Running back is the most volatile fantasy position from year to year. Injuries and ineffectiveness can turn early round picks into instant regrets; stars can emerge from the deepest spots on your roster.
Let's take a look at the ball carriers who are currently undervalued.
Who will exceed expectations?
Let's start by establishing something about Hunt - he's one of the best running backs in the NFL. Though off-field issues have set his career back, the 2017 third-round pick led the league in rushing as a rookie, finishing as the RB4 in fantasy.
If he had a starting role in 2020, there's no doubt Hunt would be a top-10 fantasy producer once again. However, he's set to return for another season with the Browns under a restricted free-agent tender. So while he's loaded with fantasy potential as an unrestricted free agent in 2021 (go get him in dynasty), he's forced to compete for touches with a more talented back who tops the depth chart in Cleveland - Nick Chubb.
We only have a small sample size due to Hunt's suspension for the first half, but with the duo sharing the field, Chubb was the RB15 and Hunt was the RB17 in PPR scoring over the final eight games. Even with Chubb dominating volume with 155 touches, Hunt's 43 carries, 37 catches, and three touchdowns are a sign he'll be a big part of the offense and can still deliver for fantasy owners.
The arrival of new head coach Kevin Stefanski should be a positive for both backs as he brings a more run-heavy approach from Minnesota. The Vikings were fourth in the league in rushing attempts in 2019 compared to the 22nd-ranked Browns. Specifically, Stefanski's running backs accounted for 78 more touches on the year than Cleveland. The Browns also beefed up their offensive line by adding free-agent tackle Jack Conklin and drafting Jedrick Wills Jr. in the first round.
An increase in overall backfield volume and improved blocking makes Hunt more intriguing as an upside pick who's being drafted as the RB30 in the sixth round. Browns passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach Chad O'Shea told reporters Hunt's been sitting in on WR meetings, hinting the young back could be deployed as the third wideout at times. Meanwhile, offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt admitted the team "would be crazy not to put" Hunt and Chubb on the field at the same time during an interview on 92.3 The Fan's Bull and Fox show.
It's clear the new coaching staff values Hunt's ability, and we have half a season of data proving he can be a strong fantasy RB2 while serving as an overqualified complementary weapon. And if Chubb gets injured at any point in the season, Hunt immediately vaults into the RB1 conversation as a league-winning fantasy asset.
Similar to Hunt, Breida isn't my favorite running back on his team and yet that won't stop me from investing in him at his current value. We discussed Jordan Howard's underrated ceiling in our 2020 sleepers article, but we also highlighted Breida as the most explosive option in the Dolphins' backfield.
Questions about the 25-year-old's durability might be responsible for pushing him down fantasy draft boards into the ninth round in best ball formats. Though it's hard to feel confident about a player who's been banged up as much as Breida, it's worth noting he's only missed five games over three seasons in the NFL. Normally, Breida has answered the call despite being on the injury report.
Even while suiting up at less than 100% more often than not, Breida's efficiency was rarely impacted. He has a career average of 5 yards per carry and is just one season removed from putting up over 1,000 yards from scrimmage and five touchdowns in 14 appearances.
J.J. Zachariason of numberFire recently updated his criteria for spotting breakout running backs, citing four main factors:
Breida checks every box on that list.
Leaving the comfort of Kyle Shanahan's rushing attack in San Francisco is a slight cause for concern, but the Dolphins' offense is a unit on the rise, especially if first-rounder Tua Tagovailoa starts.
Whether Breida splits touches with Howard or wins the lead back job outright, he's guaranteed to return value at his ADP of RB43 if he stays healthy. He should be one of the top names on any zero-RB drafter's list with an outside chance to unlock top-24 upside, which is hard to pass up at his discounted price tag.
Kliff Kingsbury has a long way to go before we talk about him amongst the NFL's best offensive minds, but his debut season as the Cardinals head coach was a success on many fronts. In this section, let's focus on his rushing attack since the Cardinals ranked second in Football Outsiders' offensive run DVOA for 2019.
Prior to getting injured, David Johnson was a top-five fantasy back through the first six weeks, and mid-season acquisition Kenyan Drake accomplished the same feat over his last eight games. In between that time, Edmonds got a start and rattled off 150 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns in his only game where he played more than 65% of the snaps.
So no matter who's lining up in the backfield with Kyler Murray, we can have some confidence they'll find a path to production in Kingsbury's spread offense. And we haven't even mentioned the addition of star wideout DeAndre Hopkins, which will only draw more attention away from the line of scrimmage.
With Johnson out of the mix, Drake is now the unquestioned starter thanks to his commanding performance over the second half. His numbers in this system were impossible to ignore and make him worthy of being taken in the late first or early second round. However, there's a reason he's not going off the board sooner. Drake has never been a workhorse in college or the pros. Those of us who are drafting him early are taking a chance he'll be able to hold up in the lead back role.
Even if he does, there'll still be plenty of touches to go around in an offense that played at the fourth-fastest pace in 2019. Expectations are increasing as well after Kingsbury and company won just five games a year ago. Arizona's 2020 win total is set at 7.5, which could lead to more second-half carries in positive game scripts.
If Kingsbury is smart, he'll up Edmonds' usage in an effort to keep Drake healthy and operating at maximum efficiency. That would give Edmonds flex potential while also offering an RB1 ceiling if Drake hits the trainer's table.
Boston Scott, Eagles - The Eagles reportedly expressed interest in some of the veteran runners, but haven't signed or drafted anyone of note so far. That makes Scott very interesting as the primary backup to Miles Sanders. Late in the year, Scott posted 45-plus yards from scrimmage in four of his last five games and eclipsed the 120-yard mark in two of those outings. The 25-year-old is a weekly RB3/flex play and the handcuff to own in Philly.
Ryquell Armstead, Jaguars - The Jags declined Leonard Fournette's fifth-year option and were rumored to be shopping him on the trade market during the offseason. Armstead was a prospect with a 94th percentile speed score who flashed in limited usage as a rookie and is the next man up if Fournette is traded, released, or gets hurt.
Jerick McKinnon, 49ers - McKinnon is the forgotten man in San Francisco's backfield after signing a four-year, $30-million contract in 2018. He's missed each of the last two seasons due to injury. We still don't know if he'll be able to contribute this season, but he restructured his contract in an effort to stay with the club. Rostering running backs in a Kyle Shanahan offense is never a bad idea and McKinnon is the best passing-down back on the team when healthy. If he fails to return to the lineup again, keep an eye on undrafted free agent JaMycal Hasty.
Who will exceed expectations?