2019 Fantasy Football: Running Back Depth Chart Breakdown – AFC North

By Chet Gresham – @ChetGresham
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Baltimore Ravens
Ravens running backs last season ranked 11th in rushing attempts, eighth in rushing yards, seventh in rushing touchdowns while ranking 27th in targets, 26th in receptions, 30th in receiving yards and 15th in receiving touchdowns. Overall, the Ravens ranked 19th in total running back looks.

Despite running the ball more than any team in the league, Ravens running backs didn’t get a big bump in work because Lamar Jackson ran the ball 147 times. Injuries to running backs also kept any one back from dominating touches, as Alex Collins had 129 touches over 10 games and Gus Edwards had 139. Javorius Allen played the most games with 14, but only had 76 touches, while Kenneth Dixon got a good amount of work at the end of the season with 66 touches over six games. Collins and Allen are now gone, while the Ravens added Mark Ingram in free agency and Justice Hill with the 113th-overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

Ingram quickly slots in as the lead back with Edwards as his direct backup, while Dixon should be the primary receiving back with Allen out of the picture. Hill could work his way into the equation at some point, but he’ll likely need an injury or to really wow the team consistently in training camp and preseason games.

The Ravens also invested in John Brown, Marquise Brown and Miles Boykin, who are all fast and talented receivers, to help Lamar Jackson get the passing game going. After averaging 17 carries in his seven starts to finish the season, the Ravens have said multiple times that Jackson won’t take on that kind of rushing workload this season. Those rushing attempts wouldn’t end up going to Ingram and company though. Instead, you would have to believe those get turned into passing attempts. Of course, some of those passing attempts could go to running backs, which was an outlet the team did not excel in last season.

At first glance, the Ravens look like a perfect team to mine fantasy running backs from, but in reality, they didn’t see a big boost in their run-first offense last season. In reality, Jackson takes away goal-line work and they don’t have a single player who will handle every down. But there is still good news for Ingram, as he will be the lead back, and in the last seven games of last season, Edwards averaged 17 rushing attempts per game and a healthy 5.4 yards per carry, which was helped in part by Jackson’s threat to run on every play. Ingram should take that role over, and he’s more talented than Edwards. After Ingram, I really can’t see any one player putting up fantasy numbers. If Baltimore throws more to backs this season, Dixon could find a PPR niche, but Hill is also someone who could win time as a receiver.

Cincinnati Bengals
In 2018, Bengals running backs ranked 25th in rushing attempts, 20th in rushing yards, 17th in rushing touchdowns while ranking 12th in targets, 14th in receptions, 25th in receiving yards and 25th in receiving touchdowns. Overall, Cincinnati ranked 25th in total running back looks.

Joe Mixon played in 14 games and led the way with 280 touches for 1,464 yards and nine touchdowns, but he seemed underutilized as a receiver with three receptions per game. The Bengals have used Giovani Bernard as a big part of the offense as a receiver, yet he averaged the same three receptions per game last season. But this year, Cincinnati finally has some new blood at head coach, Zac Taylor. Taylor was the Rams’ receivers coach and quarterbacks coach for the last two seasons under Sean McVay, and McVay’s offense is 100 percent what the Bengals were paying for when they signed Taylor. On paper, they have the personnel to copy the Rams, and that’s what they’ll do.

In the Rams’ offense, they used Todd Gurley as a receiver, giving him mismatches almost every time he saw a target. It wasn’t about big number of targets but more about their effectiveness. Gurley isn’t Christian McCaffrey or Alvin Kamara as a receiver, but in two seasons under McVay, Gurley scored 10 receiving touchdowns and caught 123 passes on 168 targets for 1,368 yards. That only trails Kamara and McCaffrey in yardage, but Gurley blew away the field with his 11.1-yards-per-reception mark. McVay knew the Rams had a strong runner in Gurley, and as long as he was competent as a receiver, they could get him open. They also wanted him on the field. If you bring in a third-down specialist, then you are tipping your hand and likely hurting your chances.

Mixon can be Gurley in this offense. Will he score 20 touchdowns? I doubt it, but his opportunities should go up along with his stats from those opportunities. If Mixon gets hurt, the Bengals do have options with Bernard and then two rookies in Trayveon Williams and Rodney Anderson. Bernard could take over full time or we could see a committee with the rookies, but I expect Coach Taylor would want to see if Bernard could handle the workload, as he is still a gifted receiver and runner and a single, versatile back, is how this offense works best.

Cleveland Browns
Last year, Browns running backs ranked 12th in rushing attempts, 12th in rushing yards, eighth in rushing touchdowns while ranking 14th in targets, 15th in receptions, 13th in receiving yards and eighth in receiving touchdowns. Overall, Cleveland ranked 17th in total running back looks.

Last season was a great start of a new era for the Browns, but it was still a time of transition, as Hue Jackson was fired in-season and Nick Chubb didn’t get the bulk of the running back work until they traded away Carlos Hyde after Week 6. The Browns still managed to put up good running back stats though and did so with Freddie Kitchens as the coach for the majority of the season. Retaining Kitchens and acquiring Odell Beckham Jr. will be good for the offense as a whole. New offensive coordinator Todd Monken did his most recent work in Tampa Bay, where he led the Bucs to the fourth-most and most passing yardage over the last two seasons. That team didn’t have the players to run the ball, so it’s tough to put the lack of rushing stats on Monken, but the Browns do have the players, and it will be interesting to see what they do.

Nick Chubb led the way last season after Hyde left, rushing 192 times for 996 yards, a 5.2 YPC clip, for eight touchdowns and caught 20-of-29 targets for 149 yards and two more touchdowns. He is again poised to put up good numbers, even without big receiving work, but there is a wrinkle we have to iron out. Cleveland signed Kareem Hunt, who was fantastic last season and on pace for a top-three fantasy season before he was let go after an off-field incident came to light. Hunt received an eight-game suspension, so there is no-doubt Chubb will lead the way for the first half of the season. Once Hunt returns, Chubb will likely remain the lead back, but Hunt is just too good to keep off the field. Hunt will likely push Duke Johnson out as a receiving back and cut into Chubb’s work.

The odds remain good that Chubb will put up a strong fantasy season, but without big receiving numbers and the addition of Hunt in the second half, his prospects aren’t as high as I’d like.

Pittsburgh Steelers
Steelers running backs in 2018 ranked 26th in rushing attempts, 25th in rushing yards, eighth in rushing touchdowns while ranking 15th in targets, 12th in receptions, 11th in receiving yards and 12th in receiving touchdowns. Overall, Pittsburgh ranked 27th in total running back looks.

As you can see, Pittsburgh was in no way a running back-centric team last season. Ben Roethlisberger led the league in passing attempts, with most of those attempts going to Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster, which makes sense, but as you know, Brown has left town and the Steelers don’t have someone waiting in the wings to take on such a big percentage of targets. That should mean more work for the running backs, who were successful when getting the ball last season.

James Conner had a hot start to the 2018 season, but he slowed down a bit midway through and then was injured for three games before playing in the finale. When he was out, Jaylen Samuels took over and played well in his absence. The Steelers did draft Benny Snell with the 122nd pick, but he is a grinder and won’t be a threat to Conner’s lead-back status. If Conner were to go down again, I would expect Samuels to again get the starts with Snell as a short-yardage back at best.

Conner and Samuels should be on the field together more than they were last season, as the Steelers will need to change their offense up with Brown gone. Samuels is a good receiver and could line up in the slot or in a two-back backfield. It’s tough to say how many looks he’ll get with Conner as the lead, but in a strong offense like the Steelers, Samuels is a player who could give you stand-alone value alongside Conner and would be a great play if Conner were to miss time again.

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