RotoExperts’ Jennifer Millman runs down her top 10 rookie running backs for Fantasy leagues this season, and you would be wise to heed her words.
While some rookie running backs were more highly touted than others going into the NFL draft, their Fantasy value naturally shifts depending on where they land. Now that the draft is in the books, here’s a look at my Top 10 rookie running backs for Fantasy leagues this season.
1. Giovani Bernard, Bengals, Round 2 (37th overall): Initially considered the No. 2 RB prospect going into the draft, Bernard got bumped up to the No. 1 slot after Jonathan Franklin joined Eddie Lacy in Green Bay. The plodding ways of Benjarvus Green-Ellis are well-known to Fantasy owners, and though the soon-to-be 28-year-old RB may still retain goal line and third-down duties, Bernard is the versatile, speedy and intuitive runner the Bengals have been searching for. The 5’8”, 202 pound back out of North Carolina has been compared to RBs like Darren Sproles, primarily for his quickness and pass-catching ability out of the backfield. He’s not an every-down back, and Green-Ellis is still a stronger straight-line runner, but his skill set and lack of competition for the job make him my No. 1 rookie RB, particularly in PPR leagues.
2. Le’Veon Bell, Steelers, Round 2 (48): Will Ahmad Bradshaw sign with the Steelers or won’t he? That’s the question the former Giants RB is wondering, and it’s also the factor that will determine Bell’s rookie output in Pittsburgh. Bradshaw has received full medical clearance for football activities and the 27-year-old agent still has skills, despite an injury-riddled history. The Steelers were the most vocal about their interest in him, but might not have the cap room. Signing former Cardinals RB LaRod Stephens-Howling and even drafting Bell doesn’t mean they won’t still find a way to get Bradshaw on their roster, but if they don’t, Bell instantly becomes the No. 1 RB in an offense that has traditionally relied heavily on the run – at least when it’s most successful (you’re not really afraid of Jonathan Dwyer, are you?). At 6’1” and 230 pounds, Bell catches the ball extremely well out of the backfield and is a hard runner. He’s not the fastest guy out there, but he pushes piles and can handle a full workload. If Bradshaw stays out of Pittsburgh, Bell just might get that full load – and, heads up for standard leagues, I bet he notches the most rushing touchdowns of all rookie RBs this year. Stay home, Ahmad.
3. Eddie Lacy, Packers, Round 2 (61): The shift in Lacy’s mood from when the Packers selected him 61st overall to when they drafted Franklin two rounds later likely mimicked Fantasy owners’ transition from glee to puzzlement to disappointment. Long term, it’s quite likely Lacy surpasses Bernard in terms of Fantasy value, but with Franklin chomping at his heels, his workload is unclear. He’ll obviously be the lead back and carry the ball 10-plus times a game, but how much will he get the rock if Franklin is eating into his touches and he’s on a team that has never relied on the running game anyway? So many questions. That said, the 5’11” 231-pound bruiser is a formidable downhill runner who averaged 6.8 YPC and had 17 touchdowns in his last season with Alabama. Lacy has injury issues, including a hamstring problem that may be the reason he slid to Round 2, many said his stellar production was due less to his own prowess and more to the fact he ran behind college’s best offensive line. Lacy has struggled with pass protection, and it won’t go over well if he misses blocks while charged with protecting Aaron Rodgers. His pass-catching skills aren’t great either (sorry, PPR owners), but his vision and balance are excellent. The draft shows that Dujuan Harris is no threat, and while Franklin looms, the starting job is his to lose. Given how much is up in the air with him, I have him at No. 3 among rookie RBs this year. I like him better as a Dynasty product or in standard leagues.
4. Montee Ball, Broncos, Round 2 (58): Plenty of people are high on Ball and some have the 5’10” 214-pound workhorse back out of Wisconsin ahead of Lacy on their rookie draft boards. (Obviously the Broncos did.) His durability and natural running ability are indisputable; he’s thrived in different systems and can be a three-down back in an NFL offense. But he lacks breakaway speed (ran a 4.66 at the combine) and his pass protection is weak. If there’s anything an RB needs to do to thrive – or even get significant playing time – in a Peyton Manning-led offense, it’s to protect Peyton Manning. Most importantly, Ball joins one of the most crowded backfields in the NFL. Willis McGahee may be 31 and coming off a season-ending leg injury, but he’s not dead; he was averaging 4.4 YPC before he got hurt in Week 11 and remains productive at the goal line and protects Manning well. Last week, John Elway called him the Broncos’ “big back right now,” which suggests he’s not a candidate for release just yet. Second-year man Ronnie Hillman is not good at pass protecting either, but he’s quicker than Ball and could be used as a change-of-pace back. Career bust Knowshon Moreno may be on the chopping block because of the RB glut. Although the team drafted Ball as the guy who can be on the field every down, it might take him awhile to get there – and he’ll never get there as long as Manning’s on the field if he doesn’t improve his pass protection skills.
5. Zac Stacy, Rams, Round 5 (160): It often happens that high-potential players get buried on depth charts and never get a chance to showcase their talent. That’s why opportunity is the most crucial indicator of a player’s potential Fantasy success, and why average guys are sometimes more productive than more talented players. Stacy, a 5’8” 216-pound RB out of Vanderbilt, has that opportunity. With only two second-year guys ahead of him – Isaiah Pead and Daryl Richardson, neither of whom scored a TD in their rookie years – Stacy will likely have a shot at some point to help fill the gaping void left by Steven Jackson. Coach Jeff Fischer says Pead will get a chance to do more this year (he only carried the ball 10 times last season), but the job is pretty much on the table. Stacy is short, but he’s built – outweighing both Richardson and Pead even though they’re both about two inches taller. He’s a tough runner who had a pretty good 40-time given his stockier build (4.55), and though he’s not the most elusive RB in his class, he does well finding holes, breaking tackles and keeping his balance. He’s also known for his leadership qualities, which should help his position in an RBBC situation. Stacy isn’t known as much of a pass-catcher, but his team’s light depth chart screams for Fantasy owners to give him a chance. That said, if he doesn’t distinguish himself in the offense this season, I’m off him – would show he didn’t take advantage of opportunity.
6. Johnathan Franklin, Packers, Round 4 (125): Franklin was widely considered to be the best all-around RB in the draft – and then he was drafted by the same team that drafted Lacy. The Packers might have been concerned about Lacy’s injury history; the RB skipped the combine due to a hamstring problem and has had toe issues. Or they may have been interested in what Franklin, a 5’10”, 205-pound UCLA product, can do for their oft-run spread and shotgun formations. Or maybe they just thought he was the best player on the board. Franklin is a tough call Fantasy-wise because Lacy stands in his way (example of how better talent may have less Fantasy productivity – he would’ve stolen the job if the Rams had drafted him), but he’s still a late first-round, early second-round pick in rookie-only Dynasty drafts. He went 9.07 in a brand new Dynasty draft I was involved in this week, but he was taken by the Lacy owner as insurance. As for Franklin’s upside, he’s a fast (4.49 40-yard dash) power runner who makes excellent, rapid cuts, picks up more than six yards per carry and is a superior all-around athlete who’s been compared to Frank Gore. It’s unfortunate the explosive RB will start his career behind Lacy, but if you’re willing to be patient, he’s a beyond worthy pickup in Dynasty leagues.
7. Mike Gillislee, Dolphins, Round 5 (164): Is it really Miller time? I’m not sure. Lamar Miller didn’t get much play behind Reggie Bush his rookie year. Daniel Thomas is terrible, so I wouldn’t consider him a threat, which more or less puts the 5’11”, 208-pound Gillislee at No. 2 or a high No. 3 on the depth chart from the get-go. Gillislee is a strong blocker, which usually means an immediate boost in playing time for rookie RBs. He’s an instinctive runner but not a “special” runner; he falls forward, but isn’t exactly shifty when it comes to extending runs. Some scouts have called him a “career backup,” but Thomas has a tendency to get concussed, so if Miller gets hurt, that “backup” job could quickly turn into a starting position. I’m not overly excited about him, but in a comparatively thin rookie RB draft, he’s worth a consideration.
8. Joseph Randle, Cowboys, Round 5 (151): Randle joins the Cowboys as the de facto No. 2 RB behind a frequently hurt DeMarco Murray, who spent the last three games of his own rookie year on injured reserve and missed six games last season with a foot problem. Murray’s inability thus far to play a full season is reason enough to like the 6’” 204-pound RB out of Oklahoma. Randle is a versatile back who excels in the pass-catching game and could be an immediate contributor to the Dallas offense, whether as a guy who spells Murray or the man who steps up to start if/when Murray gets hurt. He started 31 of 39 games at Oklahoma State and caught 108 balls for 917 yards and three TDs, which makes him particularly interesting in PPR leagues. He’s not an incredibly fast runner and doesn’t plow through piles like Murray, but his superior pass-blocking skills should earn him time quickly on an offense that sees its quarterback on the ground far more times a game than it should. I drafted him in a new Dynasty league as an RB6; I’m a fan of his upside and Murray owners should strongly consider taking him as a handcuff.
9. Marcus Lattimore, 49ers, Round 4 (131): Lattimore’s comeback was the story of the draft, and he likely would’ve been the first RB taken off the board if not for the gruesome knee injury he suffered in 2012. James Andrews repaired his damaged knee, and the 5’11” 221-pound South Carolina product has vowed to be even better than he was before he got hurt. But he’s going to have to be patient – and Fantasy owners who draft him will too. Lattimore enters an offense that already has Gore, Kendall Hunter and second-year man and speedster LaMichael James in the backfield and his Fantasy value will be limited, possibly for more than just one year, because of it. But if you like long-term Dynasty projects, he’s the one to pick up. Gore will turn 30 this month and won’t be around forever, and Lattimore is an elite talent who can more than take the reins when healthy. He’s powerful, a superior receiver out of the backfield and understands the intricacies of the position. Draft him, but don’t expect to use him anytime soon.
10. Christine Michael, Seahawks, Round 2 (62): Michael would have been higher on this board had he not landed on a team that already has Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin. He had an excellent Combine and is an explosive, up-field runner who has the ability to make one cut and be gone. The 5’10” 220-pound back has had injury and ball security issues and some off-field concerns (he slept through two team interviews, for one), but the Seahawks traded up to get him and Pete Carroll is a coach who can help the talented back mature. Michael lacks the receiving skills of Lynch and Turbin, but his quickness and end zone prowess make up for that, especially in standard Dynasty leagues. While Michael’s playing time may not come quickly, Lynch will be extremely expensive for the Seahawks in 2015, so when his number does get called, it could be in a big way. Solid Dynasty prospect, but don’t expect anything this year.