As we sit there on draft day, whether it is a start-up or rookie drafts, and we look for potential running backs to pick, I think that it is important to look not only at the potential of the running back, their talent, and their stats, but also at their situations. It is also vital to take the player out of the equation and look at the situation. There are certain teams in the NFL who have a tendency to produce top running backs. This could be one back on the team that is the bell cow, or it could be a committee that produces fantasy viable talent. Before we dive into the teams, there are a few important aspects of running back success that are important to cover. The first is volume. Volume is king when it comes to running back success in fantasy football. More than offensive line, more than play calling, more than red zone snaps, volume is king. 75% of runnings backs that ended their season in the top 12 had 20 or more touches per game. Moreover, 70.8% of running backs that ended their season in the top 24 had 15 or more touches per game
Here are a few lesser thought about teams whose running backs should produce for several years to come and why we should be buying into the system.
Arizona Cardinals – David Johnson, Chase Edmonds
Under Bruce Arians, the Arizona Cardinals were a team that produced historically average running backs. Enter David Johnson, who in 2016 just blew the league out of the water, 2017 was an injured season, and 2018 was a resurgence which saw Johnson come back to form finishing as RB9 in PPR leagues. While many expected more from Johnson, he was not only behind a terrible offensive line, with a terrible coach, and his team was historically bad, with the fewest points scored. All that being said, it is not Johnson that I want to focus on, it’s the scheme he finds himself in as we head into the 2019 season.
2019 heralds a new beginning for the Cardinals. Not only is it the era of Kliff Kingsbury, but it also the era of Kyler Murray. Kingsbury brings with him a high powered offense from Texas Tech, and historically his running backs have benefited from the scheme he brings. Over his career as the head coach at Texas Tech, he averaged about 418 rushing plays to about 500 passing plays. Teams with that kind of ratio (45%) rushing plays, have had quite successful running back campaigns. Not only does this show balance in play calling but the total number of offensive plays, upwards of 900 plays, in 13 games is impressive. In 2018, 29 teams reached that mark over 16 games. Only six teams ran 1000 or more plays. If you extrapolate Kingsbury’s play-calling to a full 16 game NFL season you get upwards of 1100 plays. (If there is one rule of thumb when it comes to running back success, it is that volume is key. This is something to keep in mind as we delve into each of these teams.) With the kind of volume, the Cardinals are bound to see in the era of Kliff Kingsbury, we can be sure that David johnson, and the running backs of the future, will be successful fantasy backs.
Atlanta Falcons – Devonta Freeman, Ito Smith
The Falcons are one of those teams that you want pieces of. Whether it is Matt Ryan, Calvin Ridley, Austin Hooper, or their running backs, this team breeds fantasy-relevant players. Say what you want, but Devonta Freeman is a value heading into the 2019 season. With Tevin Coleman now in San Francisco, he leaves behind 120 touches. While some of these touches will undoubtedly go to Ito Smith, Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, and Mohammud Sanu, Freeman is poised to reap the benefits of Coleman’s departure.
Looking beyond the 2019 season, the era of Freeman is coming to an end. The Falcons are a team that will likely start looking for its replacement, even as early as the 2020 draft class. That being said, investing in the Falcons is something that would be beneficial. Over the last 4 seasons the Falcons, over various coaching changes have had 395.75 running back touches per season. A high volume offense and a high scoring offense like the Falcons, who ran an incredible 968 offensive plays last season, is a team worth investing in their running backs. On top of that, add in that Atlanta’s offensive line had an average grade of 70.64 last season coming in second overall makes for a nice package for a running back. Whether it is Freeman now, or whomever they draft in the near future, the Falcons are an offense to buy into.
Chicago Bears – David Montgomery, Tarik Cohen, Mike Davis
The Chicago Bears are an exciting offense heading into 2019. They are heading into their sophomore year under head coach Matt Nagy. The team is a dynasty fantasy darling, garnering love from fantasy players for every position. There was criticism last year for not only the use but also the ownership of Jordan Howard. He just didn’t fit into the system that Nagy was trying to run. High tempo, high volume offense, where deception is key. Howard, a downhill runner, in on obvious run plays, did not help the situation. However, not only should you be drafting new rookie David Montgomery, pass-catching extraordinaire, Tarik Cohen, but you should not forget Mike Davis who came on to the team from Seattle.
Chicago has the third-best offensive line based on the average of ProFootballFocus.com grades, they are third in rush percentage inside the red zone (24.19%) and they have a 48% rush rate. Nagy historically has always run an offense that features backs, with high volume in touches. Jordan Howard, a back that did not fit in Nagy’s system, who can’t catch a ball to save his life, managed to finish as RB22. The fact is, this offense with the right backs (like Montgomery, Cohen, and Davis) can and will succeed in this backfield. The fact of the matter is that you should be trying to get any kind of piece of this backfield.
Indianapolis Colts – Marlon Mack, Nyheim Hines
Indianapolis is kind of a sneaky team in fantasy all around. Outside of Andrew Luck, no single player truly stand out at their position. If I say what are some of the top wide receivers, T.Y. Hilton is not an automatic response. Eric Ebron or Jack Doyle, are not automatic top tight ends. Nor are Marlon Mack or Nyheim Hines when it comes to running backs. That being said, the Colts’ backfield is not something to write off yet. When choosing which running backs to draft you will want players on high volume and high scoring offenses. Indianapolis is both. Not only did they run the fourth-most plays in 2018, but they also had the 6th best offensive line according to PFF’s grades.
While Marlon Mack is a player I want to own in 2019, the Colts are a team with a potential hand in the 2020 running back pot. Regardless of who is leading the backfield, the Colts are a team I think we should be buying into. The offensive line has only gotten better over 2018, and another year of Andrew Luck healthy, will sure up this offense. While only playing 12 games last season, Mack managed to average 4.66 yards per carry, 18.3 touches per game, and finish as RB21 in PPR formats. Pro-rate that into a 16 game sample and you have yourself a high-end RB2. Increase touches per game by 2 and Mack is an easy RB1. Am I saying this will happen? No. But what I am saying is that the Colts passed the ball 644 times last season. That’s second only to the Steelers. There is going to be some regression back to the norm. Their historic low of 33% rush rate will bounce back. Therefore, an additional two touches per game for the lead back is not out of the realm of possibility.
Houston Texans – Lamar Miller
The Houston Texans are a team on this list to keep on your radar. I am in no way endorsing you, the drafter, to go out and get Lamar Miller or D’onta Foreman. The reason I do include the Texans on this list is because of the potential the team has. The Texans have an exceptional mobile quarterback in Deshaun Watson, top wide receivers in DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller, and Keke Coutee, and a defense with a front seven to rival anyone. If and when they draft a running back, this will be a team, whose backfield you will want to buy into. A receiving corps that diverts too much attention, a QB that demands a defensive back cover his run, and a defense that will keep the offense on the field and in a winning game script.
In 2018, the Texans had the fifth-highest percentage of rush plays called, 48% and 16% of their red-zone plays were rush plays. This is a team, that with their defense and mobile quarterback, will want to run the ball. The only obstacle in a Texans running back’s success is the offensive line which ranked 23rd last season by PFF. My formula indicates that the Texans are a bell cow offense, meaning., whichever running back is the RB1 for the team will be the sole owner and not part of a committee. This also shows that the likelihood of a running back succeeding in Houston is extremely high. The Texans RB1, under Bill O’Brien, has historically recorded on average 16-17 touches per game, while the RB2 has averaged 8-9 touches per game. Whomever it may be, the Texans RBs are right at the 20 touches per game threshold that could make the fantasy elite. 3-4 more touches per game are well within the range of outcomes. The key is upgrading the offensive line that will allow these backs to produce, keep the offense on the field, and increase the rushing volume.
New England Patriots – Sony Michel, James White, Damien Harris
It feels like every year, we hear the same old story, that we can’t trust New England running backs. That it is too hard to tell who Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels are going to roll out on any given week. The fact of the matter is that just is not true since the Patriots really didn’t have viable backs. Over the last couple of seasons, we have seen a wide range of backs and talents succeed in the Patriots system. LeGarrette Blount, Dion Lewis, James White, and Sony Michel. The point is, the notion that Patriots’ backs are unusable is false.
In 2018, Sony Michel averaged 17 touches per game while James White averaged 13. These numbers matter because this is another team where both backs are on the threshold of the volume threshold. That threshold of 20 touches per game could ensure elite status. Why this matters, is that the Patriots are journeying into a run-heavy team. Maybe because Tom Brady is getting older, and maybe it is because Bill Belichick likes to turn left when the league is turning right. As the league becomes vastly pass-heavy, it would not be surprising if the Patriots swing in the opposite direction. That being said, the Patriots ran over 1000 plays last season, 45.5% of which were rushing plays. This number has been growing for the Patriots with about 2-2.5% increase over each of the last 3 seasons. If you combine this with the offensive line, which ranked 12th according to PFF which allowed 1.7 yards before contact last season. This is staggering considering the league average is 1.4 yards before contact. All this points to a team that will not only run the ball a lot but will have immense running back success. All three of the backs are ones you want to be buying into. Whether its first-round pick Sony Michel who is a versatile downhill runner, Tom Brady’s safety net in James White, or new Alabama draft pick, Damien Harris who has the potential to find himself a role in an offense that makes the best out of whoever they have.
Tennessee Titans – Derrick Henry, Dion Lewis
I don’t like Derrick Henry. I don’t think he is a good fantasy football player to own. His skill set is not one that is conducive to creating fantasy points. However, this does not mean that the Tennessee Titans are not a team you want to buy into. In fact, it is the exact opposite. The Titans have a fantastic offensive line, ranked 4th by PFF. Combine this with a receiving corps that is young and with high draft capital.
The fact of the matter is that the Titans are a run-first team. In 2018, the Titans had a 51% rushing share which was second only to Seattle. The problem with the Titans offense is that the difference between the RB1 on the team and the RB2 is less than one touch per game. This indicates a full committee backfield. However, what if they had a more versatile back, a true three-down back? The Titans are a potential landing spot for a 2020 rookie running back. If they manage to draft a true three-down back, they would be coming into an opportunity on a team that is not only run first but one in which, if they get the lion’s share of the workload, they could find themselves as a top back in the league. Everything in Tennessee is set up for a running back to succeed. The volume, the offensive line, the play calling, and the team make up.
It’s easy to go ahead and buy stock in teams that already have successful fantasy running backs. It is easy to buy into the Los Angeles Rams system, New Orleans Saints, or the Kansas City Chiefs. These are teams that already have breakout stars, who have a winning system, and who we already know to look for. However, if you had bought into those systems right before they went off, those are the fantasy players that will reap the benefits. These seven teams are on the cusp of being fantasy elite. These are the teams to buy in now, or to be waiting for the right opportunity.Follow @jon_margulis Tweets by jon_margulis