Third Year Breakout or Bust: Running Backs (Fantasy Football)

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In fantasy football, it’s always advantageous to find the next breakout player. While elite players tend to make an immediate impact, the third year is typically considered a make-or-break season for any player that’s yet to reach their fantasy potential. If they don’t break out by their third season,  they’re likely to end up as a bust. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be looking at potential third-year breakout or bust candidates for the 2020 season at each skill position.

Fantasy running backs tend to make their mark sooner than any other position. It isn’t uncommon for a running back to go from college stud to RB1 as a rookie. The class of 2018 may have been one of the most talented running back classes of recent memories, but injuries have hindered many of the most talented backs in the class. In this first installment, I’ll take a look at potentially impactful fantasy running backs headed into their pivotal third season.

Before we dive in, it’s important to note what’s meant by a “breakout”. It can be defined in many ways, but for the purpose of this series, I’ll be considering a breakout as a player that levels up and reaches top-12 status at their position. The players that follow have the potential to enter the elite RB1 status in 2020, or just as easily bust and fade into fantasy irrelevance. 

Note: Running backs Saquon Barkley and Nick Chubb have already objectively broken out.

Sony Michel

His first two years

Michel was drafted in the first round by Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. Injuries hampered his rookie campaign, but he still finished as the RB28 in just 13 games. He then went on to dominate in the 2018 playoffs.

2018 Playoff Round Attempts Yards Touchdowns
Divisional 24 129 3
Conference Championship 29 113 2
Super Bowl 18 94 1
Average 23.7 112 2

All signs were pointing up for Michel, but instead of breaking out in his second year, he took a major step backward. He once again finished as the RB28, but this time he played in all 16 games.

What it’ll take for a third-year breakout

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New England will enter the 2020 season without Tom Brady for the first time since 1999. They’re going to need a new offensive identity and I wouldn’t count on it centering around Jarrett Stidham or Brian Hoyer airing it out. It’s plausible that the Patriots become a run-heavy team with a backfield led by Michel. It’s worth noting that the recently departed Brady accounted for four one-yard touchdown runs over the past two seasons; goalline touches that could easily go Michel’s way if he becomes the centerpiece of the offense.

Ronald Jones

His first two years

Jones was nearly non-existent as a rookie after being selected high in the second round of the 2018 NFL draft. He played in just nine games and averaged a meager 1.9 yards per carry on just 23 rush attempts. 

He didn’t break out in his second season, but he did take some big steps forward. He played in all 16 games and was officially listed as the starter in the final nine of the season, though it remained a definite timeshare in the backfield along with Peyton Barber. He proved himself as a capable pass-catcher; his 31 receptions nearly doubled Barber’s total. His pass-protection, however, was a glaring weakness. While that might not seem fantasy relevant, it was enough for head coach Bruce Arians to pull him from the game several times during the season. He managed to finish the season strong, racking up over 1,000 total yards and finishing as the RB26 on the season.

What it’ll take for a third-year breakout

Tampa Bay could potentially be one of the NFL’s top offenses now that Tom Brady will be throwing to Chris Godwin and Mike Evans. Peyton Barber is headed to Washington via free agency, leaving Jones and Dare Ogunbowale as the only running backs currently on the roster. It would appear Jones could get the chance to be the primary back on a prolific offense; a classic recipe for fantasy success. 

However, as pointed out in Ryan Weisse’s recent article, this could all go out the window following the NFL draft. If Tampa Bay invests a day one or two draft pick at running back it won’t bode well for Jones. If not, he has good odds to break out in 2020.

Getty Images / Frederick Breedon

Kerryon Johnson

His first two years

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The Lions traded up to draft Johnson in the second round of the 2018 NFL draft. They eased him into the featured role, where he eventually flashed some big games. Unfortunately, he ultimately went down with a knee injury after only seeing action in ten games.

His second season didn’t fare any better. He played in six games before going down with another knee injury. Despite being placed on injured reserve, he was able to return for the last two (irrelevant) games of the season for Detriot, offering at least a glimmer of hope.

What it’ll take for a third-year breakout

Johnson has been sporadic at best for the Lions, but he’s still easily first in line for the Lions backfield if they don’t spend an early draft pick on a running back in 2020.  The only other running backs currently on the roster, Ty Johnson and Bo Scarborough, don’t offer any legitimate threat to Kerryon’s lead role. If he can manage to stay healthy, Kerryon has as good of a chance as any other third-year back to finally break out.

Derrius Guice

His first two years

Guice was drafted in the second round of the NFL draft after a highly touted career at LSU. His first two professional seasons, in summary, have been nearly non-existent. He didn’t play a regular-season snap in 2018 after suffering a torn ACL in the preseason. In 2019 he suffered an injured meniscus in Week 1 that required surgery. He returned in Week 11 and popped off for 26.7 fantasy points in Week 13 before suffering a knee injury (MCL) that once again ended his season.

What it’ll take for a third-year breakout

Guice’s 2020 breakout chances come down to two simple matters: health and opportunity. If you disregard his injury history, he has every other physical trait you look for in a fantasy running back. Washington, however, clearly isn’t ready to count on Guice. They brought back Adrian Peterson and signed both Peyton Barber and J.D. McKissic as free agents. Guice has the talent to break out in 2020, but he’s fighting an uphill battle.

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Other Third-Year Breakout or Bust Candidates:
Rashaad Penny
Chase Edmonds
Justin Jackson

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