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“Big Rigg” Rookie Running Backs 2017

In my previous NFL draft breakdown I discussed my top 5 QB rookies for fantasy leagues from this years draft. This week I will be discussing the all important running back position and which players from the draft to monitor this year in your fantasy leagues.  In each of the last two seasons, two rookie running backs have been stud RB1’s and if you were fortunate enough to draft one of those guys, you most likely won a fantasy championship.  In 2015, Todd Gurley and David Johnson were both RB1’s in all formats and in 2016 Jordan Howard and Zeke Elliott had huge seasons, registering RB1 numbers in all formats.  Running the ball is very instinctual: you either have it or you don’t.  And because of that, some rookies are simply able to enter the league as 21 year olds and dominate whereas other positions require a few years of mental reps before players reach their full potential.

That being said, selecting the right rookie running back at the right time may win you a fantasy football championship this year.  Even worse, failing to take a rookie running back when you should may put another team over the hump and cost you the hardware.  The running backs listed below are players worth monitoring in 2017, ranked in order of who is likely to contribute the most and earliest.  Keep in mind, most of these guys will go undrafted and you will need to pick them up on waivers.

1.) Leonard Fournette (Jacksonville): Fournette stands 6’0″, weighs 240 pounds and can run.  Fournette gets solid yards after contact and it’s a good thing because the Jacksonville offensive line is average at best.  Brandon Albert was acquired via trade from Miami in the offseason but he is

Apr 28, 2017; Jacksonville, FL, USA; Jacksonville Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell (left), running back Leonard Fournette (center) and head coach Doug Marrone (right) pose for a picture during a press conference at EverBank Field. Leonard Fournette was the 2017 first round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Mandatory Credit: Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

another year older, hasn’t been able to stay healthy and hasn’t reported to Jacksonville yet in hopes of getting a contract extension.  The Brandon Albert experiment in Jacksonville may end before it ever starts, and the Jaguars running game may suffer because of it.  That being said, even with an average at best offensive line, Fournette should

fare well as a rookie because of his own abilities.  Chris Ivory and TJ Yeldon both left a lot to be desired in the yards after contact department last year and couldn’t shed tacklers.

Fournette is likely to provide the juice the Jaguars’ running game needs.  In dynasty leagues, Fournette is a must have. In start-up dynasty leagues, Fournette should get drafted in the middle to late first round.  In rookie and free agent drafts, Fournette may be worth the first overall pick depending on who else is available.  Fournette is looking like a late 2nd to early 4th round pick in 12 team PPR and standard leagues at this time, but if he has one strong preseason game, or breaks off a long run in the preseason, look for the hype train to roll on and his draft stock may rise to the early 2nd round.

2.) Joe Mixon (Cincinnati): Mixon stands 6’1″ and weighs 226 pounds.  We don’t throw young people away.  Mixon will get a second chance in Cincinnati but needs to keep his nose clean and help make the Cincinnati community a better place to help make people get over his past.  Only Mixon controls that.  On to football.  Jeremy Hill was woeful avoiding tackles last year, breaking tackles on only 10% of his opportunities.  The Bengals will showcase an offensive line in 2017 that is long on pedigree but short on NFL experience rolling out Ced Ogbuehi at left tackle and Jake Fisher at right tackle.  Joe Mixon cannot create on his own, which is a weakness, but it may be a strength.  Mixon is an extremely patient runner who waits for the blocking to develop and then hits it.

The problem is, when there is too much congestion around the line of scrimmage, he tends to dance.  With a green offensive line, it is unknown whether Mixon will have adequate running lanes in order for his patience to pay off.  That being said, if the Bengals are able to adequately block up front, Mixon is an absolute beast who can finish runs with power and break a long one.  Mixon can also take care of business in the passing game, and with Gio Bernard coming off a torn ACL, Mixon should have instant value, especially in PPR leagues.  Mixon is a huge wild card in redraft leagues.  If Mixon beats out Jeremy Hill, he could get drafted as early as the 2nd round in 12 team PPR and standard leagues.  If Hill decides to play for his next contract and show up this year, Mixon could have a complimentary role to start the year and warrant a 5th to 7th round pick, depending on the hype and preseason performance.  In dynasty leagues Mixon should be the 2nd running back off the board behind Fournette.

3.) Dalvin Cook (Minnesota): Cook faces competition in Minnesota with the recent signing of Latavius Murray, but Murray is already 27 years old and has only been able to play 16 games once in his career.  In 2015, the lone season which Murray was able to stay healthy, he averaged 16 carries per game, averaging 4.0 yards a pop.  Murray simply isn’t an every down back and cannot be used as one.  Although Cook faces competition through Murray, he may be thrust into an every down role when Murray goes down.  On the other hand, Murray and Cook may be used in a Jeremy Hill/Gio Bernard or Devonta Freeman/Tevin Coleman-like tandem.  If so, the Minnesota running back situation will drive you nuts.  That being said, we really need to monitor this situation throughout the preseason.

In redraft leagues, Murray will get drafted before Cook, but the question is, do you want to pay a 3rd or 4th round pick for a running back that is only going to touch the ball 16 times a game and will more than likely get hurt? I don’t want to do that.  Cook will be a much cheaper option in regards to draft capital and he will pay dividends down the road when Murray goes down.  Cook is also better at avoiding tackles than Murray is.  Murray only avoided 1 tackle per every 10 opportunities in 2016.  For reference purposes, Jay Ajayi broke 2.2 tackles per every 10 opportunities last season.  The Vikings are going with the Rielly Reiff experiment at left tackle with Mike Remmers at right tackle and a huge question mark at center.  All that being said, Cook’s tackle breaking ability may present an opportunity for him even before Murray gets injured.  Cook should be the 3rd running back taken in rookie drafts behind Fournette and Mixon and will be a mid round pick in redraft leagues barring injury to Murray.  If Murray gets injured in the preseason, the hype train will roll and you will have to stay disciplined to avoid drafting him in the late first or early second round, which is where some people may take him.  If pressed into a starting role before week 1, Cook will warrant a 4th round pick.

4.) Christian McCaffrey (Carolina): Ed McCaffrey’s son should be a 5’11” 202 pound PPR monster in Carolina this year.  McCaffrey isn’t likely to cut into Jon Stewart’s early down work, but should dominate on passing downs.  Entering his age 30 season, Stewart has maintained an impressive 2.7 yards after contact in 2016, and

avoided 47 tackles which was the third most in the NFL.  McCaffrey can elude tacklers, but hasn’t shown that he can go through them, which may pose a problem when he needs to run between the tackles.  The Panthers offensive line may be a bit of a wild card this year with Michael Oher dealing with concussion issues and Matt Kalil coming off a 2016 season where he only played 2 games due to injury.  Between McCaffrey, Mixon, Cook and Fournette, McFaffrey has the least dynasty draft appeal because he is the only back who may not evolve into an every down player.  But, if he does, his ceiling will be through the roof.  If you are not a risk averse person, McCaffrey should be taken early in dynasty drafts.  In PPR leagues, McCaffrey should be drafted around the 4th round in 12 team leagues as he will provide immediate value.  In standard leagues McCaffrey’s value is up in the air, but he should be drafted after the 4th round.

5.) Marlon Mack (Indianapolis): Mack is a 5’11” 213 pound running back hailing from the University of South Florida.  Mack tries to avoid contact when possible, has ball security issues and bounces too many plays outside looking for a home run.  In addition to Mack’s own flaws, the right side of the Colts’ offensive line may be an issue in 2017.  All that being said, the Colts have a tremendous receiving corps and Andrew Luck slinging the rock.  This will ensure Colts running backs only go against 7 men in the box.  The only thing standing between Mack and an opportunity is a 34 year old running back out of the U who just won’t quit.  Although Gore has remained healthy and ran for over 1,000 yards at the age of 33 in 2016, he averaged less than 4 yards per carry, only gained an average of 2.1 yards after contact and was only able to avoid tacklers 6 times per every 100 opportunities last year.  Plainly put, Gore can no longer create for himself, and only gets what is blocked.

A young rookie may provide some much needed juice to the Colts offense.  Marlon Mack may go undrafted in redraft leagues but should be targeted by Frank Gore owners as a potential handcuff.  In dynasty and keeper leagues, Marlon Mack will not be a hot name, so he may be a sneaky late round flier.  More than likely, Marlon Mack is somebody who will not be a household name until given an opportunity.  However, you need to be proactive in picking Mack up, because if he excels in his opportunity, it will be too late, you will miss the boat.

6.) Joe Williams (San Francisco): Williams stands 5’11” weights 210 pounds and has great balance.  Williams can create his own runs in heavy traffic situations which is a necessary trait to have success in the NFL, especially when playing behind a sub par offensive line.  The main knock on Williams is that he fumbles a lot, but if he can clean up the ball security issues, he may get an opportunity early on in his 49ers career.  Carlos Hyde has been healthy for 14, 7 and 13 games in his 3 year career, and the year he was healthy for 14 games was his rookie year when Frank Gore was still the starter.  Williams is likely to get a shot because of Hyde’s recurring foot and knee issues, and should be drafted with one of your last round picks in re-draft leagues if you select Carlos Hyde.  Early indications are that Williams will be a handcuff for Hyde if he doesn’t beat him out entirely.  Williams is worth a shot in dynasty leagues, but it’s too early to tell where he should be drafted.

7.) Kareem Hunt (Kansas City): Hunt is a 5’10” 216 pound All-MAC running back out of Toledo.  Hunt has good size for an NFL running back, runs with power and eludes tackles, avoiding the second most tackles in college football in 2016.  Hunt also has great hands which will get him on the field more and sooner as a rookie.  One interesting note on Hunt is that he played college football at Toledo at 225 pounds, and he weighed in at the NFL combine at 216.  It has been proven that running backs who lose weight and get leaner perform better, this helped LaDainian Tomlinson prolong his career into his early 30’s.  Conversely, running backs who attempt to gain weight often lost burst and quickness, like Steve Slaton did entering the 2009 season.

The Chiefs have a fairly decent offensive line so if Hunt plays, he will have running lanes.  The Chiefs may have two running backs already on the roster in Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West, but neither of them have shown to be game breakers or able to stay healthy a full 16 games.  It needs to be noted that neither West or Ware were signed to big deals; the Chiefs only committed 3 years and $4.2M to each of them last offseason.  This is important because when players receive big contracts, those players typically play.  If Hunt is able to outplay Ware or West in the preseason, the Chiefs aren’t likely to stay loyal to either, as no big financial commitment has been made.  As it stands right now, Spencer Ware is being drafted in the late 3 round in 12 team PPR and standard leagues and Hunt has been going around the 8th round.  If Hunt is able to outplay Ware in the preseason or beat him out, Hunt’s value should rise to the late 3rd to early 4th round.  Hunt’s dynasty league status remains in question, but if he ends up the starter, he could be the 5th running back off the board in dynasty formats.

8.) Samaje Perine (Washington): Perine appears to be an exact clone of Rob Kelley.  Perine has great power, but lacks high end speed.  Kelley was great running after contact in 2016 with 2.8 YAC and broke tackles on 20% of his runs.  If Kelley goes down, Perine should step in and pick up right where Kelley left off.  At this point, Perine is a handcuff for Kelley, who should be drafted in one of the last rounds in re-draft leagues.  Perine has little to no PPR value with Chris Thompson on the roster.  The Redskins have a great offensive line so if Perine is pressed in to duty, he may be a championship winning waiver wire pickup/late round pick.  If you draft Rob Kelley as your RB2 and you don’t draft Perine as a handcuff, you are making a mistake.

9.) Alvin Kamara (New Orleans): Kamara is a good all around running back with sure hands.  Kamara is fast and decisive.  If pressed into duty, he could benefit from playing behind a solid offensive line that improved its depth in the draft through the selection of Ryan Ramczyk.  The only real question mark on the Saints’ line is whether Unger will return from his recent foot surgery without any setbacks.  The only thing holding Kamara back this year will be the depth the Saints already have at the running back position in Adrian Peterson and Mark Ingram.  Even though Peterson is aging, would you put money on AP being washed up? I will never bet against AP until he signs his retirement papers.  Peterson and Ingram should split early down work and Ingram should get most of the third down action.

The addition of Peterson will help Ingram’s longevity as Ingram has shown the inability to stay healthy when asked to shoulder a heavy load.  The most carries Ingram has ever had in a season is 226 in 2014.  Kamara is a great dynasty or keeper pick as he will surely have value when Peterson and/or Ingram move on.  However, he will only have immediate value if Peterson or Ingram gets injured.  If Peterson or Ingram goes down, Kamara should slide into the third down role while either Peterson or Ingram handle the early downs.  You don’t need to draft Kamara in re-draft leagues unless the Saints have injury problems at the running back position this summer.

10.) D’Onta Foreman (Houston): Foreman is a 6’0″ 233 pound ox with no pass protection skills.  Foreman is great in short yardage and should be the hammer the Texans need to take the load off Lamar Miller and keep him healthy throughout the season.  Foreman is likely to be a touchdown dependent running back that is only to be used out of desperation in both dynasty and re-draft formats.  It’s not likely the Texans will use him in any passing situation, unless they are using him for play action, because he has horrible pass protection skills.  Foreman should go undrafted in all formats and remain on your waiver wire radar if you need help dealing with bye weeks or injuries.

11.) Donnel Pumphrey (Philadelphia): Pumphrey is an undersized 5’8″ 176 pound running back.  Although he lacks size, Pumphrey remained healthy in college by avoiding square hits.  Pumphrey is fast, has good hands, and if he gets an opportunity, he will be playing behind one of the best offensive lines in football.  The problem is, it is incredibly unlikely Pumphrey gets an opportunity to play this year, especially with the recent signing of LeGarrette

San Diego State running back Donnel Pumphrey, center, looks on in a huddle during the first half of an NCAA college football game against San Jose State Friday, Oct. 21, 2016, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Blount.  There is no way the Eagles will be able to keep Blount, Sproles,

Smallwood, Mathews and Pumphrey on their final roster, so there will likely be trade speculation as running backs get injured during training camp.  We really need to monitor the Eagles running back situation because if Sproles gets traded, Pumphrey may have some PPR value.  At this time you should not draft Pumphrey in re-draft leagues, but he may be worth a late round pick in dynasty PPR formats.

Team Rookie Committee to Watch

The Green Bay Packers running back situation needs to be monitored throughout the preseason.  They drafted three running backs this year.  Aaron Jones is a 5’9″ 208 pound athlete who can break a run from anywhere on the field.  However, Jones doesn’t appear to have the size to carry a full load.  Devante Mays (5’11” 230 lbs) and Jamaal Williams (6′ 212 lbs) are both two down backs with good power but little to no pass catching ability.  It is likely that only one power back between Williams and Mays will make the final roster and may compliment Ty Montgomery.  Aaron Jones appears to have a skill set similar to Montgomery, so his value is dependent on Montgomery’s availability.  All that being said, the Packers’ running back situation looks messy as of May, but Montgomery is #1 on the current depth chart and cannot tote a full workload.

Somebody will emerge from this situation with fantasy value, and all three rookies warrant watching this preseason.  Unless you draft Montgomery and need a handcuff, none of these running backs is worth a draft pick in re-draft leagues.  It is too early to tell which of these rookie runners will warrant a draft pick in dynasty leagues until they start to separate themselves in the preseason.

The Big Rigg Wrap Up

The fact is that until the dust all settles at the end of the preseason, Leonard Fournette, Joe Mixon, Christian McCaffrey and Dalvin Cook are the only rookie running backs who look to have immediate fantasy value.  At this time, in both PPR and standard 12 team leagues, Fournette has been going in the 2nd round, Mixon in the 3rd, McCaffrey in the 4th and Cook as late as the 8th.  Be warned now, everybody should think back to the 2015 preseason when Ameer Abdullah ripped off a few nice runs in the preseason.  Abdullah immediately shot up draft boards and was taken as high as the 2nd round in some formats.  Abdullah simply wasn’t ready for prime time in his rookie season and was a colossal flop considering where he was drafted, gaining less than 600 yards rushing and scoring only 2 touchdowns.  Be warned now, don’t ride the hype train if these guys have a few nice runs in the preseason, keep expectations in check.  Not every rookie running back is going to put up Ezekiel Elliott-like numbers.

Perine, Mack, Hunt, Kamara, Foreman, Williams, Pumphrey and all of the Packers rookie running backs should either go undrafted or selected as a handcuff in the later rounds until things shake out and we have more information.  We will surely have some injuries to the running back position during training camp and some of these guys will have to emerge out of necessity.  Take a tip from Big Rigg, be proactive on the waiver wire with these guys.  Monitor these running back situations and try to pick these guys up a week or two before you think they will get their opportunity.

Follow me @CoachRiggall


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I've been coaching lacrosse since 2002 and playing fantasy football since 2006. I've racked up several championships over the years including a 4th place finish in the Kentucky Fantasy Football State Championship in 2016.

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