Three “Safe” Middle-Round Running Backs for 2020 (Fantasy Football)

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Is it a good idea to draft running backs in the mid rounds?

Before answering this question, I want to revisit 2019…I wrote this same article last year, highlighting Sony Michel, Chris Carson, and Tarik Cohen as “safe” running backs.  Well, we all know how that turned out.  For anyone who read my article and was influenced to draft these players, I apologize.  I was right about Carson but way wrong with Michel and Cohen.  But HOW!?  Sony Michel had the ninth most carries (247) among all running backs last season and had more red zone carries than: Mark Ingram, Joe Mixon, Chris Carson, Aaron Jones, Saquon Barkley, Lamar Jackson, the list goes on…Similarly, Tarik Cohen had the third-most targets (104!) among all running backs.  And targets are more valuable than carries for fantasy football!  I was right about these players having a huge opportunity on the field, but Michel and Cohen were practically un-startable in fantasy football.

In re-evaluating my “safe RB” selection process, I realized that the chaos of the real-life NFL has such an incredible impact on player production as it relates to fantasy football.  The most accurate fantasy analyst in the world is going to be wrong…often.  And I’m nowhere near the most accurate fantasy analyst.

I’ve always been an advocate for drafting running backs early and often (when the value makes sense).  I normally leave a fantasy draft with more running backs than any other position.  By a lot. However, I love the mid-round wide receivers this year more than ever.  Why would you draft Devin Singletary in the fourth round when you can draft Calvin Ridley, Robert Woods, or DJ Chark?  Wide receivers in the middle rounds tend to be safer and more productive than running backs.

Running Back Hit Rate (2015-2019)

No back to my original question…Is it a good idea to draft running backs in the mid rounds?  Well, I decided to evaluate this.  I looked back at the average draft position (ADP) of running backs drafted in the top-9 rounds for the past five years (2015-2019).  I analyzed the hit rate of productive running backs, broken down by draft round.  Ultimately, I found out that running backs with ADP’s in the first four rounds have a high hit rate (>62% become top-24 producers).  From round five on, running backs are a dart throw.  Keep in mind that the disparity between elite running backs and average running backs is greater than any other position group.  Both of these statistically-proven trends tell us that we should draft multiple running backs in the first four rounds and then fill our roster with other position groups afterward.  While you can certainly be successful by taking a different approach, my recommended approach presents you with the greatest chance of success.

The table below summarizes my findings.  Keep this in your back pocket come draft day!  All data is based on average points per game in ½-PPR scoring.

Alright, well let’s get to it!  Here are three “safe” running backs to draft in 2020.  Keep in mind that in this case, “safe” refers to a high floor of production (when healthy).  As I learned from my 2019 article on the same topic, mid-round running backs have a relatively poor hit rate.  The goal here is to project workload and opportunity.  I want to remind you again that I personally recommend drafting running backs early and often and then using the middle rounds for wide receivers this year, but it’s important to stay fluid and take the value presented to you in drafts.  For this reason, here are running backs to keep your eye on as you’re drafting this season.

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David Montgomery (ADP 5.06)

Montgomery isn’t flashy.  But he does have a guaranteed workload in 2020.  From Week 8 on last season, he averaged over 17 carries, and two targets a game.  Unfortunately, he was not very efficient with those touches…which is why he’s being drafted in the fourth round this year.  Montgomery averaged a pedestrian 3.7 yards-per-carry last year behind a Mitch Trubisky-led offense that finished 29th in total points.  Entering 2020, the Bears have the 22nd ranked offensive line according to Pro Football Focus.  Do I have your undivided attention yet?  No?  Well, I don’t have much more to say than Montgomery will get the ball early and often this season.  What he does with this opportunity is yet to be determined.  There is hope that Nick Foles sparks life back into the offense.  I’m also hopeful that Matt Nagy returns to 2018 form when the Bears were a force to be reckoned with.  If the Bears defense comes back to life as an elite unit, the Bears will want to run the ball on offense as often as possible.

When it comes to fantasy football, few running backs have a guaranteed role.  Montgomery is one of those players and has a decent shot to outperform ADP.  While I still like the wide receivers available around Montgomery’s ADP, he is a fine pick for teams that missed on early running backs and need depth at the start of the draft.

8/27/2020 Update – David Montgomery is expected to be out 2-4 weeks according to Ian Rapoport.  He has a chance to start Week 1.  Since this news broke, Montgomery’s ADP dropped a full round.  I feel comfortable drafting Montgomery in the late fifth round based on this information, and I’m targeting him in the sixth or seventh round.  Please monitor closely, as new information could significantly impact his fantasy football value.

Kareem Hunt (ADP 6.05)

Kareem Hunt has undeniable talent.  If it weren’t for off-the-field issues, Hunt would likely be in Kansas City and he’d be talked about as a top-5 draft pick.  He’s a very skilled runner and pass-catcher.  Hunt served an eight-game suspension in 2019 but then averaged 11.1 points per game from Weeks 10-16.  He averaged 4.2 yards-per-carry during that time, showing he is still a top-tier talent.  Nick Chubb is still going to dominate touches, but Hunt has proven that he is an RB2 / flex value with limited opportunities.  Additionally, Hunt would become a top-5 running back if Chubb misses time.  In a year where the global pandemic can impact player availability, depth is more important than ever.  Hunt has a safe floor and a ton of upside.  In fact, he was one of my most drafted players this offseason in my personal dynasty startup drafts.

Hunt is a safe bet this season, and I’ll be targeting him in my redraft leagues.

Jordan Howard (ADP 8.09)

Howard signed a two year deal with the Dolphins early in the offseason.  This will be his third NFL team.  Despite his impressive rushing production, no one seems to want him.  Howard only started in four games last season and missed Weeks 10-16 due to injury.  Before 2019, he never missed a game.  In the seven games that he was given at least 10 carries in 2019, he averaged 13.8 fantasy points per game.  For reference, that would have put him at RB15 overall last season…ahead of Todd Gurley, Kenyan Drake, and Melvin Gordon.

Howard joins an exciting, young Dolphins team that has a ton of upside this season.  They beefed up their defense by adding players like Byron Jones, Kyle Van Noy, Shaq Lawson, Emmanual Ogbah through free agency.  They also spent a second-round draft pick on Alabama defensive tackle Raekwon Davis.

Howard will compete with oft-injured Matt Breida for touches.  I think they’ll both be involved and fantasy-relevant, but Howard is the more proven player and has shown that he is very capable of handling a heavy workload.  Bell cow running backs are hard to find, and Howard could easily see 200+ touches this season.  For reference, only 20 players did that last season.  Howard is a screaming value in the 8th round of fantasy drafts, especially if you’re able to grab 2+ receivers beforehand.

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Comments

@ Daniel Delgado – I love Moss as an upside pick later in drafts. No guaranteed role so I wouldn’t call him “safe” – but I have him in several leagues.

@Scalegame – Tarik Cohen will see a bump in Montgomery’s absence. I personally think Montgomery will be back soon – but I’m not an injury expert! I don’t want anyone besides Cohen in his absence…unless we see production form someone else.

@Samuel – Mack is a fine pick later in drafts, especially for teams that have a lot of rookies – who may take time to become productive. I personally believe in Jonathan Taylor winning the starting role sooner rather than later…but what if he doesn’t? It’s still possible that Mack owns the starting role for the entire season.

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Daniel Delgado says:

Love the info! Will definitely use this for my redraft! I have considered targeting Zach Moss in the later rounds too, especially with the fumble troubles for singletary already in camp. The kid is 5’9” 223lbs and I don’t mind the slower 40 time with that frame!! What’s your take on that situation?

Side note: did you mean to say “2+ RBs” instead of receivers there at the end of the Jordan Howard piece? If not then ignore this part ha

scalegame says:

If David Montgomery’s injury keeps him out longer than expected, is there a back in Chicago worth owning? Even in deeper leagues?

Sam – it’s a good question. His competition (Jonathan Taylor) is a new addition to the team along with Philip Rivers at QB. There are more variables compared to Hunt – who had the same offensive pieces around him last season. You’re probably right that he will have a decent workload – but I find myself taking the shot on Jonathan Taylor (high risk, high potential reward). Mack is a fine pick later in drafts – but I will personally not be drafting him.

Samuel says:

It appears that Marlon Mack is available in alot of late rounds. Do you think he would be in the same position to get some carries like Kareem Hunt. They say he’s looking great in Camp and he caught fire late last year. Its a contract year where he can be used alot while they bring Taylor along.

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