Fantasy football loves rookie running backs for a good reason. They are the best position for immediate production given the chance and are the closest to “plug and play” on the roster. Wide receivers no longer require three seasons to break out but still offer much risk. Quarterbacks rarely offer a fantasy start in their first year and freshman tight ends never matter. But running backs can pay off in Week 1.
The position has become devalued in NFL and fantasy terms in recent years. That only serves to make the fewer top players even more valuable. 2017 is expected to produce at least three backs taken in the first two rounds and there is a very strong consensus for that group. After them, the order becomes far less predictable and first year expectations drop sharply.
Forget the “best man available” mantra. Taking a player in the first two rounds says this is a team need and the expectation is that they will become a starter quickly if not immediately. Here are the three rushers that are most expected to become difference makers.
Leonard Fournette (6-0, 240 lbs., Louisiana State)
Fournette is the best of the position and the “Ezekiel Elliott” of this draft (if such exists). The LSU-product is not only expected to be the first back drafted, he should be a top ten pick. A starter for all three seasons, he was a Heisman finalist during his sophomore year when he rushed for 1,953 yards and scored 23 touchdowns. He was also the USA Today National High School Offensive Player of the Year.
He was limited to only seven games as a junior due to a high ankle sprain that would dog him for the entire year. He still managed to set a school record with a 287-yard effort against Ole Miss. He finished college with a 6.2 yard per carry average while playing in the SEC.
He offers a powerful, big-man style of running and yet is as fast as most wide receivers. He’s tough to bring down at the line and even harder to catch when he breaks through. Fournette is that one back that is strongly expected to excel and will be a primary back for an NFL team from the first week.
Christian McCaffrey (5-11, 202 lbs., Stanford)
There is a consensus that both McCaffrey and Dalvin Cook are the next best though opinions differ as to which deserves the second spot. The only knock on McCaffrey – if it is even legitimate – is that he is smaller than the prototypical running back at right around 200 pounds. Beyond that, there is little not to love about the Stanford rusher.
He broke out as a sophomore with 2,019 rushing yards over 14 games while adding 45 receptions as well. Last season, he ruffled some feathers when he declined to play in the Sun Bowl and instead prepare for the NFL draft. McCaffrey was a dynamic, all-purpose star at Stanford with 99 career receptions and set a single-game school record with 284 rushing yards.
He gained 3,864 all-purpose yards in 2015 to break Barry Sanders’ single-season NCAA record. In addition to being an electric runner and receiver, McCaffrey also returned 34 punts and 56 kickoffs with stellar results. In any offense that exploits his many talents, McCaffrey offers significant fantasy value as a rookie.
Dalvin Cook (5-10, 210 lbs., Florida State)
As a freshman, Cook shared carries with Karlos Williams at Florida State. He took over for the last two seasons at Florida State while racking up around 2000 total yards and 20 touchdowns in each. Cook broke the single-season school record for rushing yards as a sophomore and again as a junior. He also broke Warrick Dunn’s career rushing record when he finished with 4,464 yards.
Cook also was a dual-threat with great open field ability when catching the ball. His size will keep him from being a short-yardage player in the NFL but he was a great red zone runner. He should flourish as either a single back or following a fullback. His 13 career fumbles could be a draft day issue but he’s been a complete back with elite skills. He’s an ideal addition to an offense with a formidable passing offense where his speed and edge rushing ability are a better fit than a power rushing scheme.
Rookie running backs are most sensitive to the team situation and being an early pick is no guarantee of success. But Fournette, McCaffrey and Cook will be the first three taken and with that carry expectations of success. The position it is all about opportunity and the earlier the draft pick – the more certain the chance to play.