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“Breakout” is a loosely employed term in fantasy that most often applies to players a prognosticator ranks well above the consensus average. In other words, what unheralded rookie or veteran is going to obliterate the widely perceived norm and profit massively for investors? This week’s series will addresses question. Today’s topic: Running backs.
Liz – KERRYON JOHNSON (81.5 ADP, RB35). Previous to Friday, I had planned to use this space to lay out the electric ascent of Derrius Guice. Since he’ll be forced to sit out all of 2018, however, I’ve climbed aboard the increasingly crowded Johnson bandwagon. Despite possessing power, burst, and vision, the Auburn product drew criticism from scouts for an upright running style and less-than-thrilling measurables. While the 21-year-old needs to improve his pad level, the rest of his game has exceeded expectations.
Since Lions’ training camp opened late last month, Johnson has impressed. From showing well in pass pro to doubling as a receiver, the second-round pick has demonstrated a solid three-down skill set. He continued to raise eyebrows during the team’s preseason debut, tripping up defenders with a series of quick cuts, spin moves, and stiff arms. Assuming rookie C Frank Ragnow continues to perform and that LT Taylor Deckler stays heathy, Johnson could blast through plenty of holes come September.
He’ll lose a few goal line looks to LeGarrette Blount and some receptions to Theo Riddick, but with fresh legs and an abundance of talent, Johnson’s opportunities only figure to grow. He’s currently my RB27, but I could definitely see a scenario in which he finishes inside of the top-fifteen players at the position.
Dalton – REX BURKHEAD (75.93 ADP, RB33). I claimed Burkhead as my breakout pick here before Sony Michel came down with a knee injury that will cost the rookie the rest of the preseason, and since then his ADP has skyrocketed. Still, this just means Burkhead’s draft price is inching closer to what it always should have been, as he’s primed for a career-year in 2018.
The Patriots are considered a frustrating backfield to rely on in fantasy terms, but New England produced 22 more red-zone touches by running backs last season than the team with the next most, so there are certainly benefits to playing in this system as well. The Pats lost Brandin Cooks, Danny Amendola and Dion Lewis during the offseason, while Julian Edelman deals with a four-game suspension, and Rob Gronkowski hasn’t played a full season since 2011, so Burkhead is going to be plenty active in this offense. New England re-signed him to a three-year contract during the offseason, and he’s a strong receiver who’s the favorite for goal-line work (if Burkhead plays 16 games, I’d put his TD over/under at 9.5). He doesn’t have to be a workhorse to be a top-20 fantasy back in this offense.
Scott – TARIK COHEN (71.2 ADP, RB30). Cohen didn’t have a perfect rookie year. He made some freshman mistakes. A bunch of his runs went for negative yardage. His efficiency in the passing game was oddly disappointing, even with a splash play here and there.
But the bottom line is that Cohen somehow found a way to catch 53 balls as a rookie, despite limited snaps (about one-third of the team’s) and forced exposure to a dated coaching staff. The John Fox staff, mercifully, has been kicked to the curb. If you buy into the Matt Nagy regime at all, a Cohen spike is a digestible narrative.
Cohen was the RB33 in PPR formats last year, despite a team that was reluctant to use him and didn’t really know how to use him. There are a lot of moving parts to the 2018 Bears offense, and not every ascending player will hit the high end of his range. But with featured back Jordan Howard struggling as a pass catcher (it’s cute that the Bears have been talking him up in this area), Cohen has a realistic shot at 70 or more receptions. I’ll place a few chips on him this month. At Cohen’s current market value, he can earn his keep with a modest jump in effectiveness or workload.
Matt – JAMAAL WILLIAMS (82.2 ADP, RB36). A great battle wages between two second year running backs for the top spot on the Green Bay Packers’ depth chart. One of the competitors will get a two-game head start on the other this season, was trusted with feature back workload for multiple games in 2017 and had a healthy training camp. The other had a high yards-per-carry. Aaron Jones is indeed an impressive specimen and his beefy 5.5 rookie year YPC average is an example of his dazzling running game. However, the seemingly “boring” Jamaal Williams comes into 2018 with every edge on him in the book to be the workhorse back in Aaron Rodgers’ offense.
Whether by necessity or by design, the Green Bay coaching staff displayed a willingness to trust Williams with feature back volume last year. The BYU product cleared 20 touches in six of the final eight games of 2017. While doubters will quickly point to his poor 3.6 yards per carry, they’ll ignore not just the context of operating in a Brett Hundley-led offense, but just how successful he was at keeping the offense moving. According to Sharp Football Stats, Williams’ 43 percent success rate on first and second down runs ranked 16th among backs with 100 carries in 2017.
That sort of reliability is like catnip to NFL coaches who desperately want to avoid mistakes. Unfortunately, the gifted Jones’ NFL run has been mired by injuries and he’ll enter 2018 coming off an offseason hamstring injury and will serve a two-game suspension to start the season. Quite the contrast.
We can scream into the void all we want about how talented Aaron Jones is and even if you’re right, it is irrelevant if volume doesn’t follow. Everything about their careers up to this point suggests Jamaal Williams is the better bet for volume this season. As a player going in the sixth to seventh-round of drafts with good odds to be the top back in an offense manned by an elite passer, he makes for as logical a pick as anyone.
Brad – ROYCE FREEMAN (61.1 ADP, RB26). Denver’s “Free Bird” is about to shred opposing defenses. Strum the strings, fellow Skynards. Different from the undersized scat-type RBs Oregon produced in recent years, he’s a bulky back (6-feet, 235 pounds), punishing between the tackles (3.39 YAC/att in ’17), shifty (No. 11 in elusive rating among all FBS RBs last year) and shockingly quick (4.54 40-yard). His vision, patience, footwork and hands are all pluses. Additionally, he’s displayed steady improvement in pass protection in Broncos training camp. In other words, he’s the complete package.
Over his decorated college career, Freeman routinely ripped through arm tackles and shook defenders in the open field. His odometer reading is already high (1,000-plus career touches in college), which limits his longevity, but he’s the clear-cut favorite to eclipse 250 touches in Year 1. Current depth-chart leader Devontae Booker is a fantasy fraud. He tallied a miserable 9.0 missed tackle percentage and bland 2.6 YAC per attempt last season, marks that suggest the rookie will dominate early down work. In terms of securing the lion’s share, it’s not a matter of if, but when. His eye-catching 23-yard TD gallop against Minnesota Preseason Week 1 offered a preview of his RB top-15 potential.
Suffice it to say, Freeman is the franchise’s new C.J. Anderson, a rusher capable of finishing inside the position’s top-15 Year 1. Keep in mind, Case Keenum is a massive upgrade at QB and the Broncos’ supposed rickety offensive line ranked No. 9 in run-blocking efficiency last year according to Football Outsiders. Not to be remiss, Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and upstart Courtland Sutton will greatly assist in lightening fronts. Don’t underestimate the potential. The greenhorn has strong odds of finishing north of 1,300 combined yards with 7-9 TDs. He’s my second favorite rookie RB outside of Saquon Barkley. At his Round 6 ADP in 12-team leagues, keep feasting on the meek.