Our initial evaluation of the NFL’s rookie class could be considered, at best, incomplete. After all, our only exposure to the players was through their college accolades and the evaluation of their NFL situation. With camp well underway, and preseason games on the docket for this week, we now have some usable information to help re-evaluate those same exciting rookies.
With the running backs, we’ve seen the number of fantasy relevant contributors rise over the past few years, and we’re always on the lookout for the next great rookie value. While there’s little movement at the top of our rookie rankings, there have been a few players we like emerging from those middle to late rounds, and a few that we feel are being over hyped going into drafts.
- Josh Jacobs, Oakland Raiders
- I’ve been highly critical of the perception of Jacobs, as my concern is he’s being drafted as a bell cow simply because he was the first back off the board, but the truth is I don’t dislike Jacobs as an NFL running back. I think he has a nice blend of size and skill, and it sounds like Oakland wants to involve him in all three phases of the game. His passing game contributions are likely to be suppressed with Jalen Richard still on the roster, but don’t be surprised if he’s a solid fantasy asset in 2019.
- David Montgomery, Chicago Bears
- Much like Jacobs, Montgomery finds himself in a solid situation on an ascending Bears offense that expects Montgomery to fill the early down role vacated by Jordan Howard. Also like Jacobs, Montgomery may contribute some in the passing game, but Tarik Cohen should shoulder the load there, and Mike Davis may poach some short yardage work.
- Miles Sanders, Philadelphia Eagles
- A lot has been made of Doug Pederson’s history with running backs by committee, but by all accounts Sanders is separating himself quickly from the other backs on the Eagles roster. There’s a bit more of an obstacle to achieving bell cow workloads, but talent wise, he may be the best of the bunch.
- Devin Singletary, Buffalo Bills
- Originally I was down on Singletary in his rookie campaign, after all… the Bills have two of the most consistent backs of the last decade on the roster in Frank Gore and LeSean McCoy, but much like Sanders, he’s shown a lot of explosiveness in practices and may carve out a solid role in that offense. With a lack of a passing game, there’s a chance all three are involved, but it’s Singletary’s upside I like.
- Darrell Henderson, Los Angeles Rams
- Henderson may very well be the best rookie back in this class, but he still has Todd Gurley standing between he and a meaningful workload. Of course, with Gurley’s recent knee issues looming, Henderson doesn’t have to look very far for an opportunity. Expect his talent to force him on the field in some capacity, though, even if Gurley stays relatively healthy.
- Alexander Mattison, Minnesota Vikings
- There is a potential injury situation to monitor in Minnesota, as Mattison isn’t guaranteed to play in the first preseason game for the Vikings, but all reports to this point is that he’s been very impressive in the backfield. With the likelihood of more missed time for lead back Dalvin Cook, the third round rookie out of Boise State figures to be a contributor sooner than later.
- Justice Hill, Baltimore Ravens
- I have some major concerns regarding Hills ability to contribute right away, but it has nothing to do with the player himself. Hill profiles similarly to players like Tarik Cohen or Chris Thompson, and meshes well with Mark Ingram in terms of usage. If Lamar Jackson can stay in the pocket a little more, and utilize his new weapon, Hill could be a poor man’s Alvin Kamara in 2019.
- Damien Harris, New England Patriots
- I’m souring on Harris a bit in the wake of Sony Michel’s return from a knee scope, but there’s hope that the talented Alabama product can force his way on the field regardless. With the Patriots shifting their philosophy to a more balanced attack, the running game will benefit from having depth behind the oft injured Michel. As a flyer, Harris could pay off in spades if Michel’s knee flairs up and costs him several games.
- Benny Snell, Jr, Pittsburgh Steelers
- I like James Conner, but there were some questions toward the end of last year regarding his ability to stay on the field when faced with a Le’Veon Bell like workload. With the Steeler’s staff suggesting Snell could see meaningful time on the field in 2019, it sounds like they may share similar concerns. Of course, Conner should be the workhorse in this offense, but Snell would step in and be a borderline RB2 in his own right should Conner go down.
- Ryquell Armstead, Jacksonville Jaguars
- Armstead was brought in to backup the oft injured, and much maligned, former first round pick Leonard Fournette, and there’s obviously a clear path to touches here. Still, I’m higher on Fournette as a three down horse this year than most, and see Armstead as a long shot to contribute this year and beyond.
While the fantasy landscape has certainly changed over the years, the idea that a team cannot make a serious run for a championship without a solid stable of backs remains one of the truest statements we can make. What can be debated is what strategy yields the best season long team.
One of the oldest fantasy strategy stems from a time when securing two bell cow running backs was the key to a championship team. Fast forward a decade or two, and there’s even fewer elite backs than there were in the heyday making RB/RB strategies a little less necessary but no less effective when done right.
The idea is that, with a relatively shallow pool of top tier backs, securing two of them gives you a notable advantage over every team you play as 99.9% of formats force two backs to start every week. Drafting early gives you an advantage by securing one of the elite backs at the top of the position, but drafting late secures you two RB1’s with this strategy.
A few possible pairings would be as follows:
- Early Pick: Elliott/Gurley/Bell with Mixon/McCaffrey/McKinnon
- The simple fact that your three highest ranked players are the ones we’ve named further emphasizes the need for a 2nd high end back.
- Middle Pick: Barkley/Kamara/Fournette with Cook/Howard/Freeman
- This is where you see the strategy work the best, in my opinion, as you’ve secured two RB2’s and only have a handful of picks before you can fill your top receiver position.
- Late Pick: A combination of Fournette, Hunt, Gordon, and Cook
- We’d argue that drafting near the turn in the first is the position least shackled to rankings. With a long wait before round 3, we suggest taking the two backs who you feel have the best chance at being a top back. If you like Mixon better than Hunt or Gordon, by all means grab him.
The strategy is a sound one, and one that has produced numerous fantasy winners, but it does present it’s own difficulties. By skipping the receiver position, you do weaken yourself against teams that diversify. There’s something to be said about “owning” a position, but with players likely to elevate beyond their draft price, it’s a risk that’s easy to swallow.
One of the more difficult draft strategies, the ZeroRB strategy (and it’s many hybrids) argue that the middle and late tiers at the RB position feature the highest value. Building up elite talent at WR early and often adding a TE and QB first, a true ZeroRB team would select it’s first back in the 6th round or later. Here’s a list of the types of backs you’d be targeting in those middle rounds to fill out your roster.
- 6th: Rashaad Penny, Royce Freeman, Ronald Jones
- 7th: Marshawn Lynch, Dion Lewis, Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead
- 8th: Kerryon Johnson, Marlon Mack, Tevin Coleman, Carlos Hyde
- 9th: Jamaal Williams, Isaiah Crowell, Tarik Cohen, Duke Johnson
It may be terrifying to go into week one with a RB group of Royce Freeman, Rex Burkhead, Kerryon Johnson, and Jamaal Williams, but you’d also have 4 likely starters despite having waited until those middle rounds that no one wants to draft in.
The idea that pairing those 4 backs (and 2 more later round backs like Chris Carson, Peyton Barber, Chris Thompson, or Doug Martin) with three top 15 WRs is why the ZeroRB strategy has taken on so many band-wagoners in the past few years. If you’re comfortable identifying talent in those late rounds, this is a very viable strategy… if not, skip it all together.
Alternating; RB/WR or WR/RB
Depending on where you’re drafting, this is a strategy that both makes sense, but also sets you up with a weaker roster as you’re conceding both the WR and the RB position to teams who drafted strong at either position. That’s not to say it’s not a viable way to build your roster, but it would require a sound understanding of ADP data and how your league drafts.
Before I make it sound all doom and gloom, this is closer to how I draft than either of the back to back strategies. My personal preference is to draft my highest ranked player in the first four rounds, either RB or WR… and there’s a reason for that. Much like Bill Belichik drafts the best available vs to fill a need, there’s value in grabbing both positions if you can get a player who may have fallen to your 2nd pick.
Players who may fall into this category are guys like Julio Jones or Odell Beckham for wide outs, or Melvin Gordon or Leonard Fournette. If those guys are shunned by your fellow owners, don’t skip them just to stick to your WR/WR
CJ Anderson | CAR – ADP 92 – RB43|
Never finishing a season at less than 4 yards per carry, Anderson’s career best 1,000 yard season last year seems to be a distant memory for drafters as he’s being disrespected to the tune of a RB4 ranking. He won’t see many passing down plays, but Carolina signed him to compliment McCaffrey on the ground and in the red zone. With RB2 potential even if McCaffrey is healthy, this is a player I’ll have my eyes on.
Bilal Powell | NYJ – ADP 160 – RB51 |
The addition of Isaiah Crowell in New York has many in the fantasy community souring on Powell’s upside. Not the Dr. With Crowell proving to be no more than a between the tackles plodder, Powell will likely return to the complimentary role that landed him on fantasy radars to begin with. A return to 60 or so receptions and a time share in the backfield that should see him hit 100-125 rushes, he may not be a weekly start, but he’ll be a valuable flex piece with plenty of upside should Crowell prove ineffective on first and second down.
Kalen Ballage | MIA – ADP Undrafted – RB61|
You may ask yourself why I’m so high on a player who’s at best third on his teams depth chart. The short answer is that I think he’s the best back they’ve got. He’s got the surprising speed for his size, turning in a 4.46 at 6’2″ 230lbs, and he’s far and away the best pass catcher on the team, giving him the best opportunity to steal plays if he can work his way into the third down role exclusively. While he’s beginning to creep onto the communities radar (Matthew Berry lists him with sleeper potential), the potential to grab a bell cow back late in drafts is too good to pass up.
Honorable Mention: Kenneth Dixon was supposed to be the guy in Baltimore, but a series of injuries and off the field issues opened the door for Alex Collins to succeed in his stead. Still, the Raven’s unwillingness to move on from Dixon signals to me that they still believe in the back, a great low risk play in round 13 of your draft.