One of the biggest decisions faced by fantasy drafters comes after the elite tier of dual-threat workhorse backs – Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley, Alvin Kamara, Ezekiel Elliott, and Dalvin Cook – are off the board. The picks made around the one-two turn can make or break your fantasy season. Here, we explore the range of outcomes for the backs you should be considering in those spots, and examine the factors that will determine where things land on the production spectrum.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire -- Kansas City Chiefs: The MVP of the 2019 NCAA National Champions and 2020 first-round draft pick landed in the perfect spot for a pass-catching back with immense skill between-the-tackles. Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes are the safest bets in football -- this offense will score often -- while CEH will provide the consistent rushing threat Kansas City lacked in 2019. His ability to humiliate linebackers in coverage will open things up even more for the passing game, and Damien Williams opting out clears the path for Brian Westbrook-style usage.
Upside: Clyde takes to another elite spread-shotgun offense like a duck to water. He earns the Westbrook-year-3 featured role, taking 58% of the carries and just below 20% of the targets, translating to 215 carries and 110 targets. The resulting 1800 scrimmage yards, 85 receptions and 20 touchdowns make Clyde the #1 player in fantasy.
Downside: Clyde suffers from the lack of true practice time in a COVID world, struggling to pick up some aspects of Reid's vast offense. He leads the backfield, but DeAndre Washington steals passing game work and Darrel Williams gets the short yardage carries. CEH settles in at 800 rushing yards, 45 catches for 450 yards, and 10 scores.
Derrick Henry – Tennessee Titans: The Titans’ run-first offense should see minimal schematic change as Art Smith returns for year 2 as playcaller. Smith righted Matt LaFluer’s wrongs in 2019, installing King Henry as a true bellcow back. Henry and the Titans’ bruising offensive line were the engine of a wide zone play-action offense that drove the Titans to an unexpected deep playoff run. He is likely to lead the NFL in carries and will see nearly 100% of Tennessee’s goal line work.
Upside: The Titans’ line picks up where it left off, reliably getting Henry to the 2nd level, where he is able to wreak havoc as the most terrorizing open-field runner in the NFL. Henry takes 310 carries for over 1600 yards and pushes 20 rushing TDs. A slight increase in usage, and added high-efficiency looks in the screen game, tack on 25 catches for 350 yards and two more scores.
Downside: After the first go-round with an Art Smith-Ryan Tannehill offense, the NFL goes all-in on stopping the Titans’s rush attack. Efficiency suffers, drives stall, the Titans must throw more. Henry is not getting those targets. He logs 280 carries, matches his career-low 4.2 yards per tote, notching 1176 disappointing yards. Few targets and limited scoring opportunities in a bad offense add insult to the injury of lost rushing production.
Nick Chubb – Cleveland Browns: After a failed attempt to build a spread passing offense around Baker Mayfield, the Browns finally saw the untapped potential sitting in their backfield. Kevin Stefanski was hired after orchestrating the fourth most run-heavy attack in the NFL in Minnesota, where he fed a healthy Dalvin Cook both on the ground and through the air. The addition of a run-blocking fullback, upgrades along the offensive line, and the addition of emeritus offensive line coach Bill Callahan further cement the planned wide zone ground-and-pound approach for the Browns in 2020.
Upside: Stefanski recognizes Chubb’s elite talent, as he did with Dalvin in Minnesota. Chubb sees a workhorse role, despite talented backup Kareem Hunt’s presence on the roster (hello Alexander Mattison). Chubb matches Cook’s first 10 weeks of 2019 for an entire season, taking 20 carries per game, while improving on his efficiency behind an upgraded offensive line in a perfect scheme-talent fit. He breaks 1700 rushing yards with 16 rushing scores. Effective use in the screen game (a 2019 Vikings hallmark) nets an added 350 receiving yards, seeing him challenge CMC for overall RB1.
Downside: Stefanski was merely a vessel for famed run-first autocrat Mike Zimmer. He abandons the approach that landed him the job, instead replicating the attack that saw Freddie Kitchens fired. In a pass-forward offense, Hunt’s pass-catching prowess pushes him close to an even snap-share. Chubb gets half the carries in a 60:40 pass:run offense, struggling to break 200 on the season. Elite efficiency isn’t enough to push him much over 1000 yards, and the lack of receiving volume thrusts Chubb into low-end RB2 territory.
Joe Mixon – Cincinnati Bengals: Zac Taylor returns for year two, after a horrendous debut performance. The Bengals’ 29th-ranked offense (by DVOA) never found its identity, instead operating as a shell of Sean McVay’s system. Mixon, “probably the best back in the league” according to legendary coach Bill Belichick, was a workhorse on the ground, handling 278 carries. But Taylor never solved the riddle of targeting one of the best receiving backs in the game through the air, possibly an effective way to counteract their struggling offensive line. Alas, rookie quarterback Joe Burrow targeted backs on 18% of his throws at LSU in 2019, and may tilt favor towards Mixon in the passing game.
Upside: The Bengals’ offense progresses to middle of the pack with the addition of Burrow and return of AJ Green and Jonah Williams. Mixon sees increased efficiency and scoring opportunity, approaching 300 carries, 1400 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns. Taylor re-creates the 2018 LA Rams’ usage of Todd Gurley, with Burrow finding Mixon for a 12% target share, translating to 70 targets, 55 receptions, 450 yards, and a couple more scores.
Downside: Taylor really was just friends with McVay. He continues to use Mixon as a two-down thumper, spelling him on passing downs in favor of incredibly-easy-to-tackle Gio Bernard. Mixon continues to see fewer than three targets per game. The Bengals’ offensive line is still a bottom-third unit, and scoring opportunities are few and far between. Mixon Loses some carries to 2019 picks Trayveon Williams and/or Rodney Anderson, carrying it 250 times for just over 1,000 yards and another 5 TDs.
Austin Ekeler – Los Angeles Chargers: Ekeler returns as the entrenched lead back under head coach Anthony Lynn and interim-turned-permanent offensive coordinator Shane Steichen. Once Steichen took over in 2019, Ekeler was targeted at a 16-game pace of 104 targets, posting over 50 receiving yards in 5 of 8 games, including two over 100. The Chargers swapped out the dried husk of Philip Rivers for journeyman Tyrod Taylor and rookie first rounder Justin Herbert. Taylor figures to begin the season as the starter, with Herbert inevitably taking over at some point later on. Ekeler’s important passing game role looks to be secure regardless of the signal caller, as he figures to earn a continued heavy share of the air work. Ekeler will share carries with Justin Jackson and rookie Joshua Kelley, but likely will see an increased workload with Melvin Gordon moving on to Denver.
Upside: Ekeler is CMC-lite, approaching 20% target share, breaking 100 targets, and earning 85 receptions, 800 receiving yards and five touchdowns. Jackson and Kelley each take a quarter of the ground touches, leaving Ekeler with 50% of the carries and 800 ground yards, adding another six scores.
Downside: Taylor and Herbert struggle to lead an effective offense and sustain drives. Ekeler maintains a 19% target share, but fails to break 100 targets, and settles in with 600 receiving yards and three receiving touchdowns. The ground game is a three-headed monster, with Ekeler earning 125 carries for around 500 yards, while seeing almost no goal line carries and scoring just twice on the ground.
Kenyan Drake – Arizona Cardinals: Drake finally escaped the black hole down in Miami, where he was inexplicably locked in a three-way timeshare with two of the worst backs in the NFL. Kliff Kingsbury quickly gave Drake the keys, showcasing his elite explosiveness, dynamic open field skill, and receiving ability. As a true bell-cow back, he produced at an otherworldly 1600+ scrimmage yard, 16-touchdown, 16-game pace. The Cardinals rid themselves of David Johnson this offseason, and did not add significant competition, so Drake’s dominant role in a dynamic and improving offense appears secure. In fact, replacing DJ with elite outside weapon DeAndre Hopkins should serve to increase Drake’s opportunity to wreak havoc in the short passing game.
Upside: Drake continues in his role from last season, taking over 60% of the team’s carries for 1200 rushing yards and 14 scores. His receiving role expands, taking on half of Johnson’s vacated work for an 11% target share, 50 receptions, 350 receiving yards and another four scores.
Downside: Drake once again does what he does (your guess is as good as mine), and lands in yet another coaching staff’s doghouse. He splits time with a now-healthy Chase Edmonds and rookie day-three pick Eno Benjamin. His 10-carries per game net him 800 yards and seven scores, while he splits receiving duties, hauling in 30 balls for 200 yards and another touchdown.
Josh Jacobs – Las Vegas Raiders: The best offensive rookie in the NFL last year, Jacobs put on a weekly clinic in working tight spaces. Jon Gruden returns as Las Vegas’ football czar, bringing along his stated affinity for both power running and the 2019 first-round pick. Despite flashing downfield skill at ‘Bama, Jacobs did not develop a meaningful passing game role as a rookie, and the addition of swiss-army knife rookie Lynn Bowden, Jr. along with Jalen Richard’s return, cast doubt on a path to meaningful targets in 2020. However, an outstanding offensive line intact from 2019, the addition of speedy wide receiver Henry Ruggs III, and return to health of Tyrell Williams could have this offense in position to score frequently.
Upside: Gruden goes all in on Jacobs, and the Raider offense fires on all cylinders. Jacobs grinds out a healthy 16, breaking 300 carries at 5 yards per tote, earning over 1500 ground yards, and scoring 14 times. He earns a complementary receiving role, and is targeted 8% of the time, adding 40 receptions for 250 yards.
Downside: Per usual, Gruden does not deliver on his hyperbole. Jacobs is spelled more frequently as a runner to keep him healthy, pushing his carries down to 250. Still running efficiently behind a good offensive line, Jacobs approaches 1200 yards and scores 8 times. But Richard and Bowden push Jacobs to Sony Michel-level passing game irrelevancy, and Jacobs sees fewer than two checkdowns per game.
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