As Benjamin Franklin famously wrote in 1789 - "In this world, nothing can be said to be certain except death, taxes and running back values to rise and fall at the drop of a hat"... Okay, that may not be word perfect but you get the idea. Year after year plenty of running backs either take a fall from grace or rise from nobodies to league winning superstars for your fantasy teams. Take last year, for example, David Johnson went from a top 10 running back to a mediocre backup in less than half a season after Kenyan Drake's trade from the Miami Dolphins to the Arizona Cardinals. On the flip side, Austin Ekeler started the offseason as just a nice pass-catching back on the LA Chargers to the main guy for the first half of the season after Melvin Gordon's holdout. But the question is, who is this year's backup running back who has the chance to take a leap in value by this time next year? In this article, I'm going to highlight 4 running backs that I feel could have a chance to take that next step.
The obvious starting point after highlighting Austin Ekeler's rise last season is Nyheim Hines following the Colts acquiring Philip Rivers in free agency. Hines was an early 4th round pick by the Colts in the 2018 NFL draft and instantly slotted in as the pass-catching back there to complement Marlon Mack, who is seen more as a between the tackles running back in that backfield. In his rookie season, Hines put up a rushing stats of 85/314/2 and a receiving stats of 63/425/2 with Andrew Luck at quarterback which was very respectable coming out of college and into the NFL. He then followed it up last year with a stat line of 52/199/2 on the ground and 44/320/0 through the air. While it may seem that he took a step back in his 2nd year, its worth noting that the Colts took a significate step back in talent under center going from Luck to Jacoby Brissett which I believe hindered Hines chances of achieving the potential he has as a receiver. So why do I think this season will be different for Hines? Let's highlight some of the reasons why...
Improvement at QB - As mentioned earlier, the Indianapolis Colts recently acquired Philip Rivers in free agency, a QB who has a reputation for being a bit of a gunslinger and due to his aging years, isn't the most mobile QB. Therefore he tends to lean on dump the ball off to his running back when the pressure starts to come from opposing pass rushers. This was shown last season with Ekeler's usage in the passing game, where he put up a receiving stats of 92/993/8. If Hines can get anywhere near that number of receptions then he has a great chance to produce the best stats of his career so far.
Similarities to Ekeler - Hines is very similar to Ekeler not just in his size (5'8" 198lbs to Ekeler's 5'9" 199lbs) but by been a speedy pass-catching back. With a 4.38sec 40 yard dash, Hines always has that potential to hit a home run, which he has shown when returning kicks and punts last season with over 400 yards and 2 touchdowns combined.
Unlikely to draft a RB - It is unlikely the Colts draft another RB, especially early, while they have more pressing needs at other positions such as WR and plenty of needs on the defensive side of the ball.
While I'm not saying Nyheim Hines is going to have a rise in the rankings like Ekeler as his situation is slightly different, I do believe there is a great chance he sees the most targets he has seen so far in his career and with his electric speed and big-play ability it is definitely something the Colts should look to utilize next season. With Mack around, I don't see a way he sees an uptick in rushing attempts, but even during the games Mack has missed in the past, the Colts tend to use another RB along with Hines anyway. Either way I feel Hines still has a great chance to outperform his current ADP of RB54, especially in PPR leagues.
Current Value - Hines could probably still be had for an early 2020 3rd round pick, which is great value for someone with the upside he has.
Next up we'll be taking a look at Tony Pollard, drafted at the backend of the 4th round by the Dallas Cowboys in the 2019 NFL draft. Pollard spent the majority of his college career playing with fellow 2019 draft prospect Darrell Henderson at Memphis, due to this he didn't see as many touches as a lot of other RB prospects in the class. In his final year at college, Pollard put up stats of 78/552/6 on the ground, averaging at 7.1YPC, and 39/458/3 receiving. Not only that, but he was also a highly productive kick and punt returner in college with stats of 87/2616/7 throughout his college career. After been take by the Cowboys, Pollard put together a solid rookie season despite been behind one of the best running backs in the NFL, Ezekiel Elliott. He ran for 86/455/2 and also added 107 yards on 15 receptions, including 1 TD. This was impressive considering he only had 4 games where he was given 10+ rushing attempts, flashing the upside he has in those games with some big runs. So let's look at some reasons why I think pollard is a good buy and stash for your roster...
Proven playmaker with NFL size - At 6'0" 210lbs (which is very similar to the previously mentioned, Marlon Mack, size), Pollard is a good size to handle been both the between the tackles RB as well as a pass-catcher, which he showed in the games when Elliott was rested after the Cowboys had a large lead.
Versatility - Even with Elliott there, his versatility should allow Pollard to see the field even while Elliott is on the field. He can be lined up in the slot, and with Randell Cobb leaving in free agency to the Houston Texans, there could be a role for him there also.
One of the top RB handcuffs - While we never want to see any player get injured, with the amount of work Elliott gets there is always the chance he could pick up an injury. If that were to happen, Pollard could slot into a high RB2/low RB1 role in this offense.
Despite having the elite Ezekiel Elliott in this way to be the lead back in Dallas, Pollard has shown enough big-play ability and upside during the season for the Cowboys not to leave him stuck on the bench next season. Going at an ADP of RB47, I think he can outperform this position easily if given an increase in opportunity.
Current Value - Similar to Hines, I believe Pollard could be had for as little as an early 2020 3rd round rookie pick, which is great value for a RB who could have league wining upside if anything were to happen to Ezekiel Elliott.
For my final two picks I'm going away from pass-catching backs and more to early-down backs, first up is Justin Jackson. Jackson was drafted in the 7th round of the 2018 NFL draft by the Chargers after 4 highly productive years in college at Northwestern, averaging over 1000 rushing yards in each season and finishing his college career with 1142/5440/41. In his rookie season Jackson was relatively unused up until week 12, when Melvin Gordon went down with an MCL sprain, resulting in Jackson picking up some of the workload for the following 3 games while Gordon was out. During this time he showed his potential by wrapping up the season with 50/206/2 averaging 4.1YPC and also contributing in the passing game with 15 receptions for 135 yards. Last season, after the news of a Melvin Gordon hold out, Jackson headed into the season as the Chargers lead back along with Austin Ekeler. And while Ekeler received all the plaudits, Jackson quietly put up some very efficient numbers along with him, averaging 7.7YPC in those first 3 games before Melvin Gordon returned. So here are some points why I think Justin Jackson is a nice buy in dynasty leagues right now...
No Melvin Gordon - Now that Gordon has gone to the Denver Broncos, this opens up an opportunity for Jackson to share that backfield with Ekeler.
Can Ekeler handle a workhorse role? - While in the past Ekeler has shown he can handle an every-down role, will the Chargers want to run him into the ground and risk losing that big play ability in the passing game? I think a RBBC approach with Jackson makes the most sense here.
A proven runner in college - At 6'0" 199lbs Jackson has a thin frame but he has shown in college he can handle a larger workload when called upon with his elusiveness and sharp jump-cuts
I think Jackson is a great cheap buy right now in your dynasty leagues, even with him sharing the backfield at the Chargers with Austin Ekeler. Its recently been reported that the Chargers are 'still very high' on Jackson so that's a great vote of confidence for the young running back. His current ADP is RB62 and I can see that rising a fair bit if the Chargers don't draft another RB in the NFL draft.
Current Value - While the hype is building around Jackson, it may take a late 2020 2nd round pick to acquire him, but if he can lock up the early-down work in LA then he can definitely return value at that price.
New England Patriots
Finally, and probably one of my favorite deep sleepers, is Damien Harris who was drafted by the Patriots in the 3rd round of the 2019 NFL draft, taken in the same round as fellow running backs Darrell Henderson, David Montgomery, and Devin Singletary. Harris spent 4 years playing for Alabama during his college career and played with some top-level running backs such as Derrick Henry, Kenyan Drake, and Josh Jacobs. Harris and Jacobs were both a part of the 2019 draft class and even though Harris out produced Jacobs throughout college at Alabama it was Jacobs who was drafted first with the 24th pick by the Raiders. Harris finished up his college career with stats of 447/3070/23 on the ground and 52/407/2 through the air showing his potential as a three-down running back. Sadly with the crowded backfield in New England, which includes Sony Michel, James White, Rex Burkhead, and even Brandon Bolden, Harris was unable to see much action in his rookie season, managing only 4 rushes for 12 yards. So with such a deep and confusing backfield in New England, why is Damien Harris a good dynasty buy?
Aging backfield - Both Burkhead (29) and Bolden (30) aren't getting any younger, while James White (28) will be entering his 7th year in the NFL this upcoming season. It's also worth noting all 3's contracts expire in 2021. Could 1 or 2 become roster casualties?
Sony Michel struggles? - Last season Sony Michel had a somewhat disappointing year, despite having 247 rushing attempts (9th in the league) he only managed 914 yards and 7 touchdowns. Could the patriots maybe use Harris more as the goal line back now entering his sophomore year following Michel's struggles?
Great running back size - at 5'10" 216lbs, Harris is a great size to handle the physical work in the NFL. And while he may not have the burst of other running backs with his 4.57 speed, his no-nonsense running style coupled with his soft hands to take in dump-off ball means he has the potential and ability to handle a workhorse role.
Damien Harris finds himself in a crowded situation in New England, but Harris has a great chance to enter the 2020 season as the team's RB3. Sony Michel's struggles are well documented, along with the fact that he has had injury struggles in the past with knee issues. I feel that Harris has the talent, as well as a nice draft capital, that the Patriots start to use him more next season, whether that's in the rushing game or passing game. With Tom Brady going to Tampa Bay, I feel the Patriots will lean on the running game a lot more with whoever is at QB next season, whether that's Stidham, Hoyer or a rookie. He has the ability to smash his current ADP of RB48.
Current Value - after such a poor rookie season there is a chance that Harris could be on the waiver wire in your league, but even if not, he could be bought for next to nothing right now. So I would look to acquire him now and stash him as the only way is up for Damien Harris.