Fantasy News & Analysis

Fantasy Football: 3 must-draft rookie running backs

2T2XH57 USA. 21st Oct, 2023. October 21, 2023: Texas Longhorns running back Jonathon Brooks (24) carries the ball during a game between the Texas Longhorns and the Houston Cougars in Houston, TX. Trask Smith/CSM/Sipa USA (Credit Image: © Trask Smith/Cal Sport Media/Sipa USA) Credit: Sipa US/Alamy Live News

• RB Kimani Vidal, Los Angeles Chargers: Los Angeles Chargers running back Kimani Vidal is a dark horse candidate to lead the 2024 running back draft class in Year 1 fantasy points per game. Vidal’s 92.4 PFF offense grade ranks fourth among 33 FBS running backs with at least 500 offensive snaps.

• RB Jonathon Brooks, Carolina Panthers: Brooks is the perfect three-down player to handle Carolina Panthers head coach Dave Canales’ featured role. His 91.5 PFF offense grade ranks second among 42 Power Five running backs with at least 400 offensive snaps. 

• RB Jaylen Wright, Miami Dolphins: Former Tennessee running back Jaylen Wright is the perfect No. 3 running back for the Miami Dolphins’ depth chart. His 91.0 PFF offense grade ranks fifth among 80 Power Five running backs with at least 300 offensive snaps.

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

The NFL’s 2024 running back class features a trio of high-upside players whose draft-day landing spots solidified their must-draft status in re-draft fantasy football formats. Each player’s range of outcomes remains wide but their three-down profiles offer unignorable high-scoring potential.

RB Kimani Vidal, Los Angeles Chargers

The Los Angeles Chargers brought in former Troy running back Kimani Vidal to compete for the No. 1 running back role against their formerly potent in-house veterans. Los Angeles’ backfield was identified as one of the “Best running back landing spots of the 2024 NFL Draft. While Vidal’s sixth-round draft capital will work against him, Vidal possesses ideal size (5-foot-8, 213 pounds (32.4 body mass index (BMI)) and a high-end three-down profile. Head coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman will require Vidal to earn every touch, which may delay his rookie-season breakout, but Vidal has a path to finishing 2024 as fantasy football’s most productive rookie running back on a per-game basis. 

As detailed in “Best rushers in the 2024 NFL Draft,” among 47 FBS running backs with at least 175 rushing attempts, “Vidal ranks second in missed tackles forced (94), first in explosive run plays (47), eighth in missed tackles forced per attempt (0.32) and 17th in explosive run play rate (15.9%)… He forced 10 missed tackles on 18 senior-season receptions and his 83.5 PFF pass-blocking grade ranks second among 14 FBS running backs with at least 100 pass-protection snaps.”

Vidal earned at least 22 targets in all four college seasons while maintaining an 80.7%-plus catch rate. As stated in the landing spot article, Los Angeles’ pre-draft backfield did not have a capable passing-down back, making Vidal the Week 1 favorite for snaps in both the two-minute drill and on third- and fourth-and-long. 

Incumbent running backs Gus Edwards and J.K. Dobbins once formed a frightening duo rushing under Roman as Baltimore Ravens but debilitating lower-body injuries have lessened Edwards’ efficacy and rendered Dobbins a fringe NFL talent. Edwards produced four career-lows last year, including his 75.4 PFF rushing grade. Dobbins’ pre-Achilles-tendon-rupture 49.6 PFF rushing grade from 2023 fails to inspire.

Los Angeles general manager Joe Hortiz bolstered the offensive line by drafting former Notre Dame tackle Joe Alt with the fifth overall pick before signing five undrafted free-agent offensive linemen. Alt’s 86.5 PFF run-blocking grade ranks second among 88 Power Five tackles with at least 690 offensive snaps. 

Harbaugh and Roman’s commitment to the run gives Los Angeles decent odds of leading the NFL in rushing attempts. Vidal can be the 2024 NFL draft class’ most productive rookie running back on a per-game basis. 

RB Jonathon Brooks, Carolina Panthers

The Carolina Panthers hired former Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator Dave Canales to fill the vacant head coach position, bringing with him a fantasy-friendly featured running back role that helped 2023-second-year running back Rachaad White produce the position’s sixth-highest regular season target total (70). Carolina drafted former Texas running back and elite dual-threat Jonathon Brooks with the 46th overall pick in the 2024 NFL draft following his mid-November ACL tear. Brooks delayed his ligament reconstruction (ACLR) until the second week of December, which delays his medically-backed return-to-play date until the second week of September. Brooks is a must-draft 2024 re-draft player, pending an appropriate average draft position (ADP) on the RB2/3 borderline. He can deliver top-15 results from November-on.

White’s 67.5 PFF offense grade ranks 31st among 33 NFL running backs with at least 475 offensive snaps. 

Brooks’ post-ACLR ramp-up period is crucial to his rookie season success, which requires incumbent starter Chuba Hubbard to shoulder the early-down rushing load through the season’s first one-to-two months. Hubbard’s 2023 backfield takeover illustrated just enough rushing success for Canales to trust him in a complementary role while Brooks ramps up. Hubbard largely delivered middling results but his 18th-ranked 17.6% stuff rate and ninth-ranked 24.8% first-down and/or touchdown conversion rate, ranked among 34 NFL running backs with at least 175 rushing attempts, accurately reflect his dependable, if unexciting professionalism. 

Hubbard failed to reliably deliver explosive gains as a rusher but his 8.8% explosive run play rate finished one spot ahead of White, Canales’ Tampa Bay bell cow, whose 8.7% rate ranks 24th. White’s 272 regular season rushing attempts tie for the position’s No. 2 spot, demonstrating Canales’ willingness to accept reliable rushing mediocrity. 

Canales’ running back-friendly passing attack yielded voluminous RB6 results for White in 2023 (254.6 PPR points). White’s per-play data is volatile, but he excels when given an extra beat to read the field, particularly in the screen game. Expect Canales to cater to White’s strengths. Among 21 NFL running backs with at least 15 screen pass targets, White’s 91.3 PFF receiving grade on screen passes ties for No. 7 and he produced positional bests in yards per reception (10.3), yards after the catch per reception (15.6) and catch rate (100.0%). 

White’s usage pairs perfectly with Brooks’ strengths. As detailed in “Best post-reception producers in the 2024 NFL Draft,” “[a]mong 40 Power Five running backs to earn at least 25 targets, Brooks’… 0.52 missed tackles forced per reception rank second and his 13.3 yards after the catch per reception lead the qualifying player pool by 0.8 yards. 

Brooks (11 targets) is one of 31 Power Five running backs to earn at least 10 screen-pass targets and his 93.0 PFF receiving grade on screens ranks No. 1. “ 

Brooks is a must-draft 2024 rookie but requires a borderline RB2/3 ADP and a patient fantasy manager. 

RB Jaylen Wright, Miami Dolphins

On April 1st, The Miami Dolphins signed 32-year-old running back Raheem Mostert to a team-friendly extension through the 2025 NFL season. Roughly four weeks later, the front office drafted his heir-apparent in the 2024 NFL draft’s fourth round by selecting former Tennessee running back Jaylen Wright. Fantasy managers should draft Wright as a mid-to-late-round bench stash with week-winning upside thanks to his brilliant scheme fit and Miami’s potentially shaky depth chart. 

Wright’s 91.0 PFF offense grade ranks fifth among 80 Power Five running backs with at least 300 offensive snaps. Mostert’s 85.2 PFF offense grade ranks fourth among 33 NFL running backs with at least 475 offensive snaps. 

Miami’s 257 zone rushing plays in the 2023 regular season rank fourth among regular season NFL teams and thanks to their eighth-ranked 41.3% run-play rate and 18th-ranked 5.9 offensive plays per game, head coach Mike McDaniel made room for 130 gap rushing plays (26th). Their 455 regular season run plays rank 15th. 

Initially viewed as a mid-season acquisition target for re-draft formats in “4 best role players in the 2024 NFL Draft,” Wright ascended to must-draft status after landing in Miami’s ultra-fantasy-friendly zone rushing scheme. Wright was a natural fit in a gap rushing scheme, averaging more than 7.0 yards per rushing attempt in his ages 18 and 19 college seasons. His volatile zone rushing data stabilized in his age-20 2023 season though, when Wright’s “8.0 yards per zone-scheme rushing attempt led all Power Five running backs with at least 50 such attempts by a 0.9-yard margin.” His 4.9 yards after contact per zone rushing attempt and 22.0% explosive run play rate both rank top four and his 0.26 missed tackles forced per zone rushing attempt and 14.0% stuff rate tie for 33rd and 22nd, respectively, while his 32.0% first-down and/or touchdown conversion rate ranks 18th. 

 Wright’s (5-foot-10.5, 210 pounds, 29.7 BMI and a 4.38-second 40-yard dash) size and speed compare well to both Mostert's (5-foot-10, 205 pounds, 29.4 BMI and a 4.38-second 40-yard dash) and No. 2 running back De’Von Achane’s (5-foot-8.5, 188 pounds, 28.2 BMI and a 4.32-second 40-yard dash). 

Wright’s (85.0 PFF rushing grade on gap scheme attempts) sterling gap scheme efficiency slots in between the elite Achane and zone-dependent Mostert, giving Wright a path to at least minimal Week 1 touches. 

Both Mostert and Achane enter 2024 with elevated injury risks which benefit Wright both in the event of an injury as well as in a rotational capacity. Should one player go down, Wright has access to a 10-plus-touch weekly workload. The team will likely attempt to preserve both Mostert and Achane’s health though, making Wright the rare No. 3 running back with weekly fantasy football relevance. 

Wright’s recorded injury history is limited to a November 2023 thumb ligament tear. Mostert’s storied injury list includes repeated MCL sprains and patellar tendon strains and a knee cartilage injury. The diminutive Achane suffered a preseason AC joint sprain and an injured reserve-worthy Grade 2 MCL sprain that he aggravated upon his Week 11 return.

Wright could be a high-impact contributor in year one. 


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