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In Good Company: When History Meets Hype-Running Backs

Our 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt, once said, “The more you know about the past, the better you are prepared for the future.” While Teddy had no inclination that this may apply to fantasy football, being that professional football wasn’t introduced until a year after his death, his words have merit in the context of the game we love to play each September through February.

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By Jared Clifton

Our 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt, once said, “The more you know about the past, the better you are prepared for the future.” While Teddy had no inclination that this may apply to fantasy football, being that professional football wasn’t introduced until a year after his death, his words have merit in the context of the game we love to play each September through February.

Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

The continuation of this series does just that.  It gives us historical context, in the form of past fantasy greats statistical seasons, by which to give us a potential mirror image of what the top players are projected for this season.

As we get into our next grouping of History Meets Hype players, I want to invite those that haven’t read the opening article of this series, to go back and read it (, to get a sense of what we’re trying to accomplish by providing a tangible comparison season to what is expected from this season.

Who is the next LaDainian Tomlinson or Calvin Johnson or are there hidden gems from names we haven’t thought of since Lamar Jackson and DJ Moore were in short pants?

Now on to our running back comps!

Running Backs 12-7

RB12: Nick Chubb (2019 Rank #8)

David Richard/AP

Player Profiler Comparison: Jonathan Stewart

2020 Consensus Projections:

After a breakout season, wrestling the starting job from Carlos Hyde midway into his rookie campaign in 2018, Chubb continued his ground dominance in 2019, finishing second in rushing yards and averaging an impressive 5 ypc.  

His usage did see a hit when Kareem Hunt returned from his suspension and Hunt figures to have a significant role with the Browns this season.  It’s that lack of receiving work that keeps Chubb at the bottom of the RB1 group, although his rushing prowess is on par with Ezekiel Elliott and Derrick Henry.

The experts numbers certainly bear out that thought process, with a measly 1.5 catch per game projection.  That limits his floor in weeks where game script and/or when the Browns are playing early catch up happen.  New HC Kevin Stefanski should factor into a more run game reliant offense this season, but with the weapons the Browns possess and an overall mediocre Cleveland team, there could be some single digit stinkers on the slate.  We’ve seen this movie before and although the sum of the parts were typically to our liking, it made for some frustrating weeks.

History Meets Hype Comparison: Michael Turner (2011–finished as RB8)

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images America
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images North America

Michael Turner did his best Bullet Bill impersonation for the better part of a decade and was magnificent at finding the end zone.  While he never led the league in rushing yards, he was always near the top as a Falcon and finished a respectable number 3 in 2011.

The only problem with Turner was that he was never very involved in the passing game, with only 17 receptions in his penultimate season in the NFL.  That kept him from being mentioned with his contemporaries such as Ray Rice and Arian Foster, as surefire top fantasy running backs.

Much like Chubb, he was always secure though.  More often than not, he was going to get his 20 plus carries and provide enough TD potential to dampen the lack of receptions.  Granted, PPR hadn’t really fully taken hold at that point, so while Turner’s single source of points was less maddening, it remains something to watch with Nick Chubb in a nearly universal PPR environment.

RB11: Aaron Jones (2019 Rank #2)

Jeff Hanisch/USA Today Sports

Player Profiler Comparison: Christian McCaffrey

2020 Consensus Projections:

I try not to take fantasy football too personally, but I have a personal grudge against Aaron Jones.  As I sat in an OKC sports bar watching MNF with several of my league mates from my home league in week 16, I held a small lead over my opponent, Andrew, with just about four minutes left in the game.  When out of nowhere, Jones breaks a simple stretch play, meant to chew clock, for a 56 yard TD to put my long awaited championship dreams on ice for another year.

But, that’s what he is.  He’s a gamebreaker (and heartbreaker), that can take the ball to the house from 2 yards or 72 yards, whether on a hand off or a simple screen pass.  Everyone understands that regression is likely coming on his ridiculous scoring rate of a TD every 15th touch, but the projections do feel a bit light.

He’s another back who has a legitimate chance to finish as the number one overall back, even with Jamaal Williams and new back AJ Dillon on his heels.  That said, much like his HMH predecessor faced in Atlanta, there are still too many shared carries to make him a homerun pick.

History Meets Hype Comparison: Warrick Dunn (2002–finished as RB20)

Jeff Gross/Getty Images

In Dunn’s first season in Atlanta, after coming over from the Buc’s, he found himself in a 60/40 split with TJ Duckett.  While Dunn was the primary ball carrier and dominant receiving threat out of the backfield, his potential was somewhat capped by the uncharacteristic early 2000’s split.

The 3x Pro Bowler and former ROY, was named to the Falcon’s All Decade team by many publications and his inaugural Atlanta season was just a taste for what was to come, before his departure in 2008. The quick back still holds a number of records for the Falcon’s and would probably hold more, if not for the unfortunate timeshare with Duckett and eventually Jerious Norwood.

It goes to show what opportunity can or cannot provide for our fantasy backs and for now, let’s hope Jones remains on the right side of opportunity, to see what a fuller Dunn season may have looked like.

RB10:  Miles Sanders (2019 Rank #15)

Photo by: Bill Streicher

Player Profiler Comparison: Felix Jones

2020 Consensus Projections:

From week 9 on, Sanders had 10 or more carries, setting up as the definitive lead in the sometimes frustrating Eagles RBBC.  With 280 touches projected, Sanders would be the first Eagle since Lesean McCoy in 2014, with over 250 touches.

That volume would bode well for the uber talented former Penn State back. He’s a breakaway threat at any moment and should have plenty of space available, with the 12 personnel and WR corp that the Eagles will deploy this season.

He compares favorably to the Hall of Famer and also Pittsburgh area native, who was starting his professional career two years before Miles was even born.

History Meets Hype Comparison: Curtis Martin (2002–finished as RB18)

Danny Moioshok/Getty Images

Curtis Martin is rarely mentioned with the all-time greats, such as Emmitt Smith or Barry Sanders, but as the sixth best rushing yards in NFL history and only the second RB to start his career with ten consecutive 1,000 yard seasons, maybe his name should start to normalize in that conversation.

For fantasy purposes, the consistency and production was second to none over his period of playing. That continued in his eighth season and although it was his worst full season rushing total, he still managed nearly 1500 yards from scrimmage.  While that was considered somewhat of a down year in 2002, that is a perfectly acceptable back end RB1 season in 2020.

Do yourself a favor and go back and watch his HOF induction speech.  It’s one of the finest HOF speeches there is and while you’re at it, go back and watch some of his games.  He was world class and hopefully a suitable template for which to compare Miles Sanders.

RB9: Austin Ekeler (2019 Rank #4)

Harry How/Getty Images

Player Profiler Comparison: Danny Woodhead

2020 Consensus Projections:

Without question, the 1B most difficult player to comp to Kamara’s 1A, there just aren’t many backs in the last few decades that match directly to Ekeler. He now has the Chargers backfield to himself and is without Philip Rivers, so the projections are likely the most fluid among all RB’s.

He should be in line for a healthy share of carries and is always going to be involved heavily in the passing game, even with The Checkdown King off to Indianapolis.  The question is will he have enough competition for carries from Jackson and Kelly and a drop in catches, to keep him from the post-Gordon boost that is expected.

He’s far more than a gadget player and is capable of shouldering a heavy load.  Is that how they’ll deploy him or will he end up as a souped up version of a former Charger?

History Meets Hype Comparison: Danny Woodhead (2015–finished as RB3)

Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

Never more than a casual rushing threat, Danny Woodhead was that PPR back that many were afraid to pull the trigger on, but were often happy when they did. He could definitely disappear, but he finished with double digit points in 11 of 16 games, despite only having double digit carries in two.

Always behind Melvin Gordon III or Ryan Mathews for carries, he was still an instrumental piece of the Charger’s offense and somewhat ahead of his time for players like James White and even Ekeler a few years back.

As I said, it’s one of the most imperfect comps, but take Woodhead’s receiving prowess and add 60-70 carries and Ekeler makes a much more palatable player at the right price.

RB8: Kenyan Drake (2019 Rank #17)

Photo by Arizona Cardinals

Player Profiler Comparison: Lamar Miller

2020 Consensus Projections:

Recency bias is a very real thing. It was only three dominant games for Drake, but two of those just happened to come in championship weeks 15-16. He should be a player that makes teams happy this season, but he’s certainly a risky pick at his current ADP.

Projectors have him with a respectable 260 touches, but is Arizona’s line really any better than last season, even with the addition of second round steal, Josh Jones?  

The Cardinal’s backfield and offense in general, have struggled to get things going since David Johnsons’s magical 2016 season.  There has been fantasy relevance for sure, but it has often been frustrating on a game to game basis. That trend could continue this season.  Speaking of frustrating Cardinal’s RB seasons…

History Meets Hype Comparison: David Johnson (2018–finished as RB9)

Jess Root/Cards Wire

Oh what a taste of excellence we received in 2016 from David Johnson.  After waiting out Bruce Arians disdain for rookie RB’s (hint hint Ke’shawn Vaughn truthers) he burst onto the scene as the numero uno back.  Unfortunately, we’re talking about 2018.

Coming off a freak hand injury in 2017, most of us bet big on a glorious DJ return and although he did finish within the top 10 for RB’s, it just didn’t feel like it. With only two games over 20 points, he was just slightly above average and certainly not befitting a top 3 pick.

Some of the pieces are different now and the scheme certainly is, but DJ’s actual stats and Kenyan Drake’s projections are just too close for comfort for me.  I think I’ve learned my lesson on Cardinal running backs and I’ll let someone else ride that hilly ride.

RB7: Joe Mixon (2019 Rank #13)

Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Player Profiler Comparison: Ezekiel Elliott

2020 Consensus Projections:

A bad Bengals offense has kept us from really seeing what this dynamic back is capable of, but it looks like Zac Taylor may have some of the pieces in place to turn this around in 2020, with #1 overall pick Joe Burrow now under center and a healthy A.J. Green back on the outside.

While the projections don’t have a significant uptick in touches, they do show some positive TD regression for the fourth year back. Just 24, he has shown the bright spots fantasy managers drool over, to be a heavy carry back and serious weapon in space.  

If the focus of defense can be shifted away from keying on Mixon, he has the pedigree and opportunity to move up into a category of all-around fantasy stars.  Much like his HMH comp, he has the ball skills and elusiveness to be a name that is oft repeated in the top half of first rounds for several years to come. 

History Meets Hype Comparison: Matt Forte (2012–finished as RB11)

John Starks/Daily Herald

A few years into my fantasy playing days, Matt Forte was generally my favorite target. Always a back that I could sometimes let sneak to me in the early second round, he was a PPR darling and he was a weapon as my RB2.  A lack of elite TD production was all that kept him from being a top 3 guy each year.

Much like Mixon this season, Forte began the 2012 season frustrated with contract talks and opted to hold out, rather than sign his franchise tag.  He finally did get paid after only missing OTA’s.  Luckily Mixon has reported, so that shouldn’t be an issue. 

Forte did have his lowest catch total with the Bears in 2012 and finished outside the top 10 in scrimmage yards, but came back strong the following year as the RB2, so keep those Mixon stocks, because the ceiling is just as enticing as the floor.

Jared Clifton – Dynasty/Editor
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