Rookie running backs are the biggest X-factors in fantasy football drafts year after year. As more NFL teams have moved to two-RB systems, it’s become harder and harder for rookie backs to emerge as fantasy forces. But in most years, some unknown rookie runners end up being great sleepers for fantasy owners. So in this post, we’ll compare the fantasy value of rookie running backs and try to uncover some hidden gems.
To do so, we’re going to use our Football Relativity comparison, with 10 being the most impactful rookie back and one being guys who barely merit making your draft board. In the comparison, we’ll note where the tiers break and what this comparison means as you put together your draft board. Also, You can read more about Jahvid Best of the Lions, C.J. Spiller of the Bills, and Ryan Mathews of the Chargers in this post. And there’s lots more fantasy analysis in the fantasy football category here on Football Relativity.
10 – Ryan Mathews, Chargers – Mathews steps into the most fantasy-friendly situation of any rookie back. All fantasy owners know that LaDainian Tomlinson thrived in San Diego for years, and now that Tomlinson’s gone, Mathews is set up to succeed. Of course, Darren Sproles is still around to provide big plays in small doses, but as long as Mathews adjusts to the pros quickly he’ll be the guy who gets the bulk of the carries and the goal-line chances. We’ve already discussed how we’re placing Mathews on Tier 2, and that makes him by far the most valuable rookie running back. We suspect 1,200 yards and 8-10 touchdowns are in the offing.
(*Mathews is the only rookie back on Tier 2, which means he is a starting running back in 10- and 12-team leagues.)
9 – none
8 – Jahvid Best, Lions – Best slipped into the end of the first round with Detroit, with Lions head coach Jim Schwartz talking highly of Best’s big-play ability. With Kevin Smith hurt, Best could get more carries early in the season than a Sproles/Leon Washington style big-play back, and with that being the case Best has a decent amount of upside. But Detroit hasn’t been a fantasy-friendly spot for running backs in recent years, and the additions the offense has made recently seem to help the passing game more than the run game. Best can catch the ball well, which may mean he has more success via the air than the ground as a rookie. He has value, but relying on him as an every-week starter is overly optimistic. Instead, Best is an ideal No. 3 fantasy back with some upside as a rookie.
7 – C.J. Spiller, Bills – Because my wife is a Clemson grad, I’ve seen a ton of Spiller’s college career, and he’s a fine player. He’s explosive as a runner, receiver, and returner, and he can carry the load between the tackles more than some might expect. But while he was the ninth overall pick in the draft, he ended up in a terrible spot for running backs. With Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch around for now (though Lynch could be cut or dealt by the opening of the season), Spiller’s chances will be limited. And even if Spiller gets carries, they will be behind a below-average offensive line with a below-average quarterback. Throw in bad Buffalo weather, and it’s clear that the cards are stacked against Spiller becoming a fantasy stud as a rookie. He’s worth a shot as a No. 4 fantasy back just because he can fill in and make one big play in any given week to make him a spot starter, but expecting more out of him this season is unwise because of the morass that is the Bills offense.
7 (con’t) – Montario Hardesty, Browns – If there’s a sleeper rookie who will be available on Tier 4 who has the upside to have a Steve Slaton-type of rookie year, it’s Hardesty, a second-round pick from Tennessee who goes into a decent situation in Cleveland. While holdover Jerome Harrison finished the season strong, he hasn’t been a reliable back through his career, and so Hardesty beating him out is at least on the table. Hardesty is a big banger who will run behind a line that features standouts in OLT Joe Thomas and C Alex Mack. Keep an eye on Hardesty’s progression through training camp, and be prepared to pounce in your draft in search of a sleeper – even if you have to do so on Tier 3.
(*Best, Spiller, and Hardesty fall on Tier 3. Best is a No. 3 running back in 10- and 12-team leagues; Spiller and Hardesty are No. 4 backs in such leagues.)
6 – none
5 – Ben Tate, Texans – Tate steps into a crowded situation in Houston, where at least three backs – Slaton, Arian Foster, and the departed Ryan Moats got shots as the No. 1 back last year. Slaton and Foster are still around, but Gary Kubiak’s unwillingness to stick with one starter means that Tate could find an opening. But it’s hard to picture Tate breaking free the way Slaton did as a rookie two years ago, which means that Tate’s probably a 2-3 game option, not a guy who could start for fantasy teams for a month or more. He’s still worth a look on Tier 4, but Tate is more of a high-risk option than Hardesty.
4 – Toby Gerhardt, Vikings – Gerhardt is a big, burly back who nearly won the Heisman Trophy at Stanford last year. But now that he’s a Viking, he’s not going to be the same kind of complement to Adrian Peterson that Chester Taylor was last season. While Taylor was a good receiver who provided a different dimension than Taylor, there’s a lot more similarity between Peterson and Gerhardt. That limits Gerhardt’s fantasy upside as a rookie. Since Peterson will be the No. 1 back without question, Gerhardt looks to be a fill-in with 10 carries or less a game. Plus, Peterson figures to get the lion’s share of goal-line carries. Were Peterson to get hurt, Gerhardt’s stock would shoot up, so he’s worth drafting for that reason – especially for Peterson owners. Gerhardt is a No. 5 fantasy back whose main upside comes if Peterson misses a game.
4 (con’t) – Joe McKnight, Jets – McKnight never completely lived up to the hype at USC, but he proved to be a versatile back with breakaway ability. With the Jets, he looks to be a good complement to Shonn Greene – a la the Thomas Jones/Leon Washington combo the Jets formerly had. Having LaDainian Tomlinson around gums up the works and could take away some of McKnight’s receiving chances this year, but McKnight has enough big-play ability that he has a smidgen of fantasy potential. McKnight is more of a fill-in than a guy who can start for fantasy teams weeks in a row, but he’s still a top 50 back.
3 – Dexter McCluster, Chiefs – McCluster will play more as a slot receiver, but since some leagues may allow McCluster running back eligibility, we’ll include him in this post. McCluster is tiny but speedy, which makes him a mini-Reggie Bush type of threat. He won’t get many carries behind Thomas Jones and Jamaal Charles in Kansas City, but McCluster could end up with 40-50 catches, and if he has RB eligibility in your league that could make him a Tier 4 back. He’s a guy worth taking a shot on in the late rounds, just to see if he can find a role.
(*Tate, Gerhardt, McKnight, and McCluster fall on Tier 4. They are all No. 5 backs in 10- and 12-team leagues. For the following backs, we note what scenarios they are draftable in.)
2 – Jonathan Dwyer, Steelers – Dwyer is a sleeper for fantasy owners, but given our lack in faith in Rashard Mendenhall as a stalwart back, we are curious to see if Dwyer emerges as a complement in Pittsburgh. Dwyer had a good college career but a bad combine season, which is why he fell into the sixth round of the NFL draft. Our hunch is that Dwyer is worth a flier as a sixth back in 12- or 14-team leagues just in case he establishes a role behind or alongside Mendenhall.
1 – Anthony Dixon, 49ers – Last year, rookie Glen Coffee looked to have the backup job behind Frank Gore in San Francisco, but Coffee’s performance when Gore was out was subpar. Now Dixon, another rookie, looks to have the shot to surpass Coffee as Gore’s backup. Given Gore’s injury history, Dixon is worth grabbing, especially for Gore owners. But we don’t see a ton of fantasy upside in Dixon because of Coffee’s presence and Gore’s dominance. He’s only draftable in 12-team leagues if you own Gore.
1 (con’t) – LeGarrette Blount, Titans – Blount wasn’t drafted, but he’s worth noting because there’s an opening in Tennessee for a complement to Chris Johnson now that LenDale White is gone. Second-year man Javon Ringer will get the first shot, but Blount has enough talent to beat out Ringer for that role. Watch how things break down in training camp to see if Blount is worth a flier in large leagues with 14 teams or more.