Get ready for your season with theScore’s 2019 Fantasy Football Draft Kit and subscribe to push notifications in the NFL Fantasy News section.
Running back is the most volatile fantasy position from year to year, as injuries and ineffectiveness can turn early-round picks into instant regrets, while stars emerge from the deepest spots on your roster.
Let’s take a look at the ball carriers who are currently undervalued, and will continue to be until public perception catches up to the reality of their situations.
Who will exceed expectations?
Sometimes we can be too quick to anoint a rookie as their new team’s starter. That may have been the case with Miles Sanders, who was forced to sit out OTAs due to a hamstring injury. Zack Rosenblatt of NJ.com suggests Sanders is “behind the eight ball” and believes it’s “premature” to pencil him in as the Eagles’ lead back.
Head coach Doug Pederson also tempered early expectations for Sanders, saying the Eagles will “slowly work him into the mix and see just how he can help us on game day.” It’s still possible Sanders shows up healthy to training camp and rises to the top of the depth, but we’ve also seen rookies stumble out of the gate after missing much-needed offseason practice reps due to injuries.
Corey Clement, Wendell Smallwood, and Josh Adams couldn’t provide consistent production when the starting job was available after Jay Ajayi went down last season. Now, with Sanders delayed, Howard is in position to seize control of Philly’s backfield.
Will the Eagles ultimately stick with a backfield committee? Probably, with Howard and Sanders the best pairing. But the second-round rookie still faces a battle to earn his portion of a time-share.
Howard was a top-20 fantasy back across all formats in each of his three seasons with the Bears, scoring 25 touchdowns during that stretch. The Eagles also boast one of the league’s best offensive lines, which helps his cause and is an upgrade over the blocking Howard ran behind in Chicago.
Much like Ajayi, who arrived in Philly after his previous team underrated him, Howard possesses RB2 upside in a loaded Eagles offense.
Before being placed on injured reserve in early October, Ajayi was among the top 15 backs in fantasy points per game through four weeks of the 2018 season, despite only playing 43 percent of the team’s snaps and being given a limited receiving role. That makes Philadelphia an ideal fit for Howard, who’s going off the board in the eighth round of fantasy drafts.
Remember, Howard was able to produce for the Bears even with Tarik Cohen getting significant touches last season. A similar situation could arise in Philadelphia in 2019 if Sanders doesn’t assert himself as a feature back.
Alvin Kamara is the unquestioned star of the Saints’ backfield, and an injury to him would be the only path for Murray to take on a starter’s workload. Fortunately for Murray, he doesn’t need a full-time role to produce in New Orleans.
Mark Ingram managed to finish as the RB6 in 2017 and the RB20 during the 12 games he played in 2018, even while Kamara was posting top-five fantasy numbers.
Murray may not share Ingram’s pass-catching chops, but he can replace the Pro Bowler as a power back, handling a portion of the goal-line work while receiving more carries during blowouts.
Vegas has the Saints tied for the second-highest win-total projection in 2019 at 10.5, so we can anticipate them leading often, giving Murray favorable game scripts. He can then add to his impressive touchdown total over the last four seasons.
Since 2015, Murray has accumulated the second-most rushing touchdowns in the NFL (32), trailing only Todd Gurley.
Running behind a quality Saints offensive line, Murray will be a top-30 fantasy option, with his best performances likely coming in games when New Orleans is heavily favored.
When Freeman became a third-round pick last year, it appeared the Broncos’ backfield was his to lead. However, a feisty 5-foot-8, 190-pound undrafted free agent came along and stole Freeman’s spot atop the depth chart.
Phillip Lindsay posted 1,037 rushing yards, 241 receiving yards, and 10 total touchdowns despite missing Week 17 with a wrist injury that required surgery. Lindsay remained limited to individual drills during OTAs, though head coach Vic Fangio said that was precautionary and the running back will be ready for training camp.
Meanwhile, Freeman capitalized on Lindsay being sidelined throughout the offseason, soaking up first-team reps while trying to prove himself to a new coaching staff.
Denver has undergone several changes this offseason, including the arrival of new offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello, and Mike Munchak, one of the best O-line coaches in the league, taking over that role. Scangarello’s zone-running scheme is similar to Kyle Shanahan’s system and is more suited to Freeman’s one-cut style.
The Broncos also invested in their offensive line by signing right tackle Ja’Wuan James and drafting Dalton Risner, who will battle for the starting left guard spot. Then there’s Joe Flacco, who should be a calming presence under center despite his flaws, something that’s been lacking in Denver since Peyton Manning retired. Flacco isn’t going to win games with his arm, so Fangio will want to rely on his rushing attack to power the offense.
Freeman’s presence on this list doesn’t mean he’s certain to usurp Lindsay as the Broncos’ starting running back, but that’s a possibility. At worst, Freeman will receive a chance to bounce back in a larger role after a disappointing and injury-plagued rookie season. And at his current eighth-round ADP, you’ll get all of Freeman’s upside with very little risk attached.
Justice Hill – The Ravens finished with the league’s most run-heavy offense in 2018 after Lamar Jackson was named the starting quarterback, so there will be plenty of opportunities for Hill in a complementary role alongside Ingram. Hill is an outstanding athlete who earned the second-best SPARQ score among running backs at the 2019 combine. His smooth pass-catching skill and dangerous open-field shiftiness give him a shot at early flex value.
Ryquell Armstead – Many fantasy owners still believe Leonard Fournette can overcome the lower-body injuries that have troubled him throughout his collegiate career and in the NFL. But when Fournette is inevitably sidelined at some point in 2019, Armstead will go from being a fifth-round pick to the Jags’ starting running back. He’s a creative runner with a physical and aggressive style, and he’ll excel in the run-first Jacksonville offense.
Tony Pollard – Though you don’t need to be overly concerned about Ezekiel Elliott coming off a 381-touch campaign, injuries are a reality for any starting running back. Zeke’s off-field behavior has also cost him playing time in the past. If he sits out for any reason, Pollard is the next best weapon in the Cowboys’ backfield, with the size (6-feet, 210 lbs), speed (4.42-second 40-yard dash time), and receiving skill to start in real life and fantasy.
Who will exceed expectations?