Looking at the fantasy landing spots for the top-drafted RBs
Every February I start building a set of rankings for the incoming class of rookies and continue to adjust it up until the draft. Once the draft hits, I start over from scratch. Athletic measurables and my original evaluations will always play a role, but all too often landing spot becomes the biggest factor. Early last season I had Leonte Carroo ahead of Michael Thomas (it feels gross just typing that), but of course, after the draft I quickly switched the two receivers.
Not only is team landing spot important, but so too is where in the draft they are selected. As our own Tyler Loechner displayed a week ago, the higher a player is drafted, the more likely they are to achieve fantasy success. It makes sense in theory too — teams have more invested in these players, and thus, are more invested in seeing them succeed.
Taking these two factors into account, here is a look at the prognoses for the draft’s notable fantasy running backs.
Leonard Fournette (first round, Jacksonville Jaguars)
Taking Fournette at No. 4 overall was largely panned by draftniks, though embraced by the fantasy community. Despite the high selection, I’m less optimistic in terms of immediate and long-term fantasy potential. Despite what Jacksonville’s front office is claiming, I don’t see Fournette as a three-down-back. In three years at LSU, he amassed only 40 career receptions, and still managed to drop a whopping eight passes. In terms of talent as a runner, I really don’t see much separating him from Dalvin Cook, who was selected a round later by the Vikings.
Jacksonville ran the ball only 37 percent of the time last season (seventh-lowest), and I expect that number to climb significantly under new executive vice president Tom Coughlin and his plans for a more-balanced offense, however, with Coughlin also comes a long history of maddening running back usage. Still, I expect the team to give Fournette the bulk of the carries and almost the entirety of the rushing workload near the goal line. However, I also expect Jacksonville to continue to use T.J. Yeldon on third downs and as a change-of-pace back. Coughlin basically said just that in his press conference following the selection.
Jacksonville’s offensive line is a question mark as well. As a team, Jacksonville running backs haven’t averaged 4.0 yards per carry since 2011, and last season the team ranked bottom-10 in both average yards before contact and PFF run-blocking grade. From a dynasty perspective, Fournette is still likely a top-six pick for me, but I don’t have him among the top-three, as so many other do.
Christian McCaffrey (first round, Carolina Panthers)
On paper, Carolina seems like a less-than-ideal landing spot for a running back who received our highest receiving grade at the position in 2015. Arguably the best receiving running back in the class, McCaffrey just landed on the team that targets their running backs the least often.
In order for McCaffrey to succeed, to be used in a manner that best suits his unique skillset, we need to assume Carolina and Cam Newton are ready to completely alter their offensive playing style. However, that’s not to say that that won’t happen. It seems unlikely Carolina would draft McCaffrey at No. 8 overall if they weren’t going to heavily utilize him, and more importantly, use him where he fits best. Early offseason reports appear to support this. Following Newton’s concussion and shoulder injuries in 2015, Ron Rivera has stated he wants Newton to run the ball less in 2017. This would only be a plus for McCaffrey, as studies have shown mobile quarterbacks typically have a negative impact on a running back’s receiving workload.
Carolina’s wide receiver coach Lance Taylor (and former running back coach to McCaffrey at Stanford) left me feeling somewhat optimistic during Carolina’s Day 1 press conference when he said, “He’s going to be a running back, but he helps us in the slot. We’re going to use him in multiple ways.” Despite immense praise as to McCaffrey’s abilities as an inside-the-tackles runner, I’m not sure McCaffrey immediately receives the bulk of the rushing workload in Carolina (though he should eventually), but I do expect him to be heavily utilized as a receiver early on, despite Carolina’s recent history.
Dalvin Cook (second round, Minnesota Vikings)
Minnesota was clearly high on Cook, trading up to select him in the second round. General manager Rick Spielman backed this up when he said they had Cook as “a top-two running back in this class.” In the same press conference he praised Cook as a talented receiver and repetitively stated a desire to get him the ball out of the backfield. Unfortunately, in the very next sentence, he criticized Cook’s ability in pass protection. Cook ranked last in pass-blocking efficiency of the first seven running backs off the board. This could be a legitimate concern on an offense that earned our fourth-worst pass-blocking grade and ranked 10th-worst in pass-blocking efficiency last season.
I believe Cook should immediately beat out Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon for carries. Murray averaged 1.5 yards per carry less than his peers behind a talented Oakland offensive line last season. For the third consecutive season, McKinnon couldn’t separate himself from Matt Asiata (career 3.5 yards per carry). The issue with Cook, alongside pass-blocking concerns is, again, the offensive line. Minnesota ranked third-worst in yards before contact last season. As a team their running backs averaged 3.16 yards per carry last season, which ranked third-worst this past decade. That said, I’m confident in Cook’s talent and his ability to transcend an underwhelming offensive line. Last season, of 223 teams, Florida State earned our 183rd-“best” run-blocking grade last season, and Cook still managed 6.1 yards per carry. In fact, his final two seasons of college were arguably more impressive (at least statistically) than Ezekiel Elliott’s.
Joe Mixon (second round, Cincinnati Bengals)
Factoring in Mixon’s well-publicized domestic violence history, Cincinnati must have felt very comfortable with Mixon’s talent knowing they’d have to weather the inevitable blowback from fans following the pick. Despite off-the-field concerns, Mixon is a tremendous talent on the field, putting up some of the best numbers in the class last season. Of the first seven running backs drafted, only looking at last year’s stats, Mixon ranked first in yards per carry (6.9), second in yards after contact per attempt, third in missed tackles forced per attempt, first in yards per route run, first in yards per target, first in yards after the catch per reception, and second in pass-blocking efficiency.
Mixon was our highest-graded running back via the pass last year, and drew comparisons to Matt Forte from several PFF analysts. It’s likely Mixon immediately supplants Jeremy Hill (3.67 yards per carry over the last two seasons) for early-down work, but remains unclear if Giovani Bernard maintains his role as third-down and receiving back (at least 50 targets in each of his four seasons). Like with Cook, Mixon’s troubles rest on the offensive line, after Cincinnati lost their two top-graded run-blockers in Kevin Zeitler and Andrew Whitworth in free agency. Given offensive line concerns and his receiving ability, much of my excitement rests in him being able to edge out Bernard and ascend to bell cow status.
Alvin Kamara (third round, New Orleans Saints)
During the Saints Day 2 press conference, GM Mickey Loomis said “[We’re excited] to get a player we coveted… that I would expect to fill the role that Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles had for us in the past.” Loomis didn’t need to say it, it was clear they coveted him when they traded a second-round pick to the 49ers to move up and grab him in the third. By adding a running back on Day 2, it appears an already complicated New Orleans backfield only gets more confusing. However, if we can take Loomis at his word, Kamara’s role might not be.
The Bush/Sproles role Loomis had alluded to was a very attractive one for PPR fantasy leagues. Bush averaged 16.7, 17.4, and 17.2 PPR fantasy points per game during his first three seasons in New Orleans. Darren Sproles averaged 17.0, 16.5, and 11.8 PPR fantasy points per game during his first three seasons in New Orleans. Kamara never saw more than 110 carries or 50 targets during his college career, and likely won’t see the same rushing workload Bush saw early in his career, but if he were to match their 7.3 target per game average, he could make his mark as a perennial RB2 in PPR formats. It certainly is a possibility. As PFF’s own Pat Thorman had mentioned elsewhere, even after adding Ted Ginn (and now Peterson), the Saints still have 100-plus targets unaccounted for following last seasons’ departures.
Kareem Hunt (third round, Kansas City Chiefs)
The Chiefs were clearly excited about Hunt’s prospects in their offense, trading up to get him in the third round as the sixth running back off the board. During their Day 2 press conference, Chiefs GM John Dorsey mentioned Hunt was their top running back after the first tier of running backs were selected. According to him, that tier was only about “three or four” running backs deep. Hunt will likely start off in a committee or backing up Spencer Ware early in year one, but his potential in an Andy Reid offense (if he were to assume RB1 status) is about as high as it gets.
Hunt was also a player I loved heading into the draft. He was our top-graded running back last season, and dominated statistically. In 2016, among all 139 qualifying draft-eligible running backs with at least 150 rushing attempts, Hunt ranked first in missed tackles forced per touch, third in yards per route run, and 12th in yards after contact per attempt. He’s also only fumbled once throughout the entirety of his college career.
James Conner (third round, Pittsburgh Steelers)
In what was considered something of a reach, Conner landed in an ideal situation backing up Le’Veon Bell and possibly serving as his future replacement if the Steelers choose not to bring Bell back in 2018. Bell has had his fair share of injuries over the past three years, and there’s some suspension risk as well. While serving as Bell’s backup over the past two seasons, DeAngelo Williams averaged 22.8 PPR fantasy points per game during the 12 games Bell was absent and Williams both started and finished. As attractive as Kansas City appears as a running back destination, I’m not sure any team is as ideal as Pittsburgh – but more on this in a future actual opportunity and bell cow-related piece.
Joe Williams (fourth round, San Francisco 49ers)
Williams was another running back who, although he was drafted relatively late, landed in a nearly ideal spot. He’ll likely start off his career competing against and backing up Carlos Hyde. Hyde’s durability concerns throughout his career – 14 missed games over the past three seasons – imply Williams might be able to see the field sooner rather later. It also doesn’t hurt that head coach Kyle Shanahan was desperate to trade up for Williams. He was quoted by MMQB writer Peter King as saying, “I’m telling you right now: If we don’t get him, I’ll be sick. I will be contemplating Joe Williams all night.” Like with Hunt landing in an Andy Reid offense, Shanahan has seemingly always had a positive impact on a team’s running game.