Fantasy Football 2020: Predicting This Year's Biggest Breakout Running Backs
Fantasy football managers who don't have a top-five pick want to find the next Austin Ekeler—a running back who exceeded expectations and ranked fourth among players at the position in points for the 2019 season.
In point-per-reception leagues, running backs generally take precedence over all the other positions because dual-threat assets can contribute as ball-carriers and pass-catchers. Last season, Ekeler didn't reach 600 rushing yards, but he caught 92 passes for 993 yards and eight touchdowns.
Ball-carriers with a defined role in the featured position have a high floor, but you can knock a pick out of the park with a player who's heavily involved in the passing game.
We're going to project seven breakout running backs who ranked outside the top 15 in scoring for PPR leagues last year. This list doesn't include rookies or veterans with previous standout campaigns. The latter would better fit in the bounce-back category.
These players have the potential to post their best numbers as top-10 fantasy running backs in 2020.
Kenyan Drake, Arizona Cardinals
After Kenyan Drake took a backseat to Jay Ajayi and Frank Gore with the Miami Dolphins, he had a mini breakout following a move via trade to the Arizona Cardinals.
In head coach Kliff Kingsbury's offense, Drake recorded 814 yards from scrimmage. This season, he won't have to share touches with David Johnson, who Arizona traded to the Houston Texans.
Drake talked about his potential and preparation for a large workload with the Cardinals, per Darren Urban of the team's official website.
"I feel like my ceiling is as high as I'll take it," the running back said. "… I'm trying to put my body in a situation where I can take a load or get 'x' amount of carries or touches in general and help this team win as many games as possible, touch the ball as much as possible."
In a full campaign with the Cardinals, Drake should pick up where he left off last year. Managers in PPR leagues should take him in the first round. The dual-threat playmaker has registered 50-plus receptions in back-to-back terms.
Stat Prediction: 1,183 rushing yards, 11 touchdowns, 51 receptions, 466 yards, 3 touchdowns
Devin Singletary, Buffalo Bills
The Buffalo Bills selected running back Zack Moss in the third round of April's draft, which casts some doubt about a strong second-year leap for Devin Singletary. However, his experience during a condensed offseason should put him in the driver's seat for a majority of touches out of the backfield in 2020.
Down the stretch of 2019, Singletary started most of the games over Frank Gore, logging 15 carries in five out of six contests between Weeks 11 and 16. He proved capable of carrying the load. Hall of Fame wide receiver and CBS analyst James Lofton saw a complete running back, per Jason Wolf of the Buffalo News.
"I think he certainly looked like it last year," Lofton said. "Because if you remember when he started playing [with five catches in the season opener], you thought, 'Well, maybe he's just a good receiver.' Then you noticed he was a good runner. Then you noticed he was a good blocker. I think he has a well-rounded game."
Even more encouraging, the Bills offensive line opened lanes for Singletary. He recorded the second-most 10-plus-yard runs before initial contact, per Pro Football Focus.
So despite Moss' presence, Singletary has the upper hand for the lead role, and he's behind a five-man group that provides a good push at the line of scrimmage. The Florida Atlantic product should come close to 1,600 yards between his rushing and receiving roles.
Stat Prediction: 1,101 rushing yards, 8 touchdowns, 48 receptions, 494 yards, 4 touchdowns
David Montgomery, Chicago Bears
David Montgomery's rookie term looked average on paper. He recorded 242 carries for 889 yards and six touchdowns.
However, the bruising ball-carrier should see better results as the Chicago Bears make a stronger commitment to a balanced offensive attack.
According to Kevin Fishbain of The Athletic, head coach Matt Nagy thought he shorted Montgomery on touches last year.
"He can do a lot of different things," Nagy said. "We know what his strengths are and what his weaknesses are. Could we have helped him last year by getting him the ball more? Yes, absolutely."
Running back Tarik Cohen has been used more so as a pass-catcher than a ball-carrier. Montgomery can easily eclipse 260 carries this season if he stays healthy.
Furthermore, the Bears hired offensive line coach Juan Castillo, who will also serve as the run game coordinator. He held the same position and role with the Buffalo Bills in 2017 and 2018. Both of those teams ranked top-10 in rushing.
Castillo sees Montgomery as a sturdier version of former Philadelphia Eagles running back Brian Westbrook, who recorded a league-leading 2,104 yards from scrimmage in 2007, per Fishbain.
"He reminds me a little of Westbrook, maybe he is a little stronger than Brian was," Castillo said.
If Castillo uses Montgomery similar to Westbrook, expect the second-year pro to see more looks in the passing game. Last season, he only had 35 targets, which limited his fantasy upside. That shouldn't hold him back in 2020.
Stat Prediction: 1,146 rushing yards, 9 touchdowns, 40 receptions, 349 yards, 3 touchdowns
Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders
Head coach Jon Gruden will try to prove a point: that Josh Jacobs should've won the 2019 Offensive Rookie of the Year award.
According to The Athletic's Vic Tafur, who expects Jacobs to eclipse 1,200 rushing yards this season, Gruden will feed the running back on the ground and design plays for him in the passing game.
"I heard that Gruden was so mad last year that Jacobs didn't win offensive rookie of the year (the third-best rookie, Kyler Murray, did because he is a quarterback) that he vowed that Jacobs would get more carries and more receptions to prove what a crime the voters had committed," Tafur wrote.
In 2019, Jacobs led all rookie running backs in rushing yards (1,150). According to Pro Football Focus, he forced the most missed tackles (69) and ranked seventh in yards after contact (842) among all players.
If Gruden has his way, Jacobs will touch the ball more than 262 times and top his rookie numbers. The second-year running back told reporters he set a goal to catch at least 60 passes this season, though that's a high bar with Jalen Richard entrenched in the primary pass-catching role out of the backfield.
Nevertheless, Jacobs missed three games with a fractured shoulder during the previous term and still accumulated 1,316 yards from scrimmage. In a full 16-game slate, he can eclipse 1,700 yards with Gruden's motivation to showcase him.
Behind the top projected running backs such as Christian McCaffrey, Ezekiel Elliott, Saquon Barkley, Alvin Kamara and Dalvin Cook, take a long look at Jacobs. He's primed for a big breakout campaign with rookie third-rounder Lynn Bowden Jr., who only served one term as a primary running back at Kentucky, and newcomer Devontae Booker as his top competition for touches.
Stat Prediction: 1,315 rushing yards, 11 touchdowns, 48 receptions, 459 yards, 2 touchdowns
RB James White, New England Patriots
Yet New England has a lot of uncertainty at the position. The club placed Michel on the physically unable to perform list as he recovers from foot surgery. In a tweet, Jeff Howe of The Athletic acknowledged the third-year running back's status for Week 1 remains unclear.
In his rookie term, Harris only played five offensive snaps, which doesn't suggest much about his outlook for 2020. Burkhead has served as a backup with fewer than 70 carries and 40 targets for each of the last three campaigns with the Patriots.
White has a clearly defined role as the lead pass-catcher out of the backfield. Since 2015, he ranks top-three for the Patriots in receptions (315), receiving yards (2,786) and touchdowns (24). Howe thinks the seventh-year veteran will have a big workload, especially if Cam Newton wins the quarterback battle with Jarrett Stidham.
"Pass-catching back James White will also have a heavy role and could be in for a monster year if quarterback Cam Newton wins the starting job, considering the way Newton wore out Christian McCaffrey during their time together with the Panthers," Howe wrote.
That's a possibility even though White hasn't reached 500 rushing yards in a single season. Ekeler ran for 557 yards and still ranked fourth in fantasy points because of his prominent role in the Los Angeles Chargers' passing game last year.
If Newton leans on White as he did McCaffrey in Carolina, the Patriots' best receiver out of the backfield would have RB1 value.
Stat Prediction: 418 rushing yards, 3 touchdowns, 98 receptions, 943 yards, 8 touchdowns
James Conner, Pittsburgh Steelers
James Conner finished with the sixth-most fantasy points in 2018, per FantasyPros. Yet he has the potential to top his numbers from that year.
You're probably a bit hesitant to select Conner early because the Pittsburgh Steelers have a crowded running back room with Benny Snell Jr., Jaylen Samuels and Anthony McFarland Jr. also in the mix. Nevertheless, head coach Mike Tomlin prefers an offense with a workhorse ball-carrier and expects Conner to handle that role if he can avoid injuries, per Triblive.com's Joe Rutter.
"I'm a featured-runner type guy by mentality. I think that when you have a featured runner, it gives him the opportunity to drop a stake in the ground and allows others to rally around him, and it gives him a set of core base run plays that he specializes in, and you find a rhythm that way. ... James is a featured guy and proven runner when healthy. We're excited about him getting back to health and displaying that in 2020."
Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner praised Conner's well-rounded skill set (h/t Triblive.com's Tim Benz).
"He's a good, positive three-down back," Fichtner said. "He can catch the football, he can protect, he can run. I'm rooting for him, and I'm rooting that his ability will be there."
Conner has already shown he can carry the majority load and hold an RB1 spot on a fantasy roster, though he's missed 11 games in three seasons. Now healthy going into the 2020 campaign, the 25-year-old may put together another gem with career numbers in a crucial contract term.
Stat Prediction: 1,089 rushing yards, 10 touchdowns, 51 receptions, 458 yards, 3 touchdowns
Raheem Mostert, San Francisco 49ers
Raheem Mostert carved out a role through December of the previous campaign, ranking eighth in rushing yards (379) between Weeks 13 and 17. He added 336 yards and five touchdowns during the San Francisco 49ers' playoff run to Super Bowl LIV.
Mostert doesn't have an extensive track record in a lead role, and he's only caught 20 passes for 205 yards and two touchdowns for his career. Tevin Coleman and Jerick McKinnon will likely contribute out of the backfield, as well.
On the flip side, Mostert has intriguing and untapped potential with a bigger workload. During a Zoom conference with reporters (h/t Kyle Madson of Niners Wire), he called himself a starting running back and talked about preparing for more touches even if the game plans don't pan out that way:
"Having more muscle mass, and having more endurance and all those types of things, so that way I'm able to get 20-something carries a game. Which is not to say that's gonna happen, but I gotta prepare myself because I am the starting running back. And my confidence level is just up to the guys that consider themselves to be top backs."
Although the 49ers have options, head coach Kyle Shanahan would likely feed Mostert if he has the hot hand. San Francisco's run-first style could produce two high-end fantasy running backs. The club ranked second in rush attempts last year.
General manager John Lynch acknowledged lead wide receiver Deebo Samuel "might miss some games" early in the season because of a broken foot. In the meantime, Shanahan can lean heavily on the ground attack.
Mostert has an opportunity to establish himself as the focal point of the offense.
Stat Prediction: 1,132 rushing yards, 11 touchdowns, 26 receptions, 223 yards, 2 touchdowns