Running Back Exit Interview: Position skews young, but 2019 wasn't fun for rookies

We know the NFL is a young man’s game in so many ways, and that’s especially true in the backfield. Fresh legs, low mileage. 

Consider the Top 20 PPR backs from the recent season, grading through Week 16. Only Mark Ingram (age-29 season) was close to the age-30 cutoff we used to swear by. James White snuck onto the list, RB20, in his age-27 season. Le’Veon Bell was somewhat useful (RB15) in his age-27 season, survivor bias. Derrick Henry, Todd Gurley, and Phillip Lindsay are the only other 25-and-ups above the fold. 

The Top 6 backs were age-24 or younger. The average age from the Top 20 is a tender 24.2. These guys probably don’t realize Dave Grohl was in a band before the Foo Fighters.

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(Maybe they don’t even know Dave Grohl, period.)

There are multiple things at play here, of course. Talented college players are less likely to matriculate for four seasons; talent comes into the game quicker. Teams are also probably getting smarter about building backfields. 

But even with youth owning the running back position, it was oddly a mediocre year for rookie running backs — at least from a fantasy standpoint. Josh Jacobs was good most of the season. Miles Sanders and Devin Singletary eventually came around, shaking off injuries and the veteran-favoring issues on their own teams. Tony Pollard and Alexander Mattison probably could have popped if needed, but for the most part, they weren’t given heavy work. David Montgomery looked better in the year-end totals than he did week-to-week. 

The rookie wideouts didn’t just beat the rookie running backs in 2019, they crushed them. This was stunning to me. We think of running backs as being plug-and-play, the easy onboard for first-year players. Maybe 2019 was an outlier, but this is one year the backfield liftoffs were commonly delayed — and some never arrived. 

We’re also starting to see more usage striation with NFL offenses, and that made 2019 a very bad year for waiver-wire backs and a Zero RB strategy. If you didn’t put resources into getting a draft-day foundation back, you might have been sunk all year. Where was the free loot here? The Cardinals had a few boom games with their understudy backs (Chase Edmonds, Kenyan Drake), but they were hard to project ahead of time.

In-season, I made a handful of speculation picks in Kansas City, in Miami, in Detroit — none of them turned into anything; lottery tickets that were quickly thrown away. The Patriots backfield, often fruitful, was largely a dead end. 

One thing I like about backfield striation — it forces us to be more realistic with fliers at the RB2 and flex positions. I’m happier with a lot less than I used to be. And with that lower bar to clear, I’m less discouraged or stressed by the alternatives. We’re all trying to ham-and-egg it. 

Make of that what you will. I’m not going to force early running-back picks in 2020, but when I like a back in an early pocket, I’ll be proactive. I still think fantasy is an easier solve if you have some sort of plausible foundation at this position.

Let’s finish with exit looks at the Top 20 PPR backs from last year (and a few outside that cutoff), along with a very preliminary Top 12 for 2020.

The 2019 Running Backs - Exit Interviews

• Christian McCaffrey: The monumental win in the first round, and a good example of why I still want a running back in that first pass, so long as it’s not a reach pick. If you click on that first selection, you’ve solved so many problems. Carolina had putrid quarterback play and it didn’t hurt McCaffrey at all.

• Aaron Jones: Starred in partial work last year, but it was hard to know what Matt LaFleur wanted to do in 2019. Somehow the Packers rang up a 13-3 record and only had one fantasy player, Jones, pulling a profit. 

• Dalvin Cook: Buying the second year removed from a major injury is often a place for profit. Minnesota’s preferred game script was also decipherable before the year. Cook’s explosion made him a rare spot for a justified handcuff, but Alexander Mattison wasn’t hale in Week 16, and Mike Boone let us down. 

• Austin Ekeler: The genie is out of the bottle now, though the Chargers took too much off Ekeler’s plate when Melvin Gordon came back. 

• Ezekiel Elliott: He’s been ordinary as a receiver and the new regime needs to think about this. But projectable volume in one of the best offenses in the league is always catnip for us. 

• Leonard Fournette: The Jags promised catches and they kept their word. Fournette turned into a high-floor play, but the upside rarely showed because the team couldn’t run in touchdowns. 

• Derrick Henry: Not used much in the passing game, though 18-206-2 isn’t nothing. A steamroller on the first two downs, though he’s also headed into his fifth pro season. The decline phase for a power back is almost always closer than we think it is. 

• Nick Chubb: Sony Michel was the better back at Georgia, but Michel also came into the league with major injury concerns. The only thing that stopped Chubb in 2019: Freddie Kitchens, and Cleveland’s inability to find successful plays around the goal line. I can’t wait to see who inherits this potential monster in 2020.

A new coaching staff could do wonders for Nick Chubb. (Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images)
A new coaching staff could do wonders for Nick Chubb. (Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images)

• Mark Ingram: Being dropped into a perfect spot sure helped — loaded offensive line, dynamic running quarterback. Ingram was stunningly effective as a receiver, catching 26-of-29 targets and scoring five times through the air. Take a bow, Greg Roman. But how much of this production can Ingram take with him into an age-30 campaign? 

• Chris Carson: Runs hard, perhaps too hard — fumbling problems threaten his future viability. He’ll never be dynamic in the passing game, but he’s not a throwaway there. 

• Alvin Kamara: Battled a handful of injuries and never looked like the Slinky Kamara of 2018. A difficult call for 2020. 

• Saquon Barkley: Only injury pushed him down, though it did take a while for Daniel Jones and Barkley to connect in the passing game. Barkley will be an easy lottery-ticket punch next year. 

• Miles Sanders: The waiting is the hardest part, though to be fair, Jordan Howard wasn’t bad before he got hurt. But Sanders could be looking at an exciting Year 2 spike. 

• Todd Gurley: Touchdown deodorant saved his season, 14 spikes in all. YPC fell to 3.9. I’m still scared of taking him. 

• Le’Veon Bell: He had 311 touches in all and I don’t remember any of them. I’d rather jump a year early than a year late. 

• Kenyan Drake: Arizona found something that Miami never really looked for, but will Drake ever get a full-gig commitment? 

• Joe Mixon: A bad supporting cast drowned him for a couple of months, but was quietly productive when Andy Dalton returned. A boring but solid target. 

• Phillip Lindsay: Last year’s efficiency was a bad bet to repeat, especially off a significant injury, but Lindsay stayed in a good pocket and probably returned value in most instances. 

• Josh Jacobs: Looks a lot better if we go points per game. Jon Gruden has missed on plenty of things, but he hit here. 

• James White: With the Patriots offense, it’s always a matter of trust. But White doesn’t have the touch upside to make him a proactive pick. 

Some of the interesting guys outside the Top 20 

• Devonta Freeman: He’s 27 going on 35. I can’t imagine drafting him next year. No explosion left. 

• Ronald Jones: Bruce Arians was not consistent week-to-week, which made this backfield another dead-end most of the time. 

• James Conner: Is he injury prone or accident prone? It doesn’t matter, I bet on him and I lost. Losing Ben Roethlisberger immediately didn’t help, and the plus line didn’t elevate him. 

• Raheem Mostert: I’ve always been a big fan, and he’s an efficiency darling. But will Kyle Shanahan’s offense ever embrace a true bell-cow? 

• David Johnson: Sadly, I don’t think there’s anything substantial left. But if he has 2020 usefulness, it needs to come as a satellite player, not as a traditional running back.

• Devin Singletary: Will be on everyone’s breakthrough list next year, though we have to accept that Josh Allen is still that team’s goal-line back. Singletary also needs to improve in blitz pickup, to mark his territory on all downs. Don’t misunderstand, I like him. But I expect the world to like him in 2020.

Pianow’s Way Too Early 2020 Running Back Board 

(I will not consider rookies until they land somewhere) 

1. Christian McCaffrey

2. Saquon Barkley 

3. Dalvin Cook

4. Ezekiel Elliott

5. Derrick Henry 

6. Aaron Jones

7. Nick Chubb

8. Austin Ekeler 

9. Joe Mixon

10. Josh Jacobs

11. Alvin Kamara

12. Leonard Fournette

Consider that list in pencil. I won’t even think about it when my real rankings come out in the spring and summer; I always start from scratch. This is just something to keep us warm on a cold January night. 

Next up: The Tight Ends.

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