By John Evans
Special to Yahoo Sports
The running back position got a big infusion of talent in 2017. Four rushers were taken in the first 50 picks of the NFL Draft. All have flashed serious ability, but as sophomores their circumstances have changed considerably. Health — both their own and that of the offensive pieces around them — will go a long way toward determining these RBs’ fantasy prospects the rest of the way.
Another key component is the quality of run-blocking they receive. Predicting the success or failure of their offensive lines in future matchups will help me determine the direction each RB’s fantasy stock is heading.
Stock Down: Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars
Taken fourth overall two drafts ago, Fournette has a long injury history dating back to his days at LSU. When he’s right, however, the big back runs with the force of a locomotive and the ferocity of an angry rhino. It’s a rare blend, but that very physicality is part of the reason he’s a fixture on the injury report.
I was high on the Jacksonville offensive line entering the 2018 campaign, especially given the addition of All-Pro Andrew Norwell from Carolina. Norwell’s performance in the running game has declined precipitously in his new uniform. Left tackle Cam Robinson was lost to injury early in the season and his replacements have also struggled to open holes for the RBs. Center Brandon Linder and right tackle Jermey Parnell have been better, but have battled injuries of their own.
Finally getting healthy along with Fournette, this unit is looking to improve on its pedestrian average of 95 rushing yards per game (in 2017 they averaged 141.4). The Jaguars would love to get back to their 2017 blueprint of playing shutdown defense and running the ball relentlessly. When they get out to an early lead, they can impose their will on teams and avoid mistakes (Blake Bortles, I’m talking to you).
With Jacksonville’s remaining schedule the team has some hope of doing just that in most weeks, but it’s not an ideal slate by any means. Week 10’s opponent, Indianapolis, employs decent run stoppers on defense. It gets harder after that, as four out of the Jags’ next five foes are tough to run on (the “easy” matchup is Indy again). Jacksonville will enjoy a reprieve in Week 16 with Miami — a delicious matchup for fantasy Super Bowls — but this schedule is no walk in the park for Fournette, even if his balky hamstrings hold together.
He shouldn’t expect his old workload, either. T.J. Yeldon has solidified himself as a pass-catching back in Fournette’s absence. Fournette can catch too, but his coaches will likely make ample use of Yeldon (and potentially acquisition Carlos Hyde), especially if they trail teams like Indy (who they play twice) or Pittsburgh. Despite Fournette’s prodigious talent, the odds aren’t great for him to finish the season strong. Considering that I pegged him as a potential league-winner in the preseason, it’s a painful prediction to make.
Stock Up: Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers
On a happier note, the back selected four picks later in 2017 was eighth in RB scoring (PPR and non-PPR) before his stirring three-TD performance in Pittsburgh on Thursday night. Christian McCaffrey was not a player I projected big things for this season. Injuries on the Panthers’ offensive line, Norwell’s defection and McCaffrey’s struggles on between-the-tackles runs as a rookie added to this assumption.
Well, the line has done a fine job overcoming adversity and McCaffrey looks more like his Stanford self than the 2017 version, who seemed to go down if you breathed on him. He’s still a better receiver than pure runner, but he’s doubled his rushing yards per game and substantially improved his yards per carry.
The Panthers’ stats are skewed by their quarterback’s dynamic running. That said, Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards metric removes Cam Newton from the equation and Carolina still ranks 7th in the NFL. Right tackle Taylor Moton has been a revelation, emerging as a top-10 run blocker at his position. On the left side, journeyman Chris Clark has been so solid in relief of an injured Matt Kalil that he may keep the job. Looking ahead, McCaffrey has delectable matchups with Detroit, Tampa Bay and Cleveland on the calendar. Carolina should continue to win in the trenches.
My concern with McCaffrey was that his ADP assumed he’d complement his fine work as a receiver with greater success as a ball-carrier. Those assumptions were correct. I now believe McCaffrey will continue his tear, even if his TD-scoring pace is unsustainable.
Stock Up: Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings
At pick 41, the Vikings made Dalvin Cook the third RB off the board in 2017. Cook’s versatility at Florida State made him a coveted prospect, even if his combine numbers didn’t meet expectations. A creative runner with big-play potential, Cook was on his way to taking the league by storm when he tore his ACL in Week 4. He’s only played four games this year, with a hamstring being the culprit this time. As Fournette can attest, setbacks are common with that injury. Latavius Murray has earned a role in this backfield in Cook’s absence, as well. That said, Cook makes a high-powered offense that much better. In his triumphant return in Week 9, the sophomore rusher proved that his explosiveness was intact with a 70-yard run against the Lions’ Charmin-soft run defense.
That said, Minnesota’s run blocking is just a tick better than bottom-five, according to Football Outsiders. 28 teams average more rushing yards than the Vikings. Longer runs like Cook’s account for a lot of their yards gained; a sign of a struggling line. The good news is that their most talented big man, left tackle Riley Reiff, returned from a three-game absence in Week 9 and second-rounder Brian O’Neill shows promise on the right.
After resting during a Week 10 bye Cook gets a stern test in Chicago, where the Bears are playing some of the league’s best run defense. Beyond that though, the Vikings’ schedule is favorable for running backs and features Miami and Detroit in Weeks 15 and 16. This puts Cook in a smash spot for fantasy teams making a deep postseason run. As a proven pass-catcher, Cook doesn’t need to break big runs or tote the rock 20 times to score plenty of fantasy points at the feast-or-famine RB position. With so many positives here, the threat of poor run-blocking doesn’t dim his prospects to produce for fantasy gamers.
Stock Down: Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals
Joe Mixon fell to the second round of the 2017 draft due to character concerns, not questions about his football playing prowess. His best comp on PlayerProfiler.com is Ezekiel Elliott, and he possesses an otherworldly blend of running-back traits. Running behind an unheralded line, Mixon has averaged a studly 4.8 yards per carry this season — more than a yard better than his average as a rookie. Cincinnati moving on from longtime line coach Paul Alexander this offseason, who Dallas just fired after nine games, seems like a smart move. Frank Pollack has invigorated a group featuring an undrafted guard in Alex Redmond and much-maligned seventh rounder in tackle Bobby Hart. Their rookie center, Billy Price, was a first-round pick but he’s played just a game and a half so far.
This unit has been greater than the sum of its parts, but playing above their pedigree has only put them at league average. Even that ranking is a bit deceptive, as Mixon routinely earns his own yardage beyond the line of scrimmage. Cincinnati is still near the bottom of the league in rushing yards per game, as well. Only two teams have fewer rushing attempts, as Bill Lazor runs a pass-happy offense predicated by the defense’s frequent breakdowns (the Bengals are surrendering the most total yards in the league).
This week the Bengals host New Orleans, a brick wall for running backs, before traveling to Baltimore. The Ravens have been the last team an RB wants to face this year. It does get much easier from there, including two dates with a Cleveland front that has backs licking their chops. The real question is how Cincinnati handles life without A.J. Green.
Green is arguably the league’s most important receiver to his team. It’s been a bad year for the Bengals, in terms of injury luck, and one has to wonder if his loss will have an even greater effect on this offense than Golden Tate’s absence had on Detroit in Week 9. Green is the straw that stirs the drink. Mixon has the pass-catching ability to pick up some of the slack (even with Giovani Bernard back in the fold) but we saw how little he produced in a sputtering offense last year. Granted, Mixon has a year of pro experience under his belt, but it’s very possible we’ve already seen his best this season.