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The Fantasy RB1 Revival: Redraft Strategy for the Passing Revolution, Part 2

In Part 1 of this series, I investigated the NFL’s passing revolution through the prism of global statistical trends. I noted that last season marked a pivotal uptick in overall efficiency (rather than pass/run ratio), which also substantially lifted running backs’ yards per carry average across the league. I also highlighted how fantasy RB1s have recently made a resurgence in receiving production.

In this installment, I’ll be examining RB1s based on PPR rushing vs. receiving splits. I’ll also provide “buy” or “sell” recommendations for potential fantasy RB1s based on the following data and current ADP.

A New RB1 Paradigm Has Emerged

Over the last 17 years, RB1 total PPR production has decreased 9.7% — even despite a 7.4% rebound last season. The cause for this decline may be attributed to poor overall rushing volume. PPR rushing production has dropped 29.1% and shows no signs of a short-term reversal.

However, there is a silver lining: Over the same span when rushing production has crashed, receiving production has made a profound resurgence. PPR receiving scoring is up 24.7% thanks to two consecutive record-breaking seasons in 2017 and 2018.

In fact, for the first time ever, RB1 PPR production reports approximately a 50-50 split between rushing and receiving statistics. Historically, that split has sat comfortably around 67% rushing to 33% receiving. And occasionally, that splits has even swelled to 70-75% rushing. But for two straight seasons, fantasy RB1s have amassed about half of their PPR scoring via the receiving game.

Circa 2015, RB1 production was so bleak that it’s no wonder Zero-RB swept the fantasy world by storm. But now, we find ourselves in the midst of a running back revival. The 2018 fantasy season reported the highest RB1 total PPR scoring output since 2006.

Public Consensus RB1s for 2019

Here are the top-12 running backs based on current ADP and their PPR rush vs. receiving splits from the 2018-19 season:

Most of the players on this list exemplify the new mold for a fantasy RB1. However, Joe Mixon, James Conner and Todd Gurley stand out for their slightly lower receiving production compared to the rest in this group.

To be fair, I have limited concern than any of those three won’t fulfill their potential (except perhaps Gurley due to his knee injury). Nonetheless, based on historical trends, these players may carry more downside risk than people think. And, given the incredibly deep group of fantasy RB1 contenders this season, I wouldn’t be shocked if any — or all — of them fall to high-end RB2 status this year.

Still, none of those three players can hold a candle to Nick Chubb. His 2018 rushing/receiving splits stick out like a sore thumb on this list. To be clear: Modern fantasy RB1s boast a 50-50 split on average. It’s not an archetype, per se; it’s a trend. So, Chubb may just be a high-rushing volume outlier among the top-12.

But I’m not sold. His splits are drastically more rush-heavy than any player on this list. Unless his receiving workload changes significantly this season, I don’t see him as a good comparable among this group of peers. Plus, he now faces competition with Kareem Hunt — and who knows how the Browns intend to split their workload (assuming Hunt does indeed play in 2019)?

Perhaps most importantly, there are other running back candidates that simply fit the new RB1 mold better than Chubb. Based on the large tier of players that could challenge for RB1 status this season, I could realistically imagine Chubb falling to RB16 or so by season’s end.

Underrated RB1 Options in 2019

Speaking of alternatives to Chubb, here is a selection of running backs being drafted outside the top-12 in current ADP whose PPR points distribution may hint at RB1 upside:

Leonard Fournette & Kerryon Johnson

Leonard Fournette and Kerryon Johnson are both kind of borderline here, but there’s cause for optimism for both of them (plus, they’re both way closer to a 50-50 split than Chubb). For Fournette, the recent departure of T.J. Yeldon will almost certainly increase his 2019 receiving usage. Plus, he’s also now fully recovered from the persistent hamstring strains that hampered him — and frustrated fantasy owners — in 2019.

Similarly, injuries also hampered a budding rookie season from Johnson, who boasted the third-highest average yards per carry (5.40) in the league. He also ranked fifth on the Lion in targets (39) despite playing in only 10 games.

James White & Tarik Cohen

James White and Tarik Cohen are perennially under-rated, so snagging them in the 20s is a no-brainer. But, let me take it a step further: I think Cohen and White deserve to be drafted in the top-15. I doubt their ADP will ever creep that high, but they absolutely deserve RB1 consideration. After examining the data on RB1 receiving production over the last few years, it’s impossible to ignore these guys.

White had just as many targets (123) as Christian McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley last season. White ranked 16th in the NFL — not just among running backs, but among all players — in receptions (87) and ranked 40th in receiving yards (751). He finished with 204.1 PPR (Rec.) points, which surpassed Derrick Henry’s, Chubb’s and Marlon Mack’s total PPR points last season.

And it’s a very similar story for Cohen, who racked up 173.5 PPR (Rec.) points in 2018 (fifth among running backs). Some people are afraid that the additions of Mike Davis and rookie David Montgomery will negatively affect his usage, but I think those concerns are a bit overblown.

In fact, let’s look at Cohen’s situation from the other side of the coin: Do you believe Davis and Montgomery will combine to match or exceed Jordan Howard’s 270 touches last season? — because Cohen still finished as the PPR RB11 last year despite competition with Howard.

Frankly, I think the public is under-rating Cohen’s potential to claim a larger portion of Howard’s rushing share, and the public is over-rating Davis’ and Montgomery’s threat to Cohen’s elite target share.

Damien Williams

Damien Williams is a player for whom the sky is the limit in 2019. Like Fournette, he’s currently being drafted right outside the top-12, but there’s a strong argument for viewing him as a legit RB1 contender. First off, his rushing vs. receiving splits last season are almost perfectly 50-50. Second, he was prolific once Andy Reid gave him the keys to the offense in Week 15.

Williams started the final three games in the Chiefs’ regular season campaign, averaging 22.7 PPR points per contest and ranking second among fantasy running backs over that span. He then improved on that performance during the playoffs, averaging 29.5 PPR points per game and racking up four total touchdowns over two games.

In five total games as a starter, he averaged 72.4 rushing yards, 4.8 receptions, 42.0 receiving yards and 1.6 total touchdowns per game. That stat-line translates to 25.4 PPR points per game, which would have ranked second among all running backs in 2018 if he maintained that production for the entire season.

Can Williams maintain that level of production for an entire 16-game season? Unlikely. However, the better way to view his 2018 campaign is as an exemplar of his fantasy ceiling. You can probably count the number of fantasy running backs with a similar ceiling to Williams on one hand. That kind of upside is what wins fantasy championships. How Chubb is currently being drafted before him completely baffles me.

Kenyan Drake

Finally, we arrive at the name that leaps off the page from this list: Kenyan Drake. Many fantasy players hoped Drake would take a leap forward last season as the Dolphins’ bell-cow back, but early on it became clear that veteran Frank Gore had earned his share of those touches.

Interestingly, as the season progressed, Miami increasingly utilized Drake as the dedicated third-down and “big play” gadget in their offensive arsenal. For the first time in his career, Drake was given the opportunity to show off his receiving skills and big play opportunity in space.

Now Gore is gone. And — presumably — Drake will finally inherit a large portion of Miami’s rushing volume to add to his receiving usage. Granted, he plays for one of the worst teams in football (and one that is likely still in “tank mode”). But, his potential usage makes him a “buy” consideration in redraft. At RB24 off the board, he offers elite upside with limited downside risk.

What to Expect in Part 3

In this series’ next installment, I’ll continue my discussion on running backs by investigating RB2 and RB3 trends. Just like in this article, I’ll break down each fantasy tier’s rushing and receiving splits, highlight buy and sell options, and translate those findings into 2019 redraft strategy advice.

I’ll also explain why fantasy RB3s may — counter-intuitively — offer more upside than RB2s. That’s what they call a tease in the business, folks.

Image Credit: John Byrum/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Christian McCaffrey.

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