<
>

Fantasy Marathon mailbag: Which RBs are best at that 12th-pick turn?

Yes, it really is that time of year again. The 2020 ESPN Fantasy Football Marathon, which means football -- and fantasy football -- are right around the corner.

Nobody has you covered with a more loaded roster of fantasy analysts or NFL Nation team reporters than ESPN. So don't forget to use both as your go-to resources to prepare you for your drafts.

To get ready for this year's marathon, we asked you to submit your mailbag questions via Twitter. Here are some of the best questions and answers:

I like this question because I love this tier of running backs, which also includes guys such as Derrick Henry, Miles Sanders, Kenyan Drake, Nick Chubb and possibly Aaron Jones. And I agree that it's hard to differentiate between them in PPR leagues. So if I miss out on a top-five pick, I would actually rather pick 11th or 12th so I can wind up with two of them.

Rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire might be the biggest unknown in this group, but he probably has the highest ceiling in that Kansas City Chiefs offense. And you should have no qualms about making him your No. 1 back. Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher said he thinks Edwards-Helaire will be the "clear No. 1" in Kansas City after Damien Williams opted out for the 2020 season.

"When the Chiefs have had a healthy lead featured back under Andy Reid (I'm thinking of Jamaal Charles and Kareem Hunt here), those guys have produced," Teicher said. "Edwards-Helaire is getting the ball a lot out of the backfield in training camp. He's displayed reliable hands and the ability to make defenders miss in the open field, so there's no reason to believe this won't continue in the regular season. The Chiefs didn't get a lot from their backs last season until the playoffs, so Edwards-Helaire is a logical place to grow their offense."

Meanwhile, Joe Mixon and Josh Jacobs are fine choices in this range. But both Cincinnati Bengals reporter Ben Baby and Las Vegas Raiders reporter Paul Gutierrez remain skeptical that we will see a big jump in their reception totals in 2020.

"Sure, Jacobs has goals when it comes to catching passes. Big goals. Sixty-reception goals," Gutierrez said. "Thing is, he caught just 20 balls in his breakout rookie season. And the Raiders still have Jalen Richard on the roster, and his main job as a running back is to (checks notes) catch passes.

"Plus, the Raiders used their top draft pick to select speedster receiver Henry Ruggs III. And tight end Darren Waller is coming off a 90-catch season. So while the Raiders' offense should be electric, there simply are not enough balls to go around."

Likewise, Baby said, "Unless something changes, Mixon's usage will likely be limited in the passing game."

But Baby was quick to add that Mixon deserves a high draft position since he was the NFL's second-leading rusher behind Henry over the second half of last season once the Bengals fixed their rushing game. Baby also said Mixon's value could increase if the Bengals improve in the red zone, where they struggled so much last year.

Still, Baby said he would lean toward Austin Ekeler in a full-PPR draft because of his heavy usage in the Los Angeles Chargers' passing game.

"Not only was Ekeler second among running backs last year with 93 receptions for 993 yards and eight touchdowns, but according to ESPN Stats and Information research, he was lined up on the outside 15.8% of the time (fourth in the NFL) and in the slot 9% (ninth in the league)," Baby said. "The big question is how effective the new quarterback will be this season, whether that's Tyrod Taylor or Justin Herbert."

I'm personally gravitating toward all four of those guys we mentioned above before Nick Chubb for this specific reason. But Cleveland Browns reporter Jake Trotter said there should still be more than enough work for Chubb to be a staple in your starting fantasy lineup.

"The Browns are going to utilize both. But they did last year, too, and Chubb still came within 47 yards of the rushing title," Trotter said. "In Stefanski's scheme, the Browns are primed to pound the ball even more this season. And with a more effective short-yardage attack behind an improved offensive line, that could also translate into more touchdowns for Chubb. He won't catch a ton of passes, but he'll catch some."

Now that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have become one of the NFL's most fascinating teams, it only makes sense to double up on Bucs questions. There isn't much that separates receivers Chris Godwin and Mike Evans when it comes to fantasy value. ESPN analyst Mike Clay has them projected for virtually the same yardage (Godwin 1,193, Evans 1,174) with 11 more catches for Godwin (88-77) and one more TD for Evans (9-8).

"Evans and Godwin have different roles in Bruce Arians' offense, so go with what you value more," said Bucs reporter Jenna Laine, who expects Evans to continue being used almost strictly on the outside with a higher dose of "downfield chunk plays" while Godwin lines up both in the slot and outside and catches a wider variety of passes.

Laine said she thinks both are building some solid chemistry with new quarterback Tom Brady. But from what she has seen so far in camp, Brady's chemistry with Evans has come on "just a tad quicker, but not by much."

"Evans was on the receiving end of two jaw-dropping deep plays in one of the first practices of camp, and then Godwin exploded a few days later, including a diving back-shoulder catch in the corner of the end zone," Laine said.

As for running back Ronald Jones II, he shouldn't be drafted among the top 15 running backs. But it's not unthinkable that he could wind up there -- if he finally lives up to the hype.

"Rojo had a huge offseason -- which is why Arians proclaimed after just a few camp practices, 'Rojo is the main guy. He'll carry the load,'" Laine said. "When it's strictly handoffs, he's getting the ball."

But, she cautioned, it still remains to be seen if Jones will truly make a leap in the passing game, where Brady has a history of targeting his backs. Laine said LeSean McCoy, Dare Ogunbowale and rookie Ke'Shawn Vaughn could all potentially take away from Jones' total touches based on receiving ability.

"Jones has made big strides with his hands -- he was catching 150-300 passes a day this offseason. But they're still a work in progress," Laine said. "He's had drops in camp, so he's still working on consistency and not letting one drop snowball into two or three."

"Should you draft any of them in the first few rounds? Probably not. This is a Shanahan-coached team after all," cracked San Francisco 49ers reporter Nick Wagoner. "But there's value to be found in all three if you have the patience and foresight to draft them at the right time."

That starts with Raheem Mostert. No, you can't expect him to regularly carry the ball 29 times for 220 yards and four touchdowns like he did in the NFC Championship Game. But Wagoner said he wouldn't be surprised to see something similar to Mostert's workload over the final five weeks of last season, when he averaged 12.8 carries and 75.8 rushing yards while scoring seven touchdowns.

"Tevin Coleman is probably going to offer production similar to last year, though he could be a bit more involved near the goal line," Wagoner added. "And Jerick McKinnon might be the sneakiest play of all. He's unlikely to steal too many carries from Mostert or Coleman, but he has a chance to be very productive in the passing game as a third-down back."

Speaking of crowded backfields, Washington reporter John Keim said fantasy managers will probably have to take a "wait-and-see" approach to sort out this bunch.

"They're pretty much all getting first-team reps [in camp]," Keim said. "So even if Adrian Peterson gets the early-down carries, it's likely that rookie Antonio Gibson will get a few. They love Gibson's versatility. If you want to roll the dice, he could be worth a late pick. And then if Bryce Love shows he's not only healthy but playing like his Stanford days, then he's a legitimate threat for work.

"And, oh yeah, the coaches always praise Peyton Barber and feel he can be a three-down back. And we haven't even gotten to third-down back J.D. McKissic."

As ESPN's New Orleans Saints reporter, I feel the same way about both receiver Emmanuel Sanders and tight end Jared Cook. I think they bring tremendous real-life value to the Saints as needed depth behind Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara. And I think Cook's breakout performance in the second half of last season was legitimate (remember, he and Drew Brees took turns missing games with injuries during the first half of the season). However, I do think they limit each other's upside a bit when it comes to available targets.

I'd be happy to land Sanders outside of the top 40 receivers and Cook outside of the top seven to eight tight ends if you're looking for a solid, reliable producer. But if you're look to gamble on someone with a lower floor and higher ceiling, you might want to consider other options.

"I don't know about top 10," Jacksonville Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco said. "But WR coach Keenan McCardell said he had 'big expectations' for D.J. Chark in 2020, and receiver Chris Conley said 'the sky is the limit for that guy.' Chark made a major step between his first and second seasons because he finally understood what it took to mentally prepare each week just to hold his own. Now he's working on the finer points of his game, and McCardell said that shows that Chark is beginning to more completely understand the nuances of playing at this level.

"Barring injury, it would be a surprise if Chark doesn't hit 1,000 yards again, which would make him just the third player in franchise history to have multiple 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Especially since QB Gardner Minshew is in his second season and not trying to figure out what he's doing on the fly."

"Honestly, probably not," Green Bay Packers reporter Rob Demovsky said. "Yes, both Matt LaFleur and Aaron Rodgers keep talking about how much value Williams still has in their offense. But there's no indication they're going to back off on Aaron Jones' usage. And the addition of a big, powerful back like second-round pick AJ Dillon can't be good for Williams' reps. Plus, who knows how much they'll use gadget back Tyler Ervin, a late-season addition last year who could be a much bigger part of the offense in 2020."

Great question, Scott. ESPN's standard leagues have added an IR spot this year, and players who wind up on the COVID reserve list will be eligible for that spot. League managers can have even more flexibility in ESPN private leagues, where you customize your rules to include up to four IR spots, extra flex or bench spots and even use "Team QB" settings if you like.

Beyond that, it is definitely a good idea for all league commissioners to set up contingency rules in case entire games or weeks get cancelled -- such as whether or not replacement players can be picked up on Sunday afternoons/Monday nights, etc.