Fantasy First-Round Reflections
There was a time when the running back position was considered highly valuable in the world of pro football. Back in the 1970s & 1980s, a running back was the first overall selection in the draft four times in five years. Ricky Bell went first to the Buccaneers in 1977 (Tony Dorsett went second to the Cowboys), the Oilers took Earl Campbell first in 1978, Billy Sims went first in the 1980 draft to the Lions, and George Rogers went to the Saints atop the 1981 draft (Freeman McNeil went third to the Jets).
Nowadays, a running back going first overall is about as rare as a happy Jets fan.
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The last time a runner went first overall in the NFL draft was 1995, when the Bengals took Ki-Jana Carter. If you remember how that worked out (or didn’t), well, you might know why this sort of thing doesn’t happen anymore. It’s gotten worse in recent years too. Forget about running backs not being first overall selections; we’ve had two drafts in the last eight years where a runner wasn’t even picked in the entire first round.
This all seems odd because running backs are considered so valuable in the world of fantasy football yet so replaceable in the eyes of many teams. Regardless, let’s take a walk down memory lane and reminisce on all of the first-round backs since 2010, how they fared as rookies and how many of them actually become fantasy studs.
Edwards-Helaire was the lone first-round running back in the 2020 NFL Draft. It came as a surprise too, as most draft pundits predicted D’Andre Swift or Jonathan Taylor to come off the board first at the position. Regardless, CEH was well on his way to putting up a great season before the Chiefs added Le’Veon Bell as a free agent. An injury later in the year further deflated Edwards-Helaire’s value, leaving him as a disappointment based on the price tag. The good news is that the Chiefs released Damien Williams and haven’t re-signed Bell, so the Glyde could be in a position to break out next season.
Jacobs was also a lonely first-round running back, coming off the board to the Raiders at No. 24 overall. He rushed for over 1,100 yards and scored seven touchdowns in 13 games as a rookie, finishing 21st in points at the position. He was 16th on a points-per-game basis, however. Jacobs took a big leap forward as an NFL sophomore, finishing eighth in points. Unfortunately, the offseason addition of Kenyan Drake put a damper on Jacobs’ future stock, at least in 2021. He’s now more of a third or fourth-rounder.
Saquon Barkley, Rashaad Penny, Sony Michel
Barkley was the second overall pick of the Giants in 2018, and he sure showed why he was thought of so highly. He finished first in fantasy points among running backs, and only Eric Dickerson has had more points among rookie runners in the Super Bowl era. What’s more, his 91 catches are a rookie record. Injuries have been an issue the past two seasons, but Barkley is still a projected top-five pick in 2021. The same can’t be said of Penny or Michel, however. Penny finished as the RB66 as a rookie, and his "best" finish came in 2019 in a tie for RB58. Michel finished as the RB35 as a rookie, and he’s never ranked higher than 31st among running backs in his first three seasons.
Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey
Fournette was the fourth overall pick of the Jaguars in 2017, while McCaffrey went four picks later to the Carolina Panthers. Both paid immediate dividends, as Fournette was the RB9 despite missing three games. His 18 points-per-game average was seventh at the position. CMC ranked 10th overall, producing 80 catches and 1,086 total yards.
After missing eight games in 2018, Fournette fashioned an RB7 finish in 2019 on the strength of a career-best 76 catches. His fantasy stock fell last season in Tampa Bay, but he did help the Buccaneers win their second Super Bowl championship. McCaffrey has gone on to true fantasy superstardom, ranking second and first in points in his next two seasons, respectively. He missed much of last season due to injuries, but CMC remains the consensus No. 1 overall pick heading into 2021 fantasy football drafts.
The fourth overall pick of the Cowboys in 2016, Elliott came right out and made a huge fantasy impact. His 325.4 points were good enough to finish second as a rookie, and it ranks fifth all-time among first-year runners. He missed six games the following season, but he was third among backs in points per game average. Zeke was the RB5 in 2018 and RB3 in 2019 before falling to RB9 this past season. Of course, he lost his starting quarterback, Dak Prescott, and the offensive line was a disaster. In all, Elliott has established himself as a fantasy star and remains a first-round selection.
Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon
Gurley was the 10th overall pick of the St. Louis Rams, while Gordon went No. 15 to the San Diego Chargers. Gurley finished ninth in points as a rookie despite playing just 13 games, while Gordon failed to score a single touchdown and ranked as the RB48. Both backs went on to much greater things, of course, as Gurley was considered the top back in fantasy land in 2017-2018 before knee issues flared up and cost him both playing time and draft value. Even at just 26, his best days seem to be in the past. Gordon followed up his poor rookie campaign with finishes of RB7, RB5, and RB8. Now in Denver, he’s no longer considered “elite” but remains a No. 2 fantasy runner.
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The first runner off the board in the 2014 NFL Draft was Bishop Sankey, who went in the second round (No. 54 overall) to the Titans. Jeremy Hill went next to the Bengals, and Carlos Hyde went to the 49ers two picks later. Noe them excelled in the NFL.
No runners were picked in the first round of the 2013 draft, and the first back taken was Giovani Bernard in Round 2 (No. 37 overall). The second back taken was Le’Veon Bell (No. 48), who turned into a fantasy football superstar during his time with the Steelers.
Trent Richardson, Doug Martin, David Wilson
Richardson was the biggest name among running backs in the 2012 class, and it looked like he’d be worth the third overall pick after finishing his rookie season as the RB7. It all went downhill from there though, as Richardson was traded from the Browns to the Colts. He never rushed for more than 519 yards in Indianapolis and was out of the NFL after 2014. Martin was actually better than Richardson as a rookie, finishing second in points behind Adrian Peterson. He missed 15 games over the next two seasons but came back with an RB4 finish in 2015. He was mostly inconsistent as a fantasy option, though. Wilson never rushed for more than 358 yards in a single season in the pros as a neck injury cut his career short.
Ingram was the lone running back selected in the 2011 NFL Draft, and it took some time for him to make a significant fantasy impact. He was the RB47 as a rookie, RB40 as a sophomore, and RB63 while missing five games for the Saints in Year 3. He produced three 1,000-yard seasons in his next six years and emerged into a more reliable player in fantasy leagues up until this most recent season with the Ravens.
C.J. Spiller, Ryan Mathews, Jahvid Best
Spiller (No. 9), Mathews (No. 12), and Best (No. 30) were the top backs in the 2010 NFL Draft, but none of them became true fantasy stars. Mathews was the best of the bunch as rookies with an RB7 finish, while Spiller was the RB27, and Best was worst at RB41. Spiller had a breakout 2011 campaign with an RB6 finish, but it was the only season he lived up to his actual NFL draft hype. As for Best, he missed 10 games in NFL Year 2 in Detroit and never again made an impact for the Lions or fantasy footballers.
Since 2010, a total of 17 running backs have been drafted in the first round. Ten of them (59 percent) finished in the top 10 in fantasy points as rookies. The next best finishers were Jacobs (RB21) and Edwards-Helaire (RB22), while the remaining five didn’t have much value during their respective rookie campaigns. Still, 12 of 17 first-rounders were at least low-end No. 2 fantasy running backs based on their final season totals.
Digging a little deeper and leaving out the 2020's first-rounder (Edwards-Helaire), who has only one NFL season under his belt, we’ve seen a total of five running backs reach elite status at some point in their careers. That list includes Gurley, Gordon, Elliott, McCaffrey, and Barkley. Fournette has put up high-end totals twice in four seasons, and Ingram finished his career on a high note with the Saints and Ravens (2016-2019). Jacobs had an RB8 finish as an NFL sophomore and seemed to be a surefire top-15 pick in 2021 drafts, but that all changed when the Raiders decided to bring in the veteran Drake as a free agent this offseason. Sorry, but we now “hate the Drake.”
In all, only Penny, Michel, Wilson, and Best have been complete duds among first-round running backs in the last 10 years. Richardson and Spiller didn’t meet expectations, but each of them did at least have one top-10 fantasy season.
So, will there be any first-round running backs in the 2021 NFL Draft? Clemson's Travis Etienne and Alabama's Najee Harris seem like the best bets if you look at the draft experts. Javonte Williams out of North Carolina has snuck into the backend of some first-round mocks too. Whoever does have their name called in Round 1, the trend of backs being selected highly and finding success seems to be a positive one for managers.
Michael Fabiano is an award-winning fantasy football analyst on Sports Illustrated and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA) Hall of Fame. You can follow Michael on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram for all of the latest breaking fantasy football news and the best analysis in the business!