5 fantasy RB breakout candidates for 2017
Supplementing proven commodities with young, upside players is a great way to find a winning combination of safety and ceiling. Finding potential breakout players before your leaguemates is one of the most rewarding parts of playing fantasy football. Not only does it help your team become more successful, but these players often come at very affordable prices on draft day.
Over the next couple weeks we’ll take a look at some potential breakouts for the 2017 season by position. Here are five running backs who fit the bill:
Mike Gillislee, New England Patriots
Trying to guess which New England running back to use in fantasy football has become an exercise in futility in years’ past, but 2017 may present us with a weekly starter in Gillislee. Last year, he was among the league’s most efficient running backs. Among all running backs that saw at least 25 percent of their team’s snaps, Gillislee ranked fourth in yards per carry (5.7), third in yards after contact per attempt (3.34), third in breakaway percentage (43.3 percent of his runs went for 15-plus yards), third in fantasy points per opportunity (0.62), and he finished eighth in PFF’s elusive rating (57.6). The Patriots tend to run one of the fastest offenses in the league often leading to more plays for their offensive players to accumulate stats. They’ve ranked top-five in plays per game in five of the last six years. After serving in a complementary role the last two years in Buffalo’s slow-paced offense, Gillislee could be in for a massive jump in touches and volume if takes over the early down work in New England this year as expected.
The Patriots have a plethora of receiving backs in James White, Dion Lewis, and the versatile Rex Burkhead. Could Gillislee be subbed out when New England gets inside the opponent’s 20-yard line in favor of one of these receiving backs? Sure. But he could jump right back in when they get inside the 5-yard line given his success there last year. Gillislee scored seven touchdowns on just 10 rushing attempts inside the 5-yard line with Buffalo last year. 13 of LeGarrette Blount’s 18 rushing touchdowns came from inside the 5-yard line in 2016. New England has ranked top-five in most plays inside the opponent’s 5-yard line over the course of six straight seasons. That touchdown upside, in addition to his projected early-down work, could propel Gillislee into fantasy stardom in 2017 without much risk in draft capital as the RB29 (seventh round).
Ameer Abdullah, Detroit Lions
Entering his third season in the league, we’ve been teased by the upside Abdullah presents. His drool-worthy athleticism at the combine – he finished in the 89th percentile or better in the vertical jump, broad jump, 3-cone drill, 20-yard shuttle, and 60-yard shuttle – culminated in a collective 98th percentile SPARQ-x score. Unfortunately, in his rookie season, he saw just 32.9 percent of Detroit’s offensive snaps and then he got injured in Week 2 of the 2016 season. The uber-athletic Abdullah has been fully cleared from last season’s foot surgery and gets to play behind perhaps the best offensive line he’s had in his short career. This offseason the Lions added offensive linemen RG T.J. Lang and RT Ricky Wagner. Both players finished in PFF’s top-10 ranking of pass blocking and top-20 overall.
Abdullah has a unique opportunity to come in as a versatile back capable of rushing and receiving. His high draft pedigree will grant him first crack at running the ball. Granted he only played two games last season, but among all players with 20-plus touches, he led all backs in our elusive rating in forcing missed tackles (144.9). Over the last three years, the Lions rank second in targets, receptions, and receiving yards accumulated by their running backs. They’re tied for the league lead with 17 receiving touchdowns by the position. Theo Riddick isn’t going away, but Abdullah’s track record proves he’s an adept receiver and can be an every-down running back.
Kenneth Dixon, Baltimore Ravens
After taking over for OC Marc Trestman midway last year, Marty Mornhinweg has been given the full reigns as OC for Baltimore entering 2017. During his previous two-year stint with the Jets, Mornhinweg’s offenses have historically utilized a heavy rushing attack, ranking in the top-five in rushing attempts each year. That could be a welcome change for the Ravens, who just finished this past year 30th in carries and led the league in pass attempts. Fortunately for the Ravens, they have second-year running back Dixon, who was starting to emerge toward the end of 2016. Dixon was a versatile back during his days at Louisiana Tech and could thrive in a plethora of ways in Mornhinweg’s offense. Dixon finished his collegiate career catching 66 receptions over his last two seasons and scoring a combined 54 touchdowns over that period.
Unfortunately, Dixon will start the season with a four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on PEDs. However, that’s not to say he can still provide value when he returns to the field considering the committee Baltimore will roll out in his absence. Terrance West is just a guy, averaging 4.0 yards per carry last year with just 31.1 percent of his runs going for five-plus yards. 32-year-old Danny Woodhead is oft-injured and has played in 21 of his last 48 games. Dixon has the potential to transcend this mediocre committee and capture a bell-cow role given his impressive skillset.
Last year, Dixon missed the first four games as well. In fact, he played just 18 total snaps Weeks 1-7 before the team’s bye week. He went on to finish the season leading the league in touches per missed tackle, forcing one once every 3.4 touches and ended up ranking 22nd in PPR fantasy points per opportunity (0.48) – the same rate as Le’Veon Bell. Dixon also gets the benefit of running behind one of PFF’s top-10 offensive lines last season. Possessing a combination of good hands, a history with a nose for the end zone, and an OC that wants to stress the running game, Dixon heads into 2017 with plenty of fantasy upside at a significant discount as the current RB39.
Bilal Powell, New York Jets
It’s rare we have the potential for a running back to break out in their seventh season in the league. However, that’s exactly what could happen with receiving specialist Powell in New York. Matt Forte saw some very heavy usage early in the season that inevitably took a toll on the 31-year-old veteran with the Jets electing to turn toward Powell to end the season. Following the team’s Week 11 bye, Powell played over 69 percent of the team’s offensive snaps and averaged 18.8 touches per game. He fared as a top-12 PPR back in three of those six games.
Out of the 42 running backs with at least 100 or more carries last season, Powell led the position in percentage of carries that went for first downs (34.4). He ranked third among that subset in receptions (58) and finished fifth in fantasy points per touch. Powell also forced a missed tackle on every 0.14 rushing attempts – the same rate as both David Johnson and Devonta Freeman. Entering his 10th season in the league, Forte’s days as a lead back could be numbered and Powell enters 2017 in a perfect opportunity to capitalize.
C.J. Prosise, Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks run game took a step backward last season, but we’ve already heard from head coach Pete Carroll they want to re-emphasize the rushing attack in 2017. While the early work is likely to be handed off to free agent addition Eddie Lacy, sophomore Prosise figures to play an integral role in his sophomore season. The former Notre Dame wide receiver has a chance to take over as the team’s receiving back. Prosise played very few snaps last year as a rookie. He saw his most in Weeks 8-10, where he was the overall RB12 during that period.
ESPN Seahawks reporter Sheil Kapadia recently wrote he believes Prosise is capable of hauling in 60 receptions if he stays healthy. Over the past 10 years, there have been 31 cases of a running back eclipsing 60-plus receptions. The lowest fantasy output recorded was James White’s 2016 season, where he finished with 161.7 PPR points as the fantasy RB26. He was less than one point away from a top-24 season.
It’s not outside of Prosise’s range of outcomes to hit that 60-catch mark. In the three games he played more than 20 snaps (Weeks 8-10), he was on pace for 58 catches. Extrapolating anything off of three games is likely a fool’s errand, but that 60-catch mark isn’t a farfetched number. Prosise also gets the benefit of playing in an offense that regularly ranks towards the top of the league in red zone trips per game. Over the last three years, Seattle has the seventh-most receiving touchdowns by their running backs. He could become the prime beneficiary of those receiving touchdowns in 2017. Prosise has an alluring, sneaky low ADP, and if he can stay healthy, he has an opportunity to provide tremendous value for your fantasy team as an eighth-round pick.