In a broad sense, of course, fantasy football is won by cramming a roster with as many productive players as possible. This sometimes happens (or doesn’t happen) out of circumstance: injuries and suspensions and late-round shockers can turn a roster much stronger or weaker than expected. The only way it can be successfully planned and executed on purpose is to extract value from each opportunity, each draft selection, each and every time. That's a wild goal, of course, and too high a bar to set for us mortals. But at the very least, we're looking for more sleeper hits than high-round misses.
It’s been argued quite well that the middle rounds are a pitiful wasteland in which to chase running backs, and I tend to agree. I don’t find it wise to stockpile a bunch of handcuff guys, either - they wind up wasted picks more often than not. Instead, I’m more apt to lock in 2-3 predictable workhorse backs early, then take later stabs at big, crazy (if longshot) value.
To that end, I poured over the backs likely to be available in the RB40-100 range in a PPR format - where late-round value is king. Here are the three names that leaped off the page:
The Packers’ investment in Dillon provided one of the 2020 Draft’s most blatant lame-duck moments. They squeezed quite a bit from Aaron Jones last year - 1,558 yards and 19 touchdowns - dazzling numbers that do indeed look ripe for regression. Jones is an electrifying back at times but has struggled on and off with conditioning and consistency, and he’s never truly dominated this backfield.
As a result, Dillon may not need an injury to Jones to find flex value - or better - as a rookie. Coach Matt LaFleur has now called NFL plays for two seasons, and in his first, with Tennessee in 2018, he leaned hard on a backfield tandem of power missile Derrick Henry and change-up man Dion Lewis. The power-and-play-action game took on huge importance as the season wore on - and that became LaFleur’s stated goal in leading the Packers.
Let me be clear: Jones is not Lewis. He’s better, and he’s not going to sink into 100-carry mediocrity. Odds are, he’ll again lead this backfield in rushes - and Dillon still has to hold off the painfully one-gear Jamaal Williams just for a sidekick job. But narratives are narratives because they connect logical dots, and LaFleur did just spend a Round 2 pick on Dillon, while Jones is a holdover from the previous regime. Jones has never been leaned on hard in the ground game, even in last year’s breakout. He was one of 9 backs to start 16 games as his team’s lead runner, and only Phillip Lindsay took on fewer rushes.
For his part, Dillon isn’t a very modern running back prospect. He’s a north-south thumper who caught just 21 balls over 35 college games. But what matters right now is that he draws a very fair comparison to Henry, who has of course gashed the league over his past 23 games. At his combine, Dillon actually measured eerily close (6-foot and 250) to Henry back at his (6-foot-3 and 247), but turned in better explosion numbers and nipped the superstar in the 40 (4.53 to 4.54). Dillon has his work cut out to upend this backfield, but the public may be underrating the chances he does at some point. The Packers, who have invested almost nothing in their bare-bones passing game, are poised to veer things that way.
Hines is the clear third option in a crowded Colts backfield, leading many 2020 drafters to forget he even exists. I understand that: Jonathan Taylor is an exciting young runner, and Hines still looks replacement-level for the most part. But it’s worth noting he’s the only one essentially locked into a role. Hines has dominated passing downs over his two seasons (64% of running back targets), and he enters 2020 worlds ahead of the team’s top runners for receiving work. Marlon Mack remains a ghost in the passing game, while Taylor comes in with a thin receiving resume (42 catches over 41 college games) and a stone-handed reputation.
Justin... so what if Hines locks down this same part-time job? Another 96 touches? That wouldn’t move the needle for anyone!
Just a second there, professor. This Colts iteration will be led by Philip Rivers, a 38-year-old with declining arm strength and a brand new slate of receivers. It’s not a very appealing slate, either: there’s no slot-vacuum like Keenan Allen to dominate his attention. Most crucially, no quarterback has been targeting his running backs quite like Rivers of late:
- 2019: 177 targets, 145 receptions, 1,289 yards, 10 touchdowns
- 2018: 140 targets, 106 receptions, 1,048 yards, 7 touchdowns
- 2017: 119 targets, 91 receptions, 781 yards, 7 touchdowns
- 2016: 91 targets, 63 receptions, 574 yards, 3 touchdowns
"Philip has an uncanny ability to get the ball to the backs,” head coach Frank Reich pointed out in May, to the argument of no one. “Nyheim will be very much integrated into the game plan, on all three downs.”
As Rivers has aged - and as Chargers personnel dictated - he’s leaned more and more on his backs, year after year. He may not throw quite as much in Indianapolis, but even with these numbers scaled back, there would still be a hefty target share staying in the backfield. Like Melvin Gordon III or Austin Ekeler in recent years, Hines could be in line to catch 70 balls or more.
To put that in perspective: last season, the Patriots' James White took just 67 rushes, but caught 72 passes and wound up the PPR RB18.
Rivers had a similar setup to this one with the Chargers back in 2015, with Gordon and Donald Brown chewing up early-down snaps and Danny Woodhead as a pass-down specialist. Even with Keenan Allen and Antonio Gates active, Woodhead drew 14% of Rivers’ looks and averaged 15.9 PPR points a game.
Hines likely won’t sniff that last number. He’s simply not a big enough part of the team’s ground game; it might be fair to call 80 rushes his ceiling. But given what we know about Rivers’ reliance on his backs, he still stands as a RB2 darkhorse. Drafters employing a zero-RB approach would do well to target guys like Hines in the double-digit rounds. There’s a safer floor than many think - again, he's the only Colts back we can bet our lives on having a real role - and week-winning upside whenever game flow breaks his way.
Kelley is no lock to make an impact in 2020. Rookies will face an uphill battle in this strange offseason, and third-year man Justin Jackson currently occupies the No. 2 slot. Jackson is no slouch: he’s averaged 5.1 yards per carry in a change-up role behind Melvin Gordon III and Austin Ekeler. He missed most of last year but managed to gather 9+ yards on a stunning 9 of his 29 runs (31%).
Still, Jackson has yet to prove he can stay on the field for long. He’s battled hamstring and calf injuries since being drafted - the Chargers actually waived him just before his rookie season - and put very little on tape in a mostly-lost 2019 season. It’s tough to just hand him the projections, especially since coach Anthony Lynn and the front office saw fit to add Kelley with a fourth-round pick. Kelley didn’t wow with production at UCLA - especially last year when he posted a ho-hum 4.5 yards per rush and caught just 11 balls. But he did show well at the combine, with a studly 6.95 in the 3-cone drill and a solid 4.50 in the 40. There’s clearly NFL athleticism at play here.
Over the past half-decade, few teams have generated more production for their backfield than the Chargers. They’ve utilized Gordon and Ekeler all over the field and in all situations, and they’ve fed Gordon relentlessly at the goal line. Dating back to 2016, only Todd Gurley and Mark Ingram II have taken on more rushes from inside the 5 than Gordon, and only Gurley has found pay dirt more often. (That says nothing, of course, of Gordon’s other exploits across the stat sheet. Over that span, he’s the PPR RB4 on raw production.)
When asked about the 219-pound Kelley stepping into the old Gordon role, Lynn showed optimism after the draft. “We feel like he can get to that point, I can tell you that,” he said post-draft.
And most importantly, for the plight of late-round value-seekers, Kelley is coming virtually free right now. As the PPR RB59, he’s bringing a five-round discount on Jackson, despite what looks to be a dead-even shot or better at the starting job. Considering the job we’re talking about - Chargers backs have averaged 28.3 PPR points a game over the past 4 years - that’s significant value from the bottom of the barrel.