Draft Prep: Four Running Back Busts in 2019
Finding the next breakout running back like Todd Gurley or Christian McCaffrey is the most thrilling part of fantasy football drafts, and is a part of what makes the preparation leading up to draft day so enjoyable. Avoiding the yearly disappointments, however, can be just as vital to your chances of winning your league. Whiffing on your early-round picks can be disastrous, and while fluke injuries can happen to anyone, there are typically a handful of players with warning signs in neon letters that should be avoided.
The list below contains five running backs that I’m avoiding at their current ADP. It’s important to note that any player can be a worthwhile pick at the right cost, so these running backs could be worth considering if they fall several rounds later in your draft.
These selections are intended for leagues that use PPR scoring.
Derrick Henry (Tennessee Titans, ADP #37)
Henry has two big strikes against him in PPR leagues. One is his absolute lack of passing game work, a huge factor when PPR scoring allows running backs to rack up easy points through receptions. Henry caught 13 of his 15 targets in 2016, 11 of his 17 targets in 2017, and 15 of his 18 targets in 2018. It’s hard to believe that those are season-long totals, but they are. We’ve seen running backs like McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley put up receiving lines like that in a single game. While not every running back needs to be heavily used in the passing game, even in PPR scoring, Henry is losing 20 or more fantasy points on catches alone to almost every full time running back in the league, and to some running backs he’s losing closer to 60 points. This lack of receptions and yards gives him almost no margin for error in the rest of his game.
The other mark against Henry is the flukiness of his end of 2018. Henry was more or less on pace for a typical year by his standards until he exploded for 39% of his 2018 fantasy scoring in weeks 13 and 14, including a 47.8 point Week 13 that was aided by a 99-yard touchdown run. While you can’t take those point away from him, Henry has shown to be a boom or bust player throughout his career. In 47 career games across three seasons, Henry has scored less than five points in 47% of his games, and less than ten points in 68% of his games. Henry has scored more than 20 points exactly three times in his career, due in large part to a lack of passing game work that drains his value in PPR leagues.
Henry is a physical runner that can break off highlight runs, and possesses a rare combination of strength and speed. But in a sub-par offense, with a total lack of passing game work, and the flukiness of his end of 2018 from a fantasy perspective, I’m absolutely passing on Henry at his ADP of 37 overall. He’s off the board as around the 20th running back in drafts, and I have him valued as the 26th running back in drafts. I’ll gladly let others pay up for Henry’s out of nowhere end of 2018.
Devonta Freeman (Atlanta Falcons, ADP #35)
After suffering two concussions in 2017 and playing through MCL and PCL injuries at the end of the year, many fantasy analysts were avoiding Freeman heading into the 2018 season due to injury concerns. Those concerns were immediately validated, as Freeman suffered a knee contusion Week 1, missed three games, returned in Week 5 only to suffer a bone bruise in his foot, missed the next game, and then underwent sports hernia surgery and missed the rest of the 2018 season after playing in only two games. With an ADP at the end of the third round, however, drafters are spending a premium pick on a player with a scary injury track record.
The appeal of drafting Freeman is based on his 2015 and 2016 seasons, where he established himself as a premier fantasy asset. 2015 was a long time ago in the life of a running back, especially for a 5’8″ running back with an extensive injury history. Below is Freeman’s per game usage since his breakout 2015 season.
While we can probably throw out Freeman’s injury-shortened 2018 season, we can see that Freeman’s usage peaked in 2015 and has been dropping since. Expecting Freeman’s 2015 usage is foolish considering his recent trouble staying healthy, and counting on even his 2017 usage may be unwise at this point. Freeman was the RB13 in fantasy points per game in 2017 and is being drafted as the RB14-18 in 2019, almost as if his injury-plagued 2018 never occurred.
I expect the Falcons to take a cautious approach with Freeman, likely decreasing his touches per game from 2017. Freeman is being drafted around what I believe to be his ceiling, with not nearly enough of his downside being factored into his price. I hope that Freeman can bounce back this year, but expecting a full 16 game workhorse performance from him would be wishful thinking.
Melvin Gordon (Los Angeles Chargers, ADP #24)
Gordon’s ADP has recently plummeted as his contract holdout continues. Even before the holdout, there were reasons to be concerned with Gordon as an elite fantasy running back.
Gordon has battled injuries throughout his career, as the veteran running back tore knee cartilage in Week 15 of 2015 and missed the rest of the year, sprained his PCL in week 14 of 2016 and missed the final three games, and missed a total of four games last year between a hamstring sprain and an MCL sprain. At age 26, it’s far too early to write Gordon off as an aging player, but a reduced workload could make sense in an attempt to keep him healthy come playoff time.
Another strike against Gordon is that the Chargers are very happy with the play of passing game specialist Austin Ekeler and between the tackles grinder Justin Jackson, giving Los Angeles an above-average backup running back situation. One has to wonder if the Chargers will be even more willing to trend towards a committee approach if they grow frustrated with Gordon’s holdout.
Finally, there are even some slight question marks around Gordon’s ability. After averaging 3.9 yards per rush or less in each of his first three seasons in the league, Gordon spiked to a 5.1 yards per rush average in 2018. While some of those gains are no doubt real, a slight regression towards his previous level over his first 722 career carries seems reasonable. Gordon was also extremely efficient with his opportunities inside the 10-yard line in 2018, as he produced the seventh-most fantasy points per carry+target from a running back inside the ten. A more typical performance in that area could further dampen Gordon’s upside.
This could look unwise in retrospect if Gordon simply ends his holdout with the Chargers and the two sides move along like nothing happened. But there is enough reason to be concerned by the holdout, and enough secondary worries to lower the appeal of chasing Gordon’s upside. There is cleary risk in taking Gordon, and I’m likely to let other owners take the gamble.
Leonard Fournette (Jacksonville Jaguars, ADP #30)
Fournette is full of question marks, making him a risky pick in the early rounds of a draft.
Can Fournette stay healthy? Constant hamstring and ankle injuries have nagged at Fournette, causing him to miss 11 games across his first two seasons. Fournette even missed six games over the 2016 season at LSU with an ankle sprain. The recurring nature of his hamstring and ankle injuries are troubling, more so than several unrelated fluke injuries would be. It seems that Fournette is susceptible to lower-body injuries, and he has yet to find a way to make it through 16 games of an NFL season.
Does Jacksonville’s front office believe in Fournette? Tom Coughlin, the executive vice president of football operations for the Jaguars, had strong words for Fournette at the end of the 2018 season. The Jaguars even voided guaranteed money in Fournette’s contract due to a suspension resulting from an onfield fight with the opposing team. This certainly doesn’t seem like a healthy relationship, and with perennial vulture Alfred Blue and fifth-round rookie Ryquell Armstead added to the mix, the Jaguars have options if they sour on Fournette further.
Is Fournette talented enough to be worth the headache? His career 3.7 yards per rush is subpar, his passing game role is fairly limited, and he plays in an offense that likely will not challenge top-five status, to be kind. Fournette can be counted on for 15 carries a game when he’s healthy and has scored 16 touchdowns in 21 career games, so there is some hope here. But with too many question marks in place to feel good about a true upper-echelon fantasy breakout, Fournette’s draft cost is too steep to justify all of the baggage that comes with him.
(Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire)