The 2017 rookie RB class was a good one, especially in terms of fantasy value. It produced six RBs that fantasy owners can feel confident in starting in 2018: Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Joe Mixon, Alvin Kamara, and Kareem Hunt. Also, we have guys like Tarik Cohen, Aaron Jones, and Jamaal Williams that will have solid fantasy value this season.
Today, we’re not here to talk about the guys you know. We’re here to talk about the guys you don’t know. There were several more RBs to enter the league last season.
When I say “don’t know,” I know you’ve heard of these guys, but none of them had any significant fantasy value last season. Some of them will remain irrelevant. Some of them saw their situations improve. Some of them aren’t in ideal situations, but still may have a path to value. Let’s take a look at a few sophomore RBs and what we can expect from them in 2018.
D’Onta Foreman (HOU)
I firmly believe D’Onta Foreman was poised to wrest the primary RB job away from the incredibly mediocre Lamar Miller. His hopes were dashed when he tore his Achilles last November. An Achilles injury is especially tough to recover quickly from and a guy like Foreman, who relies more on straight-line speed than lateral agility. Players like that cannot afford to lose anything on their burst.
Foreman is still the clear backup to Miller, but has no standalone fantasy value if he enters the season that way. There remains a possibility Foreman can recover fully in time for preseason and make his claim for the starting job. If he is unable to play or starts the season on the PUP list, he opens the season as nothing more than a handcuff. However, once Foreman is fully healthy, keep an eye on him because, in situations like this, talent tends to eventually win out so it may only be a matter of time before Foreman earns himself a 50% opportunity share.
Samaje Perine (WAS)
I aggressively targeted Samaje Perine on all of my teams last season. I knew Rob Kelley was complete garbage at football – one of the least talented players at any position in the league. So naturally, with Perine being the rookie and the clear backup, I figured it was only a matter of time before he usurped Kelley. I was correct, but mostly by accident.
Obviously, it is no secret that my evaluation of Kelley’s talent was correct. Unfortunately, Perine struggled with some fumbling early in the season, and Jay Gruden elected to keep the useless Kelley on the field. Perine only eventually took over due to injury.
More problematic was the emergence of Chris Thompson as a real weapon. He soaked up all the RB value and only ceded the floor after he got hurt as well. Perine got his extended audition and mostly struggled behind a Washington offensive line ravaged by injuries.
I wasn’t as excited about Perine’s 2018 prospects, but thought he could be a value if he lasted until the double-digit rounds. That all changed when Washington drafted Derrius Guice. They did not spend a second-round pick on Guice to leave him on the sidelines. Guice will operate as the early-down back with CT reprising his role as the passing down back.
Perine is right back to where he began 2017 — as a pure handcuff — except this time he’s behind a much more talented player. Perine is not worth drafting in standard-sized leagues of any format.
Matt Breida, Joe Williams, and Jeremy McNichols (SF)
I will preface this by stating there is still the off chance the 49ers sign DeMarco Murray, but I wouldn’t consider it likely. Assuming no Murray, the 49ers have Jerick McKinnon locked in as their primary back followed by a medley of inexperienced players. After not drafting a single RB, Kyle Shanahan has committed to JMK, but McKinnon can’t see 100% of the snaps.
Even a 70% opportunity share would be excessive in my book. Last season, it was Matt Breida operating as the change of pace back behind Carlos Hyde. He should get the first crack at the job, but didn’t excel in that role last season and was one of the worst pass blockers according to Pro Football Focus with a 38.8 grade. Despite his tremendous athleticism, Breida consistently underperformed based on his metrics both as a runner and a receiver.
Joe Williams’ legend stems from Shanahan allegedly “pounding the table” to get this guy. Williams is not an NFL level player even if he wanted to be, which is definitely in question since he legitimately quit football for a year. Having not played a single snap in 2017, Williams is essentially a rookie this season — a 25-year-old rookie. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was cut.
The door is certainly open for Jeremy McNichols to seize the primary change of pace role away from Breida. McNichols was a prolific producer during his final two seasons at Boise State, but being a fifth-round pick without draft capital, he was cut by the Bucs before the season started after making too many mistakes in Training Camp and preseason games. The 49ers picked him up because he was excellent in college and has a tremendous athletic profile.
As of right now, Breida is probably the favorite for the backup job, but keep an eye on McNichols should anything happen to McKinnon. There is no realistic scenario where Williams ever has any fantasy value (as in for his entire career). For now, I wouldn’t draft any 49ers RBs other than the starter.
Marlon Mack (IND)
Although the Colts didn’t go as far as the 49ers in completely ignoring the RB position in the draft, they did not spend any early draft capital on the position, electing to draft WR/RB hybrid Nyhiem Hines and the quintessential early-downer, Jordan Wilkins. While I expect both of these players to have roles, Marlon Mack is the incumbent and the favorite to receive at least a 50% opportunity share.
Now, a lot of his productivity hinges on Andrew Luck as the ceiling of all Colts players increases with Luck under center. I have gone on record numerous times with my belief that is more likely than not that Luck’s NFL career is over, so take that for what it’s worth.
As for Mack himself, he was used heavily at South Florida and is the most suited to be a three-down back on the roster. He was mainly used as the passing down back last season with 87-year-old Frank Gore handling early-down carries, but there’s nothing in Mack’s athletic profile suggesting he can’t handle the workload. He was top 15 in both juke rate and yards created per carry last season and second in breakaway run rate. If Mack’s value remains depressed, he could be one of the steals of 2018 drafts.
De’Angelo Henderson (DEN)
Last season, rookie De’Angelo Henderson was buried behind C.J. Anderson, Devontae Booker, and Jamaal Charles. This offseason, the Broncos let Charles and Anderson walk, which, at the time, left only Booker in Henderson’s way. Unfortunately for Henderson, the Broncos then went and drafted four-year starter Royce Freeman.
The Oregon product is fully capable of handling a three-down workload and is a competent pass catcher. Booker saw increased usage as the season progressed, indicative of some level of commitment to him from Broncos coaches. This leaves Henderson in a precarious position.
As a sixth round draft pick, the team is not heavily invested in him. They’ve expressed a desire to use Booker more and spent a third round pick on Freeman. Henderson will turn 26 this season, while Freeman is only 22. I have a hard time seeing any path to success for Henderson.
Austin Ekeler (LAC)
An undrafted free agent from something called Western State, Austin Ekeler entered 2017 unlikely to have any meaningful role. He played just 12 total offensive snaps over the first quarter of the season. Then, it was like a switch went off in Anthony Lynn’s head, and from Weeks 7-14, Ekeler averaged around 30% of the offensive snaps.
He was legitimately eating into Melvin Gordon’s workload. Ekeler was poised to enter 2018 as the clear change of pace back and someone who was one clear step away from weekly RB2 value should something happen to Gordon.
Unfortunately, the Chargers drafted Justin Jackson in the seventh round. Normally, a seventh round rookie wouldn’t concern us, but, for starters, that’s still more draft capital than Ekeler has. More importantly, Jackson has 4.52 speed with upper percentile burst and agility.
Ekeler profiles as the more athletic player, but Jackson profiles as the prototypical satellite back. I won’t go so far as to say Jackson is sure to jump Ekeler on the depth chart, but it is definitely going to be an offseason positional battle to monitor. The primary backup to Gordon, if there is one, has handcuff value (if you’re into that sort of thing) and potentially deeper league standalone value if he is commanding a 30% opportunity share.
Chris Carson (SEA)
Few teams have mismanaged the RB position worse than Seattle. They are constantly shuffling their backfield without doing anything to address the real problem — the offensive line.
Notwithstanding his status as an undrafted free agent, Chris Carson burst onto the scene last preseason and ended up securing the primary RB job by Week 1. Carson’s weekly snap count exceeded 50% in each of his four games played last season. Unfortunately, his season was cut short due to a devastating leg injury.
Carson is back healthy, but despite being a 75th percentile SPARQ athlete, the Seahawks are clearly not buying him long term. The team selected Rashaad Penny in one of the biggest reaches of the draft late first round. The abysmal nature of that pick aside, you don’t spend a first-round pick on an RB to leave him on the bench and Pete Carroll has described Penny as a three-down back (even though Penny has serious pass blocking concerns).
Carson is completely off the fantasy radar. Even if he operates as the main backup, he will lose passing-down work to C.J. Prosise for the limited games that Prosise is actually healthy and then to J.D. McKissic. This is Penny’s backfield now and Carson will need an injury to Penny in order to be worth anything.
Corey Clement (PHI)
This notion that Corey Clement is a receiving back seems to have come out of nowhere. Clement only caught more than one pass in just a single regular season game. Recency bias has clouded everyone’s judgment as Clement caught four passes for 100 yards in the Super Bowl and a total of 10 in his three postseason games.
Regardless, Clement is a capable pass catcher and is a better player than Jay Ajayi. However, the Eagles are smart and do not heavily invest in the RB position because they understand its replaceability. With Darren Sproles expected to return to a prominent role, this will once again be a three-headed monster with no single back commanding any significant market share. Clement is on the fantasy radar, but his actual value is a huge question mark heading into 2018.