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Running Back Risers and Fallers - 2018 Season Review

Most of you have shifted your focus from celebrating or lamenting the final records of your teams in 2018 toward the process of planning your drafts for the 2019 season. The team at RotoBaller is fully aware of your efforts, which is why we have been compiling statistics, analysis, and thoroughly researched recommendations as part of our unrelenting efforts toward helping you win your leagues in 2019.

That includes a review of the biggest risers and fallers at the various skill positions, based upon an in-depth review of their usage and output during the 2018 regular season, then contrasting their performance with the numbers that they delivered during 2017. This article will examine the output that was generated at the critical running back position, during a year in which Ezekiel Elliott, Saquon Barkley, and Todd Gurley all rushed for over 1,250 yards, while a total of nine backs surpassed 1,000.

A number of other runners registered significant increases or decreases in their production as a result of expanded or diminished roles, along with changes within the offenses that they were functioning in. Here is a breakdown of the most noteworthy backs that delivered a statistical surge in 2018, along with others who experienced an unwanted downturn in their production.

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RB Risers

Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers

At the risk of accentuating the obvious, any column that examines running backs whose value elevated substantially in 2018 would be deficient if it somehow overlooked McCaffrey's elevation into a position among the elite. He entered the year with a number of skeptics questioning his value, even though he did finish at RB10 in PPR leagues as a rookie in 2017. However, that was accomplished primarily through his receiving acumen, as McCaffrey led all backs with 113 targets, finished third with 80 receptions, and was fifth with 651 yards.

His numbers as a rusher were undistinguished, as 39 other backs exceeded his 117 attempts, while 43 generated more yardage (435). But after an offseason of debate regarding his ability to thrive as a workhorse back, McCaffrey also became a highly productive runner in 2018. He capitalized on his 219 carries by finishing sixth overall with 1,080 yards and averaging 5.0 YPC. McCaffrey's prowess as a receiver also remained intact, as he also led all backs in targets (124), receptions (107), and yardage (867). With the collection of his impressive achievements as a rusher virtually matching his accomplishments as a receiver, McCaffrey vaulted to RB2 in scoring and should be selected without hesitation among the top five players in your drafts.

Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals

Mixon performed in 14 contests during his 2017 rookie season, even though Marvin Lewis’ dogged desire toward relegating Mixon to a timeshare with Jeremy Hill at the onset of the year prohibited Mixon from starting until Week 8. After being encumbered by his head coach, and missing two late-season games with a concussion, Mixon rushed for 626 yards and four touchdowns on 178 carries. That placed him just 29th among all backs, while also resulting in a substandard 3.5 YPC. But he was entrusted with Cincinnati's RB1 responsibilities throughout 2018, as only seven backs exceeded his 237 attempts.

Mixon took full advantage of this opportunity to function in an expansive role by vaulting to fourth among all rushers with 1,168 yards which trailed only Elliott, Barkley and Gurley. Mixon generated eight touchdowns, averaged 4.9 YPC, and also averaged 83 YPG, after reaching that yardage total in just two matchups as a rookie. He captured 13 additional receptions in his second season (43/30) which improved his yardage total by just nine yards (296/287). Still, the sizable improvement in his output as a rusher propelled him to an RB10 finish in scoring, and he can be selected with confidence as an RB1 during your upcoming drafts.

Chris Carson, Seattle Seahawks

Seattle selected Carson in the seventh round of the 2017 NFL Draft, and he surfaced atop the Seahawk depth chart early in his rookie year. He proceeded to rumble for 93 yards in Week 2 and was averaging 4.2 YPC before a leg fracture abruptly concluded his season in Week 4. When Seattle invested a first-round pick on Rashaad Penny during the 2018 draft, Carson became an afterthought for fantasy owners until the Seahawks began their preseason matchups. At that point, he was operating as the team's RB1, and never relinquished that role in 2018 despite Pete Carroll's perceived propensity for unsystematic usage of his running backs.

Even though he missed two games due to his lingering hip issue, Carson ultimately finished with 247 attempts. That was the league's seventh highest total, while his 17.3 carries per-game were exceeded only by Elliott and Gurley. He also finished fifth overall in rushing yards (1,151) while averaging 4.7 YPC. The second-year back surpassed 100 yards in six different contests, while ascending to RB15 in fantasy scoring. Anyone considering Carson for their 2019 drafts can do far worse than securing the primary back on a team that led the NFL in run play percentage (52.4%), as the Seahawks should demonstrate their steadfast commitment to the run again this season.

James Conner, Pittsburgh Steelers

While the top-three risers have already been discussed, Conner's emergence in 2018 is also worthy of mention. He was chosen by Pittsburgh with the 105th overall selection of the 2017 draft but only touched the ball 32 times throughout his rookie season. However, that was to be expected, as Conner was cemented as the backup to Le'Veon Bell, who was in the process of stockpiling a league-high 321 attempts. Conner also suffered an MCL injury in Week 15 but had fully recovered for what was expected to be a second season of performing behind Bell in 2018. However, when Bell abstained from reporting to the Steelers, it immediately cleared an expansive path for Conner to commandeer the feature back role.

He eventually finished third with 12 rushing touchdowns, tied for 11th with 973 rushing yards, and accomplished this despite being sidelined from Weeks 14-16 with an ankle issue. Conner also averaged 16.5 attempts per-game during the 13 contests in which he played, which was exceeded only by Elliott, Gurley, Carson, and Mixon. Bell has hastened his departure from the Steeler organization, which will enable Conner to continue procuring the workload of a feature back this season. However, it is possible that Jaylen Samuels will siphon a percentage of the 71 targets that Conner collected last season (5.5 per game) after Samuels averaged 5-per-game and accumulated 140 receiving yards in Week 14-17.

Honorable Mentions: Marlon Mack, Indianapolis Colts, Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers, Tarik Cohen, Chicago Bears  


RB Fallers

LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bills

It can be argued that no runner's value plummeted more than Bell, but the focus will remain firmly on backs that were available for game action throughout 2017 and 2018. That also eliminates Leonard Fournette, who was sidelined for eight games amid the unending nightmare of a season for anyone that drafted him. Instead, the spotlight will shift to McCoy, who performed in 30 games during 2017-2018. That includes all 16 contests in 2017 when he also accumulated the second most carries (287) and finished fourth with 1,138 rushing yards. It was the sixth time that he had surpassed 1,000 yards in his first nine seasons, and the fourth time that he had accomplished it since 2013. He also collected 59 of his 77 targets for 448 yards, and his output as Buffalo's dual-threat backfield weapon enabled him to finish at RB7.

But the abundance of statistical prosperity that this six-time Pro Bowler had consistently delivered for anyone who owned him evaporated in 2018. McCoy only missed two games despite contending with a myriad of health issues (ribs/concussion /hamstring) but was limited to his fewest rushing attempts since 2009 (161). His owners were also forced to endure new career-lows in rushing yards (514) YPC (3.2) and the second lowest number of receiving yards (238). The regression of his output in every major category also resulted in McCoy plummeting to just RB39 in scoring. Even though it currently appears that he will remain a Bill for the final year of his contract, his time as an unquestioned RB1 has ended.

Carlos Hyde, Jacksonville Jaguars

In 2017, Hyde completed his third consecutive season as San Francisco’s leading rusher by assembling 938 yards. That placed him 13th overall, while his 240 carries represented the league’s 11th highest total. He also generated a career-best eight touchdowns on the ground by capitalizing on his 41 red zone attempts, as only four backs were presented with more opportunities inside the 20. In addition to Hyde’s collection of favorable numbers as a rusher, he also finished fifth among all backs with 88 targets and was sixth at his position with 59 receptions.

But even though the sum of his production was sufficient for Hyde to finish at RB8, the 49ers were not enthusiastic about re-signing him after the season. This resulted in Hyde beginning 2018 as Cleveland’s primary back, even though he was just one component within a congested backfield that included Duke Johnson and second-round draft pick Nick Chubb. Hyde averaged 21 attempts-per-game from Weeks 1-4 and maintained an average of 19 attempts-per-game through Week 6. But Chubb ascended into lead back responsibilities prior to the Browns’ Week 7 matchup, while Hyde was jettisoned to Jacksonville. He only manufactured 193 total yards on 62 touches during the Jaguars' final nine games, finished the season with just 23 red zone carries, and eventually finished at RB49. Hyde’s 2019 outlook is extremely uncertain, as he will turn 29 in September, signed a three-year contract last March, and may not be a Jaguar when Week 1 begins.

Duke Johnson, Cleveland Browns

Johnson entered 2018 having finished at RB 11 while collecting the fourth-highest target total among all backs (74) and finishing third at his position in receiving yards (693). While these were career highs, it was also the final installment of a three-year sequence in which he averaged 80 targets, 63 receptions, and 580 yards. But those numbers were destined for reduction once the foundation of Cleveland's backfield was modified during the off-season, as Hyde was added in free agency, and Chubb was secured early in the NFL draft. That negatively impacted Johnson's workload, including what had been his dependable usage as a receiver, as he ceased maintaining an integral role within the Browns’ weekly game strategy.

From Weeks 1-8 Johnson failed to surpass six touches, then averaged 5.1 touches-per-game once Freddie Kitchens became the architect of Cleveland's offense. As a result, Johnson was allotted a career-low 87 touches which represented a mammoth drop from the 156 that he received in 2017. The decline in his deployment as a rusher (82/40 carries) and a receiving weapon (74/47 targets) was equally significant as Johnson essentially functioned as an afterthought, and finishing at RB37. Even if Johnson somehow receives a slight increase in opportunities this season, Chubb will commandeer the vast majority of touches. This relegates Johnson to late-round flier status.

Honorable Mentions: Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints, Dion Lewis, Tennessee Titans, Alex Collins, Baltimore Ravens

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