Fantasy Football Running Back Breakouts: Rookie Dalvin Cook Has Chance to Be Special
- Looking for an affordable running back who can carry your fantasy team? Look no further than these six players.
The Staples Series of the SI/4for4 Fantasy Football Draft Kit will cover the three labels fantasy owners have come to know and love over the years: breakouts, sleepers and busts. In this installment, SI’s Michael Beller and 4for4’s John Paulsen give their breakouts at the running back position.
Ameer Abdullah, Detriot Lions (ADP: Round 8)
Through 18 games over two seasons, Abdullah has averaged 4.34 yards per carry on 161 rushing attempts. He served as the Lions’ lead back to kick off the 2016 season, and turned 17 touches into 120 total yards and a touchdown in a Week 1 win over the Colts. There are usage concerns, mostly related to Theo Riddick’s excellent receiving skills, but let the way the Lions treated Abdullah to start last season be your guide. He’s coming off of a Lisfranc tear suffered the week after his great showing against the Colts, but reportedly looked great in OTAs. DetroitLions.com beat writer Tim Twentyman said that Abdullah showed “great burst” in practice and that the team’s offense is “noticeably different” with him in the lineup. 4for4’s Joe Holka studied Abdullah for his Rushing Expectation series, and he argues that “a breakout is imminent” because Abdullah is “that special of a talent.” Holka adds that Abdullah has “rare” mental processing, “elite balance” and “unique athletic ability.” Fantasy owners can nab Abdullah in the middle rounds as their second or third running back. — John Paulsen
Mike Gillislee, New England Patriots (ADP: Round 7)
One of my favorite draft tactics is to target talented free agent backups when they land in good situations with new teams. It has worked in the past with Michael Turner, Darren Sproles, LaMont Jordan and Chester Taylor—remember those last two names?—and Gillislee can become the newest member of that club this season after leaving the Bills for the Patriots. Over the previous two years, he gained 844 yards on 148 carries (5.7 yards per carry) and found the end zone 12 times (11 rushing, one receiving). In fact, among running backs with at least eight rushing attempts inside the opponent's 5-yard line over the past two seasons, Gillislee is tied with Le’Veon Bell for the highest touchdown conversion rate (70%) in the league. With LeGarrette Blount off to Philadelphia, the Patriots are looking for a runner who can handle the power running game along with those short-yardage duties, and Gillislee certainly fits the bill. As 4for4’s Chris Raybon mentioned in his in-depth examination of the New England backfield, the Patriots consistently rank in the top four in number of plays run inside the opponent’s 10-yard line, so double-digit touchdowns are a distinct possibility for Gillislee. He’s also better equipped than Blount to stay on the field in some passing situations. If he starts getting third-down or hurry-up work, watch out. — JP
Bilal Powell, New York Jets (ADP: Round 6)
Powell was the No. 32 RB through Week 13, before he took over as the lead back, so he should have flex value even if he doesn’t win the starting job by Week 1. Fantasy owners likely won’t have to worry about that outcome, though. Powell was clearly more effective than Matt Forte last season, and is expected to unseat the incumbent in the Jets backfield. In the final four games of 2016, Powell averaged 23.7 PPR-league points per game, second only to Le’Veon Bell at his position. When Holka studied Powell for his Rushing Expectation series, he noted that Powell has “rare finishing ability,” and that he “attacks defenses, and runs with authority.” Powell’s receiving chops are self-evident—he had 58 receptions last year, 47 the year before—so even if the Jets find themselves playing catch-up more than they’d like, he should stay very involved as a receiver. A sixth-round pick is more than fair for a back with Powell’s upside. — JP
Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings (ADP: Round 6)
It's looking more and more like the rookie Cook will line up as Minnesota’s starter in Week 1. The Vikings had all sorts of problems running the ball last year, but in an effort to rebuild the offensive line, they signed tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers in free agency, then selected center Pat Elflein and guard Danny Isidora in the draft. Cook had a good spring and his primary competition, Latavius Murray, has been sidelined as he recovers from ankle surgery, allowing Cook to take advantage of extra reps. Head coach Mike Zimmer, who is not prone to hyperbole, said that he was “very impressed” with Cook, and that the rookie “has a chance to be special.” Matt Vensel of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune would not rule out the possibility that Cook could see 300 touches as a rookie, noting that he’s a “versatile backfield weapon” and a “legitimate receiving threat out of the backfield.” — JP
Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears (ADP: Round 2)
I know, I know. Howard was second in the NFL with 1,313 rushing yards last season, added 298 receiving yards for good measure, and scored seven touchdowns. If that’s not already a breakout season, what is? While that thinking is valid, Howard still has his doubters this season, based on the facts that we’ve only seen him do it once, and that the Bears offense could limit his productiveness. In that vein, a second straight monster season would qualify as a breakout, because it would establish Howard as one of the five or six best running backs in the league, from both real-life and fantasy standpoints. Howard started 13 games last season, one of which he left early with an injury. In the 12 games he started and finished, he ran for 1,224 yards on 233 carries, good for 5.25 yards per rush. He picked up at least 4.5 yards per carry in all but two of those games, and finished the season strong, racking up at least 5.3 yards per tote on a minimum of 13 runs in all of his last four games. By comparison, Todd Gurley, who’s offered as a Howard cautionary tale, ran for fewer than four yards per carry in five of the last eight games of his banner rookie season. The inefficiency that plagued Gurley last year was already showing the previous season. Howard dealt with no such inefficiency as a rookie. He proved himself a capable receiver, and will run behind the same offensive line Pro Football Focus graded as the fifth-best run-blocking unit in the league last year. Howard is the one player in the early rounds for whom I’ll break my “no-bad-QB” pledge (hat tip to Yahoo’s Michael Salfino for the name). — Michael Beller
Ty Montgomery, Green Bay Packers (ADP: Round 6)
At the risk of repeating myself, allow me to point you to the debate I had with T.J. Hernandez where I argued that Montgomery is a superior pick to Dalvin Cook this season.
Montgomery ended up with 77 carries last season for 457 yards, good for 5.94 yards per carry, and three touchdowns. He had six or more totes in seven games, totaling 423 yards on 64 rushes, bumping his yards per carry to 6.61. Montgomery showed how lethal he can be on the ground when the team commits to him as the primary rusher in the one game in which he received double-digit carries. In that contest, Montgomery rumbled for 162 yards and two scores on 16 rushes.
A lot of the Montgomery doubters want to focus on his size, suggesting that he’s too small to handle a running back’s workload. They don’t seem to understand that being a small receiver doesn’t automatically make someone a small running back. Montgomery checks in at six feet tall, and bulked up this offseason, weighing in at 223 pounds at the start of training camp. By comparison, the Cowboys list the hulking, bruising, powerful Ezekiel Elliott at six feet and 225 pounds.
Aaron Rodgers took over as the starter in Green Bay in 2008. In the nine seasons since then, the Packers have finished outside the top 10 in total yards twice, and outside the top 10 in points once. Last year, a season in which the Packers didn’t figure out their backfield until almost November, they were eighth in yards and fourth in points. Rodgers-led offenses rack up yards and points, the lifeblood of fantasy production. Montgomery has top-10 running back written all over him. — MB