What to Expect from Rookie Running Backs (Fantasy Football)

Jul 6, 2017

Samaje Perine is a rookie to target

The excitement of the unknown is hard to resist for fantasy owners. This year, as does every year, brings us a new crop of rookies who are all going to immediately step in and showcase their greatness. And you want all of them on your fantasy team! After all, why settle for old and busted when you can go with the new hotness?

There are a number of rookie running backs being drafted in early mocks – 13 to be exact. I’m going to take you through each of them and discuss what to expect and whether it’s worth it for you to get that guy on your team.

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Leonard Fournette (JAX): ADP 2.10
By the end of the 2015 season, people were already talking about how high Leonard Fournette would be drafted in 2017, so it was not much of a surprise when Jacksonville made him the first running back selected in this year’s NFL Draft. Fournette was taken in the same spot as Ezekiel Elliott the year before. Comparisons are unavoidable. I give credit to the fantasy community for not thinking Fournette will be Elliott. Last year, Zeke was a mid-late first round pick. Fournette isn’t going until the end of the second round. Clearly, people understand the difference. Blake Bortles is terrible. The Jaguars’ offense is nowhere near as good as Dallas’. And the Jaguars have a weaker offensive line (currently ranked 13th).

I still like Fournette a lot at his current ADP. If you want to talk about old and busted vs the new hotness, how about the fact that old and busted Marshawn Lynch is consistently being drafted before Fournette? Just…no (or rather, not yet). While the Raiders have a superior offensive line, the Jaguars have a far superior defense. It might even be elite this year. If that’s the case, expect a far more favorable game script for Fournette, who should see at least 250 carries as well as all the goal line touches. The Jaguars haven’t had a true feature back since the Fred Taylor days (pre Maurice Jones-Drew). If Fournette can just be 75% of Ezekiell Elliott, he should return RB1 value. I like him more than Devonta Freeman, Marshawn Lynch, and Lamar Miller, all of whom are being drafted higher or around the same spot.

Christian McCaffrey (CAR): ADP 3.08
The Christian McCaffrey hype train appears to be out of control, but his ADP is actually not that crazy. He’s still going a little high for my liking, and as the 15th RB off the board, there are enough guys going after him that make me scratch my head. It’s enough to pass on McCaffrey. I don’t think I’ll be owning him in many leagues for a couple of reasons.

This idea that Jonathan Stewart no longer exists is quite misguided. JStew should still be the goal line back and see a workload, at minimum, similar to what he received when DeAngelo Williams was around (around 150 carries seems reasonable). McCaffrey is a rookie back in a timeshare. While rookies can certainly make an impact as part-time players, the type of impact expected with a third-round ADP is something McCaffrey will struggle to reach. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Carolina doesn’t pass to its running backs. Since Cam Newton was drafted, Stewart has 120 receptions. That’s across six seasons. From 2011-2014, with DeAngelo Williams there as well, he caught a total of 60 passes. While I acknowledge the argument that McCaffrey may have been drafted to change that, it’s not something I’m willing to gamble a third-round pick on.

Joe Mixon (CIN): ADP 3.11
I like Joe Mixon. A lot. I think he’s the most gifted and talented running back in this class. Much like McCaffrey, though, there are too many red flags. Mixon’s off-field concerns are enough to justify not drafting him out of principle. But focusing on his talent, it would not shock me to see him as a top 15 pick next year. However, he’s a rookie entering a three-way time share running behind one of the worst offensive lines in the league (only Seattle’s is ranked lower).

Both McCaffrey and Mixon are currently going ahead of the following players: Spencer Ware, Carlos Hyde, Tevin Coleman, and Bilal Powell. Coleman and Powell have already proven they can be effective as the other guy in a timeshare. Hyde is the only guy in San Francisco, albeit on a weak offense. Ware now has two very effective seasons under his belt and his only competition for touches is another rookie (he’s on this list), which will be a 50-50 timeshare at worst. We may very well get more clarity on Mixon’s usage as the season nears and we find out more about how long Giovani Bernard will be out, but right now, there is just too much uncertainty surrounding Mixon.

Dalvin Cook (MIN): ADP 6.07
Dalvin Cook is currently the 29th running back being selected. That seems reasonable, right? Right! WRONG! Please. Please. Please do not draft this guy. Aside from his abysmal workout metrics and horrible SPARQ score, it’s hard to imagine a worse situation. The Vikings had the 29th ranked offensive line in 2016 but somehow have jumped to 14th in this year’s rankings. So we have an average offensive line, but we also have two other running backs! Have people forgotten Latavius Murray not only exists, but was targeted and signed by the Vikings this offseason? I realize the same argument can be made for them going out and drafting Dalvin Cook, but do we really think they signed Murray to not play him? And let’s not forget about Jerick McKinnon’s role as the passing down back. If McKinnon is playing on most third down/passing situations with Cook and Murray splitting the early down work. Even if Cook ends up with the goal line carries (far from a certainty), how exactly is he going to produce? More importantly, why is he going two full rounds higher than Murray? There are at least 10 backs going after him that I’d prefer. Cook is way overvalued and almost sure to disappoint.

Samaje Perine (WAS): ADP 8.03
In the words of Daniel Bryan, YES! YES! YES! I love this guy and I love this ADP. Samaje Perine is going to be the starting running back for the Washington Redskins sooner rather than later. He’s incredibly strong. He has an 88th percentile SPARQ score. And his ADP is in the eighth round. How he’s going after Dalvin Cook is truly shocking. The Redskins have the 11th ranked offensive line and one of the best offenses in the league. Perine’s primary competition for touches is Rob Kelley. I’m sorry Rob. I’m sure you are a nice guy and all. The Fat Rob nickname is cute. But you are not good at football. All of Kelley’s workout metrics are putrid. His SPARQ score is the 2nd percentile. He was awful in college, averaging 3.6 yards per carry. The only reason he was even relevant last year is because Matt Jones is even worse, Keith Marshall got hurt, and Chris Thompson isn’t an early down back. Kelley was forced into the role and, contrary to what people may think, he did not perform well. He had that one monster game against Green Bay with 24 carries for 137 yards and three touchdowns. That was his only 100-yard rushing performance. That was the third game of a three-game stretch where he was the new hotness himself. Over his final six games, he went 14-37, 14-63, 16-63, 9-8, 19-76, and 12-33. He was touchdown or bust – the NFC version of Jeremy Hill (that’s not a good thing). Perine was drafted with a purpose and that purpose is to unseat Kelley. I expect Kelley to be the Week 1 starter the same way Hill started for the Bengals last year and then came out of the game after about two plays. Once Perine gets on the field, he will blow Kelley away. I think his ADP could end up in Round 5 by the time drafts roll around, but if things stay where they are, he’s the top rookie on my board due to his value.

Kareem Hunt (KC): ADP 8.10
Kareem Hunt is a good player. I don’t dislike him. But he’s not unseating Spencer Ware. It’s just not happening. The Chiefs decided that Ware was good enough to let future Hall of Famer Jamaal Charles walk, but not good enough to stave off a third-round rookie? Nonsense. Hunt’s workout metrics are subpar, but he’s certainly better than Charcandrick West. That’s the man whose job he is going to take. West is useless because Hunt is just better at everything West does. Hunt is not better than Ware. Andy Reid will probably use Hunt as the third down/pass catching back even though Ware is better at that, too, because Andy Reid hates winning. Hunt is not going to see much early down work other than to spell Ware, and he’s not getting the goal line carries. If you think the satellite back in the Kansas City Chiefs offense is worth an eighth-round pick, then go for it. I can’t endorse it. I’m not a proponent of handcuffing running backs at all, but if you’re going to draft Hunt, you’re doing so as the Ware handcuff – because that’s what he is. Hunt will have weeks where he puts up RB3/Flex numbers. I’m sure he’ll have RB2 weeks. In the eighth round, you can still acquire higher floor and higher ceiling players with more defined roles and clearer paths to production on better offenses. That sentence went on far longer than I anticipated. As has this review of Hunt. Pass on this rookie in the eighth round.

Marlon Mack (IND): ADP 11.12
Another year. Another rookie that’s going to finally put Frank Gore out of his misery. I will admit to having long departed the Frank Gore express. I don’t like drafting running backs over 30 so Gore hasn’t really even been on my board for years. But the man just won’t die! Is this going to be the year? I think so, but I’ve thought that for three straight years now. And even if it is, will it be Marlon Mack or Robert Turbin? Odds are it will be some sort of a split and unless Gore gets hurt, he will still have a role. Even in the 11th round, I don’t see much upside in a rookie running behind the 22nd ranked offensive line, who, at best, will be in a timeshare.

Jamaal Williams (GB): ADP 12.04
I know it’s the 12th round and, at this point, it’s hard to fail, but come on guys. Seriously? Why is he even being drafted? If something happens to Ty Montgomery, the Packers will probably just throw the ball all the time. But I get it. The running back in an Aaron Rodgers offense has value. If Montgomery gets hurt, here’s a little secret – Williams is not the second best running back on this team. It’s Aaron Jones. Williams’ workout metrics are horrible. His SPARQ score is in the 8th percentile. He’s basically just big and slow. Jones, on the other hand, is small and quick. He was incredibly dominant at UTEP and far better suited for the type of offense the Packers run. I don’t see much value in handcuffing Montgomery, but if you are inclined to do so, just draft Aaron Jones in the last round and let someone else waste a pick on Jamaal Williams.

Joe Williams (SF): ADP 13.02
I know it’s the 13th round and, at this point, it’s hard to fail, but…wait…didn’t I just say this? Oh! It’s a different Williams. Well, the same logic applies. The only reason Joe Williams is even being drafted in mocks is because of these reports that Kyle Shanahan was “pounding on the desk” to get him! Since he’s a rookie, people buy in. Why? Because no one has seen him fail on the NFL level. But no one has seen him succeed either. Carlos Hyde is, by far, the most talented player on the entire 49ers roster. As long as he’s healthy, he will be the feature back. The 49ers 27th ranked offensive line and poor offense, in general, is not exactly exciting to own. You draft Hyde because of his talent and because he’s proven he can thrive in a terrible environment (4.6 ypc last season). If Hyde goes down, you don’t want his backup. There is no “system” making a running back great in San Francisco. Carlos Hyde makes Carlos Hyde great. But why Joe Williams? Why not Tim Hightower, whom the 49ers deliberately signed this offseason? Why not Kapri Bibbs, whom the 49ers deliberately traded for this offseason? They roster Raheem Mostert as well. This idea that Williams is going to take Hyde’s job is poppycock. And even if Hyde were to get hurt, which, admittedly, is likely, I have two questions: 1) Why do you want the backup running back on the 49ers? 2) Why does anyone think it won’t be a committee of some or all of the names I just mentioned? There are no reasons for you to draft Joe Williams outside of deep dynasty leagues.

Alvin Kamara (NO): ADP 13.08
I don’t love Alvin Kamara, but I respect taking a shot on him in the 13th round. I’m not entirely sure if this whole “looking for the next Darren Sproles” idea for the Saints is real or not. But, if there were a guy to be the next Sproles, it’s Kamara. Unlike many other rookies in crowded backfields, I do think there is a clear role for Kamara as the passing down back. This may seem like a three-headed monster of a backfield, but I don’t foresee that being the case. I see the Saints backfield playing out in one of two ways. Right now, Mark Ingram and Adrian Peterson are splitting the early down and goal line work. That’s not going to hold. Either Adrian Peterson is done…or he isn’t. If AP is done, then he’s done. That’s it. He’s too old. Too much mileage. Too many injuries. He will barely play. It will be Ingram on early downs and the goal line with Kamara handling passing situations. If Peterson is not done, then he’s Adrian Peterson. Sorry Ingram. To be honest, I’m not quite sure which outcome is better for Kamara. If AP is still AP, then either the Saints completely ignore Ingram, except to spell Peterson, or they use Ingram on passing downs, which hurts Kamara. If AP is done, then Ingram plays on early downs and Peterson is no threat to Kamara on passing downs given his lack of passing game prowess. Either way, the uncertainty is greater surrounding how Peterson and Ingram will coexist. Kamara is a low risk, decent reward option that can be had for cheap. He’s a guy to keep on your board.

James Conner (PIT): ADP 14.07
Not much to discuss here. James Connor is Le’Veon Bell’s handcuff, if you’re into that sort of thing. As long as Bell is healthy and obeying the law, Connor’s value will be zero.

Final Thoughts

When I was younger, I would always think I was “so cool” to have “discovered” new talent before my friends. As I matured and gained more fantasy experience, I realized that as cool as it is to hit on a rookie, there’s safety and consistency in the guys that have done it before. The average fantasy team will roster 15 players. There just isn’t a good reason to have more than one or two rookies on your team. At least for 2016, this class of running backs projects to be better in real life than fantasy. Samaje Perine is the only rookie RB I would aggressively target. For the rest of them, you’re looking for value. If it’s not there, go with a more established veteran.


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Jason Katz is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Jason, check out his archive or follow him @jasonkatz13.


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