When thinking about the concept of positional value, running back is at the forefront of the discussion. Outside of the bonafide studs equipped with exorbitant price tags, the position opens up considerably. Among the running backs in the wide open tier, a handful rise to fantasy relevancy each season. In this series of articles, we’ll examine and try to identify running backs on the rise. To be clear, these running backs are not guaranteed to succeed. However, one of our goals in fantasy football is to obtain undervalued, young assets prior to inflection points in their career. Successfully doing so enables us to either capitalize on an increase in value via trade or statistical production. This edition of Running Backs on the Rise will take a look at Steelers’ sophomore Anthony McFarland Jr.
Anthony McFarland Jr. is an intriguing running back with a number of upcoming catalysts that could lead to a significant rise in his fantasy value. A four-star recruit out of Maryland, he elected to remain in state and play his college football for the Terrapins. Impressively, McFarland broke out during his redshirt freshman season and posted the following totals in college.
His statistical output raises the question of why he experienced a decline in production during his second season? While there’s not always one reason, McFarland dealt with a high-ankle sprain throughout that year. At the combine, he showed up healthy and put his trademark speed on full display as evidenced below.
McFarland’s main critiques as he turned pro were: a lack of creativity, questionable pass protection, short yardage situations and durability issues. In the end, McFarland was selected 124th overall (4/18) by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
It was not until Week 3 that McFarland saw his first game action as a rookie. After his impressive debut against the Texans, he saw very limited usage the rest of the season.
Playing behind James Conner and Benny Snell, we simply didn’t get a great look at McFarland during his rookie season. Although he looked solid against the Texans, so did every running back. The rest of the way, McFarland was lightly sprinkled in, hitting five carries on just one occasion.
For any player, the biggest prerequisite to production is usage. Without seeing a healthy complement of snaps and touches, worthwhile fantasy production becomes a pipedream for any back. This, of course, brings us to McFarland’s biggest catalyst as we enter the 2021 NFL season. James Conner, Pittsburgh’s starting running back last season is headed for unrestricted free agency and is almost certain to depart. In his wake, he’ll leave behind 561 snaps, 169 carries and 43 targets. Benny Snell is considered the touch favorite at this moment in time however, backfields can change in an instant. Should Snell enter 2021 as the starter, McFarland would still see the lion’s share of passing work and benefit from an uptick in carries. Given Snell’s general ineffectiveness throughout his two seasons, there’s also a strong possibility McFarland challenges him for the starting role.
Second, the Steelers have recently promoted Matt Canada to offensive coordinator. Canada was the offensive coordinator and head coach at Maryland during both of McFarland’s seasons there. He’s already very familiar with McFarland’s skill set and will understand how to maximize it in his offense. The Steelers are projected to utilize more pre-snap motion, jet sweeps and inside zone. Assuredly, next year’s offense will place more emphasis on running the ball. All of these can be considered strong positives for McFarland’s fantasy outlook.
Third, McFarland will continue to improve and adjust to the NFL entering his second season. His rookie expectations were rightfully low, given the crowded backfield in Pittsburgh and abnormal offseason. Additionally, the Steelers failed to effectively capitalize on McFarland’s strengths last season. With an entire offseason to work on his game with running backs coach Eddie Faulkner, I’m confident he takes a step forward in his development.
Rest assured, McFarland’s 2021 season is rife with unknowns. The Steelers could easily add another running back via free agency or the draft. As such, it’s best to not fall in love with him and instead, treat him as a calculated risk. With his limited sample size, we simply don’t know what McFarland is or is not capable of. Conversely, his immediate future is littered with catalysts that could cause his value to spike. At his current valuation and only 22 years of age, McFarland is an intriguing acquisition with a favorable risk/reward profile.
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