Fantasy Football 2019: Predicting This Year's Biggest Breakout Running Backs
The NFL is more pass-heavy than ever before. But in fantasy football, running backs are still the kings of the mountain.
If you find a running back who breaks out in a given season, he can vault your team to a deep playoff run. It's like finding a winning lottery ticket.
But given how important running backs are, the demand for their services is equally high. Tailbacks with RB1 upside are worth their weight in gold, especially if they're available outside of the first few rounds.
We're here to help you hit the jackpot.
Only two of the following running backs finished inside the top 20 in PPR fantasy points last season. Many of them boast RB1 upside in 12-team leagues this year, and all of them should improve upon their output from 2018.
Kerryon Johnson, Detroit Lions
No running back is garnering more breakout hype than Kerryon Johnson of the Detroit Lions.
Heath Cummings of CBS Sports is one of the many fantasy pundits banging the drum for the second-year pro.
"In 2018, Johnson averaged three catches and 85 total yards per game. And that was sharing touches with both (Theo) Riddick and LeGarrette Blount. So 60 catches doesn't seem that far of a reach, and neither does 1,500 total yards. If you take a step back, it's almost jarring how good this situation looks in Detroit."
Johnson flashed considerable talent as a rookie, averaging a robust 5.4 yards per carry. He gashed the New England Patriots for 101 yards on 16 carries in Week 3, and he tore up the Miami Dolphins for 158 yards on 19 totes a month later.
Johnson's new offensive coordinator, Darrell Bevell, has long been a proponent of riding the run game. Back in May, Bevell made it clear that wasn't going to change in the Motor City.
"We'll always be about running the football," Bevell said, via Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. "We want to be a tough, hard-nosed, physical football team. We want to be able to exert our will on our opponents."
The Lions have a decent offensive line and the receivers to keep opposing defenses from regularly stacking the box. Johnson is Detroit's unquestioned No. 1 back, and Theo Riddick's departure opens up passing-game targets for him, too.
If he can stay healthy, the stars are aligned for Johnson to explode this season.
Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings
Back in 2017, Minnesota Vikings tailback Dalvin Cook appeared primed to cement himself as a fantasy football standout.
In his first NFL game, Cook lit up the New Orleans Saints for 127 yards on 22 carries. Through four games that season, he ranked ninth in PPR fantasy points among running backs.
However, Cook tore his ACL against the Detroit Lions in Week 4, prematurely ending his promising rookie season.
The 2018 season played out similarly—only in reverse.
After Cook tallied 95 scrimmage yards in the season opener, he injured his hamstring in Week 2 and missed five of Minnesota's next six games. But from Week 11 onward, he was once again a top-10 fantasy option in PPR leagues.
In other words: We already know Cook has elite upside if he can stay on the field.
While speaking with Chris Tomasson of the Twin Cities Pioneer-Press, Cook said he's ready to carry a heavy load for the Vikings.
"I was brought here to do a job, and my job is to carry the football as many times as they want to hand it to me. I was just unfortunate enough (to have) some injuries and some bumps in the road. But now that I'm having fun, back to being me, however many times (quarterback) Kirk (Cousins) drops back and hands me that football, I'm going to show enough, run it as hard as I can."
Given his per-touch productivity, Cook is a lock to finish as an RB1 if he stays healthy and gets anything resembling a full-time workload.
Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers
After Green Bay Packers tailback Aaron Jones averaged 5.5 yards per carry as a rookie, many fantasy football pundits predicted he'd have a breakout season in 2018.
Instead, he finished the year 24th in PPR points among running backs. Between four missed games and sporadic usage by Packers head coach Mike McCarthy, he rushed for only 728 yards.
However, for the second year in a row, Jones' limited usage masked his fantasy upside. He averaged 5.5 yards per carry and scored eight touchdowns on only 133 carries, making him the RB17 in points per game.
The 24-year-old told Jason Wilde of the Milwaukee State Journal that new Green Bay head coach Matt LaFleur is committed to getting the run game going.
"You've got to get the run going to be balanced. If you don't get the run going, then they're just going to throw an extra defensive back in there and drop everybody. The run game has to be going in order for the play action to work. If not, they're not going to bite on it. They're just going to drop. We love to see when a linebacker runs up, turns around and is hauling (expletive) out of there."
If Jones can produce at a comparable per-touch level as he did during his first two seasons, that increased workload will lead to a monster fantasy campaign.
Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans
To some extent, Tennessee Titans tailback Derrick Henry already broke out.
Over the last five games of the 2018 season, Henry led the NFL with 625 rushing yards, including a 238-yard, four-touchdown explosion against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 14. No running back in the league had more fantasy points over that span.
However, Henry was 42nd among running backs over the first 12 weeks of the season. To join the elite options at his position, he needs to become more consistent.
It's mainly a matter of usage. Over the first 12 games of last season, Henry didn't have a 20-carry game and topped 15 carries only twice.
During his first press conference, new Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith told reporters that Henry will be a focal point of the Titans offense in 2019.
"Derrick is going to be a big part of our offense," Smith said. "Derrick has a rare skill set. He's one of the few guys that—he's a home run hitter. We're taking another step hopefully with him. What he did the last five weeks will open up a lot of things.
In 2018, Henry carried the ball 215 times and finished 22nd among running backs in PPR points per game. If he tops 250 carries and can get past the calf strain he suffered in July, a top-12 season isn't out of the question.
Tevin Coleman, San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers have a muddied backfield with Tevin Coleman, Jerick McKinnon and Matt Breida all competing for snaps.
However, the waters have cleared a bit as of late, clearing the way for a breakout season from Coleman.
McKinnon, who tore his ACL during the preseason last year, suffered a setback in his rehab and may begin the season on injured reserve. Breida, who had trouble staying healthy last season, is battling a chest injury.
Coleman could wind up a featured back by default.
When Atlanta Falcons tailback Devonta Freeman went down last year, Coleman seemed to be ready for a breakout. But while the fifth-year veteran set career highs in total touches (199) and yards per carry (4.8), he barely cracked the top 20 in fantasy points.
So, why will this year be different? Two words: Kyle Shanahan.
Coleman's skill set is an excellent fit for Shanahan's offense, as we saw during their together in Atlanta. His ability to get to the edge and catch the ball out of the backfield convinced the 49ers to give him a two-year, $8.5 million deal.
If Coleman sets another career high in touches—which is looking more and more likely—he's going to push his way into the top 15.
Given his current average draft position (RB29), he'd be one of the biggest steals in the backfield.
Damien Williams, Kansas City Chiefs
Much like Derrick Henry, Damien Williams of the Kansas City Chiefs had his own mini-breakout last year.
Over the final five weeks of the 2018 season, Williams averaged almost 80 total yards and a touchdown per game. He was the seventh-ranked PPR running back over that span.
Yet as Chris Vaccaro of The Athletic noted, Williams' ADP has plummeted over the past few weeks.
"Williams has seen his ADP drop all the way to 29th overall, and I watched him fall in a draft I was in this past week to 46th overall, thanks to Andy Reid saying the Chiefs will use a running back by committee, coupled with a really strong performance by rookie Darwin Thompson. Williams has been a really big topic of debate in the fantasy industry this offseason, with one side arguing the system will make Williams a worthy high draft selection and the other arguing against him not being that talented. Williams was a popular choice at the turn in early drafts, but those days look to be long gone."
Williams isn't an elite talent. His 50 carries with the Chiefs last year was a career high over five NFL seasons. And Thompson has looked good in limited duty against backups.
But there's been nothing to indicate that Williams isn't still the No. 1 running back for a high-octane Chiefs offense he thrived in a year ago.
This feels like an instance where fantasy drafters are overthinking things.
Williams might not be a sure thing, but he still has a significant chance of being one. And getting a potential top-10 back late in Round 3 or early in Round 4 is how leagues are won.
Mark Ingram II, Baltimore Ravens
It might seem odd to call Mark Ingram II a potential breakout running back. After all, he finished sixth in PPR points while with the New Orleans Saints two seasons ago.
However, Ingram's production went off a cliff last season.
The 29-year-old averaged a solid 4.7 yards per carry, but his 645 rushing yards were his fewest since 2013. As a result, he fell outside of the top 30 PPR options at the position.
That backslide didn't stop the Baltimore Ravens from giving Ingram a three-year, $15 million contract in free agency. Des Bieler of the Washington Post believes that change of scenery could vault him right back into fantasy prominence.
"If Lamar Jackson can keep the chains moving, Baltimore might be able to run the ball so ridiculously often that it might not matter much that Ingram is in a committee. That's assuming he actually is, with the likes of Gus Edwards and rookie Justice Hill. If Ingram is the clear lead back on a competent offense, he could be a major steal at his draft position."
With all due respect to Edwards and Hill, Ingram is by far the best back on Baltimore's roster. He's a punishing runner, capable blocker and better-than-advertised receiver out of the backfield, as evidenced by his 175 receptions over the past four seasons.
Ingram is an excellent bet to lead one of the NFL's most run-heavy teams in backfield touches by a significant margin. If he maintains his per-touch production, he could run right into a career season.
Rashaad Penny, Seattle Seahawks
Joe Fann of NBC Sports Northwest recently wrote that he expects Chris Carson to get about two-thirds of the carries for the Seattle Seahawks in 2019.
If that's the case, the Rashaad Penny train won't get out of the station.
But as Dalton Del Don of Yahoo Sports wrote, there's still reason to buy a ticket for the Penny Express.
"Chris Carson is a good running back who can break tackles, but he lacks pedigree, invites contact and has a history of health issues. Penny, meanwhile, recorded the fifth-best Breakaway% last season despite playing way overweight as a rookie (he's now in shape). Penny is an explosive back who should be plenty busy as a receiver, and all the Carson positivity during August just makes the draft price more reasonable for the back in Seattle with far more upside.
"Seattle projects to have a favorable run schedule, and even if Carson somehow stays healthy, Mike Davis' departure frees up 146 touches on a team that led the NFL in rushing last season. Penny was drafted in the first round, finished in the 98th percentile in College Dominator and is primed for a breakout as a sophomore."
Penny showed flashes of that first-round talent as a rookie, including a 108-yard effort on only 12 carries against the Los Angeles Rams. He averaged a robust 4.9 yards per carry as a rookie, too.
Even if Penny remains Carson's understudy, he has a decent chance of living up to his ADP of RB34.
If Penny winds up as Seattle's lead back, he could define the 2019 season.
Unless otherwise noted, all ADPs via FantasyPros.