2020 Fantasy RB Breakouts, Booms, Busts, and Sleepers (PPR)

(Photo credit: Keith Allison)

Charles Herrmann (@HermsNFL)
The Lateral Chief Editor

Malcolm McMillan (@McLateralFF)
The Lateral Writer

One of the best parts about this game-within-a-game is the fun of predictions making, none more fun than breakouts, busts, and sleepers. Anyone reading this knows what we're talking about. Making side bets with your league mates, the joy of making yourself look and feel smart, and just the overall great feeling of following a journey from atop a bandwagon. Not all picks work out of course, but hey, even the best among us are not right all the time. 

Using our rankings (coming out soon) and looking at FantasyPros ECR for PPR scoring, we at The Lateral have put together a group of RBs to highlight as our 2020 picks to breakout, boom, bust, and have some solid sleeper appeal.

Let's get started.

Breakout RBs for 2020:

  • Charles' pick: Miles Sanders
  • Malcolm's pick: Josh Jacobs
No surprises here. These are pretty chalky picks, but both players present similar upside for 2020. Jacobs and Sanders ended last year at RB21 and RB15 respectively in PPR scoring after having mixed results week over week in 2019.

CH: Unlike Jacobs, Miles Sanders' 2019 was helped due to injury. After Jordan Howard went down with a shoulder issue, Sanders took the reins and soared. With Howard moving onto Miami, it was widely speculated throughout the offseason that the Eagles might replace him with another veteran RB in order to maintain the RBBC but no such moves were made. As we stand here in 2020, Miles Sanders is the guy in Philly according to HC Doug Pederson. 

From Week 12 on last year, Sanders was RB5 in PPR with 18.98 PPG. There are certain efficiency metrics that speak to why Sanders is a good breakout bet, my favorite of which being juke rate. Juke rate is able to better measure an RB's elusiveness by taking into account the number of the broken, missed, or otherwise avoided tackles made by an RB and dividing that number by the total number of touches. In this measure, Miles Sanders ranked 5th in the league with a number of 32.8%. The bottom line here is that a full year of the elusive Sanders handling the lion's share behind Philly's 10th ranked offensive line according to Pro Football Focus should translate to great production. In line with FantasyPros ECR, Sanders is my RB9 for 2020.

MM: For Josh Jacobs, the case for a breakout is pretty easy to make. Last year, he finished RB21 in PPR largely due to missing 3 of 4 games to end the season, ending a season that had been on pace for RB16. So if he finishes an entire season, he already is likely to finish 5 spots ahead of his 2019 finish, provided not much changes for how the Raiders' offense runs.

Which it should not. While the Raiders added WR talent through the draft with Henry Ruggs and Bryan Edwards, but Jon Gruden is still coach, Greg Olson is still the offensive coordinator (and still getting confused with Seahawks TE Greg Olsen), and they're still going to run the ball. Even in 2018 the combination of Doug Martin and Marshawn Lynch managed 262 rushing attempts,not far from the 298 attempts that Jacobs was on pace for prior to his shoulder injury. That high volume should provide Jacobs a safe floor from which to add receptions (only 20 in 2019) and TDs (only 7 total in 2019), cementing him firmly in the RB1 conversation rather than the tail end of RB2 he was in 2019. A line of 1300 rushing yards, 300 receiving yards, 10 total TDs, and 40 receptions would put him at 260 points (PPR), which would have good enough for RB7 in 2019.

Boom RBs for 2020:
  • Charles' pick: Joe Mixon
  • Malcolm's pick: David Johnson
A pair of familiar names with different cases for booming in 2020, Mixon and Johnson finished 2019 as RB11 and RB37 respectively. 

CH: Mixon is a bit of a stretch to call a boom considering his track record of being an RB1 who has finished around the top 12 in both 2018 and 2019, but coming off of a career-high in carries with 278 and the 4th best juke rate (32.9%) ahead of Sanders by 1/10 of a point, Mixon has potential for top 5 upside. What's really stopped him from busting loose earlier has been the offense around him being poor, but after starting slow in 2019, Joe Mixon was the RB6 from Week 8 on in 2019. 2020 should be a different tale.

With the new additions of QB Joe Burrow, OG Xavier Su'a-Filo, OT Jonah Williams (not technically new, but the 2019 11th overall draft pick did miss all of last year with an injury), the Bengals offensive line and offense as a whole should be improved. None of this information is particularly new, but it felt important to mention. This pick is more of a reminder why it is important to keep an open mind. There are some people who are stuck on how bad the Bengals have been in recent years and letting that get in the way of viewing things objectively. With his massive workload behind a marginally better line and exciting new QB, I am all in with Joe Mixon in 2020 and I have him presently ranked as my RB6, 3 spots ahead of FantasyPros ECR.

MM: David Johnson is definitely a high risk/high reward boom candidate, but I already picked Josh Jacobs for breakout, so I could not pencil him in again. However, Johnson is a potential league winner that could drafted in the 4th round due to a combination of an expected high usage 2020 and an underwhelming 2019.

Houston Texans RBs were perfectly balanced in 2019, with Duke Johnson finishing RB29 and Carlos Hyde finishing RB30, for a combined for 307.2 points in 2019 (RB5 if one person). That means without changing scheme at all, David Johnson will at least be part of a potent rushing attack.

But the scheme is unlikely to remain the same, given that Houston shipped off perennial WR1 contender DeAndre Hopkins. While a lot of that work will go the new receiving corps, the loss of an elite deep threat will surely lead to a slight increase in workload for the RBs. Plus, they brought in David Johnson and his enormous contract in that same trade, so there will be more reliance on what is now arguably their second most valuable offensive asset behind franchise player Deshaun Watson. Combined all this with Johnson's history of usage in the passing game (was 3rd in receptions and targets for the Cardinals last year despite a poor season), and you can expect Duke Johnson to fade in relevance in the backfield, giving David Johnson a lion's share of 300+ rushing attempts and over half of 70+ targets. Sure injury concerns do exist, and Johnson may have lost a step following his injury last year, but he is more durable than everyone thinks (outside of 2017, he has only missed 3 games in his career), so expect him to finish closer to the RB9 he was in 2018 than the RB37 he was in 2019.

Bust RBs for 2020:
  • Charles' pick: Kenyan Drake
  • Malcolm's pick: Aaron Jones
Two 2019 fantasy darlings that are ripe for regression in 2020, Drake and Jones finished the 2019 fantasy football season as RB17 and RB2 respectively.

CH: Look, I get it. I saw how solid Drake was upon arrival in Arizona after being traded over from Miami in 2019. Averaging 19.9 PPG in an 8 game stretch is absolutely phenomenal, but that total is inflated by Weeks 15 and 16 with scores of 39.6 and 33.4 and almost 6.5 rushing YPA. Taking out that pair of outlier performances, Drake's PPG in Arizona goes down to 14.4. In fairness, outliers happen, but if I do the same for Miles Sanders (FantasyPros ECR RB9 to Drake's RB10) and take out his outlier Week 15 game, his PPG ends up at 15.74. 

Want to take a look at his juke rate too while we're at it? Drake ranked 46th with a 15.5% rate. Honestly, I just do not believe Kenyan Drake is all that good. The guy could not emerge in Miami over Damien Williams and Frank Gore during his tenure there. And do not forget, Drake was only acquired following Chase Edmonds going down after having his own boom game, but I'll let Malcolm talk more about him. I do not believe Drake will do insanely poorly necessarily, but RB10 is a bit rich for my blood. I've got him at RB16, and even that sits funny with me. 

MM: TD regression.

No joke, I almost ended my take there. Simply put, Aaron Jones cannot be expected to repeat his RB2 performance from 2019, even before getting into the fact that Green Bay rewarded him by allowing him to play for a contract in 2020 and drafting A.J. Dillon to be his replacement. First, in 2018 and 2019, only Derrick Henry finished Top-5 in rushing TDs both years. So just on the law of averages alone, Jones is unlikely to repeat his Top-5 status. Second, a quarter of Aaron Jones' TDs game from Week 5 against Dallas. He followed that up with four straight games with zero rushing TDs, and combined with having less than 15 rushing attempts in 11 of the 16 games he played in 2019, he is incredibly reliant on TD upside leading to boom games. Is this great in Week 16 when he leads you to a championship? Sure. Is it great when its Week 13 and you need him for a playoff win or a win to clinch a playoff spot and he has 4 receptions and 31 total yards? Not so much.

This reliance on a boom/bust model from week to week is already risky enough, but Aaron Jones will have more than Jamaal Williams and some fluky games to worry about in 2020. A.J. Dillon is a very real threat to Jones' production in 2020, especially since they largely fill the same role. While there seems to be a desire to have A.J. Dillon break into the passing game, the 2nd rounder only caught 21 passes at Boston College, and his easiest fit is going to be as part of a potential RBBC with Jones and Jamaal Williams than as a passing down back, taking away much needed rushing attempts. This added competition makes it much more likely that Aaron Jones finishes 2020 closer to RB24 (his 2018 PPR finish) than RB2 or even RB12 (his current FantasyPros ECR).

Sleeper RBs for 2020:
  • Charles' pick: Zack Moss
  • Malcolm's pick: Chase Edmonds
2019 one-game wonder Chase Edmonds finished 2019 as RB56 while Moss, a rookie out of Utah, obviously did not score a single point. Both guys possess plenty of potential for 2020 later in your draft.

CH: A lot of my reasoning for loving Moss is outlined in my 5 Training Camp Situations to Watch article about a month ago. I would refer to that for a slightly more detailed read on the Buffalo backfield, but it's a pretty simple case for Moss.

He impressed in camp early and has done so recently on the ground and in the passing game. Second-year RB Devin Singletary has also drawn some praise in camp, but he's also been noted as having some struggles in the fumble department as well. The role Moss was drafted to step into was that of the departed Frank Gore, and prior to his slowing down at the end of 2019, Gore averaged 11.4 carries per game over the first 12 weeks and wasn't half bad for a then 36 year-old. 

Considering the reports out of camp and what the Frank Gore role meant last year, I comfortably project Zack Moss to get closer to 15 carries a game, 2nd crack at goal-line carries behind QB Josh Allen and produce top 30 production. My final ranking on him is yet TBD, but I assure you, he's the best rookie running back not named Clyde Edwards-Helaire or Jonathan Taylor. At RB42 ECR, there's tremendous value for Moss.

MM: As Charlie pointed out, Kenyan Drake is a prime candidate for a bust in 2020, and Chase Edmonds is almost guaranteed to be the next man up for the Arizona Cardinals if Drake goes down due to either injury or poor performance. Edmonds was already on pace to be the replacement for David Johnson in 2019 once David Johnson went down in Week 7. As soon as Johnson went down, Edmonds immediately picked up the slack, going off for 126 yards on 27 attempts with 3 rushing touchdowns in the same game. Unfortunately, he went down with his own injury a week later, and failed to break back into the lineup over a surging Kenyan Drake and a highly paid David Johnson.

But it is now 2020 and David Johnson is no longer a roadblock for Edmonds in the depth chart. The Cardinals replaced Johnson with rookie 7th rounder Eno Benjamin, which should not be a threat to Edmonds, who Kliff Kingsbury recently referred to as an NFL starter. While those comments may seem hyperbolic, it is important to keep in mind that everyone around Edmonds is a low risk investment. Eno Benjamin was a 7th round pick, and Kenyan Drake has only cost a 6th rounder and a one-year deal for $8.48 million dollars. Sure, $8.48 million is not nothing, but it is also a sunk cost at this point. Arizona should have no fear going to Edmonds if Drake is not up for the starting role, given he will still have a year left on his contract in 2021, when he could be a starter for only $920,000.

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