News & Analysis

When to expect rookie running backs like Jonathan Taylor, D'Andre Swift and Cam Akers to break out in fantasy football

There’s a reason why the best restaurants have the longest lines outside — they are worth the wait. The same can be said when it comes to rookie running backs in fantasy football — just ask anybody who drafted Miles Sanders in 2019 and saw him finish Weeks 13-16 as the RB3. 

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We know that not all rookie running backs start their careers as undisputed starters — unless, of course, you're a first-round pick named Clyde Edwards-Helaire whose main competition opts out before the start of the season. It’s possible that we could see other rookies thrust into starting roles as more players forgo the 2020 season, but for now we're going to project how long it will take rookie running backs to break out based on current roster construction. 

After all, rookie running backs are not cheap to draft. Edwards-Helaire has already become a top-10 running back per BestBall10s ADP, and rookies like Jonathan Taylor (RB18), D’Andre Swift (RB24) and Cam Akers (RB28) are not too far behind. We'll want to know how long the wait is going to be for these players, considering RBs that might contribute more early — like Kerryon Johnson (RB40) and Marlon Mack (RB36) — are quite a bit cheaper.

Methodology and Findings

I've analyzed each running back selected in the first three rounds since 2010 and identified the amount of time it took to lead their respective backfields in either touches or snaps during their rookie seasons. 

There have been 16 running backs selected in the first round since 2010. Only one failed to lead his backfield at any point during his rookie season: former New York Giants running back David Wilson, who played behind Ahmad Bradshaw.

The other 15 running backs either started as or became the featured guy in their backfields. C.J. Spiller and Rashaad Penny earned this status in Week 1 but failed to hold on, eventually losing the starting jobs to Fred Jackson and Chris Carson, respectively.

The 13 other first-round running backs (81%) led their backfields in either snaps or touches at some point and for several consecutive weeks afterward unless they were derailed by an injury. For most, the large workload started in Week 1, but in the cases of Todd Gurley and Sony Michel the workload came immediately after the players returned from early-season injuries. 

First-round running backs have an extremely high rate (94%) when it comes to early usage as rookies, but when it comes to second- and third-round rookie running backs, the hit rate is not nearly as good.

Percentage of running backs to lead a backfield during rookie season
First-round pick 94%
Second-round pick 59%
Third-round pick 37%

There have been 22 running backs selected in the second round and 27 selected in the third round since 2010.

Of the 22 second-round running backs, nine (41%) failed to lead their backfields at any point during their rookie seasons. Among the 27 third-round running backs, 17 (63%) never led their backfields during Year 1. 

Seven of the second-round rookie RBs started the season with a majority of touches or snaps. The other six were spread across Weeks 3-8.

Second-round rookie running back breakout weeks
Number of RBs Breakout range
7 Week 1
3 Weeks 3-4
3 Weeks 6-8

The delayed breakouts for second-round rookies in Weeks 3-8 were all situations where rookies started behind established veterans. Nick Chubb in 2018 is a prime example: He sat behind Carlos Hyde until the Cleveland Browns decided to trade him — nice call, Hue Jackson.

When third-round running backs started to break out, it was an even split from Weeks 1-2 in comparison to Weeks 6-12.

Third-round rookie running back breakout weeks
Number of RBs Breakout range
5 Weeks 1-2
5 Weeks 6-12

The key difference in how long it took third-round rookies to take over main roles was the level of competition on the roster. Tevin Coleman, Kareem Hunt, David Montgomery, Devin Singletary and Terrance West entered backfields that had just lost their leading rushers from the season prior and thus saw their opportunities immediately.  

Main Takeaways 

The dropoff is clear going from the first-round rookie running backs to RBs taken in the second and third rounds. The early workload hit-rate for first-round running backs is extremely high, so we should have plenty of confidence drafting Edwards-Helaire in the first round of fantasy drafts and starting him Week 1. This would be the case even if Damien Williams hadn't opted out and despite any hype we will inevitably hear about how the Kansas City Chiefs love DeAndre Washington, Darwin Thompson and Darrell Williams.

When it comes to addressing the second- and third-rounders ahead of the 2020 season, there are some recurring themes we can take advantage of to identify potential early rookie breakout candidates.

It’s clear that an established veteran present in a backfield will delay a rookie running back's opportunity to break out. Even so, based on the recent history, we can project that more than half of the second rounders selected in this year’s NFL draft will take over their backfields (at least two) — with a 77% chance of it happening within the first four weeks of the NFL season.

Among the second-rounders, Akers is the only one who is entering a backfield that lacks a truly established veteran. As we've seen, rookies who join backfields the year after the team’s leading rusher departs are more likely to break out early in the season.

The next two candidates are easily Swift and Taylor, as their veteran competition is not as significant as the RBs ahead of J.K. Dobbins and A.J. Dillon. It is likely to take Swift and Taylor at most a month to start to see larger workloads. It's worth waiting for that type of upside. Taylor could start off even quicker consider his Week 1 matchup versus the Jacksonville Jaguars‘ porous run defense is sure to see him rack up some fantasy points even on the wrong end of a timeshare. 

2020 Second- and Third-Round Running Backs
Round Draft Pick Selection
D'Andre Swift  2nd 35
Jonathan Taylor  2nd 41
Cam Akers 2nd 52
J.K. Dobbins 2nd 55
A.J. Dillon 2nd 62
Antonio Gibson 3rd 66
Ke'Shawn Vaughn 3rd 76
Lynn Bowden 3rd 80
Zack Moss 3rd 86
Darrynton Evans 3rd 93

With five third-rounders drafted in 2020, we can only expect one or two to earn such a significant workload. The range of that happening is pretty wide — anywhere from Week 1 to Week 12.

The name that sticks out the most here is Zack Moss because the Buffalo Bills lost their leading rusher (Frank Gore) from 2019. That was a key factor in identifying early breakouts for third-round picks, and with the coaching staff already entrenching Moss with Gore’s role from last season, he is an excellent value at his ADP of RB39. 

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