Rookie fantasy impact is always tied to the depth chart, that evil touch killer. That’s true at any position, but it seems worse at running back, often because it is worse.
Unless we’re dealing with a more dynamic player who can be frequently utilized in the passing game (think someone who’s as tools-y as Reggie Bush or Darren Sproles), any blockage on the depth chart can lead to limited returns immediately.
Consider last year’s rookie class at the position, which was led by Trent Richardson. He was the Browns’ top running back the moment he finished his Roger Goodell shug, because usually that happens when a team can justify using a top three pick on a prospect at a highly combustible position. Doug Martin followed suit after beating out LeGarrette Blount,
Beyond them, though, the production of the 2012 rookie running backs was scattered, and that’s being rather polite. Despite the enormous potential he eventually showed and will continue to show this year, David Wilson was held back by Ahmad Bradshaw and Andre Brown for much of the season. The likes of Isaiah Pead and LaMichael James (both second rounders) saw only deep and very limited reserve roles during the regular season, while Alfred Morris — easily the most successful rookie running back in 2012 with his 1,613 rushing yards, behind only Adrian Peterson — waited until the sixth round, and was initially an afterthought.
Therein lies the woefully unpredictable nature of the rookie fantasy running back. As we saw with Wilson and his fumbling, the hype train stops chugging with one wayward step.
Yes, danger lurks both on the depth chart, and deep within the inner workings of the rookie RB’s mind. In addition to the deadly disease that is fumblitis, rookie backs also often struggle in pass protection, an equally fatal flaw in a pass-driven league. Wilson quickly had both strikes against him last year, as he left Eli Manning exposed, and he fumbled on only his second career carry.
This year, we could quickly see more of the same: poor to scattered results for the top picks at the position, and a surprising emergence. The game at hand then is pegging the latter, and avoiding the former. To that I say good luck, but here’s my early (really, really early) outlook, with some predictions we can maybe laugh at later:
Giovani Bernard (Bengals): There’s a lot of possibilities and hoping among the rookie RBs, and potential explosions if everything falls just so (see: below). But Bernard has landed in a situation where he may be the best bet to go boom.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis will still steal carries and possibly vulture goal-line touches, somewhat lowering Bernard’s value. But barring a training camp evaporation, Bernard should emerge with the starting job, making him likely one of just two rookie backs (see: below…again) with sole possession of that title. That’s a mighty promising position for a running back who just averaged 6.7 yards per carry during his final season in North Carolina, and he projects as a true three-down runner.
Eddie Lacy and Jonathan Franklin (Packers): These two will likely get the most attention because of how poor the Packers’ running game was last year, and the obvious effort made through the draft to rectify that problem. Lacy’s name value will also play a role in that after he was once touted as a first-round pick before falling to Green Bay late in the second round. But this could become the proverbial three-headed monstrosity you’ll need to avoid or, at best, flex tentatively due to one man: DuJuan Harris.
Oh, he’ll be forgotten here in the late days of April. But even following the additions of Lacy and Franklin, there will still be some fight left in Harris after he averaged a fine 4.6 yards per carry during his limited touches late in the regular season. He’ll likely still enter the Packers’ offseason training activities as the leader of a committee, setting up an early-season rotation in which the hot hand is favored. The fantasy strategy is then clear: wait, don’t draft any of the three outside of a late-round flier in deep leagues, and pursue that sizzling hand on the wire.
Le’Veon Bell (Steelers): At first this has the makings of another jam up job. But then you’ll recall that the Steelers were seeking to trade Jonathan Dwyer during the draft, indicating that after selecting Bell, they’d like to move on from their one-dimensional runner who displays power, and only moderate speed.
If they do jettison Dwyer through either a trade or his release, Bell can easily knock off Isaac Redman to earn the starting job, or at worst the high side of a platoon. Wearing a cowbell is sort of his thing too, as during his final year at Michigan State he received 382 carries, easily shattering the 182 he was given in 2011. In total, his involvement in 414 plays from scrimmage led to 1,960 yards.
Given the state of their depth chart, Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley said he excepts Bell to “get into the mix and be a factor” right away. We agree, Todd. He’s easily dratable, and he could provide great late-round value, especially with his wide frame (6’1″, 244 pounds) leading to a consistent goal-line presence and scoring opportunities.
Montee Ball (Broncos): One day, Willis McGahee will break and then morph into two Willis McGahees. We shall call this new figure, McWillie Gahis.
Ronnie Hillman — who was drafted by the Broncos just last year with a third-round pick — is great and all. Really, he is, but as he showed last year when McGahee went down, he lacks the build to be effective with a heavy workload. He also meets the description of the aforementioned hybrid back who’s effective as a pass catcher in the open field, a role he’ll ideally ease into more often on passing downs this year.
Despite whatever false praise John Elway is heaping on McGahee (“he’s our big back right now“), birth certificates and medical reports present cold, hard facts. McGahee will turn 32 next October, and he’s coming off a major injury (torn ACL/broken leg). The top job is Ball’s if he can demonstrate the same combination of brute force and decent if less than spectacular burst (4.46 in the 40-yard dash at Wisconsin’s Pro day), making him another quality late-round sleeper.
I’ll hesitantly give Ball my Alfred Morris circa 2013 designation (no, he won’t duplicate Morris’ rookie year…he’ll just be the highest producing rookie running back if he moves McGahee aside), and then I’ll duck.
Mike Gillislee (Dolphins): Here’s your super sleeper special, an alteration surely used by mattress retailers worldwide. The “what ifs” and “maybe buts” are piling here, but if they fall in his favor, watch Gillislee as a possible late-season sleeper in a platoon with Lamar Miller.
To give us that Utopia, he’ll have to ensure that folowing the departure of Reggie Bush, Daniel Thomas’ slide into complete irrelevancy continues after he averaged just 3.6 yards per carry in 2012, and he’s frequently either injured or hobbled.
With his small but powerful stature (just 5,11″, and 208 pounds), Gillislee prompted pre-draft comparisons to Andre Brown. If he benches Thomas, Gillislee’s rookie season could make him the poor man’s Brown, whose waiver value this past season was pretty nice with his 80 fantasy points over just eight game appearances.