NFC North Backfield Look Back
Running backs are the most important position in fantasy football - we know this. What tends to get lost, however, is that not all carries are created equal, not all running backs are bell cows, and NFL schemes are not all cookie-cutter type schemes. The off-season has officially started here at the fantasy whispers and that means weekly articles are back by yours truly. For my first piece, I’m going to break down the NFC North backfield. This is part of a larger collection of pieces that I am going to call Backfield Look Back. The idea of this article is to look back at all the backfields in the NFC North last year and what made these RB rooms profitable or not profitable for fantasy football purposes. I will also touch briefly on new changes or additions to those back fields keep in mind this is being written before the NFL Draft. If a major rookie lands in one of the spots I will do a spotlight on that rookie to highlight the fantasy football ramifications for him and his teammates. Remember you can always find our daily video content over on YouTube.
David Montgomery‘s 2020 season was actually one of two seasons. Montgomery had ho-hum type production prior to their BYE but really caught fire in the last six games of the year. Before their off week, Montgomery had six of his 10 games clock in at 3.5 YPC or fewer. He had zero games over 100 rushing yards in that span and had scored only two touchdowns. After the BYE however, Montgomery went nuts! He had six straight games of 20 or more fantasy points in half point PPR leagues to close out the year he also had eight touchdowns in that span he averaged 137 all purpose yards per game. Montgomery also got it done through the air with four or more targets in 9 games last year. This did wonders for where he finished at the end of the year as the RB6 and standard in RB4 in PPR.
Patterson is a lot like “friends with benefits.” He sounds good in theory but at the end of the day someone is going to get hurt. In the case of Patterson it was fantasy football GM’s last year and really Matt Nagy. After Tarik Cohen went down it seemed that they were using Cordarrelle Patterson as the change of pace back in Chicago. But he still had zero games over 12 carries and all of 2020 and he failed to eclipse 60 rushing yards in any game. He really just never got to quite the level of standalone value that Cohen has in the past in Nagy’s system.
It’s a little unfair to Cohen to characterize 2020 as a complete let down because he tore his ACL in week three against Atlanta. But if we look back at 2019 we see that Tarik Cohen finished as a top 30 running back in PPR fantasy leagues. That was mostly fueled by 79 catches on 104 targets for 456 receiving yards and three touchdowns. He had six games with five or more targets in that year. The question remains how he will fit in this year with David Montgomery coming off his strong sophomore season and Damien Williams coming to town with proven receiving chops. Cohen will be someone to monitor as ADP will probably drive him down draft boards but you should be willing to snag him late in PPR leagues for that top 30 ceiling.
Damien Williams is an interesting add for the Chicago Bears. The last time we saw Williams was in 2019 week 17. He sat out all of 2020 due to his COVID-19 opt out and was picked up by another Andy Reid coaching tree member, Matt Nagy. The relationship is a nice storyline but given his time off the field and the fact that Williams has never really been a lead back I can’t be too excited about his prospects coming into 2021 other than a direct handcuff to Montgomery.
Montgomery flashed top-five brilliance towards the end of 2020 and there is no reason to think that that’s not within his range of outcomes for 2021. However we have to temper expectations with Damien Williams coming to town and Tarik Cohen back healthy this year. Whereas Williams could cut into Montgomery‘s touchdown upside, Cohen could cut into Montgomery‘s Pass catching upside. All that said Montgomery‘s third and fourth round ADP as it currently sits is a great value for a back we know could wind up in the top five.
One of the most exciting rookie running backs in 2020 was DeAndre swift. Swift only ended up as the RB18 and PPR in the RB20 and standard but he did that while garnering only 32% of Detroit’s rushing market share. In his final 10 games, Swift had double digit fantasy points and eight in half point PPR formats. A huge part of D’Andre Swift’s allure is that he’s a pass catching specialist as well; he had five or more targets in eight games last season and was 13th in the NFL in targets among running backs with 57. When looking at the Detroit backfield we noticed that nearly 50 targets will be vacated by running backs that are no longer with the Lions heading into 2021. Furthermore, when we look at the relationship that Swift has with his new HC, new quarterback, and new OC and running backs coach, we can see that Swift is pretty much guaranteed to increase his catches and targets per game. Take a look at the chart below to see how the swift relationship should be changing with Jared Goff, Dan Campbell, and Anthony Lynn coming to town.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Swift’s 2021 outlook is the exit of Adrian Peterson. This means that the Lions will be vacating a whopping 43% of the team’s rushing market share from 2020.
Hall of Fame running back Adrian Peterson got 43% of Detroit market share as mentioned above and amassed 156 attempts for 604 rushing yards, seven rushing touchdowns while adding 12 catches on 18 targets for 101 receiving yards and zero receiving touchdowns. He will not be retained by Detroit this year and if he does play there is no doubt the legend will outdo expectations yet again.
Johnson was a nonfactor only accounting for 15% of Detroit’s rushing market share last year and there was plenty of speculation he would be cut this year in Free Agency. He has yet to be cut of this writing and was actually drawing some high praise from his new running back’s coach Deuce Stayley. “What a complete back. Kerryon does it all, man,” Staley said. “You turn the film on, he’s up there blocking, and when I say blocking, he’s really trying to finish the guy. You see how aggressive he is. Then you turn the film on, he’s running routes. Then you turn the film on, he’s breaking tackles.” If he remains on the opening kickoff roster it will be interesting to see how much of AP’s vacated work he absorbs.
The biggest reason that Kerryon Johnson is likely to remain a non-factor in 2021 is that the Lions went and signed Jamaal Williams, formerly of the Green Bay Packers. In four years in Green Bay and in 60 games played, Williams failed to eclipse 560 yards and five touchdowns in a single season. Williams is great in pass blocking, doing the dirty work, and being a Coach’s pet but he could be little more than a handcuff and really can’t be considered the handcuff until Kerryon Johnson is cut.
It’s likely to be the DeAndre Swift show in 2021. The only thing that could complicate his year is a Kerryon Johnson resurgence or Jamaal Williams being completely different than what he has shown us on tape in four seasons in Green Bay. The new coaching staff, new quarterback, and second year in the league, should all benefit Swift immensely and his ADP of the late second round and early third round makes him an appetizing pick for breakout this year at the RB position.
Green Bay Packers
What a monster year it was for Aaron Jones! Jones carried the ball 201 times for 1,104 rushing yards and nine rushing touchdowns and that was in only 14 games played. He also added 47 catches on 63 targets for 355 receiving yards and 2 receiving touchdowns. He finished the RB5 in both PPR and standard leagues. In 12 of his 14 games played he scored double digit points in half point PPR formats. He had no game under 10 carries all year and accounted for 46% of Green Bay’s rushing market share. The best news for Jones heading into 2021 is that he will remain with the Packers as he signed a four-year $48 million deal with Green Bay. Even more exciting is that 119 carries or 29% of Green Bay’s rushing market share from last year has been vacated with the exit of Jamaal Williams to the Detroit Lions.
Jamaal Williams was nothing more and nothing less than the handcuff for Aaron Jones, only racking up 119 carries for 505 yards and 31 catches on 35 targets for 236 receiving yards with only three total touchdowns in 2020. He finished as the RB38 in PPR and standard leagues and with his exit more work should be coming for both Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon.
After the Packers drafted AJ Dillon albeit higher than they should have and the given the fact that he had Derrick Henry like measurables, Dillon was one of the most popular rookies coming into the 2020 season. He didn’t get a lot of work behind Jamaal Williams last year; his only sizable usage was a monster game against Tennessee in the snow we carried the ball 21 times for 124, scoring two touchdowns. He was a efficient on the year in a small sample size with 46 carries for 242 yards and two touchdowns. While that’s nothing to write home about, his 5.26 yards per carry was efficient enough for us to have hope that with Jamaal Williams leaving the team, AJ Dillon could be poised for a lot more usage.
The Packers seem adamant about keeping weapons away from Aaron Rodgers other than Davante Adams. With that being said, they signed their man Aaron Jones to a big contract and they got rid of the plodder Jamaal Williams. This theoretically opens the door for both Aaron Jones to see more usage maybe even getting to the 50% or 60% usage and for AJ Dillon to potentially live up to his hype from last year‘s draft.
Cook was dominant this year and finished as the RB2 in PPR formats and the RB3 in standard. Cook amassed 8 games with 20 or more fantasy points, 4 games with 2 or more touchdowns, and had 100 or more all purpose yards in 9 contests. The knock on Dalvin, early in his career, was that he could not stay healthy. In his first two seasons he only played in 15 total games but now in back to back years he has 14 or more games played in each season. Cook will look to be atop of the RB pack in 2021 as well and should be firmly in your top three players drafted heading into next season given that he saw 67% of his team’s market share last year and posted top 5 numbers in carries, rushing yards, rushing TDs, fantasy points, and fantasy points per game.
Alexander Mattison is a locked-in RB2 should anything happen to Dalvin Cook. If and when Cook plays which he has now done 28 times over the past two seasons he is an RB50 or worse. Mattison should be a priority if you draft Cook early on in drafts other than that he will be waiting until Cook gets hurt.
Dalvin Cook is the man not only in this Minnesota backfield but in the entire NFC North bunch of running backs that I have talked about today. He is a top three overall pick in most fantasy football drafts and rightfully so with his mix of speed, athleticism and pass catching ability. The Vikings only hope for offense on many Sundays is that of Dalvin Cook‘s ability to break the game wide open which he has done several times.