Week One Fantasy Outlooks for Rookie Running Backs
Should you start or sit rookie RBs in Week One?
We all engage draft season after long hours of statistical research and analysis. We’ve memorized the numbers, the Average Draft Positions, evaluated the position battles, examined the potential workloads and made our projections. We think we know what we know. The pre-season lollygagging and half-hearted game flow and snap counts are over and the real games are about to begin and everything changes. All of a sudden there is an opponent across from our players on the screen and doubts about seemingly everything start to creep in. Is Royce Freeman really as good as I thought when I drafted him in the fourth round?? Is Andrew Luck going to be the stud I fooled myself into believing? Why did I rely on Patrick Mahomes as my lone QB?? The questions are endless and with five to 10 Fantasy lineups to set, my mind is spinning like a top. Welcome to Week No. 1 in the Fantasy Football season. It is Fantastic.
Rookies are where my doubts are the strongest, and that’s where I am going to focus in week one of “Trending and NoteWorthy.” There is a learning curve for rookies and coaches and coordinators have to gain comfort and confidence in them. We have seen entire seasons ruined because a rookie running back struggled with blitz pickups or a wide receiver or quarterback couldn’t master the playbook. We don’t have a front row seat in meeting rooms to know how these situations are developing and what kind of usage we will see opening week. So I looked at 2017 to see what types of rookie players are more likely to receive the opportunities needed to potentially contribute. Week One is a very different animal than Weeks five through 10 or 12 through 15.
Here are some facts from 2017.
* Only four rookie running backs were Top 10 rushers and only six finished Week One in the Top 30.
* Only two rookies had 20 carries or more, and only three had 13 or more (Leonard Fournette and Dalvin Cook among them)
* Two rookies finished Week One in the Top 20 in receiving yards (Kareem Hunt - Cooper Kupp)
* NONE had 100 rushing yards or more.
* Four rookies had five catches or more, and there were zero 100-yard wide receivers.
* Only five rookies scored touchdowns in Week One. Kareem Hunt/Cooper Kupp/Kenny Golladay/Tarik Cohen/Bennie Fowler. Cooper Kupp was the only rookie wide receiver that was drafted as a potential starter and Hunt the only running back. If you considered Tarik Cohen relevant, then Cohen, Kupp and Kareem Hunt were the only rookies that remained relevant for the entire season of that group. Kenny Golladay never became a consistent contributor to Fantasy teams and wasn’t drafted to be a starter, but was more of a late-round flier.
Based on Week One of the 2017 Fantasy season, the running backs most likely to have an impact in their openers were those that caught the ball out of the backfield and could make plays in space: Players like Tarik Cohen and Christian McCaffrey. Rookie running backs in committee situations struggled to carry the ball between the tackles or receive enough opportunities to grind out a solid Week One living and most of them did not make up the difference in the passing game. Even Alvin Kamara struggled opening week. He did have Mark Ingram to contend with and competition for targets obviously matters.
The exceptions to this generic rule were the elite, uncontested run-first backs (Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook and Kareem Hunt) and running backs that made plays in the passing game (Christian McCaffrey and Tarik Cohen).
Here are a few rookies for 2018 with their Week One outlooks
Saquon Barkley, New York Giants
He ticks all of the Week One boxes. He has an elite skill set and can run between the tackles and catch the ball out of the backfield. He is essentially uncontested for touches and will play in a scheme that plans to run the ball extensively with new offensive linemen. I could have stopped at “elite skill set,” but the rest is some enticing gravy for them Fantasy biscuits.
Status: Must-Start RB1
Rashaad Penny, Seattle Seahawks
Penny has the skill set and body type to be a three-down running back who can bust big plays and grind out 25 carries between the tackles. But he isn’t as polished as Barkley and he isn’t currently as good in the passing game. He was an early preseason darling who has lost some luster.
Penny isn’t an explosive pass-catcher like Christian McCaffrey or Tarik Cohen and he isn’t the unchallenged number one running back in Seattle (Chris Carson heads the depth chart and it’s presumed he will receive the most carries). This scenario is the kind that often results in mediocre Week One performances from rookies. Penny’s value should develop as the season progresses, but right now he is a low-percentage play.
Ronald Jones, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Jones has explosive speed and playmaking ability, but he isn’t a great pass-catcher and he is on the smaller side of acceptable for a three-down, between-the-tackles running back. Devonta Freeman entered the league with a similar skill set and similar concerns.
Jones is another second-fiddle rookie in a committee situation who doesn’t have the pass-catching ability to overcome what projects to be a limited workload opening weekend. He was miserable in pre-season. Peyton Barber is the man in Tampa Bay for the foreseeable future and definitely on opening day.
Status: Resounding SIT
Sony Michel, New England Patriots
Michel has the explosive, pass-catching skill set that Fantasy owners want from a rookie running back in the first game of the season. He isn’t quite Christian McCaffrey as a runner yet and he is less of a pure playmaker than Tarik Cohen, two running backs that had RB2 caliber starts to the 2017 season. But he has a nice mix of their skills.
He won’t be a three-down running back, he is in a committee behind Rex Burkhead and potentially even James White, and he has injury concerns. All of these factors combined with the unpredictable way that Bill Belichick distributes opportunities to running backs makes Michel a safe, conservative SIT for Week One.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Michel receives six to 10 targets and turns them into 60-80 yards from scrimmage and four or five receptions. Tarik Cohen wasn’t on Fantasy radars and didn’t start for anyone in Week One last season, but in hindsight he should have. Michel shouldn’t start in anything but the deepest of leagues yet, but he could finish the game, making us all regret that call on Tuesday morning.
Status: SIT, But a Hindsight Regret
Kerryon Johnson, Detroit Lions
Johnson ticks none of the opportunistic boxes Fantasy owners should be looking for from a Week One rookie. He isn’t explosive enough in the passing game to turn dump-offs into chunks of yardage and it’s unlikely that he carries the ball like a bellcow running back would.
Johnson is a running back that should eventually be the Lions’ primary running back, but until he puts all of his skills to productive use, he should be monitored and not started.
Status: Tempting Flex in Deeper Leagues, SIT.
Royce Freeman, Denver Broncos
Freeman profiles as a standard, full-time, primary workload running back and with the exception of Saquon Barkley, who is the elite standout rookie at the position this year, he could be the best Fantasy rookie of this class. But he doesn’t profile as an impact runner in Week One.
He doesn’t figure to be a McCaffrey or Cohen type target or playmaker in the passing game and he isn’t the uncontested full-time rusher for the Broncos. Freeman has been named the Broncos’ number one on the depth chart, but Devontae Booker will receive a share of the carries and he could squeeze him out on third down.
Most experts are ranking Freeman as a Start and he is a viable Flex option, but he is the type of rookie in a situation that doesn’t profile well early in the season, especially opening Sunday. He should earn RB2 status by Weeks Four or Five, but early on the Broncos staff is going to have to prove to Fantasy owners that the opportunities will be there to deserve a Must-Start rating. I understand if owners feel like they drafted Freeman too high to sit him, but the circumstances are challenging in Week One.
Status: Viable Flex or Sit.
Nyheim Hines, Indianapolis Colts
Hines has the explosive pass-catching skill set to be this year’s Tarik Cohen in the early going. He lacks the size to carry a consistent workload between the tackles, but he is a good change-of-pace back. He can make plays in the passing game and he could be a playmaker in space and on third downs. He isn’t a player that deserves to start outside of very deep leagues, but like Tarik Cohen circa 2017 and potentially Sony Michel this season, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Flex worthy performance in Week One.
Status: SIT, but A Hindsight Regret
Jordan Wilkins, Indianapolis Colts
Wilkins profiles more like a primary, between-the-tackles running back than teammate Nyheim Hines and he has more explosive, upside potential than veteran Marlon Mack. With Mack possibly available to play in Week One there isn’t a shiny path to Fantasy relevance this week for Wilkins. If Mack’s injuries linger or Wilkins plays well enough to push him aside he could earn RB2 status, but in Week One he is likely going to need a touchdown to be relevant. He should be owned or monitored while he earns opportunities and becomes more Fantasy productive. By week Six or Seven he could be a must-start Flex and if it becomes a breakout year, he will be a RB2.
Status: Sit and Monitor
Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns
Chubb is another very talented, all-around rookie runner that doesn’t profile to be a primary contributor on opening weekend. He is in a committee situation that will prevent him from receiving enough carries to make an impact rushing the ball and he doesn’t have the pass-catching skill set to add easy yards in the passing game. He will be competing for opportunities with Carlos Hyde in the running game and Duke Johnson Jr. in the passing game. Eventually, he should earn a share between the tackles and potentially earn some third down opportunities.
Status: Sit but Monitor.
Intriguing Options to Watch
Jaylen Samuels, Pittsburgh Steelers
What I love most about Samuels is that he is a pass-catcher and a potential playmaker who will line up as a running back, as a tight end or as a wide receiver and qualifies as both a running back and tight end in Yahoo Leagues. Samuels has a chance to scoop up four or five, and potentially as many as 10 of what should have been Le’Veon Bell’s targets and he can be slotted as a tight end. Thanks to Yahoo for your “friendly” position eligibility settings. He needs to be owned early to see how the Steelers utilize him. He could be a huge steal.
Trenton Cannon, New York Jets
I like Cannon’s all-around explosiveness and pass-catching profile combined with how little I respect any of the other Jets running back options. He doesn’t have what it takes to supplant either of them as a three-down back in 2018, but his all-around skill set could provide enough snaps to be a Flex or deep league relevant running back.
He isn’t anywhere close enough to the radar to demand a bench spot in most leagues before Week One, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see 60-80 total yards from scrimmage and blurbs in next week’s waiver wire columns across the Fantasy media. I suggest you own him in case I am right and if the touches aren’t there then he is an easy cut prior to Week Two.
Justin Jackson, Los Angeles Chargers
There isn’t much room for opportunities until Austin Ekeler gets hurt or gets out of town, but a younger, potentially better all-around target like Jackson could eventually take over as the change-of-pace running back and third down target in space, Scatbacks don’t need the bulk of opportunities to be viable, especially in deep leagues and Jackson is a skill set that is floating in the abyss that could sneak into relevance once he comes off the practice squad.
You can follow me on Twitter @CJMitch73.
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