There’s little question Ezekiel Elliott is the top running back in this class, a three-down workhorse with no discernible weaknesses to his game. He’s expected to go off the board in the first round, making it back-to-back drafts with running backs in the opening frame. Derrick Henry could creep into the mix as well, but more likely his name is called early on Day 2.
After that, things get interesting.
The 2016 crop of running backs includes backs to fill all sorts of committee needs, but if you’re seeking a back with three-down potential the list gets significantly shorter. At or near the top of that list are Kenneth Dixon, who was wildly productive against a lesser level of competition in Conference USA; and Devontae Booker, who turned in two big seasons at Utah but saw his college career end prematurely due to a knee injury.
Both backs sport a feature-back frame and pedigree. Dixon is 5-10, 215 and posted three 1,000-yard seasons at Louisiana Tech, averaging at least five yards per carry in each of his four seasons. For his career he scored the second-most touchdowns in FBS history while racking up 5,452 yards from scrimmage on 889 career touches.
Scouts love his football IQ as well as his vision and patience, and many consider him the best pass-catching back in this draft class. The concern is that the same size and burst Dixon used to dominate Conference USA won’t fare as well in the NFL. That same charge was leveled against Thomas Rawls last year or Ahmad Bradshaw when he entered the league: how would these smaller-school successes hold up against the big boys? Both have managed just fine on Sundays.
Booker, 5-11 and 219, rolled up 3,397 yards from scrimmage and 23 touchdowns on 640 touches in two seasons at Utah after two years at a junior college. Even before minor meniscus surgery in November Booker wasn’t known for elite speed, and while he didn’t run at the Scouting Combine he’s been working out and rehabbing at EXOS so the injury shouldn’t be a factor heading into training camp.
What Booker does bring to the table is balance and quick feet, drawing comparisons to LeSean McCoy though he isn’t nearly as shifty. He’ll be best served in a zone system, and his receiving skills should keep him on the field on third downs as well.
Of course, opportunity will be the key in determining which—if either—have immediate fantasy impact. The possibility that Booker’s knee won’t be fully sound in time for him to fully participate in OTAs could set him back as well. And both backs have a receiving skill set that should allow them to at minimum push their way into a committee role on Sundays.
If you’re hoping to land a full-fledged feature back in your dynasty draft, and you have to make your pick before the NFL places Dixon and Booker, the safer choice for an early fantasy helper is Dixon. A more long-term plan, however, tabs a fully healthy Booker as a three-down back with the talent to carry an NFL—and fantasy—team.