Fantasy Football Slack and Forth: Which Second-Tier Running Backs Should You Target?

The top tier of running backs in 2020 fantasy football drafts is unequivocally clear.

Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley, Ezekiel Elliott, and Alvin Kamara are all cemented in the top five. In fact, in nearly 1,400 drafts since the start of May over at BestBall10s, none of those players have fallen below the eighth pick. Additionally, prior to the news dropping that he will stage a holdout until he receives a new contract, Dalvin Cook hadn't fallen past the eighth pick in any draft since February.

However, as clear as the top five might be, the rest of the RB1 group is quite murky.

In order to assess which backs to target once the top five are off the board, I Slacked (Slack chatted? Chat Slacked? Slatted?) with fellow numberFire editor Austan Kas.

Here's what we had to say.

Elisha Twerski:
Let's dive right in. Once the top four (or five, if Cook's holdout ends) running backs are off the board, who will you be zeroing in on at the position?

Austan Kas: I like a few options, but the guy I'm most drawn to is Kenyan Drake. I think he has the best chance among this group of producing an elite season, and the season simulations our Brandon Gdula did agree, giving Drake a 31.4% chance of having a top-six campaign at the position, the best odds outside the big five. Those sims also give Drake better than a 50% chance to be an RB1 (top 12).

I was not a Drake believer at all prior to his move to the Arizona Cardinals, but his play down the stretch last year blew me away. Dude averaged 101.4 total yards per game with the Cards, and he did a lot of that on the ground (80.4). From Week 9 to Week 16, Drake was the overall RB4 in half-PPR formats. He had games of 39.1 and 31.9 half-PPR points in that span, showing monster upside.

Drake should have a stranglehold on lead-back duties in what will likely be one of the league's best offenses -- especially from a fantasy perspective. I'd love to get my hands on one of the top-five guys at the position, but if I can't, Drake is next on my wish-list.

How do you feel about Drake?

Elisha Twerski: I think you covered my feeling on Drake perfectly.

In my piece on him in March, I noted that among backs with at least 150 carries last year, Drake finished third in Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) per carry and eighth in Rushing Success Rate. And, according to Football Outsiders, the 26-year-old finished third at the position in DVOA in 2019. That's elite.

His 16-game pace with Arizona was a ridiculous 1,628 totals yards, 56 receptions, and 16 touchdowns. Even if you'd cut his scoring rate in half, he'd still have been the RB7 in 2019.

The Cardinals were already one of the top teams in terms of pass-to-run ratio (1.53 -- 12th), so it's not as if there's a ton of room for them to throw a bunch more and depress the rushing volume. The opportunities should be there.

I'll get on to my next back now, but it can't be a bad thing that we're both drawn to the player.

Austan Kas: Yeah, that makes me feel good. Definitely a lot to like with Drake. So who is your top choice among the backs after those big five? Is it Drake, or is it someone else?

Elisha Twerski: Drake is up there, but my top choice after the big five is Joe Mixon.

I've already made a case for Mixon as a top-five back, but I'll bang that drum again here.

Mixon got off to an awful start in 2019 -- he was just the RB34 through Week 7. His Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) per carry of -0.15 in that time would have ranked 45th at the position last year.

However, from Week 8 and on, Mixon was the RB6 and his Rushing NEP per carry of 0.07 would have ranked 7th among backs on the season. His 16-game pace during that stretch was 1,904 total yards, 36 receptions, and 11 touchdowns. That would have made him the RB6 in fantasy.

He did all of that without a quarterback and an offensive line that ranked seventh-worst in adjusted line yards, per FootballOutsiders. This year, the Cincinnati Bengals will be adding first overall pick Joe Burrow at quarterback, as well as Jonah Williams (last year's first-rounder) and Xavier Su'a-Filo to the offensive line.

Just like with Drake, being on a (potentially) potent offense could help Mixon reach new heights.

What are your thoughts on Mixon? Are you as high on him as I am?

Austan Kas: I like Mixon a lot, too. After Drake, I'm really torn between Mixon and Miles Sanders and prefer both of them to Derrick Henry and Nick Chubb in any kind of PPR or half-PPR. As things stand now, I give Mixon a very slight edge over Sanders for a lot of the reasons you just ran through. I think this Cincy offense can be sneaky-good in fantasy this year.

So I know you like Sanders, too. Why is he so appealing to you?

Elisha Twerski: Before I get to Sanders, I assume you'd include Henry and Chubb among the guys you wouldn't "reach" for?

Austan Kas: Yeah, I would. I just fear a lack of pass-game work for both, but they're obviously in the RB1 range and worthy of early picks, for sure.

Elisha Twerski: That covers my feelings about Henry, though the hiring of Kevin Stefanski did brighten my outlook on Chubb.

As for Sanders, I’m all aboard that train.

The idea that Doug Pederson won’t commit to one guy is based on what? Him not giving Ryan Mathews, LeGarrette Blount, Josh Adams, and the corpse of Jay Ajayi a full workload? That’s not exactly damning evidence.

Will Sanders be a bell-cow back like Ezekiel Elliott (who gets 85-plus percent of snaps nearly every week)? No. That much has already been made clear by Pederson.

However, Pederson has also stated that Sanders is their “number one” and ready to “carry the load.”

Sanders performed quite well when carrying the load last year. In Philly’s six games following their Week 10 bye, he posted 635 totals, 25 receptions, and 4 scores. That’s a 16-game pace of 1,694 yards, 67 catches, and 10 total scores. In half-PPR formats, that would have tied him for the RB6 spot in fantasy last year.

It wasn’t just a couple of blow-up performances for Sanders. In the 10-game span from Week 6 through Week 16, he scored 16.7 or more fantasy points 5 times in half-PPR. On the reverse side, he had just 2 contests with less than 8.4.

Sanders' draft position since the beginning of June is just outside the first round, but I wouldn't be afraid to take him at the end of the first.

Would you consider drafting Sanders in the first? Or do you feel like that's too much of a reach?

Austan Kas: I'd definitely consider it, but in the late-first, I think I'd opt for one of the receivers going in that range (Julio Jones, Tyreek Hill, DeAndre Hopkins or Davante Adams) and then try to get a running back when it comes back around for Round 2. But I do like Sanders a lot, and he checks a ton of boxes heading into 2020.

Elisha Twerski: Depending on the format, I might do the same. Though my gut always tells me to go running back when I have them all in similar tiers.

All in all, I think we covered this topic rather comprehensively. Any final thoughts?

Austan Kas: No, sir. I'm good. Thanks for chatting!