Ranking The Rookie RB Situations For Redraft: Tier 1
Success on the fantasy football gridiron often comes down to the players and coaches that surround the player you draft. Even if you watched every single snap Todd Gurley played in college, and you are certain he is a once-in-a-lifetime talent, that doesn’t mean you should necessarily draft him. There are several other factors in play that shape a running back’s success during his rookie season.
In this piece, we will take a look at these key factors and rank the rookie backs by their situations alone. I will take a look at the 10 best situations heading into 2015, and rank them accordingly. I used the 10 rookie backs I deemed with the best opportunity to make an impact in redraft leagues, and I broke them down into three tiers. In this piece, we will look at the first tier.
This is one piece of the puzzle, and your takeaway of each rookie’s talent also plays a key role in your overall evaluation. If you find me on Twitter, I can provide you with my evaluation on each player’s talent level. Or you can do what I did, and you can head over to draftbreakdown.com to watch some of their game tape.
For an overall scope of how we like the rookies in dynasty and keeper formats, Jeff Ratcliffe has you covered here. If you want to hear a little bit more about individual rookies from the PFF Fantasy guys, the PFF Fantasy Slant has got you covered. Ratcliffe and Mike Clay have gone in-depth to discuss some of the rookies backs already, and there are some especially great nuggets to take in on Tevin Coleman, T.J. Yeldon and Matt Jones.
1. Ameer Abdullah
The Lions finished with the 18th-best run blocking unit in 2014. Getting rid of center Dominic Raiola (-17.2) should result in addition by subtraction. The Lions will replace him with Travis Swanson, who struggled in limited snaps at guard as a rookie, but has looked “awesome” at center – according to Lions OC Joe Lombardi.
Larry Warford (+6.8) will likely return to start at right guard, and the Lions will be replacing another weak link at left guard in Rob Sims. Lombardi said that first-round pick Laken Tomlinson and offseason acquisition Manny Ramirez will compete to start, but my money is on Tomlinson winning the job. The 6-foot-3, 323-pounder finished as College Football Focus’ second-best guard overall, with the fifth-best run-blocking grade and the best pass-blocking grade.
The Lions will return Riley Reiff and LaAdrian Waddle at the tackle spots. Waddle is recovering from a torn ACL injury, but he is already ahead of schedule. He thinks he will be ready for Week 1, but if he’s not, the Lions will turn to Cornelius Lucas to replace him for what shouldn’t be too many games. The Lions’ blocking will most likely take a big step forward in 2015, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see this unit finish in the top 10 in run blocking.
Path to playing time
The Lions let Reggie Bush walk in free agency, and that leaves Joique Bell as the incumbent starter. After offseason surgery, Bell wasn’t as effective as a runner in 2014. He forced two fewer missed tackles in 2014 despite seeing 57 more carries. This spring, Bell missed the Lions’ entire offseason program as he recovers from surgery to both his knee and Achilles. At 29 years old, with injuries piling up, the end could be near.
Abdullah has no trouble making defenders miss. He forced a missed tackle on average once out of every 4.3 offensive touches. His combined 66 forced missed tackles on rushes and receptions were the third-most in the draft class. Abdullah has taken the majority of first team offensive repetitions in Bell’s absence during OTA and mini-camp practices. The Lions seem unlikely to bring him along slowly, and he could take over as the team’s lead back early in the season.
In year two of Lombardi’s system, the offense is running a lot smoother. Lombardi hails from the Sean Payton-led Saints, and his system features a lot of the same concepts. This is excellent news for Abdullah. The Lions targeted a running back on 153 plays in 2014, ranking them among the league leaders in this category. It’s safe to assume that Abdullah can at least match the team-leading 52 targets that went to Bush.
The Lions finished with the 22nd-highest scoring offense in 2014. A fully healthy Calvin Johnson will help the offense score more in 2015.
When you consider all three of the above factors, it’s easy to see that Abdullah enters 2015 with the best situation of any rookie running back.
2. Duke Johnson
Despite losing all-pro center Alex Mack in Week 6, the Browns finished as the 11th-best run blocking unit. Mack is back, and the Browns added one of the draft’s best offensive linemen in first-rounder Cameron Erving. Due to injuries, Erving has practiced in all five offensive line spots, according to new OC John DeFilippo. He is unlikely to unseat Joe Thomas (+33.5), Joel Bitonio (+22.4) or John Greco (+14.2), but he could challenge Mitchell Schwartz (+0.5) at right tackle. Schwartz graded out poorly (-8.8) as a run blocker.
DeFilippo did say he expects Erving to start off training camp seeing most of his reps at right guard. If Erving plays, he will be an asset – the CFF guys broke down why he is an excellent fit for a zone-blocking system. If everyone stays healthy, this could be one of the NFL’s elite run-blocking units in 2015.
Path to playing time
The Browns’ running back situation was a mess in 2014 – we sometimes didn’t know which back would start until less than an hour before kickoff. HC Mike Pettine is the culprit, and if he has full say, this backfield could prove frustrating again. If the decision is DeFilippo’s alone, one back could emerge. When asked how he might deploy his running backs, DeFilippo told Browns reporters, “I’m a big believer in a guy’s got a hot hand you keep riding him. That’s kind of just a philosophy that I have.”
Johnson is battling second-year backs Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West for playing time. Both Crowell and West struggled in the run and pass game in 2014. Crowell forced just 10 missed tackles on 157 touches and West wasn’t much better. DeFilippo has lined up Johnson as a slot receiver during OTA and mini-camp practices and he even created a package called “21 Hurricane” that features both Johnson and another back. He also mentioned that he is going to have some gameplan-specific plays for Johnson – referencing outside zone runs and specific pass routes.
DeFilippo doesn’t plan to overhaul the terminology. DeFilippo will continue to use a zone-blocking system, but he plans to mix in some gap-blocking. DeFilippo told Browns.com that utilizing the running back in the passing game is “going to be a big part of the offense.” This is great news for Johnson.
The Browns finished as the 27th-highest scoring offense in 2014, and it’s fair to question if they really improved anywhere along the offense outside of the line. They traded one journeyman quarterback for another and made a couple of similar swaps at wide receiver. At tight end, they allowed their most explosive receiving threat to walk in free agency. This offense could struggle to score again in 2015.
Johnson has the blocking, the system fit, and the talent to emerge as the lead back. The Browns offense may not score many points, but he has a chance to rack up a lot of yards.
3. Todd Gurley
In 2014, the Rams finished with the 23rd-best run blocking unit (-27.5). Their projected 2015 line will feature four new starters from what they put out there Week 1 of 2014. Right guard Davin Joseph (-24.6) and center Scott Wells (-29.7) will be replaced by rookie Jamon Brown and second year lineman Barrett Jones. Brown is a mauling, 323-pound guard who is described as a straight-line mover with surprising quickness. Jones is a talented center who would have likely been drafted higher in 2014 if not for an injury that he is now fully recovered from.
The Rams used their second-round pick on Rob Haventstein – a right tackle who opened up holes all season long for Melvin Gordon. The 6-foot-7 and 321 pounder is a drive blocker who finishes plays. He replaces Joseph Barksdale at right tackle. The Rams are counting on Greg Robinson to start at left tackle and be much better than he was during his nine-game sample size at the position in 2014. The good news is that he finished with a positive run-blocking grade over his final six games at left tackle. This should be a much bigger, stronger and improved run-blocking unit in 2015. A finish inside the top 16 in PFF’s final grades is not out of the question.
Path to playing time
Gurley’s biggest hurdle to realizing his fantasy potential, outside of the injury, is second-year running back Tre Mason. As a rookie, Mason averaged 4.3 yards per carry with four rushing touchdowns and 772 rushing yards. He finished with a league average elusive rating, forcing 28 missed tackles on 179 rushing attempts.
Conversely, Gurley forced a missed tackle once every 3.3 rush attempts, the best rate in the nation. He did some of his best work against the Power 5 conferences, forcing 37 missed tackles on 117 rushes. Mason struggled with pass protection and allowed two sacks and two hurries on just 29 pass block snaps. Mason ran 121 pass routes, but he finished with a low yards per route run (1.22). Gurley may already be a better asset than Mason in the passing game.
Brian Schottenheimer is gone, and fantasy owners can now say goodbye to his vanilla scheme and questionable running back usage. Despite being largely ineffective as a runner or receiver, Benny Cunningham saw more snaps than Mason in 2014. New offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti will be keeping the same terminology and a similar scheme to Schottenheimer, but he plans on simplifying the scheme. A scheme heavy in power-blocking run concepts that leans on the run game to open up the play-action pass sounds likely. After being hired, Cignetti was quoted saying “you run the ball to win,” and all of the Rams’ actions this offseason support this claim.
The Rams finished as the 21st-highest scoring offense in 2014. With the additions of Nick Foles, Todd Gurley, Brian Quick (injured) and several offensive linemen, they should take a step forward and put the skill position players in position to score more often. Foles’ ridiculous 2013 season was likely an aberration, but he will move the ball via the pass on a more consistent basis than Austin Davis could in 2014.
Gurley’s situation is negatively affected by the fact that he might miss all of training camp. It could take him longer to first make an impact, but when he does see the field, he will be in a great spot. The Rams could have a top power-blocking line with a run-first scheme and more scoring opportunities with Foles at quarterback.
4. T.J. Yeldon
The Jaguars finished with the 25th-best run-blocking unit in 2014, so they added three new linemen to the mix. Jeremy Parnell will take over at right tackle and replace a combination of Sam Young and Austin Pasztor – the two tackles combined for a -9.7 run-blocking grade and a -16.6 grade overall. In just 388 snaps, Parnell finished with strong grades as a run blocker (+4.8) and overall (+8.2).
If he proves to be healthy after offseason surgery, free agent acquisition Stefen Wisniewski would be an upgrade over 2014 starter Luke Bowanko. Despite playing through an injury, Wisniewski still managed to finish as PFF’s 19th-best center; Bowanko finished five spots behind him. During a healthy 2013 season, Wisniewski finished as the 11th-best center overall. The Jaguars have the flexibility to work in rookie third-round guard A.J. Cann at left guard.
Although 2014 starter Zane Beadles finished strong in pass protection (+7.4), he was a major liability in the run game (-8.8). Cann finished as CFF’s 10th-most efficient run blocker despite playing most of his games in the SEC. Finally, the Jaguars hope that after he added between 10-15 pounds of clean weight, Luke Joeckel can finally live up to his draft slot. The Jaguars’ run blocking should improve and finish somewhere near the middle of the pack.
Path to playing time
There are a lot of mouths to feed in the Jaguars’ backfield; Yeldon will be joined in competition by Denard Robinson, a healthy Toby Gerhart, and Bernard Pierce. Yeldon’s biggest competition could come from Robinson, who finished with a healthy 4.3 yards per carry. Robinson wasn’t as good as his yards per carry makes him out to be; he forced just eight missed tackles on 135 rushing attempts and finished along the bottom of PFF’s elusive rating. For once, it might actually be wise to buy into the coach-speak on this one.
Greg Olson hopes to bring more tempo to the Jaguars’ offense in 2014, and he will also be bringing a new blocking scheme. Gerhart is one player looking forward to the offense’s transition to an inside-zone scheme under Olson and OL coach Doug Marrone. This running style suits Yeldon well – he is very effective as a press-and-cut runner on zone runs.
The Jaguars were the lowest scoring offense in 2014. Adding a healthy Robinson, Julius Thomas, Yeldon and Parnell should help. I still wouldn’t expect too many scoring opportunities with Bortles at quarterback.
Yeldon has a clear path to playing time and the blocking scheme fits him well, just don’t expect him to be in position to score that many short touchdowns.
Dan Schneier is a staff writer at PFF Fantasy and he also covers the NFC East for FOX Sports. You can find him on Twitter @DanSchneierNFL. You can also add him to your network on Google+ to find all of his past material.