A Look Back at Running Backs in 2018

A Look Back at Running Backs in 2018

By Jennifer Eakins (Senior Writer), on Apr 12, 2019

Jennifer Eakins's picture

A proud alumna of the UGA Grady College of Journalism, Jennifer Eakins has been working in the sports industry for well over a decade. She has had stints with CNN Sports, the Atlanta Hawks and the Colorado Rockies. Her first fantasy football draft took place in 1996 where she selected Ricky Watters with the first overall pick, and she has been a fantasy degenerate ever since.

Follow Jennifer Eakins on Twitter: @themondaymommy.

Heading into the 2018 season, the number of RBs drafted in the first round was up significantly from years past. From 2015–2017, six backs per year were being snatched off draft boards in round one, while that number jumped to nine during last year’s draft season.

Here's a table with those top players and where they finished the season, as the bulk of this article will focus on sleepers and values, and how we fared in our assessment of those not found in that elevated tier. 

2018 First Round RB Data
Player RB ADP Final RB ADP PPR Points  PPR Pts/G
Todd Gurley 1.01 RB3 366.1 26.2
David Johnson 1.03 RB9 244.7 15.3
LeVeon Bell  1.03 N/A  N/A      N/A       
Ezekiel Elliott 1.05 RB5 327.2 21.8
Alvin Kamara 1.06 RB4 348.2 23.2
Saquon Barkley 1.07 RB2 383.8 24
Melvin Gordon 1.09 RB8 271.5 22.6
Leonard Fournette 1.09 RB40 120.4 15.1
Kareem Hunt 1.11 RB12 230.2 20.9

Before I begin my dive into what worked and what didn’t, it will probably help to show the ADP of the top 40 RBs taken in last year’s drafts, so that we can get a visual idea of how it all went down. Many productive guys outperformed their ADP due to a myriad of reasons including injury to starters, increased workload, etc. and won’t be shown here, but I had to cut off this table somewhere.

2018 Top 40 RB ADP
Player Positional ADP Round
Todd Gurley RB1 1st
David Johnson RB2 1st
LeVeon Bell  RB3 1st
Ezekiel Elliott RB4 1st
Alvin Kamara RB5 1st
Saquon Barkley RB6 1st
Melvin Gordon RB7 1st
Leonard Fournette RB8 1st
Kareem Hunt RB9 1st
Christian McCaffrey RB10 2nd
Dalvin Cook RB11 2nd
Devonta Freeman RB12 2nd
Jordan Howard RB13 2nd
Joe Mixon RB14 2nd
Royce Freeman RB15 3rd
LeSean McCoy RB16 3rd
Alex Collins RB17 3rd
Kenyan Drake RB18 3rd
Jerick McKinnon RB19 3rd
Lamar Miller RB20 4th
Derrick Henry RB21 4th
Mark Ingram RB22 4th
Jay Ajayi RB23 4th
Marshawn Lynch RB24 5th
Carlos Hyde RB25 5th
Dion Lewis RB26 5th
Jamaal Williams RB27 5th
Kerryon Johnson RB28 6th
Rex Burkhead RB19 6th
Chris Carson RB30 6th
Peyton Barber RB31 6th
Chris Thompson RB32 7th
Tevin Coleman RB33 7th
Adrian Peterson RB34 7th
Sony Michel RB35 7th
Tarik Cohen RB36 8th
Rashaad Penny RB37 8th
Isaiah Crowell RB38 8th
Duke Johnson RB39 8th
Marlon Mack RB40 8th

2018 RB Favorites

4for4’s own TJ Hernandez, John Paulson, Chris Allen and myself all tackled the RB position heading into the 2018 draft season and came up with some players we thought were due to break out for various reasons, including new teams, year-to-year data, or attrition plays—RBs who are poised for starter-caliber numbers if there’s an injury further up the depth chart.

2018 Sleeper Picks
Player Positional ADP Round Final Positional PPR Pts
LeSean McCoy RB16 3rd RB39 127.2
Kenyan Drake RB18 3rd RB14 206.2
Dion Lewis RB26 5th RB28 160.7
Rex Burkhead RB29 6th RB79 49.7
Tarik Cohen RB36 8th RB11 233.6
CJ Anderson RB47 11th RB69 67.4
Matt Breida RB48 11th RB26 162.5
Gio Bernard RB52 12th RB52 95.9
Doug Martin RB57 14th RB41 119.9
Austin Ekeler RB59 14th RB25 168.8

Fresh Start

Four RBs (Tarik Cohen, Kenyan Drake, Rex Burkhead and Dion Lewis) were highlighted as having solid potential due to a change in team or backfield configuration. We’re looking at a 50% accuracy in this category, as two of the four players outperformed their initial draft season ADP.

Cohen came into the 2018 season John Fox-less and with Matt Nagy at the helm. Both his ceiling and floor had the potential to be elevated, as we knew his pass-catching ability would lead to an increased role in the Bears’ offense. The 23-year old was Chicago’s third-highest in targets on the season, just five behind the leader, Allen Robinson, and was second only to Mitch Trubisky in both total PPR fantasy points and PPR points per contest. Cohen finished 2018 an impressive 25 spots above his RB36 ADP, ending as RB11 in total PPR points.

Drake was finally to be the lead back in Miami guaranteeing his success in 2018, or so we all thought. Despite the surprising longevity of Frank Gore, and ending the season as RB29 in total touches and RB105 in touch rate (TCH/Snap), the third-year rusher still managed to produce in the meager Dolphin offense. Thanks in part to his pass catching - 53 receptions on the year, Drake’s final numbers as RB14 in PPR points was four spots higher than his RB18 ADP.

While Lewis did underperform last year, it was not by much. He was being drafted in the late fifth round, as a back on a new team with Derrick Henry also in the mix. Henry was coming off a 2017 season where he only averaged 8.4 PPR points per game, while Lewis posted 12.3 in New England. It was unclear how the usage would shake out, but as we discovered, Henry is pretty good at running the football. He was first in the Titans offense in PPR points, and ended as RB16 in that same category. Despite Henry’s coming out party, Lewis did hold his own, averaging 10.0 PPR points per game and falling just two spots from his RB26 ADP to RB28 in overall fantasy points.

We’ll never know what could have been for Sexy Rexy in 2018, as he went down with a neck injury in Week 3, placing him on IR for most of the year. He did return in Week 13, but only averaged 7.0 PPR points per contest for the rest of the regular season, checking in as RB43 in PPR points in that time frame. The Patriots backfield is always a tough one to count on for fantasy purposes, and Burkhead was not the guy to own in 2018. It was James White who destroyed his ADP, going from RB42, leaving boards in the ninth round, to a top 10 finish as RB6 with 276.6 PPR points. Rookie Sony Michel ended right where he was being drafted, but was sidelined for three games due to knee issues.

Positive Touchdown Regression

TJ Hernandez highlighted a few RBs who he thought were due for a surge based on Red Zone Expected Value (Red Zone EV). This is a metric designed to quantify how many points a player should score from red zone touchdowns based on the starting field position of every red zone opportunity.

LeSean McCoy was arguably the best offensive player on the Bills’ roster heading into last season and we had high hopes for him to still produce despite the shoddy offensive line and question mark under center. Sadly, Shady disappeared in 2018 and dropped from eight combined touchdowns from the year prior, to a disappointing three.

The way the season started for CJ Anderson, it appeared there was no way an uptick in red zone production was in the cards for him in 2018. It turns out, he was just wearing the wrong uniform. On paper, his three total scores in 2018 were not better than the four he posted in 2017, but he only played 11 games last year compared to a full 16 the year prior. All three of his touchdowns came as a Ram and we can only assume that number would have been larger if he had spent more time on LA’s roster in that offense.

Change of Pace / Backups

There were four players (Matt Breida, Austin Ekeler, Gio Bernard and Doug Martin) recognized as sleepers based on their ADP, who serve mainly as change of pace guys or backups. In 2018, three of our four ended the season significantly higher than their initial draft spots, with one ending exactly where he was drafted.

Breida was being selected in the 11th round, as RB48. That was of course with Jerick McKinnon still healthy and the starter. McKinnon tore his ACL in early September, leaving the backfield to Breida and Alfred Morris. The 24-year-old had his own share of injury issues but still managed to suit up for 14 games, rushing 153 times for 814 yards, adding another 27 receptions for 261 yards. He ended the season as RB26, posting 162.5 total PPR points.

Another player who overproduced last season thanks to injury was Ekeler. He bested his positional ADP by 34 spots, going from a 14th-rounder as RB59, to RB25 with 168.8 PPR points at the end of 2018. Melvin Gordon was sidelined for four contests, opening the door for Ekeler to showcase his dual-threat ability in the backfield.

Martin surprised most last season by playing all 16 games for Oakland and doing a decent job along the way. His 172 rushes for 723 yards was the highest for Martin since 2015, also adding another 18 catches for 116 yards to that total. Most expected more from Marshawn Lynch, who only saw the field for the first six games of the season. Underestimated based on his injury-filled past in Tampa Bay, Martin was the 57th RB drafted in 2018, but landed as RB41 with 119.9 PPR points.

It seems like every year we’re waiting for Bernard to make a move up the RB ladder but it was not in the cards, as Joe Mixon remained mostly healthy and only missed two games in 2018. Sadly, it was Bernard’s worst season on record, as the six-year back only posted a combined 429 yards with three touchdowns. His effort landed him as RB52 in the end, which is exactly where he was being drafted in the late-12th round.

2018 Overvalued RBs

In Allen’s overvalued article, he singled out Kareem Hunt, Christian McCaffrey and LeSean McCoy as players most likely to fall short of expectations this season at the RB position.

McCaffrey was a player Allen definitely missed the mark on. His sophomore year ended with him as RB1 in total PPR points (385.5) and second only to Todd Gurley in PPR points per game (24.1). McCaffrey’s ADP was in the mid-second round, as the 10th rusher off the board. Allen thought his workload would diminish with Anderson in the fold and Greg Olsen back from a foot injury. That was not the case, as McCaffrey led the team in both touches and targets with a combined 450, up from just 310 in 2017.

Hunt was a first-rounder in 2018 and the ninth RB being drafted. Primary running backs under Andy Reid have always flourished, snagging over 50% of the team’s rushing attempts throughout most of his career, but heading into 2018 there was a concern for the Chiefs’ game scripts. According to Allen’s research, when Kansas City was losing, Hunt’s carries shrunk from 21.9 attempts per game to 12.3 in 2017. With a defense that was ranked in the lower half of the NFL, it was tough to trust that Hunt would get the workload of a first round back. Of course, no one saw his off-field situation coming, and Hunt did not see the field after Week 11. He still managed to finish the season as RB12 in total PPR points and could have possibly even outperformed his ADP had he not been such a violent idiot.

As discussed above, McCoy suffered last season in Buffalo and went from RB8 in 2017 to RB39 at the end of the 2018 season. He destroyed owners who invested a late-second to early-third round pick on him, finishing with just 127.2 PPR points in the 14 contests he played in. Guys drafted around him who slayed his PPR output included Travis Kelce (294.6), Amari Cooper (215.4), Kenyan Drake (206.2) and Adam Thielen (305.3).

2018 Final RB Standings
Player Pos Team G PPR Pts PPR Pts/G
Christian McCaffrey RB CAR 16 385.5 24.1
Saquon Barkley RB NYG 16 383.8 24
Todd Gurley RB LAR 14 366.1 26.2
Alvin Kamara RB NO 15 348.2 23.2
Ezekiel Elliott RB DAL 15 327.2 21.8
James White RB NE 16 276.6 17.3
James Conner RB PIT 13 276 21.2
Melvin Gordon RB LAC 12 271.5 22.6
David Johnson RB ARI 16 244.7 15.3
Joe Mixon RB CIN 14 243.4 17.4
Tarik Cohen RB CHI 16 233.6 14.6
Kareem Hunt RB KC 11 230.2 20.9
Phillip Lindsay RB DEN 15 222.8 14.9
Kenyan Drake RB MIA 16 206.2 12.9
Chris Carson RB SEA 14 201.4 14.4
Derrick Henry RB TEN 16 201.4 12.6
Nick Chubb RB CLE 16 194.5 12.2
Tevin Coleman RB ATL 16 193.6 12.1
Adrian Peterson RB WAS 16 189 11.8
Jordan Howard RB CHI 16 180 11.3
Marlon Mack RB IND 13 174.1 13.4
T.J. Yeldon RB JAX 14 173.1 12.4
Lamar Miller RB HOU 14 172.6 12.3
Aaron Jones RB GB 12 171.5 14.3
Austin Ekeler RB LAC 14 168.8 12.1
Matt Breida RB SF 14 162.5 11.6
Nyheim Hines RB IND 16 160.9 10.1
Dion Lewis RB TEN 16 160.7 10
Jalen Richard RB OAK 16 156.6 9.8
Dalvin Cook RB MIN 11 152 13.8
Peyton Barber RB TB 16 150.3 9.4
Mark Ingram RB NO 12 142.5 11.9
Isaiah Crowell RB NYJ 13 140.7 10.8
Kerryon Johnson RB DET 10 139.4 13.9
Sony Michel RB NE 13 139.1 10.7
Mike Davis RB SEA 15 136.8 9.1
Latavius Murray RB MIN 16 129.9 8.1
Duke Johnson RB CLE 16 128 8
LeSean McCoy RB BUF 14 127.2 9.1
Leonard Fournette RB JAX 8 120.4 15.1
Doug Martin RB OAK 16 119.9 7.5
Theo Riddick RB DET 14 116.5 8.3
Wendell Smallwood RB PHI 16 115.4 7.2
Jamaal Williams RB GB 16 112.4 7
Alex Collins RB BAL 10 108.6 10.9
Frank Gore RB MIA 14 102.6 7.3
Royce Freeman RB DEN 14 101.3 7.2
Damien Williams RB KC 13 98.6 7.6
Carlos Hyde RB CLE 14 98.4 7

Key Takeaways

RBs do matter. I know it’s trendy to proclaim that they don’t, but when it comes to fantasy points, the top tier shows up. Of the nine RBs drafted in the first round in 2018, four ended the season within the top 12 overall, and Bell, of course, sat out all season. McCaffrey jumped from the second round and ended up second among all fantasy players in PPR points, making that five RBs total out of 12 overall spots.

When it comes to RBs later in the draft, seeking out change of pace guys in good offenses is a solid way to approach roster construction. We saw a plethora of players jump up in rankings last season who are available in those double-digit rounds, so if you are wary of taking several elite backs from the start, there is value to be had elsewhere.

Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images.

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