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NFL running backs finishing their rookie deals can have made a huge difference for you fantasy football team in past years. They are looking for big pay days, but should you buy in?

NFL free agency starts on March 18, 2020.

History has a story to tell and this Spotlight article will compile top running back contracts in 2018, 2019 and 2020 to provide predictions for the latest running back talent.

Running backs seeking lucrative new deals in 2020:

-Derrick Henry, Titans (franchise tag, $10.7 million)

-Melvin Gordon, Chargers (signed with Broncos, 2 years $16 million)

-Kenyan Drake, Cardinals (transition tag $8.4 million)

-Jordan Howard, Eagles (signed with Dolphins, 2 years $9.75 million)

-Matt Breida, 49ers (tendered, 1 year $3.26 million)

-Kareem Hunt, Browns (tendered, 1 year $3.26 million)

-Austin Ekeler, Chargers (extended by Chargers, 4 years $24.5 million)

Looking back for perspective, top running backs from 2017 received large payouts based on their performance.

Entering 2018 Season, Highest Paid RB's

#1 - Todd Gurley, Rams

Contract value: $57.5 million

#2 - Devonta Freeman, Falcons

Contract value: $41.2 million

#3 - LeSean McCoy, Bills

Contract value: $40 million

#4 - David Johnson, Cardinals

Contract value: $39.0 million

#5 - Saquon Barkley, Giants

Contract value: $31.2 million

#6 - Jerick McKinnon, 49ers

Contract value: $30.0 million

#7 - Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville

Contract value: $27.2 million

$8 - Lamar Miller, Texans

Contract value: $26 million

#9 - Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys

Contract value: $24.9 million

#10 - Dion Lewis, Titans

Contract value: $19.8 million

How did these players wind up in 2018?

Production from 2018 led to the top ten highest paid running backs list shaking up...

Entering 2019 Season, Highest Paid RB's

#1 - Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys

Contract value: $90.0 million

#2 - Todd Gurley, Rams

Contract value: $57.5 million

#3 - Le'Veon Bell, Jets

Contract value: $52.5 million

#4 - Devonta Freeman, Falcons

Contract value: $41.2 million

#5 - David Johnson, Cardinals

Contract value: $39.0 million

#6 - Saquon Barkley, Giants

Contract value: $31.2 million

#7 - Jerick McKinnon, 49ers

Contract value: $30.0 million

#8 - Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville

Contract value: $27.2 million

$9 - Lamar Miller, Texans

Contract value: $26 million

#10 - Duke Johnson, Browns

Contract value: $15.6 million

In general, rookie running backs that start their careers as one of the top 10 highest paid running backs have been a very reliable source of production in their rookie year. They would be a great anchor for a dynasty when acquired before their rookie season. Then, as time goes on, and they have more NFL production, they move up the highest paid running back list.

Running back value peaks at the end of a rookie contract in the majority of cases. To get the best return on a running back, the sell high time is going into the second contract. It's true that some players, like Todd Gurley, have an exceptional year directly following signing a new deal. However, long term prospects didn't turn out well and at the end of 2018, durability was a concern. He was cut by the Rams during free agency in 2020.

When acquiring a running back going into their second contract, you will pay more than their long term worth. If you only need the running back for one year to get around the edge and break out for a championship it could be worth it! Know that it may be at the expense of long term success for your fantasy team. History has a story to tell about running backs, their contracts, their fantasy production and what you need to know when choosing running backs for a dynasty roster.

Comments made on these running backs are based on Superflex dynasty rosters.

Derrick Henry, Titans, Franchise Tag,$10.7 million:

Ryan Tannehill was signed to a long term deal, Derrick Henry received the Franchise Tag...the gangs back together! There is a Greek God, Atlas, that bears the weight of the heavens on his shoulders. Picture a man holding the entire earth on his back. I am not sure that Derrick Henry is not this person for the Titans. His production in the 2019 playoffs, and throughout the season was incredible. He carried the team, like he carried the rock for a first down.

What about one of the best runs in the history of the NFL when Derrick Henry ran through tackle after tackle to spark the Titans in 2018? This former Heisman Trophy winner knows how to work. He can make things happen on the field without assistance from blockers when he hits the gap, and he can get it done in the open field. People are sleeping on Derrick Henry right now. I would not build my roster around him as my RB1, but if he is available in the second or round to supplement as a RB2 it gives a lot of flexibility to the roster.

Running backs take the most punishment, on the most frequent basis, of offensive skill players in the NFL. Derrick Henry has taken a lot of carries during his rookie contract and this needs to be noted in his evaluation. He is a BUY. The roster construction, and stability of the offense, show a dedication to what was seen in 2019. He will continue to carry the Titans, and your fantasy team. He does not have the same value as Saquon, Dalvin Cook, CMC, etc. I would trade him for the 1.03 in 2020.

Melvin Gordon, Broncos, 2 years $15 million:

Holding out for almost a year seriously hurt his stock, and contract potential. Austin Ekeler exploded onto the scene, putting up top five running back numbers for multiple games to start the season. His great performance pushed Gordon to end his hold out before the end of the year, then when he returned, he looked as if he had lost a step. He lost the momentum from his earlier years, and the faith of the organization. The Chargers did not offer him a contract, signed Ekeler to a sizable contract before free agency and let Gordon walk.

This former Wisconsin Badger landed with the Broncos on a short deal. He is currently in a crowded backfield with Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman. People are onto Melvin’s value and it would be hard to sell him right now even though he has the ceiling of a RB1.

On the flip side, he is a speculative buy because a lot of things have to happen for him to be a top running back in Denver. One of the two third year running backs from the current roster could be traded to allow Gordon more time on the field, and/or he could win the competition and take the lion's share of snaps.

My recommendation is to HOLD Gordon because his true value will not be known until a few games into the season. This is the time I predict his value to peak again, and for him to be sold at maximum value for younger fantasy assets.

Kenyan Drake, Cardinals, Transition Tag $8.4 million:

Kenyan Drake has been very up and down as a fantasy running back since his rookie year. Spotty usage during Adam Gase’s tenure left most owners looking elsewhere for talent during his time in Miami. Then he was traded to the Cardinals to stimulate their running game in wake of a sputtering out David Johnson, and he crushed it. 4 TD games can really excite an owner! He ended the year on a high note and his production left David Johnson being traded for DeAndre Hopkins (what is this 2016?), and Drake being franchise tagged. They are looking to agree on a long term deal.

If you wanted to buy Kenyan Drake right now, I would chalk him up as having a top 12 RB season in store for 2020, and a top 24 RB season in 2021. I would not categorize him as a buy right now, although many may disagree with me…

This is why I think Kenyan Drake is a SELL right now: he still has a good fantasy market currently and truly has potential to return value for the owner who is trading for Drake. If you need a good RB for next year you can hold him, but I think this is the last time to sell him high. I'd be looking for early round rookie picks and a veteran to shore up another part of my roster. I would consider the 1.01 straight up, but we all know that would never happen?

Jordan Howard, Dolphins, 2 years $9.75 million:

Jordan Howard was a fantasy darling in his rookie year! His value has been in a continual decline since the completion of his rookie year with the Bears. He was traded to the Eagles for basically nothing, and then did not meet expectations in Philly. Entering his second contract, he heads to Miami where many running backs have been underutilized regardless of head coach (Damien Williams, Kenyan Drake and Kalen Ballage). People get excited for the prospects of future production when players change teams. I would look to leverage this to get the most value from him as I expect his value to continue to decline. I currently rate him as a SELL.

Let’s say, hypothetically, Tua Tagovailoa is drafted by the Dolphins. Ryan Fitzpatrick starts the first four games and airs it out. His deep bombs open up massive running lanes for Howard and you kick yourself for selling Howard in the offseason despite the Dolphins losing every game. Then Tua takes over and gets his first start since his hip injury. They will rely on Howard heavily and defenses adjust to favor defensive schemes that force more passes. I do not want to be counting on Howard’s production at that time. I predict the fantasy performance of Howard to decline throughout 2020 and beyond.

Speculations allow people to make decisions based on how they are reading the tea leaves. History is telling me that running backs in their second contracts decline. No one wants to trade for a worthless asset. Because Howard does have potential, people will want to buy him and the short term value is there. Keep in mind that he is also coming off a neck injury on top of all of these comments. I see Howard landing in the overall rankings between RB 24 and 36. I would consider an early 2nd round 2020 rookie pick for Howard.

Matt Breida, 49ers, Tendered, 1 year $3.26 million:

Matt Breida is a sleeper. I see him as someone that is stashed away on your bench and then if the stars align, he shines brightly with some RB1 weekly performances. Anyone that tried to predict running back production of the 49ers backfield during their playoff run in 2019 knows how difficult it can be to select the running back of the week. Tevin Coleman, Raheem Mostert and Jerick McKinnon are all on contract in 2020 already. This fantastic four make the 49ers backfield a great fantasy asset as a whole, but detract from each other’s stand alone value.

Guaranteed production from Matt Breida is nowhere near predictable. Separately from other teams, if one guy goes down, the backup gets a great shot. In this case, the stable of running backs allow no shortage of rushers at any given time. Now, last year, despite having so many running backs on contract, they still were down to one guy at times. That being said, the offensive line, quarterback situation and strong defense are built to run the ball. If the 49ers play their game, they do not intend to throw a single pass for the whole game. They need the running back depth for this game plan, and you better believe those RB’s are going to get banged up.

Brieda is a HOLD. He is like a lottery ticket waiting to be scratched. You know the 49ers want to run the ball, and all of their running backs have been effective (McKinnon excluded). He can be drafted deep in startup dynasty drafts and can perform as a top weekly RB. For the quality of rookie picks you can get in exchange in a trade, it is not worth it. I would not trade any rookie picks to obtain him either. The only downside is burning a roster spot until the perfect moment when he swoops in and wins your week.

Kareem Hunt, Browns, Tendered, 1 year $3.26 million:

Kareem Hunt bull rushed his way into the NFL with a beat down of New England in his first rookie game and was storming through the NFL until off the field issues caused his success to come to a screeching halt. He did his time in suspension, was signed by the Browns into a timeshare with Nick Chubb, had sports hernia surgery and was modest in PPR settings at the end of last year.

His role in Cleveland is not terribly large, but it's a huge negative for Nick Chubb. Chubb is a bruiser and takes advantage of multiple carries to wear down a defense. His patterns get thrown off by switching into and out of the game with Hunt. I probably will not hold my loss by a fraction of a point in the championship of week 16 last year to his abysmal perform.

Hunt’s market is not very large right now for short or long term deals. People know he will always be at the risk of off field issues which puts a damper on his long term value, and in the short term he is not a lock to really have the success you want. If I had Kareem Hunt, I would HOLD him right now because I do not know what I can get that would be worth it, he has upside, but he comes with high risk.

The thing that makes valuing running backs more difficult is their scarcity relative to other positions, even in a super flex. @seeky4 asked "What position scores the most points and has the longest career?" The obvious answer is quarterbacks, because they score so many more points in a year than other positions. In the next article, I'll cover how points above replacement can be used to level the playing field between all positions and how you can use it to maximize talent on your roster.


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