Entering the 2014 NFL season, workhorse running backs, similar to compact discs, flip phones, folding maps and, presumably sometime very soon, Burger King’s not-so-delectable Chicken Fries, were on the verge of extinction.
Clydesdales like Arian Foster, Marshawn Lynch and LeSean McCoy were rare breeds, 300-carry rushers who demanded a draft day premium from fantasy investors. Extreme volatility, after all, was the name of the game at RB, especially in an era of rotational backfields. To those who stubbornly clung to supposedly antiquated RB-RB methods last August, shelling out exorbitant sums for proven rushers was a necessary evil, no matter the risks attached (43.8 bust percentage of all projected RB1s/RB2s picked in fantasy drafts since 2009).
DeMarco Murray only substantiated that belief.
Hushing talk of timeshares, Dallas’ grinder tugged and pulled the Cowboys to a division title one exhaustive carry at a time. His 449 regular-season touches were akin to finding a clean-shaven face in a sea of hipsters. The last RBs to exceed 410 touches in a season were Steven Jackson and Larry Johnson EIGHT YEARS PRIOR.
Murray’s magnificent campaign highlighted a quasi resurgence for the running back. Of the 12 teams that made the NFL playoffs, seven had RBs finish inside the position’s top-12 in fantasy per game average. Overall, that group averaged 19.72 touches per game, an old school figure that would conjure smiles from throwbacks like Eric Dickerson and Emmitt Smith. Still, the 26.7 rush attempts per team per game was the lowest in NFL history. Thoughts of passing, for the most part, continued to live at the forefront of offensive coordinator minds.
However, with more teams expected to employ a smash-mouth style this fall (e.g. Buffalo and New Orleans), the running back could again become en vogue.
Just look at this year’s NFL Draft.
For the first time since 2010, two RBs, Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon, were selected inside the top-20, an indication some teams are willing to return to their ground-and-pound roots. The G&G picks marked the first time in three years a rusher was plucked in the first round. Recall Gio Bernard was the earliest RB selected at No. 37 overall in 2012. Last year, Bishop Sankey started the rushing trend at pick No. 54.
Similar to what Adrian Peterson in 2007 or Doug Martin in 2012 accomplished, Gurley and Gordon could storm out of the gates and immediately deliver top-flight fantasy production. Each is uniquely talented. Each landed in advantageous spots. Unfortunately, though, the historical trend suggests the odds of a top-24 finish aren’t the strongest. Of the 300 RBs drafted from 2000-2014, only 29 (9.7 percent) averaged 10 or more fantasy points in standard settings. Narrowing the timeline, a mere eight rookies out of 109 candidates (7.3 percent), crossed that threshold over the past five seasons. Again, EIGHT, or 1.6 per year. To put it in perspective, of the tugboats that played at least 10 games last year 21 crossed the 10 fantasy points per game line. In other words, rushers who generated starter-worthy numbers in their inaugural campaigns were few and far between. Interestingly, the same number of wide receivers from 2010-2014 contributed WR2 or better numbers in 12-team leagues.
Though rookies generally bring fresh excitement, it’s important to exercise patience when drafting them in non-dynasty formats. As evidenced above, the Alfred Morrises or Odell Beckhams of the world are a rarity. Opportunity means everything. Alongside Gurley and Gordon, Tevin Coleman, Amari Cooper and Nelson Agholor have the best shot to shine because of their friendly surroundings. Due to their fresh legs and nourishing environments, they’re easily worth a mid-draft investment.
Over the past several years the league has predominantly looked skyward, but based on the post-season success of largely conservative franchises (e.g. Seattle) it appears decision makers are leaning toward traditional tactics to add balance and enhance Super Bowl chances.
That’s fantastic news for those of us who still own Shaun Alexander jerseys.
Including several noteworthy RBs, here's my top-10 list of biggest impact rookies for the upcoming fantasy season:
1. Todd Gurley, StL, RB
Projected Round/Auction Value: Round 4, $20-$25
During an otherwise sleep-inducing Day 1 of the NFL Draft, Gurley's acquisition by the Rams at No. 10 provided a little sizzle, much to Tre Mason and Zac Stacy's chagrin. The Georgia product is quite possibly the nastiest RB to enter the league since Peterson. He's a violent downhill runner with plus wiggle and hands. Prior to shredding his knee last season, he racked 61.9 percent of his yards after contact. That's a number similar to what Lynch achieved with the 'Hawks last year. Obviously, his ACL recovery will be monitored closely. Jeff Fisher has already stated St. Louis will bring Gurley along slowly, opening up the possibility he could begin the regular season on the PUP list. Even if that happens, he should be unleashed come October. And his 10-game production could be spectacular, difference-making for owners seeking gridiron gold. Squelch your reservations. Gurley is destined to be a fantasy superstar.
Fearless Forecast (10 games): 177 carries, 838 rushing yards, 22 receptions, 168 receiving yards, 7 total touchdowns
2. Melvin Gordon, SD, RB
Projected Round/Auction Value: Round 5, $18-$23
Unlike Michael Bennett, Ron Dayne, Brian Calhoun and Montee Ball before him, Gordon is a flashy, gliding rusher who is sure to overcome Wisconsin's RB-bust reputation. Recall he owns the highest yards per carry average (7.79) of any RB in college football history. However, he isn't without flaws. Ball security, blitz pick-up and pass-catching are areas he needs to show improvement in. Still, his game-breaking wheels and open-field elusiveness will likely gift him ample opportunities. Danny Woodhead and Branden Oliver, though superior pass-down options, aren't exactly world beaters. From the get go, Gordon will be deployed often on first and second downs running behind a retooled Chargers offensive line. Gurley may have the more productive career, but given the Ram's possible physical complications, Gordon is the safer 2015 pick. Look for him to finish comfortably in the RB2 range in 12-team leagues.
Fearless Forecast: 248 carries, 1,094 rushing yards, 16 receptions, 78 receiving yards, 7 total touchdowns
3. Amari Cooper, Oak, WR
Projected Round/Auction Value: Round 7, $12-$17
If Al Davis was still kicking, he likely would've fallen head over heels for speed demon Breshad Perriman, not Cooper. But the youngster from Alabama, for all intents and purposes, is the most complete wideout in an insanely deep wide receiver class. Despite only adequate size, he's a gritty, tough and highly productive receiver. He excels on post routes downfield and executes undauntedly over the middle on crosses and slants. His rapid acceleration to top speed (4.42 40-yard dash) is superb. Most importantly, his quick sticks, planting ability and physicality at the line of scrimmage allow him to gain separation from defenders, a coveted skill at the next level. Lapses in concentration have been problematic at times, but he should be the flavor every week for Derek Carr. Without much competition for attention, he should amass some 150-plus targets this fall. He isn't OBJ the sequel, but Cooper is a likely mid-range WR2 in 12-team leagues out of the gate. Hop aboard.
Fearless Forecast: 72 receptions, 1,034 receiving yards, 6 touchdowns
4. Tevin Coleman, Atl, RB
Projected Round/Auction Value: Round 6, $17-$22
Imagine jumping out of a plane and parachuting into an opulent land of extravagance, endless adult beverages and attractive people. Figuratively, that's exactly what happened to Coleman. Mark my words, he will flourish in Atlanta. Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Roddy White provide him with a vibrant atmosphere where wide holes should be aplenty. The Falcons' offensive line, which ranked No. 28 in run-blocking according to Pro Football Focus last year, must make strides, but Coleman should crack the starting lineup Week 1. There's no disputing his Indy-car speed and long sprints to the end zone. He registered 7.54 yards per carry and averaged 169.7 rushing yards per game last season with Indiana. The kid might be the most explosive back in this year's class. His experience on passing downs working as a receiver/blocker should also benefit him greatly at the next level. Overall, the IU product has three-down potential. Devonta Freeman will spell him at times, but it's no stretch to think Coleman bests Gordon/Gurley this year. And, no, that line wasn't written under the influence.
Fearless Forecast: 224 carries, 923 rushing yards, 27 receptions, 183 receiving yards, 7 total touchdowns
5. Ameer Abdullah, Det, RB
Projected Round/Auction Value: Round 8, $8-$13
PPR enthusiasts, achtung. Abdullah will have considerable FLEX appeal in the format this year. Attempting to tackle the RB is trying to wrangle a greased pig. His ankle-breaking cuts, balance, patience, vision and burst make him highly elusive. No surprise, he excelled in agility tests at the Combine leading all RBs in the three-cone, 20-yard/60-yard shuttles, broad jump and vertical jump. His quick downhill burst, pad level and strong finishes are underrated. Also an accomplished receiver, he hauled in 73 passes in four seasons with the 'Huskers. Abdullah isn't an every-down back, but working in tandem with pile-driver Joique Bell, he's an ideal fit for Detroit. Essentially he's the new Reggie Bush, a secondary rusher with tacky hands who will be highly employable at times this season. There's 50 catch potential here, particularly in an offense that typically involves RBs in the pass game (93 catches last year). Expect him to log roughly 10-14 touches per game immediately.
Fearless Forecast: 128 carries, 581 rushing yards, 51 receptions, 420 receiving yards, 4 total touchdowns
6. T.J. Yeldon, Jax, RB
Projected Round/Auction Value: Round 6, $17-$22
Alabama is a roulette wheel for running backs. There's the good, Eddie Lacy. Then there's the downright rotten, Trent Richardson. A player shouldn't be judged based on his former employer, but in a proving ground, Yeldon could fall somewhere between his predecessors. The 6-foot-1, 226-pound rusher is an accomplished zone runner who can leave tacklers mystified. He's creative in the open field, elusive and deadly pushing off the initial cut. However, he isn't sans warts. His upright style leaves him vulnerable to lower body nicks and scrapes. Often during his college days, he limped off the field with minor injuries. Against bigger, faster and more brutalizing competition he could wind up in a full body cast sooner rather than later. Also concerning, he struggled with fumbles, isn't the stoutest pass protector, lacks strength and is only an adequate receiver. Opportunity does knock in Jacksonville. The Jags were shocked by Denard Robinson's production last year, but believe he's more change-of-pace. And then there's Toby Gerhart, who, well, isn't good. The door is ajar for Yeldon. Impress in camp and he'll tote the early-down load right away, but don't reach too far for his services.
Fearless Forecast: 209 carries, 881 rushing yards, 13 receptions, 64 receiving yards, 5 total touchdowns
7. Jameis Winston, TB, QB
Projected Round/Auction Value: Round 10, $4-$7
The future Joe's Crab Shack proprietor was the butt of many jokes during the NFL draft process. However, the divisive QB may be the one laughing last in short order. Much has been made of Winston's off-the-field transgressions, concerns which have understandably prompted many questions. Still, the former Heisman winner has fantastic huddle command and typically executes in pressure-packed situations. Couple that with excellent pocket presence and a strong arm, and it's easy to see why the Bucs coveted his services. From a fantasy perspective, he won't light the world on fire in Year 1. His intermediate passes, of which he completed only 56.5 percent last year, must improve. Still, surrounded by skyscrapers Vincent Jackson, Mike Evans and Austin Seferian-Jenkins and in a Dirk Koetter system schemed similarly to what he ran at Florida St., Winston possesses more value than you might think. Keep in mind Tampa's generous D should force him into many high-volume workloads. Bank on a borderline top-20 campaign.
Fearless Forecast: 3,976 passing yards, 24 passing touchdowns, 21 interceptions, 122 rushing yards, 1 rushing touchdown
8. Nelson Agholor, Phi, WR
Projected Round/Auction Value: Round 8, $8-$12
The plucky wideout from USC probably can't stop pinching himself. His destination, Philadelphia, is a stats factory, a place sure to maximize his fabulous talents. Route precision is the name of the game for Agholor. His sharp cuts, expanded tree and plus speed (4.42 40-yard dash) are standout characteristics. He also tracks the ball terrifically, gets good leverage off the line and owns highly reliable hands. Overall, his versatility and polish resemble an established veteran's. Now with Jeremy Maclin catching zero touchdowns in Kansas City, Agholor should step in and start Day 1. The Eagles' staff seems resigned with keeping Jordan Matthews in the slot. Riley Cooper and Josh Huff, meanwhile, are expected to duke it out for one of the outside positions. That leaves the rookie in prime position to secure the other vacancy in training camp. Do that and he'll garner much appeal in the fantasy community. Remember last year the Eagles attempted the fifth-most pass attempts in the league, a large chunk of those attempts to Maclin (144 targets). Cooper should set the pace among first-year WRs, but Agholor may not lag far behind.
Fearless Forecast: 64 receptions, 855 receiving yards, 5 touchdowns
9. Kevin White, Chi, WR
Projected Round/Auction Value: Round 7, $12-$17
Entering the Draft the Bears had more needs than your high-maintenance significant other. Rookie GM Ryan Pace, however, plugged several glaring gaps, White being one of them. Expected to fill the shoes of Brandon Marshall, the West Virginia standout is a wonderfully talented receiver. He has the size (6-foot-3, 215 pounds), speed (4.35 40-yard) and mean streak needed to be a highly productive receiver at the next level. "Mountain" strong – he set the pace among WRs with 23 bench presses at the Combine – he can break press coverage with relative ease and is hard to drag down after the catch. Not to be overlooked, his quick-twitch cuts and plants allow him to gain separation from defenders. By no means is White a polished target. He must absorb his NFL employer's playbook quickly and make rapid advancements in the route-running department if he wants to make an instant impact. However, because of his exceptional performance at the Combine and on-field contributions with the Mountaineers last fall, he has the necessary tools to develop into a fantasy stud, especially working opposite Alshon Jeffery. Sigh ... if only Jay Cutler wasn't his quarterback. White may play unevenly over the regular season's first half, but I suspect he'll be at least WR3 worthy from Week 8 on. Exercise patience.
Fearless Forecast: 58 receptions, 731 receiving yards, 5 touchdowns
10. Marcus Mariota, Ten, QB
Projected Round/Auction Value: Round 10, $2-$5
Though Chip Kelly attempted to sell his soul, the draft day trade everyone anticipated between Philly and Tennessee never materialized. Mariota, at least for now, will be a Titan. A near desolate wasteland fantasy-wise, Nashville isn't the ideal location for the former Duck. Kendall Wright and Delanie Walker are serviceable weapons, but Justin Hunter, Harry Douglas, Hakeem Nicks and fellow rookie Dorial Green-Beckham, despite his enormous physical makeup, elicit excitement equivalent to impalement-by-cactus. Mariota is multidimensional. His blazing straight-line speed (4.52 40-yard), ability to break contain, sharp on-the-move throws and quick release makes him difficult for defenders to lasso. He can squeeze the pill into tight windows and, at times, has shown adequate touch on loft tosses. Most alluring, he possesses size (6-foot-4, 222-pounds) and athleticism to execute efficiently, particularly as a runner, inside the red zone. Still, he'll have to fend off Zach Mettenberger in camp to score the starting gig, which is no guarantee. He could contribute meaningful numbers at some point, but he's only initially rosterable in two-QB leagues.
Fearless Forecast (11 starts): 2,596 passing yards, 11 passing touchdowns, 5 interceptions, 523 rushing yards, 3 rushing touchdowns
Just missed the list: DeVante Parker, Mia, WR, David Johnson, Ari, RB, Breshad Perriman, Bal, WR, Jaelen Strong, Hou, WR
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