We'll lead off today's newsletter with a stat you might find surprising: The Titans had more production from the running back position in 2021, when Derrick Henry missed more than half the season, than they did in either 2020 or 2019, when Henry was healthy and putting up huge numbers. Titans running backs combined for 465.8 PPR points in 2021, the sixth-most in the league, compared to 420.9 and 380.9 the previous two seasons.
Of course, it didn't matter so much for our purposes when touches were being split in the second half of last season between three different backs. Generally speaking, we'd rather see one running back dominate a pretty good offense than two split an elite one.
Still, the quality of the offense matters, and the shape of the offense matters, too. The Buccaneers don't run the ball much, but they threw the ball to Leonard Fournette and gave him so many red zone opportunities that he ended up RB4 in points per game in PPR scoring.
In today's newsletter, we'll be looking at the best and worst offenses for RB scoring last season, with an eye on how those teams might divvy up their points or change things up in a way that could make a big difference for Fantasy.
We'll also catch up on the latest news and notes from around training camp, including the latest on Alvin Kamara's legal troubles and more. I broke down what Deshaun Watson's six-game suspension means for Watson's value here and for the Browns' offense as a whole here Monday, and we broke it down on the Fantasy Football Today podcast, so make sure you check that out here as well.
In tomorrow's newsletter, I'll have sleeper and breakout running back picks from the whole FFT team, and you can go ahead and send your running back-centric questions to Chris.Towers@ViacomCBS.com with the subject line "#AskFFT" and I'll answer them before the end of this week.
For now, let's get to know the best and worst offenses for running backs in Fantasy.
Best and Worst Offenses for RBs
Over the past three seasons, there have been four teams to rank in the top 10 in combined production by running backs each season: The Vikings, Browns, Packers, and Patriots. And I think three of those four teams make sense – you might be surprised to see the Patriots there given how rarely they have a single must-start back, but they actually consistently rank among the top teams in combined RB production, they just tend to spread it around a lot.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Jaguars, Dolphins, and Bills have been the only three teams to finish in the bottom 10 in RB scoring in each of the past three seasons. All three teams have had noteworthy Fantasy producers in those periods – James Robinson, Myles Gaskin, and Devin Singletary, respectively – but as any of you reading should know, these players always had extremely thin margins for error. If they were seeing 65% of the RB touches, they could be quite good; anything less, and they were close to useless more often than not.
(On a related note, this is why I'm not willing to get excited about Bills rookie RB James Cook. Unless they're willing to drastically alter how they use Josh Allen, especially near the goal line. The Bills are a good offense, but because Allen scrambles rather than dumps it off and because he's such a dominant force near the goal line, they just haven't been particularly conducive to producing Fantasy points for running backs.)
Let's take a look at some of those offenses and the rest of the best and worst offenses from last season in total RB points and see what we can learn from them:
The five best
- 1. Colts – It shouldn't be much of a surprise that the offense that produced the No. 1 RB also produced the most Fantasy points. They totaled 515.7 points, and it's worth remembering that there could be more room for Nyheim Hines, something the coaching staff has made a point of calling out this offseason. He remains a viable zero-RB target in PPR.
- 2. Patriots – Damien Harris had a solid season, finishing as RB14, but you can already see why we're hoping Rhamondre Stevenson might cut into his work this season. Harris is solid, but he's unlikely to ever be much more than that thanks to his limited pass-catching role, which is why a significant share of the 513.1 points the Patriots produced went to other running backs. Stevenson is the only back on the roster with the potential to see enough work in a three-down role to challenge for 300-plus points.
- 3. Browns – You know how things work in Cleveland by this point, and it's not dissimilar to what is happening in New England. Nick Chubb is an elite rusher, but a relatively small portion of the Browns' 500.3 points last season went his way thanks to his limited passing game role. Kareem Hunt probably has more upside in a best-case scenario than Chubb, though the receiving upside is probably capped either way when Deshaun Watson is QB. Given his proclivity to tuck the ball and run rather than dump off to backs, don't be surprised if the RB production here takes a step back even if the offense as a whole is better.
- 4. Chargers – We've been looking for another Chargers running back to step up since Melvin Gordon left in 2020, because even though Austin Ekeler is an elite Fantasy option, the 474.1 points they produced last season still leave room for someone else to be a viable Fantasy option. Keep reading today's newsletter to see why Isaiah Spiller is fast becoming one of my favorite late-round targets at RB.
- 5. Vikings – We know how things work in Minnesota at this point, or at least we did. Their 469.6 points were split fairly predictably between Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison; when Cook was healthy, he got nearly all of them; when he wasn't, Mattison just got all of Cook's production and replicated what he did. Mattison is one of the surest bets among handcuffs in Fantasy, and he's a bona fide top-five Fantasy RB whenever Cook misses time. That being said, former Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O'Connell is taking over as the Vikings head coach this season and figures to modernize their offense, making the running backs every-so-slightly less predictable than they were under the run-first-second-and-third Mike Zimmer.
The five worst
- 28. Rams – The Rams produced 317.6 points in 2021 and ranked just 22 and 28th in the previous two seasons, which raises an obvious question: Is this actually a great offense for running backs? It was in the Todd Gurley era, but that was also the Jared Goff era. Will the Matthew Stafford-led Rams be as willing to give a ton of opportunities near the goal line to Cam Akers when they could just trust Stafford to get it to Cooper Kupp and Allen Robinson's hands? If Cam Akers can't recover his pre-injury explosiveness, it's a fair question.
- 29. Panthers – I think this mostly just highlights how bad the Panthers non-Christian McCaffrey running backs are – they scored 315.1 points combined, with McCaffrey accounting for 127.5 of them in five full games and two partial ones. They produced the third-most points in 2019, the last time McCaffrey was healthy, though it's fair to ask whether he actually still has that 30-PPG upside he showed in 2019 after how the past two seasons have gone.
- 30. Saints – The Saints managing just 307.2 points from their running backs might be the most shocking result of all, given how consistently great this offense has been for running backs in the past. They led the NFL in RB Fantasy scoring in 2020, but they had an incredibly conservative approach in their first season without Drew Brees – and quarterbacks not named James Winston targeted Alvin Kamara on fewer than 10.5% of their pass attempts, a stunningly low number. I'm expecting this offense as a whole to be much better this season, and that should be the same for Kamara – who was RB7 in points per game despite that.
- 31. Dolphins – With a new coaching staff in place, I'm not sure how much it matters that the Dolphins generated just 300.9 points from their running backs last season. Mike McDaniels comes from the San Francisco system run by Kyle Shanahan, which was third and fourth in points by running backs in 2020 and 2019. They didn't throw the ball to their backs much, but Shanahan's offense generated so much efficiency in the ground game that it didn't matter. If McDaniels can replicate that, there's potential for some solid production here, though in keeping with Shanahan's modus operandi over the years, it's not clear how the hierarchy will shake out between Chase Edmonds, Raheem Mostert, and Sony Michel. There's potential value here, it's just not readily apparent who will take full advantage.
- 32. Jaguars – We're expecting the Jaguars to do better than last year's paltry 290.7-point showing. Say what you want about Doug Pederson, but he's led good offenses in Philadelphia, including a No. 7 finish for running backs in 2019. Travis Etienne has the potential skill set to be a Fantasy difference maker thanks to his pass-catching, but if James Robinson is ready to split work with him in Week 1 coming off his ruptured Achilles, this could be a frustrating split even if the offense as a whole is much improved, as we expect it. And, if Trevor Lawrence disappoints again, he could drag the rest of the offense down with him.
Injuries, News, and Notes
The impact of COVID-19 has been felt across the previous two NFL seasons, and we were reminded Monday that it isn't going away. The Cardinals announced quarterback Kyler Murray will be away from the team for at least five days during training camp after testing positive for COVID.
It's not clear what the return-to-play protocols will look like this season. Remember, the league adjusted those protocols toward the end of last season to make it easier for players to return to action if they were vaccinated, but as we've seen in both NBA and MLB this season, COVID has continued to be an issue in professional sports.
This doesn't really matter for Murray, who has plenty of time to test out of the protocol before games start, but it's just a reminder that this is still potentially going to impact players' availability this season.
Alvin Kamara's situation
Kamara's preliminary hearing for his felony battery charge was delayed for two months, meaning the trial won't start until at least the beginning of October. And Kamara's legal team has ever reason to continue to push for delays until after the season, so it seems very unlikely there will be any resolution here anytime soon. The NFL is likely to wait until the legal process plays out, so whatever suspension Kamara may end up facing doesn't seem like it'll be in place until 2023.
That isn't guaranteed, of course, which is why we can't speak with 100% certainty here, but that seems like the likeliest outcome to me. I took Kamara in the first round, 10th overall, in a PPR mock draft we did Monday, and I think he belongs in the first round moving forward unless we get a reason to change that. He's a top-five back when available in my eyes, so getting a full season out of him even from a late-round pick would be a steal.
Deebo Samuel signed a three-year extension
Even dating back to earlier in the offseason, when Samuel was apparently demanding a trade, it never really seemed like he was likely to go anywhere. And now we know he won't, as Samuel got a three-year, $71.55 million contract extension that includes $58.1 million guaranteed. And, while Samuel was reportedly unhappy with his usage as a running back late last season, he's got his guaranteed money now, which includes bonuses of $650,000 for each season where he rushes for more than 380 yards, plus $150,000 if he has more than three rushing touchdowns. He had 365 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground last season, and this could make it more likely Samuel is used in the running game enough to justify his draft cost. I'm still a bit wary, but I'm willing to take Samuel in the second round as a top-12 RB, and I feel a little better about it now after learning of these contract details.
Isaiah Spiller is working with the first team
Given how the Chargers have treated the backup RB spot in recent years, news that the rookie fourth-rounder is working with the first team isn't necessarily surprising. What might be surprising is that Spiller is the only running back besides Austin Ekeler getting first-team reps, per NFL Network's Taylor Bisciotti Monday. Spiller has received praise in camp for his pass-catching skills, and the 123rd overall pick in this year's draft sure looks like he's got the inside track to be Ekeler's sideman. That should put him in line for a decent 8-10-touch role when Ekeler is active, but what makes him an especially intriguing Fantasy option is the potential role in case something happens to Ekeler – Justin Jackson had 11 carries and nine targets in the only game Ekeler missed last season, and Spiller could be a must-start option if Ekeler misses time. He's worth drafting as a top-40 RB.
Curtis Samuel hasn't been fully cleared yet
Samuel has been largely limited to working on the side fields for much of training camp, as his football conditioning isn't quite where it needs to be just yet. Coach Ron Rivera hasn't been pretty vague on details, but he has dealt with hamstring issues as well as tightness and soreness in his lower back, per The Athletic. The good news, I suppose, is that the groin injury that derailed his 2021 season before it ever really started isn't an issue, but I'm not sure that really makes me feel any better. I still like Samuel's potential, but even a late-round pick in a standard league is hard to justify given his continued issues.
- Kenny Pickett has been the No. 3 QB for the Steelers – Mason Rudolph is apparently being given more of an opportunity to win the starting job early in camp than the rookie, though it has also been reported that Mitchell Trubisky has "basically been told" he will be the team's starting QB. That doesn't mean Trubisky will be the starter all year, but in 2QB leagues, Trubisky is the guy you want anyway.
- Van Jefferson (knee) is in question for Week 1 – Jefferson is set to undergo surgery, though it's not clear at this point what the issue is. That he hasn't necessarily been ruled out for Week 1 (yet) indicates it may not be a terribly serious issue. You would think this might make it more likely the Rams re-sign Odell Beckham, though Beckham likely won't be available for Week 1 either, so it may not make much of a difference. Still, if Beckham does re-sign in the coming days, that may be a sign that Jefferson's injury may linger.
- Chase Claypool is dealing with a shoulder injury – Claypool left Friday's practice with the injury, though it isn't considered an especially serious issue at this point. Claypool is looking to take a step forward following a disappointing second season, and he's been working out of the slot in camp, a shift in role that could potentially spark a breakout. He's still worth a look as a WR4/5 with upside.
- KJ Hamler (ACL/hip) was activated from the PUP list – Hamler still has ostensible potential as a deep threat with Russell Wilson, arguably the game's premiere deep-ball passer, however, he's also likely to be behind Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, and Tim Patrick at WR. He's only worth drafting in deep leagues as a late-round dart throw with weekly upside.
- James Washington will miss 6-10 weeks with a broken foot – Washington has a Jones fracture, and it's probably safer to assume he'll be on the longer end of that timetable. Washington had some appeal with Michael Gallup (ACL) not expected to be ready for Week 1, but this saps much of that appeal.
- Taysom Hill had his eligibility changed to TE on CBS Fantasy – The Saints have been consistent in saying that Hill will be a tight end this season, albeit with some quarterback duties sprinkled in. There's some upside in drafting him as a tight end who may end up seeing time as a quarterback if the Saints end up switching him back -- a potentially Fantasy-breaking outcome if it comes to pass.