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Impact Rookie Running Backs (2019 Fantasy Football)

by James Esposito
Jun 23, 2019

Justice Hill could leverage his speed into an impact role with the Ravens.

While the 2019 NFL Draft class lacked RB star power in the form of an Ezekiel Elliot, Saquon Barkley, Todd Gurley, or Leonard Fournette, scouts everywhere will tell you how many talented names went off the board after the first and second rounds. Josh Jacobs and Miles Sanders were the only RBs taken prior to the third round, so it’s clear many of these rushers will have to battle for playing time. It’s time to study every depth chart and every player’s college tape to decipher which guys are worth the risk.

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Poised for Major Workload

Josh Jacobs (OAK)
The only RB selected in the first round, Jacobs also projects to be the only every-down back to start the season. Jon Gruden made it clear when he took over as Oakland’s head coach that he wanted to bring back the early 2000s smash-mouth style of football. Jacobs is the physical bruiser Gruden had his sights set on immediately following Marshawn Lynch’s retirement.

Jacobs wasn’t even the starter at Alabama, as he split time with fellow rookie Damien Harris, but he was effective with the touches he did receive. He led all college RBs with a ridiculous 41% of carries resulting in a first down or TD. He has great feet and shiftiness for a 225-pound back and was even clocked at just over 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash at his second pro day. He forced 33 missed tackles on his 121 carries, an impressive rate, but his elusiveness really jumps off the screen when catching passes in the open field. In his college career, he caught 48 of his 56 targets and broke 21 tackles for 12.4 yards per reception. Running backs need to do it all in 2019, and despite his light collegiate usage, Jacobs put his versatility on display every time he touched the field.

David Montgomery (CHI)
Montgomery was the top RB on several scouts’ boards and was even the universal number one RB prospect for most of the 2018 season. He dropped to the third round because he lacks the physical profile that typically excites scouts. If his combine numbers were slightly better, Montgomery likely would’ve been a first rounder, as he is incredibly skilled as a runner and is blessed with absurdly light, acrobatic feet. He led all NCAA runners with 99 missed tackles forced in 2018 and 185 over the last two seasons.

The Iowa State alum has room to grow as a receiver, but that job is Tarik Cohen’s to lose anyway. Montgomery’s ceiling is capped, but he is a productive player who will get the bulk of the handoffs for a team that was sixth in carries last season.

Miles Sanders (PHI)
The Eagles got shredded by Saquon Barkley in 2018. Their response? Draft his successor in the second round. Barkley is bigger and a better receiver, but the rest of their games are closer than most people realize. Sanders was also a huge high-school recruit who makes defenders miss with flashy jump cuts and stutter steps. Sanders’ combine numbers weren’t too far from Barkley. Neither was his final-season rushing stats at Penn State. Barkley finished with 217 carries for 1,271 yards while Sanders followed that up with 220 carries for 1,274 yards.

This argument isn’t Sanders vs. Barkley; it’s just pointing out that Philadelphia’s newcomer isn’t that far behind and is on a much better team with a significantly better offensive line. If the Eagles never made a move for Jordan Howard, Sanders would be worth an early pick in fantasy drafts. Howard is better than he gets credit for and will look better behind the Eagles’ line, but the capital invested in each player is a great indication of how the team views their value. They acquired Howard for an inconsequential future sixth-rounder while making Sanders the franchise’s earliest RB selection since LeSean McCoy.

Question Marks Worth the Gamble

Darrell Henderson (LAR)
Henderson was absolute dynamite out of the backfield last season, totaling 214 carries for 1,909 yards and 22 TDs. He surpassed college legend Reggie Bush with his insane 8.9 YPC. Speed is his specialty, but don’t underestimate his power, as he also averaged a ludicrous 6.16 yards after contact per carry. Sixty-three percent of his career rushing yards are on carries over 15 yards, demonstrating his home-run playmaking ability.

With lingering health questions surrounding Todd Gurley’s knee and sporadic usage to end last season, grab Henderson in as many leagues as possible. Even if Gurley never gives up the number one spot and remains healthy, there will be at least one or two games in which Henderson breaks a few big plays. Gurley owners will likely feel forced to give a valuable asset in return for that safety net Henderson provides. And if Gurley does go down, Henderson’s electric skill set makes him one of the league’s top fantasy RBs.

Justice Hill (BAL)
Hill is a major sleeper heading into the 2019 season, as the odds are currently against him taking over as the Ravens’ go-to back. They just signed Mark Ingram to a three-year, $15 million deal and still have Gus Edwards and Kenneth Dixon on the roster. There’s still reason to be optimistic about Hill, who provides vastly different skills than these other backs.

In the first four rounds, the Ravens spent three picks on speedsters. Hill and Miles Boykin ran the 40-yard dash in 4.40 and 4.42 seconds, respectively. While Marquise Brown didn’t participate in the NFL Combine because of a foot injury, he thinks he could have set a record time if healthy. With Lamar Jackson running the read-option and the speedsters outside, there’s a chance that John Harbaugh plans to become Oregon under Chip Kelly and just wear defenses down with superior speed. Hill is the fastest back on this team, so he’s a high-upside late-round flier you can release pending his early-season usage.

Question Marks Not Worth the Gamble

Devin Singletary (BUF)
A talented, elusive, shifty runner who possesses NFL talent, Singletary ended up in a crowded backfield for a team that will be down often. McCoy, Frank Gore, and T.J. Yeldon have all produced over the last several seasons. Singletary could prove more talented than this trio, but getting on the field will be too much of a hurdle to warrant a selection.

Damien Harris (NE)
Harris, who started over Josh Jacobs, joins a long list of RBs who were hard to stop at Alabama. He’s an intelligent, patient runner with deceptive quickness and a powerful stiff-arm. These tools will sadly be sparingly put on display, as he finds himself behind two talented New England backs in Sony Michel and James White. White will get his receiving snaps, so maybe Harris occasionally spells Michel, but the 2018 first-round pick is too talented to lose a significant portion of work if healthy.

Keep an Eye On

These players are going to be undrafted in fantasy leagues but should be picked up if early signs point to a potential role in the offense.

Benny Snell (PIT)
Snell is a physical force who steamrolls through tacklers. We’ve seen the Pittsburgh line open holes for several different names over the years, so Snell is talented enough to produce there if James Conner goes down.

Ryquell Armstead (JAC)
In Armstead, the Jags get a 220-pound runner who ran a 4.45 40-yard dash. If Fournette fails to enter the 2019 season in proper football shape, the Jags might be so fed up that they decide to lean on the fifth-round rookie.

Karan Higdon (HOU)
The Texans were fourth in carries last season but 19th in YPC. This might finally be the season they try to move on from Lamar Miller. D’Onta Foreman is next in line, but if he fails, Higdon will have a shot to step up. Can Higdon be this year’s Phillip Lindsay as the undrafted surprise of the class? It may take an injury or two before we find out, but Houston has a good offense that offers valuable touches, so it can’t be ruled out.

Rodney Anderson (CIN)
Joe Mixon will be the guy in Cincinnati, but Anderson shined in limited time at Oklahoma. He took over the starting job during the 2017 season, averaging 135 yards at 6.5 YPC over his final eight games. He tore his ACL and missed almost the entire 2018 season, causing him to drop all the way to the sixth round. His fall was completely unrelated to talent.

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James Esposito is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from James, check out his archive and follow him @PropZillaa.

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