The role of the every-down workhorse running back in today’s NFL has pretty much disappeared. Guys like Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook and Derrick Henry are top-tier backs who carry the bulk of their backfield’s workload, but even Alvin Kamara, Nick Chubb and Ezekiel Elliott all have other backs who could be a thorn in their sides. After you get through the first few rounds in your draft, you land in that questionable territory at running back. This is the point where many backs are going to be in a split backfield situation of some sort. This two-part series will look at some of those backfields and I will answer the question of “Which back are you backing?”

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Ronald Jones vs. Leonard Fournette debate is one that never ends. With current NFFC ADPs (Average Draft Position) of 87 and 93 respectively, there is no clear-cut “alpha” in this backfield. The Fournette truthers will turn to the playoff performance where he became “Playoff Lenny” and then “Lombardi Lenny”, but he didn’t do much during the 2020 regular season. Fournette only had 3 games with 12 or more carries and only 2 games where he had more than 50 rushing yards. He finished the regular season with 97 rushes for 367 yards and 6 rushing touchdowns. Ronald Jones finished the regular season with 192 rushes for 978 yards and 7 rushing touchdowns. Jones was the back who got the bulk of the workload and eclipsed the 100-yard mark on the ground in 4 different games. Fournette benefitted from Jones having stone hands and was the back who was trusted more in passing situations. I believe the addition of Giovanni Bernard to fill that role this season will chip away from Fournette, not Jones. I view Fournette as a double handcuff who can fill in the Jones early-down role and the Bernard passing-down role if needed.

So JB, which back are you backing? I’m drafting Ronald Jones from this backfield as the lead back who is more explosive and has the big-play potential. Running behind a strong offensive line, Jones has the potential to reach the 1,000-yard mark this season.

Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals backfield was led last season by Kenyan Drake, but they saw Drake leave in free agency to Sin City this offseason. Once Drake left, it was Chase Edmonds who was the beneficiary and the one expected to get the chance to lead the running back room. The Cardinals then went out and signed James Conner, who has shown the ability to be productive when healthy during his time in Pittsburgh. With his experience as a lead back already, he is now in consideration for that job in Arizona as well. Current NFFC ADP has Edmonds at 67 and Conner at 107. Many view these backs as very complementary to each other. Edmonds is the smaller, shiftier back who is a good pass catcher. Conner is the larger back who can be the short-yardage and goal-line back. The difference for me is that Conner can catch passes also, and last season Edmonds was not trusted in short yardage. I think only one of the backs can play both roles.

So JB, which back are you backing? While Edmonds is the more exciting back, I have a hard time drafting him at his current ADP. In the 5th or 6th rounds I am usually getting better value at other positions. On the contrary, Conner offers value at ADP. In the 8th or 9th round, Conner can be a flex player who can have double-digit carries, catch a few passes, and find the end zone on any given week. He could also be a league winner if anything happened to Edmonds and he was thrust into a role as the only back in Arizona. Although he’s a bit of an injury risk, I’ll take Conner at his current ADP.

Las Vegas Raiders

As I mentioned in the Arizona section, Kenyan Drake was the Cardinals lead back last season and now he is in Vegas, paired alongside the incumbent Josh Jacobs. Bringing in Drake was a headscratcher, as Jacobs is coming off a season where he was a pro bowl selection, amassing 1000 yards and scoring double-digit touchdowns. The Raiders had the 6th most rushing touchdowns as a team last season under Jon Gruden who is known for his passion for running the ball. Jacobs finished last season with the 3rd most rushing attempts and the 8th most rushing yards in the league. This was also on the heels of a rookie campaign where he had 1150 yards rushing, good for 7th among running backs. The biggest knock on Jacobs is that he is not efficient, as evident by his 3.9 yards per attempt last season. He ranked 39th amongst RBs in that category. The back ranked right ahead of him at 38 was Kenyan Drake who had 4 yards per attempt, so they didn’t bring him in to improve efficiency. Even with his lackluster yards per attempt, Jacobs finished 9th in rushing yards per game, so the yardage added up. Jacobs’s current NFFC ADP is 42 and Drake’s is 99.5. With the heavy running volume of this offense, along with the extra game on the schedule this season, both backs should get plenty of work. I consider Drake a handcuff plus who has standalone value and could be a tremendous value should anything happen to Jacobs.

So JB, which back are you backing? It’s hard not to like the volume that Jacobs has received the past two seasons. That said, we don’t know how much Drake will cut into that this season. Both backs can be used in short-yardage, but it’s Drake who is considered the better pass catcher. At their current ADP, it’s hard to feel confident in either of them with so much uncertainty. If Jacobs falls to me in the 4th or 5th round, which I have seen happen, I will consider him over other backs in that range like Gaskin and Davis. At the same time, I have landed Drake in the 9th round several times, going around backup and handcuff backs like Dillon and Fournette. The answer I’ll give is that I’ll take either at a value, but I wouldn’t take both and I wouldn’t pay a premium for either.

I hope that this article was a thought-provoking read for you. It certainly had my brain working hard writing it. Getting a better read on these muddy backfields could help you strike some fantasy gold in your upcoming drafts. Stay tuned for next week’s article where we will tackle a few more of these confusing, split-backfield situations. You are always welcome to follow me on Twitter @FantasyCoachJB and ask me any questions you may have on draft strategies, draft preparation, or anything else for that matter. See you next week!

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1 year ago

Good stuff, JB. Of course you led with TB. Homer. I just kept hearing Sir Mix a Lot while reading your piece. I want the back that got back