The 2015 NFL Draft saw the return of the running back position to the first round; this year, Jerry Jones took that one step further by taking a running back fourth overall. It was a nice flash, but over the next 68 picks only one more running back went off the board. Teams didn’t exactly race to make up for lost time until Day Three, with only four backs off the board through 118 selections before things heated up again with 19 RBs hearing their name called over the final four rounds.
With teams—the Cowboys notwithstanding—clearly devaluing the position, what is the fantasy fallout from this bottom-heavy approach to running backs? More committees, for one thing, with specialized rookies claiming a share of their respective squad’s workload. Here’s a rundown of which backs ended up where and their fantasy prospects in their new projected roles.
EZEKIEL ELLIOTT, COWBOYS 1.04 (OHIO STATE)
The clear-cut top talent on the board, ending up behind the league’s best line, in an offense that will want to run the ball to keep its aging, brittle quarterback upright—no question Elliott landing in Dallas smacks of fantasy success. Even if Darren McFadden stays healthy enough to siphon some carries, the ‘Boys didn’t draft Elliott to sit behind McFadden and Alfred Morris; he’s going to see the field on all three downs. It’ll be difficult for fantasy owners to show restraint on draft day, with Elliott already showing up atop dynasty drafts and in mid- to late first rounds in redrafts—all without having played an NFL snap.
DERRICK HENRY, TITANS 2.14 (ALABAMA)
Teaming the last two Heisman winners in Tennessee actually makes sense, as the Titans can use Henry to take some of the offensive onus off Marcus Mariota and the passing game. Henry and DeMarco Murray provide a formidable, if expensive, one-two backfield punch behind an offensive line the Titans improved with their first round draft pick, but the fantasy ramifications are than now neither looks to be a 20-touch guy. Murray projects to be the pass-catcher, leaving Henry to handle between-the-tackles—and, presumably, goal-line—work. Of course, the Titans have zero long-term commitment to Murray so if Henry lives up to his Alabama press clippings he can claim the feature gig outright as he and Mariota will pace this offense for the next five years—with profitable fantasy results as well.
KENYAN DRAKE, DOLPHINS 3.10 (ALABAMA)
As The Huddle’s RB draft preview piece predicted, Drake’s blazing speed caused him to be overdrafted—the third back off the board. The good news is, he lands in Miami where touches are up for grabs and Adam Gase will find a way to squeeze the most out of Drake’s fleet feet. It’s impossible to project a guy who barely touched the ball 100 times a season in college as anything more than an NFL committee member, but there’s upside to Drake as a Charles Sims type of pass-catching back for the Dolphins. And Jay Ajayi is hardly set as the Miami feature back, so it wouldn’t be out of the question for Drake to at least get a chance at proving to be more than what we saw at Alabama.
CJ PROSISE, SEAHAWKS 3.27 (NOTRE DAME)
Another speedy back with pass-catching skills goes off the board; it’s like the NFL is becoming a pass-centric league. Prosise may offer more upside than Drake in that he’s actually been a feature back, albeit for only a short time after converting from receiver. But his skills may be more of a fit for what Seattle’s offense is transitioning into—less ground-and-pound with Marshawn Lynch retiring, more throw-and-go with Russell Wilson and the Seattle passing game blossoming last season. The Seahawks took a volume approach to replacing Lynch with multiple first-year backs vying for a slice of Thomas Rawls’ pie, but Prosise should be in line for the first—and perhaps largest—piece.
TYLER ERVIN, TEXANS 4.21 (SAN JOSE STATE)
With Lamar Miller signed via free agency, Ervin isn’t being viewed as a feature back candidate. Instead, he’ll bolster Houston’s return game and perhaps see some third-down/pass catching back duties out of the gate. With lack of bulk being Ervin’s biggest question mark, a role that limits his touches but still gets the ball into his hands in space would serve him well—with the fantasy upside of backs like Lance Dunbar, Theo Riddick and Darren Sproles who fill similar roles for their clubs.
KENNETH DIXON, RAVENS 4.36 (LOUISIANA TECH)
A prolific scorer in college—only now-teammate Keenan Reynolds scored more in FBS history—Dixon has the vision, patience and smarts to excel in Baltimore’s system. There is some concern that he doesn’t have enough athleticism to be an every-down NFL back, but he has the size to be battle Javorius Allen and Lorenzo Taliaferro for carries. In addition, Dixon’s pass-catching skills make him a viable replacement for Justin Forsett. Ultimately he could wind up with all the touches, but at minimum he should contend for a significant role in the Ravens’ backfield rotation.
DEVONTAE BOOKER, BRONCOS 4.38 (UTAH)
A knee injury is the primary culprit in Booker’s draft day slide, but if he’s healthy he’s a perfect fit for Gary Kubiak’s offense in Denver. Even if he doesn’t supplant CJ Anderson as the every-down back his pass-catching—80-642 his final two seasons at Utah—should get him on the field ahead of Ronnie Hillman. More than one scouting report called Booker the draft class’s best all-around back this side of Ezekiel Elliott, so don’t let the Day Three designation fool you; he could be the defending Super Bowl champ’s primary ball-carrier as early as this season.
DEANDRE WASHINGTON, RAIDERS 5.04 (TEXAS TECH)
Washington isn’t likely to push Latavius Murray for feature-back carries in Oakland, but there’s little standing between him and a handcuff role. Washington also has skills as a receiver, so he’s a decent bet to get onto the field in some capacity this season.
PAUL PERKINS, GIANTS 5.10 (UCLA )
The Giants were supposedly eyeing Ezekiel Elliott with their first-round pick, but they never got a chance to pull the trigger. But they may have stumbled into something in landing Perkins 150 picks into the draft. There is certainly nothing special on the New York depth chart that would prevent Perkins from seeing playing time, aside from the team’s inexplicable infatuation with the utterly unproductive Andre Williams. Perkins has the pass-catching acumen to replace veteran Shane Vereen in that role, and while he may not be big enough to handle a full workload there’s fantasy value in a complementary gig alongside Rashad Jennings.
JORDAN HOWARD, BEARS 5.11 (INDIANA)
* 2013 & 2014 at University of Alabama-Birmingham
Another team linked to Elliott pre-draft, the Bears also waited until Saturday afternoon to address the running back position. Howard’s skill set has drawn comparisons to guys like LeGarrette Blount, Jeremy Hill and John Fox favorite Stephen Davis. He’s not going to dazzle anyone in the open field, but as a between-the-tackles compliment to Jeremy Langford or Ka’Deem Carey he’s a viable candidate to carve out some immediate fantasy value.
WENDELL SMALLWOOD, EAGLES 5.14 (WEST VIRGINIA)
Smallwood didn’t draw much pre-draft attention despite leading the Big 12 in rushing last year. He’s not a dynamic runner, but he’s skilled in both receiving and pass protection and that could get him on the field in Philadelphia. Smallwood is capable of backing up both the Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles roles, and since Doug Pederson inherited both there’s no long-term commitment to either so a decent showing could lead to a larger share of touches down the road.
JONATHAN WILLIAMS, BILLS 5.18 (ARKANSAS)
Williams seems like a typical Rex Ryan back, a big straight-ahead banger with enough quickness and vision to bring a little something extra to “ground and pound”. His biggest problem, at least initially, is being buried on a depth chart that already has a similar back in Karlos Williams and other talent like LeSean McCoy and Mike Gillislee.
ALEX COLLINS, SEAHAWKS 5.34 (ARKANSAS)
With Marshawn Lynch retired (for now) and Thomas Rawls coming back from injury, it’s no surprise the Seahawks cast a wide net into the rookie running backs pool. Collins was Seattle’s second back selected, but his skill set more closely resembles that of Lynch and Rawls than the team’s other acquisitions. That means he’ll directly battle Rawls if Seattle sticks to a similar offense, or be on the outside looking in if they continue to transition into more of a passing team. Collins’ best bet for immediate fantasy value is if Rawls is slow to return from his injury, so keep an eye on how much action last year’s fantasy free agent find is seeing in training camp.
KEITH MARSHALL, REDSKINS 7.21 (GEORGIA)
At one point Georgia believed Marshall, and not Todd Gurley, would be their next great running back. Instead, a knee injury cost Marshall more than a season and when he returned he couldn’t get back on the field. If his knee is sound he’ll offer an NFL-level size/speed combo with low mileage and high upside. His initial work in Washington could come as a replacement to Chris Thompson in the Redskins’ pass-catching role, and it wouldn’t be all that surprising if he was able to supplant Matt Jones for feature-back work. That’s plenty of upside for a guy who went with the 242nd overall pick.
JOSH FERGUSON, COLTS UDFA (ILLINOIS)
Ferguson isn’t particularly big, but his explosiveness and change of direction ability should play well against defenses spread to protect against the Indy passing game. Despite a fumbling problem he has the hands and route-running acumen to be more than just a pass-catching back. And with Frank Gore the only Colts back with any claim to touches, Ferguson could be in the thick of the competition for a share of the workload.