Ranking keepers among star-studded 2017 rookie running back class

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It was quite the year for rookie running backs. Some, like Leonard Fournette and Kareem Hunt, became the focal point of playoff-bound teams. Others, like Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey, became explosive situational playmakers. And some, like Dalvin Cook and Chris Carson, had promising starts ruined by season-ending injuries. Overall, there’s a lot to like moving forward from this talented group.

If you’re in a keeper or franchise league, these players can be key parts of your roster going forward. So it’s worth examining their value going forward into next season.

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Tier 1: The stars

This tier is reserved for the best of the best — for the players who can provide your first- or second-round value next season and thus deserve serious consideration to be your keeper depending on who else is on your roster.

Leonard Fournette, Jaguars

It’s been quite the year for Fournette. He joined a Jaguars team with low expectations, only for him to help them make the playoffs. But it wasn’t without some bumps along the way: a bum ankle, a hurt quad and a missed team photo caused him to miss three games this year.

Still, Jacksonville’s success was tied with his success, and that’s why Fournette tops this list. Over the course of the 16-week fantasy season, the Jaguars went 6-2 in games in which Fournette topped 70 yards from scrimmage and 1-3 when he didn’t. It was a straightforward, smash-mouth approach under run-happy head coach Doug Marrone: The Jaguars had the most run plays in the NFL this year, and given the team’s success, that’s something that should continue. At 6-foot and 240 pounds, Fournette is built to handle a heavy workload like he did this year for seasons to come. Plus, with all five offensive linemen under contract next year, there’s no reason Fournette shouldn’t continue to be among the NFL’s best backs.

[Early position previews for 2018: QBs | RBs | WRs | TEs]

Kareem Hunt, Chiefs

The more you look at it, the start to Hunt’s career becomes increasingly impressive. He had seven straight games with at least 100 yards from scrimmage. There were rumblings at the halfway point that he could legitimately win MVP as a rookie running back.

But then he struggled. From Week 8-13, he didn’t surpass 100 yards once. After six touchdowns in his first three weeks, he didn’t score again until Week 15, driving fantasy owners mad. With the regular season in the stretch mode, he hit his lowest point: In Week 12, he registered 26 total yards in a 16-10 loss to the Bills.

But if you survived Hunt’s struggles, you were rewarded in the playoffs with three solid performances. And his bounce back places him solidly in this top tier. He’s a great fit for the Chiefs’ complex scheme as a fast, powerful back who can catch the ball. There are questions to be answered going forward. Is Alex Smith the quarterback next year after another early playoff exit or will Patrick Mahomes take over? Do the Chiefs add some more weapons on the outside? What role does Spencer Ware take — if any — when he returns healthy? Does the offense change with former offensive coordinator Matt Nagy now the head coach in Chicago? That places Hunt just below Fournette, who has more personnel stability around him.

Alvin Kamara, Saints

How good has Kamara been? Well, he led all running backs in receiving yards, yards per carry and percentage of carries that went for 15 yards or more, per Player Profiler. He finished second in total touchdowns and receptions. He provided a dimension to the already-explosive New Orleans offense. When Drew Brees threw to Kamara, he often got big results.

Kamara isn’t built to be a between-the-tackles runner, and the Saints did a terrific job installing packages that took advantage of Kamara’s outstanding speed and elusiveness as well as managing his workload, balancing it with the more physical Mark Ingram.

Still there’s reason for concern and reason to doubt this high rating. Kamara will never have the down-to-down consistency of Fournette or Hunt. He plays at a high speed, and with high speeds come big collisions: He left two games early with concussions. But his big play ability and his repertoire with the uber-accurate Brees place him on the top pedestal. Those rankings mentioned above are truly incredible. He’ll be an early round pick next year or an obvious keeper on almost any eligible roster.

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Tier 2: The promising starters

This tier is made up of players that have legitimate fantasy potential but didn’t quite perform at the level to grant us full confidence making them a keeper going forward in standard leagues unless it’s a league that features several keepers or franchise settings.

Dalvin Cook, Vikings

How quick we are to forget Cook. The emergence of other outstanding rookies combined with the success of the Vikings without him has made Cook’s absence almost an afterthought.

But when you go back and review the numbers, you’ll see why Cook nearly cracked the top tier: He totaled 137 yards in Week 1 when the Vikings thrashed the Saints, totaled 169 and his first NFL score in Week 3 and then scored again in Week 4. In roughly three-and-a-half games, Cook finished as a top-10 running back twice.

As with any player coming off a torn ACL, there are questions to be answered. Will Cook be the overwhelming physical combination of power, quickness and speed that he showed as a rookie? He’ll have had plenty of time to heal before the 2018 season kicks off because the injury happened so early in the season, but rust could certainly be a factor.

A second issue is how much of a role Latavius Murray (eight touchdowns) and free-agent-to-be Jerick McKinnon (51 receptions, 421 receiving yards) play next year. That duo has done a terrific job keeping the Minnesota run game afloat with Murray’s physicality and McKinnon’s quickness providing opponents a daunting two-way task. You can certainly have your reservations about Cook just a year after one of the worst injuries you can have in football. But given Minnesota’s run-heavy scheme and the brilliance Cook showed when he was healthy, he slots in just behind the top tier in terms of keeper-ability among rookie RBs.

Christian McCaffrey, Panthers

Consider McCaffrey’s rookie season as Kamara-lite. The Carolina rookie actually topped Kamara in targets, finishing first among all running backs with 113. He also finished third with 80 receptions and fifth with 651 receiving yards. And despite Jonathan Stewart getting most of the goal-line work, McCaffrey still poured in seven touchdowns, good for 17th among running backs. The Panthers, like the Saints, did a great job getting their shifty rookie running back out in space without overusing him.

McCaffrey emerged as a vital part of Carolina’s offensive attack: The Panthers traded away Kelvin Banjamin and lost Greg Olsen for several weeks due to injury. When Olsen missed eight straight games, McCaffrey averaged six catches per contest. In the other eight games, McCaffrey averaged just four catches. McCaffrey scored four of his five receiving touchdowns in games Olsen missed. So there’s reason to be wary if Olsen is healthy and the Panthers add some weapons on the outside.

Still, McCaffrey adds a dimension the Panthers sorely missed during their disastrous 2016 season. He’s a great safety valve but also a guy who can be used on quick passes so Cam Newton doesn’t get hit so much. Expect McCaffrey to continue to be a big part of the Carolina attack next year.

Joe Mixon, Bengals

Mixon didn’t take full control of the Cincinnati backfield until a few weeks into the season and then dealt with late-season injuries. But when he was operating as a fully healthy lead back, he showed the skill set that impressed so many scouts out of college. He’s terrific at catching the ball out of the backfield and very good in space. There’s no questioning his talent.

But he simply wasn’t consistent enough. He struggled with a couple of various ailments as the Bengals tried to increase his workload. And Giovani Bernard returned from a torn ACL to be a solid contributor on third down. Mixon has one of the most complete skill packages of any running back on this list. He should improve considerably in Year 2. But he’s in no way a priority keeper, even if you keep multiple players.

Keep an eye on:

These are guys that won’t be kept in almost any setting. But they showed some flashes and should stay on your radar throughout the offseason.

Tarik Cohen, Bears

Perhaps no one is more excited about new head coach Matt Nagy than Cohen is. The former Chiefs offensive coordinator’s complex schemes are designed to get defenses going the wrong way and then take advantage of that with versatile speedsters (see: Tyreek Hill). Cohen is an undersized guy with a lot of valuable skills who Nagy will look to get involved in a lot of different ways. We’ll wait until we see it all come together to make definitive statements but Cohen’s prospects just got a lot more intriguing.

Chris Carson, Seahawks

Carson was finally beginning to emerge as “the guy” in the Seattle backfield before a brutal broken leg ended his rookie campaign. It’s tough to really project the Seahawks running back depth chart for next year. Russell Wilson was the team’s leading rusher by over 340 yards. Mike Davis led all running backs with 240 and Carson had 208 in just four games. There’s a reasonable chance Seattle tries to upgrade at this position. But Carson still carries intrigue given the flashes he showed in his short stint as the feature back.

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