9 Candidates To Be This Season’s Devonta Freeman

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Devonta Freeman had an amazing dual-threat fantasy season last year as he received 265 carries and also saw an additional 97 targets in the passing game. He capitalized on his plentiful opportunities by finishing as the overall RB1 in 2015. Many fantasy owners knew they could count on Freeman for fantasy points one way or another and gladly rode him to their #FootClanTitles. His 2nd Round ADP this season suggests many believe his huge success will continue into 2016. Yet, many have likely forgotten how Freeman’s RB1 status all began.

After dealing with a hamstring injury during the preseason, Freeman actually began 2015 as the backup to 3rd Round pick Tevin Coleman. Coleman doubled up Freeman 20 to 10 in carries in Week 1 and didn’t give up his starting job until he suffered a rib injury in Week 2. Freeman’s first start came in Week 3 and 193 total yards and 3 TDs later, the job was his for the rest of the season and he never looked back.

With most NFL teams utilizing at least two running backs in today’s NFL, finding a player like Freeman who can monopolize both the rushing and passing game work could result in fantasy gold. So who are some pass catching running backs being drafted at a discount because they share a backfield (Just as Freeman was last year), but who could take a Devonta Freeman-esque path to fantasy dominance in 2016? Let’s dive in:

Giovani Bernard – Current ADP: 5th/6th Round
Duke Johnson – Current ADP: 5th Round

Giovani Bernard and Duke Johnson are obvious answers here. Check out my thoughts on both Bernard and Johnson in the AFC North Breakdown and Kyle Borgognoni’s article on why Bernard has RB1 upside, which is precisely what we’re looking for.

Charles Sims – Current ADP: 8th Round

Charles Sims is another obvious answer. I want Sims on every single one of my teams this year and here’s why:

Freeman and Sims’ Pass Catching Production in 2015

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Sims stacked up well to Freeman in the passing game last season despite sharing a backfield with Doug Martin, who eventually finished as the overall RB3. In fact, both Freeman and Sims finished 2015 as the second most targeted player on their respective teams. All Sims needs is the opportunity and there is no doubt he would get it if Martin were to go down with an injury. On top of the receiving production, Sims already received 107 carries last year as is and Tampa Bay’s running back depth chart is extremely underwhelming after Martin and Sims.

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Sims will compete with Vincent Jackson this season to yet again finish as the second-most targeted player on the team. The Buccaneers did not bring in a single running back or wide receiver this offseason via free agency or the draft, they have no solidified #3 wide receiver, and undrafted Cameron Brate currently sits atop the tight end depth chart. With his guaranteed pass catching role solidified and underwhelming pass catchers around him, Sims has plenty of standalone value and his upside is through the roof if Martin were to get injured.

T.J. Yeldon – Current ADP: 9th Round

T.J. Yeldon feels like a weird name to see on this list since he was the Jaguars’ starting running back last season. However, he will no doubt be splitting carries in 2016 after Jacksonville made Chris Ivory a priority signing in free agency. Ivory projects to see most of his work on early downs which makes Yeldon the Jaguars’ de facto change of pace and pass catching running back this season. As a rookie, Yeldon saw 46 targets last year and turned them into 36 catches for 279 yards and a TD. Meanwhile, Ivory’s career high in targets in his six-year career is the 37 he saw last season in New York.

The Jaguars’ lack running back depth behind Ivory and Yeldon as Denard Robinson currently projects as the #3 back. Robinson was largely ineffective and disappointing last season when given opportunities. If Ivory were to go down, Yeldon projects to monopolize the majority of the rushing and passing game opportunities in his second season just as Freeman did in his second year in 2015. With the Jaguars bringing in six new projected defensive starters this offseason via free agency and the draft, expect more favorable game scripts for the Jaguars’ running game as well.

DeAndre Washington – Current ADP: 11th Round

Earlier this month I made The Case Against Latavius Murray and DeAndre Washington was a big reason why. Days after selecting Washington in the 5th Round of this past April’s NFL draft, Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie called him “more than just a third-down back; he’s a complete back.” Then in June minicamp, the Raiders wasted no time as they mixed Washington in with the Raiders’ first-team offense. Washington projects as the #2 running back and should get work on passing downs immediately starting in Week 1. He was a productive pass catcher in college catching 124 passes for 1,091 yards at an average of 8.8 yards per reception in his career and showed us a glimpse of what he’s capable of in preseason Week 1 not only in the passing game:

But in the running game as well:

Oakland boasts the 2nd best offensive line in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus and a much-improved defense after the additions of Bruce Irvin, Sean Smith, Reggie Nelson, 1st Round pick Karl Joseph, and 2nd Round pick Jihad Ward. That’s a recipe for running back success. If Latavius Murray gets hurt or benched, Washington should easily assume the majority of both the rushing and passing game work in the Raiders’ backfield and could be a league winner in 2016.

Jerick McKinnon – Current ADP: 12th Round

The Vikings have a very good defense which allows their overall offensive philosophy to revolve around the running game. This means Minnesota has one of the best environments in football to facilitate running back success in fantasy football. Look no further than Adrian Peterson who saw a league leading 327 rush attempts last season, 39 more than any other running back in the NFL. He added 36 targets as well.

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If Peterson were to get injured, his 22.7 opportunities (carries + targets) per game last season would be up for grabs in the Vikings’ backfield. Jerick McKinnon could be a league winner at that point. Yes, Matt Asiata is still there and yes, Asiata out-touched McKinnon in 2014 when Peterson essentially missed the entire season. However, that was McKinnon’s rookie year. In general, fantasy football players usually have very little patience as we want the next best thing to start producing right away. McKinnon wasn’t given enough opportunities in 2014 as he was still adjusting to the NFL, but that should all change this season if Peterson’s touches become available.

In the event that Peterson was to go down, Asiata would still be involved but Minnesota showed us signs of things to come in the second half of last season. Per The Rotoviz Game Splits App:

Jerick McKinnon’s Per Game 1st and 2nd Half Splits of the 2015 Season

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McKinnon’s opportunities and production gradually increased in his second NFL season, particularly in the passing game. While those numbers aren’t going to blow anybody away, remember that Peterson had a stranglehold on the starting job last season. However, if Peterson were to go down, don’t expect a repeat of 2014. McKinnon is an athletic freak just entering the prime of his career who was drafted in the 3rd round by the Vikings. Meanwhile, Asiata is an older and slower player who was signed by Minnesota as an undrafted free agent. Comparing the two, McKinnon wins in a landslide and could help your fantasy team do the same in 2016.

James Starks – Current ADP: 13th Round

On the surface, drafting James Starks seems like the most boring decision ever but digging deeper, we can see there is actually much to be excited about.

2015 End of Season Numbers For Eddie Lacy and James Starks

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Not only did Starks hold his own last season, but he actually finished ahead of Lacy in the end of season running back rankings by four spots. I’m buying the Eddie Lacy bounce back narrative this year but that still doesn’t mean there should be an ADP difference of ten rounds between these two players. After factoring in the Packers re-signing of Starks to a two-year, $6 million dollar contract this offseason and the recent report from Packers reporter Rob Demovsky expecting the team to use a “split” backfield between Starks and Lacy to begin the season, this gap in ADP actually makes no sense at all.

Green Bay’s running back depth behind Lacy and Starks is extremely shaky. Starks has more standalone value than some realize which puts him in flex consideration on a weekly basis. However, if Lacy were to get injured, Starks would assume most of the rushing and pass catching work out of the backfield in potentially one of the best offenses in the NFL in 2016.

Shaun Draughn – Current ADP: Undrafted

Shaun Draughn showed us a glimpse of what he’s capable of last year after Carlos Hyde was lost for the season due to injury in Week 7. Here are Draughn’s per game numbers in his six games as the starter beginning in Week 9 before he himself missed the final two weeks of the season due to injury. Courtesy of The RotoViz Game Splits App:

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The 5.33 targets per game Draughn saw last season is especially noteworthy and now he gets to play in Chip Kelly’s up-tempo and high volume offense. The 49ers project to be a bad real life NFL team in 2016 which means there will be plenty of opportunities for Draughn to catch passes whether Hyde is healthy or not. Draughn’s 32 targets in his six games more than doubled Hyde’s 15 targets in his seven games last year.

On top of that, San Francisco’s new offensive coordinator, Curtis Modkins, recently compared Draughn to Theo Riddick who played for Modkins last season in Detroit. Riddick caught 80 passes on 99 targets for 697 yards and 3 TDs last year. While Riddick is currently being drafted in the 8th round, Draughn can be had for a much cheaper price. Grab Draughn at the end of your draft because of his standalone passing game value as well as his hidden upside if Hyde were to get injured again.

Benny Cunningham – Current ADP: Undrafted

Benny Cunningham is a very capable pass catching running back. He even saw 10 more targets than Todd Gurley last year. I don’t expect that to continue into 2016 as Gurley projects to play a full season and see more work in the passing game. However, Cunningham could become extremely interesting if something were to happen to Gurley. Just because absolutely nobody wants to see that happen, doesn’t mean it can’t.

Cunningham would never have made this list if not for Tre Mason’s bizarre offseason. By all accounts, it seems like Mason has already played his last game with the Rams. That makes Cunningham not only the Rams’ “third down running back”, but also their backup running back as well. While not a guarantee, if Gurley were to go down, Cunningham could very well see the majority of the work in both the running and passing games out of the backfield. His biggest competition at that point would be undrafted Malcolm Brown, who spent last season on the Rams practice squad.

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With Gurley sitting out of preseason Week 1, Cunningham got work with the first-team offense and showed us his versatility in both the passing and running games. He’s someone we need to keep an eye on. I hope you were paying attention.

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