2016 NFL Draft Preview: RBs on the Fantasy Radar
Last week, I took a look at the top quarterbacks, tight ends, and kickers available in the upcoming draft. With the Rams trading for the number one pick last Thursday, we are almost guaranteed to see a quarterback go off the board right away and get an opportunity to start early, but historically speaking, quarterback has not been the most fruitful fantasy position among rookies, and neither has tight end or kicker. Instead, that honor goes to running backs.
This year’s group of backs isn’t quite as deep as last year's, but still features an elite talent that could go in the top 10, as well as quality options that will come off the board on Day 2 and challenge for playing time immediately. Among all fantasy positions, running back is still the easiest transition for young players, albeit with the gap narrowing due to the emergence of committees at the position and the continued rise of the passing game. Nevertheless, access to touches is all a running back needs to be fantasy-relevant, so if a rookie back is getting touches and has reasonably effective blocking, his fresh legs will oftentimes carry him to early success.
As I did with quarterbacks last week, I’ll break the running backs out into three groups for fantasy owners to note: Impact RBs, who should be dynamite from day one; Situation-Dependent RBs, whose fantasy stock will depend on the scheme and role they get drafted into; and Sleeper RBs who have the potential to make an impact despite being projected as late round picks.
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Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State – Elliott is the only back in the draft projected to go in the first round, but he’s one of the best prospects I’ve seen in the past decade at the position. Elliot checks all the boxes, with strong measurables, elite production, and a versatile skill set that will make him one of the rare three-down backs at the next level. Elliott has prototype size and speed, at 5-foot-11, 225 pounds, with a 4.47-second 40-yard dash at the Combine. He runs hard, sees the field well, and will be an instant starter for any team that drafts him. Elliott should be the top pick in all dynasty leagues this year, and he could be a top-10 fantasy back as a rookie.
Derrick Henry, Alabama – It’s not often you see shiftiness in a 247-pound runner, but Henry uses his size and power to the best of his ability, weaving in and out of traffic and using deceptive speed to make big plays. Henry runs hard and doesn’t shy away from contact, always finishing forward to grind out extra yards. Scoring 28 touchdowns last year for the Crimson Tide on his way to winning the Heisman Trophy, Henry should hear his name called early on Day 2, and fantasy owners should expect him to be drafted into a situation where he can be effective immediately.
Devontae Booker, Utah – Booker is projected to go in the third round, but if he hadn’t torn his meniscus last November, he might have found his way into the early second. The Utah product is a leader on the field and a good receiver out of the backfield (he caught 80 passes in two years at Utah), which should allow him to quickly climb an NFL depth chart. Booker isn't a burner, but can weave his way through traffic and juke a safety out of his socks. He will need to learn to carry the ball tight to his frame to stop fumbling, but if he lands on a team in need of a good third down back, Booker could have a lot of success as a rookie.
Jordan Howard, Indiana – Howard is a powerful back who runs hard and hits the hole decisively. He lacks elite speed, but has enough wiggle to make defenders miss. He runs low to the ground with determination, allowing his 230-pound frame to punish defenders. Although Howard is already a good pass blocker, he hasn’t done much in the receiving department, catching only 24 balls in three seasons at Indiana. Howard could challenge for a starting role anywhere he lands, but pay particular attention to him if he winds up in a zone blocking scheme -- he’s an excellent one-cut runner. If he winds up starting on a team like the Broncos, he could challenge for rookie of the year honors.
Kenneth Dixon, Louisiana Tech – Dixon is a productive rusher from a small school who finished his NCAA career with 72 touchdowns on the ground, a record at Louisiana Tech. He has a strong base with a low center of gravity and drives through the pile on inside runs. His short area quickness is adequate, and he displays a good feel for the game. While Dixon can be a little over-anxious at times and will lose track of his blockers, he’s a capable pass blocker and catches the ball well out of the backfield, increasing his ability to contribute early. Dixon may struggle to challenge an existing starter at the NFL level, but if he winds up on a team in need of a steady inside presence or versatility out of the backfield, he could wind up getting a dozen touches per game.
Josh Ferguson, Illinois – Ferguson runs crisp routes for a running back and may even work out of the slot at times if he gets coupled with a creative offensive play-caller. Ferguson has good hands, changes direction on a dime, and has just enough speed to make big plays. If a team is looking for an every down back, Ferguson will have a hard time, but in the right situation -- such as on a team with a steady inside runner already on the roster -- he could wind up making headlines early.
C.J. Prosise, Notre Dame – Prosise will be over-drafted because he’s a good kid with raw athleticism. He will likely go off the board in the third round, and he can bowl over defenders when he gets up a head of steam. However, he recently converted to the position after playing wide receiver in high school and his first two years in college. He catches the ball well, but is still learning the nuances of the running back position. Prosise works hard but lacks natural instincts as a back, and doesn’t have great speed, hence why he isn't going to play receiver as a pro. A crafty coach may be able to work with Prosise's football intelligence and powerful running style, but so far he looks more like a project to me. If he winds up on a team with a shaky running situation, he could be worth keeping an eye on, as he very well may outwork the rest of the depth chart. However, it’s unlikely he’ll challenge an established player in his first season.
Paul Perkins, UCLA – Perkins doesn’t wow you physically, but runs with a low center of gravity and sees the field well. What he lacks in brute force, he makes up for with competitiveness and dedication to his craft. Already an accomplished pass blocker, his versatility could make him a favorite in the locker room right away, and he has enough shiftiness to become a three-down back in the pros. His short area quickness is much better than his 4.53-second 40-yard dash time, but he’s elusive in the backfield and can make big plays. If he gets a chance early, he’s one of the Day 3 prospects who could really develop into a solid fantasy starter.
Kenyan Drake, Alabama – There are guys you know have the talent to succeed in the NFL, and there are guys you question whether they can be anything more than college players. Then there are guys like Kenyan Drake. Drake is an athletic player with tremendous play-making ability. He ran a 4.31-second 40-yard dash at the Combine and has the ability to catch the ball cleanly coming out of the backfield. However, Drake won’t be able to run between the tackles, doesn’t block, and lacks the route-running polish to line up out wide. Nevertheless, if a team finds a way to get him the ball in space, watch out! Drake could be the kind of fantasy player who winds up being an all-or-nothing DFS star as early as next year.
Tyler Ervin, San Jose State – A small school standout, Ervin is a versatile back and an overachiever. He may be a dancer at the next level, but good coaching and improvement on his fundamentals should make him a playmaker. He can line up all over the field, including as a slot receiver, and may find a way to make an impact early on if given the opportunity. Ervin won’t ever be a 15-plus carry player, but could wind up touching the ball a dozen times a game with an active role in the passing game. His explosiveness should earn him snaps somewhere as a rookie.
Jonathan Williams, Arkansas – A powerful runner, Williams runs with excellent pad level and never stops churning his legs. A broken ankle caused him to miss all of last season and will hurt his draft stock, but Williams showed deceptive quickness for a 220-pound back before his injury. He’s a decisive runner and the kind of player who could work his way into a committee role as a pro if he can prove he’s healthy.
Be sure to look for my article next week which will preview the top rookie wide receivers. Also, don’t forget to follow John Paulson as he updates the fantasy impact of drafted players on Days 1 and 2 of the draft, and stick around for Day 3 as I continue to update the back-end players and clue you into potential steals.