2018 Fantasy Football: Finding the Next Breakout Running Back
It wasn't just rookie running backs that impressed last year. As with any season, there are several surprising breakout running backs, which always leads to Fantasy Football owners wondering, "Who's next?"
With our eyes looking to the 2018 Fantasy Football season, it's time to answer who the next breakout running back will be.
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The Not-Quite Candidates
The Obvious: Derrick Henry – With DeMarco Murray quite possibly looking for a new team in 2018 (Titans can release with no dead money, and he's owed 6.5 million), Henry gets command over the Titans backfield. Assuming the Murray release, I believe Henry will gain the most Fantasy momentum and become overdrafted. Yes, it's obvious that Henry sees a significant boost with Murray out of the picture, and that's why he's the "obvious" pick. However, there is no guarantee that Henry becomes an elite producer as the workhorse.
We saw glimpses of Henry's ceiling with 191 yards and a touchdown (23 carries, 156 rushing) against the Chiefs in the Wild Card round and a similar game against the Colts in Week 6. However, we also saw a low floor with the game against the Patriots and even the 1.8 YPC against the Jaguars in Week 17. I'll go back to something I said in his draft write-up. Henry is a physical freak, but he can get tripped up at or behind the line of scrimmage if he isn't up to speed.
Think of Brandon Jacobs back in the day. Yes, Henry is a better talent than Jacobs, but because of his size and style, that similar concern is still there, as is the worry that the Titans add a pass-catching complement similar to Tarik Cohen in Chicago. But this isn't supposed to be a "cool your jets on Henry piece." We'll save that for another day and move along.
Kenyan Drake – Drake needed the Jay Ajayi trade and an injury to Damien Williams to get his true shot, but once he did, it was clear that the Dolphins had been keeping Drake under wraps too long. Drake rushed for 444 yards at 4.9 YPC over the final five games, chipping in another 177 yards on 17 receptions. The concerns with Drake are if the Dolphins trust him to be a workhorse and/or do they force Drake into a timeshare with Williams again or another offseason addition. For Fantasy purposes, we hope not.
Jamaal Williams – If you've been following me since the 2017 draft, you know that I would love to say Williams. However, I'm also not hardheaded or blind to reality. The truth is while Williams has Madden-button moves and the ability to succeed in the running and passing game, he still struggles with his vision and finding holes at times. Additionally, the Packers seem to prefer Aaron Jones when Aaron Rodgers is at quarterback, despite Williams being better in pass protection. Maybe the Packers have a thing for Aarons? I don’t know.
Others – Christian McCaffrey already had an impressive year for a rookie, and he could easily take another step forward and be Danny Woodhead-like (in his prime) for Fantasy teams next year. Alex Collins was a great find, but we already know about him too, and it seems the Ravens running back we want is always the one no one is talking about each year. Kenneth Dixon anyone? Don't forget about Dalvin Cook, who could have been a RB1 as a rookie. Samaje Perine could be the Redskins lead next year, but he's a between-the-tackles pounder similar to Alfred Morris, so he'll always have a limited ceiling.
The Answer: Joe Mixon
While it wasn't on display often, Mixon is a highly-talented running back. He has an enviable build for the position with good power and great acceleration. Mixon is also terrific at moving laterally and has good vision to find those new creases or lanes. Mixon also shows patience to allow holes to develop and has a good mix of stop-and-go ability and solid power to slip tackles or break them when needed. He's also adept in the passing game, and in limited action, Mixon showed his pass pro chops, grading second best for running backs if qualified. Mixon doesn't have true breakaway speed, but he was one of the most complete running backs in last year's draft.
Some of Mixon's metrics point to his struggles as a rookie and add a bit of concern for his future outlook. I'm not going to ignore those numbers. Mixon rated poorly in PFF's Elusive Rating and Breakaway% and had a middling 2.3 yards after contact. Nevertheless, the argument remains that when defenders are squaring you up more and getting earlier contact, it's tougher to break tackles. The good news is that Mixon saw a slight bump in production and YAC in the few games where he had 15-plus carries.
You can place part of the blame for Mixon's production with the Bengals team. While Giovani Bernard's numbers were better than Mixon's were, it was only a slight improvement. Additionally, Bernard faced eight-plus defenders in the box at a lower percentage than anyone (12.4 – next closest was Alvin Kamara at 16.7). The Bengals offensive line was the main factor in Mixon and Bernard's struggles. That unit ranked as one of the worst in the league, doing little to help either back. Specifically, Mixon only averaged 1.2 yards before contact. Only nine running backs with at least 100 carries had a lower mark. Yea, letting Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler walk in free agency was genius, wasn't it?
Interesting note while researching this: Jay Ajayi and Kenyan Drake had the two worst marks at 0.6 and 0.5, but Ajayi jumped to 2.2 after his trade to the Eagles. Hmm, seems like an offensive line can have quite the impact, huh?
The offense came out of the gate looking terrible as well, and the Bengals quickly course-corrected and fired Ken Zampese, replacing him with Bill Lazor. Now, some might not be fond of Lazor, and people point to his "misuse" of Lamar Miller with the Dolphins. However, as we're seeing with Miller on the Texans, maybe, just maybe, Lazor knew better and not to give Miller a workhorse role.
Miller actually had his two best seasons under Lazor, despite getting only 216 and 194 carries. Miller averaged 5.1 and 4.5 yards per carry those two seasons with 1,374 and 1,269 yards total (5.4 and 5.3 yards per touch). He also scored nine and 10 touchdowns those seasons, putting up 185.4 (RB9) and 184.9 points (RB6) in Fantasy (229.4 and 233.9 in PPR). Miller hasn't topped 160 points (193 in PPR) or 4.4 yards per touch outside of those two seasons (excluding his limited rookie work).
More isn't always better. Mixon has some similarities to Miller, and it's quite possible in his second season under Lazor and with similar strategic use, that Mixon could be as efficient as Miller was. The 2018 season will be telling when it comes to Mixon's talent. Is it possible that he was overrated coming out of college? Did Mixon only struggle because of inconsistent use and a terrible offensive line? Can Lazor maximize his potential? I obvious lean toward yes on Lazor and Mixon being the partnership needed to have Mixon be the breakout running back of the 2018 season.
Main Image Credit: AP Photo/Frank Victores
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