Free Agency Fallout: Running Back Edition

Updated: March 31st 2020

What a wild first week that was!!!  With Tom Brady and Philip Rivers headlining, it was anticipated that the QBs would be the biggest dominoes in this year’s free agency.  To a degree, that was true.  These deals, along with the Teddy Bridgewater signing (Carolina) and the Nick Foles trade (Chicago), have certainly shaken up the league.  However, for us fantasy-folk the real action lies in the RB market, and this year provided some seriously high-profile names.

We are going to rank these RB relocations and explore what we can expect from them in 2020, but I would like to first preface this breakdown with the following anecdotes.

  • They say it’s a “Passing League”, but there were only 5 QBs that surpassed 4,200 yards in 2019. The previous 6 years resulted in 10, 5, 11, 9, 9 and 9.
  • Of the 32 projected starting QBs: 5 will be playing at age 37+, 9 have a season or less of experience under their belt, 5 play on conservative run-first teams, and 2 are running QBs.
  • 15 running backs surpassed the 1,000 yard mark in 2019. The previous 4 years resulted in 9, 9, 12 and 7.
  • Of these 15 running backs, 13 were guys still on their rookie deals. Carlos Hyde and Mark Ingram were the other two.

We’ve got two trends going here.  The level of passing took a bit of a hit in 2019, and I believe we will see even further regression due to age and inexperience.  It seems now more than ever that teams will be relying on the run.  Meanwhile, we know being a running back today isn’t what it used to be.  They are the comets of the sports world.  3-4 years of stardom and then they are lucky to be sharing the ball in a committee.   Therefore, since all 4 of these RBs are entering the second act of their career, and doing so in a new city, I thought it best to focus on their respective play caller’s history in order to map these projections.  Let’s begin.

#4.  Todd Gurley:  The Falcons signed an ex-Ram…high-profile, physical RB who thrives in the passing game.   Sound familiar?  We witnessed this before with Steven Jackson in 2013.  Dirk Koetter was the Offensive Coordinator then and has since reclaimed his role.  Here’s a look at his RB usage over the years:

Year Name

Attempts

Rush Yards

YPC

Rush TDs

2012

Michael Turner 222 800 3.6

10

2013

Stephen Jackson (12 games) 157 543 3.46

6

2014

Stephen Jackson 190 707 3.72

6

2015

Doug Martin 288 1402 4.87

6

2016

Doug Martin (8 games) 144 421 2.9

3

2017

Doug Martin (11 games) 138 406 2.9

3

2018

Peyton Barber 234 871 3.72

5

2019 Devonta Freeman 184 656 3.6

2

Barring the Doug Martin outlier in 2015, we can see a clear trend of ineffectiveness amongst what is a solid group of names.  I think we can expect a similar outlook for Gurley.  On a side note, Jaquizz Rodgers (5’6 205lbs) spent 6 years with Koetter (3 in Atlanta & 3 in Tampa Bay), and had a considerable workload for all of those years.  At 5’9 195 lbs, Ito Smith compares favorably to Rodgers and could assume that role.

Projections:  215 Atts, 796 Rush Yards, 3.7 YPC, 30 Rec, 210 Rec Yards, 8 Total TDs

 

#3.  Jordan Howard:  Aside from the shuffling of veterans and the usual depth-based signings, there really is only one team that was in desperate need of a running back – Miami.  Many will fade the Dolphins backfield in 2020, but I believe there is cause for optimism.  Dolphins’ brass has replaced first year Offensive Coordinator Chad O’Shea with a former Head Coach in Chan Gailey.  Let’s dive in to his past RB usage.

Year Name Rush Attempts Rush Yards YPC Rush TDs

2008

Larry Johnson 193 874 4.5

5

2010

Fred Jackson 222 927 4.2

5

2011

Fred Jackson (10 games) 170 934 5.5

6

2012

C.J. Spiller 207 1244 6.0

6

2015

Chris Ivory 247 1070 4.3

7

2016

Matt Forte 218 813 3.7

7

Aside from Spiller, this list is composed of big, physical backs.  Chris Ivory stands out in particular.  He was the exact same size as Howard at 6’0 224 lbs and had a very similar skill-set.  Interestingly enough, these backs all had smaller, change-of-pace counterparts.  Larry Johnson had Jamal Charles, Fred Jackson had C.J. Spiller, and Chris Ivory and Matt Forte both shared backfields with Bilal Powell.  Expect the Dolphins to draft a dangerous 3rd down option like D’Andre Swift, in an attempt to recreate the Eagles pairing of Howard and Miles Sanders.

Projections:  230 Atts, 966 Rush Yards, 4.2 YPC, 8 Rush TDs, 24 Rec, 190 Rec Yards

 

#2.  Melvin Gordon:  The Royce Freeman experiment is likely over, and the Broncos were in need of a 3rd down receiving back (a role Philip Lindsay is surprisingly lackluster in).  Melvin Gordon delivers on both fronts.  Philip Lindsay appears to be the better runner (Gordon has averaged less than 4.0 yards a carry in 4 of his 5 seasons) and you would think he would continue to see 10-12 carries a game.   Let’s see if Offensive Coordinator’s Pat Shurmur’s past supports that notion.

Year Name Rush Atts. Rush Yards YPC TDs Recs. Rec. Yards

2012

Trent Richardson 267 950 3.6 12 51

367

2013

Lesean McCoy 314 1607 5.1 11 52

539

2014

Lesean McCoy 312 1319 4.2 5 28

155

2015

DeMarco Murray,

Ryan Mathews

193

106

702

539

3.6

5.1

7

7

44

20

322

146

2017

Latavius Murray,

Jerick Mckinnon

216

150

842

570

3.9

3.8

8

5

15

51

103

421

2018

Saquon Barkley 261 1307 5.0 15 91

721

2019

Saquon Barkley 217 1003 4.6 52 438

8

Melvin Gordon is no McCoy or Barkley, but he is a genuine dual-threat RB .  Of the various ways in which this could play out, the Broncos backfield will most likely resemble that of the 2015 Eagles’, with Gordon assuming the DeMarco Murray role.

Projections:  182 Atts, 728 Rush Yards, 4.2 YPC, 48 Rec, 410 Rec Yards, 10 Total TDs

 

#1.  David Johnson:  After a 2,100 yard breakout year, Johnson sat out the entire 2017 season with a dislocated wrist.  He returned in 2018, but experienced a very steep decline in production.  Finally last year, he got off to a slow start, injured his ankle, and wass ultimately benched in favor of Kenyan Drake.  Fantasy owners everywhere have got to believe the Cardinals trade just sealed David Johnson’s fate as the hungriest man in the NFL.  Let’s see what kind of effect Bill O’Brien’s offense can have.

Year Name Rush Atts. Rush Yards YPC TDs Recs. Rec. Yards

2014

Arian Foster 260 1246 4.8 13 38

327

2016

Lamar Miller 268 1073 4.0 6 31

188

2017

Lamar Miller 238 888 3.73 6 36

327

2018

Lamar Miller 210 973 4.63 6 25

163

2019

Carlos Hyde 245 1070 4.37 6 10

42

2014 marked the end of Arian Foster’s illustrious run (28 years-old at the time), as well as the beginning of Bill O’Brien’s NFL Head Coaching career.  All 3 former Texans had a similar stature to Johnson, but the Foster comparison is scary.  At 6’1 227 lbs, Foster was surprisingly gifted in the passing game, totaling 119 receptions for 1221 yards in his first 2 seasons as a starter.  The 6’1 224 lb David Johnson (28 years-old) recorded 116 receptions for 1336 yards in his first 2 seasons as the starter.  I suspect a healthy Johnson follows in Foster’s footsteps for one final glory year in H-town.

Projections:  255 Atts, 1122 Rush Yards, 4.4 YPC, 44 Rec, 420 Rec Yards, 10 Total TDs

More Analysis by Grant Viviano