The running back position, probably not even arguably the most important position in fantasy football. Get yourself a couple of workhorse backs, and you've got yourself a playoff team. Get yourself a couple of workhorse backs in the later rounds of your draft, and you've got yourself a championship team.
The second installment of the 2018 fantasy football breakout players column - breakout running backs for 2018 fantasy football.
Joe Mixon - Cincinnati Bengals
ADP: OVR26, RB16
Yup, he was bad last year, but I'm very intrigued where you're getting him based on his floor and ceiling. Realistically, I want you guys to leave a comment down below. What's the lowest you see Mixon finishing this year, 0.5 PPR, in RB rankings? I can't imagine he finished outside of the top-15, right? Like worst case scenario. He's getting drafted as RB16, which I love, he'll be your RB2. I'm perfectly okay with that.
We have to consider a few things. He was a ridiculously high-ranking prospect, obviously, he dropped in the draft because he thought it was okay to haymaker a woman, Cincy, also thought it was okay and grabbed him in the 2nd round. Probably would have been a top-15 pick had this not happened. Zero off-field trouble since the incident last year and now he's ready to roll.
Again, last season was bad, but it was a mistake I made ranking him highly, putting talent above all else. I didn't think about coaching, and how Marvin Lewis hates playing rookies. I didn't think about the offensive line and how bad it was going to be following the lost of Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler. I didn't think about competition, I figured Mixon would blow by Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard, which happened eventually but took a long time.
Heading into 2018, I still fully believe in this guys talent. He was Graham Barfield's #1 rated RB in his yards created column ever coming out of school. And even last year, although he didn't look great still ranked 13th in the NFL in yards created per attempt per PlayerProfiler, so the talent is there.
And now all of those things that I turned my head to last year, are a bit different.
Like I said, Lewis hates playing rookies, okay well Mixon is no longer a rookie. He'll enter the season, without Jeremy Hill, as their featured back, while many expected it last year, didn't actually happen in the preseason. This year, however, Director of player personnel Duke Tubin told reporters at the Combine that the Bengals envision Joe Mixon as their "bellcow" back for 2018. Straight from the hefe's mouth. He said Gio will still play a little, which I expect because he's been good for Cincy throughout his career, but Mixon is the bellcow. Heading into the season, knowing that is huge.
That offensive line, while still a big weak point on this offense, addressed this offseason. First, listen to this, their new offensive line coach Frank Pollack, is the former Dallas Cowboys o-line coach from their dominant 2015-2017 seasons. They immediately addressed their entire team's biggest weakness, Center, by taking Billy Price out of Ohio State with their 1st round selection. Another massive hole in their line was at LT, where they had Cedric Ogbuehi for most of the szn. Ogbuehi was PFF's 70th graded tackle in the NFL last year of 81 graded tackles, 69th in PBing, 73rd in RBing. For that, they traded for Bills LT Cordy Glenn, who has been banged up over the last two years but when healthy represents a monster upgrade for this line on Dalton's blind side. I think he still has a few years left, just 28 years old, at a high-level in the NFL.
Their line last year graded out 24th in RBing per FO and 23rd per PRR in yards before contact for RBs. There were so many plays Mixon got absolutely blown up in the backfield because of this line it was out of control. Any upgrade on their line is a big upgrade for Mixon. And it didn't help that they face the 3rd toughest run schedule in the NFL last year. Also, Evan Silva pointed out in his Bengals team preview that Cincy ranking 29th in rushing attempts last year was very out of character for a Marvin Lewis team after ranking top-9 in rushing attempts in each of the previous 4 szns.
Everything for Mixon last year was pretty much worst case scenario. He still found a way to amass 900 total yards mainly because of how good he was in the passing game, averaging 9.6 YPR. But he only scored 4 rushing TDs, which is really not horrible considering he only had 6 GL carries, which tied for 25th in the league among backs last year. I think the only place to go is up for those numbers.
The last thing that I absolutely love this offseason is the reports of Mixon losing weight. According to Rotoworld, Mixon came into minicamp weighing 240lbs last year. He's supposedly at 225 now and looking to drop to 220. I really love that for his explosion, and he's still very big, at 6-1, 220-225. This only adds to the Mixon Le'Veon Bell comparisons in my eyes.
It's almost identical to what we saw in Bell's rookie szn, when he struggled with efficiency in Pittsburgh, before losing weight, getting an upgrade offensive line, and then taking that monster 2nd-year leap. I can definitely see that happening for Mixon. Both very similar in style, patient while their holes before exploding through, ridiculous elusiveness and receiving ability, it's all there. I think Mixon's upside is 1,500 total yards & 8-10 touchdowns this year. An improved offense overall, a clear role as the workhorse, Mixon could be in for a monster.
Jerick McKinnon - San Francisco 49ers
ADP: OVR24, RB15
Money talks my friends. And a lot of it talks louder. So, Jerick McKinnon is screaming. To the tune of $30-Million over 4 years, nearly $16-million GTD. Wooooo. Kyle Shanahan loves this kid, showering him with praise, "There's so many things I liked about him, just visualizing how I would use him and the stuff that we would do." And he got "lost" watching his tape. He's expected to play the Devonta Freeman role in the 49ers offense, and for those worried about him playing on 3rd downs, "We think he's a great third-down back," Shanahan said.
I'd have some worries about McKinnon's usage if they had literally anything behind him that could steal maybe GL work from him, but they really don't. They have Matt Breida, who shattered expectations last year as a rookie, but that's because he was a UDFA. Unfortunately, Breida's like 195lbs, so no worries about him taking GL work. Carlos Hyde was 2nd in the entire NFL last season with 16 GL carries. Breida, just a single carry inside-the-5. McKinnon only saw 3 rushes inside-the-5 in Minnesota, but that's because they used Latavius Murray a ton, but he turned 2-of-3 into scores.
But obviously, the best part about this fit is the passing game. McKinnon's a ridiculously good receiving back. Super athletic, literally a 100th % SPARQ score per PlayerProfiler. We talk about that Freeman role under Shanahan in Atlanta? Freeman saw nearly 100 targets in 2015, despite missing a game (and not counting his 10 catches, 168 receiving yards and a tuddy in the playoffs), followed up by a less impressive, but still plenty useful 54/462 line in 2016 under Shanahan. And that was while competing with Tevin Coleman for looks.
I think realistically, all you have to do is look at Carlos Hyde and what he did under Shanahan in this offense last year. 88 fucking targets. He managed to turn that into just 350 yards and 0 scores, but what do you expect from someone who's not a plus pass catcher. McKinnon, on 20 fewer targets produced 71 more receiving yards and 2 more touchdowns than Hyde did last year. If you look at McKinnon catch % from last year, 84%, using Hyde's 88 targets, he'd end up with 74 receptions. Using McKinnon's 8.3 YPR from 2017, we're looking at 614 receiving yards. Oh yeah. combine that with probably 200-225 carries, you're looking at a PPR monster. And the best part, is Shanahan knows how to run an offense, he doesn't have that old school mindset, where teams want to ground and pound, set defenses up and then only throw to RBs on third downs when they need to. NO, Shanahan says fuck that noise, I want to get my best playmakers the ball in their hands, in space, early and often. 5th heaviest passing team on 1st downs last year. 7th on 1st & 2nd downs combined. Listen to this stat:
The New Orleans Saints were the only team in the NFL to target their RBs more on 1st and 2nd downs than the Niners in 2017. SF targeted their RBs on 1st & 2nd downs on 31% of their plays. Wow. I don't just spew out opinions here people, I hit you with the fax. #BFO Big Facts Only.
You don't need McKinnon to carry the ball 300 times, because he's going to eat through the air. Good night.
Sony Michel - New England Patriots
Current ADP: 60 Overall, RB26
I love me some Michel.
I'm going to start with this stat. This fact. We only talk BFO's #BigFactsOnly on this channel. Do you remember that guy named Mike Gillislee? He led the Patriots in carries inside-the-5 yard line last year. Yes, you can fact check, big facts only check that. Guys, he barely played after the first quarter of the szn. Do you know how bad the Pats want to use one, big back on the GL. Like they wish they could have with Gillislee last year, like they did with Blount before that. Michel instantly becomes the biggest running back on their roster, that's expected to play, get out of my comments with Jeremy Hill and Gillislee, please. Michel went off for 16 rushing scores in 2017 at Georgia.... The guy just finds paydirt.. oh and that was with Nick Chubb also scoring 15 times on the ground... yeah just imagine how many times Michel would've scored. And he averaged 7.9 yards per carry. Reminder, he plays in the SEC. He's pretty good. Do you know just how valuable this role in New England is?
Let's look at the arguments against Michel. The obvious one is that he joins the Patriots backfield, which is filled with Rex Burkhead and James White already. I'm not here to tell you they won't play, because they certainly will. What I'm here to say is that it doesn't matter. The Patriots offense runs a shit ton of plays, always. Over the last 7 years, their average rank in the NFL in terms of plays per game has been 3rd. They've finished inside the top-5 in all but one szn. He doesn't need to be playing in 60% of snaps, to hit the same playing time as backs on teams that do get a higher % of their team's snaps, because overall, they run fewer plays.
Let me remind you again, he was the Patriots 1st round pick. They said "This is our BIGGEST NEED right now. OUR BIGGEST. One game away from the Superbowl last year, and they saw Michel as the guy that would help win it this time around."
Secondly, fumbling issues. Yes, I get that, fumbling is definitely a concern, considering he went to the Patriots where Bill Belichick will sit you until you have to sign your next contract for fumbling. But, again I point back to the fact they used 1st round draft capital on him. I really don't think they would do that, or at least he'll have a much much longer leash for fumbling, if they planned on benching him after a fumble. You take guys in the first round to play, and play a lot. If he was maybe a 4th round pick and I was in love with his talent, I'd say okay beware, he'll be on a very short leash with fumbling, but that's not the case when you're a first rounder.
Lastly, we look at what his role may be in the passing game. It's clear that James White and Burkhead are both very good pass-catchers, probably better than Michel. And I don't expect Michel to be a 50-catch running back. But, Michel has very sneaky upside here. And it's for a couple of reasons. First, a point that I've made this summer many times, the teams that are utilizing their running backs in the receiving game on early downs and getting these guys in space early are the ones succeeding on offense. These are the offensive-minded coaches that run teams that win. In 2017, 29% of the Patriots passing targets on early downs (1st & 2nd down), were to their running backs. The Saints and the 49ers were the only teams in the NFL to have a higher % of early-down passes going to their running backs. A reason we saw Kamara explode in 2017, and we're going to see McKinnon do so this year (along with Hyde seeing 88 targets). So, early downs. Who's going to be playing a lot on early downs? Ahhhh, Sony Michel. Sure, so will Burkhead, but don't automatically write Michel off as a 0 in the passing game. While he wasn't utilized in the passing game at Georgia during his senior year, he only caught 9 balls, he caught 48 during his sophomore and junior szns. So, he's certainly capable of playing the part when needed.
I think another big part of this that builds off of that is on 3rd downs. Michel was an excellent pass-blocker in college, which is huge in this offense and sure to keep him on the field more in passing situations.
I feel like I'm taking crazy pills talking about Michel lol. Like people aren't seeing what I'm seeing. The guy is stupid talent. Graham Barfield's yards created column marked him as the next most obvious running back stud in this class behind Saquon Barkley. This is a column that predicted Hunt, Kamara and other backs when they were unpopular opinions.
The combination of talent, mixed with an opportunity in New England's offense is too good to pass up, even if you think there's risk involved. Last stat I'll leave you with. Over the last 10 seasons, the Patriots have been top-6 in the NFL in rushing TDs in 8-of-10 seasons, never outside of the top 12. You know they're going to run in a lot of scores. The question becomes, "Who do you think will be the one running those in?" - And I can't imagine it's anyone other than their first round running back pick, Sony Michel.
Overall, there's a lot of messy backfields people and it's hard to trust or bank on a breakout from most places. I don't want to just sit here and talk about guys that might breakout because I could sit here all day. I'd rather give you 3 guys I think are very likely to have monster szns.
For what it's worth if you want my pick for each of the three backfields:
GB - Aaron Jones
IND - Marlon Mack
DET - Kerryon Johnson
CHI - Tarik Cohen