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The fun thing about auctions is that each position has a vastly different strategy for attacking it. It can be a stumbling block for beginners or even veterans if you don’t realize the differences at the four major starting spots. As you saw in the first piece, quarterbacks and tight ends have much different scarcity questions and starting requirements. On top of that, depth varies widely among all four positions. Quarterback in a start-one quarterback league is just too deep to sink a lot of money into the position. On the other end of the spectrum, tight end is so top-heavy that it’s the best strategy to get one of the top guys or dive deep into bargains. But running backs? They are unique creatures all on their own. Not only is the position scarce in that there are not many true bell-cow backs left, but it’s also scarce in that a lot of leagues allow multiple flexes at the position, so people push even harder to get as many relevant backs on their team as they can. The comfort level as each tier drops off the board makes fantasy auction drafters nervous like at no other position. This seems to be a part of a fantasy drafter’s brain that is hardwired. As a result, you have less of a chance to grab the bargains at running back if you are not strict with when you are attacking which players. This is not always in your control, but then again, sometimes it is, and that’s why you need some value possibilities to put your roster over the top. You are going to have to pay, or even overpay, for the most sought-after guys at running back, so it is even more critical to find some valuable nuggets that can explode for your team.
One other thing to remember is that a target does not necessarily mean a low-priced player. It means you are seeking out a lower-priced player as compared to other players similarly ranked. Most often, in the case of running backs, you will not see many, if any, deals on the top guys. Instead, try to find a couple of dollars off the prices at the top of the position, but more than ever, you should be looking to take advantage of players who have a role that may not be what you want, but that could develop into a bigger role down the line. This is not always easy to anticipate, and the cheaper the running back, the more you’ll be wrong, but when you’re right, you’ll push your auction roster over the top.
Ezekiel Elliott – Everything went poorly for Elliott and the Dallas offense last year. Dak Prescott was lost for the season in Week 5, the offensive line was decimated by injury, and they lost starting tight end Blake Jarwin for the season in Week 1. On top of that, Elliott was uncharacteristically dinged up and struggled through several games before finally missing a week to rest. Even so, he finished fifth in the NFL in rushing attempts inside the ten-yard line and second in attempts inside the five. The offense wasn’t efficient in 2020, but the return of Prescott and the offensive line will correct that issue. In the four full games Elliott played with his quarterback last year, he averaged 5.8 receptions per game and scored four touchdowns. In 2021 drafts, Elliott is being pushed down the draft board by people wondering if 2020 signals the beginning of the end for the Cowboys runner. So, in your auction, you should try to take advantage of that general malaise and nominate him when the top running backs are still available. Drafters waiting to score a top running back may let Elliott go a few dollars cheaper because they know they have 3-5 elite options still to pick from.
Austin Ekeler – Concerns that Ekeler might see a significant drop in targets after the departure of Philip Rivers turned out to be unfounded. If the Chargers’ running back hadn’t missed seven games with a severe hamstring injury in the middle of the year you could very well be talking about him catching 90 passes last year. He averaged 5.9 per contest, and his number was even higher with Justin Herbert as the quarterback. Ekeler is being drafted as a back-end RB1, and his auction price is often that of a top-end RB2. It is hard to find a discount on running backs, so if you can take advantage of the dip in price after Ekeler’s injury you get a back that has a real shot to lead the league in catches at the position. He’s a PPR machine, but in half PPR leagues, his value does take a bit of a hit as his touchdown totals are usually a bit pedestrian.
Chasing Workhorse Backs
J.K. Dobbins – The Ravens love to run the football. They led the NFL by a wide margin in 2020 with 555 rushing attempts. That was almost three more attempts per game than the second-place team. Their identity will not change drastically in 2021, even if they made moves to improve their passing game. Fantasy drafters are correctly paying attention to the fact that last year even after Dobbins entered the rotation for good in Week 8, he still only played on 52.8% of the snaps the rest of the way. Gus Edwards will still play a role after signing an extension after the season, but that seems to be accounted for in Dobbins’ current price tag. Nevertheless, Dobbins is a special player and should show that when he gets a full year of 55%-65% snap counts. Last year he was second in the NFL in Rushing Yards Over Expectation (per attempt) according to NextGenStats, and Pro Football Reference had him as fourth in the league in Yards After Contact (per attempt). He’s a gifted runner and the bonus for auction drafters is that when people have the whole running back pool to choose from his role tends to scare people off. His AAV is only $29 and he’s going on average as the RB16 despite finishing the year out as the RB11 in PPR formats from Week 8 on. He’s a relatively cheap option for your RB2 slot as a young, explosive guy, who plays for a team with a dynamic running game, and who could find his way into the end zone for double-digit touchdowns.
Chris Carson – Carson gets the nod for a second consecutive summer on this list. Last year he was rock solid yet again despite his lackluster ADP. In his 11 healthy games, he averaged 16.6 PPR points per game which was good enough to make him the RB11 for the year. Yet his AAV still lags around $26 despite the Seahawks failing to make substantial improvements in the running back room. The knock on Carson is that he doesn’t command a big target number, and his ceiling may not be what drafters want, but he is a rock-solid auction target who should be on every nomination sheet. Take advantage of yet another summer of mediocre feelings for Carson and grab him as the perfect RB2.
Josh Jacobs – Jacobs belongs on this list for one crucial reason. When auction drafters go with a stars-and-scrubs approach to drafting, Jacobs is a perfect scrub target. The presence of Kenyan Drake in Las Vegas is going to continue to limit Jacobs’ pass-catching role so he will have to produce by scoring touchdowns and getting early-down work. To date, that hasn’t proved to be a huge problem for Jacobs, so it looks like there may be an overcorrection with regards to his value heading into 2021. This is where good auction drafters pounce. If you want to spend a bunch of money on three or four top players, then Jacobs should rocket to the top of your wish list for his solid floor and low auction price. He’s still in line for 275+ touches and he can be had at an AAV of $24, a number that has been static or dropping in recent weeks. Finding high floor productive players is how you thrive in auctions when you want to go after elite players and need to find value elsewhere. Jacobs fits that bill in 2021 auction drafts.
David Montgomery – Montgomery’s five-game stretch to end the 2020 season could only be described as bonkers. He averaged an astounding 27.3 PPR points per game and vaulted himself to a final finish as the RB4 overall. But people are understandably skeptical as he had the pleasure of running against some of the more generous run defenses in the league over that same stretch. The thing for auction drafters is, Montgomery represents one of the last running backs to come off the board who can still lay claim to having a dominant share of his backfield. In addition, the quarterback change in Chicago is likely to make the offense more effective in general, providing more opportunities for everyone. The key is not waiting, so nominate him before some of the guys just ahead of him are gone. Try to get Montgomery cheaply before Miles Sanders, J.K. Dobbins, and Chris Carson are taken from the player pool. Drafters are unsure about the Bears’ lead back, so when auction rooms are waiting on something more appealing it allows you to land a running back with a solid floor cheaper than warranted.
Flawed Prospects…Worthy Candidates
Once you pass the RB2 tiers where there are guys who have a legitimate shot to take the lion’s share of their teams’ backfield touches, there is a glut of guys who can still produce but have a major flaw of some kind – either they don’t catch passes, they are in a true timeshare, or they won’t get goal-line touches. Here are a few options with plenty of punch but some admitted weaknesses.
Darrell Henderson - After the injury to Cam Akers, Henderson shot up draft boards quickly as the Rams new starter. But the rise stopped in the low-end RB2 area. There was concern about whether he'd get a big enough workload or whether the Rams might sign someone off the street to compete for touches. But Los Angeles has not made any moves, and Henderson is poised to be the first option in what should be a potent offense. His ADP though, has been fairly stagnant since the initial readjustment post Akers injury. That makes him a nice target for auction drafters. Being able to get 225+ touches in a quality offense for an AAV in the low $20s is what auctions are all about.
Kareem Hunt – His name had a lot of buzz last summer as he was touted not only as a running back with stand-alone value but a player with league-winning upside if Nick Chubb were to get hurt. Unfortunately, the Chubb injury came to pass, but Hunt saw only a modest 1.5 points per game bump in fantasy production. Now, fantasy drafters are largely ambivalent about the Browns’ complementary back. But the player himself hasn’t changed. In 2020 he finished 11th in yards after contact per attempt, according to Pro Football Reference. He also piled up 39 rushing attempts inside the 20-yard line, good for 12th in the league. Hunt is still an excellent runner who can catch passes and put the ball in the end zone. Chubb caps his upside, but if your auction teams are top-heavy from your draft strategy, Hunt makes a lot of sense as an auction target because of his solid floor.
Raheem Mostert - Trey Sermon has picked up an ankle injury that has limited his time on the field recently. On top of that, Mostert was held out of action in their most recent preseason game in a clear sign that the 49ers consider him to be their top guy to open the season. It is within the realm of possibility that Mostert loses the job to Sermon, but it's doubtful whether that happens this year if Mostert can stay on the field. The most Sermon is likely to do without an injury at this point is force a timeshare. Even so, Mostert's price is so low in auctions now that he has rather subtly become a value as the season nears. This running game is dynamic and Mostert is on track to be the starter Week 1. The risk of injury or splitting time with Sermon is already more than builit into his price, so target Mostert as a RB3, or even an RB4 to give your roster some possible punch.
James Robinson – Part of auction success is finding steady contributors for low prices that can step in during bye weeks, injury issues, or Covid concerns. It is fun to chase upside, but players with a solid floor are also necessary to complete an auction roster. Robinson fits the bill. Travis Etienne looks like the best bet to secure the receiving work, but it is likely that both running backs will play plenty and that Robinson will be the early-down and goal-line back. Nobody knows exactly what Urban Meyer’s plans are, but count on Robinson still grabbing 200+ touches and being a great complement to any auction roster needing to save cap space for back-end starters or bench players. Robinson isn’t exciting for most auction drafters as they’re focused on Etienne but use that to your advantage to get the second-year back cheap.
Near the end of the draft, if you can, save enough money to put yourself in the driver’s seat to pay that extra dollar for a couple of players that could take off in the right situation. Pay attention to your own backups first and foremost. If you have Ezekiel Elliott on your roster, then get Tony Pollard out there when budgets start to run low but *before* the running back pool is picked dry. This means people are less interested in a guy like Pollard when they can still get Alexander Mattison or Devin Singletary. But when their choices are Pollard or Sony Michel, you’ll find yourself in a bidding war that isn’t necessary. Pay attention to your backups, but if other drafters ignore their own, you can also take advantage of that.
Here are some other situations that should be cheap for a shot at production greater than the draft room consensus.
Jamaal Williams – Williams should have value all on his own after Detroit coaches said that he would be heavily involved in the offense with starter D’Andre Swift. He’s a candidate for some early-down work and possibly even some goal-line carries as well. He fits the mold of what the Lions claim they are building in Detroit – a physical team that can be aggressive with their opponents. He is still only 26 and is being somewhat ignored in drafts. Get Williams as your last running back in your auction.
A.J. Dillon – Surprisingly, Dillon had more buzz as a rookie than he does this summer despite the Packers moving on from Jamaal Williams. The Green Bay coaching staff has clearly communicated that Dillon is their top option behind Aaron Jones with his playing time splits this preseason. His AAV is just $4, and with Williams out of town, Dillon should be more exciting to auction drafters. But since he’s not, you can take advantage and land him as your last running back.
Latavius Murray – This is purely a handcuff pick, but Murray has shown the ability to produce when he’s come in for an injured Alvin Kamara. Although he’s going into his age-30 season he doesn’t have the carries most running backs have on their legs and he should be considered a top option when the late stages of any auction draft begin.
Gus Edwards – Edwards signed a new contract with Baltimore in the offseason signaling that Edwards isn’t going anywhere in the next couple of years. Starter J.K. Dobbins is the main guy for the Ravens, but Edwards plays plenty and excels in the Baltimore running scheme. He will have fantasy value as the compliment to Dobbins but, should anything happen to the starter, Edwards will get the chance to be the top guy in a high-volume running game. Take advantage of his $4 AAV in the bottom of RB4 territory in your auctions.
Landing running backs is easily the toughest task in any auction. The competition is fierce, everyone loves to spend money on them, and they are widely recognized as the most acceptable way to blow 25+% of your auction cap on one guy. This means that all your considerable game theory and strategy learned in the Mastering the Auction Draft series will have to be brought to bear to land some elite talent with solid depth. Pay attention to these targets and nominate them at the right time to make your roster soar with both floor and upside. Your goal isn’t to land every guy on this list. Your goal is to pay market value for elite and/or safe players and then land a few of these targets along with them. The combination is what makes your team a championship contender.Follow @DrewFBGAuctions