Running back production is about opportunity. If a talented runner sits behind an even-better starter, they wait their turn. The next man up mentality is paramount at running back with double-digit touches and potential auto-start fantasy football status an injury away. Here is an early look at the backup running back landscape for 2020 after the NFL Draft in tiers of fantasy upside and clarity of depth chart:
Clear Handcuff, RB1 Upside
Ravens: J.K. Dobbins
Baltimore splashed the run game pot in the draft with a Round 2 selection of Dobbins, an elite prospect at the position. Mark Ingram is the starter, for now, but Dobbins may challenge for the lead role within weeks of the season starting, let alone by challenged by Gus Edwards or Justice Hill.
Browns: Kareem Hunt
With one of the easier predictions, Hunt was already an RB2 or Flex consideration in PPR formats with Nick Chubb the clear featured runner of the backfield last season. Hunt has a profile as a strong RB1 already and a Chubb injury would fuel Hunt returning to top status.
The Colts offense is earmarked for a strong running back with their offensive line plus Philip Rivers' acumen for driving receiving optimization with his running backs. If Mack keeps the starting role early in the season, it likely would not be for long considering Taylor's elite talent as a runner and under-the-radar receiving skills from Wisconsin. Whichever back is the second option is an injury away from RB1 production.
Titans: Darrynton Evans
Evans found his way to Day 2 of the NFL Draft plus a barren depth chart behind Derrick Henry. On a run-centric Tennessee offense, the upside is pronounced from a sheer opportunity standpoint if Henry misses time and there is no veteran addition to the thin-otherwise Titans ancillary back depth chart.
Edwards-Helaire garnered Round 1 draft pedigree with the Chiefs drafting the LSU product this offseason. Damien Williams has been a quality fit with Kansas City, without garnering a sustained strong workload. Edwards-Helaire will still have the rookie benchmarks to hurdle for extended playing time early in Year 1, making this backfield high-upside only with a clarity of pecking order.
Cowboys: Tony Pollard
Pollard flashed with sporadic opportunities in 2019 as a Day 3 rookie behind foundation starter Ezekiel Elliott. Pollard did not see meaningful competition in free agency or the draft on a potent Dallas offense.
Lions: Kerryon Johnson or DAndre Swift
The Lions took a second Round 2 running back over a three-year span with Swift this offseason. Johnson has produced moments of higher-level play but injuries and drops have spotted his dossier to-date. Historical examples of a Day 2 back being supplemented by another Day 2 option in short order point to the incumbent being underrated and more productive, especially in the first season of the combined backfield. Swift may garner a strong workload in 2020, but Johnson is poised to be undervalued for his chances to be the 1A option.
Vikings: Alexander Mattison
Mattison impressed as a Day 2 rookie in 2019, pushing his way onto the field for consistent weekly touches despite a banner year from Dalvin Cook. Elite RB1 production is evident for a strong workload in the Vikings offense and Mattison is one of the gold standard injury-away options in the NFL.
Eagles: Boston Scott
Scott showed well in a committee with Miles Sanders in 2019. Scott did not see strong competition from free agency or the NFL Draft this offseason, but Michael Warren II's UDFA signing is noteworthy if there is a rising challenger. Warren has prototypical size and a strong two-way production track record if he sticks on the roster for a role a la Josh Adams of recent Eagles iterations. The Eagles had a robust 114 running back targets in 2019, offering high-level PPR potential for the primary pass-catcher if Miles Sanders is out. The Eagles are also on the shortlist to potentially add a veteran free agent before the season.
Saints: Latavius Murray
Murray has been a regular on high-upside handcuff lists since turning into a sustained backup in the NFL after his time as a Raiders starting running back. The Saints did not add a notable back this offseason and Murray is once again the primary backup to benefit if Alvin Kamara misses time.
Buccaneers: Ke'Shawn Vaughn
Vaughn was drafted on Day 2 by Tampa Bay and has limited competition for the RB2 role behind Ronald Jones II. Dare Ogunbowale had a receiving-centric role last season and Peyton Barber was not retained. Vaughn needs to solidify his standing through pass protection, ball security, and the typical gauntlet of rookie hurdles instead of Tom Brady's ire to be the handcuff or even challenge Jones over time.
Cardinals: Chase Edmunds
Edmunds had a brief cameo as the Cardinals starter in 2019 before his own injury derailed his chances for a prolonged audition. Kenyan Drake returns as the starter for the now DeAndre Hopkins-boosted Cardinals offense with Edmunds is the RB2. Eno Benjamin slipped nearly out of the NFL Draft before Arizona scooped up the strong-producing prospect with a lagging athletic profile as a potential Edmunds challenger in a best case.
Unclear Handcuff, RB1 Upside
Zack Moss may very well be the overt handcuff by midseason or later, but T.J. Yeldon is a sturdy, yet unspectacular, veteran to keep the RB2 role longer than Moss enthusiasts would like. Devin Singletary is a breakout candidate in 2020, but a primary backup benefits with Singletary not in the mix and the attachment to an efficiency-infused running quarterback.
The pair was in a firm committee before Melvin Gordon's signing this offseason. There is a rising tide potential with this now-loaded skill position Denver offense. The pressure rests on Drew Lock to run the show and fulfill the fantasy expectations of the weapons around him. Lindsay is sub-sized and yet to see a high workload. Freeman has been solid but unspectacular to-date as a former Day 2 selection still on his rookie contract.
Bowden has Day 2 pedigree and should be considered the primary backup to Joshua Jacobs. However, the do-it-all offensive weapon was as much (or more) quarterback and wide receiver in college as running back. Bowden has good enough size and easily enough athleticism to be a 1A option in the NFL but the positional and usage lack of clarity is enough to give Jalen Richard a quality chance to have a meaningful receiving role if Jacobs misses time.
Packers: A.J. Dillon or Jamaal Williams
Signs are pointing to a more run-centric Packers offense and the selection of more-blocker-than-receiver Josiah Deguara and super-sized running back AJ Dillon on Day 2 parallel the sentiment. Aaron Jones was not featured for sustained stretches in 2019 despite his flash moments and games. Both Jones and Jamaal Williams have Day 3 pedigree, dwarfed by Dillon's draft capital investment this offseason. Jones is the favorite to see the most early-season touches, but any one of the three benefitting from injury fuels RB1 upside, if not a high-end RB1 for fantasy purposes.
With Todd Gurley off to Atlanta, the Rams drafted Cam Akers in Round 2 as the one the strongest profile running backs of the 2020 rookie class. Henderson sparsely saw the field as a Day 2 rookie last season and Brown has been the veteran presence with fleeting upside amidst his injuries of late. Henderson will need a much stronger lead up to the season than 2019 where Brown was the clear backup to hold off Akers for long.
In one of the highest upside systems in the NFL, the 49ers sport a quintet of options with varied odds of being a meaningful contributor in 2020. McKinnon is projected to be healthy this season, which would be his first in San Francisco and years removed from his signing. Mostert surged to prominence as 2019 progressed on their eventual Super Bowl run. Coleman was the de facto starter most weeks but tapered in his usage as games progressed. Wilson was efficient in limited touches and Hasty showed well during the 2020 Senior Bowl as a savvy UDFA signing by the 49ers.
Chris Carson is the starter pending injury and Rashaad Penny is returning from a late-season ACL injury himself, putting odds on a slow start to the season if not prolonged ramp-up to seeing the field. Homer was the de facto starter for moments late in the season for Seattle and Dallas was a Day 3 selection with an intriguing profile of size, good enough movement, and some receiving acumen.
Clear Handcuff, RB2 Upside
Bengals: Giovani Bernard
Bernard has long been the handcuff in Cincinnati. The subset back has a lower ceiling than starter Joe Mixon. A darkhorse to mention would be a healthy version of 2019 rookie Rodney Anderson if he turns the corner with an injury-free stretch as one of the more talented runners of last year's class. A 'rising tide' impact from Joe Burrow to the entire offense could boost this rating to RB1 upside in a best-case scenario.
Texans: Duke Johnson Jr
Duke Johnson Jr has been projected as a potential lead back for much of his NFL career, but yet to be given the keys to a backfield. David Johnson is the clear starter but needing a rebound from his poor showing and eventual departure from Arizona in 2019. Houston is a prime landing spot for one of the still-available veterans on the market to split time with Duke Johnson Jr or keep Johnson in his secondary role if David Johnson misses time.
Jaguars: Ryquell Armstead
Jacksonville notably adds James Robinson and Tavien Feaster among the 2020 rookies, but Armstead if the Day 3 incumbent for the role behind Leonard Fournette, who was largely healthy in 2019 for the first time in his NFL career. The level of offense limits the starter to RB2 upside and there is a touch of ambiguity with the challengers to Armstead's previous perch as the RB2.
Bears: Tarik Cohen
The depth chart is close to bare (no pun intended) behind David Montgomery and Tarik Cohen in Chicago. Cohen would be a de factor starter if Montgomery were out as a sub-sized option. The workload would be pronounced outside of hybrid player Ryan Nall taking on some of the heavy lifting.
Unclear Handcuff, RB2 Upside
Jets: Lamical Perine, Frank Gore
Frank Gore was a post-NFL Draft signing to cloud Lamical Perine's stature here behind LeVeon Bell. Gore soaked up carries in a committee with Devin Singletary for much of 2019 in Buffalo and could do the same in a committee if Bell is out for a stretch. The rest of the depth chart is uninspiring.
This depth chart is murky (like usual) beyond presumed 1A Sony Michel. Burkhead has been a stalwart ancillary option with the Patriots with two-way ability as a runner and receiver. Harris should be the favorite to benefit the most from a Michel injury as Day 2 running backs with solid size tend to get a full starting opportunity within their first two or three seasons. James White's receiving-centric role provides another upside-reducing twist to the now-Tom Brady-less New England offense.
This may be a full-blown committee to open the season and throughout (pending health). Breida offers more big-play potential with Howard offering the grinder profile to handle significant interior work. The upside of the Dolphins offense as a whole is also a question mark with an anemic run game showing in 2019 and not much added at the skill positions (outside of Tua Tagovailoa) this offseason.
Steelers: Benny Snell, Jaylen Samuels, Anthony McFarland
In one of the more ambiguous handcuff situations, Snell showed little with his lack of athleticism as a rookie last season, Samuels is a hybrid player at heart with better acumen in the passing game than as a traditional running back, and McFarland has speed and burst to enter the depth chart as an early-Day 3 rookie.
Kelley enters the backfield with good enough traits to be a three-down consideration from Day 3. Jackson was later on Day 3 as a sub-sized option and a former high-level collegiate producer as the incumbent. This is one of the more contested primary backup roles (or even for 1B work) post-NFL Draft. A limitation to the offense is also Philip Rivers' departure, who optimized running backs in the passing game throughout his tenure.
This may be giving Gallman, a former Day 3 selection with go-to traits, too much credit, but Dion Lewis' addition comes at 30 years old around the projected season start and sliding in efficiency almost across the board in 2019. Lewis is the favorite, but Gallman is the incumbent with the Giants in a contested, but low-upside battle for RB2.
In one of the most crowded running back depth charts in the NFL, Washington has a myriad of outcomes in 2020. Guice should be the earmarked starter and 1.0 highest upside option if healthy for a stretch. Peterson offers sustained usage even now in his mid-30s. Gibson was a mid-Day 2 selection with a David Johnson-like incoming prospect profile. Love is returning from injury after a redshirt rookie season and Day 3 selection, offering overt speed from his profile. At least one injury, if not two, would be required to clear the depth chart enough for a strong RB1 workload, and still the level of offensive acumen in Washington would be a remaining question mark.
Todd Gurley is the clear starter, but none of the other notable backs for Atlanta has much of an NFL track record for being a high-volume option. Smith saw committee work at his best as a sub-sized option, Hill has bounced around in his NFL career but did show moments of promise in Atlanta last year, and Ollison was primarily a short-yardage option as a rookie after Day 3 pedigree.
Life without Christian McCaffrey would be rough, especially considering Carolina's remaining running back depth chart. Bonnafon is the closest proxy to McCaffrey as a receiver, but even that is a drastic reduction in utility. Davis is a veteran who has bounced around in recent years but remains on the low-level NFL and fantasy radar. Scarlett did little after sliding to late Day 2 in 2019 as a rookie.