It happens every year. We have breakout rookie running backs who provide very solid fantasy value. Outside of the obvious rookie starters, the challenge is to figure out who that will be, and whether those guys should even be drafted. I’ll address the first challenge in a second. But should you even draft that rookie running back? If you’re taking a risk on a guy who you don’t think is close to starting or getting solid playing time in the first week or two, you’re probably drafting that player very late as a flier. I rather use that flier on a player who could potentially break out (or not) Week 1 so I know what I have. If you have a player who didn’t even see the field, or is sitting behind on the depth chart, there was no point in drafting him because you’re probably cutting him after Week 1 to get someone off of the waiver wire. You could’ve drafted a different flier who had a chance to break out, and you could pick up that running back later off the waiver wire.
When looking for that breakout rookie, there are a few things to look for:
- Who’s the competition and is that competition on a short leash? We know how bad Jeremy Langford was the previous year, and that the Bears drafted a competent running back in the offseason in Jordan Howard. Would you have kept Jordan Howard on your roster after Week 1 or Week 2 if you drafted him? Probably not. But it is important to keep an eye on situations like that so you know that if Langford struggles the first couple of weeks, you know to pick Howard up to see if they pull the plug on Langford.
- Can they have a role on the team that can provide fantasy value without necessary supplanting the starter? If the player is on a high-powered offense, they can fit into a role that historically has provided fantasy relevance – whether it’s the coach or QB tendencies, like a back who will split with the starter or get catches in a high powered offense.
- Is the running back coming in just straight up more talented than the other running backs on the roster? If that player is going to get playing time Week 1 and can have a chance of outplaying the other backs, he’s a good back to draft.
The following running backs will fall into one of these three categories. I’m not going to talk about the obvious rookie RBs who should have a big role like Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey.
If Fournette and McCaffrey are #1 for obvious big role, Mixon is kind of a 1a. The difference is that he has two RBs above him on the depth chart in Jeremy Hill and Giovanni Bernard. The consensus seems like he has a good chance of surpassing Hill. Hill has had two subpar seasons in a row, which prompted the Bengals to take a huge risk in the middle of the second round. The risk isn’t in the talent, but in the off-the-field issues. That high of an investment tells me that they plan on using him right away. Gio Bernard is supposedly on track for Week 1, but with Mixon working with the team during the offseason, we can’t expect Gio to come in right away and take tons of snaps after an ACL injury. Mixon will get the opportunity during OTAs and training camp, will compete directly with Hill, and will then get the opportunity during the preseason and the beginning of the year. Mixon is so talented that he can show enough to win the starting job outright. His route running is amazing as well, and will be a great option in the passing game. He is currently going at the 9th pick in the 5th round. That’s around guys like Montgomery, Coleman, Ingram, Murray, and Abdullah. I think Mixon can get the most opportunity out of all of these backs this year, and if his ADP doesn’t rise too much I will be buying in. He kind of fits in all three categories I mention above. Kinda.
Last year, the Redskins gave Matt Jones the benefit of the doubt early in the season, but he couldn’t make it happen. By week 8, the reigns were handed to Rob Kelley, who 20+ carries in 3 straight games, and then had his workload averaged reduced to about 15 carries a game, which is not bad. However, Kelley was pretty one dimensional and didn’t do anything spectacular. That leaves room for Samaje Perine to come in and have the opportunity to take over. They have their third down back in Chris Thompson, so we’re talking early down work here. Perine was drafted in the fourth round, and I think they were looking for someone to take over for Kelley, who averaged 3.3 yards per carry in the last 6 games. Not only that, but head coach Jay Gruden seems to be impressed by him. Keep an eye out on this competition in training camp. He’s currently going in the early 9th round, so he will be a steal if he becomes the starter in a great offense.
Marlon Mack is explosive. While Frank Gore is effective but can put defenses to sleep, Mack can come in and wake their asses up. It’s a great combination. We have an aging running back who will definitely have a role, but Mack can come in and be the thunder to the soft rain. In this offense, Luck will love having Mack around. Once Mack receives the ball in the open field, look out. If this wasn’t a potential high-powered offense with a lack of playmakers, I wouldn’t consider Mack having fantasy relevance. Keep an eye out on how much he’s used in the preseason, but he’s a guy who you could draft and can come out and have a big impact Week 1. He’s going at the end of the 11th round, so basically free.
There’s no way Alvin Kamara becomes a starter on the Saints with Adrian Peterson and Mark Ingram in his way. However, we know that the pass-catcher in this Saints offense has always had fantasy value, especially in PPR. The Saints have been #1 or #2 in targets to running backs over the last I don’t know how many years. Kamara has great pass-catching and blocking skills, so can be a valuable asset on third down and in passing situations. This team passes a lot, and with Drew Brees still at the helm, this offense can produce a nice fantasy season for Kamara. Keep an eye out on how he’s used in the preseason, and if he’s used in that way, take a shot because like Marlon Mack, he can have some value right out of the gate in Week 1. Kamara’s being drafted in the 14th round, so he’s free. He probably won’t be drafted in many leagues. It also seems like Ingram is on a short leash for whatever reason, so expect Kamara to get some opportunity alongside Peterson.
See my blog post on Hunt.
Honorable Mention: Dalvin Cook
This one’s a bit more tricky. Dalvin Cook is an amazing talent who could potentially play most early downs, but Latavius Murray was also recently signed in the offseason for a lucrative contract. The chances that they use both of these guys is pretty good. Murray will probably be used around the goal line, on third downs, and other passing situations, but second round pick Cook should see plenty of opportunity this year.