Part of what makes those early-round running backs so enticing in your Fantasy drafts is their sky-high upside. But history shows us upside can come from anywhere in the draft — just look at Austin Ekeler last season. No, what makes the first few backs off the board stand out is that they are calm ports in the storm that is the running back position.
Because, guess what: You're probably going to draft several running back busts. Just look back at 2019, when David Johnson and Le'Veon Bell were first-round picks, Kerryon Johnson was a third-rounder, and David Montgomery and Sony Michel went back to back at the end of the fourth round. Between injuries and the inherent randomness of the position, running backs bust at an unusually high rate.
You could go with a Zero-RB approach — it still works in 2020! — to combat that randomness, but you can also try to identify those backs most likely to trip your team up. We can't predict this perfectly, but we know the warning signs, from regression candidates to players with uncertain roles and beyond.
As part of our RB preview week at CBS Fantasy we've already taken a look at the state of the position, a comprehensive breakdown of the position, a look at where ADP stands right now, and updated tiers and strategies, and now we're looking sleepers, breakouts, and busts. But, before we get to who Jamey Eisenberg, Dave Richard, Heath Cummings, and Ben Gretch are avoiding, here are some names they didn't mention to be wary of:
- Joe Mixon: A lot has been made of Mixon's second half surge in 2019, but it's worth noting the context in which that came: The Bengals were 0-8 when they gave Mixon 30 carries in Week 10, and he averaged 22.1 from that point on. He was on a 1,600-plus-yard pace from that point on, but notably still had just two catches per game, and played more than 60% of the team's snaps just three times. Basically, he relied on an unsustainable number of carries, a number of carries that almost certainly won't be there with Joe Burrow around. Add in his lack of passing-game work and I just don't see much upside to targeting Mixon around the first round.
- Austin Ekeler: I love Ekeler's skill set, and if Philip Rivers was still there, I think he'd be a no-doubt-about-it first-round pick. However, with Tyrod Taylor expected to take over as a starter for the Chargers, I'm just a little bit wary. He's going to lose a lot of the 108 targets he saw last season, and I'm not sure he's a sure bet to make up for it with extra goal-line work — or rushing work in general, frankly. Because of his skills as a pass-catcher, Ekeler still has huge upside if the Chargers use him right. I'm just not sure they will.
- Devin Singletary: The assumption is, Singletary will be the lead back for the Bills, and I'm down with that assumption. I just don't know how valuable that role will be playing alongside Josh Allen. I'm expecting this offense as a whole to take a step back, but Allen's specific skill set is almost designed to limit the upside of the running back position, thanks to his red zone dominance and willingness to scramble rather than dump it off to his backs. As Ben Gretch noted Wednesday, the Bills produced the fifth-fewest total receptions-plus-carries inside the 10-yard line of any team, and those are the most valuable touches in football. If Singletary is splitting work, he's probably just a fringe starter.
TEN Tennessee • #22
Age: 27 • Experience: 6 yrs.
Henry was a beast in 2019 as the NFL's leading rusher, but I'm concerned about drafting him in Round 1, especially in PPR. He just had 386 carries and 409 total touches, including the playoffs, and there could be wear and tear issues coming up, especially for a bigger running back. The Titans have already fallen victim to this scenario once with Eddie George, who went from over 1,900 total yards and 16 touchdowns in 2000 to 1,200 total yards and five touchdowns in 2001. And there are many other examples of running backs over the past 30 years with 370-plus carries who tend to fall off, which Football Outsiders dubbed the Curse of 370 in 2004. Now, Henry told CBS Sports in late January that he "could play a whole, full season right now," and he expects to be fine in 2020. But if his rushing falls off, Henry isn't the kind of back who can fall back on his receiving game. He had 18 catches last season, which were a career high, and he has fewer receptions (57) than games played (62) over four years in the NFL. I'll take Henry in Round 2, but most Fantasy managers seem inclined to draft him in Round 1, which is likely a mistake.
Le'Veon Bell RB
BAL Baltimore • #17
Age: 29 • Experience: 8 yrs.
Bell was a bust in 2019, and I'm not sure things will be much better this year. While the Jets invested a lot in their offensive line, especially with Mekhi Becton in the first round of the NFL Draft, Bell is likely going to lose some of the 311 touches he had from last year to Frank Gore and Lamical Perine. And Bell just had his worst average in the NFL at 14.3 PPR points per game, as well as a career-low 3.2 yards per carry. He's still someone to draft as a No. 2 running back in all leagues, but the earliest I would draft him is Round 4, even in PPR. Let someone else deal with the headache of Adam Gase screwing with Bell's touches because of Gore or Perine. It will happen, and you could regret drafting Bell with a pick in the top 40 overall.
I see Taylor with a July ADP of late Round 3 in National Fantasy Championship drafts and I squirm. I love the talent, and he's built like a tractor, but I worry about the opportunities being plentiful this year. Marlon Mack isn't built strong, but he's still managed to top the 1,000-total-yard mark in each of his past two seasons with at least eight scores in each. If you can do that, you don't stink. As the incumbent, Mack figures to be the Colts' first guy up on running downs this season, and a favorable early-season schedule might give him the chance to fend off Taylor from taking his entire workload through mid-October. What good does that do Taylor? Plus neither guy will have an easy time taking the passing downs and two-minute drill snaps away from Nyheim Hines. Taylor was a stat machine in college (the only player in FBS history to rack up over 1,900 rushing yards in each of three seasons), but he also had a bunch of turnovers (18 fumbles in 41 games) and isn't an accomplished pass catcher. Taylor will be a fantastic breakout candidate in 2021, but I'm nervous about overspending for him on Draft Day. His ADP makes him a bust.
CHI Chicago • #32
Age: 24 • Experience: 3 yrs.
A year ago, I was pumped to see Montgomery pulverize and dance around defenses in the Chicago offense. Instead, his 2.33 yards after contact per attempt ranked 44th out of 45th and his elusiveness rating by Pro Football Focus ranked 31st out of 45 running backs (both categories based on a running back with at least 100 carries). Quite frankly, Montgomery was lucky to get the 1,074 total yards and seven scores he has in 2019 given the poor play of his offensive line, his own mediocre work and a dead-even split in snaps played with Tarik Cohen. Obviously Montgomery had a sizable lead in touches over Cohen, but will that be the case again this season if Montgomery can't make moves behind the Bears' not-so-hot offensive line? Eventually, the Bears can't keep giving Montgomery chances. A Round 5 pick is too soon.
This one hurts, because before the draft I thought Taylor could be a generational back. I still do. But he's almost certain to open the year in a time share with Mack on early downs, and he has very little chance to take Hines off the field on passing downs. In fact, I'd expect Mack to be second in line for running-back targets. Taylor's price has fallen a couple of picks since we learned of the shortened training camps, but even in the fourth round he's a reach. There's a chance these rookies justify their ADP in the second half of the season, but there's a lot more downside than upside at their cost.
Cam Akers RB
LAR L.A. Rams • #23
Age: 22 • Experience: 2 yrs.
Akers doesn't have Taylor's pedigree and isn't going to the team with the best offensive line in football. But like Taylor, he's in a three-headed competition, and Rams coaches have indicated it will be a three-headed committee (at least to start the year.) Worse yet, they currently prefer Henderson on passing downs and Brown in short yardage. The Rams profile as a pass-heavy team, with a mediocre offensive line. That's not great for Akers if he's a two-down back who isn't guaranteed red-zone work.
James Conner RB
ARI Arizona • #6
Age: 26 • Experience: 5 yrs.
I'm using Conner to represent a host of backs at the beginning of what I call the "Running Back Dead Zone," all of whom have been productive before but whose ADPs are a little loftier because of it. Unfortunately, the long-term history at running back suggests the part of 2020 drafts filled with Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon, Leonard Fournette, Conner, Le'Veon Bell, David Johnson, and Chris Carson could be loaded with landmines. Each is an example of needing to pay for past production when a player's situation has changed, which might be the surest sign of overvaluation at RB. Each is at least 25 years old with some type of injury history behind them, and younger backs behind them on the roster. You may broadly agree but have a favorite or two you think this doesn't apply to, and I will acknowledge expecting some to have solid seasons. But tread lightly — Fantasy Football history is unfortunately littered with great backs who couldn't reverse the decline phase, and these backs cost a third or fourth round pick that forces you to pass up some truly fantastic receiver options.
SF San Francisco • #31
Age: 29 • Experience: 7 yrs.
Mostert is a classic case of a TRAP back, which is to say he thrived on low-value touches and high efficiency. Low-value touches are rush attempts outside prime scoring area, and Mostert got just six touches inside the 10-yard line last season. Jeff Wilson got 10, and Tevin Coleman — who had the exact same number of carries as Mostert in the regular season — totaled 17. Now that's one area of Mostert's profile that could improve, and he did add a couple of short-yardage scores in the playoffs. However, he also totaled just 17 receptions through the playoffs last year, and banking on a back who is a great athlete and incredibly fun to watch but is nevertheless reliant on elite rushing efficiency and splash touchdowns is typically a losing option. That's before considering Mostert was a late breakout with a short track record — Mostert had just 48 career touches before his age-27 season last year — and plays in an offense that favored a committee last year.
So which Fantasy football busts should you completely avoid? And which running back going off the board early should you fade? Visit SportsLine now to get cheat sheets from the model that called Baker Mayfield's disappointing season, and find out.