Studying the Understudies Running Back Edition

In Part 2 of our understudy series, we will be taking a look at backup running backs that could become fantasy studs if given the right opportunity. Running Backs are somewhat different than QBs, as they can still have a role even while not officially “starting”. These backs have the talent to become starters, so let’s take a look at these cheap options with massive upside.

Tony Pollard

Pollard is slotted in as the backup to Ezekiel Elliott, which would usually mean minimal opportunities. However, Tony is not your average running back. In the lost season after Dak Prescott was injured in 2020, Pollard showed that he had some juice. It culminated when Pollard started Week 15 against the 49ers with Elliott on the sidelines, and he turned 18 carries into 132 yards and two touchdowns. That stat line showed that Pollard could handle a workload even with the presence and contract of Elliott. Tony has breakaway speed that Elliott can no longer match in the open field while showing the vision and burst necessary to be a force in between the tackles. He’s also proven to be an asset in the passing game, and while he came into the league as a liability in pass protection, Pollard has worked hard in that department that the coaching staff feels that he can be trusted in blitz pickup. There doesn’t seem to be a way to the starting spot for Pollard unless Elliott has to miss some time, but he should get enough work that he can be a viable flex consideration with RB1 upside if the circumstances present themselves. 

AJ Dillon

AJ Dillon was universally panned when he was drafted in the second round, not because of his talent, but because the Packers already had two capable backs in Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams. Dillon barely got any playing time all year, being buried on the depth chart. He finally got his opportunity at a large workload in Week 16, and he took full advantage of the opportunity to the tune of 124 yards and two touchdowns in a blowout win. He gave the Titans defense a taste of their own medicine, crushing defenders in his wake. Dillon was able to bulldoze through defenders at nearly 250 pounds while showing enough speed and balance through contact to be more than just a short-yardage option. The thing that Dilon needs to improve on is his pass-catching and pass protection work. Jamaal Williams left in the offseason for Detroit, allowing Dillon to move up the depth chart. Dillon might be in line to snag some goal-line carries in the Packers offense, though Jones does remain. Having signed a new contract in the offseason, Jones will be the starting back for the foreseeable future, thus limiting Dillon’s upside. Dillon is still worthy of a role and has massive upside if Jones were to miss any time. 

Xavier Jones

The Rams backfield was set in stone heading into the 2021 season. Cam Akers was in line to get the bulk of the carries in the revamped offense led by new QB Matthew Stafford. Darrell Henderson returned as the backup running back that was gonna get some carries to give Akers a breather. Things rapidly changed as Akers tore his ACL, thrusting Henderson into the starting role. This opened the door for an RB to carve out a role as the no. 2 in the offense. Enter Xavier Jones, an undrafted free agent from 2020 out of SMU. He ran for 1,276 yards and scored 25 total touchdowns in his senior year and impressed Rams brass enough that he earned a spot on the roster. A year later and with experience in Sean Mcvay’s system under his belt, Jones looks to get some playing time in the regular season. The SMU product has been impressing in camp, and that has begun translating on the field. In the preseason opener, he was involved as a rusher and as a pass-catcher, and he did not disappoint. Henderson does not seem to be in danger of losing the starting job, but Xavier should beat out rookie Jake Funk to get some snaps when it counts.