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The bell cow report: The running backs with the highest fantasy stock based on workload

By Scott Barrett
May 22, 2019

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Nov 5, 2018; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) smiles prior to the game against the Tennessee Titans at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The running back position has become the most important and most hotly debated position in fantasy football.

Should you employ a zero-RB strategy in fantasy drafts? For my money, no, not unless forced to. Running backs have higher injury risk than wide receivers. The advantage gained by backups assuming starting roles later in the season is real, but not enough to forego a top-10 running back just because of it. I made my full argument against the zero-RB strategy last offseason.

So what should you do? You should go “bell cow or bust” — adopting some of the best points made by Zero-RB advocates, but not neglecting the early-round bell cows who tend to be your fantasy league-winners. These running backs rank highly in snaps, carries, and targets, but also in percentage of team running back snaps, carries, and targets. They have a higher floor, more upside, and better week-to-week consistency than their non-bell cow running back counterparts.

So, what is a bell cow running back? What is the best way to define or measure this designation?

Over the past several seasons, I’ve used many different methodologies to try to determine which running backs qualified as bell cows. This season, I’ve settled on my preferred approach: positional market share of expected fantasy points (AORB%). (For a more in-depth breakdown on expected fantasy points, check out my work on Actual Opportunity.) This metric should effectively measure just how much a specific running back has a stranglehold on a team’s backfield.

Last season, Christian McCaffrey totaled 311.9 expected fantasy points in games played, while all other Carolina running backs combined to total just 54.2 expected fantasy points. So, this gave him an AORB% of 85.2%, third-best.

I also included total team market share (AOTM%), to better highlight someone like Alvin Kamara. He wasn’t a true bell cow, ranking just 12th in AORB%, because Mark Ingram also saw a robust workload. New Orleans leaned on their running backs more than most teams, however, and Kamara ranked sixth in team market share (25.4% AOTM%). So, while he might not be a true bell cow, and might be less consistent on a week-to-week basis, he is deserving of a high-end pick based on usage.

The below chart includes AOTM% but ranks all running backs by AORB% in 2018.

Without further ado, here are your running backs most likely to receive a bell cow workload in 2019:

Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants

In his rookie season, Barkley led all non-quarterbacks in fantasy points. He ranked second at the position in both carries and targets, and that’s somehow putting it lightly. Barkley’s total of 121 targets ranks eighth-most by any running back in any season since targets became a stat (1992) and would have ranked 15th among all wide receivers last year. That’s important, because, though New York’s offense seems likely to decline, that shouldn’t negatively impact Barkley’s fantasy potential. Barkley offsets a lack of scoring opportunities with more targets out of the backfield. Targets are worth 2.74 times as much as a carry in PPR leagues, so it should be no surprise that, last season, Barkley was more productive for fantasy when New York was trailing.

Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys

(More: The case for Elliott as the No. 2 running back in 2019)

Although Elliott was only a borderline bell cow prior to 2018, he might now be the biggest bell cow in the league. He totaled just 58 receptions through his first two seasons in the NFL but saw that number jump to 77 last season alone. He averaged 6.3 targets per game, fifth-most among all running backs. In conjunction with his rushing volume, it was historically great usage. Over his last 16 games (including the postseason), he totaled 335 carries and 101 targets. By weighted opportunity, that’d be worth 354.9 points, or what would rank eighth-most since targets became a stat if over a full season. I have Barkley ranked higher but wouldn’t fault anyone who made Elliott the No. 1 pick in their 2019 fantasy draft.

Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers

In 2018, McCaffrey led all running backs in snaps (by 76), despite sitting out most of Week 17. He not only broke the single-season record for receptions by a running back (107), but he also averaged a whopping 5.01 yards per carry on 219 attempts. McCaffrey has legitimate 1,000/1,000 upside and should be a top-five pick in all leagues.

Alvin Kamara, RB, New Orleans Saints

(More: Is Kamara underrated for fantasy in 2019?)

Kamara might not be a true bell cow, but he is well-worth a top-five overall pick. On one of the league’s best offenses, Kamara ranked sixth among running backs in team expected fantasy point market share (AOTM%), but he ranked just 12th in team running back expected fantasy point market share (AORB%). That makes him a little more inconsistent on a week-to-week basis, but he’s still a top option at the position. And if he does receive more of a bell cow workload next season, he might be worth taking as the No. 1 overall pick.

With Mark Ingram suspended during the first four weeks of last season, we finally got to see Kamara’s full potential as a bell cow running back. Through those first four weeks, Kamara averaged a whopping 34.0 fantasy points per game, or the most by any player ever through the first four weeks of the season. Kamara averaged 57.3 snaps, 14.0 carries, and 11.0 targets per game during that span. Across his final 11 games, he averaged only 38.9 snaps, 12.5 carries, and 4.9 targets per game. Latavius Murray was signed as New Orleans’ Ingram replacement, but it’s not a given he sees the same workload.

David Johnson, RB, Arizona Cardinals

(More: Johnson’s bounceback chances in 2019)

In 2016, Johnson totaled 407.8 PPR points, the ninth-most by any running back all-time — a number no other active running back has ever eclipsed. In 2017, Johnson played in just one game before suffering a season-ending injury. In 2018, everything went wrong, and he still finished 11th in fantasy points per game.

How much of what went wrong is correctable? Pretty much all of it. He’ll be a bell cow again in 2019 and will also benefit from an improved offense and a new offensive-minded head coach. Last season, Kliff Kingsbury’s Texas Tech Red Raiders were one of only 10 teams to target running backs more than 75 times. They also ran the third-most offensive snaps in the NCAA. On top of all that, Kingsbury has continually talked up making Johnson a focal point of the Cardinals’ passing attack, using him when lined up as a wide receiver.

James Conner, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

(More: Conner’s new role as a top-flight fantasy back)

Honestly, I’m not sure we shouldn’t be valuing Conner exactly as we would Le’Veon Bell a season ago. Conner averaged 21.5 fantasy points per game last year (Bell’s career average is 21.9), or 23.0 if we exclude games he left early due to injury (Bell averaged 23.2 fantasy points per game in his second-best fantasy season). Conner’s 2018 season also trumped Bell’s 2017 season in (*deep breath*) yards per carry, yards after contact per attempt, rushing missed tackles forced per attempt, yards per target, yards after the catch per reception, missed tackles forced per reception, and missed tackles forced per touch.

Pittsburgh has run its offense through a bell cow running back (even when Bell was inactive) every season since Bell entered the league. Over that span, Bell averaged 59.7 snaps per game and 22.1 fantasy points per game. In the 35 games he’s missed over that span, Pittsburgh’s lead back averaged 54.7 snaps per game and 18.8 fantasy points per game.

Todd Gurley, RB, Los Angeles Rams

Gurley was the top bell cow in both 2018 and 2017, rarely leaving the field, even while the Rams were blowing out opponents. He was also the most valuable fantasy asset over this span, leading all non-quarterbacks in fantasy points per game in back-to-back seasons. However, following reports of arthritis in his knee and the trade-up for Darrell Henderson, it seems clear Gurley will see a reduced workload in 2019. Even so, based on his numbers last season, he could see a 25% dropoff in workload and still finish as a top-six fantasy running back.

Le’Veon Bell, RB, New York Jets

Bell’s landing spot in New York probably isn’t as enticing as Pittsburgh but he’s still a likely bell cow given historical usage and the lofty salary he just signed. Head coach Adam Gase’ running backs have been hit-or-miss since he entered the league, but not when he’s finally committed to a bell cow.

In 2013, Knowshon Moreno finished fourth among running backs in fantasy points. In 2014, C.J. Anderson ranked first from Week 10 until the end of the regular season. In 2015, Matt Forte played in only 13 games but still finished seventh in fantasy points. In 2016, Jay Ajayi finished 12th in fantasy points. In 2017, Drake finished eighth from Week 12 until the end of the regular season.

Melvin Gordon, RB, Los Angeles Chargers

Gordon has ranked fifth, sixth, and fifth among running backs in fantasy points per game over the past three seasons. However, he wasn’t as much of a bell cow last year as he was in 2017. Austin Ekeler saw a more robust workload last year, and given Ekeler’s efficiency (he was PFF’s sixth-highest-graded running back last year) and Gordon’s injury history, I do expect that trend to continue. I’d bet Gordon still finishes as a fantasy RB1 and as a bell cow, but a tier below most of the other bell cows we’ve already discussed.

Joe Mixon, RB, Cincinnati Bengals

Mixon was a workhorse running back but only a borderline bell cow last season. In games both he and Giovani Bernard played, he played on 66% of the team’s snaps, while drawing 86% of the team’s carries and 56% of the targets out of the backfield. Losing those targets to Bernard meant he wasn’t a true bell cow (though he came close), but I don’t think the new regime in Cincinnati will make that same mistake. In Mixon’s final season of college he averaged 2.70 yards per route run, which ranks top-six of the PFF College era (since 2014). I think new head coach Zac Taylor is smart enough to utilize Mixon as his team’s every-down bell cow.

Leonard Fournette, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars

Fournette played in eight games last year, but only 26 (of a potential 32) quarters due to ejection and injury. Once adjusted for that, it becomes clear Fournette was in fact a bell cow last season, averaging 23.8 touches and 18.5 fantasy points per four quarters. Efficiency has been a problem for Fournette since entering the league, as has been injuries, but volume has never been a concern. With even less competition this year, he’s a good bet to return as a bell cow and a potential fantasy RB1.

Dalvin Cook, RB, Minnesota Vikings

Cook has had trouble staying healthy in each of the past two seasons but has been tremendous whenever he’s been on the field and, last year, was used as a bell cow toward the end of last season. In 2018, Cook ranked first of 56 qualifying running backs in missed tackles forced per touch. From Week 11 until the end of the season, Cook played on 76% of the team’s snaps and averaged 15.7 fantasy points per game. I don’t view Alexander Mattison as a serious threat to Cook’s touches and, so long as stays healthy, he should be used as a bell cow running back on his way to a likely fantasy RB1 finish.

Damien Williams, RB, Kansas City Chiefs

(More: Why Williams makes sense as a fantasy starter)

Perhaps more so than any other running back, Williams is the toughest to gauge. Andy Reid has rarely ever employed a committee backfield throughout his career. Instead, he’s used his lead running back as a bell cow, and to great fantasy success. In 12 of the last 15 seasons, Reid’s RB1 has finished top-eight among running backs in fantasy points per game — a number unrivaled by any other active head coach or offensive play-caller.

Williams averaged a whopping 5.25 yards per carry and 25.8 fantasy points per game over his last five games of the season. He also saw a bell cow workload in the postseason (granted, Spencer Ware was dealing with an injury), drawing 77% of the team’s snaps, 92% of the team’s carries, and 93% of the team’s targets out of the backfield. In 2019, Williams will either be Kansas City’s lead back but in a committee alongside Carlos Hyde and potentially Darwin Thompson (a mid-range RB2 value) or the team’s bell cow, which would give him high-end RB1 upside.

Aaron Jones, RB, Green Bay Packers

Jones could be a bell cow this season. He’s certainly deserved it the past two seasons. Over this span he’s averaged a league-high 5.5 yards per carry while all other Green Bay running backs have combined to average just 3.7 yards per carry. Somehow, in spite of this, Jamaal Williams totals 60 more carries over this stretch. Prior to Jones’ Week 15 injury, we finally saw him being used as he should — as a bell cow. From Weeks 9 through 14, Jones played on 67% of the snaps, drawing 79% of the team’s carries and 77% of the team’s targets out of the backfield. Over this span, he averaged 13.9 carries, 4.1 targets, 99.6 yards, and 20.0 fantasy points per game.

However, Jones hasn’t been as effective as a receiver or a pass-blocker, and it’s not yet clear whether head coach Matt LaFleur prefers a bell-cow approach at the position (he certainly didn’t with Tennessee last season).

Rookie running backs

(More: Evaluating the landing spots of the top-drafted rookie running backs)

All of Josh Jacobs, Miles Sanders, and David Montgomery have legitimate bell cow potential in Year 1.

Following the Raiders’ selection of Jacobs, head coach Jon Gruden had this to say, “I think he’s going to be a centerpiece at some point… My expectation for him — if you’re listening, Josh — I encourage you to get some rest because we’re going to run you a lot. We’re going to give you a great opportunity.”

Of Gruden’s former running backs, Michael Pittman is probably the best example of a workload to except from Jacobs. In 2002-2004, Pittman averaged 203 carries and 91 targets per season. That’s equivalent to 262.1 weighted opportunity points and would have ranked top-seven in each of the past two seasons.

Howie Roseman (Eagles executive VP of football operations) said following the Eagles’ selection of Sanders, “Miles is a guy who can play all three downs.” I’m guessing that played a role in Philadelphia taking Sanders on Day 2 – the highest the Eagles have drafted a running back (by 79 picks) during Roseman’s 10-year tenure.

In March, the Bears traded away Jordan Howard (who ranks third in rushing yards since entering the league) for only a Round 6 draft pick. Meanwhile, to trade up for Montgomery, the Bears gave up a 2019 Round 3 pick, a 2020 Round 4 pick, and fell 43 spots on Day 3. I think, the only way to justify those trades would be if the Bears viewed Montgomery as a bell cow running back.

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