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The Seven Mysterious Backfields That Will Make or Break Fantasy in 2019

There’s a lot of noise surrounding running backs. We’ve cut through it to help you win your league.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Fantasy players want to know what NFL teams plan to do with their players, which is hard because coaches don’t want anyone to know anything. So every offseason, the fantasy football community is reduced to reading the statements made at press conferences like a fresh deck of tarot cards, dissecting iPhone video of non-padded practice reps like the Zapruder film, and analyzing roster moves like Panama Papers bank records. Most important is deciphering which running backs will win playing time. The fantasy teams who find the breakout running back of the year usually make the playoffs and often make it to their league’s championship game, whether it is Alvin Kamara in 2017, James Conner in 2018, or [REDACTED] in 2019.

Obsessing over 32 backfields can bring fantasy glory. It’s also exhausting. Who has time to read quotes from two dozen offensive coordinators, nevermind try to detect whether Sean McVay is lying about Todd Gurley’s knee? The weather is nice. You deserve to relax without sacrificing your pursuit of fantasy glory. To help, we have read the tea leaves on seven mysterious backfields so you can escape the fluorescent lighting. Drink in the knowledge so you can bathe in the sun.

The Offensive Gurus of the NFC West

The Los Angeles Rams

Exactly two months ago, Los Angeles Rams head coach and still-freefalling angel Sean McVay told NFL Network’s Rich Eisen that Todd Gurley’s role on the team will not change in 2019.

”You can expect Todd to be a focal point of our offense going forward,” McVay said on The Rich Eisen Show. “He’s in a good place, he’s feeling good and will continue to be a central piece of our offense and I don’t see that changing.”

About that …

That is a salt mountain in Taiwan, and it barely has enough grains for you to take with McVay’s quote. McVay insisted Gurley was healthy throughout the playoffs even after Gurley was spelled for C.J. Anderson for long stretches throughout L.A.’s Super Bowl run. Incredibly (in the true sense of the word), the Rams didn’t list Gurley on their injury report for the week leading up to the NFC championship game against the Saints or the two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl. A month after the Super Bowl, The Athletic reported that Gurley had arthritis in his left knee (the same one in which he tore his ACL at Georgia in 2014). In the same interview with Rich Eisen, McVay said that Gurley “was obviously banged up at the end of the year.”

This postseason taught us that when it comes to Gurley, watch what McVay does, not what he says. In April McVay told Eisen that Gurley’s role would not change, but later that month, the team traded up to draft Memphis running back Darrell Henderson in the third round. McVay said after the draft that the selection was about Henderson’s skill set, not Gurley’s knee, but if C.J. Anderson usurped Gurley in the playoffs, it’s not hard to see Henderson, who averaged more than eight yards per carry in college, taking a big share of snaps in 2019. Earlier this month, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport speculated that “The days of Todd Gurley just being the straight-up, every-down bellcow are probably over, just based on his knee, his age, the position, the amount of carries he’s had.”

Gurley, by far the most valuable player in fantasy before getting hurt in Week 15, has 979 regular-season touches in the last three years despite having knee problems entering the league. The extension Gurley signed for $45 million guaranteed last offseason hasn’t even kicked in yet, and if L.A. wants to preserve Gurley’s health through 2021, they’ll likely have to borrow some tenets from the load-management craze that has swept through the NBA. Henderson could see a healthy amount of playing time (pun intended) in 2019, and he’s a must-draft for anyone who takes Gurley.

Arizona Cardinals

David Johnson was perhaps the most misused player in the NFL last season. The Cardinals ran the ball 22.2 times per game last year for the fifth-lowest figure in the league. But they ran directly up the gut of the defense 12.7 times per game, for the second-highest figure in the league, according to NFL GSIS. So they rarely ran, but when they did, they made sure to send Johnson, football’s best running back in open space, directly into the most clogged part of the field.

In 2019, the Cardinals go from Mike McCoy’s offense to Kliff Kingsbury’s, which is entirely designed around giving players the ball in space. This should certainly rehabilitate Johnson’s efficiency. Johnson was 33rd among qualified running backs in yards per touch in 2018 after finishing sixth in 2016, and his 3.6 yards per attempt in 2018 was 41st in the league, one spot behind Tampa’s Peyton Barber. Kingsbury said he wants to restore Johnson’s former glory.

“I think [Johnson is] going to be really excited with what we do,” Kingsbury told reporters in March. “I knew he really wants to get back to the form he had in previous years and that’s our goal.”

San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers signed Jerick McKinnon away from Minnesota last year and McKinnon was pegged to become the feature back, but he tore his ACL on September 1 and was replaced by Matt Breida with some help from Alfred Morris and Jeff Wilson Jr. This offseason, the 49ers signed former Falcons running back Tevin Coleman, who thrived under head coach Kyle Shanahan when he was Atlanta’s offensive coordinator. The Coleman signing gives the 49ers four quality running backs and the fourth-most expensive running back group in the league. (It’s fitting that the 49ers’s backfield is overcrowded and overpriced, just like San Francisco itself.)

It’s unclear which of these backs will be the lead singer (though it’s obvious that Jeff Wilson Jr. is Ringo), and Shanahan has not added any clarity to this muddled question.

”Everyone keeps asking me that like I’m in charge of that or something,” Shanahan told Adam Schefter on The Adam Schefter Podcast in April. “It’s up to the players. They will define their roles. That’s kind of what’s unique about this.”

This situation seems like a classic stay-away trap. There’s a chance that three of these four backs may produce enough to warrant a bench spot, but none of them could be consistent enough to start. But if one of these players is most capable of defining his role in a Shanahan offense, it’s Coleman. He’s already succeeded in Shanahan’s zone scheme, he is the best receiver of the bunch which is crucial for a scheme that values versatility, and most importantly, he is healthy. McKinnon is still recovering from the ACL tear and Breida has a torn pectoral. That is enough to give Coleman the lead.

Teams That Want to Run More

More touches equals more fantasy points. Here are three teams trying to get their running backs more touches in 2019.

Minnesota Vikings

Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer likes to run the ball, which his team did not do in 2018. Minnesota had just 22.3 rushes per game last year, the 27th most in the NFL, and that ticked off Zimmer enough to fire pass-happy offensive coordinator John DeFilippo midseason. Now, the 63-year-old Zimmer is steering the Vikings ship back toward a run-friendly approach. He brought in zone-running scheme guru head coach Gary Kubiak to serve as the ambiguously titled “assistant head coach/offensive adviser.” Kevin Stefanski is the offensive coordinator, but Kubiak was hired for a specific reason: to revive Minnesota’s running game. The Vikings had 501 rush attempts (31.3 per game) in 2017, the second most in the league, and they’re more likely to return to that figure than repeat what they did in 2018.

A potential 50 percent increase in rushing attempts means Minnesota’s running games could be one of the year’s best bargains. Dalvin Cook is currently ranked the no. 11 PPR running back according to FantasyPros and could easily crack the top 10 if he remains healthy. But considering Cook has started just 14 games in his first two years, it will be essential to grab his primary backup, too. Latavius Murray left in free agency for New Orleans, and the team drafted Boise State running back Alexander Mattison in the late third round. Kubiak has a history of turning unheralded but decisive one-cut runners into stars (see: Arian Foster), and if Mattison beats out Mike Boone for the no. 2 job, pairing him with Cook could ensure a startable running back even when Cook is hurt.

Baltimore Ravens

Unlike the Vikings, the Ravens ran plenty last year. They led the league in rushing attempts and were second in yards per game (34.2 and 152.6, respectively), but their season-long numbers hide how run-heavy they were once Lamar Jackson took over after their bye week. From Week 11 on, Baltimore averaged 45 rushes per game (!) while averaging more than 5 yards per attempt. Despite the bashing the Ravens took from the Chargers in the wild-card round, they are doubling down on that approach.

”Our job [as Baltimore’s coaches] is to make sure that we do everything we can to create this offense that, I would say, that well, the league has never seen before since like 1950,” head coach John Harbaugh said on the Pardon My Take podcast in March. A major part of that was Jackson setting the record for rushing attempts by an NFL quarterback (147) despite starting just seven games, but Jackson won’t be rushing as much in 2019.

”I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised that Lamar is not going to be running 20 times a game,” Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said, as reported by ESPN’s Jamison Hensley. “That’s not what this offense is about.”

So to recap:

  • The Ravens are installing an offense older than the Marshall Plan.
  • They could be running more than 40 times a game.
  • Almost every other team runs between 20 to 30 times per game.
  • Jackson will be running less.

This is the rare situation in which a time-share at running back could consistently produce multiple top-20 running backs every week. The team signed Mark Ingram in free agency. He’s currently ranked in the top 60, but could easily get the lion’s share of carries and finish in the top 20. Still, there will be enough to go around. The team released Alex Collins earlier this year, but second-year back Gus Edwards, fragile Kenneth Dixon, and speedy rookie Justice Hill could each become viable options depending on whether any of them can split first-team reps with Ingram in training camp.

Detroit Lions

Detroit’s entire offensive identity is going to reverse this year. The Lions fired offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter this offseason and replaced him with former Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. The two approach offense quite differently. From 2015 to 2018, the four seasons when Cooter was running Detroit’s offense, the Lions were seventh in pass attempts (37 per game) and dead last in rushing attempts (23 per game). From 2015 to 2017, Bevell oversaw a Seahawks offense that was 23rd in pass attempts (33.6 per game) and eighth in rush attempts (27.3 per game). Late last month, Bevell made it clear he was instilling his philosophy into Detroit’s offense.

“We’ll always be about running the football,” Bevell, the Lions’ new offensive coordinator, said two weeks ago. “We want to be a tough, hard-nosed, physical football team. We want to be able to exert our will on our opponents.”

That’s big news for 2018 second-round pick Kerryon Johnson, who finished third in yards per attempt among qualified rushers (5.4) and became the first Lions running back to rush for more than 100 yards in a game in an astonishing five seasons. Johnson rushed 118 times for 641 yards and three touchdowns in 10 games last year, and it’s not unreasonable to expect all four of those numbers to triple in 2019.

Teams Who Answer Questions

Kansas City Chiefs

Sometimes instead of reading the tea leaves, we can just read. Damien Williams looked like the Chiefs’ best running back after they released Kareem Hunt last offseason, but the team acquired Carlos Hyde this offseason and retained Darrel Williams. Kansas City offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy was asked during May OTAs whether the Chiefs would have a running-back-by-committee in 2019, and Bieniemy responded bluntly.

“You know what? Damien Williams is our starter,” Bieniemy told reporters. “We expect him to excel at that role.”

Thank you, Eric. Not everything needs to be a mystery.