Fantasy Football: Running backs we’re willing to forgive

Some running backs are receiving forgiveness from the fantasy football community, despite their disappointment in 2018. Which ones though are worthy of a second chance?

A majority of fantasy football leagues will hold their annual drafts this weekend. Players are doing all that they can to find that last-minute information that could potentially help them get an edge over their competition.

One area of concern that fantasy players may have is how to approach those players that either busted completely last season or burned us on some level. Situations and schemes dilate results that we may have not foreseen prior to the regular season, resulting in disappointing fantasy football production.

For a select few players, fantasy owners are willing to forgive and forget last year’s disappointment and still select these players with high draft capital. That is more true for the running back position than any other. Whether it’s a coaching change, return from injury, or thrust into a starting role, a number of running backs that disappointed in 2018 are being taken early and often in 2019 fantasy football drafts.

Let’s take a look at some of these players that are being forgiven and determine whether the high draft capital is warranted or not. All rankings are drawn from the PFN Consensus and the ADP courtesy of Fantasy Data.

Fantasy Running Backs we’re willing to forgive

David Johnson (PFN: 4, ADP: 6.3)

If you’re keeping track, this is actually the second year in a row in which we are forgiving David Johnson. In 2017, Johnson was a consensus top two overall pick in the majority of fantasy drafts. Unfortunately, a wrist injury in Week 1 would force him to miss the remainder of the season.

Following his return in 2018, the stage was set high for him to once again be the dominant player that he was when healthy. Johnson went off fantasy football draft boards within the top five of the majority of leagues.

The good news is that Johnson remained healthy, playing in all 16 games. Results were less than stellar, however, in an awful Arizona Cardinals’ offense. Finishing with the worst record in the NFL, Arizona showed former head coach Steve Wilks the door after just one season and later traded quarterback Josh Rosen to the Miami Dolphins in favor of Kyler Murray.

Many are under the impression that the Cardinals’ offense will be rejuvenated under Kliff Kingsbury and the rookie QB. That may turn out to be true, but it’s unlikely to happen in the first season.

For starters, the offensive line is still terrible and one of the worst in the league. That has been evidenced in the Cardinals’ first two preseason games, and it could lead to Johnson having trouble producing behind this line. It’s also expected that the Cardinals will involve second-year RB Chase Edmonds more in the offense, taking some touches away from Johnson.

It’s a young offense, and despite the fact that Kingsbury would like to run a high volume of offensive snaps in 2019, a lack of experience is likely to halt that temptation.

None of that is to say that Johnson will not be a high volume RB in 2019. In fact, despite the disappointing results in 2018, Johnson still finished as the RB9 in PPR formats. The truth is though that his ADP may be above where he is likely to finish. Johnson has top-five upside, but that’s exactly where he is being drafted. It’s plausible that he finishes there, but it’s more likely that he finishes as a low-end RB1 in an inexperienced offense. Nonetheless, Johnson is one of the safest first-round picks, but he may not net the results you’re expecting out of a top-tier RB.

Le’Veon Bell (PFN: 9, ADP: 8.2)

In 2018, Le’Veon Bell finished as the worst fantasy football player of all time. No, that’s not an opinion or an outlandish take. Fantasy players took Bell in the top two across the board never truly taking his holdout serious enough to believe he would miss the entire season. We all know how that ended up, and Bell owners were left with zero fantasy production.

Fast forward a year and Bell finally received the deal he was seeking (sort of) on a new team. Optimism is once again high for Bell with the thought process that a year may have been good for him with no clear competition to succeed him as the lead back.

The thought process for this high draft capital seems to be that we can simply expect the same production with the same number of snaps that Bell received while with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Bell may be a tremendous athlete, but it’s a hard sell to believe that he can produce with the New York Jets in the same capacity.

New head coach Adam Gase was a glorified offensive coordinator during his time in Miami and not a very good one at that. The Dolphins had one of the lowest snap counts in the league last season. While the Jets may not produce that far down the line, they aren’t going to produce near the level of what the high-powered Steelers’ offense has been either.

I personally will have no shares of Bell in 2019 as I view him more as an RB2 for the coming season. Although he should be able to produce in a three-down role, his current ADP has him projected as a high-end RB1. He may have some games that generate that kind of production, but it’s unlikely he does it on a consistent level.

Dalvin Cook (PFN: 18, ADP: 17.3)

Injuries have plagued Dalvin Cook since he entered the NFL in 2017. In two seasons, Cook has played in just 15 total games. That is not stopping fantasy football players from taking him in the second round, however. That’s because when he has been healthy, Cook has been very efficient as a fantasy commodity.

All signs look good for Cook heading into 2019. As far as we know, he’s fully healthy. Just as important, the Minnesota Vikings plan to use him even more in the game plan. The Vikings fired John DeFilippo as their offensive coordinator prior to the conclusion of 2018. In his place, Minnesota promoted Kevin Stefanski to take the reigns. It’s well known that Stefanski wants to have a run-heavy offense led by Cook.

Fantasy players are willing to forgive Cook for past disappointment as this looks to be the year he takes that leap as a top-tier RB. As a potential three-down back, Cook has the upside to finish as a high-end RB1 provided he can stay healthy. Currently, he is being drafted as a low-end RB1 in the middle of the second round. Cook’s potential brings great value to take him here, but you’re probably going to want to play it safe by also adding rookie Alexander Mattison or Mike Boone as complementary handcuffs.

Devonta Freeman (PFN: 22, ADP: 28)

Much like with Cook, Devonta Freeman has had to deal with injuries the past couple of seasons. Unlike with Cook, however, fantasy players seem less forgiving with Freeman based on his current ADP. From my perspective, that is a mistake.

Freeman is the clear cut leading back in the Atlanta Falcons’ offense. Although he may not receive a heavy workload like some of the running backs rated higher than him, he should still see 15-20 touches per game on a consistent level. Tevin Coleman is now out of the picture, and the Falcons still yet do not know who their number two RB is going to be? Will it be Ito Smith? Brian Hill? Qadree Ollison? We probably won’t even know until moments before their Week 1 matchup against the Vikings.

It’s Freeman’s backfield until proven otherwise. He was the RB6 in 2016 when he last played a full 16 games. If he is able to stay healthy, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he gets back to that level. Drafting him as the RB15 is tremendous value in that case. It’s very possible that if Freeman remains healthy throughout the season that we could see him on a ton of championship teams.

Tevin Coleman (PFN: 58, ADP: 54.5)

Tevin Coleman has taken one of the largest leaps in our PFN rankings from last week. Coleman’s ADP has jumped considerably as well since the news broke out that Jerick McKinnon had a setback with his previously torn ACL. Coleman is now being viewed as a mid-round steal after months of fantasy players trying to avoid this backfield.

Coleman disappointed some last season with the Falcons after taking over as the featured back following Freeman’s injury. He did finish the year as the RB18, but the sky was the limit for Coleman to produce at an RB1 level in that offense and in a contract year.

This offseason, Coleman signed a two-year deal with the San Francisco 49ers and the fantasy football community was less than thrilled. Although it meant that Coleman would be reunited with Kyle Shanahan, the room became very crowded in regards to the 49ers’ backfield. Throughout workouts and training camp, however, Coleman began emerging as the lead back for San Francisco.

The latest news of McKinnon only added to Coleman’s already growing ADP. As the dust begins to settle, it’s becoming clear that he and Matt Breida are the backs to own in Shanahan’s offense. Some would argue that Breida is the better play because of his lower ADP and the possibility that he may outproduce Coleman. It’s possible though that both players heavily produce under Shanahan.

Shanahan is obviously well known for using his running backs. In his final year as offensive coordinator for Atlanta, both Freeman and Coleman heavily benefited, finishing as the RB6 and RB20, respectively, in PPR leagues. To get a player of Coleman’s caliber at his ADP or lower is great value to get a potential RB2.

Eric Frosbutter is an editor and Fantasy Football writer for the Pro Football Network. You can follow him @efrosbutter on Twitter.

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