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 3. Drafting at least two running backs inside the first three 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, about 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 low. To become one of the lucky few in your league to pluck a starting running back from Rounds 6-9, 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 the 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)
It feels like there are less running backs in this range to choose from this year than most, but as of this writing, there are three mid-round running backs who best fit the criteria:
We have to like Baltimore’s chances of producing favorable conditions for running back fantasy scoring. The Ravens led the league in points per game with 31.9 last season and their running backs combined for 4.97 yards per rush attempt, which also led the league. Even after subtracting Lamar Jackson’s gaudy rushing numbers, Baltimore still ranked 11th in PPR points produced by running backs.
ADP currently favors Mark Ingram by two-plus rounds over Dobbins, but it’s fair to wonder if the gap is justified. Ingram will undoubtedly return as the team’s nominal starter. He’s a locker room leader and a proven commodity in an offseason where experience in a system matters more than usual. But as lead backs go, Ingram’s workload left plenty to be desired before Dobbins became the 55th pick in this year’s draft. Among the 26 running backs who accumulated at least 200 total touches in 2019, Ingram ranked 22nd with a 52.5% team backfield opportunity share. There is plenty of room for a running back of Dobbins’ caliber to carve out 10-12 touches per game immediately without any change to Ingram’s role.
By all accounts, Dobbins has soft hands and runs capable routes, but the Ravens offense figures to limit his opportunities as a pass-catcher. Jackson would sooner take off running than get the ball out quickly to his running backs, which left Baltimore's backfield ranked 30th in the league in receptions last season. While catches are unlikely to pad his stats, the efficiency of the Ravens rushing attack combined with Dobbins’ propensity to rip off chunk plays, should compensate. Dobbins did not test at the scouting combine due to an ankle injury, but his explosiveness is not in doubt. He was the best SPARQ athlete in his class coming out of high school, and his exceptional speed and burst already translated into big plays at Ohio State.
His league-winning upside won’t get unlocked without an injury to Ingram, but the mere chance Dobbins eventually captures 70% of Baltimore’s backfield touches makes him the top mid-round running back to target.
In a preseason with zero exhibition games, actionable information is hard to come by. But the drumbeat for Ronald Jones II since training camp started has been deafening.
Was back at the Bucs facility today for COVID test No. 2. I was about 20 feet behind Ronald Jones II and I can tell you...that guy didn’t waste a second of his offseason when it comes to training. His calves looked huge.— JennaLaineESPN (@JennaLaineESPN) August 3, 2020
Well, that one is silly, but these next two carry weight:
"He always tells me to run my routes like I already have the ball..." - RB Ronald Jones II on what he's learned from Tom Brady thus far. Jones was catching up to 300 balls a day to prep for what he hopes is an expanded role in this #Buccaneers offense.. @nflnetwork @AroundTheNFL— Michael Giardi (@MikeGiardi) August 10, 2020
Jones’ ADP is on the rise as a result, and the window of opportunity to draft him in Round 6 will close sooner than later. Assuming his ADP sticks towards the middle of Round 5, he remains positioned to deliver value. It never made sense that Tampa Bay’s quarterback, tight end, and two of their wide receivers get drafted inside the top-10 at their respective positions, yet their starting running back is available in the middle rounds. The hard part was figuring out who their starting running back was. Now, we have every reason to believe it’s Jones.
It’s easy to dismiss Arians’ comments as coachspeak, but contrary to popular belief, he has a history of shooting straight when it comes to his running backs. Remember when no one believed he wanted to build his offense around Andre Ellington in 2014 and proceeded to give the diminutive Ellington nearly 250 touches in 12 games before he inevitably broke down? Many have pointed to Arians’ gushing over Jones last season as proof he’s typically blowing smoke when speaking about his players, but Jones ultimately justified the hype.
Jones broke a run of at least 15 yards on 4.7% of his rushing attempts, which was a top-20 rate. In addition to his explosiveness as a runner, Jones made impressive strides as a pass-catcher. Among running backs who touched the ball at least 100 times in 2019, Jones ranked seventh with 9.96 yards per reception.
Context matters. KeShawn Vaughn profiles as a solid NFL running back, but he’s a longshot to contribute early in the season, providing Jones a window to run away with the starting job. As anyone who owned David Johnson as a rookie surely remembers, Arians makes his untested players prove themselves before throwing them into the fire -- and that’s been after a full offseason program, which Vaughn won't benefit from. Maybe Vaughn will work his way into the rotation later in the year, but if Jones continues on his growth curve, why would Arians change his mind about who the “main guy” in his backfield is?
Per Player Profiler, Jones saw a 30.8% stacked front carry rate in 2019, which ranked sixth-highest in the league. Putting an extra safety or corner in the box against Tom Brady, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Rob Gronkowski seems like a bad idea. We should expect more running room for Jones to operate this year.
This is likely your last chance to buy in on Jones at a reasonable price.
Coleman barely makes the list of ideal mid-round running back targets for a second-consecutive season. Now that he’s entering his sixth year in the league, it’s probably fair to say Coleman will never reach the high-end of his possible career outcomes, but he still meets all of our criteria:
The 49ers ranked third in points per game with 29.6 last season. All of their major contributors on offense are returning.
The ambiguity surrounding the distribution of San Francisco’s backfield workload abounds. Raheem Mostert has more juice in his legs than most career back-of-the-roster journeyman, but the 2019 playoffs showed head coach Kyle Shanahan wants to ride the hot hand from week to week. A week before Mostert's famed 29-220-4 rushing line (against Green Bay's abysmal rush defense), it was Coleman who went for 22-105-2 against a much tougher opponent (Minnesota). A healthy return by Jerick McKinnon would make the 49ers backfield harder to read, but McKinnon’s return to form after two lost seasons remains theoretical until proven otherwise.
McKinnon notwithstanding, Coleman is San Francisco’s only running back who provides versatility. Mostert never exceeded two targets in a game after getting his shot in Week 12, while Coleman once racked up 420 receiving yards in Shanahan’s scheme back in 2016.
Coleman is 20 pounds heavier than Mostert and just as fast. Big-play athleticism has never been his problem.
Typically available a full three rounds later than Mostert, even in PPR leagues, Coleman is an arbitrage play on the 49ers dominant ground game.