31 Rookie and Second-Year Running Backs to Consider on Draft Day
If I were to land on a list for sports fans during the month of July, it would be the inactive list. That is because I only care about two sports, football and basketball. The only true activity surrounding either of those sports is NBA free agency, and that is not an event to plan your calendar around.
So the month of July for me essentially turns into one extended brainstorming session, where I try to plan out my draft strategy for the upcoming season and come up with tidbits to help our great 4for4 subscribers.
Recently I was camped out at a restaurant researching and contemplating strategy. As a foodie, this commonly happens during the summer. I found myself sitting near what seemed to be a happy couple. I am not one to usually eavesdrop, but stuff happens. Girl tells guy she really likes him and thinks he is wonderful. Girl then says she is not as drawn to him as she should be and is too busy with other things, such as her studies and that she cannot be in a relationship. Girl even tells guy “if this was the one time to believe ‘it’s not you, it’s me,’ this is the time.”
Wow, poor guy. That’s painful and cold. No one wants to be in those shoes. But as sympathetic as I am, it is their business, not mine, and it has nothing to do with fantasy football, right? However, I suddenly realized there was a correlation. Fantasy owners have to be cold with roster decisions, and most of the time we don't give it a moment’s thought. Hey Mr. Generic Waiver Wire kicker, thanks for those three field goals, but Mason Crosby is back from his bye week, so get lost!
However, it is much tougher to cut the chord with all-time favorites and fantasy superstars. These are the players who have long been influential in playoff drives and championships. Regardless, it happens every year. Decline is inevitable, especially at the running back spot where players have a shorter lifespan. Nevertheless, if you look at the ADP data you will see several older running backs going in the first round, including Marshawn Lynch, Arian Foster, Matt Forte and Adrian Peterson. Fellow veteran Jamaal Charles is also going high, as well as steady Eddie Lacy and young star LeVeon Bell, who loses luster because of a suspension.
I still believe in Charles for the most part, even though I know 2013 was his peak, and would certainly have no problem tabbing Lacy with an early pick. However, as far as the others go, there are issues that make me want to ask for the fantasy football version of a divorce:
Marshawn Lynch… Oh Beast Mode, how so many owners have joined you in eating Skittles after your many journeys to the end zone. And Seattle should have given you the ball in the Super Bowl. We like you Marshawn, we really do. However, every year people say you are due to break down. One of these years, it is actually going to happen. And even if it does not happen this time around, Jimmy Graham is going to take some touchdowns away. It has been years since Seattle had a serious scoring threat in the passing game.
Arian Foster… Oh Arian, when you are healthy, you make Sundays more fun and help us earn victories. But your ongoing injury woes are so much to overcome. The odds of you playing 16 games are about as good as Fox News endorsing Hillary Clinton for president.
Matt Forte… Oh Matt, you did everything in your power to make a bad Bears team better last year. Those 102 receptions had PPR owners smiling all season, and over 1,800 total yards and 10 touchdowns made everyone else happy as well. But with former head coach Marc Trestman now in Baltimore, that reception total is going to drop. And you are another year older and have plenty of wear and tear.
Adrian Peterson... Oh, Adrian, we are not going to turn this into a moral discussion, but fantasy owners who drafted you last year still feel deserted. We know you have been spectacular and even led a team quarterbacked by Christian Ponder into the playoffs. However, how good are you going to be after being gone for a year? The consensus is that you will be your old self. But what if you are just old? Minnesota has a good young quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater, which means the Vikings do not have to ride Peterson like they have so often in the past.
Every fantasy owner has different philosophies and strategies, and I would not fault anyone for taking the four players I just mentioned with their first pick. From my perspective, I would rather have safer players at other positions (say Antonio Brown) than anyone from that foursome. If you are willing to overlook his injury history, Rob Gronkowski is a safer play too.
But aside from essentially playing a hunch that the old four in the first are going to hit a wall, there is a viable strategic reason to avoid all backs early. There is a fleet of young backs that can be gobbled up in later rounds who could really fortify your roster at a lower price. And it pays to know about them now, so you can watch them during the preseason, see how they progress, and either draft them or keep them on your free agent watch list.
For the purposes of this article we are going to pinpoint runners that are rookies or going into their second season. And we will not include teams that do not have much in the way of youth in the backfield. Sorry Chip Kelly, we know you want the publicity, but Demarco Murray, Ryan Mathews, and especially Darren Sproles are longer in the tooth.
Arizona Cardinals: David Johnson
Last year’s starter for the playoff-bound Cardinals, Andre Ellington, can make electric plays. He can also break down with regularity. In light of that, Arizona selected David Johnson in the third round. Johnson’s pass catching ability has earned praise during offseason workouts. While that could earn him immediate consideration in PPR leagues, Johnson could be playing a larger role everywhere if Ellington is on the pine. Johnson projects to outperform his current ADP, which is in the 9th round in 12-team leagues and the 11th round in 10-team formats.
Atlanta Falcons: Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman
The Falcons are going to have one of the youngest backfields in the league with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman leading the way. Freeman, entering his second season, should have gotten more playing time last year, but the former Atlanta regime seemed wed to broken-down Steven Jackson and perennial non-factor Jacquizz Rodgers. Experts have mixed opinions about Freeman’s talent level, but heading into training camp, he’s the starter for the Falcons.
And that is a big deal with well-regarded Kyle Shanahan now taking over as Atlanta’s offensive coordinator. Shanahan coaxed some nice work out of Alfred Morris while in Washington and even helped make Cleveland’s feeble offense look okay at times last year. But do not expect Coleman, a rookie from Indiana, to fade quietly into a secondary role. He ran for 2,036 yards for an out-manned Hoosiers team, highlighted by a three touchdown effort against eventual national champion Ohio State where he accumulated 228 yards on the ground. He also rushed for over 300 yards against Rutgers and propelled Indiana to an upset win over SEC East champion Missouri.
If either of these players emerges as a lead back, there could be points galore in Shanahan’s proven system. Most likely, Coleman will end up getting more work on early downs while Freeman is busier in the passing game. Currently, Coleman has the higher ADP. In 12-team leagues, he is going in the 6th round while Freeman is being taken in the 8th round. On the 10-team side of the fence, Coleman is off the board by round seven while Freeman’s draft spot is round nine. Although Freeman looks more likely than Coleman to outperform his ADP at the moment, we could see a change before September. Any way you slice it, this young duo is at least in the flex conversation, with the potential for more.
Baltimore Ravens: Lorenzo Taliaferro and Javorius "Buck" Allen
As far as older backs go, Justin Forsett has limited miles. He also has a more limited track record, as he was largely anonymous before finding his stride last year with 1,529 total yards and eight touchdowns. Forsett still projects as Baltimore’s lead back, but if he falters or gets injured, second-year back Lorenzo Taliaferro and rookie Javorius “Buck” Allen would be in position to pick up the pieces.
Taliaferro flashed at times last year, especially when he rushed for two touchdowns in a game against Cincinnati. Allen was a good receiver at Southern California, which could prove vital in Baltimore’s new offense, piloted by former Chicago head coach Marc Trestman. At the moment, neither Allen nor Taliaferro is guaranteed to be drafted in most leagues. They are names to remember in the grand scheme of things, because their path to playing time could be shorter than most think.
Buffalo Bills: Karlos Williams
It would take an unbelievable set of circumstances for fifth-round pick Karlos Williams to end up on the fantasy radar this year. Williams had more running lanes to run through in Tallahassee than most backs would thanks to defenses having to pay attention to Jameis Winston, so he remains a bit of an unknown, especially after starting his college career at safety. Plus, Karlos is buried on the depth chart. The only reason he generates any thought is because Buffalo’s biggest mouth, new head coach Rex Ryan, loves his ground and pound offense.
Carolina Panthers: Cameron Artis-Payne
In late 2014, Jonathan Stewart finally became the player the Panthers and fantasy owners had longed to see. Stewart was a key cog when Carolina won four in a row to capture their second straight NFC South championship and then rushed for 123 yards and a touchdown when the Panthers defeated Arizona on Wild Card Weekend.
Despite Stewart’s breakout, there is always going to be a ceiling on his touchdown potential, as Cam Newton and Mike Tolbert are threats at the goal line. Regardless, he is plenty capable of helping fantasy teams as long as he stays healthy. Oh yes, that caveat. Stewart has spent plenty of time in traction during his career, including three games last year. If he goes down again, Cameron Artis-Payne could find himself in a prominent role. Carolina’s fifth round selection out of Auburn, Artis-Payne rushed for 1,608 yards and 13 touchdowns in his final season with the Tigers. Right now, Artis-Payne is going undrafted in most leagues. There is no guarantee he will ever be anything special. But fantasy owners always need to think outside the box, and Artis-Payne could be one of those guys who ends up as a hot waiver wire commodity at some point.
Chicago Bears: Jeremy Langford and KaDeem Carey
Behind the previously mentioned Matt Forte are rookie Jeremy Langford and sophomore KaDeem Casey, who was Forte’s backup last year. Casey was used sparingly, aside from a week four loss to Green Bay where he received 14 carries. Even though Forte’s production looks likely to drop, there is not a clear handcuff among this duo and both will probably go undrafted throughout the preseason. Yet, it would not be a shock to see one emerge as a priority free agent down the road.
Cincinnati Bengals: Jeremy Hill
Jeremy Hill was quite impressive as a rookie last year. He is not going to be a guy that comes out of nowhere. Despite that, Hill is going in the second round in both 10 and 12-team leagues. Grabbing Antonio Brown in the first round and Hill in the second would be pretty appealing. Hill has the potential to outperform the oldies.
Cleveland Browns: Isaiah Crowell, Terrance West and Duke Johnson
It is time to play word association. If I said “trainwreck” you might be first inclined to think about the upcoming movie starring Amy Schumer, Bill Hader and Cleveland legend LeBron James. Since this a fantasy football article and not a movie review, trainwreck will describe the Browns offense. With feeble Josh McCown at quarterback and Dwayne Bowe masquerading as a number one receiver much as he did in Kansas City, the Browns are going to be very painful to watch this year. As an aside, Seattle and Kansas City will be the teams playing Cleveland in weeks 15 and 16, when many leagues have their playoffs.
However, if there is one spot to watch in Cleveland, it is the backfield, especially given the Browns offense will be very run-oriented. And all three of Cleveland’s young backs, rookie Duke Johnson and second-year men Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West, could shine at times. Crowell rushed for 607 yards and eight touchdowns in his inaugural NFL season, while West ended the season on a high note, rushing for 94 yards and a touchdown against Baltimore. Johnson, who played at Miami, looks like the best receiver of the group. In fact, the Browns have even lined him up out wide during offseason practices.
The problem with all three, aside from Cleveland’s watching the wheels go round offense, is that Browns head coach Mike Pettine is incredibly indecisive when it comes to picking running backs. His depth chart decisions seem to come out of thin air with little rhyme or reason. On more than one occasion last year, news pointed to a clear-cut starter on a given week, and then that “starter” saw next to no playing time. I cannot confirm this conversation took place at team headquarters in Berea, Ohio, but it’s worth noting:
“Coach, heard Isaiah drank the orange Gatorade after practice today.”
“What? I hate orange Gatorade! What did West have?”
“Oh I saw him downing the Lemon-Lime.”
“That’s it. Terrance starts this week.”
At the moment, no amount of Gatorade is helping West’s ADP. He is buried in obscurity while Crowell is being taken in the 8th round of 10-team leagues and 6th round of 12-team leagues. Johnson gets drafted in the 9th round when 10 teams are factored into the equation, and 8th round with 12 teams. It seems like Crowell and Johnson would form the largest portion of a time share, but that’s only if Pettine can settle on a defined rotation. If he remains as wishy-washy as he did last year, the Browns backfield will send fantasy owners reaching for the aspirin. Unless there is some semblance of clarity, any Cleveland back has an escalated amount of risk.
Detroit Lions: Ameer Abdullah
The Lions bid farewell to Reggie Bush, but holdovers Joique Bell and Theo Riddick have some substantial competition in the form of rookie Ameer Abdullah, a former standout at Nebraska. In his final two years in Lincoln, Abdullah rushed for over 3,300 yards and 28 touchdowns. On the other hand, his receiving skills are what had people buzzing last year, following an amazing play where he caught a short pass against McNeese State and weaved his way to the end zone, saving the Cornhuskers from what could have been an Appalachian State-style upset.
And it is those receiving skills that make him the most complete back on the Detroit roster. Riddick is not an inside runner and Bell is a grinder who lacks home run capabilities. Abdullah can do it all. He will not be the first rookie taken in fantasy drafts and may end up merely being in a committee, especially given Bell is solid in short yardage, but Abdullah has a puncher’s chance at being the most productive newcomer. At the moment, he will cost you a 5th round pick in leagues with 12 teams and a 6th round pick in leagues with 10 squads. It seems like a sensible price for Abdullah’s upside.
Houston Texans: Alfred Blue
Even the biggest Arian Foster booster knows he will probably be out at some point this season. Fantasy general managers became familiar with Alfred Blue last year. Blue heads into his second season as Foster’s handcuff. Alfred is not an elite talent and represents a considerable drop from Foster, but Houston’s offense is run heavy and volume would put Blue in a position to be productive if he’s the starter. His ADP is in the late rounds. Consider him earlier if you roll the dice on Foster.
Indianapolis Colts: Josh Robinson
It was headline news throughout Indianapolis and the NFL when the Colts signed Frank Gore. And while Gore’s 10 and 12-team ADP price is not extravagant, with the veteran going in the third round across the board, Gore does share some similarities with the higher touted veterans going earlier. The 32-year old Gore could easily plateau at some point soon.
The Colts learned Dan “Boom” Herron could contribute last year. However, that did not stop them from selecting Mississippi State’s Josh Robinson in round six. Robinson could end up doing absolutely nothing and does not project to be selected in August and September drafts. Or, he could be a cult hero on the waiver wire as the season progresses thanks to his tough, feisty style and unexpected opportunities. It does not take much for a back in Indianapolis to gain viability.
Jacksonville Jaguars: T.J. Yeldon
Yes, Jacksonville has been a joke for awhile now, and anyone betting on the Jaguars to make an appearance in the Super Bowl, or even the playoffs, would be in a position to lose money. Nevertheless, Jacksonville’s offense will be trending in the right direction if quarterback Blake Bortles can improve. Denver import Julius Thomas gives Bortles an established target and there are few seats available on the hype plane for second-year receiver Allen Robinson.
And T.J. Yeldon could give the Jaguars and fantasy owners a money player. Although Trent Richardson has sullied the reputation of Alabama running backs, Eddie Lacy and Mark Ingram have proven that not every Crimson Tide back is terrible like Trent. Jacksonville is counting on Yeldon to be their main back, even though Denard Robinson looked good at times last year. Yeldon may not end up being an immediate superstar, but if you land him in the 4th round of a 12-team league or the 5th round of a 10-team setup, you ought to have a weekly starter.
Knee concerns caused Boise State’s Jay Ajayi to slip into the fifth round, where the Dolphins stopped his slide. And it could turn out to be a great move by Miami. A superstar on the famous Boise blue turf, Ajayi scored 50 touchdowns during his college days, including 28 in 2014. He also caught 50 passes last year. Starter Lamar Miller comes off a solid season, meaning it is going to be hard for Ajayi to step in and be an instant sensation. Nonetheless, he looks like an interesting handcuff. Right now, Jay can be had with a 10th round pick in 12-team leagues and a 12th round selection in 10-team leagues. I would not go overboard to get Ajayi, but would have no qualms about taking him in that zone.
Minnesota Vikings: Jerick McKinnon
In the event Adrian Peterson is no longer Adrian Peterson, Jerick McKinnon provides the Vikings with an intriguing alternative. McKinnon gave Minnesota a spark last year while Peterson was gone, averaging 4.8 yards a carry, although he did not score a single touchdown all season, thanks in part to the short yardage prowess of Matt Asiata, who also slides back into the shadows with Peterson back. Growth out of McKinnon is naturally expected, and there will be a significant role for him if something happens to Peterson.
New England Patriots: James White
In a lot of cases, ignoring the New England backfield is the best strategy. But with Shane Vereen now with the New York Giants, second-year man James White may take over as New England’s pass catching back, since nominal starter LeGarrette Blount is almost never used as a receiver. PPR owners need to keep tabs on White and see if he wins the job. While White’s potential is capped for a variety of reasons, he could be an emergency outlet for fantasy owners at some point.
New York Giants: Andre Williams
Second-year runner Andre Williams averaged just 3.3 yards per carry in his first NFL season. Williams, though, did carve out a niche as a goal line specialist, rushing for seven touchdowns. As stated above, New York added Shane Vereen to go along with Williams and Rashad Jennings. While all three are useful, none of them are complete NFL backs. Although Jennings and Vereen are clearly ahead in the pecking order, when you combine Andre’s potential touchdown output with the fact Jennings and Vereen have been brittle of late, he is worth a late in the draft gamble, where his ADP is parked at this point in time.
Oakland Raiders: Latavius Murray
When Kansas City headed to Oakland for a Thursday night game on November 20, all eyes were on Jamaal Charles. He had scored five touchdowns the year before in Oakland. Logic dictated Charles would have a huge night, especially with the Chiefs in the playoff hunt and the Raiders playing out the string. Instead, while Charles had a nice game, it was Latavius Murray who stole the show and propelled Oakland to an upset win. Murray rushed for an 11-yard score, and then followed it up with a 90-yard dash to the end zone.
And Murray is likely going to be in a position to create more magic in 2015. All signs point to him being Oakland’s lead back, and new Raiders offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave loves to run the ball. In common 10 and 12-team leagues, Murray is going in the fourth round. He is looking like a quintessential first back off the board for someone who ignores the position in the first three rounds and stocks up elsewhere.
There are downsides with Murray. Washington import Roy Helu, a good receiver, will be featured prominently in the passing game. Fullback Marcel Reece is also a quality pass catcher. The combination of Helu and Reece hurts Murray in PPR leagues. The Raiders also signed Trent Richardson, and knowing the Raiders, they are probably going to be stupid enough to give him playing time. Still, when factoring everything into consideration, Murray has the potential to be better than his ADP would indicate if he can secure a big workload.
St. Louis Rams: Todd Gurley and Tre Mason
While reclusive St. Louis owner Stan Kroneke looks to set up his circle in the Southern California sand, other Gateway City power brokers had other things on their mind on draft day and stocked up at running back and along the offensive line. St. Louis made a big splash by taking Georgia’s Todd Gurley 10th overall. Surely this means Gurley will be shouldering a huge load immediately, right?
Actually, the answer is no. Gurley is coming off knee surgery and is not a lock to be active when Week 1 rolls around. There is no doubt Gurley has franchise back potential. But if he is slowed early in the season or if it takes awhile for him to showcase the superstar skills he displayed in Athens, gambling on Todd at his current fourth/fifth round ADP could backfire. He is going to be one of the top training camp stories to watch.
And the Rams have no reason to rush Gurley back when second-year back Tre Mason looked pretty good as a rookie. Mason, who also played in the SEC at Auburn, rushed for 765 yards despite not playing in the first four games of the season. The only sour note was that his touchdown output was largely confined to one game, a 52-0 victory over Oakland where Mason scored three times. Still, it stands to reason Mason will keep improving. His ADP is going to fluctuate depending on Gurley. Currently, it is in the middle rounds. At worst, he ought to able to offer something as a flex. At best, he could shake out as a somewhat regular starter.
San Diego Chargers: Melvin Gordon
Like the Rams, the Chargers have Los Angeles on their minds. And also like the Rams, San Diego selected a running back in the first round, Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon. Melvin was magnificent in Madison, especially in his final year there, when he finished second in the Heisman voting after leading all of college football in rushing with 2,587 yards. He also led the college ranks in touchdowns with 29.
Gordon should give San Diego the stability they lacked with injury-prone Ryan Mathews, who signed with Philadelphia. He will give way to returning Danny Woodhead in some passing situations, but Gordon looks like an immediate RB2 with upside. Imagine taking Antonio Brown in round one, Calvin Johnson in round two, and Gordon in round three. You could have the top two wide receivers paired with a top ten running back!
San Francisco 49ers: Carlos Hyde and Mike Davis
The 49ers have bought an all-expense paid ticket to Irrelevancy City after they foolishly sent Jim Harbaugh packing. Other mainstays such as Patrick Willis and Frank Gore are also gone. Gore, a rock for the 49ers since 2006, will largely be replaced by Carlos Hyde, entering his second season out of Ohio State. Hyde started off well, with two touchdowns in the first three games, but was largely quiet after that.
He will not be as quiet in 2015. However, it remains to be seen how high Hyde will climb. San Francisco will not be as run-oriented as they were under Harbaugh, since their defense will not be as good and they will be either playing from behind more often or find themselves in a larger number of high-scoring shootouts. When that happens, Detroit import Reggie Bush could see the most playing time. The 49ers also drafted South Carolina’s Mike Davis in the fourth round. Davis had a bit of a nondescript college career, but he’s a power back who could siphon some work from Carlos.
In the final analysis, Hyde’s fourth-round ADP (that is for both 10 and 12-team groups) is logical and his production could exceed his draft position, though probably not by a great amount.
Seattle Seahawks: Thomas Rawls
Even if Marshawn Lynch finally starts to struggle, veteran backs Robert Turbin and Christine Michael would be next in line. Nonetheless, there have been reports out of Seattle that the Seahawks really like an undrafted rookie running back by the name of Thomas Rawls. For all we know, Rawls, out of Central Michigan, will merely be a workout wonder and not even make the final roster. But Seattle’s solid record in tracking down talent means Rawls is worth a mention, especially for dynasty league owners looking for inexpensive prospects.
Tennessee Titans: David Cobb and Bishop Sankey
Almost all of the news surrounding the Titans this year is going to center around rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota. But there are two other rookies who could prove to be important members of Mariota’s supporting cast, wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham and running back David Cobb. A fifth round selection out of Minnesota, Cobb steps into a great situation provided he proves he has what it takes to make it at the NFL level.
Last year, Tennessee used rookie Bishop Sankey most extensively, along with useless veterans such as Shonn Greene and Dexter McCluster. Greene was given his walking papers earlier this year, and McCluster is no threat to anyone. Sankey was a big disappointment, especially considering Cincinnati took Jeremy Hill one spot after him. While the Bishop will get another chance and unheralded second-year man Antonio Andrews, who spent 2014 on Tennessee’s practice squad, cannot be fully ignored, there is a good chance Cobb seizes control of the backfield.
Although Mariota will steal touchdowns away from whoever is Tennessee’s main ball carrier, Cobb’s 9th round ADP in 12-team entities and 11th round ADP in 10-team associations makes him interesting.
Washington Redskins: Matt Jones
Alfred Morris remains the man in Washington. However, former third-down back Roy Helu signed with Oakland in free agency, which puts third-round pick Matt Jones on the radar as a receiving specialist and handcuff. For the most part, Jones is going to get drafted very late, if at all. Florida was not the Florida of old while Matt was there, but Jones only rushed for 1,431 yards during his days in Gainesville. Okay, he is not a fabulous sleeper, but Washington has liked what they have seen so far and he would see plenty of volume if something ails Alfred. While he does not warrant an excessive use of brain power, no one needs to be completely dismissing him.