Running backs who should go higher in fantasy drafts: Rookies bring risk but upside worth the gamble

Dalton Del Don
·6 min read

ECR stands for “Expert Consensus Ranking,” which means the average ranks of many members of the fantasy football industry and is typically similar to ADP (which differs from site-to-site). This will be an ongoing series highlighting some big differences between ECR and my own ranks. In general, it’s usually best to regress to the market some, and knowing your league’s ADP remains equally important when drafting, but I rank the following players a lot higher than the general fantasy community.

Players who should go higher: QBs | RBs | WRs | TEs
Players going too early: QBs | RBs | WRs | TEs

Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Kansas City Chiefs (ECR = Overall No. 12 vs. DDD = Overall No. 4)

It’s riskier drafting a rookie during this unique offseason, but I’d argue every back after the “big three” comes with their own questions, only without the same upside as Edwards-Helaire given his situation. The Chiefs spent a first-round pick on CEH, whom Andy Reid called a “better version of Brian Westbrook,” and the team is wasting no time installing the rookie as their feature back (and KC doesn’t ask their RBs to block much). I had CEH as a first-round fantasy pick before Damien Williams opted out, and now he’s the No. 4 overall player on my board in PPR leagues as the clear lead back on a KC offense certain to be among the league’s best as long as Patrick Mahomes is healthy.

Mahomes threw 50 touchdowns and won MVP during his first year starting and was on pace to obliterate the NFL record for passing yards (5,610) while getting 9.1 YPA and a 14:1 TD:INT ratio over the first six games last season before suffering a dislocated kneecap. There’s an argument he’s the best quarterback ever, and the Chiefs are also loaded with weapons at receiver and tight end (but not RB). So this is a jackpot setup for The Fresh Prince of Helaire, who’s one of the most impressive receiving backs coming out of college in recent memory (CEH is also the only RB in SEC history with 1,000 rushing yards and 50-plus catches in a season). The rookie is going to be an immediate fantasy superstar.

Jonathan Taylor, Indianapolis Colts (ECR = RB22 vs. DDD = RB12)

Again with the rookie risk, although running back is typically the easiest position to make the transition. This is admittedly aggressive, as Taylor won’t even enter the season as a starter and has a troubling fumbling history in college. But he’s built to last, averaged the most yards from scrimmage in college football history by a wide margin and is incredibly athletic as the 10th-fastest RB in combine history when weight-adjusted. He would’ve been a top-five draft pick before NFL teams started valuing the position so differently. Taylor joins an Indy team with arguably the NFL’s best offensive line that’s also getting a major upgrade at quarterback (and should be extremely run-heavy). He’ll lose passing-down work to Nyheim Hines, but Taylor also possesses underrated potential as a receiver, and the Colts get to face the Jaguars and Texans 25% of their highly favorable looking schedule.

Marlon Mack is one of the league’s worst blockers/receivers, had just 3.5 YPC against base fronts last season despite running behind PFF’s third-highest graded run-blocking unit and is projected as one of the league’s biggest RB health risks by Sports Injury Predictor. He’s also almost certainly entering his final year in Indy, so his biggest fantasy contribution is helping to temper Taylor’s ADP of 39.3. It might require more patience than your typical early pick, but Taylor will ultimately reward those who gamble by finishing as an RB1 as a rookie. He’s a darkhorse to be the No. 1 pick in 2021 fantasy drafts.

James Conner, Pittsburgh Steelers (ECR = RB18 vs. DDD = RB13)

Whether or not Conner can stay healthy is a real question, but it’s his only one, as he enters as the rare three-down back who’s also on one of the best rosters in football. Conner is one season removed from totaling 1,375 yards and 13 touchdowns over just 12 starts, as he was drafted as a top-eight pick last year for a reason. There’s little competition for touches in Pittsburgh’s backfield, and the team gets a healthy Ben Roethlisberger back with intriguing receivers and arguably the NFL’s best defense. Conner is no doubt an injury risk, but he looks great entering the season and is in a terrific situation, so he’s a first-round fantasy value at a third-round ADP. I’d have no problem taking him in the second, ahead of Aaron Jones and Josh Jacobs.

Latavius Murray, New Orleans (ECR = RB41 vs. DDD = RB31)

No one is rooting for an injury, but if Alvin Kamara were to go down, Murray would become an immediate top-five fantasy asset as a capable three-down back in New Orleans’ system. During the two games in which Kamara was sidelined last year (he played compromised throughout 2020), Murray put up 307 yards from scrimmage with 14 catches (18 targets) and four touchdowns against two defenses that finished top-13 in run defense DVOA (including outdoors in Chicago). Put differently, Murray had more carries (eight) inside the 10-yard line during those two games than David Johnson and Raheem Mostert had all season. The Saints have one of the league’s best offensive lines and a QB who posted a 22:1 TD:INT ratio over the second half of last season (and might even be underrated), so here’s your proverbial “league-winner” for 2020. There isn’t a better ninth-round draft pick than Murray.

Damien Harris, New England Patriots (ECR = RB55 vs. DDD = RB34)

This is a bit of a gamble since Harris barely saw the field as a rookie, but he wouldn’t be the first Patriots back to make a major leap in Year 2, and the door is wide open with Sony Michel uncertain to start the season after undergoing foot surgery. Michel also has chronic knee issues, struggled badly last year while finishing 114th in fantasy points per opportunity (he was given nearly 250 carries with the No. 2 Game Script in the NFL and finished as the RB34 in ppg) and toward the bottom in YPC after contact.

Meanwhile, Harris is the all-time leader in YPC at Alabama, and there have been plenty of positive offseason reports. The Lamar Miller signing isn’t great news, and it remains to be seen who wins New England’s QB job, but scheme matters most in the NFL (a fast pace helps too), and Harris’ ADP of 131.6 is awfully appealing for the likely lead back with fresh legs in a Bill Belichick offense.

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