Ultimate 2020 NFL Free Agency RB Primer: Rankings, Predictions, Ideal Fantasy Spots - Roto Street Journal
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Ultimate 2020 NFL Free Agency RB Primer: Rankings, Predictions, Ideal Fantasy Spots

The 2020 NFL Free Agency floodgates are about to open, and no position is more important to breakdown for fantasy than this RB class. The 2020 RB pool is more loaded with marquee names than any in the last decade, perhaps ever. Below, we rank the Top Free Agent RBs, predict where they’ll land, and list the ideal “Value Holes.”

Before diving into this class, an important note: RBs rarely improve in new homes. Over the last 10 years, 39 RBs who switched home were drafted among the Top-36 Fantasy RBs. Of these, only 8 actually beat their ADP (20.5%), while just 14 improved in PPR points per game (40%).

Thus, even if the sight of these stallions in their new colors and new offenses gets the fantasy blood flowing down low, we preach caution to overreacting. For every Mark Ingram and Latavius Murray who exceeded expectations in 2020 (as we predicted), a Le’Veon Bell and Tevin Coleman fell flat.

Still, this class is so juiced up, and so many teams present gaping backfield holes, we expect this 2020 class to defy history a bit more than usual. As you’ll notice, though, most of these RBs would best be served staying with their original teams.

2020 NFL Free Agency RB Rankings

Tier 1 – Entire Offense

1) Derrick Henry

Tier 2 – RB1 Upside in Right Homes

2) Melvin Gordon

3) Austin Ekeler *RFA Signed 4-year deal with Chargers

4) Kenyan Drake

5) Kareem Hunt *RFA

*Huge drop off from here

Tier 3 – Capable Starters

5) Jordan Howard

6) Matt Breida *RFA

7) Lamar Miller

8) DeAndre Washington

9) Carlos Hyde

Tier 4 – Depth Options

10) Frank Gore

11) LeSean McCoy

12) Chris Thompson

13) Peyton Barber

14) CJ Prosise

15) Ty Montgomery

Potential Trade Candidates: 

David Johnson, Le’Veon Bell, Leonard Fournette, Devonta Freeman

 

2020 Top Five “Value Holes”

Value Hole (noun)  – Your filthy mind could probably define this in an unlimited number of ways. In fantasy football, we use “Value Hole” to describe a (seemingly) open depth chart spot that will offer significant fantasy value to whoever fills it (via draft or free agency).

We judge “Value Holes” by assessing the Available Usage, Surrounding Talent and Coaching Scheme surrounding the hole. For RBs, the offensive line is especially important, as is a QB who will generate scoring chances and keep boxes light.

With these factors in mind, here are our Top 10 “Value Holes” for this 2020 crop.

Elite Value Holes:

1) Chiefs

Sure, Damien Williams once again flashed his upside throughout the playoffs, trailing only Raheem Mostert with 4 TDs. He remains a size-speed freak with the pass-catching chops to thrive in Andy Reid‘s offense… when healthy.

Yet, that’s the rub here. Williams has never lasted when given a featured role, and Reid much prefers a central, reliable backfield figure to keep his offense unpredictable. Despite Reid’s endorsement of Williams at the 2020 Combine, don’t be shocked if The Walrus seeks out a sturdier piece.

If so, you couldn’t ask for a better Value Hole than KC’s backfield. Even without Patrick Mahomes for a handful of the season, the Chiefs trailed only the Ravens in scoring (29.9 PPG). This offense is a TD-bonanza that relies on a do-it-all horse, with Reid funneling pass game looks to his RBs.

Sure, this line leaves a lot to be desired as run-blockers, with three sub-60 graded starters according to PFF. Still, the offense as a whole is so explosive under Mahomes’ direction that a versatile, three-down threat would warrant immediate first-round, potentially even Top-Five, consideration within this attack.

2) Titans (if Henry is not re-signed)

The Titans offense boast the two key ingredients for RB success: a group of mauling run blockers, and heavy volume.

Granted, bruising RT Jack Conklin — their second-highest graded run blocker — is scheduled for Free Agency and expected to get away. Even without him, Taylor Lewan and Roger Saffold are among the best at their positions, while center Ben Jones’ 77.2 grade ranked third in the league and was the highest of his eight year career.

Meanwhile, new OC Arthur Smith ran the ball on 46.9% of his plays — fourth highest in the league. Obviously, having a stallion like Henry in the backfield influences this playcalling, but this is a team built to run.

Whether Henry returns or they replace him with another bruiser, expect a Top-15 RB option to emerge from the Titans.

3) Chargers (if not Gordon or Ekeler)

If you add up an entire team’s backfield fantasy points, the Chargers led the entire NFL with 543.6, despite boasting PFF’s fourth worst line of 2019.

The main catalyst? Anthony Lynn, and his usage of his RBs in the pass game. The Chargers have ranked 1st and 3rd in RB target share the past two years, yielding PPR monsters yearly.

Most likely, at least one of Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler return in 2020, especially the latter as a RFA. Still, if both somehow escape, the starter would be in a prime position to rack up 300+ touches, with at least 50-60 coming through the air. The only reason the Chargers don’t claim the top spot is the expected QB change — Philip Rivers loved using his RBs in the pass game, and his removal most certainly will have an adverse effect here.

Solid Value Holes

4) Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Fond 2016 Memory of Bruce Arians riding David Johnson for 373 touches (80 rec), over 2100 yards and 20 TDs may be distant… but can’t be forgotten.

Especially because DJ is far from the only back to succeed under Arians, even if the most stellar. Rashard Mendenhall, Willie Parker, and even Andre Ellington all posted 300+ touches and RB1 value under Arians. Sure, Arians’ has coaxed some disgusting RBBCs, including last year’s backfield disaster. But he had a glaring lack of backfield talent to work with in each of these seasons.

Shockingly, Tampa Bay ranked 7th in PFF’s end of season line rankings. Yes, this was more for their stellar pass protection. But they’ve taken massive steps forward in the past two seasons up front. Arians offense also lit up scoreboards, as the Bucs ranked fourth with 28.6 PPG.

If an elite three-down talent like Gordon or Drake ends up in Tampa… look out.

5) Arizona Cardinals

Throughout 2019, each of David Johnson, Chase Edmonds, and Kenyan Drake posted monster Top-Five RB weeks.

Unfortunately, until Drake’s epic late-season run, this backfield was near impossible to get a firm grasp on.

The positive?

The lead back almost always operated as the centerpiece. This wasn’t a weekly RBBC headache, with the AZ starter consistently ranking in the Top-15 weekly RBs. Kliff Kingsbury‘s offense is predicated on pace, and  he clearly preferred a three-down horse that didn’t need to be removed so the offense could keep the gas pedal down.

The line remains a concern, with the fourth-lowest run blocking grade in the league. Additionally, Johnson could always return healthy, and remains near-impossible to cut, which could throw a wrench in any new arrival here.

Still, the Air Raid offense could explode even further in Year Two, and the lead-RB will likely be a major focal point of this.

Other Teams to Watch:

Steelers

Pittsburgh has long preferred a workhorse under Mike Tomlin, and James Conner just can’t stay healthy. A new featured back could be coming, and would be running behind a yearly top-10 line

Texans

Both Lamar Miller and Carlos Hyde are UFAs in 2020, which could pave the path for an actual explosive option to emerge. Even with pure plodders, the Texans have ranked Top-12 in rushing attempts in all six seasons under Bill O’Brien, including three Top-Five rankings. The line is improving, and Deshaun Watson always gives this attack some juggernaut upside.

Dolphins

Cross this name off the list if the Dolphins don’t address their dire, league-worst line concerns. If they do, Miami could be the home of a Top-10 fantasy RB, as Chan Gailey has consistently pounded the rock within his spread attack.

49ers

Raheem Mostert certainly deserves a full season of burn as the team’s lead-RB… but who knows if the Shannahanigans will rear their ugly head. Whoever is the top back will drip in Top-10 upside, as the zone-blocking scheme creates fantasy monsters, and the line has the perfect power and athleticism combo to execute it flawlessly.

NFL Free Agency RB Predictions

1) Derrick Henry

Ideal Spot: Return to Titans

Predicted Spot: Titans (TEN will “do everything we can” to keep him, including the franchise tag).

Wildcard: Dolphins (most cap space in the league @ $88m, Kalen Ballage (puke) is their current top option)

Derrick Henry was finally unleashed in 2019, and the result was the NFL Rushing Crown in attempts (303), yards (1540), and TDs (16). Ideally, he returns to the Titans, where OC Arthur Smith will continue riding him behind one of the league’s top-lines (even without Jack Conklin).

Even more enticing? Dion Lewis is expected to be released this offseason, which could open up the door for more pass-game work for Henry. Henry has averaged 10.1 yards per reception in his NFL career, and his 11.4 YPC in 2019 was second highest among RBs. Henry was especially deadly on screens, averaging 13.8 YPC on screens. Yet, he’s averaged just 1.6 targets per game? Imagine the upside if this doubles… 2100 total yd, 20 TD ceiling.

Henry views Ezekiel Elliott’s $90 million contact “the floor” for what he desires. Although the more one-dimensional Henry would do well to approach these numbers, he is unquestionably an offensive centerpiece that changes a team’s identity. The Titans have numerous key free agents, including QB Ryan Tannehill, but Henry seems to be the team’s highest priority, and rightfully so.

2) Melvin Gordon

Ideal Spot: Chiefs

Predicted Spot: Chargers (MGIII stated: “I expect to be back with the Chargers” and continually cited his teammates as major factors. Lynn professed he’d “love” to have him. A major QB signing such as TB12 may throw a wrench in their ability to resign Gordon.)

Wildcard: Buccaneers

Gordon’s early 2019 was nothing short of a disaster. He held out until Week 5, and then sputtered to 112 yards and 1 TD on 44 carries (2.5 YPC) over his first four games. Once the rust was shaken off, Gordon looked largely like his regular self, finishing the year with 204 touches (42 rec), 908 YFS, and 9 TDs — on pace for 272 touches (42 rec) 1,210 YFS, 12 TDs over 16 games.

Because of his blemished 2019, people seem to be forgetting what a monster MGIII had been for three years prior. In that span, Gordon had finished as the RB7, RB5, and RB8 in fantasy, while ranking second in touches and third in YFS and TDs.

He is a slippery, tackle-breaking beast even in congested situations; he earned PFF’s only 80+ grade when rushing against 8+ men in the box with a 23.4% missed tackle rate. Plus, he’s a monster at the stripe and an excellent pass-catcher, racking up 12+ TDs and 400+ receiving yards in three straight years.

In short, he’d be the ideal three-down horse. In a dynamite system like Kansas City or Tampa Bay, Gordon could push for the Fantasy RB Crown. While a return to the Chargers isn’t ideal, forcing a RBBC with Austin Ekeler, Gordon would still be a low-end RB1.

3) Austin Ekeler *RFA Signed 4-year deal with Chargers

Ideal Spot: Return to Chargers (without MGIII)

Predicted Spot: Chargers

Wildcard: Chiefs

Austin Ekeler finished 2019 as fantasy’s Half-PPR RB6 and PPR RB4. This is incredible, considering he was locked into a timeshare with MGIII for 2/3 of the season; Ekeler didn’t top 59% of the snaps following Week 5. Imagine what he could do as the featured back all year?

Without Gordon in Weeks 1-4, Ekeler trailed only McCaffrey in fantasy points (95 total FPs, 23.8 Half PPG). He’s a dynamite receiver and underrated runner, capable of Christian McCaffrey   lite numbers if he gets the work.

Granted, at the 2020 NFL Combine, HC Anthony Lynn professed he prefers Ekeler “in a tandem role… I need him with another guy.”

Actions speak louder than words, though. In Weeks 1-4, Ekeler logged 75%, 73%, 65%, and 72% of the teams snaps in these games, with 18, 23, 16, and 23 touches in this span — no other Charger back even hit 10 touches by comparison. Unless MGIII returns or is replaced with a similar level talent, expect Ekeler to eat with the Chargers.

Even in an RBBC, Ekeler’s value as a move-all-over pass-catcher can’t be ignored, and he’d still roll to 15-17 touches per week. No one threw to their RBs more than Lynn’s Chargers (182 tgts, 31.6% share), and the HC already gushed: “I like it when he comes in and I can line him up in the slot, outside or out of the backfield.”

He’s simply unstoppably efficient in every facet of the game. Via PFF’s Scott Barrett:

Over the past two seasons, he ranks third in PFF grade (90.4), behind only Nick Chubb and McCaffrey. Among 80 running backs as a receiver, he ranks first in yards per route run (2.53) and second in yards per target (9.38). Among 42 running backs, on the ground, he ranks fifth in yards after contact per attempt (3.41).

The question becomes: does Ekeler stay?

The Chargers certainly talk about Ekeler as if he’s a lock to be back. The round in which they tender Ekeler will be telling, as he’d likely garner major league-wide interest at anything less than a first-round offer sheet.

If Ekeler is in line for serious volume, regardless of where, he should be a fantasy first rounder.

4) Kenyan Drake

Ideal Spot: Return to Cardinals

Predicted Spot: Cardinals

Wildcard: Bucs

Kliff Kingsbury‘s “Air Raid” produced monstrous RB1 performance throughout all of 2019. None were more impressive than midseason acquisition Kenyan Drake. From his Week 9 arrival on, Drake was fantasy’s RB3 in PPR PPG (19.9), trailing only CMac and Henry.

We’ve long been fans of Drake, who’s only flourished whenever given ample volume. Kingsbury’s offense couldn’t have been a more perfect fit for his slashing running-style and dangerous receiving ability, particularly when in space. Count Kingsbury as another fan, who raved at the 2020 Combine:

“We’d love to have him back, he’s a perfect fit for our offense. I think he understands that…He has a burst, a competitive spirit. He came in, picked up the offense quick. I think the opportunity to have the majority of the touches and carry the workload, he seized that opportunity. He had the hot hand, we rode him, and couldn’t have been more impressed with what he did for us.”

Unfortunately, Drake is seeking $8-$10 million annually. With an Albatross contract sunk into David Johnson that makes the former stud more expensive to cut than to keep, the team would likely be too cap-strapped to make a long-term move on Drake.

Still, Arizona may find a trade suitor with enough cap that’s willing to eat DJ’s exorbitant hit (Miami?!). Even if not, the team considers the franchise tag a real option.

Let’s pray he returns, as Drake would again yield Top-10 RB stats as the perfect weapon in this attack.

5) Kareem Hunt *RFA

Ideal Spot: Buccaneers

Predicted Spot: Return to Cleveland (Will tender him, the level will determine a lot)

Wildcard: Texans

Following his eight week suspension to begin 2019, Kareem Hunt flashed his patented tackle-breaking and receiving abilities. He finished as the PPR RB17 when on the field, racking up 5.5 targets per game and finishing third on the Browns in receiving despite missing half the year.

Though impressive stats for a No.2 back, Hunt is capable of far, far more in the lead role. He ranked 8th in PPG just a season ago, and was even more impressive as a rookie in 2017, leading the league in rushing and finishing as the RB4 in fantasy.

Few backs have Hunt’s ability to make tacklers miss in tight quarters, and even fewer can pair this with incredible receiving skills. He’s a picturesque three-down horse, and would return to Fantasy RB1 status if he lands this type of volume. Teams like Tampa Bay and Arizona can certainly offer this work, while the Chargers and Titans may be seeking an every-down bellcow if they let their starters depart.

Unfortunately, the Browns reportedly covet Hunt, where he’d rot behind 2019’s second-leading rusher and a fellow beast in Nick Chubb. Ideally, Hunt gets lured elsewhere to lead a backfield, uncapping both his and Chubb’s limitless ceilings

Other Notes:

  • Jordan Howard is a classic one-dimensional bruiser, but could yield quality RB2 value in the right home. The Texans squeezed 1,000+ yards out of Carlos Hyde, a feat Howard could easily accomplish as their lead horse. Recall, he hold the Bears record for most rushing yards through a player’s first two seasons (2,435 yards) and was the PPR RB10 and RB11 in that span. He also was cooking with the Eagles from Weeks 3-9 prior to his injury, serving as Fantasy’s RB11. There’s sneaky upside and plenty of rushing meat still on this underrated bone.
  • When healthy, almost no RB can match Matt Breida‘s speed. He has a knack for zone-running and is a capable receiver. On a team like the Chiefs that covet tracksters, Breida could flirt with high-end RB2 value.
  • Lamar Miller defined plodder as the undeserving lead Texans horse, yet still produced RB16, RB13, RB24 numbers. This was largely volume-driven — something Miller assuredly won’t be afforded — but the veteran could offer depth for a needy Bucs or Steelers backfield.
  • DeAndre Washington was a clear second-fiddle to Josh Jacobs. Yet, when afforded starts and volume, Washington thrived. In three such game, Washington tallied 21.6 (RB9), 18.6 (RB11), and 21.2 (RB9) FPs. He’s the sleeper gem of this FA class.

The legal tampering period begins March 16th, with Free Agency opening only two days later. Track all the wild value swings in the cleanest form possible with the RSJ Stock Watch Fantasy App (or bookmark our Web Stock Watch here).

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