Draft Prep: Are Boring RBs Better?

There is an Irish proverb, whose origin date is estimated to be in the 1300s, that cautions, “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.”  It’s commonly used when describing something that isn’t ideal, but at least you know what you’re dealing with and making a change might result in something even worse.  This proverb can also be applied to the players featured below.  Their names are synonymous with the words “average,” “mediocre,” and, dare I say, “boring.”  Sometimes, however, boring is better.

For reference, the criteria used to compile this list of players is based on typical PPR scoring.  I looked at five years’ worth of data (2014-2018) and counted the number of times a player appeared as “startable” (top 30 RB for the week, excluding week 17 of each season).  To be considered, players had to finish inside the top 30 in at least 50% of the weeks in which the player played. In addition, each player listed is currently being drafted in the fourth round or later.

 

Dion Lewis (RB, Tennessee Titans)

 

It took Dion Lewis four years, and just as many teams, before he became relevant in the world of fantasy football.  Stops in Philadelphia (2011-2012, toiled on special teams), Cleveland (2013, placed on IR in the preseason) and Indianapolis (2014, signed and cut within seven days) did not paint Lewis as anything more than “just a guy.”  New England elected to take a chance on Lewis late in 2014, and he began showing the versatility he is now known for.

After injuries shortened both his 2015 and 2016 campaigns, Lewis stayed healthy for the full slate of games in both 2017 and 2018, the latter as a member of the Tennessee Titans.  During those two seasons, Lewis compiled 426 touches (335 rushing and 91 receiving), accounting for 2,027 total yards and 11 touchdowns.  Lewis benefits from being the secondary option, mainly due to his 5’8″, 195-pound frame but also because of his pass-catching prowess, and he will play that same role in 2019 alongside Derrick Henry. 

The Titans collection of pass-catchers outside of Lewis are full of question marks.  Delanie Walker will return, but how will the injury–and his age–affect his on-field performance?  Is Corey Davis a legitimate #1 WR?  Who will step up and be the #2 WR between Taywan Taylor, Tajae Sharpe or someone else entirely?  Is Adam Humphries an upgrade at the slot WR position?

Perhaps most importantly for Tennessee is whether or not their offensive line woes have been cured.  Marcus Mariota rarely had time in the pocket for routes to develop (sacked 42 times in 2018, eighth-most in the NFL), and if that remains the case again in 2019, dump-offs to Lewis and Henry might occur more often than not.

Lewis finished with eight weeks of startable production in 2017 and seven startable weeks in 2018 (career 53.5% startable), proving he can provide at least FLEX value when healthy and is currently being selected at pick 12.01 according to ADP data from Fantasy Pros.

 

 20142015 (7 weeks)2016 (6 weeks)2017 (15 weeks)2018 (15 weeks)
RB1 - RB12 (RB1 weeks)INJURED3 times0 times3 times3 times
RB13 - RB24 (RB2 weeks)INJURED2 times1 time3 times1 time
RB25 - RB30 (FLEX weeks)INJURED1 time1 time2 times3 times
The number of weeks Dion Lewis finished as an RB1, RB2 or FLEX option from 2014 - 2018.

 

Tevin Coleman (RB, San Francisco 49ers)

 

When given the chance, Tevin Coleman has been nothing but productive.  In his four years as the primary handcuff to Devonta Freeman in Atlanta, Coleman has taken advantage of every touch (620) to the tune of 3,350 yards and 29 touchdowns.  Quick math tells us Coleman averages more than 5.4 yards every time he touches the ball, and he scores a touchdown once every 21 touches.

Drafted in the third round of the 2015 NFL Draft, Coleman appeared to be in line to step in and replaced the recently-departed Steven Jackson in Atlanta’s backfield.  Freeman’s emergence as a workhorse back, however, pushed Coleman into a lightly-used reserve role in 2015.  Coleman’s workload increased in both 2016 and 2017 before taking over the primary role in 2018 as a result of Freeman being placed on season-ending Injured Reserve following the team’s week two game.

Coleman measures in at 6’1″ and 210 pounds and is the largest (in both height and weight) of the current crop of running backs on San Francisco’s roster.  The biggest hurdle for owners looking to acquire Coleman’s services for the 2019 season is how the workload will be divided amongst Coleman, Jerick McKinnon, Matt Breida and, to a lesser extent, Kyle Juszczyk, Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson.

Coleman provided starter-quality weeks seven times (out of 12 the weeks in which he played) in 2016, 11 out of 15 weeks in 2017, and 11 times again in 2018. Despite a time-share in Atlanta for two years, Coleman still was starter-worthy 56.6% of the time.

Coleman is now in San Francisco along with HC Kyle Shanahan, Coleman’s Offensive Coordinator in 2015 and 2016, and he should continue to put up FLEX-level numbers or better despite the increased competition for touches in a crowded 49ers backfield.  Coleman carries an ADP of 6.11 according to Fantasy Pros.

 

 20142015 (12 weeks)2016 (12 weeks)2017 (14 weeks)2018 (15 weeks)
RB1 - RB12 (RB1 weeks)NOT IN NFL0 times4 times2 times2 times
RB13 - RB24 (RB2 weeks)NOT IN NFL0 times3 times5 times4 times
RB25 - RB30 (FLEX weeks)NOT IN NFL1 time0 times4 times5 times
The number of weeks Tevin Coleman finished as an RB1, RB2 or FLEX option from 2014 - 2018.

 

Jordan Howard (RB, Philadelphia Eagles)

 

In an era in which true workhorse running backs are rare, Jordan Howard has established himself as one of few who can handle a large workload.  Howard surprised many in 2016 when, as a fifth-round draft choice, he asserted himself as the lead back and proceeded to rack up 1,611 total yards and seven touchdowns in his rookie season.  Jordan followed up his freshman campaign with another solid season, eclipsing 1,200 total yards and finding the end zone on nine occasions.

Before the 2018 season, Chicago hired Kansas City’s Offensive Coordinator Matt Nagy to lead the team, and Chicago’s turnaround was impressive.  Chicago dug out of the NFC North cellar and won the division with a 12-4 record that same year, nearly matching the number of wins the team had the previous three seasons combined (14).  Unfortunately for Howard, the offense implemented by Nagy did not emphasize Howard’s skill set and he had his worst season to date with just 1,080 total yards, although he did match the nine touchdowns from the previous season.  Unsurprisingly, Howard was jettisoned in an offseason trade with the Philadelphia Eagles, a team that has utilized a myriad of running backs over the past few seasons.

The biggest knock on Howard has been his inability to provide a reliable threat as a receiver; however, he has improved his catch rate in each season (58.0% as a rookie, 71.9% in 2017 and 76.9% in 2018).  Philadelphia also added RB Miles Sanders out of Penn State in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft, and there are concerns he could cut into Howard’s workload this season.  Howard was nearly an auto-start RB in Chicago, putting up top 30 RB numbers 70% of the time (31 instances of 44 weeks in which he played) and he should at least begin the season as the lead RB for Philadelphia.  Howard currently holds an ADP of 7.12 according to Fantasy Pros.

 

 201420152016 (14 weeks)2017 (15 weeks)2018 (15 weeks)
RB1 - RB12 (RB1 weeks)NOT IN NFLNOT IN NFL5 times5 times1 time
RB13 - RB24 (RB2 weeks)NOT IN NFLNOT IN NFL5 times3 times4 times
RB25 - RB30 (FLEX weeks)NOT IN NFLNOT IN NFL2 times1 time5 times
The number of weeks Jordan Howard finished as an RB1, RB2 or FLEX option from 2014 - 2018.

 

Lamar Miller (RB, Houston Texans)

 

Admit it, when you saw the title of this article, Lamar Miller was the first guy you thought of, right?  Yeah, me too. Well, it turns out we were both right and Miller is the epitome of a boring RB; however, he can still produce runs like this from week 12 last year.

 

 

That 97-yard touchdown run was the longest in the NFL since…Miller’s 97-yard TD run in week 17 of the 2014 season. making him the only player in NFL history with two or more runs of 95+ yards.

 

 

Impressive as those two long TD runs are, they are not representative of the kind of fantasy commodity Miller is.  Miller has been one of the most consistent fantasy-producing running backs for the last five years.  You can almost pencil him in for 900-1,100 rushing yards, 150-300 receiving yards, and six total touchdowns.  Heck, you can probably write that in pen and feel pretty good about Miller being within 10% of those totals.

Miller even held off some players who were perceived as better running backs during his stints in Miami.  In 2014, Damien Williams (now the favorite to be the starting RB of the Kansas City Chiefs this season) couldn’t unseat Miller as the starting RB.  Williams and Jay Ajayi (who went on to have success after Miller left Miami) were relegated to backup status by Miller in 2015.  Miller found himself in Houston via free agency in 2016 and faced no real competition for the job that season.  Houston then drafted D’Onta Foreman in the third round in 2017, an apparent upgrade over Miller.  Foreman suffered a torn Achilles early in 2017 and was unable to get back on the field until late last season, but appears to be back to full health.  However, a recent study found that while 73% of NFL players recover and play again, RBs and LBs see a significant drop in production following the reconstructive surgery.  Despite that, the drumbeat has begun again about how Miller is going to be overtaken by a “more talented” player at some point this season.

The fact is, Miller has been a startable running back for fantasy owners nearly 70% of the time.  He produced 11 startable performances in 2014, 9 in 2015, 11 again in 2016 (of the 14 games he played), 10 in 2017 and 9 (of 13 games) last season.  Are there some worries heading into this season about whether or not Miller can continue to put up these kinds of numbers? Absolutely, not the least of which is the presence of Foreman.

 

 2014 (15 weeks)2015 (15 weeks)2016 (14 weeks)2017 (15 weeks)2018 (13 weeks)
RB1 - RB12 (RB1 weeks)5 times6 times3 times3 times2 times
RB13 - RB24 (RB2 weeks)6 times2 times6 times7 times5 times
RB25 - RB30 (FLEX weeks)0 times1 time2 times0 times2 times
The number of weeks Lamar Miller finished as an RB1, RB2 or FLEX option from 2014 - 2018.

 

Mark Ingram (RB, Baltimore Ravens)

 

When Mark Ingram was drafted with the 28th overall pick out of Alabama in 2011, he was just the first of several NFL-caliber running backs to come from the Crimson Tide.  Following Ingram, Alabama watched Trent Richardson (2012), Eddie Lacy (2013), T.J. Yeldon (2015), Kenyan Drake and Derrick Henry (2016), and Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs (2019) find homes in the NFL.  Now, two have come and gone, one is getting a new opportunity, two will look to build on last season, and two will look to start a promising career this year.  Ingram, however, has been a fantasy stalwart for the past five years and will look to make it six in 2019.

Ingram might have been considered a disappointment from 2011 through 2013 because of how little he was involved in the offense in New Orleans.  However, Ingram stepped into an offense that was as pass-happy as any in the NFL at that time.  Consider that New Orleans finished second in pass attempts every year from 2011 through 2016–with the exception of 2013 when they were fourth.  Now, Ingram wasn’t a terrible receiver coming out of college, but New Orleans had proven pass-catching running backs in Pierre Thomas (2011-2014) and Darren Sproles (2011-2013) during Ingram’s first few seasons.

Ingram honed his pass-catching skills and was finally given the opportunity to take on the lion’s share of the work beginning in 2014.  Ingram responded with four consecutive seasons of consistent production.  Ingram posted 1,109 total yards and nine touchdowns in 2014 (nine weeks of top 30 RB production of the 12 weeks he played); 1,174 total yards and six touchdowns in 2015 (11 of the 12 weeks was top 30 among RBs); 1,362 total yards and 10 touchdowns in 2016 (10 weeks of top 30 RB production); and 1,540 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2017 (13 weeks of top 30 RB production).  Ingram started off the 2018 season suspended for the first four games, but still contributed 815 total yards and seven touchdowns (six weeks of top 30 RB production of 11 games played), which put him on pace with the production he had the previous four seasons.

The emergence of Alvin Kamara, especially in those first four games Ingram was out, made Ingram expendable to the team and Ingram found himself looking for a new home in Baltimore following free agency.  Ingram joins a crowded backfield in Baltimore as the team brought back Gus Edwards and Kenneth Dixon and drafted Justice Hill in the fourth round of the 2019 NFL draft.  Oh, and the Ravens have a fairly mobile quarterback in Lamar Jackson who had the most rushing attempts by a quarterback last season with 147. (Fun facts: Jackson’s 147 attempts put him at 30th among all NFL players.  The second-most QB rushing attempts was Cam Newton with 101).

The Ravens led the NFL in rushing attempts last season with 547, potentially diminishing Ingram’s appeal in PPR leagues, but Baltimore did not have the most accurate quarterback or the most inspiring wide receivers last season which might have led to the decision to focus on the run game.  Unless Jackson improves on his putrid 58.2% completion percentage from last season (ahead of only Sam DarnoldJosh Rosen, and Josh Allen among starting QBs), or someone from the myriad of players the Ravens have at wide receiver steps up as legitimate receiving threat, Ingram looks to be the beneficiary of multiple short, safe passes from Jackson.  Ingram is the highest-drafted player among those listed, but you can still get a guy who provides starter-quality games more than 75% of the time at his ADP of 4.11 according to Fantasy Pros.

 

 2014 (12 weeks)2015 (12 weeks)2016 (15 weeks)2017 (15 weeks)2018 (11 weeks)
RB1 - RB12 (RB1 weeks)6 times8 times5 times7 times3 times
RB13 - RB24 (RB2 weeks)3 times3 times1 time3 times0 times
RB25 - RB30 (FLEX weeks)0 times0 times4 times3 times3 times
The number of weeks Mark Ingram finished as an RB1, RB2 or FLEX option from 2014 - 2018.

 

There are times in every fantasy football draft where the right play is to take the guy who has ridiculous upside but also has the potential to be a useless player that rides the bench all season.  There are also times where the right play is to take proven, predictable performance and minimize the chance of a wasted draft pick.  The right combination of decision-making regarding those two types of players is often the determining factor in having a successful fantasy season.  Maybe this list will provide you with the average/mediocre/boring draft picks to lead you to your fantasy championship this season.

 

(Photo by Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire)

Bryan Sweet

Born in Michigan, but living in Tennessee. Long-suffering Lions fan. My first-ever NFL game was the Music City Miracle. Husband, father, banker, writer for QB List. Bitten by the fantasy bug in 1993 and been infected ever since. Go Blue!

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