run. The sample size is a mere 70 attempts, but it’s at least a little worrying the coaching staff didn’t hand him the reins later in the year after he’d gotten acclimated to the Eagles’ offense. In the four full games he played with a healthy Wentz, Ajayi saw eight, seven, five and nine carries. And it’s not like Ajayi’s lack of touchdowns is solely due to Blount’s work at the goal-line, because Blount has only found the end zone once since Philly acquired Ajayi.
The Eagles’ backfield could look a lot different in 2018. Blount and Darren Sproles are both free agents this off-season, while Corey Clement is signed through 2019. Time will tell what this depth chart looks like next fall, but even if it’s just Ajayi and Clement, I don’t have enough confidence in Ajayi’s ability to hold onto him while he’s still being valued as a top-20 runner, especially when backs like Mark Ingram, Jordan Howard, LeSean McCoy and Derrick Henry are in roughly the same tier as Ajayi.
You may feel differently, and that’s what makes dynasty great. Volume is king at running back, and if Ajayi takes the baton next season and sees 250-plus touches, this sell recommendation could look silly. But a year from now, if Ajayi has continued to struggle to produce usable fantasy weeks on a consistent basis, this off-season window will end up looking like the opportune time to sell.
Kenyan Drake, RB MIA
In December, Drake was the RB47. One month later, he’s cracked the top 20 at the position, coming in at RB20 in January.
That’s an insane jump. And it’s pretty much solely due to the way Drake closed out the season over the final five weeks. Anytime a player makes that kind of leap in such a short time, you have to ask yourself “how sustainable is what we just saw?”
First, let’s break down what Drake did over those final five weeks to win over so many in the dynasty community.
Once the aforementioned Ajayi was shipped to Philly, Drake was presented with the chance to take over the Miami Dolphins’ backfield, and he seized his opportunity. Over the final five games, Drake racked up 444 rushing yards and two scores on 91 carries (4.88 YPC), adding 17 catches and 150 yards (on 28 targets) as a pass-game weapon.
Simply put: Drake was an every-down machine. And not only did he get insane volume — 18.2 carries per game over that five-game span — he was extremely efficient with his rushing attempts. That’s going to get any dynasty owner excited.
But how sustainable is both that kind of volume and that kind of production?
Based on running back usage around the league in 2017, Drake will have to buck the odds to maintain that kind of workload. Just looking at his carries, the 18.2 attempts per game he had over the final five games were more carries per game than workhorse backs like Todd Gurley, LeSean McCoy, and Melvin Gordon had in 2017 – all of whom pretty much ran a monopoly in their respective backfields.
In fact, the only two backs (among those with at least ten games played) to finish the season with more than 18.2 carries per game were Le’Veon Bell and Ezekiel Elliott. On top of that, Miami ran the ball only 22.5 times per game this past season, the fewest runs per game in the NFL, so Drake was getting all the work. In that five-game span, Drake saw all but eight of the Dolphins’ running back carries (with those other eight going to Senorise Perry), and he accounted for every single running back carry in three of the games.
That kind of usage just doesn’t happen anymore in today’s game, and I’m not going to bet on Drake hogging nearly all of the running back touches in Miami next season.
As for the efficiency, it’s hard telling because we have so little to go off of in terms of a track record with Drake. In his post-high school career, he’s never seen that kind of role on a steady basis. The 133 carries he saw in 2016 are the most he’s gotten in a season since high school. Prior to said five-game tear, Drake had a mere 42 carries last season, and he finished with just 33 rushing attempts in 2016.
Even in college at Alabama, Drake was a part-time player who made more of an impact on special teams and in the passing game (granted his ‘Bama teams were pretty loaded at running back).
This isn’t to say Drake can’t handle 20 touches per game, because I have no idea if he can. It’s just a way of showing that we have nothing to go off of when trying to figure out how Drake will produce with that kind of workload over a large sample size.
While Drake did rush for a pristine 88.8 yards per game during his five-game eruption, unless you think he’s an elite player, it’s hard to buy into him sustaining that kind of production. The clip of 88.8 yards per game would’ve ranked second for the year in 2017, trailing only Elliott, if Drake maintained it over a full season.
I’m not trying to ‘nah wave’ Drake’s final five weeks. We can’t just dismiss them. That stretch happened, and he put up really nice numbers during the run. If he enters 2018 as the lead guy, he’ll probably produce usable fantasy weeks at a position where volume means everything.
But at the same time, it’s hard to buy into Drake sustaining that type of volume and efficiency unless he’s all of the sudden one of the truly elite running backs in the NFL.