Fantasy Football: Rookie Running Back Outlook
This year’s running back draft class is one of the strongest in recent memory. I am a full-on draft nerd, and the running backs are my favorite group to scout. This year’s class was special and we may see an unprecedented amount of them have feature roles in their first year in the league. With more and more teams shifting to running-back-by-committee, it is becoming as important as ever to find a running back in your fantasy draft that will get consistent touches every week. Some of these guys will be the feature back right away, others will need to fight others off for the spotlight, and a number will need a lot to break right, but there are plenty of rookie running backs to keep an eye on during the season.
This set of backs are rookies I expect to have well-established roles and will be consistent members of your lineup by the end of the season. They have both the skill set and the situation to have them succeed this season.
Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars
It doesn’t take a football expert to realize that Leonard Fournette is a talented back. He is well built for the physicality of the NFL and should finally bring some bite and just pure talent to the Jaguars’ backfield. Fournette even flashed some pass-catching ability in the pre-draft process. Should he add that to his game then he may become a star right out of the gate. The Jags offensive line is a bit of a question mark, but Fournette scored in his first preseason game so that is a positive trend. If you are expecting Ezekiel Elliot, temper your expectations, as Zeke had basically the perfect situation to succeed last year, but if anyone can have a similar season this year it is Fournette.
Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers
Of the “must-have backs” McCaffrey has the most competent backfield partner in Jonathan Stewart. However, Stewart’s injury history is well-documented and he just doesn’t have a comparable skill set to McCaffrey. Even if Stewart stays healthy (which is a very big “if”), McCaffrey should see 10+ schemed touches a game, either as a receiver or out of the backfield. I love me a good pass-catching running back, and McCaffrey certainly qualifies in that category. Injuries slowed him down his final year at Stanford but he is ready to rock now and I expect him to be a solid fantasy option all season.
Jamaal Williams, Green Bay Packers
You will not find a bigger Jamaal Williams-believer than me. Williams returned after a year away from the game and ran for 1,375 and 12 touchdowns his senior year at BYU. He may have fallen to the fifth round, but he ended up in the perfect situation in Green Bay. You know your running back situation is bad when Eddie Lacy was “the good times” and your current lead back is a converted wide receiver. Williams doesn’t catch much, but Ty Montgomery is good at that part so they should pair quite nicely. Williams only ran for 14 yards on four carries in their first preseason game, but he was given the most touches of any running back. Williams is in line with Fournette and McCaffrey to receive the most guaranteed touches per game and will likely get the goal line carries in Green Bay. Williams is not getting drafted in most drafts, so snag him as a late round flier or for a $1 in your auctions.
This group is reserved for guys who have the talent to be successful NFL running backs, but the situation they find themselves could limit their production for the upcoming season.
Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings
Cook has the most talent in this group, and also the biggest chance of becoming a lineup regular by the end of the season. The only thing holding him back are his two competent backfield partners, Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon. Neither is more talented, but more capable bodies means more sharing, and we don’t like that in fantasy. In his first preseason game, Cook got nine touches (five carries, four receptions) and picked up 13 yards on the ground and 30 yards through the air. Cook is a future star in this league, so if he becomes the main workhorse, then he is at the minimum a weekly flex option.
Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals
We all know Mixon is a better player than his draft position and he fell for completely justifiable reasons, but he is still one of the most talented backs in this class. Like Cook, Mixon has two capable backs in the backfiled too. Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard (coming off an ACL tear) have never lived up to their potential, so Mixon could take over and become the top guy but I still expect the carries to be well-dispersed among the backs. Mixon may have to wait a year or two before he truly gets to be a fantasy star, but you could do a lot worse when looking for bench options.
D’Onta Foreman, Houston Texans
I was a bit surprised to see Foreman slip all the way to the third round, but he could wind up being a steal. He does have a solid Lamar Miller and a seemingly resurgent Alfred Blue fighting for carries, but Foreman should not be counted out. Foreman showed very well in his first preseason game, running for 76 yards on nine carries (8.4 YPC), and even catching two balls. Should Blue revert back to the player we know he is and Miller struggles between the tackles, expect Forman to get his fair share of carries.
Joe Williams, San Francisco 49ers
Williams is probably the “least” talented of this group, but probably has the smallest obstacle to overcome to become the top guy in San Francisco. All that stands in his way is the underwhelming Carlos Hyde. Williams retired while at Utah but came back after four games and went over 100 yards in every game except one, including a 332-yard (11.4 YPC), four touchdown effort at UCLA. In his first preseason action, Williams made a good impression with 60 yards on seven carries, while competitor Carlos Hyde had three yards on three touches. It also doesn’t hurt that new head coach/offensive mastermind Kyle Shanahan seems to love him, so that should bode well the instant Carlos Hyde slips up (which honestly is probably any day now).
Self-explanatory, but these are guys who it wouldn’t hurt to take a late round flier on or keep an eye on as the season progresses.
Samaje Perine, Washington Redskins
Joe Mixon took all the headlines at Oklahoma the last two years (both good and bad), and Perine was sort of lost in the madness. Combine that with a down season and Perine slipped to the fourth round. None of that should takeaway from the fact that Perine had over 1,000 rushing yards all three years with the Sooners and holds the record for most rushing yards in a game, when he dominated Kansas in 2015 with 427 yards and five touchdowns. Perine doesn’t give you much in terms of receiving (321 yards in three years), but he could be an out-of-nowhere Alfred Morris type. The Redskins backfield seems to have a new top guy every year and I expect one or two of their current backs to have different homes by the end of preseason.
Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints
Kamara has all the talent to be a future fantasy star, but for the time being he has an all-time great and a former Heisman winner in front of him on the depth chart. The element he brings that Peterson and Ingram don’t, is his superb pass-catching ability. In his first preseason game, Kamara had four carries for 35 yards but neither AP or Ingram played. In the Saints pass-happy offense, Kamara could carve himself out a role, but in terms of actual carries, he may have to wait his turn.
Kareem Hunt, Kansas City Chiefs
This is one part underrated running back, one part Kansas City’s backfield revolving door that never seems to stop. Hunt is another back who got lost in the shuffle during the pre-draft process, but he could be a breakout star this year. Hunt totaled a neat 5,500 total yards in his four-year career at Toledo and was scooped up by the Chiefs in the third round. Hunt has been getting a lot of hype in the preseason and was even getting first team reps in training camp. However, Hunt only got two touches in their first preseason game. In his defense, no Chiefs running back had a particularly good game. Hunt does still have three more games to turn it around though. Spencer Ware is the sole person in Hunt’s way, so this will be an ongoing situation to monitor throughout the rest of the preseason and into the regular season.
James Conner, Pittsburgh Steelers
Conner has a phenomenal story and has overcome a lot to get to where he is, but before he became a case study in inspiration, he was a damn good football player at Pitt. In 2014, Conner tallied 1,765 yards and scored an absurd 26 touchdowns en route to being named ACC Player of the Year. His junior year he tore his MCL in the season opener and was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in the offseason. He overcame both of those to run for 1,092 yards and score 16 touchdowns his senior season. He also turned heads (or at least my nerdy draft head) by flashing a pass-catching ability he hadn’t shown in previous seasons.
Another reason Conner is a player to watch is the situation in front of him on the depth chart. Despite missing the first preseason game, I expect Conner to finish the preseason as the #2 back or at least close with Knile Davis. However, the man at the top of the depth chart just so happens to be fantasy star Le’Veon Bell. The thing with Bell is, although he is a stud when he’s on the field, he misses games. In his four seasons, he has only played 16 games once. Add on his current holdout situation, and Bell is in jeopardy of missing the start of the season. I expect the holdout to be resolved, but that could still mean that Bell gets eased into the season due to the missed preseason. Should Bell get hurt or have a slow start, expect Conner to step into the spotlight and possibly steal some carries, maybe even around the goal line.
Jeremy McNichols, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
This is the deepest sleeper on the list, and also my favorite. McNichols was taken in the fifth round out of Boise State, but if you are not an avid Mountain West football fan, or live on the East Coast and don’t like 10:30 PM kickoffs, you probably don’t know much about him. Let me change that. I like to refer to him as “Christian McCaffrey Lite” and over his last two college seasons he had 3,980 yards from scrimmage and had 53 touchdowns. He didn’t just torch cupcakes either. Over those two seasons, in his five games against Power 5 schools and BYU twice, McNichols put up 1,012 total yards and scored 15 touchdowns. He doesn’t have the return ability of McCaffrey but the rest of his game is there.
Now that we know who McNichols is, let’s talk about his situation. Doug Martin is suspended for the first four games and Charles Sims has never shown he can be the lead guy. Meanwhile, Jacquizz Rodgers is the closest in skill set to McNichols, but again has never lived up to his potential. And to top it all off, the Buccaneers have said that Martin is not guaranteed a starring role upon his return. What likely happens is Sims finally puts it together and Martin gets on track, but hey, lets have some fun and give some exposure to one of my favorite players in this class.
Fantasy football is an unpredictable and unforgiving game, but you can never do too much research. Auction drafting for the first time? Read up on my tips and tricks HERE or send me any fantasy football-related questions you have in the comments section or on Twitter (@Rookie_Rhino)! I enjoy sharing my insight and opinions so never be afraid to ask!