We are quickly approaching that time of the season where looking back on draft day can bring great pleasure or exquisite pain. Most of the time, it’s both. Of course, you feel great if you stole DeMarco Murray or went with Matt Ryan as your signal caller. Perhaps not so much if you spent a high pick on Todd Gurley, Odell Beckham, or Dez Bryant. It’s not time to panic on any of those three just yet, but of course the dread starts to creep in. Finding those late-round players that punch way above their weight feels great, and a lot of owners get one or two of those each season. Jordan Howard is turning into one. Jerick McKinnon, however, doesn’t look like he will.
Here are a few players who availed themselves well in Week 5, or look to be on a fast track to Touches Town as they prepare to eat into the workload of the guy ahead of them, as well as a few back sliders who I’m beginning to lose faith in game- by-game, quarter-by-quarter.
David Johnson – Not that there was any doubt, but David Johnson is a legitimate, Anton Chigurh-level badass. After piling up 180 total yards and two scores against the 49ers in Week 5, there is no doubt that Johnson is No. 1 or No. 1A in terms of top running back in the league at this point. Five touchdowns in five games, all games with double-digit point totals (and three above 20 in PPR formats). He is as big a part of the Cardinals’ offense and is an early leader for the MVP award. Johnson is going to be great for a long time.
Jordan Howard – Howard stepped up when the Bears’ presumed heir apparent for Matt Forte, Jeremy Langford, went down with an injury. He has firmly supplanted the second-year man and it’s due in large part to his ability to create extra yards, and produce yards after contact. Howard has topped 100 yards in the last two contests and with the way Brian Hoyer has looked, it seems to be his team going forward (so long, Smokin’ Jay) which is a good thing for Howard’s stock. The rookie looks good, and he should be a big part of the offensive game plan going forward. The Bears are 1-4 and on the outside looking in, plus they’re dealing with a myriad of injuries on both sides of the ball. Expect many more games with Howard earning north of 20 touches. This could eventually push him into a Mark Ingram-type of strata where his volume of work, along with the trust in all goal line packages, creates the chance for him to be a back-end RB1.
Rob Kelley – I had previously mentioned Kelley in a column a few weeks back, and I’ll reiterate after Jay Gruden went on record to say Kelley has earned more carries. After producing just 18 yards on three carries this past weekend, it’s hard to peg why now for Coach Gruden, but we’ll get into part of that reason below. Kelley is a three-down back with a lot of potential after coming out of Tulane as an undrafted free agent. He has more lateral speed and better hands than Matt Jones, and more prototypical size as compared to Chris Thompson, the Skins’ choice for mostly third down work and passing downs. Kelley has a real shot at becoming the starter by season’s end.
Matt Jones – As discussed above, Matt Jones has looked awful pretty regularly this season. He’s coming off of a 14 carry, 31 yard “effort” in Week 5 (though he did add 25 yards on two receptions). He hasn’t shown much to a coaching staff that needs to keep winning and doesn’t necessarily have much loyalty to the second-year man. Adding to that, he lost a fumble in the game and we all know how that makes coaches feel. He has two scores on the year and is averaging a decent 4.1 YPC, but the feeling is that Rob Kelley has earned more consideration. Based on evidence from the preseason, he’s a more explosive player with less of a history of fumble-itis. Hang onto Jones, but if you have a spot on the bench for Kelley as a hedge, that could be a nice stash down the stretch.
Jonathan Stewart – Cameron Artis-Payne was inactive to start the season, and he was anything but on Monday Night against the Bucs. C.A.P. ran over, around, and through the Bucs, rumbling for 85 yards on 18 carries plus two touchdowns. After missing the last three weeks with a hamstring injury, Stewart may actually return this weekend against the Saints, but at 1-4, who knows what the Panthers will do. I could absolutely see a timeshare for at least the next two games (Panthers have a Week 7 bye) as Stewart nurses himself back to health and C.A.P. continues his tryout for serious consideration to take offer for an aging and often underwhelming Stewart. Stewart should be rostered for the foreseeable future, but his grasp on the title of backfield bell cow is tenuous at best.
Jerick McKinnon – The Vikings are lights out right now, and if I told you they would be undefeated without having the services of Teddy Bridgewater and Adrian Peterson all season, and key contributors like Matt Kalil, and the disappearance of Charles Johnson as a true offensive playmaker, you would’ve laughed. But here we are. A team led by Sam Bradford is 5-0, though you might say the defense is really leading the way up north. One thing seems apparent: Jerick McKinnon is not the answer at running back. He has struggled to find room behind an admittedly less-than-healthy line (note: the Vikings signed former Pro Bowl tackle Jake Long this week), but between his poor performance Sunday (20 carries, 36 yards) and a pedestrian 3.1 YPC, Matt Asiata will continue to sap his value in red zone packages and perhaps outright. Asiata is a solid pass protector, though, he runs like a vintage Ron Dayne. He managed 55 yards on just 14 carries against the Texans and has two touchdowns in as many weeks. Another one to keep an eye on is Ronnie Hillman. Hillman sits third on the depth chart, but who knows if the Vikings might start incorporating him into the mix after the bye, really muddying things up for all who have a stake in the Vikes’ backfield. Don’t grab him yet, but keep an eye for news about how he’s used this week, and if any coaches start planting any stories about how “refreshed” he looks.