Unlock More Content Like This With a Footballguys Premium Subscription
"Footballguys is the best premium
fantasy football only site on the planet."
Matthew Berry, NBC Sports EDGE
This article is about a 16-minute read.
Every season, there are backup running backs who end up being difference-making players for your league. Often, they are found on the waiver wire, but everyone has access to the waiver wire.
Instead of giving the rest of your league a shot at these game-changers, it would be more proactive to go after a few of them in your draft. To help you out, we asked the Footballguys staff to give us their favorite backup running back targets.
Here are their thoughts.
I am Hector the Collector in terms of backup running backs, so this question is like asking a car guy which they like or a pizza fan about their favorite slice. Deep down the answer is "so many I cannot count".
For brevity sake, I will mention a few of my deeper favorites as the top-end incoming rookies are the low-hanging fruit for upside, and I wrote in early July on the landscape as a whole.
The best backup running backs are the ones with clarity of their backup status where if the starter is out, they would inherit a strong, unchallenged workload. See guys like Latavius Murray or Chase Edmonds (for a game) from last season. Alexander Mattison, Kareem Hunt, and Tony Pollard certainly qualify as well.
My favorite deeper options as 2020 could provide the 'perfect storm' of missed games across the fantasy landscape are prototypical options capable of a three-down role. Carlos Hyde could be the Week 1 answer in Seattle with Rashaad Penny (likely?) on the PUP list and Chris Carson rehabbing as well. Damien Harris is a multi-year Alabama starter who saw very little run as a Day 2 rookie. A Sony Michel absence paves the way for a Year 2 breakout possibility. Ryquell Armstead is interesting in Jacksonville but the addition of Chris Thompson is a passing game limitation to Armstead if both are healthy in a Leonard Fournette absence to temper expectations.
For the perfect storm, A.J. Dillon is my favorite deeper talent stash in 2020 where he could be the offensive centerpiece by later in the year especially if Aaron Jones misses time. Jamaal Williams is a jack-of-all-trades back but Dillon could unlock the run-centric potential of the new-look Green Bay offense.
If the question was "Which player -- with a clearly established starter ahead of him -- has the best skill set to provide RB1 production?," the answer would be Kareem Hunt in a landslide. But when deciding who to target, price must be considered. And Hunt's price point slots him in the portion of drafts stocked with value wide receiver talent.
Going further down the board, Tevin Coleman is intriguing. His skill and offensive scheme provide for a 20-point upside any time he's given 15 or more touches. In the event that Raheem Mostert is injured or allows his current displease with his contract situation to linger into the season, Coleman could provide multiple RB1 weeks at a cheap price.
In Kansas City, the team's selection of Clyde Edwards-Helaire (and the rookie's current draft price) suggests that he qualifies as an "entrenched starter." In that case, Damien Williams is another high-upside backup to target. Similar to Coleman above, both the offense and the player have demonstrated RB1 upside.
Lastly, in what seems as close to "a tradition unlike any other" as anything this side of The Masters, Latavius Murray must be mentioned in a "backup running backs with RB1 upside" article. Once again, both the player and the offense have produced multiple RB1 weeks in the past and easily could again if Alvin Kamara missed time.
I am targeting any running back who has done well in the past but is now in a situation where he is the second fiddle in the offense. If he knows the offense better than the current starter, I like him even more. Such examples include Damien Williams, Phillip Lindsay, Malcolm Brown, and James White. I can include Darrell Henderson on this list, but I have a hunch Brown may see more opportunities, especially in the red zone where he had 16 touches in 2019 compared to Henderson's two. Todd Gurley isn't walking through that door and it's possible that Cam Akers struggles to pick up the offense, or has ball security issues. Brown is my pick, not Henderson if Akers falters.
As for the others on my list, they have all been a key piece of the team's offense in the past and have shown the ability to be relied upon when needed. I have no doubt that Clyde Edwards-Helaire will be the Chiefs new start at running back, but when will that begin? He's been compared to Brian Westbrook, whom Andy Reid coached and elevated to fame. Looking back at Westbrook's rookie season, he was barely used (46 carries, 193 yards, 9 receptions, 86 yards, 0 scores). If that same strategy or philosophy is used again, Williams could be a huge piece to the offense. Williams is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, and when he moves on Edwards-Helaire can take over. I can see a scenario where Williams is the one who benefits the most this year, especially with COVID concerns and lack of practice, no preseason, etc.
Don't forget about Phillip Lindsay who is excellent in space. Pat Shurmur is itching to establish more utilization of 11-personnel to get their weapons in space, this includes Lindsay. Also, Lindsay can punch it in at the goal-line if asked. He was 4-for-5 on carries inside the three-yard line last year.
The Patriots have several options at running back between Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead, Damien Harris, and James White. It's difficult to forecast what Bill Belichick will do on a weekly basis, but Cam Newton is definitely capable of checking down. He did so with Christian McCaffrey for 187 receptions in 2017-2018. James White's experience and ability are difficult to ignore. I can see him being a difference-maker any given week, especially in PPR leagues.
I've been doing a lot of best ball drafts and mocks to get a feel for how drafts are unfolding, and there are a number of backup running backs I'm ending up with on a disproportionate number of rosters.
Damien Harris tops the list because he is going so late it's as though no one thinks he has a shot at even a backup role. I don't see why Harris couldn't lead the Patriots in carries this year. Sony Michel is one-dimensional and oft-injured. Rex Burkhead is old and oft-injured. Harris was effectively red-shirted last year, but there were no reports of Harris being in Belichick's doghouse. Assuming there's not something happening behind the scenes, Harris is the cheapest running back available with a legitimate path to 200+ touches.
Higher up the rung, I'm coming away with lots of shares of Latavius Murray and Alexander Mattison. Cook's injury history is impossible to ignore, and Mattison would be the centerpiece of a run-heavy offense. Murray showed he can be an every-week fantasy asset when Kamara was hurt.
Even higher up the rung, DAndre Swift and Jonathan Taylor are targets, although they are backups in name only.
I am on-board to some degree with Jason's thoughts on Damien Harris, although the committee behavior of New England's scheme takes some of the shine off the selection.
I am absolutely in agreement with Chad on A.J. Dillon. He's one of those players where draft analysts and fans fall into these dangerous tropes about players that rarely make sense to me. For Dillon, it's that he's a plodder with too great of a college workload.
I've mentioned this several times in several settings but to summarize once again, productive college backs who deliver strong production with heavy workloads and remain healthy often do the same in the NFL or have long careers as contributors. The list is notable, including Arian Peterson, Steven Jackson, Cedric Benson, Ray Rice, Bobby Rainey, Tony Dorsett, DeAngelo Williams, and LaDainian Tomlinson.
Dillon has a high volume of touches and production in recent years and stayed healthy, while also displaying burst to the edge for a big man, contact balance against box defenders, and receiving skill where most runners are targeted--the shallow zones.
Aaron Jones is an above-average starter with excellent vision between the tackles that compensates for his scatback size in the red zone. Still, Jones is likely in the Melvin Gordon tier of runner who believes he's worth a long-term deal but won't get one. Unless Dillon is an absolute flop, and I doubt it, Jones will be elsewhere in 2021 and Dillon will be the lead back.
Because Jones has missed a lot of time in the past, Dillon is a promising pass protector and has red-zone skills, Dillon is in a situation where the Packers will gladly expand Dillon's opportunities as a reward for good play.
In addition to Boston Scott, whom I've discussed in the conversation about the Eagles backfield, I'll broach three late-round options in deeper leagues that I'm targeting.
The first is Rodney Anderson of the Bengals. A significant talent from Oklahoma, who couldn't stay healthy due to leg fractures and a knee injury, Anderson lit up a quarter ruing a Bengals preseason game before suffering an ACL tear. He's healthy and cleared to go--and when healthy, Anderson has the power and speed of a starter and more receiving skill than Joe Mixon.
If Mixon falters, I'm far more interested in Anderson than Trayveon Williams.
In Atlanta, most will tell you that the running backs of import behind Todd Gurley will be Brian Hill and Ito Smith. Both flash skills but the back with the most growth potential of the three might be Qadree Ollison, a big back with excellent acceleration who is a coach's son. He won over the staff as a rookie last year and had success as a red-zone player down the stretch. Atlanta has improved its offensive line last year through the draft and now that both rookie are healthy, the dividends of those choices should emerge this year. Ollison could surprise this summer as the primary backup.
One of my favorite sleepers after Dilon is Joshua Kelley. He's a well-built back with long speed, and real skill in dense boxes to set up and navigate blocks. He's one of those late-bloomers in terms of production and notoriety in the college game and I think there's room for him to experience his greatest amount of growth in the NFL. He'll earn some of the Melvin Gordon role for the Chargers this year. If he thrives, that role has enough opportunity to make Kelley a fantasy RB2 while sustaining Austin Ekeler's production as a high-end RB2.
Let's make it four as Mike Davis is another. If Christian McCaffrey gets hurt, Davis has the receiving and running skills to have a career year in Carolina. While that may not be a high bar for a career backup, Davis will become no worse than a solid RB2 in this offense. He's an excellent zone runner with agility, power, and soft hands who can run most of the routes that McCaffery runs from the backfield and many from the slot.
There are several different tiers to look at when identifying backup running backs in your draft as several have noted above.
The most expensive of which is a group of players who have excelled previously as a starter and also have a role carved out going into the season without any semblance of an offseason. That only bolsters their snaps and likelihood to have enough of a role to support fantasy purposes. The main ones in this group that I've been landing are Damien Williams, Kareem Hunt, Tarik Cohen and James White. While technically backups, they also have value in their pass-catching role to sustain every week flex value as a floor. If injury strikes, they may see some increase (Williams, Hunt particularly) but they also come with the highest ADP (cost). Also, if I'm being honest we have nothing concrete to even call Damien Williams a backup yet. In reality, he's probably still the starter in name in Week 1.
The next group is murkier because we could look at any one of the spots in Baltimore, Detroit, Indianapolis, Tampa Bay, or LA Rams as incumbents vs. highly touted rookies who we anticipate winning or earning big roles on their teams. The backup that interests me the most is probably J.K. Dobbins because he won't be a starter right away, but if he ascends there through merit or injury he could easily become a top tier fantasy back with a three-down skillset and home run ability on any play. He is being drafted as if he will win or earn a strong role right away, so the acquisition cost may or may not be worth it. Don't forget Mark Ingram is an excellent, all-around running back, too.
For the next group, I'm going to skip right past the highly-rated backups whose owners are probably targeting them a round ahead of ADP to protect their investments - Tony Pollard, Latavius Murray, and Alexander Mattison. If they are still on the board at or after ADP they won't last long - rightfully so.
The backs I'm targeting after the halfway point in drafts for depth and pure upside (RB4 and RB5) are A.J. Dillon, Zack Moss, Justin Jackson, Damien Harris, Ryquell Armstead and Darrynton Evans - mostly in that order.
I've come away with Dillon as my RB4 or RB5 the most of these backs followed closely by Harris. Armstead and Evans last longer on draft boards, but they are worth the lottery ticket if bizarro 2020 strikes the seemingly indestructible Derrick Henry or if the Jags season goes badly and they deal Leonard Fournette giving Armstead a legitimate workload and RB2 potential.
Back to Dillon as I've watched his progress since he was a high school commit and then de-commit at Michigan. Even then he was an athletic marvel, posting ridiculous SPARQ scores, demonstrating excellent speed despite carrying 240 pounds and then showing as a freshman that he was ready physically to carry the load right away rushing 300 times (!) for 1589 yards and 14 touchdowns. He'll find the field one way or another as a rookie.
Backup running backs with the best chances of becoming championship-swingers if things break their way:
- Damien Williams - The one guy on this list who may not even be a backup. He also plays in the league's premier offense and the coaching staff likely hasn't forgotten the key role he played in helping the team win last season's Super Bowl.
- Kareem Hunt - Nick Chubb is as durable as they come, but Hunt might be one of the ten best running backs in the league. If Chubb were to miss time, Hunt teams will inherit an every-week RB1.
- J.K. Dobbins - Homerun talent on the league's best rushing offense. Ingram is entrenched as the starter but only handled 52% of Baltimore's running back touches last season. There is more opportunity for Dobbins to make an immediate impact than most think, and he's capable of making it difficult for the Ravens to take him off the field.
- Latavius Murray - In the two games Alvin Kamara missed last season, Murray combined for 48 carries, 221 rushing yards, 14 catches, 81 receiving yards, and four total touchdowns.
- Chase Edmonds - Everyone remembers the 27-126-3 rushing line Edmonds hung on the Giants last season. But he had been making the most of his carries in the weeks preceding his breakout game. If it hadn't been for a poorly-timed hamstring injury, it's possible the Kenyan Drake trade never happens and it's Edmonds who has the early-second round ADP.
- Antonio Gibson - We don't know exactly how the carries will break down in Washington's backfield but Gibson's role as an offensive weapon appears written in stone. Reserve the former wide receiver for PPR formats, but don't rule out the possibility he finishes second on the team in targets behind Terry McLaurin.
In general, there are two categories of backups I find most interesting as mid-late round options.
The first are backups in high-upside offensive systems. There are two of these backs who stand out to me right now:
- Chase Edmonds: The Arizona offense under Kliff Kingsbury was very fantasy-friendly to running backs last season and could be even more so in year two. David Johnson put up strong numbers early and Kenyan Drake was even better down the stretch. In fact, Drake was the RB4 behind only Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley, and Ezekiel Elliott over the final five weeks of 2019. Edmonds would be a legitimate fantasy RB1 candidate should Kenyan Drake miss any time. Bonus points here because Drake has a long injury history going back to college.
- Jerick McKinnon: There may not be a more RB-friendly offense in the league than the 49ers right now. San Francisco's backs combined for over 500 fantasy points (PPR) last season. There is a ton of uncertainty right now about how the touches will be split in 2020. We do not even know who will be on the roster and Raheem Mostert's trade request further muddies the waters. In these types of situations, it often makes sense to go with the cheapest option. McKinnon is that guy. He can typically be had in the final round of drafts and is someone who I am targeting heavily in that range. He has shown flashes of exciting talent when healthy and is reportedly as healthy as he has been in years.
The second type of backups whom I am always interested in are rookies with strong draft capital behind them. Most of the rookie backs who were drafted in the Top 75 of the 2020 draft are going off the board early. The two exceptions are strong late-round targets:
- A.J. Dillon: If Aaron Jones was to get injured, Dillon could potentially be a league-winner as his replacement. Dillon is a size/speed freak with 4.53 speed at 250 pounds. He also showed crazy explosiveness (41-inch vertical) at the combine. Jones scored 19 touchdowns last season so the Green Bay RB1 has massive fantasy upside. The other nice aspect of drafting Dillon is that he should have value even without a Jones injury. It does not take long for running backs to transition from college to the NFL and teams do not spend 2nd-round picks on a lower-value position like running back without a plan for the player to make an immediate impact. Expect Dillon to have a solid role as a rookie. That floor combined with the injury upside make him a great pick at his current ADP.
- Antonio Gibson: The Washington Football Team used one of the first picks in the 3rd-round (#66 overall) to select Gibson. Clearly, there is some real belief in the organization about his potential to make a big impact. Gibson has a unique skill set, bouncing between wide receiver and running back in college. He also has some unique physical traits, with 4.39 speed at 220 pounds. In an offense starved for playmakers, the potential is there for Gibson to earn quite a few more touches than most are projecting if he proves himself a playmaker. The PPR upside for Gibson is higher than his current ADP would suggest.
I totally agree with Chad that I'm usually only interested in guys that are clearly defined in the #2 role. That means while I won't have a problem drafting a Darrell Henderson or Gus Edwards in the right spot, those situations are far too murky for what I'm trying to do when I grab a backup who I hope can produce. I like the waiver wire too much to sit on a backup in the hopes he'll get a shot if he isn't clearly going to get that shot should the starter give way. If they aren't clearly #2 they represent a roster clogger for me and I tend to stay away.
That points me to a couple of guys who have been mentioned. I think my favorites are Chase Edmonds and Ryquell Armstead for their price mainly. For Edmonds, I'd be willing to reach a round or two if I like my team at that point in the draft. He seems to be clearly capable of handling the role if given the chance. Armstead is purely a gamble on Leonard Fournette's situation in Jacksonville. He's practically free and there isn't any real competition in the Jaguars' backfield.
Of course, I love guys like Alexander Mattison, Latavius Murray, and Tony Pollard as do most people but I won't be ending up with those guys on my teams solely because of where you have to take them. The teams who have the starters for those guys are going to make sure and roster them. If they last past when they should then I'm definitely snatching them up, but I haven't seen much of that. Unfortunately, this rules out Kareem Hunt for me. If this question were only based on who I like the most, I think Hunt would top the list of players I want as a backup. But his ADP is even more out of control than Mattison, Murray, and Pollard so I'm not ever going to be taking Hunt in the 5th or 6th round when I'm snatching up wide receivers.
In the end, I think Edmonds and Armstead are my favorites, but after listening to Matt, Bob, and Dan wax eloquent about A.J. Dillon I think I'm re-examining where I might want him. I am not an Aaron Jones believer, for the most part, so I think I'm going to be grabbing more of Dillon going forward.
All of them? Backup running backs are very valuable, even when you do not own the starter, they can provide a lot of upside. This upside can be in a short one or two-week sample size, or as extended options. Historically, on average you can expect approximately 40% -- just more than 9 of the top-24 running backs in preseason ADP -- to miss four or more consecutive games with an injury. Even when the starter misses time with an injury less than four weeks there is plenty of upside. For example, last year Latavius Murray was the RB1 in the two weeks Alvin Kamara missed with injuries The beauty of the strategy is these are typically easily identifiable opportunities for spot starts in your lineup because they occur when the starter is injured.
The best rule of thumb for these running backs is to select one injury away backups with a preference towards those with a history of production or high draft pedigree along with those in good offenses.
Outside of rookies who have unclear roles at this point in the offseason, my favorite backups this year are Latavius Murray, Alexander Mattison, Tony Pollard, Duke Johnson Jr, Chase Edmonds, Ryquell Armstead, and Giovani Bernard. Kareem Hunt, Damien Williams, and Tevin Coleman are what I call one-injury away plus type options, as they can have stand-alone flex viability in a committee on top of one-injury-away appeal. In deeper leagues, Dion Lewis and Carlos Hyde are cheap options for one injury away opportunities.
The problem with running backs is we have so many variations of players who can get us fantasy points from three-down backs, third-down backs, committee backs, and so many other variations. The clear backup as outlined is not expected to get any kind of role except relieving the starter. There are many clear backups that are talented enough to be very useful in the event of an injury or an ineffective starter.
My Top 5, in no particular order.
- Chase Edmonds demands his name be heard.
- Tony Pollard demonstrated enough in his rookie season that he will be more than just a fill-in.
- A.J. Dillon is auditioning for the 2021 starting role once the Packers move on from Aaron Jones.
- Alexander Mattison is in a similar situation to Pollard but has a higher injury risk ahead of him.
- Damien Harris is a good choice, but his lack of use in his rookie season has me concerned.