RB Rags to Riches

published 08/14/19 3:33:56 PM EDT
by Tom Brolley

In my last series, I looked back at 2018 ADP to see if I could find “Post-Hype Candidates” who could rebound to the top of their positions this season. Those post-hype candidates fell out of favor in 2019 but they were once top-of-the-line fantasy options back in 2018.

Now it’s time for me to look into the future to figure out who could be next season’s studs if things break right in 2019. For the RB position, I’m looking at players being drafted outside of the top 60 who have enough ceiling potential to dramatically rise up draftboards in a year’s time.

I’ve always taken the approach that drafting a player a year before I think they’ll break out is a much better approach than being a year late and drafting a player after they’ve already broken out. I took that approach last season when I made Patrick Mahomes my most drafted fantasy QB. I wrote last summer that Mahomes’ breakout was likely to come in 2019 but I still drafted him a ton because he was in a great spot to succeed right away if everything broke right.

Mahomes (2018 QB14), George Kittle (TE13), James Conner (RB56), and Tyler Lockett (WR53) were just a few of the players who went from “Rags to Riches” last season. Below are my top RB candidates to go from “Rags to Riches” this season.


Running backs being drafted outside of the top 60 who have enough ceiling potential to dramatically rise up draftboards in a year’s time.

Rashaad Penny (ADP RB33)

  • Why he has ceiling potential: The Seahawks clearly had visions of Penny being their workhorse when they selected Penny with the 27th-overall pick in the 2018 draft. Chris Carson had other plans for this backfield, grabbing hold of lead runner’s spot last season and never letting go. Carson has proven to be the better sustaining runner for this offense, but Penny brings the big-play potential to this backfield.

  • Path to the top: Penny started to find his way in his final six games last season, averaging 6.4 YPC after averaging 3.5 YPC in his first eight games, which included two games in which he didn’t get a single carry. Mike Davis and his 10.3 opportunities per game are gone this season, which will pave the pave to a much bigger role for Penny since the Seahawks’ RB depth chart is thin behind their top two backs. It’s not out of the question that Penny leaps Carson this season if he becomes a more consistent down-to-down runner while sprinkling in his explosive runs. Penny has league-winning potential as a seventh-round pick, and he could be a top-25 next season if he takes a step forward and Carson takes a step back in 2019.

Miles Sanders (RB31)

  • Why he has ceiling potential: Sanders has just one season as a lead back under his belt after being stuck behind Saquon Barkley at Penn State for two seasons. The Eagles apparently saw enough from him during the 2018 season to use the #53 overall pick on Sanders. The organization believes he has the skill set to be a workhorse, three-down back in the near future.
  • Path to the top: HC Doug Pederson has preferred using backfield committees in his first three seasons, but he could eventually buck that trend this season. Sanders is the best all-around back Pederson has had the opportunity to coach, and it would make sense if now would be the time that he ditches the RBBC approach. Sanders will have his work cut out for him to blow past Jordan Howard, Corey Clement, and the rest of this backfield, but it’s certainly well within the range of outcomes for him this season. If Sanders becomes the workhorse back in one of the league’s most potent offenses, he’d be a lock to be a top-25 pick next season. It could very well happen this season and he’s available for just a seventh-round pick.

Darrell Henderson (RB36)

  • Why he has ceiling potential: Starting RB Todd Gurley has an arthritic knee that sapped his explosiveness and limited his workload at the end of last season. The Rams insured the NFL’s highest-paid running back by spending a third-round pick (70th overall) on Henderson. The organization is clearly worried enough about Gurley holding up for the entire season that they would spend a premium pick on Henderson while they’re trying to upgrade their roster to win a Super Bowl.
  • Path to the top: Henderson looks to be a great fit for this Rams offense. He excelled on outside zone runs at Memphis, which is a staple of the Rams’ offense under HC Sean McVay. I’m expecting Henderson to have a big enough role to be a weekly flex option alongside Todd Gurley. However, Henderson has league-winning potential if Gurley’s arthritic knee forces him to miss time this season, which would force the rookie RB into a huge role. There’s also no guarantee that we ever see the same Gurley again, which would vault Henderson into the top tiers of the RB position if he becomes the lead back in this potent offense.

Damien Harris (RB45)

  • Why he has ceiling potential: Harris is in a somewhat similar spot to Darrell Henderson in Los Angeles. The Patriots picked Sony Michel in the first round last season, but they were concerned enough about his arthritic left knee to use a premium, third-round pick on Harris. The Patriots lead running spot has yielded some profitable fantasy seasons for Michel (2018), Dion Lewis (2017), and LeGarrette Blount (2016) in recent seasons. Harris could be next in line if Michel has issues staying healthy this season.
  • Path to the top: Harris has major potential to blow up playing in this high-scoring Patriots offense if he can see significant playing time. The rookie RB from Alabama has a few more players to get through (James White and Rex Burkhead) to get to the top of the depth chart than Henderson does in Los Angeles, but the Patriots likely view Harris as the primary runner if Michel can’t stay healthy. There’s a solid chance that Harris steps into a major early-down role at some point this season because of Michel’s balky knee, which would give him RB1 potential. It’s also possible that we may have seen the best of Michel as a rookie because of his degenerative knees, which could vault Harris into the first couple rounds next year if he becomes the lead runner in New England.

Kalen Ballage (RB43)

  • Why he has ceiling potential: The Dolphins decided to stand pat with their backfield after letting Frank Gore walk in free agency. By doing nothing, the Dolphins elevated Ballage into Gore’s old early-down role in this backfield next to Kenyan Drake. Ballage is a monster at 6’2”, 237 pounds and he has plenty of athleticism to go with his size, but he’s perennially underwhelmed in his college and pro career to his point.
  • Path to the top: Ballage is getting his chance to prove himself after seeing extremely limited chances (45 touches) as a rookie. It appears that both old HC Adam Gase and the new coaching staff, led by Brian Flores, view Drake as primarily a passing back, which means a sizable role next to Drake is available for Ballage. Drake also injured his foot in training camp that could keep him out for the rest of the preseason, giving the second-year back more opportunities with the first-team offense. Ballage isn’t playing behind the best O-line and he isn’t playing in the best offense, but Ballage will get the chance to establish himself as a physical runner with breakaway speed this season. If everything goes right this season, Ballage could be viewed as a Derrick Henry type fantasy option next season.

Devin Singletary (RB48)

  • Why he has ceiling potential: The Bills backfield is very much up in the air heading into this season after they signed Frank Gore and T.J. Yeldon in free agency to go along with LeSean McCoy. They also drafted Singletary on Day Two and he could carve out the biggest role in this backfield by the end of the season. Singletary dominated C-USA by averaging 6.0 YPC while running for 4,299 career yards in three seasons, but he fell in the draft process because of a rough showing at the Combine (4.66 forty-time).
  • Path to the top: The Bills drafted Singletary in the third round and he appears to be the future of this backfield. The big question is if that future starts this season. The Bills have been giving Singletary consistent first-team practice reps and he even ran with the starters in the preseason opener with McCoy sitting out. Early training camp reports have Yeldon as the odd man out in this backfield and both Gore (36 years old) and McCoy (31) have to be considered one-year options at this point. Singletary is the favorite to be the go-to guy in an ascending offense next season, and he has a great shot to be that guy in the second half of this season unless Shady dramatically reverses his downward spiral from the last two seasons.

Darwin Thompson (RB57)

  • Why he has ceiling potential: Thompson is down the depth chart for now but there is a chance he could be the top back in the league’s most explosive offense at some point this season. The former Utah State RB tore up the Mountain West Conference last year, averaging 6.8 YPC and 15.3 YPR before posting a 4.5 forty-time and a 39-inch vertical at his Pro Day. Thompson is small (5’8”, 200 pounds) but he could be yet another explosive weapon to play alongside Patrick Mahomes.
  • Path to the top: Starting RB Damien Williams has been a career backup through his first four and a half seasons until the Chiefs cut Kareem Hunt in the middle of last season for his off-the-field indiscretions. Carlos Hyde is the next man up behind Williams and his already pedestrian career has headed due south in the last two seasons. The Chiefs aren’t exactly rife with solidified options in front of Thompson, and he’s certainly armed with enough talent to climb this depth chart to potentially be the dynamic back heading this backfield some time soon.

Derrius Guice (RB35)

  • Why he has ceiling potential: Before even playing an NFL snap, Guice was already among the top-20 backs around this time last year before he tore his ACL in the first preseason game. He was a first-round talent because of his workhorse potential but he slipped into the second round because of some off-the-field concerns. The Redskins are in a rebuilding state with Dwayne Haskins at quarterback, and they’d gladly hand him the reins to this backfield if he proves he’s healthy enough to take on the role.
  • Path to the top: Guice has a tricky path to get back to the top but it could be done. He needs to overcome his own knee issues after needing three additional surgeries to clean up an infection after his initial ACL surgery. Needless to say, he could be slow out of the gates as he gets back to full strength, which was a big reason why the Redskins retained Adrian Peterson for another season. Guice will also have to deal with an offensive line that looks like it will be without star LT Trent Williams while also playing in potentially the worst offense in the league. Guice has the skill set to get back into the top-20 RBs next year, but he’ll have an uphill climb to prove himself this season.

Justin Jackson (RB53)

  • Why he has ceiling potential: Jackson is the #3 RB in Los Angeles if they’re at full strength this season, but Melvin Gordon’s availability for the 2019 season remains very much up in the air because of his holdout for a new contract. Gordon’s absence would open up 14.6 carries and 5.5 targets per game from last season, and he scored 14 total TDs in 12 contests. As we saw last season when Gordon missed time, the Chargers don’t want to change Austin Ekeler’s role too much. They prefer to give Ekeler a slightly bigger role while elevating Jackson into an early-down role next to Ekeler.
  • Path to the top: Jackson could work his way into the top of the fantasy RB conversation if he excels in a big role this season, which could happen if Gordon is ultimately traded or if he sits out the entire season. Those scenarios are unlikely to happen but no one envisioned Le’Veon Bell sitting out all of 2018, which allowed James Conner to become a top-15 pick in 2019. Jackson has shown three-down potential throughout his college and professional career, and he averaged a respectable 4.1 YPC (50/206/2 rushing) and 9.0 YPR (15/135 receiving) in limited action last season.

Ito Smith (RB55)

  • Why he has ceiling potential: The Falcons spent the off-season upgrading their interior O-line and they let Tevin Coleman walk in free agency. This is good news for Devonta Freeman and the rest of these backs after the Falcons finished 30th in rushing attempts per game (21.9). Smith has a chance to potentially shine at some point because Freeman’s body may be breaking down based on his ugly injury history in recent seasons. He suffered knee, foot, and sports hernia injuries all in a month’s time last season and he also has a scary concussion history.
  • Path to the top: Saying that Smith struggled as a rookie last season would be an understatement — he averaged just 3.5 YPC and 5.6 YPR — but plenty of talented backs have improved in their second years. Smith was a tough runner after contact at Southern Miss and he showed more ability in college than he has to this point in pro career. He isn’t off to the strongest start in training camp either, but he still holds a lead over Brian Hill and Qadree Ollison. If Freeman’s body is indeed breaking down, Smith could be the next back up in one of the best offenses, which gives him a runway to be an impact fantasy back.

Ronald Jones (RB40)

  • Why he has ceiling potential: The light has yet to flick on for Jones as he enters his second season, but the Buccaneers remain committed to their #38 overall pick from last season. They’ve yet to bring in any additional running backs to challenge Jones and Peyton Barber for playing time in this backfield. Jones is still extremely young having just turned 22 years old at the beginning of August, but he can’t afford to have another lost season like he did last season when he finished with just 30 touches in nine games. Jones has the draft pedigree and very little competition in Tampa but now it’s on him to grab the job and run with it.
  • Path to the top: I haven’t been high on Jones since the Bucs drafted him in 2018 but it wouldn’t be the most shocking development to see a former second-round RB make huge strides in his second season. If Jones shows any signs of improvement this season, the Buccaneers would gladly give their second-year RB the reins to this backfield. Jones is an explosive athlete with game-breaking ability, and he could raise his stock significantly at the position if he finally taps into his potential.

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Tom Brolley
Tom Brolley


Tom Brolley is the better half of The Fantasy Free Agents Podcast with his partner Joe Dolan. Brolley owned a 53.8% winning percentage picking every game against the spread for his old site over the last two seasons.