It doesn’t take a deep dive into this year’s ADP data to notice the well runs dry on reliable starting running backs towards the end of Round 4. Drafting your RB1 and RB2 inside the first four rounds almost feels like a requirement this year, but history shows us it usually takes more than drafting running backs early to gain an edge at the position over your league mates.
In a normal season, at least half of the running backs selected in the RB13-24 range fail to finish with RB2 numbers in 12-team PPR leagues. If merely prioritizing running back on draft-day gives you roughly coin-flip odds of coming away with a reliable second starter, you’ll need to build a contingency plan to supplement your early-round picks.
Unfortunately, history also shows us the probability of drafting an eventual top-24 running back after Round 5 is dismal. To become one of the lucky few in your league to pluck a starting running back from Rounds 6-10, ignore timeshare backs hitched to questionable offenses and one-dimensional satellite backs. Instead, focus on identifying running backs who check most or all of these boxes:
- Member of a potential top-10 scoring offense
- Some ambiguity surrounding distribution of his team’s backfield touches
- Versatility as a runner and pass-catcher (which helps establish a floor)
- Big-play athleticism (which mitigates lack of overall volume and provides upside)
As of this writing, three mid-round running backs fit the criteria perfectly:
Austin Ekeler, LA Chargers
Ekeler is shaping up as the best pick you can make in Round 7. Melvin Gordon III returning from his holdout before Week 1 can’t be taken for granted. Adam Schefter says to brace for a lengthy absence, the Chargers are a notoriously stingy franchise, and unlike Le’Veon Bell last year, Gordon has a chance to recoup the earnings he’d pass up for sitting out a chunk of the season.
With Gordon missing at least eight games now a possibility, there are six reasons Ekeler can be the key to a championship team:
- The Chargers scored 26.6 points per game last season and return all their key players (assuming offensive tackle Russell Okung fully recovers from a pulmonary embolism). Even without Gordon, the offense could improve in aggregate with Hunter Henry’s healthy return and Mike Williams set to command more targets.
- LA ranked sixth and 11th in total running back receptions in the two seasons since Ken Whisenhunt returned as offensive coordinator. In the three games Gordon missed due to injury last year, Ekeler recorded five, five, and two receptions, respectively, while touching the ball at least 17 times in every game. Justin Jackson will mix in, but LA has already made it clear who Gordon’s primary backup is.
- No one should be making the case Ekeler is a better player than Gordon, but his efficiency since entering the league cannot be denied. Ekeler trailed only Christian McCaffrey in fantasy points per touch last season (minimum 100 total touches) and while the tweet shown below requires more context, it suggests Ekeler can regress significantly in a larger role and still maintain high levels of per-touch fantasy output:
Melvin Gordon III vs. Austin Ekeler (2017-18):— Austin Gayle (@PFF_AustinGayle) July 27, 2019
- Early-down success rate on runs: AK 35%, MG 26%
- Success rate on all runs: AK 35%, MG 28%
- Success rate on all targets: AK 45%, MG 35%
- Success rate on all opportunities: AK 39%, MG 29%
- It’s no mystery why Ekeler has added value to his touches as a pro. He has off-the-charts burst and agility, which often results in big plays. 41.3% of his rushing yards were generated on runs of 15+ yards last season, which ranked eighth in the NFL last year (minimum 100 carries).
- If Gordon and the Chargers come to an agreement before the season opener, Ekeler will lose his league-tilting upside but not his usefulness. Gordon's 18.75 total touches per game in 2018 represented a three-year low and 12% decline from the previous season. Ekeler received double-digit touches in four out of the 10 games he played in alongside Gordon last year and will be part of the weekly game plan even if he’s not the starter.
- He’s got outs. We should be careful not to confuse the possibility of Gordon holding out for eight games with the most likely outcome. Extended in-season holdouts are the exception, not the rule. But there are still paths to Ekeler reaching his upside without a Gordon holdout. Gordon demanded an extension or a trade. The Chargers may very well oblige him on the latter rather than paying him more money. Also, the memory of Gordon limping to the finish line on two bad knees is still fresh. Even if he is LA’s Week 1 starter, Gordon remains an injury risk.
Miles Sanders, Philadelphia
Running back value-seekers should be fist-pumping after this tweet picked up traction earlier this week:
It should surprise no one Jordan Howard, a three-year veteran with multiple 1,000-yard rushing seasons, is dominating first-team reps early in camp over Sanders, a rookie who just made it back to practice after missing OTAs with a hamstring injury. In fact, any report to the contrary would have qualified as shocking at this point in the off-season, yet Sanders’ already-too-low ADP has dipped with this news.
Don’t fall for the groupthink. Take a moment to zoom out and examine the facts:
- Howie Roseman is a shrewd (de facto) GM, who is one of the best in the league at applying analytics. Before taking Sanders with the 53rd pick in April’s draft, Roseman had never selected a running back inside of Round 2 during his entire seven-year tenure with the Eagles. It’s easy to guess the tactical advantage Roseman sees in Sanders. One-dimensional running backs like Corey Clement, Darren Sproles, and Howard make it easy for opposing defenses to telegraph run or pass plays depending on who lines up in the backfield. Sanders’ blend of speed, agility, and patience make him an ideal fit in Philadelphia’s zone-blocking scheme and he showed off a fairly broad route tree last year at Penn State.
- Howard has never eclipsed 30 catches in a season and was jettisoned from Chicago largely because he wasn’t versatile enough for Matt Nagy’s offense. There is a place for an early-down grinder in Philadelphia, but Howard’s non-existent pass-catching ability opens the door for Sanders to carve out a steady role in Week 1.
- Outside of Howard, Sanders’ competition for snaps is overstated. Clement isn’t in the same league as an athlete (or even remotely close) and people are dreaming if they think Sproles can recapture his past form at age-36 after he was limited to nine combined regular-season games over the last two seasons. If Sanders continues to look anything like the all-purpose weapon he was last year in college, the coaching staff won’t hesitate to expand his role at the expense of Clement, Sproles, and even Howard, each of whom they aren’t nearly as invested in.
- The narrative surrounding Doug Pederson suggests he favors backfield committees, but what choice has he had? The best running back at Pederson’s disposal during his tenure as Eagles coach was Jay Ajayi, who came over in a mid-season trade in 2017. Ajayi was understandably eased in for four games following the trade but eventually handled at least 14 total touches (and as many as 21) in five of the team’s final six games (post-season included). Pederson also oversaw bell-cow seasons for Jamaal Charles as Chiefs offensive coordinator in 2013 and 2014.
- If anything, training camp hype should be raising Sanders’ ADP, not sinking it. Right now is your last chance to buy low.
Three overreactions from the guy attending his first Eagles training camp practice of the summer:— Sheil Kapadia (@SheilKapadia) July 30, 2019
1. Miles Sanders looks different than the other RBs when he touches the ball. If ball security and pass pro are non-issues, seems like a matter of when, not if, he is the lead back.
Tevin Coleman, San Francisco
The drumbeat for Coleman leading the 49ers backfield in touches has been steadily building since OTAs, yet he’s still lasting until Round 6. After over-drafting Coleman for years as a member of the Falcons, fantasy gamers are hesitant to bite on the hype now that he’s one of three viable running backs on San Francisco’s roster. But even though he has company in the backfield and gets an offensive downgrade leaving Atlanta, Coleman has a clear path to a career season:
- The 49ers depth chart is crowded... on the surface. Matt Breida is a superb athlete who overachieved as an emergency starter last season. He’s also a sub-200 lb. running back who predictably dealt with a litany of injuries last season. Highlighting Breida’s injury risk is the fact he already tore his pectoral this offseason and has yet to receive clearance to participate in training camp. McKinnon’s athletic profile remains tantalizing but he has never succeeded in a lead-back role and is one year removed from a torn ACL. While he’s expected to begin practicing soon, reports of a recent flare-up in the knee are worrisome. It may not be long before Raheem Mostert is Coleman’s only competition for touches.
- Coleman is changing teams but he’s just as familiar with Kyle Shanahan’s offense as any player in San Francisco’s running back room. Shanahan has made it a priority to go out and get Coleman twice -- first as part of the Atlanta coaching regime that drafted him in 2015 and now this year in free agency.
- Coleman racked up a career-best 421 receiving yards under Shanahan in 2016 while playing second-fiddle to Devonta Freeman. Shanahan’s backfields have ranked 14th, third, first, and seventh in running back receptions over the last four seasons. Early reports had Coleman lining up at receiver in off-season practices more than he did under Shanahan in Atlanta.
- No one is arguing the 49ers offense is as potent as Atlanta’s, but it won’t be surprising if they break into the top-10 this year (provided they can avoid their recent string of bad luck with injuries). In Jimmy Garoppolo’s five starts to close out 2017, the team averaged 28.8 points per game. Last year, San Francisco scored at least 27 points in two out of three games before Garoppolo tore his ACL. George Kittle, Dante Pettis, Deebo Samuel, and Coleman give Garoppolo his most intriguing group of pass-catching weapons to date.
- Coleman still has the big-play juice that made him such a highly-regarded prospect coming out of Indiana four years ago. Per Pro Football Focus, he trailed only Saquon Barkley last year in percent of total rushing yards generated from runs of 15+ yards. In 2017, he ranked fourth in the same metric.