The NFL draft produces fantasy-relevant backs every year – a bit less so in recent seasons. But the halo-effect of Ezekiel Elliott’s rookie year should have at least a minor impact on teams looking to upgrade their backfields. Nothing impacts current year plans like what happened the previous season. In a league rife with committee backfields, any greater value and use of the running back position is a good thing for fantasy football.
The early rounds produce the most interesting backs given that their teams are paying more for them. Drafting the best available player sounds great, but the reality is that those first few picks have to address needs or the draft pick is wasted. Developing players for years before using them just never happens anymore.
To follow are the teams most likely to draft an early round running back and offer them an opportunity to become a primary back. What actually happens depends on many variables. And there are still a handful of aged veterans out there that likely land after teams see what the draft gave them. Adrian Peterson, DeAngelo Williams, Jamaal Charles, Justin Forsett, LeGarrette Blount and Rashad Jennings are still available. Even Marshawn Lynch is apparently still in play.
Detroit Lions – Two years of offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter twice resulted in a 30th ranking for running back carries. But this is also an offense that has turned into a top ten team for throwing to the running backs. The Lions have not featured a dominant running back literally since Barry Sanders retired 19 years ago. In 2016, no Lions rusher ran the ball more than 92 times. Ameer Abdullah was a second round pick in 2015 that has been unable to remain healthy and hasn’t been the answer.
This offense could reach for a top back or wait and add yet another warm body to the committee. Theo Riddick is an outstanding third down back but struggles to remain healthy. A top running back would help but this remains a pass-first scheme that will rely on Matt Stafford. Selecting a top back would signal a change in offensive philosophy which is possible but not probable.
Green Bay Packers – The Packers produce about average overall stats for running backs – maybe a bit better than most. But 2016 saw them drop like a rock to only 31st in rushes (292) and finish with the worst year for running backs in recent memory. Eddie Lacy is now gone and best of the bunch is only converted-wideout Ty Montgomery.
Lacy ran 284 times as a rookie (1178 yards, 11 TDs) but declined over the last three years. The Packers could make an early play for a running back and in this offense any starter is immediately a fantasy option. The Packers at least need more running back depth and may opt to find a new primary back.
Jacksonville Jaguars – Considered a very strong candidate to grab a top back if not the very first one selected. The Jaguars have remained in the bottom five for running back carries every year since Maurice Jones-Drew left. The offensive line has a lot to do with that but so does the level of talent in the backfield. That is expected to change with a very early selection this year. Doug Marrone is the new head coach but Nathaniel Hackett is back for his second year as offensive coordinator.
T.J. Yeldon was a second round pick in 2015 but totals only three career rushing scores and never more than 182 carries in a year. Adding Chris Ivory last year produced predictably mediocre results. The Jaguars already have the core of a good passing offense and getting more from the ground game would be a major benefit. Improving the offensive line is a must though or any rookie back will face a big disadvantage.
Kansas City Chiefs – Jamaal Charles is gone and the Chiefs will look to the NFL draft to get help or even groom a new primary back. Spencer Ware wore down last year and never ran for more than 70 yards in any of his final nine games. This offense works best with a top back that can both rush and receive. When Charles was healthy, the Chiefs were top-ranked in running back total yards, catches and touchdowns. The Chiefs do not feature a passing game that is even average.
Charcandrick West remains a complement and C.J. Spiller was added for depth. But there is an obvious need in the backfield with Jamaal Charles moving on and Ware not producing confidence by the coaching staff. A highly drafted back that can both rush and catch would rightfully start the hype machine in Kansas City.
New York Giants – There is an expectation that the Giants will reach for a running back earlier than later. This will be the second season for both head coach Ben McAdoo and offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan. Their 2016 fifth round pick of Paul Perkins had a few good moments and if no moves are made he will be the primary this year. But Perkins did nothing to suggest he would provide any advantages to the backfield.
Rashad Jennings was released and journeyman Shaun Draughn signed but this team remains in need of a back with a proven record – or at least reasonable potential – to fill the primary role. The Giants added Brandon Marshall to an already top tandem of receivers so any running back will enjoy never being the primary focus of the defense. This could well remain a committee with marginal fantasy results but adding a top back could change that.
Oakland Raiders – Allowing Latavius Murray to leave signals a need to replace his role. Last year added fifth rounder DeAndre Washington and UFA Jalen Richard but neither is expected to take a leading role. This situation is almost certain to be addressed by signing Marshawn Lynch but failing that – the Raiders need backfield help.
Philadelphia Eagles – Head coach Doug Pederson and offensive coordinator Frank Reich took over in 2016 after Chip Kelly stripped much of the talent. They added fifth rounder Wendell Smallwood but only got 77 carries from him. But the Eagles remained in the top ten in most running back categories as a team. No single rusher did much though and the offense would be better served with a young, talented back.
Ryan Matthews cannot stay healthy and now is 30 years old. Smallwood never showed much spark as more than a relief player. Darren Sproles is 34-year-old third down back who is tight-roping across the career abyss while hoping for no strong winds. There is a place here for a new primary back but other team needs may take precedence.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers – This could be a spot where the team opts for a top back or ignores the position in the NFL draft. Doug Martin still has four years on his current contract and gets $7 million for 2017. But he also has been in rehab and is suspended for the first three games of this season. And he reverted to the same lackluster play that dogged him in 2013 and 2014. Hamstring woes also limited him to only eight games last year. Charles Sims is the 2014 third rounder who has proven to have injury problems and hasn’t advanced his case to be more than a complement.
The Buccaneers also re-signed Jacquizz Rodgers so the backfield may repeat 2016. But this offense craves a better running game and may reach up for a new primary back. It would need to be a first or second round pick to foster hope that the rookie would be more than just another feature to a committee.
Washington Redskins – After three years with head coach Jay Gruden, the Redskins remain average in running back production. Alfred Morris left last year and the Skins mostly relied on UFA Robert Kelley who ended with 168 carries. Kelley may remain the starter and even Gruden himself said that Kelley had a “great, great year” as a rookie.
But there is precious little else on the roster at running back and the Redskins need to at least upgrade their depth. There is still an outside chance that the Skins dip into the running back bucket early enough to expect a challenge for the lead role.