Around this time of dynasty rookie season, dynasty players are busy reworking their initial rookie rankings based on NFL Combine results. They’re reconciling the physical and athletic traits of the rookies with their game tape and college stats. In a word, they’re coming to final conclusions about their talent.
But for fantasy football, and for that matter real football, talent isn’t always enough to guarantee fantasy production or a productive NFL career. The second half of the equation is opportunity. What teams these rookies end up playing for, and by implication their path to playing time and touches, will largely determine their projected fantasy value.
Land on the wrong team and a rookie is almost certain to drop in the rankings of the larger dynasty community. Most dynasty players will recall what happened last year to Tennesse RB John Kelly. Before the NFL Draft, his buzz was building, reaching a crescendo in April when he had a Dynasty League Football ADP of 15. But after he was drafted by the Rams and stuck behind fantasy stud Todd Gurley, he plummeted to a DLF ADP of 31.
The original idea for this post was to list the teams that would provide the biggest rankings boost to rookie RBs because of their paths to playing time and touches. But after more thought, I didn’t think this topic would be very informative. We kind of all know which teams are still in need of a RB after the big RB free agency signings.
The teams I’m talking about are the Eagles, Raiders, Buccaneers, Chiefs, and Texans (in a breaking story as I was writing this post, the Eagles acquired Jordan Howard in a trade.) All of these teams either have 2nd year backs with disappointing rookie seasons, aging veterans, overpaid veterans at the end of their deals, or journeymen at the position who can be easily pushed aside by a rookie with promise. Most of these teams also have good running games and/or good offensive-minded coaches.
So rather than belabor the obvious, I thought it would be useful to discuss a few overlooked landing spots where a promising rookie RB could find a role and become a fantasy contributor if not right away then at least in a year or two. If your favorite rookie RB gets drafted by one of these teams, you may not jump for joy, but you should consider giving him a boost in your rookie rankings.
In the Bills’ backfield in 2019 will be 31-year old LeSean McCoy and 36-year old Frank Gore. McCoy will be the starter, and he may have some gas left in the tank, but the beginning of his inevitable decline has begun, and it’s been pretty steep. In 2017 he was the fantasy RB7, rushing for 1,138 yards and 4 ypc. Last year he was the RB39, rushing for only 514 yards and 3.2 ypc. Even accounting for games he missed or was limited due to injury, that’s quite a drop in production.
Not all of the blame for this drop can be laid at the feet of McCoy. The level of play of the Bills offensive line was also a factor. It went from what some analysts considered a top 5 O-line to a bottom 5 one, largely due to the loss of Richie Incognito, Eric Wood, and Cordy Glenn. It’s true that the Bills finished as the 9th best rushing offense in 2018, but if you take out Josh Allen’s rushes mostly on scrambles (as well as the QB rushes from other teams), the Bills were the 30th best rushing offense.
McCoy’s age, durability issues (also partly related to age), and ineffectiveness should spur the Bills to draft a RB for the future. While the Bills’ offensive line woes should continue into 2019 and it may take a couple of years to rebuild it, any RB drafted by them should have a clear path to a starting role sooner rather than later.
At the start of the 2018 season, it was assumed by most analysts that the Panthers were going to employ some kind of 1A/1B backfield with Christian McCaffrey and C.J. Anderson. Whatever the exact split was going to be, another assumption was that McCaffrey wasn’t built to carry a full workload. These assumptions crumbled over the course of the season as McCaffrey continued to stay on the field and Anderson on the bench, and they were buried when Anderson was released in Week 11.
McCaffrey finished the season with 1,098 yards on 219 attempts and 867 yards on 107 receptions (a single-season NFL record for running backs.) His production with 326 total touches made him the PPR fantasy RB2, though he finished only .3 of a point behind the RB1 Saquon Barkley (and he sat out for most of the season finale.) Per Scott Fowler of the Charlotte Observer, McCaffrey played 100% of the snaps in 8 of 16 games, and 91.3% of them for the entire season.
Just about every NFL team would be concerned with that kind of workload for their star running back. But the Panthers are more concerned specifically with McCaffrey’s snap percentage than his touches. As Panthers HC Ron Rivera explained at the NFL Combine, “Him touching the ball was no concern. It was just the extra plays. So we have to look at that and find a way to take that load from him.” In short, the Panthers want to find another back in the 2019 draft class to give McCaffrey more rest, if not to lower his touches (in another breaking story as I was writing, the Panthers resigned 5th year back Cameron Artis-Payne, but he’s just another guy.)
Contrary to the usual tactic of pairing backs with different but complementary skill sets (a tough inside and goal line runner with an elusive pass-catcher, for e.g.), the Panthers actually want as close to a McCaffrey clone as they can get. As Rivera revealed, they’re looking “…for a guy who has…an almost similar type of skill set.” The logic is obvious: the Panthers could stick to their offensive game plan and avoid becoming too predictable when McCaffrey leaves the field.
If the Panthers do draft a similar back, he may just be on the team to relieve McCaffrey of playing time and not take away any touches. But if he has the talent, he could start to earn enough touches to become a fantasy bye week or even flex play. That may not sound like much, but a RB who gets on the field is better than one who’s on the bench all year waiting for an injury.
For Ito Smith believers, everything would appear to be ahead of schedule. Much like Devin Singletary this year, Smith was a game tape warrior whose jukes and jump cuts made for some entertaining cut up highlight videos. But unlike Singletary, he displayed strong receiving skills. Under the radar because he played for Southern Miss in the lightly regarded Conference USA and wasn’t invited to the NFL Combine, Smith was considered by some dynasty players to be a rookie draft 3rd round steal after he was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons. Confident that Tevin Coleman would leave in free agency after 2018, dynasty players envisioned him taking over Coleman’s role as the 1B to Devonta Freeman’s 1A in a productive Atlanta offense.
Things worked out even better than planned. Freeman sat out practically the entire season, and Smith got to be the 1B to Coleman’s 1A. For Smith believers, he showed signs of promise. One stat they tend to trumpet is that Smith got 21 red zone rushing attempts to Coleman’s 17. He also scored 4 red zone TDs compared to 1 by Coleman.
But there is cause for concern. Smith finished the year with 315 yards on 90 attempts, a lackluster average yards per carry of 3.5. There were also several games in which his average ypc was worse, as in 1.7, 1.7, 2.3, 2.8, and 3.1. Smith’s rushing inefficiency makes him vulnerable to competition. And that’s exactly what Falcons HC Dan Quinn intends to do in the 2019 NFL draft: bring in competition. At the NFL Combine, Quinn was quoted as saying: “Smith certainly has shown that he’s capable of [replacing Coleman], but…there will definitely be other guys that we put into the mix to compete with him.” If the RB they draft can beat out Smith, he could be a fantasy producer year 1, with even more upside if the injury bug bites Freeman again.
The 1.01 in many rookie drafts in 2017, the Leonard Fournette experience has been a rollercoaster ride for dynasty owners. In his rookie year, Fournette ran for 1,040 yards and 9 TDs and caught 36 passes for 1 TD, finishing as a fantasy RB1, the RB9. But in his 2nd year, the bottom fell out. Just like he did in college, Fournette battled a hamstring injury all year. And then he embroiled himself in a number of discipline issues, including running onto the field and throwing a punch during a game with the Bills, an altercation with a fan in Tennessee, and an unengaged attitude while sitting on the bench during the team’s final game that alienated the Jags front office.
In January, Fournette sat down with the Jags front office to clear the air and talk about his future with the team. But Fournette’s injury history and personality puts him on thin ice. The Jags have already cleared out their backfield by letting Carlos Hyde, TJ Yeldon, and Corey Grant test the market in free agency (Hyde has signed with the Chiefs, but the other two are still unsigned.) Drafting a RB is clearly on the Jags’ agenda, and the volatile situation in Jacksonville could reap huge rewards for dynasty players if they grab that same RB in their rookie drafts and Fournette ends up falling through the ice.
In yet another breaking story as I was writing, Lions HC Matt Patricia reportedly suggested that the team might limit Kerryon Johnson’s touches next year. He said, “[RBs] are in those situations a lot where their bodies are taking some pounding so you want to be conscious of how many plays they’re getting, especially early on in the year.” Basically Patricia validated the main reason I included the Lions on this list.
Johnson seems to get hurt a lot with an injury history going back to high school. He had surgery to repair his shoulder in high school and a second shoulder surgery after his freshman year at Auburn. He suffered an ankle injury his sophomore season, and in his last season at Auburn he played through shoulder, rib, and hamstring injuries. In his rookie season with Detroit, he was put on IR after suffering a knee injury in late November.
A rookie RB could find himself pressed into action early in his career in a backup role to Johnson. But there’s another reason the Lions would be a decent landing spot, especially for a change-of-pace, 3rd down back. Theo Riddick is in the last year of his 2nd contract, and he’s due $4.625 million. Though there’s no indication the Lions will cut him to save over $3 million in cap space (he has a dead cap hit of almost $1 million), it is likely that they will bring in a cheaper rookie to prepare for Riddick’s departure in free agency. Furthermore, Abdullah is no longer there and when has anyone ever said, “he’s stuck behind Zach Zenner.”
These 5 NFL teams are promising landing spots for rookie RBs that have been overshadowed by other teams in more desperate need of a starting RB. If a RB gets drafted by one of these 5 teams, dynasty players may want to take a second look at their profiles and consider bumping them up their rankings.