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Biggest Surprises of 2020 - Running Back

The 2020 NFL season is in the rearview mirror, but before we look ahead to 2021, let's take some time to look back.

Every year, there are big surprises in the league. Someone comes out of nowhere to have a huge year. Someone we thought was about to regress due to age has a much better season than expected. Things we thought would happen don't happen.

Today, let's look at the running backs who were the most surprising this season.

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David Montgomery - Chicago Bears

Through Week 16, David Montgomery was the RB6 in half-PPR.

Montgomery had a disappointing rookie season, but it wasn't really as bad as some might think, as he finished with 1,074 scrimmage yards and seven touchdowns. He lost a lot of targets to Tarik Cohen though, who finished with 79 catches on 104 targets.

But in 2020, a Cohen ACL injury knocked him out for the season in Week 3, at which point Montgomery basically became "The Guy" in Chicago. From Week 4 on, Montgomery led all running backs in snap rate at 80.22 percent, and had 97.61 percent of the running back carries for the Bears, which was also the league's highest mark:

The slight caveat here is that for statistical purposes, Cordarrelle Patterson is categorized as a wide receiver, so Montgomery's numbers weren't exactly as great as they look at first glance in terms of volume, but it's still pretty darn good!

In addition to the volume, Montgomery had some fine numbers that suggest it wasn't just volume. He was 16th in yards created per touch. His yards per attempt rose from 3.7 to 4.3. His yards per reception rose from 7.4 to 8.1.

In a vacuum, Montgomery is probably a low-end RB2 option. But in a world where so many backfields are trending towards being committees, Montgomery getting this much playing time helped him become one of the big surprises of 2020. Whether he keeps it up in 2021 will depend a lot on Chicago's roster construction.

 

James Robinson - Jacksonville Jaguars

Robinson missed the final two games of the season, but the undrafted rookie was the RB4 in half-PPR through Week 15.

In those 14 games that Robinson played, he took 69.9 percent of the Jaguars' snaps and saw 95.62 percent of their running back rushing attempts. Across the full season, that second number just beats out Christian McCaffrey (albeit in just three games) and David Montgomery for the top spot.

Like with Montgomery, the story with Robinson is the story of volume. He got a bunch of it and thus he did a bunch with it.

But I think there's a good argument that what Robinson did was more impressive. Playing on a terrible Jags team, Robinson should have been game-scripted out of relevance. Instead, he was sixth in yards created and produced despite just three goal-line carries.

I don't think we need to anoint Robinson as an RB1 when the draft season arrives, but if the Jaguars don't make upgrades to the run game, he could be in line for another strong season in 2021. But like with Montgomery, the offseason will decide a lot about how we think of Robinson as he enters his second NFL season.

 

J.D. McKissic - Washington Football Team

Washington's running back depth chart before the season looked like it wouldn't be good for J.D. McKissic. Adrian Peterson was there. Rookie Antonio Gibson was getting hype. Peyton Barber and Bryce Love were around too.

But then Washington let Peterson go, and McKissic -- a real afterthought on this team -- ended up being listed as the No. 1 back on the team's initial depth chart.

But after having three carries for negative -2 yards and one catch for one yard in Week 1, it seemed that McKissic was the WFT RB1 only by name.

His role as a receiver grew over the course of the year though, as from Week 3 on, McKissic had at least two receptions in every game. His value as a runner was inconsistent, but he had strong Week 14 and 15s with Gibson sidelined.

McKissic was not expected to do much of anything this year. That he managed to cobble together a finish as the overall RB23 through Week 16 in half-PPR leagues is pretty wild. McKissic was the highest-finishing player overall to not average double-digit fantasy points per game, but he still surprised a lot of people.

Now, McKissic's value will likely drop some next year. The real lesson from him isn't actually about him -- it's that when Washington inevitably looks to upgrade their receiving back role this offseason, whoever winds up there is going to have a lot more fantasy value next year than we'll initially think.

 

Wayne Gallman - New York Giants

Obviously, we weren't expecting a Saquon Barkley injury, but even once he was out, I didn't initially assume that Wayne Gallman would be the guy in New York, especially when the Giants signed Devonta Freeman.

But somehow, someway, Gallman wound up as the lead back. At one point, he had a five-week stretch where he found the end zone six times. Even though he faded to RB34 by the end of things, that brief stretch from Week 7 to Week 12 where he was the overall RB6 was a major surprise.

It's also a reminder of the volatility that comes with non-elite backs. For example, here are the half-PPR points leaders from FantasyPros during that same six-week period:

Three of the top four were Dalvin Cook, Derrick Henry, and Alvin Kamara. Beyond that, it almost feels like someone threw a bunch of names into a hat and then pulled them out.

Gallman's performance reminds us of how weird things can be in the NFL and how we have to be very vigilant when it comes to watching the trends and figuring out who is going to have value in the very short term.



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