Fantasy News & Analysis

Predicting top 2021 rookie running backs using dominator rating

Dec 28, 2019; Arlington, Texas, USA; Memphis Tigers running back Kenneth Gainwell (19) runs the ball against Penn State Nittany Lions linebacker Cam Brown (6) in the first quarter at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Unfortunately, there is no end-all, be-all statistic, grade or metric that can pinpoint the NFL's next great rookie running back. Every college star doesn't make the jump to the next level, and a player's landing spot plays a huge part of how a player develops in the NFL.

Yet still we must try to predict which rookies RBs will be of benefit in 2021 fantasy football leagues. After all, we saw the likes of Jonathan Taylor and Cam Akers lead fantasy managers to championships in 2020.

Following up on this week's piece on the dominator ratings of wide receivers in the 2021 NFL Draft class, let's take a look at the RBs with hope of identifying some lesser-known backs to target and others to fade in upcoming rookie drafts. 

Keep in mind that dominator rating factors in both rushing and receiving yards for the running back position. It’s critical to target running backs with upside in the passing game. 

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COLLEGE CAREER DOMINATOR RATING

Player Class School Career Dominator Rating PFF  Rushing Grade PFF Receiving Grade
Jaret Patterson Junior Buffalo 33% 91.3 50.5
Kenneth Gainwell RS Sophomore Memphis 27% 81.1 86.3
Chuba Hubbard RS Junior OSU 27% 91.1 61.6
Pooka Williams Jr. Junior Kansas 27% 92.9 79.8
Jermar Jefferson Junior Oregon State 27% 85.9 62.4 
Spencer Brown Senior UAB 25% 78.3 48.6
Javian Hawkins Junior Louisville 25% 90.3 56.5
Travis Etienne Junior Clemson 24% 96.7 82.7
Javonte Williams Junior N.Carolina 21% 96.3 83.9
Demetric Felton RS Senior UCLA 21% 79.6 79.6
Elijah Mitchell Senior Louisiana 21% 92.8 74.4
Khalil Herbert RS Senior VA Tech 20% 89.8 51.0
Larry Rountree III Senior Missouri 20% 83 55.8
Najee Harris Senior Alabama 18% 96.2 76.4
Michael Carter Senior N.Carolina 17% 91.3 79.1
Kylin Hill Senior Miss State 16% 90.8 69.2
Zamir White RS – Junior Georgia 15% 83.3 41.9
Rhamondre Stevenson Senior Oklahoma 14% 91.6 83.8
Trey Sermon Senior Ohio State 12% 94.9 62.2

I wanted to capture the production of rookie running backs in their entirety, so I analyzed their full college career dominator ratings. The player that stood out the most was Buffalo’s RB1 Jaret Patterson.

Patterson is famously known for his insane 409-yard, eight-touchdown performance versus Kent State during the 2020 season, but he’s been producing at a high level during all three years of his college career. 

Patterson has three straight seasons with at least 1,000 rushing yards and two dominator ratings: 40% (2019) and 43% (2020). His most recent dominator rating is the highest among all players I’ve listed. Patterson ranks second in offensive yards per snap (3.51; behind only Elijah Mitchell) and eighth in PFF rushing grade (91.3).

The Buffalo back benefited greatly in 2020 from playing behind the nation’s highest-graded run-blocking unit (90.2), so there’s some concern that he was the product of the team’s outside-zone-heavy scheme. 

But I’d argue that all running backs are at the mercy of their offensive lines more often than not, so we can project Patterson to be a semi-productive rusher at the next level. He will get what is expected out of every rushing attempt. 

The 2021 PFF Draft Guide has Patterson pegged as a sixth-round pick, so he can be easily acquired late in rookie drafts. 

After Patterson, we have a four-way tie between Kenneth Gainwell, Chuba Hubbard, Pooka Williams Jr. and Jermar Jefferson. These four backs all earned career dominator ratings of 27%.

Gainwell is my No. 4-ranked running back in my early top-five rookie running back rankings, and his dominator rating might be the most impressive performance of the bunch. It happened during his first season as the featured back in 2019, and he commanded the majority of touches while “sharing” the backfield with future Washington Football Team running back Antonio Gibson.  

Gainwell out-gained Gibson by a huge margin (229 to 33). 

Hubbard was listed as an honorable mention in my initial rankings because his true sophomore season was too great to ignore even after a disappointing junior campaign. In 2019, the Oklahoma State Cowboy earned a 40% dominator rating, rushing for over 2,000 yards in 13 games. 

During this stretch, Hubbard averaged a whopping 5.51 yards per snap, which was over a yard more than any other rookie’s best season listed (Elijah Mitchell, 4.50). And even though he wasn't as exceptional in 2020, he still posted a more than an acceptable 30% dominator rating — tied for fifth among runners on this list.  

Williams and Jefferson can be grouped together because their production profiles follow a very similar pattern. Both posted their highest single-season dominator ratings — Williams (32%), Jefferson (29%) — in their true freshman seasons. 

High-end early-age production is a great sign for any prospect, especially when they follow it up with productive seasons. Williams went on to post back-to-back seasons with at least a 22% dominator rating while earning a PFF rushing grade of 92.9.

Jefferson was able to duplicate his spectacular freshman season as a junior with another 29% dominator rating in 2020. 

SINGLE-SEASON DOMINATOR RATING

Player Final Season Dominator Rating Final Season (Year) Best Season (Year) Best Season Dominator Rating
Jaret Patterson 43% 2020 2020 43%
Larry Rountree III 42% 2020 2020 42%
Chuba Hubbard 30% 2020 2019 40%
Pooka Williams Jr. 25% 2020 2018 32%
Najee Harris 32% 2020 2020 32%
Spencer Brown 32% 2020 2020 32%
Demetric Felton 30% 2020 2020 30%
Javian Hawkins 30% 2020 2020 30%
Javonte Williams 29% 2020 2020 29%
Jermar Jefferson 29% 2020 2018 29%
Khalil Herbert 27% 2020 2020 27%
Kenneth Gainwell 27% 2019 2019 27%
Elijah Mitchell 21% 2020 2018 26%
Travis Etienne 25% 2020 2019 26%
Kylin Hill 16% 2020 2019 26%
Rhamondre Stevenson 25% 2020 2020 25%
Zamir White 24% 2020 2020 24%
Michael Carter 21% 2020 2020 21%
Trey Sermon 17% 2020 2020 17%

Missouri’s Larry Rountree took off his senior season, earning a 42% dominator rating. My main concern with him is that his most productive season didn’t happen until much later in his college career. That’s not ideal for an incoming prospect, but the fact that he was able to accomplish such a feat in the SEC does earn some recognition.

Louisville’s Javian Hawkins caught my eye here. His overall college dominator rating throughout his college career was solid (25%), and he impressed in his second season as a starter with a 30% dominator rating. 

Hawkins is a home-run threat and presents fantasy managers with a ton of upside if he can beef up his size to withstand NFL defenders. At 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds soaking wet, it’s going to be difficult to see him running over anybody at the next level.

Not every rookie running back comes in with a high-end dominator rating. Most notably, my initial No. 5-ranked running back, Trey Sermon, ranks dead last any way these lists are sliced. He never surpassed an 18% dominator rating in any of his four college seasons. 

Until Sermon transferred to Ohio State, his usage at Oklahoma was limited because the offense split rushing attempts between other RBs like Rhamondre Stevenson and mobile quarterbacks like Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts

He has been much more of a victim of circumstances rather than a subpar producer — 94.9 PFF rushing grade — so I wouldn’t knock him too much for his lower dominator rating. If a team takes Sermon on Day 2, the commitment attached to the higher draft capital would go a long way for his fantasy draft stock.

If he goes on Day 3, then I’ll be much less bullish on the Ohio State product for fear that his life in an RBBC continues. His lack of overall juice in the passing game would almost certainly cement his status as waiver wire fodder. 

I have similar fears about Mississippi State’s Kylin Hill. He only played three games this past season, so we never got to see him improve upon his 26% dominator rating from 2019. That’s hardly jaw-dropping as his “best season,” and there are not many excuses to be made based on the lack of talent surrounding him at Mississippi State.

Plus, he ranked last on this list in yards per snap (2.62) during his 2019 campaign. When widening the parameters to include Hill's entire college career, his yards per snap (2.50) ranks second to last. 

Chances are that only one or two running backs taken on Day 3 will ever have any sort of fantasy relevance, so the deck’s already stacked against Hill. I’d much rather take a shot on the running backs that were mega-producers at their college programs. 

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