More than any other position in football, running backs can enjoy high-end production in their rookie seasons. There is no better evidence of this reality than the fact that a first-year runner has won the NFL rushing title in each of the last two seasons. While quarterbacks, wide receivers, and tight ends usually require a little more seasoning, runners are the readiest to make a difference from day one, and that is unlikely to change at all in 2018.
In 2017, freshman running backs turned the NFL upside down. Players like Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt, Leonard Fournette, and Christian McCaffrey were all highly productive, while Dalvin Cook, Joe Mixon, Aaron Jones, Jamaal Williams, Chris Carson, and Tarik Cohen all flashed potential for stretches as well. Last year’s performance will be a tough act to follow, but 2018’s class of rookies is talented enough that they might pull it off.
While the incoming crop is incredibly deep, there is a definitive group of standouts, or the “big eight,” as I like to call them. These young men have the potential to become immediate contributors in year one and return big-time dividends for your fantasy squad. While some of them face obstacles to a starting role, every one of them has the potential to flourish should things unfold in their favor.
In assessing the big eight, we’re going to take a look at each man’s respective situation, and what needs to happen for him to find success early. Included is every player’s FantasyPros Consensus Average Draft Position (ADP) as a means of referencing what potential value they might offer in re-draft leagues. All data presented applies to standard formats. So let’s start out with the man that many considered the best player in this year’s draft.
Saquon Barkley (NYG) Current ADP: 7th overall, RB6
Make no mistake about it, on this particular list, Barkley is in a tier all his own. One of the best running back prospects in years, Barkley was scooped up by the Giants with the second overall pick of the 2018 NFL Draft, and his combination of talent and projected workload is second to none among his peers. Immediately, he will step in and become a focal point of an offense that also features Odell Beckham Jr., Sterling Shepard, and Evan Engram.
While there isn’t a whole lot of value to be had in drafting a rookie with the seventh overall selection of your fantasy draft, Barkley is as close to a slam-dunk proposition as they come. An incredible size-speed specimen with elite pass-catching prowess, he can do virtually anything he’s asked to.
There isn’t much more to say here. If you get the chance to land this generational talent with an all-but-guaranteed high-volume role, sit back and watch him accumulate fantasy points. A David Johnson-like impact is not out of the question.
Rashaad Penny (SEA) Current ADP 43rd overall, RB21
Whether you agree with it philosophically or not, the Seahawks have shown a revived commitment to the running game this offseason, and bringing in offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer only further proves this point. Penny should be a primary beneficiary of the team’s reinvigorated interest in building a successful ground game. Yes, he may have been one of the more surprising selections of the first round, but make no mistake about it; he possesses incredible talent.
Indeed, the second runner off the board on draft day led the nation with 2,248 rushing yards and finished second in rushing touchdowns with 23, while averaging an impressive 7.8 yards per carry during the 2017 college season. His production and athletic profile impressed the Seahawks’ brass enough that John Schneider spent a first-round pick on a running back for the very first time during his tenure as general manager. In the aftermath of the selection, word emerged that the franchise views Penny as a potential three-down back, which is unsurprising considering the investment, but still notable.
Incumbent starter Chris Carson has been the talk of the team’s offseason so far, but I still like the youngster’s chances of overtaking him prior to Week 1. A big back with impressive speed and a physical running style, the ‘Hawks likely view Penny as the closest they’ve come to a Marshawn Lynch replacement since the veteran’s (initial) 2016 retirement. While his offensive line is iffy and he needs to improve in pass-protection, he will almost certainly be a volume play from day one. The RB21 cost isn’t exactly a premium value, but Penny has all the tools to make good on his lofty ADP.
Derrius Guice (WAS) Current ADP: 44th overall, RB22
In terms of pure running ability, Guice may have been the best back in the class, but he tumbled down draft boards because of unsubstantiated character concerns, and Washington landed him with the 59th overall pick. During the pre-draft process, Guice was the number two back on most rank lists, but ended up being the seventh runner off the board. That’s highway robbery for a talent of his caliber.
The only downside with the former LSU standout is potential workload concerns. Head coach Jay Gruden’s assessment of him as a “first-, second-down banger” early in his career tends to make that pretty clear. And while the rookie has reportedly displayed impressive pass-catching ability in OTAs, the presence of Chris “Slick Hands” Thompson means Guice still likely won’t see much of a third-down role as a rookie.
However, he should quickly surpass Samaje Perine and Rob Kelley on the depth chart as the team’s top runner and earn himself the bulk of the early-down carries in the process. While his value does take a reasonable ding in PPR formats, there is little doubt that his ability between the tackles will make him a fantasy asset right out of the gate.
Sony Michel (NE) Current ADP: 57th overall, RB25
There’s a narrative that New England is a terrible place to find fantasy runners because they often utilize a committee approach to the position, but that’s not true. In fact, some of the most productive running back play has come from Foxborough in recent years. LeGarrette Blount was the overall RB7 in 2016, while Dion Lewis was the overall RB12 a year later. That’s RB1-caliber production from such an alleged fantasy wasteland.
Enter Michel, the first running back the Pats have drafted in the first round since Laurence Maroney back in 2006. Does anyone truly believe that head coach Bill Belichick would invest such draft capital into a player he didn’t intend to utilize early and often?
Now that Lewis has moved onto Tennessee, there’s a thought process that Michel could slide directly into his role. That might be a slight oversimplification, but the fact is, he should be significantly involved from day one.
The Patriots are annually one of the NFL’s best offenses. If Michel can avoid hold onto the football (Belichick hates fumblers), he should enjoy a sizable workload and will likely be presented with plenty of scoring opportunities as long as Tom Brady remains under center. Oh, and you can scoop him up with a late fifth-round pick. What’s not to like?
Ronald Jones II (TB) Current ADP: 60th overall, RB26
As the summer rolls along, I think people are sleeping on Jones a little bit. For a highlight-reel player coming out of a major college program, there seems to be some skepticism about his early-career NFL workload and impact. But there shouldn’t be.
Barber flashed some ability down the stretch in 2017, but still failed to exceed four yards per carry, Sims has been primarily utilized as a receiving back and has had his share of durability issues, and Rodgers has mixed in as a veteran utility player. I can assure you, the Buccaneers didn’t spend the 38th overall pick on Jones to have him sit behind this trio. The former USC Trojan was drafted to be the team’s top back for years into the future and can be a home-run hitter for this offense in a way that none of his competitors can.
The three-game suspension recently handed down to quarterback Jameis Winston means the Bucs will likely need to rely on the running game early in the season, allowing the rookie to see a heavier workload than initially expected. When Winston returns, the Bucs could be a terrific offense, which is even better for Jones’ prospects. There are a lot of rookie runners who find themselves with veteran competition, but Jones might have the easiest path to a starting role of any of them. There’s value to be had here.
Royce Freeman (DEN) Current ADP: 83rd overall, RB33
Sleeper alert. Freeman was underrated as a prospect coming out of college, and as the lowest-drafted man on this list (selected in the third round), he’s going slightly overlooked based upon his ADP. While there’s a lot to like about Freeman, how’s this for a starting point? Per Player Profiler, his closest NFL comparable is Steven Jackson. That will do nicely.
In Denver, Freeman’s main competition for the starting role will be Devontae Booker and De’Angelo Henderson. Booker struggled over the first two years of his career, and was often outplayed by C.J. Anderson, while Henderson is a former sixth-round pick with seven NFL carries to his name. Head coach Vance Joseph has already stated that Freeman could “absolutely” emerge as the team’s lead back, as well. There is a little concern about the incredibly high-volume workload he shouldered at Oregon (1,026 total touches), but if anything, he’s proved that he can handle being a featured runner.
A third-round pick with a strong resume landing on a team with a somewhat unproven incumbent starter? I’m not saying Freeman is Kareem Hunt 2.0, but he could similarly surprise people. Don’t let him sneak up on you. At his current ADP, he could be a potential league winner.
Kerryon Johnson (DET) Current ADP: 87th overall, RB35
The Lions have been the worst running team in football for years now. If you’ve heard that they haven’t had a 100-yard day from a tailback since 2013 one time, you’ve likely heard it a hundred others.
But what about Johnson? Can he be the answer to the team’s long-time rushing woes? Perhaps.
Admittedly, it’s looking like a crowded house in the team’s backfield. Receiving specialist Theo Riddick remains in the mix, the franchise signed veteran runner LeGarrette Blount in free agency, and Ameer Abdullah could still see some action here and there. A rookie tailback in a true committee on the league’s worst rushing attack doesn’t sound too appealing.
But there’s a lot more to this story. The Lions have invested an incredible amount of resources into improving the offensive line in recent years, signing big-money free agents like T.J. Lang and Rick Wagner, while spending first-round selections on Taylor Decker and Frank Ragnow. This unit has been the top priority during Bob Quinn’s tenure as general manager, and this is finally the season where it could all come together.
Furthermore, keeping up with the running theme of draft capital, the Lions gave up their own second and fourth-round picks to move up eight slots and select Johnson with the 43rd overall pick of the draft. The team assigned quite a bit of value to the 2017 SEC Offensive Player of the Year. In short, he’s going to see a lot of touches. It may take some time, but I expect Johnson to be the leader of this committee, and his patient running style could be just what this offense has been lacking.
Nick Chubb (CLE) Current ADP 109th overall, RB43
As a running back prospect, Chubb is as talented as almost anyone on this list, but he didn’t land in the ideal situation from a fantasy perspective. The Browns signed Carlos Hyde in free agency and recently locked up pass-catching stud Duke Johnson for years to come. As such, Chubb will fight for running back snaps on an offense that also includes quality passing game options like Josh Gordon, Jarvis Landry, David Njoku, and Corey Coleman. For Chubb, it’s not a question of ability, but merely opportunity.
But does this mean he can’t make an impact during his first season? Of course not. Recent reports indicate that Chubb has a legitimate chance to lead this backfield in early-down carries, which would be huge for his fantasy prospects.
The Browns could be one of the league’s most improved offenses in 2018, and a role as the team’s lead back could prove to be much more valuable than in years past. If this comes to fruition, Chubb would be a quality contributor and an incredible steal on draft day. Keep an eye on his ADP, however, because it has nowhere to go but up.