Fantasy Football: 3 Defenses Running Backs Should Destroy in 2020
Before learning the origin of the term “cakewalk,” I assumed it had come from something to do with the actual dessert. Since it indicates something effortless and often rewarding, I thought maybe it was the slow way one would savor a good piece of cake or walking carefully with a beautifully decorated cake, so you don’t drop it. Now that I know it involved rigorous dancing – not to mention, of course, sweating through heavy woolen clothes – I’m not entirely sure the phrase is accurate.
Analyzing matchups in your fantasy leagues and DFS lineups is also never “as easy as pie” -- no matter what anyone says. A lot goes into deciphering which defense is most exploitable to use your fantasy running back against when you’re trying to get an edge.
That’s where I come in. I’ll be taking you by the hand to waltz through the process of identifying the likely best defensive matchups in the 2020 season for your fantasy running backs. When targeting a defense with our fantasy runners, we want: a defensive front-seven lacking in previous production, a roster that didn’t address its needs in free agency or the NFL Draft, and a mediocre (not horrific) offense that will let the game get just out of hand enough so opponents can run the ball and run off clock.
It’s not as easy as a one-two step, but we’ll get those fantasy feet grooving and get your lineup its just desserts.
Despite having spent a first-round NFL Draft pick on defensive front-seven (linemen and linebackers) players in each of the last four draft classes, it’s been a rough few years for Washington in the run defense game.
This year, they did draft edge rusher Chase Young with the second overall pick, and – although he did average 15.75 tackles for a loss per season in the Big Ten over his final two years in college – Young himself can’t fix this defense’s woes. Adding linebacker Thomas Davis also helps them, but he’s 38 years old and was by no means elite in run defense last year, with his rate of missed tackles per snap the 12th-highest among 102 linebackers to play 200 snaps last year. Reserve linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis was also signed by the team but has graded out poorly against the run on sites like Pro Football Focus (PFF).
Since 2016, Washington has given up on average the fifth-most rushing yards to running backs and averaged an allowance of 120 targets to running backs in the same span of time. Last year, they gave up the third-most fantasy points per game to running backs and easily the most opportunities (rushing attempts plus targets; 34 per game), as well as offering up the sixth-most rushing yards per attempt to the position.
Even if a little efficiency is gained by the additions of Young, Davis, and KPL, I can’t fathom that Washington's defense will face fewer negative game scripts in 2020, meaning their opponents can run the ball to their hearts’ contents.
Green Bay Packers
The Green Bay Packers aren’t a team one might traditionally think of as a good matchup for opposing running backs, being that they were a winning team in 2019 and still have a strong offense. They could be vulnerable for a number of reasons, however.
First off, Green Bay was an absurd 6-1 in one-score games last year (situations where teams tend to be about 50-50), which means they should’ve been more like a 10- to 11-win team. That suggests opponents in 2020 will face a bit fewer negative game script than they did last year, which is good for running back rushing attempt volume.
In addition, their only defensive addition of note was linebacker Christian Kirksey, whose 4.8 percent missed tackle rate was easily the worst among 117 linebackers to play 100 snaps or more in 2019. Kirksey was, of course, a replacement for free agent Blake Martinez, whose own 1.5 percent missed tackle rate last year was much closer to the league average. Even in 2018, having played more, Kirksey’s missed tackle rate was 32nd-worst among 123 linebackers to play 100 snaps or more – still in the bottom 25 percent.
The Packers were already a reasonable defense to start running backs against, allowing the 11th-most fantasy points per game in 2019, due to giving up the seventh-most rushing yards per game and fifth-most rushing yards per attempt, as well as the sixth-most targets per game. Add in some receiving touchdown regression (they tied for second-fewest in 2019), a little more rushing volume, and the Pack make for a choice 2020 running back matchup.
Seemingly in a rebuild for the last two decades, the Jacksonville Jaguars look to have lost the defensive prowess that carried them to the AFC Championship Game only a few years back. That means they’ll be another great team to start fantasy running backs against in 2020.
The Jaguars gave up second-most points per game to opposing fantasy running backs in 2019, largely because they allowed the second-most rushing yards per attempt (5.3) by a wide margin. Jacksonville was actually just 17th in opportunities per game for opposing backfields, due to such negative game scripts that opponents didn’t need to target the backfield in the passing game (ninth-fewest targets per game). There will undoubtedly be some negative rushing touchdown regression (tied for second-most allowed per game in 2019), but even a slight uptick in the Jags’ own offensive value will keep them in games and increase the passing volume for opposing backfields.
The Jaguars did spend four of their picks in the first four rounds of the NFL Draft on the defense, but only edge rusher K'Lavon Chaisson is projected as a 2020 starter in the front-seven. The major free agent addition the Jags made was middle linebacker Joe Schobert, but Schobert isn’t the stoutest run defender in the world; last season, he ranked a middling 27th among 59 starting linebackers by PFF’s Run Stop Percentage metric.
The loss of defensive lineman Calais Campbell – who was the third-best run defender by Run Stop Percentage in 2019 – to free agency and edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue potentially sitting out due to a contract dispute are huge blows to this defensive front. If they can even become decent on offense this season, Jacksonville will remain a fantastic spot for opposing fantasy backfields.