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Breakout Candidates: Running Backs

Identifying players who could potentially be essential fantasy assets at the running back position in 2016.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Kansas City Chiefs John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Duke Johnson

Probably the most popular breakout pick amongst the fantasy football community, it’s easy to see why many are so high on his potential going into the 2016 season. As a rookie coming out of my alma mater, the University of Miami, Duke was a bright spot on an otherwise dull Cleveland Browns team. He caught an impressive 61 passes out of the backfield and converted 23 of those catches into first downs. Two of those catches hit pay dirt, one of which was a beautiful catch near the side of the end zone against the San Diego Chargers in Week 4. His performance in the actual running game was a bit of a different story (he averaged only 3.6 ypc), but the lack of production there was a result of being surrounded by a bad offense. His backfield partner, Isaiah Crowell, was only able to muster a 3.8 ypc himself. All in all, Johnson ended up as the 23rd-best scoring RB in PPR formats, which is great for a rookie running back.

New Browns coach Hue Jackson was the Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator before coming to Cleveland. In Cincinnati, he constantly made use of his running backs within his offensive game plans. Both Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard were put in optimal opportunities to succeed. That pairing is very similar to the Browns duo of Crowell and Johnson. Hill and Crowell, bigger power backs, had impressive rookie years before hitting a hard sophomore wall. Bernard and Johnson are stylistically comparable as quicker scat backs, which bodes well for Johnson. Bernard has been a constant asset, both in real football and in fantasy football (ideally in PPR). Through his first three years, Bernard has finished as the 12th-, 19th-, and 16th-best RB in PPR formats. If Hue uses Johnson in a similar fashion, Duke is set up to have a year like any of those Bernard ones. His year could be even bigger if Crowell struggles again like he did last season.

Bilal Powell

I don’t know when it happened that Powell became a legitimate playmaker as a pass-catching running back, but it’s time to let that realization wash over us. He rarely caught passes at Louisville, totaling just 45 receptions during the course of his four-year career. Four years into his NFL career, he became a huge part of the New York Jets offense last season. Though he missed five games due to injury, he still caught 47 passes and scored twice. He also averaged 4.5 ypc in a situational role and added another touchdown on the ground.

The drawback, for some, is that new backfield mate, Matt Forte, and Powell are pretty much carbon copies of each other. While that thought holds some weight, Forte missed three games last year and the Jets probably won’t give him the same kind of workload that they handed Chris Ivory in 2015. Chan Gailey’s spread offense is perfect for both Powell and Forte, and I could see Gailey getting both of them on the field at the same time, either in the backfield together or with one of them split out into the slot and the other at running back. Ivory finished as the 12th-best RB in PPR last year, while Powell came in 30th. Considering he missed five games, that is a solid fantasy season. He should be able to crack the top 20 this season, regardless of Forte’s production.

Ameer Abdullah

“Hey, weren’t you the guy that told me I needed Abdullah on my team and that he was going to make me a fantasy football champion?” Yes. Yes, that was me. I’m sorry, I really am. The opportunity was there, the pedigree was there, and the numbers were lined up for Abdullah to have a great rookie season. He burned every fantasy owner that drafted him high last year, finishing as the 45th-best RB in PPR. In the preseason, he flashed his ability on an ankle-breaking long run. In the first week of the season, he juked Eric Weddle out of his jockstrap on a shifty touchdown run. And then it all went downhill as quick as his lateral agility. The Detroit Lions continued to force-feed a now-out-of-work plodder in Joique Bell and mainly used Theo Riddick because the defense was really bad and they needed to throw to stay in games.

If you look at last season objectively and not with Ameer Abdullah-love-goggles, it really wasn’t all that bad. He averaged 4.2 ypc and converted 11 of his 25 receptions in first downs. He wasn’t setting the league on fire when he was out there, but he was pretty good. And that’s because he’s a pretty good football player that needs to get more than the 168 touches he got a year ago. With Bell gone, Zach Zenner (3.5 ypc last season) and/or Stevan Ridley (2.5 ypc last season) are going to be the power backs, but this offense needs explosiveness out of the running back position. Riddick doesn’t get carries, so Abdullah should be clear to break out as a post-hype sleeper.