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Biggest Surprises of 2019: Running Back


The 2019 NFL season was an interesting year for the running back position. Christian McCaffrey was the overall RB1, but some of the other top players fell below expectations.

That led to some interesting final results when the final season standings came around. And while some of those -- Dalvin Cook as the RB3, Leonard Fournette and Derrick Henry finishing above Alvin Kamara and Saquon Barkley -- weren't too shocking, there were a few things in the final running order that felt like major shocks.

Below are the five running backs whose final placement in 2019 surprised me the most, with some analysis on why. Stats and final fantasy scoring position are based on PPR scoring from Week 1 to Week 16.

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Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers - RB2

After leading the NFL in yards per carry last year, I was pretty high on Aaron Jones coming into this season. But I saw him finishing as a low-end RB1 or something, not as the overall fantasy RB2.

Jones was less efficient this season, but he scored a league-best 16 rushing touchdowns and saw an increase from 11.1 attempts to 14.8 attempts per game. With a new head coach, the Packers devoted more time to the run and less time to Jamaal Williams, which helped him reach the heights he did. Jones getting involved more in the passing game helped too, as he rose from 17.2 to 29.6 receiving yards per game.

Is it sustainable? The touchdowns will probably come down next year, so I'd think of Jones as something like the eighth or ninth running back you'd want to draft. Still good, but 2019's breakout campaign doesn't seem super replicable.

 

Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers - RB4

Ekeler got to spend half of the season as a starter, and he exceeded anyone's expectations of what he'd do in that role. While his rushing production was virtually equal to last year, Ekeler caught 92 passes for 993 yards and eight receiving touchdowns.

Catching 85.2 percent of your targets is a LOT, and it's safe to assume that rate goes down in 2020. But if the Chargers move on from Melvin Gordon, Ekeler should continue to play a big role next season, even if Justin Jackson carves out a little more of the early-down work.

Ekeler is a great weapon for L.A.. He's very efficient in terms of yards per touch and should be a vital pass-catching back for years, even if he never turns into more than a 500 rushing yard per year player.

 

Le'Veon Bell, New York Jets - RB15

Bell was expected to be back to vintage Le'Veon in his first year in New York. But, umm...that didn't happen.

You can call it the Adam Gase curse if you want, as players in Gase offenses seem to never play their best. You can also call it regression for a back who's played awhile and is taking a step back.

But whatever you call it, 2019 was disappointing. Bell averaged just 52.6 rushing yards per game, a career-low. He had zero 100-yard games and just three rushing touchdowns, and while his receiving usage didn't take as much of a hit, he still only found the end zone once through the air.

Will Bell bounce back next year? Probably, but it's hard to put too much faith into a running back whose touches are dictated by Gase.

 

David Montgomery, Chicago Bears - RB25

Maybe we should have listened to the naysayers.

I thought Montgomery was going to be a more versatile version of Jordan Howard for the Bears, which would have made him a solid fantasy back, maybe someone who finished around RB15 or so.

Some people pointed out a few worrisome signs, though. As in a 37th percentile 40-yard dash, 18th percentile college yards per carry, and 15th percentile SPARQ score.

And, well, maybe they were right. Montgomery never got things going, with just two 100-yard games and eight games with three yards per carry or worse. He was a non-entity as a receiver down the stretch, with just two catches over the last four games for the Bears. And while he ended the year on a good note with 113 yards and a touchdown against the Vikings, it's hard to rank Montgomery as high going into 2020 as he was ranked going into 2019.

 

David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals - RB33

This was the biggest surprise of 2019. David Johnson was a first-round pick, and while he missed two of the first 15 games for Arizona, that doesn't fully explain how he plummeted like he did, as guys like Saquon Barkley and Melvin Gordon missed time and still finished far above where Johnson did.

Instead, to understand what happened to David Johnson this year is more complex. He was clearly hampered by injury, but he was also just flat-out ineffective at times. Through Week 6, Johnson was playing like David Johnson, with 613 scrimmage yards in six games. He was on track to be exactly the player you drafted him to be.

But from there, his stock came crashing down. Johnson returned in Week 10 from an ankle injury and instantly just looked...slow. Over the rest of the season, Johnson never played more than 50 percent of the team's snaps again, and while Kenyan Drake went out there and looked like what we thought Johnson would look like in Kliff Kingsbury's offense, Johnson kept seeing his role dwindle. He lost a fumble in his first game back against Tampa, which led to Johnson sitting on the bench for the rest of that game and then playing just eight snaps the next week. After that, he topped out at six touches against the Rams. A touchdown reception against Pittsburgh was good news for anyone who started him in fantasy in that game, but it didn't mean anything in the grand scheme of things.

What's next for Johnson? I can't imagine he's wearing a Cardinals uniform next year, and I don't know how to value him until we know where he winds up and what his role is. Maybe he'll make his way to Kansas City or Houston or some other team with a clear need for a No. 1 back, but will he suddenly have some new gear in his legs that wasn't there this year? What point in 2020 redraft drafts would you feel comfortable taking him? Will he be in a committee and be a fantasy afterthought again? So many questions and just not nearly enough answers.

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