Fantasy football rookie preview: Running backs

Fantasy football rookie preview: Running backs

Rookie Analysis

Fantasy football rookie preview: Running backs

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Now that we have had some time to digest the NFL draft and its aftermath, us fantasy footballers are excitedly waiting to add some of the rookies to our fake teams. Deciding which players have fantasy worth in 2020 comes down to assessing the likelihood of meaningful playing time. The following players are ranked in order of anticipated opportunity and corresponding value.

(Alicia Devine, Tallahassee Democrat)

Most immediate impact

Cam Akers | Los Angeles Rams | 5-10, 217 | Florida State

Year
Team
Att
Yds
Avg
TD
Long
Rec
Yds
Avg
TD
2017
FSU
194
1,024
5.3
7
63
16
116
7.3
1
2018
FSU
161
706
4.4
6
85
23
145
6.3
2
2019
FSU
231
1,144
5.0
14
50
30
225
7.5
4

Akers is a do-all weapon out of the backfield and has been highly productive when given the chance. He’s tasked with taking charge of a faceless backfield. While Todd Gurley remained lethal around the stripe, he ran for a career-low 857 yards on 223 carries (3.8 per attempt). The entire offense lagged in comparison to the prior year.

Part of Akers’ assignment will be to share the workload with some combination of veteran grinder Malcolm Brown and 2019 third-rounder Darrell Henderson, whose rookie season was a thorough disappointment. Sometimes it takes a year or two for everything to click, even at running back, but it’s not like Gurley was entirely on point, either.

This one is all about the opportunity to steal as many backfield handles as Akers can get his mitts on … and make no mistake about it, the Rams will roll with the hot hand as much as possible. Akers has the makings of a dual-threat asset for PPR gamers, somewhere in the RB2 or flex range for most league formats.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire | Kansas City Chiefs | 5-7, 208 | LSU

Year
Team
Att
Yds
Avg
TD
Long
Rec
Yds
Avg
TD
2017
LSU
9
31
3.4
0
10
3
46
15.3
0
2018
LSU
146
658
4.5
7
47
11
96
8.7
0
2019
LSU
215
1,414
6.6
16
89
55
453
8.2
1

Some see Maurice Jones-Drew, but Devonta Freeman is probably the better NFL comp. Edwards-Helaire is one determined fella, and his skills in the passing game give the creative KC offensive brain trust so many possibilities. There are other backs in the mix — as there should be in today’s NFL — looking to challenge the rookie. When healthy, Damien Williams has performed about as well as anyone could expect in the past two years. He’s also not an every-down performer, despite having the skills to play all three downs. Edwards-Helaire provides a better option for the Chiefs inside of the 5-yard line.

The former Tiger also has to deal with Darwin Thompson and DeAndre Washington. Both have traits that could earn them a few touches per contest. It shouldn’t be taken for granted that a rookie automatically is the top guy in the backfield, regardless of draft placement, and especially in a pandemic shutdown. Talent typically wins out. Translation: Washington would have signed elsewhere as a starter, and Thompson would have flashed more last year. Give CEH the benefit of the doubt as an RB2-lite … he will have games of studly contributions but also may get lost in the shuffle of an offense that is about as lethal as they come through the vertical game. It’s hard to rack up fantasy points when you’re watching the offense score on abbreviated drives due to Tyreek Hill and Co.

D’Andre Swift | Detroit Lions | 5-8, 212 | Georgia

Year
Team
Att
Yds
Avg
TD
Long
Rec
Yds
Avg
TD
2017
UGA
81
618
7.6
3
71
17
153
9.0
1
2018
UGA
163
1,049
6.4
10
83
32
297
9.3
3
2019
UGA
196
1,218
6.2
7
47
24
216
9.0
1

One could argue Swift is the best overall back in the 2020 class without facing much contention. The better discussion is whether Detroit needed him, but we’ll save that for another day. The Lions clearly want to run the ball and take shots when required or strategic. Kerryon Johnson has the flimsiest of grasps on the starting job entering the summer — no offseason program works in his favor. Durability issues do not, and that’s the ticket for Swift, even if he doesn’t see a single snap of on-field work prior to Week 1.

Both backs undoubtedly acquit themselves in the passing game, and neither is truly built for an every-down pounding. The offensive system has generated a few studly campaigns through the years (Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch say hello). The major doubt should come from whether the defense will allow the offense to remain committed to the ground game. Swift’s pass-catching talents will come into play in this area. In PPR, the former Bulldog is a safer option as a borderline No. 2 fantasy back. He easily approaches RB1 status with a long-term Johnson injury.

Jonathan Taylor | Indianapolis Colts | 5-10, 226 | Wisconsin

Year
Team
Att
Yds
Avg
TD
Long
Rec
Yds
Avg
TD
2017
WIS
299
1,977
6.6
13
75
8
95
11.9
0
2018
WIS
307
2,194
7.1
16
88
8
60
7.5
0
2019
WIS
320
2,003
6.3
21
72
26
252
9.7
5

How many backs can say they averaged more than 2,000 yards for three straight years? You’re looking at him. Taylor is, in fact, the second back (Troy Davis 1995-96) to consecutively break the 2,000-yard barrier. No one with any experience evaluating college and professional football will tell you with a straight face that it translates to the NFL in any apple-to-apple sense. The one true correlation is mileage … a human body can take only so much, especially at running back, before it says no mas.

Only dynasty leaguers care if he plays beyond 2020. In single-year formats, the Year 1 utility of Taylor remains in question. The most talented back in Indy, he’s still a rookie entering an offseason without an on-field program. The Colts also have Nyheim Hines in the aerial game, an area in which Taylor’s game needs refinement anyway. One has to believe Taylor will outright steal the No. 1a work from Marlon Mack, which is dubious, or that Mack will once again lose time to injuries, which is seemingly inevitable. It also makes valuating Taylor beyond frustrating. If Mack were to get hurt in Week 1, we could be talking about a Rookie of the Year candidate. Conversely, how much utility do gamers get from drafting Taylor as, say, an RB3 and he only shares touches evenly with Mack all year? But at least that offensive line is elite!

Ke’Shawn Vaughn | Tampa Bay Buccaneers | 5-10, 214 | Vanderbilt

Year
Team
Att
Yds
Avg
TD
Long
Rec
Yds
Avg
TD
2015
ILL
157
723
4.6
6
78
16
119
7.4
0
2016
ILL
60
301
5.0
3
65
9
89
9.9
0
2018
VAN
157
1,244
7.9
12
78
13
170
13.1
2
2019
VAN
198
1,028
5.2
9
75
29
286
9.9
1

Opportunity often overshadows talent. That is exactly what is going on in this case. Vaughn is a talented back but has limitations (athleticism and fluidity). There also is the huge issue of being a starter, or even the largest portion of a touch share, still isn’t all that large in comparison to other primary backs. The Bucs didn’t sign Tom Brady and trade for Rob Gronkowski to hand it off to a mediocre rookie back all day. Then there’s Ronald Jones and rookie Raymond Calais in the mix.

Vaughn still could manage to generate low-tier RB2 work, if he can average something like 4.5 yards per carry and find the end zone at least eight total times. Jones will be the more likely weapon in the passing game for Bruce Arians’ group, and it will take at least a brief time early on for Vaughn to get up to speed with the pace of the NFL coming out of Illinois and Vanderbilt’s programs. Draft the rookie as a third back with modest expectations, believing it probably won’t get much better than flex territory.

J.K. Dobbins | Baltimore Ravens | 5-10, 209 | Ohio State

Year
Team
Att
Yds
Avg
TD
Long
Rec
Yds
Avg
TD
2017
OSU
194
1,403
7.2
7
77
22
135
6.1
1
2018
OSU
230
1,053
4.6
10
42
26
263
10.1
2
2019
OSU
301
2,003
6.7
21
68
23
247
10.7
2

Mark Ingram isn’t getting any younger, and Justice Hill figuratively incarcerated himself via paltry play in 2019. Gus Edwards is just a dude. In other words, Dobbins has a clear sight of being the top dog in this backfield. While it’s not automatic, and he’ll need some breaks (physically or figuratively), the Ohio State star is positioned nicely for a chance at a huge role in 2020. Draft him as a No. 4 and a handcuff to Ingram, but don’t be totally shocked if we see something much closer to an even split than an Ingram-dominated share of the touches. All of that aside, Lamar Jackson’s legs have Dobbins operating in a hamstrung manner no matter the touch count.

(Kirby Lee, USA TODAY Sports)

So you’re telling me there’s a chance?

Darrynton Evans | Tennessee Titans | 5-10, 203 | Appalachian State

By virtue of no one to speak of around him, Evans goes from small-school standout to backing up the NFL’s leading rusher in the blink of an eye. He’s thoroughly a change-of-pace contrast to Derrick Henry’s damaging rushing style. The Titans hardly have turned away from Henry, however. Last year’s top backup, Dion Lewis, touched the rock just only 79 times in 16 games after 214 handles the prior year. Evans is a handcuff to Henry and a standalone No. 4 with flex potential in PPR.

Zack Moss | Buffalo Bills | 5-9, 223 | Utah

Moss landed in a pretty good spot as far as opportunity goes, yet the downside of it all cannot be overlooked. A rookie in 2019, Devin Singletary is the explosive option of this likely pairing, making Moss more of a grinding complement. The Bills absolutely needed someone like Moss, which suggests he’ll be involved early and often. That said, the former Ute faces touch uncertainty and has a the looming issue of QB Josh Allen stealing scoring chances in the red zone. Moss belongs on all 2020 rosters as an RB3 with weekly flex consideration, but consistent production may be tough to come by as a rook.

Joshua Kelley | Los Angeles Chargers | 5-11, 212 | UCLA

Austin Ekeler has been a fantastic find for the Bolts and was extended in the offseason. Kelley enters a backfield to compete with Justin Jackson for No. 2, which is a role that probably winds up touching the ball, at the very least, 100 times. Kelley, a fourth-round pick, is a punishing, downhill runner whose game contributes to an early expiration date. No one much cares for 2020, though, if the UCLA product doesn’t last in the NFL until the ripe old age of 30. In the upcoming season, Kelley has a legitimate chance of entering RB2 territory a few times, although the safe view of his situation is somewhere around being a No. 4 with tremendous upside. Few players at his position stand to benefit more from a full training camp to show off his abilities. Stay tuned…

AJ Dillon | Green Bay Packers | 6-0, 247 | Boston College

Green Bay’s second curious draft choice in as many picks, Dillon is a battering ram with a nose for paydirt. Aaron Jones is coming off of one of the finest fantasy seasons in recent memory, and Jamaal Williams has proven quite capable off in reserve. In 2021, both players are set to become unrestricted free agents. It stands to reason we’ll see an extension for Jones, but Williams is likely to walk. In that context, Dillon’s addition makes a little more sense, even if the idea of sitting on a highly drafted running back for a year is foolish. All of that out of the way, Dillon might be able to overtake Williams as the changeup — so long as he gets a shot with a full-ish training camp. Wait before making any serious investment in Dillon; he’s an RB5 at the moment but could vault closer to an RB3.

(Steve Mitchell, USA TODAY Sports)

Roster fodder?

Antonio Gibson | Washington Redskins | 6-0, 228 pounds | Memphis

Gibson is expected to move from wide receiver to running back, but he wasn’t too much of a true receiver in the first place. Curtis Samuel comes to mind, and not just for the obvious connection to the Redskins’ new coaching staff. It gets complicated when looking for a clear path to enough touches to matter in fantasy. Adrian Peterson, Derrius Guice, Bryce Love, Peyton Barber … where exactly will Gibson fit in? He’s a better receiver than all of them, so that’s a plus, as is Peterson’s age (35) and substantial injury history for Guice and Love. Go go gadget Gibson.

Eno Benjamin | Arizona Cardinals | 5-9, 207 | Arizona State

This one comes down to whether we should trust Kenyan Drake over a full season to play like he did down the stretch (or even close to it) last year. It also forces one to prematurely question whether Chase Edmonds is an injury liability. Benjamin can do a little bit of it all, offering three-down worth and a willingness in pass protection. Tuck away his name for whatever comes of the training camp situation for this year.

DeeJay Dallas | Seattle Seahawks | 5-10, 217 | Miami (Fla.)

The former wide receiver turned running back enters a Seattle backfield looking for a sure-handed weapon out of the backfield. Dallas joins Seattle to find former first-rounder Rashaad Penny and Chris Carson pretty well entrenched in the top two, although we’ve seen a few times from Pete Carroll that rookies can win prominent roles. The problem here for Dallas is he probably won’t have an offseason to showcase his ability. Travis Homer also likely enters whatever would be a form of training camp ahead of the rookie. Barring another injury to Carson and/or Penny, it’s tough to find regular touches for Dallas.

Anthony McFarland Jr. | Pittsburgh Steelers | 5-8, 208 | Maryland

The Steelers drafted midround backs in consecutive years, but McFarland and Benny Snell Jr. really couldn’t be that much different from one another. James Conner is teetering on the edge of being an injury liability, and Jaylen Samuels thus far has proven mostly ineffective as a the utility back of this lot. Despite so many bodies ahead of him, McFarland has a puncher’s chance of seeing meaningful action throughout 2020 and is a late-round gamble for PPR types.

Lamical Perine | New York Jets | 5-10, 216 | Florida

Perine’s 2020 fantasy football stock had an enticing outlook of New York aiming to ease Le’Veon Bell’s workload and not having much of anything between the rookie and the star back. That was until Frank Gore’s 37-year-old legs were added to the mix. He has a good relationship with head coach Adam Gase from their year together in Miami, and it seems no better than a long shot now that Perine will be in the shadows.

Jason Huntley | Detroit Lions | 5-8, 190 | New Mexico State

Detroit drafted Swift in Round 2 and has Johnson as a versatile backfield complement. Huntley may have a hard time finding work if both of those backs remain healthy — a huge question mark for Johnson. Huntley is a slight figure whose best role will be as a pass-grabbing outlet for Matthew Stafford. There could be a role to seize with a little help from that pesky injury bug.

Lynn Bowden Jr. | Las Vegas Raiders | 6-1, 199 | Kentucky

Bowden played quarterback, wide receiver and running back in college and offers an intriguing skill set for Jon Gruden. The current belief is the rookie will see the majority of his snaps as a running back, possibly as a change of pace from Josh Jacobs. With no idea of how much Bowden will be on the field, let alone where he’ll line up any given play, recommending him as anything more than deep-league roster filler is quite risky.

Raymond Calais | Tampa Bay Buccaneers | 5-8, 188 | Louisiana

This one intrigues me to a great degree … Calais is a quick-burst, inside-outside back whose ability as a change-up offers the Bucs a fallback if the Ronald Jones experiment continues to disappoint. Calais could struggle to see action, however, if pass protection of TB12 is an obvious issue — and it very well could be at his size. Furthermore, just how many footballs are there to go around in this star-studded offense?

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