Backing the Right Horse| Rookie Running Backs

Jack Bailoor (@jackbailoor)

With last year being a big year in fantasy for running backs, as the position outperformed wide receivers for the first time in recent years, the likelihood of your league having a rush of running back picks early in the draft is higher than your normal fantasy season.

You may choose to capitalise on this by picking some wide receiver studs early, but then who will you draft later on at running back?

Loads of running backs were drafted this year, and here are my thoughts on the first eleven off the board. Could one of them be that pick who makes the difference over the so-called ‘safe-bet’ running backs up the order?


Leonard Fournette – Jacksonville Jaguars

Even before his football skills, Fournette is an elite physical specimen. His strength, size and speed combination led to the LSU star being picked at #4 by the Jaguars.

Comparisons to Zeke Elliot, the first running back off the board last year, are an easy story, but the Jaguars O-line is nothing on the Cowboys, and no disrespect but Blake Bortles was one of the worst quarterbacks in the league last year.

All this means Fournette will be a workhorse from the start but will find it tough to match the 6.4 yards per carry he had in his senior year.

Jack’s draft recommendation: Unlike Zeke last year, I wouldn’t draft Fournette in the first round. In fact, I’d be wary of having him as my RB1. If I took a WR in the first round, I’d sooner take Jay Ajayi as a 2nd round workhorse RB, but pre-season could change this. For me, Fournette is a late 2nd round/early 3rd round pick in an 8 man league.

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Christian McCaffrey – Carolina Panthers

I’m going to say this nice and early. I love Christian McCaffrey. Son of the ex-Broncos wide receiver Ed, and with two brothers who will also have NFL careers, Christian could prove to be the best of the lot.

As a sophomore in 2015, McCaffrey was the AP College Football Player of the Year and the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy and had 3,864 all-purpose yards for Stanford that year, showing rushing, receiving and returning ability. Picked #8 by Panthers, McCaffrey is the face of a potential Carolina revolution as they look to change their offensive approach to remove some of the pressure on Cam Newton.

Jack’s draft recommendation: It’s easy to compare McCaffrey to Danny Woodhead, as a swiss-army knife running back, but for me, the ceiling of this guy is far, far higher. He’ll have an impact this year, but Jonathan Stewart is no mug as the Panther’s running back, therefore it’s more than likely that McCaffrey will be solid, not spectacular. For me, he’s a late 3rd round pick, and a solid RB2 with upside.

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Dalvin Cook – Minnesota Vikings

Originally a consensus first round pick, Cook slipped to the 2nd round, where the Vikings took him with their first pick. Jared Mckinnon struggled last year replacing the injured Peterson behind a bad O-Line, and time will tell if the Vikings have plugged those holes.

Cook isn’t guaranteed carry volume from the start, but his rival for the starter role, free agent signing Latavius Murray, says Cook knows the playbook better than him, which is equally as bizarre a statement for Murray to reveal, as is good news for Cook.

Jack’s draft recommendation: Cook should be someone to stick on your watch list or a late round flier pick. It’s unlikely he’ll have much of an early season impact, but who knows as we move towards the playoffs?

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Joe Mixon – Cincinnati Bengals

Mixon would have been a 1st round pick but for well publicised legal issues. He will push McCaffrey for most rookie running back receptions, and for a second round pick, his skillset could have given the Bengals an absolute steal. Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard have never been able to nail down the RB1 role in recent years – Mixon will have that opportunity.

Don’t be surprised to see Jeremy Hill in the red zone, Bernard as RB3 and Mixon dealing with the rest. Mixon has fast feet and excellent speed for someone of his size, and the Oklahoma grad is an outstanding receiver with experience working out of the slot, hence the interesting competition between him and McCaffrey.

Jack’s draft recommendation: Mixon could be a very nice flex option. As such, I’d be considering picking him in the middle rounds.

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Alvin Kamara – New Orleans Saints

The Saints picked Kamara as one for the future. The Tennessee star is a little more diminutive in size, but will offer receiving options for Drew Brees, who lost Brandin Cooks to the Pats in a trade. He will likely be the Saints RB3 behind Adrian Peterson and Mark Ingram, but given he offers more flexibility than those two, the Saints may move to him quicker than normal if they struggle with their rushing.

Jack’s draft recommendation: Stick this lad on your watch lists. I wouldn’t be drafting him, but the Saints situation is one that may present an opportunity depending on how the cards fall. Not quite a sleeper pick, but let’s see if he outperforms Ingram in pre-season first.


Kareem Hunt – Kansas City Chiefs

After cutting Jamaal Charles, the Kansas City Chiefs needed running back depth behind Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West. The Toledo back has fantastic vision, and some of his college tape is breathtaking. Yes, the Chiefs backfield is Spencer Ware’s, West was poor last year, and Hunt should win the battle for the backup spot. Ware had some big fumbling issues last year, and if this continues, chances may appear.

Jack’s draft recommendation: Tyreek Hill now the guy at Wide Receiver, now that Maclin has gone, so won’t take as many snaps from RB. The Chiefs love their explosive players, and Hunt is just that. Keep an eye on this guy and if you draft Ware, make sure you have Hunt as his handcuff.


D’Onta Foreman – Houston Texans

The Houston Texans are looking to ease Lamar Miller’s workload and ex-Texas running back Foreman has the talent to step into the No. 2 role and help keep Miller fresh and healthy. This guy is FAST! Lamar Miller struggled at times last year behind a porous line but got plenty of carries with Brock Osweiler and Tom Savage’s struggles. With DeShaun Watson likely to start at QB, there will be a lot of carries for the running backs to ease pressure off him.

Jack’s draft recommendation: Foreman as a handcuff if you pick Miller isn’t the worst idea. Keep an eye on his ball security in pre-season, as this has been an issue through college.


James Conner – Pittsburgh Steelers

James Conner has serious buy in from Steelers’ fans, with a major attraction being that he studied in Pittsburgh. With DeAngelo Williams, who stepped up massively when Le’Veon Bell missed games at the start of the season through suspension, having moved on, Conner is an obvious handcuff should Bell suffer injury or get suspended again. Conner is a cancer survivor, which makes his career so far all the more impressive, and as a power back, is a great fit in Pittsburgh, but he’ll be limited if Bell plays all 16.

Jack’s draft recommendation: Conner should be no more than a handcuff pick. I don’t expect him to be fantasy relevant this season.


Samaje Perine – Washington Redskins

A fourth round pick, Perine finds himself in a fluid position. Washington started last season with Matt Jones but replaced him with workhorse ‘Fat’ Rob Kelley after the former had ball security issues. Perine has a far higher ceiling than those two and is more of a receiving option than Kelley, so could be factored in right from the start. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Oklahoma grad is fantasy relevant early.

Jack’s draft recommendation: It may be a risky strategy, but Perine isn’t the worst late round flier to stash on your bench. If you pick Rob Kelley, make sure you handcuff him with Perine.


Tarik Cohen – Chicago Bears

The North Carolina A&T graduate was picked by the Chicago Bears, who’s rookie RB last year, Jordan Howard, was the big unexpected breakout player last year. For this reason, it’s hard to see Cohen being anything more than a handcuff, though if we see a Todd Gurley like Sophomore season from Howard, Cohen may see opportunities.

Jack’s draft recommendation: Leave undrafted, the Bears O-Line is better than last year’s Rams, so I can’t see dramatic regression from Howard.

CONCLUSION

I very easily could deep dive further, with the likes of Donnel Pumphrey and Marlon Mack having the opportunity to force themselves into the running back conversation at their franchises, but with 30 RBs being drafted this year, I’d be here forever, especially as some beat writers believe at least a third of them could have an immediate impact.

These guys were the top 10 picks in their position in the draft, and are therefore expected to be less project players, and more NFL ready than those who followed. You’d expect this to boost their fantasy stock. That’s what the NFL scouts believe anyway – who do you think will be the big surprise from lower down the draft board?

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