The Deep Rookie RB Class of '17: Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook & How Should We Value Joe Mixon?
Next up in my four-part series is the running back position, one of the deepest and most talented groups we’ve seen in years. Much like the tight ends I discussed last week, this year's collection of running backs will have the opportunity to crash the dynasty running back landscape and make a major impact on backfields around the league. I'll break the 2017 running back class into four tiers.
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Not only does this year's running back class sport impressive depth, but their four-deep top tier is better than I can recall in all of my years playing fantasy football. Any of these players in this quartet could be in the running to be the top player drafted in rookie drafts and all four should see the opportunity to make an immediate impact for their real-life and fantasy teams.
Leonard Fournette, LSU
After a disappointing junior season marred by a nagging ankle injury and a struggling Tiger offense, Fournette is NFL-bound. He is expected to the be first running back off the board in next week’s draft. Fournette has the perfect balance of speed and power, often running over defenders when presented with the opportunity. After a pathetic 28.5” vertical jump at the Combine, Fournette redeemed himself, running a 4.51 40, resulting in a 96th-percentile speed score. While Fournette rarely got the opportunity to be involved in the passing game, he has flashed some ability in that area -- I think the “two-down back” role many are labeling him with is somewhat unfair.
The ankle injury that slowed Fournette for much of his junior season is a bit of a concern, as is his upright running style, which could expose him to further injury in the future. One area that multiple scouts have reportedly noticed concerns in Fournette’s game is when he runs the ball out of shotgun. In fact, Graham Barfield notes that Fournette was able to create nearly two yards more per carry when the quarterback was under center.
While we may not know yet which team Fournette will be suiting up for, we already have a good idea of how he is being viewed in dynasty leagues. According to the recent April dynasty ADP from Dynasty League Football, Fournette is coming off the board late in the second round of startup dynasty drafts. His ADP of 24 makes him the first rookie off the board. Likewise, in rookie or deep keeper drafts, Fournette is among the favorites to be the first player selected, though he does have some stiff competition.
Dalvin Cook, Florida State
Once viewed as the favorite to be the first running back selected in both the NFL and fantasy drafts, Cook has experienced a drop in his stock at the worst time. A poor Combine performance opened the door to some criticism of Cook’s game. In addition, multiple off-the-field issues reportedly have some NFL decision makers concerned.
In fact, results from Cook’s Combine resulted in scores in the bottom-tenth percentile for both agility and burst scores. Zach Whitman’s work with SPARQ scores revealed that in the history of SPARQ data, a player scoring as poorly as Cook has never been a first-round pick. Cook also had six fumbles in 2016, among the highest of any player in this draft class. And like Fournette, Cook has had some recurring injury issues, though he has played through most of them, including a shoulder injury that required surgery last year.
There are plenty of reasons to be excited about Cook -- something you know if you’ve seen him in action. It seems that all of his supporters are answering any criticism of his athleticism with “watch the tape!” I don’t blame them. Cook shines on the field and looked like the best running back in college football in 2016, displaying game-breaking speed and elite decision making, Cook forced a nation-high 99 missed tackles, according to PFF, who graded Cook with an Elusive Rating of 129.4, tied for the second-highest mark in the draft class.
The fantasy community must be buying into some of the concerns surrounding Cook, because his ADP has fallen slightly since earlier in the offseason. Currently, Cook is the third rookie being selected, with an overall ADP of 31.7, down from a high mark of 20.7 in February. Depending on the results of the draft, Cook could be back in contention for the top overall rookie spot, or could fall as low as the middle of the first round of dynasty rookie drafts.
Christian McCaffrey, Stanford
After a Heisman-worthy sophomore season, McCaffrey only managed around 1,900 yards from scrimmage and 16 touchdowns last season, along with 414 yards in the return game. Yes, McCaffrey did a little bit of everything for Stanford, and most expect him to make a smooth transition to the NFL. While some analysts have shown a lack of confidence in his ability to be an every-down back, his workload over the past two seasons -- he averaged over 330 touches per year -- seemingly proves he can handle as many touches as necessary.
It is true that McCaffrey’s frame and skill set are more suited for a hybrid role in the NFL, which we were reminded of at the Combine. McCaffrey was asked to complete some wide receiver drills, which he did successfully according to all reports. McCaffrey’s elite agility ranks him in the 97th percentile, and it shows on the field. He makes quick cuts and is seemingly always one step ahead of the defense.
While Cook's ADP has been falling, McCaffrey's is on the rise. It currently sits at 36.3, making him the fourth rookie drafted and the RB10 overall. That’s a huge jump from his February ADP of 64.3.
Joe Mixon, Oklahoma
Let’s cut to the chase: Mixon might be the most difficult prospect for draft analysts or fantasy players to evaluate prior to the upcoming NFL Draft, not because of his on-field performances, but because of his off-the-field issues. By now, everyone knows about the assault back in 2014. Mixon served a one-year suspension, but this remains a major concern, especially after a video of the assault was released earlier this offseason. No one know exactly how NFL decision makers feel about Mixon, though there are reportedly multiple teams who have removed him from their board completely.
The negatives are clear with Mixon, but they are hard to find when only considering his on-field play. Many consider Mixon to be the most talented back in the class. He can do it all as a runner and a receiver out of the backfield, combining high-level athleticism and elite cutting ability to make a big play at any time. Thanks to his pass-catching ability, Mixon could easily fill a role as an every-down back. He has recently drawn comparisons to backs like Ezekiel Elliott and Adrian Peterson. While Mixon wasn’t invited to the Combine, his Pro Day 40 time would give him a speed score in the 91st percentile.
Dynasty owners aren’t sure exactly how to value Mixon, but he is still the RB16 with an overall ADP of 46.3, making him the sixth rookie selected. Of the six rookies currently comprising what is viewed as the top tier, Mixon’s fantasy stock is the most tumultuous. He’s likely to be a second-round NFL Draft pick at the earliest, and his fantasy value largely rests on how the NFL views him.
The top four backs are all amazing talents, but the depth of this class sets it apart. A deep second tier could offer NFL and fantasy teams starting-caliber backs well into the third round.
Alvin Kamara, Tennessee
Competing against talented back Jalen Hurd for much of his college career, Kamara’s role in the offense and overall touches were limited. Kamara made the best of it, scoring 23 offensive touchdowns on just 284 touches. Some analysts have concerns about Kamara’s market share numbers -- percentages that represent his role in the offense. For example, Kamara had just 21.2% of the Volunteers’ carries last season, along with 20.5% of the team’s rushing yards and 29% of the rushing touchdowns. For comparison, many of the other top backs in this class reached 50% or higher in each of those categories. The bright side is Kamara has avoided the heavy workload other backs enter the league with.
Before Hurd left the Volunteers midseason, Kamara’s primary role was as a pass-catching back, and that versatility should again be on display in the NFL. Kamara is expected to be selected early on day two of the draft, which means he should have the opportunity to earn an important role in his offense immediately. Kamara’s burst score places him in the 94th percentile, according to PlayerProfiler.com, while his 129.4 Elusive Rating from PFF ties him for second in the class with Cook.
There is a lot to like about Kamara, including the current value he offers in dynasty drafts. If he lands in an ideal spot (perhaps Indianapolis in the second round?), his value could skyrocket. For now, he’s being drafted as the tenth rookie and RB27 overall with an ADP of 92.
Samaje Perine, Oklahoma
After a breakout season from Mixon, Perine had to feel a bit overshadowed, but he is a skilled runner in his own right. In fact, Perine owns college football's single-game rushing record after he totaling 427 yards against Kansas during his freshman season. Perine is a big, powerful back who is probably best suited for a short-yardage role in a running back-by-committee in the NFL.
While Perines 98th-percentile performance in the bench press was impressive at the Combine, his 40, along with his burst and agility scores place him in the bottom third of running backs. This is no surprise if you’ve watched much of Perine, who sports smooth moves, but almost no wiggle.
Perine is one of many rookies who is in the mix to be a late first-round rookie pick, but could just as easily fall to the second round. His current ADP of 106.2 overall places him as the thirteenth rookie selected.
Kareem Hunt, Toledo
Hunt is a well-rounded back from the MAC who has been an impact player for years at Toledo. In 2016, he forced 98 missed tackles, second most among all runners. Hunt sports a career yards per carry average of 6.3. He has also proven to be a valuable asset as a receiver, catching 39 balls for nearly 400 yards as a senior.
Fantasy players seem to have widely varied opinions on Hunt, with some ranking him as highly as their fifth rookie runner, while others view him as a project. Hunt’s dynasty ADP is 142.2 overall, placing him as the nineteenth rookie drafted. He is likely to be a late second-round rookie pick, although an ideal landing spot could greatly improve his short-term value.
D’onta Foreman, Texas
The big back from Texas led the nation in rushing with over 2,000 yards, although he also led the nation in fumbles with seven. Foreman is obviously a powerful runner and is also a quality pass blocker, which should help to get him on the field early in his NFL career. Many analysts, myself included, had written Foreman off as a plodder due to his bulky size and lack of involvement in the passing game. Things changed after his Texas Pro Day, where he posted a pair of 4.45 40s, giving him a 94th-percentile speed score.
Foreman is another back in the late-first/early-second-round mix with a current dynasty ADP of 92.8, making him the eleventh rookie off the board. His eventual landing spot will go a long way toward determining his fantasy value.
Jeremy McNichols, Boise State
Following the departure of Jay Ajayi, the Boise State backfield has belonged to McNichols, who rocked a 72% market share of rushing yardage in his final season. McNichols’ role in the NFL will likely begin as a third-down, pass-catching back. He hauled in 32 catches for 450 yards last year,with eight of those receptions going for more than 20 yards. McNichols has also been a huge touchdown producer, finding the end zone 53 times over the past two seasons, tops in the nation.
McNichols is current the 21st rookie drafted, with an overall ADP of 149.5. Expect him to be a late second-round pick in rookie drafts and a late sleeper option in most keeper formats.
Although we’re already nine backs deep, there is still plenty of talent and upside in this part of the class. As is the case with all later picks, much of their value will depend on the team they land on and the role they play.
Jamaal Williams, BYU
Williams is a big, physical runner who lacks agility the break many big plays. He’s a bit of a vanilla option for fantasy teams, but could end up a valuable part of a committee rushing attack. He’s likely a third-round pick in dynasty rookie drafts, with a current ADP of 170.8.
Marlon Mack, South Florida
An uber-productive back with three consecutive 1,000 yard seasons, Mack lacks the ideal size of either a feature or third-down back. He often resorts to bouncing runs outside before he should. He's currently off the radar of many dynasty owners and has gone undrafted in the mocks at Dynasty League Football. Still, I expect him to be a mid-third round pick in upcoming rookie drafts.
Wayne Gallman, Clemson
One of the core pieces of the Clemson teams who have reached back-to-back National Championship games, Gallman is a tough, physical runner who can do everything well, but doesn’t have any above-average traits as a runner. He registered a below-average 5.11 yards per carry and figures to be an early day three pick in the NFL Draft. That should also put him in the third-round range of rookie drafts, which makes sense based on his dynasty ADP of 194.7, making him the 30th rookie drafted.
Aaron Jones, UTEP
Jones, an electric runner from a small school, is climbing draft boards for dynasty players. Many are just beginning to learn of Jones’ unique talent. He sported a 7.7 yards per carry average in 2016, tops in the country among backs with more than 150 carries. Jones also has a burst score in the 87th percentile and an agility score in the 85th percentile. He’s expected to be a late-round pick in the NFL Draft, but his metrics alone should have him on the radar for dynasty players.
Believe it or not, we’re not done. There is even more depth to this class, though we’ll save the details for after the NFL Draft. Some other names to watch among the rookie RB class include James Conner (Pittsburgh), Elijah Hood (North Carolina), Elijah McGuire (LA-Lafayette) and Joe Williams (Utah).
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