Five fantasy RBs who could be busts in 2016
Over the last few years, a new fantasy football strategy emerged: zero RB. The backbone of this strategy lies in the instability of running back production. A lot of players had a great 2015 season, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will reach that level of production this year.
Here are five running backs with high ADPs and the red flags you need to evaluate before you add them to your roster.
Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons (current ADP: 15, No. 7 RB)
Devonta Freeman was arguably the fantasy football MVP of the 2015 season. After starting the year in an assumed timeshare, Freeman took the featured role when rookie Tevin Coleman got hurt, and put up 1,056 rushing yards and tied for a league-leading 11 rushing touchdowns. He also caught 73 of his 92 targets for 578 yards and another three touchdowns. He led the position in fantasy scoring and tied for 11th in fantasy points per snap.
Now, the downside. Last year, both Freeman and Coleman suffered from hamstring injuries during the preseason, but when Coleman went down with a rib injury in Week 2, that opened the door for Freeman to shine. However, Coleman was handpicked by offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. The Falcons still believe in Coleman’s talents and supposedly the two backs are competing for the starting role, again.
Even though Coleman fumbled the ball three times during his rookie season, he did average 4.5 yards per carry. Meanwhile, through Freeman’s last seven games (the second half of the season), he ran the ball 113 times for only 347 yards and two touchdowns. That’s 3.07 YPC. Not exactly desirable.
Watch this competition. Statistically, Freeman blew Coleman out of the water in 2015, but that’s not a guarantee going into the new season. Even if Freeman does win the job, he could still lose a significant amount of carries to Coleman. If he’s your first- or second-round pick, that could be a disappointment.
Thomas Rawls, Seattle Seahawks (20, No. 10 RB)
Thomas Rawls flashed major upside during his rookie season, earning an 81.1 PFF grade, 12th among running backs. He averaged 5.6 YPC, tied for third best in the league. He also averaged 3.1 yards after contact, sixth most among running backs. He rushed for 830 yards and four touchdowns on the year.
If he had ended the season fully healthy and maintained that pace (he didn’t play after Week 14), Rawls might not be listed here. But the broken ankle that ended Rawls’ season appears to still linger. The Seahawks have been pretty vague about Rawls’ recovery. The team continues to talk of Rawls as their lead back after the (supposed, not-yet-official) retirement of Marshawn Lynch, but they also drafted three running backs. That kind of depth suggests that the team might be concerned with Rawls’ recovery.
The injury didn’t require surgery, and head coach Pete Carroll says he hopes Rawls will be back by Week 1. That means you’ll have to take Rawls in the second round of your fantasy draft, sight unseen. In the meantime, if Rawls misses time, Christine Michael and rookie C.J. Prosise are the likely candidates to hold down the fort, and if one of those guys (or the other rookies) flashes, Rawls might not get the featured role back.
DeMarco Murray, Tennessee Titans (40, No. 17 RB)
About a month ago, it looked like DeMarco Murray was primed to be the bounceback fantasy player of the year. He got out of Philadelphia and landed on a team that wants to run.
But then the Titans drafted RB Derrick Henry, last year’s Heisman trophy winner out of Alabama, at No. 45 overall. Even though Mularkey reportedly called Murray right after the Henry pick to assure him that his workload was safe, Henry is going to get carries. And if he plays better ball than Murray, they will not hesitate to make the switch.
Henry graded out as the No. 6 running back in this draft class mostly due to his lack of work in the passing game. He’s a power runner, a LeGarrette Blount type. Henry put up 2,219 yards and 28 touchdowns in his final college season and has some serious fantasy breakout potential.
But let’s not forget that Murray was the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year in 2014 when he won the league rushing title with 1,845 yards. However, in 2014 Murray also played behind PFF’s highest-graded offensive line in Dallas. When Murray made the leap to Philadelphia, his stats took a nose dive. He only averaged 2.0 YAC and 3.6 YPC. Many of the issues Murray faced were baked into the flailing Chip Kelly offense, but you can’t ignore those unfavorable numbers.
Last year, the Titans’ offensive line graded out 29th in the league. If Murray starts out the season as the lead back, he’ll have his work cut out for him. If he can’t get creative and overcome his line’s deficiencies, look for Henry to take carries sooner rather than later.
Dion Lewis, New England Patriots (48, No. 21 RB)
Last year, Dion Lewis tore his left ACL in Week 9. This cut short Lewis’ impressive run in the New England offense. In seven games, Lewis only rushed for 234 yards and two touchdowns, but he averaged a decent 4.77 YPC. He was extremely effective in the passing game, with 34 catches for 388 yards and two more touchdowns, earning him a 79.5 PFF grade, 13th highest of all running backs.
However, head coach Bill Belichick hates you and your fantasy team. He’s famously finicky with running backs, rolling with hot hands and switching without notice. Five different running backs led the Patriots in rushing in a game last season, and quarterback Tom Brady led in two others.
If Lewis is fully healthy, he’ll likely start the season as the team’s top fantasy option. But LeGarrette Blount will get carries as the ground-and-pound guy, and James White will catch some passes as well.
And if Lewis takes time getting back to full strength, look for Belichick to spread the wealth. On the Patriots, perhaps more than on any other team, his job could be at risk if he isn’t 100 percent to start the season and someone else starts well.
Chris Ivory, Jacksonville Jaguars (66, No. 27 RB)
There’s some value for Chris Ivory at No. 66 overall. 2015 was Ivory’s best year yet and his first with 1,000-plus total yards. He went for 80-plus rushing yards in seven of his 15 outings. But that was in New York with the Jets. This year, his production will take place in Jacksonville.
Not many had Ivory pegged to go to the Jaguars, where he’ll serve as more of a complementary back alongside 2015 rookie T.J. Yeldon. On the other hand, the Jaguars have always wanted a two-pronged running approach, so from their end Ivory made sense. For Yeldon, in his first year, the rookie out of Alabama didn’t find the end zone often enough to please fantasy owners, and he struggled in pass protection a bit, but he did still average 4.1 YPC behind a so-so offensive line. Yeldon dealt with nagging injuries, including a sprained MCL, and those could continue, but as long as he’s healthy, he’ll get the majority of the carries for the team. Look for this to be a timeshare situation, with Ivory serving as a goal-line option that is way better than last year’s candidates of Toby Gerhart and Denard Robinson. Expecting much more than that, though, could lead to disappointment; Ivory won’t be anywhere near as productive as he was with the Jets, and could be more of a handcuff than a fantasy option in his own right.
Remember, a player’s value to your fantasy team is inherently linked to the price paid to acquire him. All of these players could help a fantasy roster in 2016 if taken at the right spot. But right now, they’re all going higher than I would recommend, and that will limit the value they can provide.