In something of a surprising move, Adrian Peterson has been released by The Washington Football Team. The move comes about a month after the team cut Derrius Guice, leaving behind an unproven group of running backs.
The move is yet another example of the chaotic ride that is Fantasy football running back value. But with the season less than a week away and the biggest drafting weekend of the year on tap, the question becomes how do we adjust? What is too much movement for the Washington running backs left behind, and what might not be enough? It's very challenging to break from prior expectations when a significant move occurs, but we need to look at this new backfield with all the information we have currently and perform an honest assessment.
First of all, Washington may not be a particularly productive offense for Fantasy in 2020, but it is in line to be better than 2019, if only because they are in line to run far more plays. No team ran fewer overall offensive plays in 2019, and their 885 plays were a comically low figure. It made them just the second team since the Bills in 2006 to run fewer than 900 plays in a season.
The other team to achieve that unceremonious feat was the 2018 Dolphins in Adam Gase's final season on South Beach. With a new coaching staff and new system in 2019, the Dolphins went from a Fantasy wasteland in 2018 to an offense worth looking at. That's at least in part because they finished with 1,022 overall plays, six more than the league average of 1,016, and a 144-play increase over their 878 in 2018.
The FFT crew and a guest broke down the Washington situation and much more on Friday's edition of the Fantasy Football Today podcast. Follow all our podcasts and subscribe here.
Interestingly, Miami's offense was actually less efficient in 2019, falling from 5.3 yards per play in 2018 to 4.9 in 2019. But they went from the 31st-slowest offense in situation-neutral pace, per Football-Outsiders, to 13th last year.
That pace stat reflects how quickly teams snap the ball between downs. In 2019, Washington was 31st. Its new coaching staff, including Ron Rivera and Scott Turner, was with Carolina last season, though, and Carolina was fifth in situation-neutral pace, playing fast despite not being a very good offense, and finishing with 1,077 total plays, fifth-most in the league.
All of which is to say that for as bad as Washington's offense was last season, there were already indications this team might play faster this year. They were likely to add a significant number of plays simply because a sub-900 play total is rare, but it's possible they experience a significant change much like Miami did from 2018 to 2019 if their new coaching staff continues to prefer playing fast. The release of Adrian Peterson would seem to be an indication they view this offense that way, because giving 150 or 200 carries to a player like Peterson at this stage of his career is the type of thing that slows down an offense.
If the substantial play volume increase happens, it's possible there's a surprising amount of Fantasy value here.
Why Antonio Gibson is a must-draft player
After Peterson's release, Washington seems set to move forward with veteran free agent acquisitions Peyton Barber and J.D. McKissic, second-year man Bryce Love, and rookie third-rounder Antonio Gibson. Gibson is the one who has received all the camp buzz, while the other excited option, Love, had seemed to fall out of favor a bit. Love is intriguing and the second back I would look at now that it appears he's much more likely to be active on game days, something that was called into question recently. We'll get into Love in a moment, but Gibson is the one to really get excited about.
Mostly a wide receiver during his time in Memphis, Gibson rushed just 44 times in college and caught 33 passes. But he was drafted as a running back with the second pick of the third round after blowing up the Combine. A physical specimen, Gibson compares favorably to Jonathan Taylor, who you may be more familiar with. Both rookies are among the best size/speed backs to enter the league, well, ever.
Gibson is not a scat back, but a 228-pound potential workhorse who ran a 4.39 40-yard dash. Athleticism isn't everything, and his lack of collegiate production should be mildly concerning because he'll need to display the nuances of the position, but there's a ton of explosiveness here. That said, Washington moving on from Peterson after previously releasing Guice speaks volumes. Gibson is hand-picked by the new coaching staff while Love was a holdover pick from the 2019 draft, and while McKissic and Barber both figure to be involved, all the buzz after Peterson's release has been centered on Gibson and how he's looked in camp.
In looking at the list of elite running back seasons over the past decade, there are a few things that jump out, and Gibson embodies several of them. First, of the backs in the Running Back Dead Zone to truly break out into an elite season, young players ascending for the first time are a common theme. Second, August risers like Kareem Hunt in 2017 and Arian Foster in 2010 were examples of backs where a building preseason buzz foretold a mammoth season.
But most importantly, it's Gibson's pass-catching prowess in a 228-pound frame that has drawn comparisons to David Johnson and creates monster upside. Many of the biggest Fantasy running back seasons have come from backs who have a substantial pass-catching role that grew into a three-down opportunity. That's how you wind up with Austin Ekeler's elite upside early last season, but it's also what created Johnson's monster upside and launched players like Devonta Freeman, Alvin Kamara and Matt Forte to huge seasons. Having a strong pass-catching role allows a player to rack up High-Value Touches, and if the player has the size to grow into a goal-line role, you have the perfect mix for Fantasy running back upside.
Now, that's the upside outcome for Gibson. We don't yet know what the Week 1 split will look like, and we don't know that this offense will take a huge step forward in play volume. But all August, the buzz out of Washington has been that Gibson will be used in a variety of ways, and that follows the post-draft commentary where Rivera compared him to Christian McCaffrey in terms of how they envisioning him fitting into the offense. If this offense in Washington looks anything like the offenses this coaching staff has run in the past few seasons in Carolina, it's not hard to envision a big role for Gibson right away. If he thrives, he could be an absolute star buoyed by a significant pass-catching role, and given the competition in the backfield that could happen sooner than later.
Gibson will undoubtedly get more expensive in drafts in the final week, but all signs point to him being worth chasing up draft boards. The standalone value should be strong, and the upside alone makes him a more intriguing pick to me than some of the less-exciting veteran backs like Le'Veon Bell and David Johnson. Your results may vary on that aggressiveness, but just remember it's easy to anchor to prior expectations and an offseason of analysis, and not react strongly enough to major shakeups. The way the Washington backfield currently sits, there's a strong case for Gibson as a top-20 back in drafts.
The rest of the backfield
Washington has been enamored with J.D. McKissic this offseason, and the pass-catching veteran could be one hindrance to Gibson's upside. He's a potential late-round PPR option in deep leagues, but it's hard to imagine him having a substantial role in the offense. And whatever his Week 1 role is, I would expect it to shrink, not grow, throughout the season, as Washington incorporates more of Gibson and possibly Love.
Love is an intriguing pick again in the later rounds, because one could read the release of the Peterson as a vote of confidence in the former Heisman runner up. Love missed all of last year after an ACL injury late in his final college season, and reports have been up and down on him through camp. But this backfield shakeup certainly opens early-down opportunity should a three-down role not materialize for Gibson. Love's upside would seem to be a bit lower, simply because it's not clear whether he'd earn a substantial passing game role with Gibson and McKissic both there, but he's still a solid bench stash in the final week of drafts.
Finally, Barber is the veteran early-down back. That type of player has limited upside, and he's another guy whose role will likely shrink over the season rather than grow. It's possible he sees a solid early-season role including goal-line work, but it's also possible he doesn't. With a career 3.6 yards per carry average on 551 rushes, he has never seemed to be much more than a replacement-level runner. He's not someone to target in drafts.