Making Fantasy Football Sense of This Year's Rookie Running Backs

Saquon Barkley headlines the rookie running back class, but it will produce plenty of fantasy options.
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A rookie has led the NFL in rushing each of the last two seasons, the first time that has happened in consecutive years since the NFL-AFL merger. In 2016, it was Ezekiel Elliott at the top of the heap, rushing for 1,631 yards. Last year, Kareem Hunt’s 1,327 yards gave him the rushing title. The streak may not be coming to an end any time soon.

This year, there are as many rookie running backs in beneficial fantasy spots as any season in recent memory. Seven backs were taken in the first two rounds of the draft, led by No. 4 overall pick Saquon Barkley. All seven, as well as a few others, could play significant roles in fantasy leagues this year.

Barkley is the lone rookie running back guaranteed to be a workhorse. If any rookie keeps the Elliott-Hunt streak alive, it will almost certainly be him. After him, though, there are nine rookie backs with a wide range of potential outcomes. In this installment of the player profile series, we look at those backs, giving each one a grade of in, out or neutral. In means we’re fully in at the draft-day price, and would possibly be willing to reach. Out means the opposite. Neutral means the price is fine, and whether we’d go for the player would depend on other factors, such as existing roster composition and possible discount. Players are listed in the order they were drafted.

Rashaad Penny, Seahawks

If I had to bet on any non-Barkley rookie back being a true breakout player, it would be Penny. He doesn’t have the highest floor of the group, but he easily has the highest ceiling. Other than Barkley, he’s the one with the clearest path to a workhorse position, and he’d be in that spot alongside one of the best quarterbacks in the league. Penny was a force in his final season at San Diego State, leading the country with 2,248 yards and hitting paydirt 25 times. He’ll have to hold off Chris Carson and prove his receiving chops to secure a full starter’s workload, but the Seahawks were aggressive in grabbing him with the 27th overall pick. Fantasy owners will likely have to be aggressive to secure his services, as well, with an average draft position late in the third round. At the very least, he should enter training camp as the favorite to be the team’s starter. At the most, he’ll prove to be a 300-plus-touch back playing with a quarterback in Russell Wilson who creates so many opportunities for the other key players in his offense.

Grade: In

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Sony Michel, Patriots

It was a bit of a surprise to see the Patriots take Michel with the 31st overall pick in the draft. The Patriots typically don’t use such precious resources on running backs, and the position wasn’t exactly a major need. Those two facts suggest that Michel will have a major role this season. The Georgia product ran for 1,227 yards and 16 touchdowns in his senior season, and while he didn’t do much catching of the ball last year, he proved during his four years in Athens that he can be a dual threat. Rex Burkhead is likely to have an increased role this season, and James White is likely to lead the backfield in targets, but Michel should be considered the favorite to get the most touches out of the three. What sort of workload that translates to remains to be seen, and will likely remain unknown when fantasy draft season rolls around in earnest. The price of an early-fifth-round pick isn’t prohibitive because of the ceiling and the tea leaves reading in his favor, but there’s undeniably an ugly floor at play here.

Grade: Neutral

Nick Chubb, Browns

Michel’s college teammate Chubb came off the board four picks later, landing in Cleveland at the 35th overall pick. There may have been a difference of just four slots, but it feels like the two former Bulldogs are worlds apart. Not only did one join the best franchise in the NFL of the last two decades while the other joined the worst, their situations are entirely different. Chubb enters a muddy, crowded backfield with Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson. There’s zero receiving upside with Johnson in the fold, and it’s nearly impossible to project his share of the carries with any confidence with the team bringing in Hyde, who had plenty of success in less-than-ideal conditions in San Francisco. Add to that Josh Gordon, Jarvis Landry, Corey Coleman and David Njoku, and it’s plain to see that at least one or two of these fantasy-relevant players will get squeezed once the season begins. Despite that, Chubb’s early-eighth-round ADP has him coming off the board in the same neighborhood as Emmanuel Sanders, Tarik Cohen, C.J. Anderson and Marquise Goodwin. That’s a steep price to pay given the team context.

Grade: Out

Ronald Jones, Buccaneers

For my money, Jones sits in third in the potential workhorse rankings among rookies, behind Barkley and Penny. The next three running backs on the depth chart in Tampa are Jacquizz Rodgers, Charles Sims and Peyton Barber, all of whom are largely known commodities with obvious flaws. Sims may eat into Jones’ receiving upside, but the rookie out of USC is clearly the only back here with hope of handling a starter’s workload. He was great in what turned out to be his final season with the Trojans, racking up 1,550 yards on 261 carries and 20 total touchdowns. He’s a potentially electric player with home-run ability who never missed a game at USC due to injury. Jones has a safe floor, identifiable upside, and he doesn’t cost too much, coming off the board in the middle of the fifth round in typical 12-team drafts.

Grade: In

Kerryon Johnson, Lions

Johnson finds himself in a spot almost identical to Chubb, which makes it hard to like him at his mid-seventh-round price tag. Like Chubb, he has a capable, run-first teammate in LeGarrette Blount. Like Chubb, he has little receiving upside thanks to the presence of a dynamic pass-catching back, in his case Theo Riddick. His team, the Lions, is even pass-friendlier than Chubb’s, with Golden Tate, Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay likely to combine for 350-plus targets. The Lions liked Johnson enough to use the 43rd overall pick in the draft on him even after signing Blount, but it’s still hard to get excited about his floor or ceiling. Unless he can push the veteran entirely to the sidelines, there doesn’t seem to be a realistic scenario in which Johnson gets enough looks to be anything more than a depth back or fantasy purposes.

Grade: Out

Derrius Guice, Redskins

Like Chubb and Johnson, Guice has little, if any, receiving upside. Chris Thompson is one of the best receiving backs in the league, and Jay Gruden loves him in that role. Unlike Chubb and Johnson, Guice has a real opportunity to lead his team in carries. Samaje Perine and Rob Kelley are unlikely to stand in the rookie’s way, meaning a strong camp and preseason could make him the clear No. 1 back in Washington by the end of the summer. Over Guice’s final two seasons at LSU, he totaled 2,638 rushing yards, 447 receiving yards and 29 touchdowns in 24 games. The ceiling here rivals Penny’s in Seattle, and the floor is a bit higher, given the lack of competition on the ground for Guice in Washington. He may have been the seventh back off the board in the actual draft, but he’s second among rookie backs in ADP, trailing only Barkley. You’ll need to use no worse than a third- or fourth-round pick to get Guice, but the potential payoff is massive.

Grade: In

Royce Freeman, Broncos

Freeman is the final back who has a realistic path to workhorse status as a rookie. The Oregon product came off the board in the third round, landing in Denver at pick No. 71. With C.J. Anderson now in Carolina, the Broncos’ depth chart at running back is up for grabs. Joining Freeman are holdovers Devontae Booker and De’Angelo Henderson, as well as fellow rookies David Williams and Phillip Lindsay. Booker is the only other one who seems likely for a meaningful role, but he hasn’t exactly impressed with his previous opportunities, running for 911 yards on 253 carries—3.6 yards per rush—across two seasons. Freeman, meanwhile, starred for the Ducks, rushing for 5,621 yards, catching 79 passes for 814 yards, and scoring 64 touchdowns in his four years in Eugene. Freeman could run away with this job, and with Case Keenum now the starter in Denver, this offense could be in much better shape than it was last year. Freeman is coming off the board right before Ronald Jones in a typical draft, which feels like a fair price.

Grade: In

Nyheim Hines, Colts

Hines begins the summer with some appeal in deeper fantasy leagues for three primary reasons. First, the only back ahead of him on the Colts’ depth chart is Marlon Mack. While Mack showed some promise last year, he’s not close to a sure thing. Second, if Andrew Luck is finally healthy, this offense could take off in a big way. Whoever is alongside Luck netting the most touches out of the backfield would be a weekly flex consideration, at worst. Finally, Hines was great in his final season at N.C. State, rushing for 1,113 yards and 12 touchdowns on 197 carries. A converted receiver, he caught 89 passes for 933 yards during his time with the Wolfpack, and figures to be an adept pass-catcher out of the backfield in the NFL. With an ADP in the middle of the 12th round, he’s an ideal late-round dart throw.

Grade: In

Kalen Ballage, Dolphins

Ballage is an even cheaper endgame target than Hines, with an ADP outside the first 15 rounds. In a 12-team league, that puts him at pick No. 181 at the earliest. He was a late-fourth-round selection in the actual draft, and is looking up at Kenyan Drake and Frank Gore on Miami’s depth chart. Clearly, he’s a long shot. Still, Adam Gase can’t say enough good things about him, and he is on record multiple times as not wanting to lean on Drake as heavily over 16 games as the team did in its final five games last year. Short of an injury to Drake or Gore this summer, Ballage will remain a late-round fantasy flier, but it isn’t hard to take a shot on a guy who is essentially devoid of cost playing behind two backs with obvious red flags—lack of a track record for Drake, and tons of mileage for Gore.

Grade: Neutral