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Rookie Running Backs in the Best Fantasy Situations


Now that the NFL Draft is over, it's time to parse through the selections and see what it means for our all-important fantasy seasons. Despite this year's NFL Draft having one of the deepest wide receiver classes in recent memory, the running backs have been generating a lot of fantasy excitement in recent weeks, so it seemed right to dig a little deeper.

First, running backs tend to generate the most fantasy excitement because it's historically been the easiest position to adapt from college to the pros. It's a relatively instinctive position that relies a lot on the individual success of the player. Obviously, the offensive line plays a major role (as we'll discuss later), as does the scheme of the offense, but if a player is shifty in space or breaks tackles, or has good vision, those traits tend to carry over. Once the players learn the blocking scheme and minimal route tree a running back might be asked to run, they can be impactful in a way that is often harder for rookie quarterbacks and wide receivers.

However, not every rookie that contributes immediately will go on to have consistent fantasy success. In this article, I'll be looking at rookie running backs who I think can help you this year, in both shallow leagues and deep leagues, as well as some running backs that could be tremendous assets in dynasty or keeper formats.

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Jonathan Taylor, Indianapolis Colts

Despite not being the first running back taken, Jonathan Taylor finds himself in the best fantasy situation. It starts with the production of his offensive line. Pro Football Focus named the Colts as the third-best offensive line in football. According to Football Outsiders, they had the 11th-best adjusted line yards, were the seventh-best power rushing team, and the fourth-best in second-level yards blocked. It's the perfect line for a physical runner like Taylor to run behind.

Taylor put together a 93rd-percentile College Dominator rankings, which "represents a player’s “market share” or his percentage of his team’s offensive production." So, for running backs, it's a reflection of their overall offensive production in college.

Taylor's numbers basically tell us what anybody who watched Wisconsin football knows: Jonathan Taylor was that offense. He combines a physical running style with a 98th-percentile 40-yard dash and 99th-percentile speed score all rushing behind an offensive line that is among the best at getting second-level yards blocked. That's a recipe for long touchdown runs.

Yes, Marlon Mack will still be in town, but he's a former fourth-round pick who's had trouble staying on the field during his NFL career. He'll most likely be a complement to Jonathan Taylor with Nyheim Hines still operating as a pass-catching back in clear passing situations, since Taylor is a fine receiver himself. While this means that Taylor likely won't be a three-down workhorse from the start, that's a dying breed in the NFL anyways and not anything that limits my belief in his fantasy upside.

 

Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Kansas City Chiefs

Any time you get drafted to the best offense in the league, it's fair to say you've found yourself in a good situation. Edwards-Helaire joins an offense that put up the sixth-most yards and scored the fifth-most points in the league last year. They may have run the ball the 6th fewest times in the league and for only 4.2 yards per carry but that seems to be more of a product of poor running back play than the scheme.

The Chiefs were top-10 in rushes stuffed at the line of scrimmage and fourth-worst in big plays gained on the ground. The combination suggests that the offensive line was preventing penetration but neither LeSean McCoy or Damien Williams could create a consistent push to the second level or simply weren't able to break big plays.

Edwards-Helaire doesn't have great long speed but has tremendous burst and saw his receptions climb from 11 to 55 this year, which suggests an ability to help fantasy owners in all facets of the game. We know Andy Reid likes to incorporate running backs into the receiving game with Williams and McCoy, who split lead back duties, combining for an average of six targets per game in 2019.

However, here are a few potential concerns. For one, Andy Reid has a history of employing committees, so it's unlikely that Edwards-Helaire gets the full share of the backfield, and the Chiefs didn't run the ball a lot in the red zone last year. McCoy and Williams each averaged 1.5 red zone carries a game, with both players seeing more than three opportunities only once.

That may change with Edwards-Helaire in town, but Williams converted two of his three rushes from inside the five into touchdowns and three of his eight rushes from inside the 10, so he was relatively effective, yet Reid chose to pass a fair amount of time inside the 10. To top things off, Damien Williams is also still on the roster and likely to split carries with the rookie or keep his red-zone role.

 

Cam Akers, Los Angeles Rams

Performance-wise, the Rams were a middle of the road rushing offense in 2019. They ran the ball the 18th-most in the NFL, their offensive line was 19th in line-adjusted yards and finished 26th in the percentage of runs stuffed at the line of scrimmage - basically the equivalent of a shoulder shrug of a rushing offense. What's more concerning is that they did nothing this offseason to address the offensive line concerns.

However, as we've seen in the past, the offense has the potential to be dynamic and they have a gaping hole at the running back position. With Todd Gurley now in Atlanta, the holdovers at the position are Malcolm Brown, Darrell Henderson, and John Kelly. While all of them appeared on some form of sleeper list last year, none of them did much with their opportunities, and the Rams spent a second-round pick on Akers, which suggests they weren't entirely satisfied with what they had.

As a player himself, Akers is a big play waiting to happen.

He put up an 87th-percentile 40-yard dash, and 89th-percentile speed score, and an 89th-percentile College Dominator ranking. He was active in the Seminoles' passing offense and showed enough elusiveness in the open-field to make defenders miss and break a few runs to the house.

Plus, he has a physicality that Henderson doesn't bring in short-yardage situations, so if he's able to beat out Henderson and Brown, he could emerge as the main back in an offense that will push the pace and get the ball into space.

 

D'Andre Swift, Detroit Lions

For much of the off-season, Swift was assumed to be the likely first running back off the board. He brings elite speed with strong agility and proven effectiveness in the receiving game as well. He runs hard between the tackles but has great open field ability, which should translate well to the modern NFL.

He also found himself in a pretty good spot. Yes, Kerryon Johnson is still around, but he's proven unable to stay on the field long enough to be consistently effective. Last season, Johnson was limited to 52.7% of Detroit's offensive snaps due to injury, which forced the Lions to play Bo Scarbrough on 43.1% of offensive snaps and Ty Johnson on 28.8%. I think it's far more likely we see Swift get 60% of snaps or more in his first season with the Lions not sold on Kerryon and/or trying to limit his exposure to injury.

The Lions also don't seem to trust Kerryon in the passing game since he saw 15 targets all season while both Ty Johnson and J.D. McKissic saw over 30. Swift should push Ty Johnson out of the receiving role and could be looking at 50+ targets for himself alone. That paired with his rushing value should make him usable in all leagues.

 

12-15 Team Leagues

Ke'Shawn Vaughn, Tampa Bay Bucs

Like Edwards-Helaire, Vaughn is immediately intriguing because of the offense he finds himself in. The Bucs were an explosive offense last year but now added Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski into the fold. Bruce Arians and his crew also never seemed sold on Ronald Jones last year, which means that it might not take much for Vaughn to vault to the top of the depth chart.

During his time in college, Vaughn proved that he could handle an extensive workload, putting together a 90th-percentile College Dominator ranking. He doesn't have the elite athleticism and speed of guys like Johnathan Taylor and D'Andre Swift, but he has more burst than he's given credit for and has reliable hands in the receiving game.

However, there are a couple of things working against Vaughn, which make me hesitant to buy in in all formats. For one, Bruce Arians' running back usage last year was maddening. Even when Jones or Peyton Barber had a great game, they were liable to be benched the next game after one big run by the other back.

Additionally, the Bucs are clearly going all-in on the present after the additions of Brady and Gronk, which makes me think they are not going to give their rookie a lot of time to figure things out. He's going to have to be able to keep up immediately or they'll simply turn to vets like they did in 2019 with Barber over Jones since the rushing attack will always be secondary in a Bruce Arians offense led by Tom Brady.

I think Vaughn has intriguing long-term upside in that offense, but I don't feel confident in a big year right from the start, especially since the Bucs have a lot of question marks on their offensive line after finishing 30th in the league in rushes stuffed at the line of scrimmage in 2019.

 

Zack Moss, Buffalo Bills

I covered Zack Moss in a piece I recently did on the Bills backfield, so I'd encourage you to check that out, but the shortened version of why I think he's usable in deep leagues this year is simple: In 2019, Frank Gore had 35.7% of the team's total rushes because they wanted to lighten Singletary's workload.

Gore also had 21.5% of the team's red zone snaps and 36.6% of their red zone rushing attempts. Moss is ticketed to be a goal-line running back who could also see 35-40% of the team's total carries and PFF marked him with the third-highest broken tackles per attempt average in the six years they've tracked college football metrics.

In deep leagues, that touchdown upside alone makes him worth a risk.

 

Michael Warren II, Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles let Jordan Howard walk this offseason and then drafted no running backs to fill the void he left behind. While that obviously is good news for Miles Sanders, it makes Michael Warren extremely intriguing to me in deeper leagues, if the undrafted free agent can make the final roster.

Miles Sanders is the superior back, but the Eagles ran the ball the 7th-most in the NFL last year, and Doug Pederson has always opted to employ a committee.

Of the list above, only two running backs remain on the roster. That means 40% of running back snaps are up for grabs. While Miles Sanders is likely to take some of them, I believe Warren is more likely to back him up than Boston Scott simply because he brings a power aspect that Boston Scott lacks at 5'6" 200 pounds.

While Miles Sanders was more effective in red-zone situations last year, Jordan Howard was consistently used in that area of the led the team in red-zone touchdowns. Even if Sanders becomes the main focus in the red zone, Michael Warren will get touches in there (provided he makes the team) and his physical running style could likely lead to him being effective. A red zone back who will get usage in a committee is worthy of a roster spot in 15-plus team leagues.

 

Dynasty Leagues

J.K. Dobbins, Baltimore Ravens

J.K. Dobbins is one of the clear winners of the 2020 running back draft class. It just won't be this year. I know that might qualify as a "hot take" since I've seen some people put Dobbins as a Rookie of the Year candidate, but I'm not sure why everybody assumes Mark Ingram and Gus Edwards are simply going to go away.

For starters, Edwards and Ingram were the main non-Lamar Jackson options in the red zone. Given the physicality of the way they run, it's unlikely that Dobbins comes in and takes that role from them, which means that Dobbins would need to get his value between the 20s - historically the least valuable role for a running back.

However, even there, he has to compete with Ingram, Edwards, and Jackson for carries.

Jackson saw a third of the team's carries last year and that simply isn't going to change. Based on Ingram's success - 1,018 yards and 5.0 yards per carry - he's not going to be removed from the equation. Plus, as mentioned, his physicality brings a perfect compliment to Lamar.

That means only one-third of the team's carries remain, and the Ravens have always kept Gus Edwards involved and effective; he's averaged 5.2 and 5.3 yards per carry during his two years with the team. That's not going to earn him a spot glued to the bench.

The most likely scenario is that Dobbins and Gus Edwards split the final third of the team's carries until Ingram or Edwards (or both) leave town. Dobbins certainly has the skillset to be effective with those carries, but he won't be effective enough - barring injury - to be consistently useful in redraft leagues.

 

A.J. Dillon, Green Bay Packers

A.J. Dillon is another intriguing back without much current value. The fact that the Packers drafted him above his projected slot while still having Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams on the team suggests that the new front office viewed Dillon as a better long-term bet than one or both of their 2019 rushing leaders.

With both Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams as free agents at the end of this year, Dillon should likely step into the lead or co-lead role in 2021. He's a bigger back at 6'0" 250 pounds, but his combine results show an athleticism that had him compared by many to James Conner. It's possible that Matt LaFleur sees Dillon as a Derrick Henry-type runner for the offense he is building (around Jordan Love and not Aaron Rodgers).

However, regardless of the Packers' weird draft tactics and their clear lack of desire to feature Aaron Jones, it's unlikely that Dillon jumps both Jones and Williams in his first year in Green Bay. A running back who is third on the depth chart usually doesn't carry a lot of value in redraft leagues.

 

Anthony McFarland, Pittsburgh Steelers

Speaking of Conner, when he went down with an injury last year, the Steelers running back situation was a mess.

The Steelers used all sorts of combinations but only average 3.7 yards per attempt, which was tied for second-worst in the league. Conner is clearly still the starter; although he has a long history of injury issues that could prevent the Steelers from feeding him too many carries (no, we're not including his cancer battle among his injuries).

Anthony McFarland has elite speed, which would make him an ideal counterpart to Conner. While Benny Snell and Jaylen Samuels showed value at times, neither was the runner that McFarland showed himself to be in college. He won't simply be a gadget player and could take over the lead back role if Conner were to be hurt again.

 

Bryce Love, Washington Redskins

Bryce Love wasn't a member of this draft class, but I wanted to mention him since 2020 will technically be his rookie season in the NFL. Now fully recovered from his ACL injury, Love is a name to watch on a Redskins team that is still counting on the aging Adrian Peterson and the injury-prone Derrius Guice.

It's been a couple of years, but Bryce Love was a force during his Junior year at Stanford, so don't forget the things this man can do.

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Clyde Edwards-Helaire or Jonathan Taylor? Coming into the season this was the biggest question for fantasy GMs, both dynasty managers who were thinking long-term and redraft managers who wanted to know who would be better for this season. There were many different theories and believe me when I say, both sides thought they were 100%... Read More


NextGen Stats - Quarterback Breakdowns and Takeaways

It's been a month since the last time we took a look at our beloved quarterbacks. Numbers are numbers, and numbers don't lie. You can twist them, but looking at them objectively, numbers say that no matter what, rushing the ball is almost always a worse option than passing it in today's game. That's why... Read More


Fantasy Football Risers and Fallers - Week 7

Whether due to their own play, the play of others, or injuries, players' stock increases and decreases on a weekly basis. Perhaps more than any other, the NFL is a league that experiences ups and downs at a rapid pace. With only 16 games, there’s little room for error and seemingly endless opportunities for improvement.... Read More


Coaching Matters: Offenses That Will Improve From Week 6

This series continues into its sixth week of where I dive into offensive areas that will improve or decline based on coaching in order to glean insight as to fantasy football value. In Week 6, we saw performances such as Ryan Tannehill throwing for 364 passing yards, the Houston Texans running backs combining for 66 rushing yards, and the New... Read More


Tape Tells All: D'Andre Swift's Week 6 Performance

Welcome to another edition of Tape Tells All. I've been thinking of rebranding as just TAPE. All-Caps like that. Probably wouldn't be a good idea for SEO purposes, right? Anyways, this week we'll be discussing Detroit Lions rookie running back D'Andre Swift. Swift set a lot of career highs this week, with bests in carries... Read More


Week 7 Waiver Wire Pickups & Adds

Week 6 was like the 2020 of fantasy football weeks. All those great matchups meant nothing, those studs let you down, and your bench likely went crazy. The good news is that we didn't have any season-ending injuries to running backs or games canceled due to COVID, so in retrospect maybe we shouldn't complain. The... Read More


FAB Bidding - Week 7 Waiver Wire Targets

Whether it's injuries, bye-week blues, or simply poor performance, we've got the waiver-wire cure...but it just might cost you! Alongside our famous waiver wire pickups list and our weekly waiver wire columns by position, this column focuses on suggested waiver wire bidding percentages for fantasy football owners in leagues using a Free Agent Budget (FAB). In... Read More


Waiver Wire Express - Week 7 Lightning Round

Week 6 was relatively healthy and had no coronavirus delays, so let's just take a moment to bask in that. That said, we still saw Miles Sanders (knee) and Zach Ertz (ankle) go down, while Mark Ingram (ankle) has a bye to get healthy. Week 7 byes are Baltimore, Indianapolis, Miami, and Minnesota. Let's get... Read More


Running Back Waiver Wire Pickups - Week 7

Fantasy GMs are to be commended for rising to the unique challenges that have unfolded during this regular season. Injuries to critical players is an unwelcome reality that occurs every year. This is also the case for backs that were expected to operate as RB1s, but have been relegated to committees. However, this season has... Read More


Wide Receiver Waiver Wire Pickups - Week 7

Six weeks of NFL football are behind us, aside from a pair of Monday games, including a late afternoon game between the Bills and the Chiefs. In terms of wide receiver production this week, we didn't have the huge breakouts like we had in Week 5. Chase Claypool didn't score four touchdowns. In fact, only... Read More


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Dissecting Contact Quality In Search Of Fantasy Bargains

Of the 1,015 hitters sampled(1) between 2015 and 2019, there were only 14 instances of hitters making more productive contact against pitches outside of the strike zone than against pitches inside of the strike zone based on xwOBAcon. Based on the same sample, the average hitter was a whopping .116 points better against pitches inside... Read More


Daily MLB Injury Roundup for October 23rd, 2020

RotoBaller has assembled a list of daily MLB injury updates to help you prepare both your seasonal and daily fantasy baseball (DFS) lineups, every day of the MLB season. Below is our updated list of injured MLB players for October 23rd, 2020. Only players on teams that are scheduled to play today will appear below... Read More


Lineup Order Risers and Fallers: AL West 2020 Review

It’s the offseason and there are about to be a bunch of moving parts. This allows for speculation in terms of players gaining or losing playing time, moving up or down a batting order and much more. The idea here is to highlight some lineup situations for each team and some potential winners or losers... Read More


2021 1st & 2nd Year Players with James Anderson - Benched with Bubba (Episode 317)

Bubba (@bdentrek) is joined by James Anderson (@RealJRAnderson) on episode 317. The guys will go over 30+ first and second-year players. They will discuss their current ADP's in the 2 Early Mocks, what to expect of the players in 2021, and much more. They also go over some listener questions, compare Juan Soto to Mike... Read More


Daily MLB Injury Roundup for October 21st, 2020

RotoBaller has assembled a list of daily MLB injury updates to help you prepare both your seasonal and daily fantasy baseball (DFS) lineups, every day of the MLB season. Below is our updated list of injured MLB players for October 21st, 2020. Only players on teams that are scheduled to play today will appear below... Read More


Daily MLB Injury Roundup for October 20th, 2020

RotoBaller has assembled a list of daily MLB injury updates to help you prepare both your seasonal and daily fantasy baseball (DFS) lineups, every day of the MLB season. Below is our updated list of injured MLB players for October 20th, 2020. Only players on teams that are scheduled to play today will appear below... Read More


Bubba and Bat Flip 54: 2 Early Mocks APD Player Debates - Benched with Bubba (Episode 316)

Bubba (@bdentrek) is joined by Bat Flip Crazy (@BatFlipCrazy) to take a deeper look at the 2 Early Mocks ADP. They go over some of the positions and look at players with similar ADPs and debate. Going around the diamond discussing some players people are high on and some they are down on with a... Read More


Daily MLB Injury Roundup for October 18th, 2020

RotoBaller has assembled a list of daily MLB injury updates to help you prepare both your seasonal and daily fantasy baseball (DFS) lineups, every day of the MLB season. Below is our updated list of injured MLB players for October 18th, 2020. Only players on teams that are scheduled to play today will appear below... Read More


Daily MLB Injury Roundup for October 17th, 2020

RotoBaller has assembled a list of daily MLB injury updates to help you prepare both your seasonal and daily fantasy baseball (DFS) lineups, every day of the MLB season. Below is our updated list of injured MLB players for October 17th, 2020. Only players on teams that are scheduled to play today will appear below... Read More


2021 Early Mock ADP Values & Reaches: WPC+ Videocast

Pierre Camus and Nicklaus Gaut prepare for the 2021 fantasy baseball season with a look at early mock draft results from the RotoBaller Expert mock. Like and subscribe to the RotoBaller channel on Youtube to get all our latest podcasts and catch us on iTunes and BlogTalkRadio as well! Be sure to also tune into RotoBaller... Read More


Statcast Season Review: 2020 Barrel Leaders (Hitters)

The 2020 MLB season will always be one for the record books, even if everything that took place will have multiple asterisks attached to it. Evaluating Statcast numbers is a nice way to find hot and cold hitters, as well as underachievers and overachievers. Now that the regular season is over, let's reflect on the... Read More


Daily MLB Injury Roundup for October 16th, 2020

RotoBaller has assembled a list of daily MLB injury updates to help you prepare both your seasonal and daily fantasy baseball (DFS) lineups, every day of the MLB season. Below is our updated list of injured MLB players for October 16th, 2020. Only players on teams that are scheduled to play today will appear below... Read More


Daily MLB Injury Roundup for October 15th, 2020

RotoBaller has assembled a list of daily MLB injury updates to help you prepare both your seasonal and daily fantasy baseball (DFS) lineups, every day of the MLB season. Below is our updated list of injured MLB players for October 15th, 2020. Only players on teams that are scheduled to play today will appear below... Read More


Daily MLB Injury Roundup for October 14th, 2020

RotoBaller has assembled a list of daily MLB injury updates to help you prepare both your seasonal and daily fantasy baseball (DFS) lineups, every day of the MLB season. Below is our updated list of injured MLB players for October 14th, 2020. Only players on teams that are scheduled to play today will appear below... Read More


Bubba and Bat Flip 53: 2 Early Mocks APD Trends & More - Benched with Bubba (Episode 315)

Bubba (@bdentrek) is joined by Bat Flip Crazy (@BatFlipCrazy) to take a deeper look at the 2 Early Mocks ADP. They dig into trends, some interesting risers/fallers, and much more. They also go over some listener questions at the end to keep the Fantasy Baseball information coming even in the offseason. Be sure to subscribe... Read More