Shawn Siegele looks at the eight most explosive NFL “breather” backs and explains how to exploit their sometimes silly, occasionally ridiculous, and always crazy 2019 ADPs.
I have an admission to make. I love the small backs, and I love the freakish athletes. I love run to daylight and have little interest in three yards and a cloud of dust. But, even more than how much I enjoy watching these runners slip through a seam, burst through the second level, and sprint away from the safeties, I love the discounts on small, athletic players in fantasy.1
Every year we study RB prospects, and every year we learn and re-learn that nothing provides more bang for the buck than athleticism. If you can get production and athleticism – and you can, sometimes you can even get it for free, as Phillip Lindsay’s 2018 attests – make your own sprint to the dais to turn in your pick.
While some of our previous recommendations like Lindsay, Aaron Jones, and Marlon Mack have moved beyond “breather” status to become trendy lead backs for their respective teams, we still have plenty of inexpensive second-tier targets.2 The first four backs were all on last year’s Zero RB Target List.3 All of them outperformed ADP by at least 15 slots, and each is barely more expensive than at this time last season. The second four include three rookies with breakout potential and a second-year flyer on a barren depth chart.
The 3rd-Year Stars
No. 1 Austin Ekeler
How Explosive Is He? The 5-foot-9, 195-pound third-year back from Division II Western State opened eyes at Colorado’s 2017 pro day with a 40-inch vertical and 6.85 three-cone to go with a 4.43 forty.
If anything, he’s even more explosive on the field. During his rookie season of 2017, he was one of only eight backs to finish with more than 30 fantasy points over expectation. He backed that up with even better efficiency in his second season, adding 38 FPOE to his career total and again averaging more than 5.0 yards per carry. A dual threat back with elite hybrid ability, he was one of only nine backs with double-digit FPOE as both a runner and receiver.
2018 ADP: RB51 2018 Finish: RB26 2019 ADP: RB43
No. 2 Matt Breida
How Explosive Is He? If you were a scout hoping to find Ekeler’s doppleganger, all you had to do was go to Georgia Southern’s pro day and watch as Breida turned in a 4.39 forty, 42-inch vertical, and 6.85 three-cone.
In 2018, Breida dragged various maladies to one of the most electric always-injured seasons in memory. He joined Lindsay, Nick Chubb, Melvin Gordon, Saquon Barkley, and Christian McCaffrey as the only backs to average at least 5.0 yards per carry on 150 or more attempts. After an inefficient rookie year as a receiver, he posted more than 20 reFPOE on limited looks. He joins Ekeler in that elite group with double-digit FPOE as both a runner and receiver.
2018 ADP: RB53 2018 Finish: RB25 2019 ADP: RB50
No. 3 Tarik Cohen
How Explosive Is He? Cohen blitzed to a 4.42 forty at the NFL combine and overshadowed that performance with his viral video of a backflip-double-catch.
Matt Nagy unleashed the second-year player to the tune of 240 fantasy points. He finished second to McCaffrey with 43.6 reFPOE, and no one with at least 40 targets could match his per target numbers of 0.49 points over expectation.
2018 ADP: RB27 2018 Finish: RB11 2019 ADP: RB26
- Cohen continues to slide on reports that the Chicago defense can’t handle David Montgomery. It’s possible the rookie takes a bite out of his receiving totals, but Cohen is too good and has too clear a role for owners to worry. This is similar to the situation with James White and Sony Michel last year. Michel did make his presence felt with goal line TDs and nearly 1,000 yards from scrimmage, but White ended the season as the overall RB7 despite facing more overall depth chart competition than Chicago has in store.
- Breida’s swoon corresponds with a torn pectoral that has kept him out of offseason activities but shouldn’t affect his 2019 campaign. There’s also this: the potential for a three-headed monster, and the ramifications of such a split, sinks in more and more every day for drafters. At this point the risks are priced in, but you get one key scenario – the one where Breida builds on his 2018 exploits and continuity within the offense to win the starting job – absolutely for free.
- Ekeler provides a change-up from the Chargers star. Fortunately, he can eviscerate ADP without an injury to Gordon. He was a solid RB2 last season even when Gordon played.
All three of these runners are being drafted as though 2018 didn’t happen. It’s smart to maintain a degree of skepticism about highly efficient space backs, but each of them deserves to be selected at the midpoint between their 2018 finishes and their 2019 ADPs.
The Second-Year Breakout Candidates
No. 4 Nyheim Hines
How Explosive Is He? After an underrated final season at NC State, Hines immediately put himself on the map with a 96th percentile 4.38 forty at the NFL combine.
Only seven backs recorded a larger receiving workload in 2018 than Hines’ 120.5 expected points (reEP). If you want to shock yourself at the value of those receiving numbers, go into the RotoViz Screener and use the Linear Regression feature to project last year’s rookies for 2019. You’ll be stunned at the power of reEP for rookies, the complete irrelevancy of weight, and where Hines ranks.
2018 ADP: RB43 2018 Finish: RB28 2019 ADP: RB44
No. 5 Kalen Ballage
How Explosive Is He? Ballage recorded 75th percentile or better scores in the forty (4.46), broad (122), and three-cone (6.91), and managed all of that at 228 pounds.
Ballage isn’t your prototypical breather back. He’s the one big back in our group, and he wasn’t even a good college player, struggling in his final year at Arizona State. Still, he demonstrated his long-score potential with a 75-yard TD late last season and finds himself on the weakest RB depth chart in the NFL.
2018 ADP: RB55 2018 Finish: RB86 2019 ADP: RB58
- Despite outperforming expectations and receiving glowing praise from his head coach, Hines is actually going one pick later than he did a season ago. If drafters want to give you a discount because of a rookie at a different position who struggled to put up big numbers in college … take it and run. And that’s not even meant as a criticism of Parris Campbell drafters. The Colts offense is not talented enough outside of Andrew Luck to worry about competition. If Hines is as good as his resume suggests, there will be a role.
- Like the rest of the RBs on this list, Ballage is also going in the same range as a season ago, even though he definitely didn’t fit the overperforming category. This is an opportunity and athleticism play, but the best RB on the team may be a lowly, late-round rookie. Keep the name Myles Gaskin in mind.4 He faces fewer obstacles than Lindsay did a season ago.
The Rookie Wild Cards
No. 6 Darrell Henderson
How Explosive Is He? Henderson managed only a 4.49 forty at this year’s combine, but he averaged 8.0 yards per carry over each of his final two seasons at Memphis. Jordan Hoover explains why that’s only one of many reasons to expect his long runs to translate to the NFL.
2019 ADP: RB33
No. 7 Justice Hill
How Explosive Is He? As an athlete, Hill was the crown jewel of the 2019 RB class.
2019 ADP: RB52
No. 8 Darwin Thompson
How Explosive Is He? Devin McIntyre has you covered when it comes to how Thompson crushed his pro day. He’s my pick to follow closely in the footsteps of Ekeler, Breida, and Lindsay, using the combine snub as immediate NFL fuel. The Chiefs freakish rookie scored on almost 10% of his touches last year at Utah State and added an implausible 15.3 yards per reception.
2019 ADP: RB65
- Henderson’s ADP has gotten fairly rich with the scuttlebutt surrounding Todd Gurley’s arthritic knee. He’s now just slightly less expensive than Cohen and will need to immediately fill that type of role to be a good risk. The Rams have labeled him their version of Alvin Kamara, an enthusiastic viewpoint that illustrates the ridiculous upside. When I miss on Henderson in drafts, it’s usually by only a handful of picks.
- In a class of disappointing athletes, Hill’s test results offer a welcome fit with his on-field exploits. No 2019 rookie was more fun to watch in college and few land in such a prime location. Hill gets the ADP shield of Mark Ingram’s presence, but he should quickly emerge as the best complement to Lamar Jackson. Although he’s been unfortunately popular in my leagues, Hill is an easy pick 10 slots ahead of positional ADP.
- Thompson is the one guy I had to have late in the MFL10 of Death. It’ll probably seem silly in six months when Damien Williams is finishing the year as the overall RB1 in fantasy, but you can never have enough late-round ownership of your pet players.5
Image Credit: Tom Walko/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Austin Ekeler.
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- Jamaal Charles, Chris Johnson, C.J. Spiller, and Ray Rice are among the small backs with big time athleticism who have led some of my high stakes teams to serious paydays. (back)
- Check out 5 High-Upside Flyers to Target Late in Your Rookie Drafts to find out my recommendations for the next Lindsay, Jones, and Mack. (back)
- I grabbed some of the notes on their explosion from that article. (back)
- With four consecutive seasons over 1,300 yards from scrimmage, he’s the one back on this team who’s actually been a legitimate on-field producer. (back)
- At this point a season ago, we were encouraging folks to keep an eye on Phillip Lindsay. You never kick yourself later for having too much of a good thing. (back)