News & Analysis

Evaluating the fantasy landing spots of the top-drafted running backs

Dec 23, 2017; Fort Worth, TX, United States; San Diego State Aztecs running back Rashaad Penny (20) reacts after scoring on a 4-yard touchdown against the Army Black Knights during the second half in the 2017 Armed Forces Bowl at Amon G. Carter Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

Every February, fantasy analysts start building out a set of rankings for the incoming class of rookies and continue to adjust it up until the draft. Once the draft hits, those ranking become dangerously wrong. While original evaluations should always play a major role in rankings, landing spot becomes the biggest factor.

Not only is team landing spot important, but so too is where in the draft a player is selected. As our own Tyler Loechner showed last year, the higher a player is drafted, the more likely he is to achieve fantasy success. It makes sense in theory too — teams have more invested in these players, and thus, are more invested in seeing them succeed.

Taking these two factors into account, here is a look at the prognoses for the 2018 draft’s most-notable fantasy running backs.

Saquon Barkley, New York Giants (1.02)

In March, shortly after dominating the NFL combine, Saints head coach Sean Payton called Barkley the best running back prospect he’s seen in 25 years. After the Giants selected Barkley with the second overall pick in the draft, GM Dave Gettleman said Peyton Manning was the only player he’s ever evaluated who was on-par with Barkley.

Among all combine-invite running backs this year, Barkley led in career missed tackles forced per touch and career receiving yards. Though, perhaps to speak of Sam Monson’s major criticism of him as a runner that “he’s looking for the home run every play,” he also led in percentage of runs to gain negative yardage. In Barkley’s defense, however, he also had an atrocious offensive line and often seemed to be a focal point of opposing defenses. Barkley was surely put at a detriment in college, being contacted before the line of scrimmage on 30.0 percent of his runs, which led this group.

Adept as a runner, receiver, and blocker, Barkley’s main benefit to fantasy teams is that he’s unlikely to come off the field much if at all. As we’ve established in earlier articles, raw snaps has the highest volume-related correlation to fantasy points for running backs. New head coach and offensive play-caller Pat Shumur has echoed this sentiment, saying, “He’s a three-down running back. He's gonna be on the field for as long as he can handle it.”

Steven Jackson, Trent Richardson, and LeSean McCoy averaged a combined 309.4 carries and 62.8 targets per year with Shurmur as their offensive coordinator or head coach. For perspective, that’s 372.2 total opportunities, a number only Le’Veon Bell bested last season. Offensive line play, overall offensive efficiency, and gamescript are concerns, but Barkley should rise above it on talent and raw volume (especially in the passing game). Shurmur had said multiple times in interviews following the selection that, “The most important thing, and the first thing you look for in a running back is ‘can he catch?’”

As it stands, Barkley is the easy 1.01 in dynasty rookie drafts and well worth a late first- or early second-round pick in PPR redraft leagues.

Rashaad Penny, Seattle Seahawks (1.27)

Based on our analytics, Penny lapped the field in ground-game efficiency and productivity, albeit against lesser competition. Among combine-invite running backs, he ranked first in yards per carry (7.27), second in yards after contact per attempt (4.17), and third in missed tackles forced per attempt (0.24). He was also our most difficult runner to tackle on first contact (just 58 percent of the time). Despite facing a fairly soft schedule throughout most of his college career, he was equally competent when facing tougher opponents. On a smaller sample, against all Power-5 opponents throughout his career, he averaged 7.78 yards per carry on 65 rushing attempts, while adding 97 yards and two touchdowns (on 13 targets) through the air.

He wasn’t used much as a receiver in college, but showed promise on his small sample, leading all combine-invite running backs to see at least 50 career targets in yards per route run (2.00). Unfortunately, he was disastrous as a pass-blocker, surrendering eight pressures on a lowly 50 career pass-blocking snaps (worst among all combine-invite running backs). While this might slow his development or his ability to see the field on all three downs at the next level, Seattle head coach Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider seemed more optimistic. From their post-draft press conference (key quotes here), both admitted to his deficiencies as a pass-blocker, but continually referred to him as a three-down running back, and the importance that brings to their offense.

Seattle ranked last in rushing yards and fantasy points from running backs last season. They ranked second-lowest in running back rushing attempts last year, but the heavy investment (Round 1 draft capital) implies Seattle is looking to re-establish the ground game this year. Their offensive line also ranked sixth-worst last season, and they’ve done little to improve upon it this offseason, so Penny’s usage in the passing game is going to be key to his fantasy success. Still, Seattle’s offense ranks ninth in points scored over the past three seasons, which means there should be some touchdown-upside there.

College production, draft capital, and a promise of heavy (and every-down) usage from Seattle brass should lock in Penny right behind Barkley as the second overall pick in rookie drafts.

Sony Michel, New England Patriots (1.31)

After Barkley and Penny, Michel was the only other running back I felt might get drafted early and also have every-down potential at the NFL level. Michel led all draft-eligible running backs in yards per carry (8.0 on 157 carries) in 2017, and also forced a missed tackle on 48.1 percent of his career receptions, which was the highest-rate among all 2018 combine-invite running backs.

During their Day 1 post-draft press conference, New England was as vague and elusive regarding how Michel fits into the roster as you might expect from them, but this was the highest Belichick has drafted a running back since Laurence Maroney in 2006. For reference, Maroney averaged just 13.3 carries per game and 1.4 targets per game across his first two seasons in New England.

There’s two ways we might project Michel in New England:

  • Belichick eventually abandons his long-held committee-approach at the position in favor of his exciting new rookie. This would make Michel one of the most valuable running backs in the game, considering New England ranks second in team running back fantasy points over the past three years.
  • Michel is just another piece in the ever-frustrating puzzle that is Belichick’s running back stable.

If it’s the latter, Michel’s projection is hard to peg down. He has the skills to play any role in Belichick’s committee. Last year, we saw two New England running backs rank in the top 18 and three rank in the top 36 in fantasy points per game. Due to these levels of uncertainty, I’m only cautiously optimistic regarding Michel’s immediate contributions, but know that the upside could be sky-high. After Michel, for me, there’s a significant tier-drop at the position (in PPR dynasty leagues).

Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns (2.35)

Chubb was an explosive runner in college, out-touching and out-producing Michel while at Georgia. In four years of college, Chubb totaled 758 carries for 4768 yards (6.3 yards per carry) and 44 touchdowns on the ground. When asked if he’ll be used in a committee alongside Carlos Hyde (who signed a three-year, $15.25 million contract with Cleveland this offseason), head coach Hue Jackson responded, “It’ll work itself out. It’s a good problem to have. Guys are going to have to compete to earn the right to get the football in their hands.”

Chubb will likely split carries to start the year with Hyde, but could eventually take over that role, though he’s no threat to Duke Johnson for targets. Chubb totaled just 17 targets (as opposed to 539 carries) over the past three seasons. The early-down role hasn’t proven to be a very valuable one in Cleveland, with Isaiah Crowell averaging just 9.0 fantasy points per game last season. That role should improve with more wins and better gamescript, as we’re all expecting from the team in 2018.

Still, it’s a low-upside role with competition. At best, his upside is Jeremy Hill during the Hue Jackson years in Cincinnati (2014-2015), and at worst it’s Crowell in 2017. Chubb is a first-round rookie pick, but not one I’m terribly excited about (like many of the names to follow).

Ronald Jones II, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2.38)

Like Chubb, Jones was impressive on the ground but offered little value in the passing game. In college, he ranked top-five among combine-invite running backs in yards per carry (6.4), yards after contact per attempt (3.8), and touchdowns per carry (6.7 percent). He was also our highest-graded runner in 2017. Still, his average of one target every 30.9 snaps ranked behind only Chubb among drafted running backs.

Based on Tampa Bay’s post-draft press conference, I suspect they’ll use him similarly to Doug Martin last year – as part of a tandem with Peyton Barber, and without much volume in the passing game. When asked if he the team viewed Jones as a feature back, GM Jason Licht responded, “Yeah, well, fortunately, we have [Barber] too. This has nothing to do with [Barber]. [Jones] can be a good complement to begin with and we'll see where it goes.” In head coach Dirk Koetter’s interview, he was asked of Jones' pass-catching ability and responded, “They didn't throw him the ball much. I think that’s a part of his game he's gonna need to improve on.”

With Jones likely stuck in a low-upside committee it’s hard to get too excited about his immediate impact.

Kerryon Johnson, Detroit Lions (2.43)

The Lions traded up to take Johnson in the second round of the draft. He was our fifth-highest-graded running back in 2017. Although his per-carry numbers look less impressive, he did rank 16th in total yards (1,587) and sixth in total touchdowns (20) last year. As a receiver, on 69 career targets, he's dropped the ball just once.

Though, it appears he’s destined for a committee in Detroit. During the Lions’ Day 2 post-draft press conference, GM Bob Quinn said, “Ameer (Abdullah) is here, he was here this week, we're gonna let all those guys compete. This isn't a one-back league. We're not a one-back team. It's a running-back-by-committee league. We'll probably have three of them active every week, and every one of them is going to have a role in our offense.” When asked specifically of usage, he added, “He runs a lot between the guards, but I think we'll use him more to run outside…”

In addition to Abdullah, Johnson joins a committee that includes Theo Riddick, who has at least 50 targets in each of the past four seasons, and LeGarrette Blount, who ranked eighth in yards per carry (4.43) and is more than capable of handling goal-line and near-end-zone work. If I had to guess, Blount is the inside and goal-line runner, Johnson is the outside runner, Abdullah mixes in, and Riddick continues to handle passing-down work. Despite the heavy draft capital investment, I’m not too excited with Johnson’s dynasty and redraft prospects.

Derrius Guice, Washington Redskins (2.59)

Guice was considered by many to be worthy of a first-round pick but slid to the late second amid rumors regarding character issues and off-the-field concerns. Guice averaged 6.70 yards per carry in college (third-best among combine-invite running backs) and was brought down on first contact only 60.0 percent of the time (behind only Rashaad Penny). Like some of the other running backs recently mentioned, he’s terrific on the ground, but lacks passing-down upside, totaling just 40 targets over the past three seasons (as opposed to 470 carries).

Washington head coach Jay Gruden sees him in a similar regard. In his post-draft press conference he alluded to his role in Washington, by saying, “I think he can catch the football fine. But really our role for him is quite easy to see. It’s first and second down. Because we have a third-down back. He's not gonna play on third down anyway. Chris [Thompson] is gonna be out there, and Chris is gonna be in there a lot.”

Keep in mind, this is a role that hasn’t been very valuable in recent years. Even including the weeks Thompson was injured, Samaje Perine and Rob Kelley combined for just four RB1 (top-12) weeks over the past two seasons. Guice is the better player and should be more effective, but undoubtedly, this landing spot is poor, relative to our initial expectations. I suspect Guice is going to be one of the most overdrafted players in 2018 rookie drafts.

Royce Freeman, Denver Broncos (3.71)

Among combine-invite running backs, Freeman ranks behind only Barkley in missed tackles forced per attempt (0.24) and behind only Penny and Guice in percentage of tackles on first contact (61.3 percent). As a receiver, only Barkley, undrafted Kyle Hicks, and Justin Jackson had more career receiving yards (751).

When asked if Freeman could come in and compete right away, head coach Vance Joseph responded, “Absolutely. It's going to be open, honestly, with [Devontae] Booker and De'Angelo [Henderson]. But you know, you've gotta have 2-3 backs anyway.”

Although Freeman was productive as a receiver in college, GM John Elway seems to prefer him as an early-down runner, saying “He’s the bell-cow type for first and second down… He’s the guy we needed – we needed a thumper – and he’s that kind of runner. He’ll be great in short yardage and can also break a long run or two.”

Last year, in November, Denver beat reporter Cecil Lammey told me, “A large portion of [Booker’s] attraction to the team is his receiving ability.” While the release of C.J. Anderson opens up 245 carries and 40 targets, I suspect Freeman to dominate early-down and near-end-zone work, while Booker handles the bulk of the team’s running back targets. Still, I’m optimistic Freeman’s role can grow into something bigger, given the (minimal) level of competition there, so I have him above some of the higher-drafted running backs we’ve already mentioned.

Nyheim Hines (4.104) and Jordan Wilkins (5.169), Indianapolis Colts

Hines ranked fourth among combine-invite running backs in yards after contact per attempt, while Wilkins ranked top-six in yards per carry (6.30) and missed tackles forced per attempt (0.23). Hines is a former wide receiver, converting to running back in 2015. He recorded the fastest 40-yard dash among running backs at the combine (4.38). Wilkins graded out much higher in 2017 (13th to Hines’ 53rd) and ranked behind only Barkley in career missed tackles forced per touch (0.25), but ranked much lower than Hines in our draft guide. Despite being the more efficient runner, Wilkins should rank below Hines in dynasty due to the higher draft capital investment.

Due to his background as a receiver, there’s a chance Hines can play both running back and slot receiver in Indianapolis, per head coach Frank Reich. GM Chris Ballard said, of Wilkins, his run style was reminiscent of Matt Forte, and that “his vision (as a runner) was about as good as anyone in the draft.”

Despite being the only Day 3 running backs listed in this space, both benefit from landing in a phenomenal situation in Indianapolis. Frank Gore (now in Miami) leaves behind 261 carries and 38 targets and only Marlon Mack offers serious competition for touches. Mack had a similarly low draft capital investment in 2017 (fourth round, 143rd-overall), and was not very effective last season. Only 67.7 percent of his runs resulted in positive yardage, the lowest rate among all 55 running backs to see at least 75 carries last season.

So long as neither DeMarco Murray nor C.J. Anderson signs with Indianapolis, I could see either or both of these two running backs surpassing Mack and proving to be fantasy relevant in 2018, though both are more mid-second-round rookie draft picks (while the others should be first-round investments).

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