It is no longer a brave new world of running back-by-committee as fantasy football players long ago should have come to terms with the seismic shift in the NFL towards the passing game. Still, two drafts in a row with no rookie runners taken in the first round is hard to grasp. The shift is less about incoming talent and more the disposable nature of the athletes in the position and the reality that impact backs can be found almost anywhere in the draft. Still, many early-round picks in 2013 had an immediate impact including Giovani Bernard, Montee Ball, Eddie Lacy and Le’Veon Bell.
In many leagues the long-range prospects of a running backs are just as important as his year-to-year stats. Fantasy owners are not only building this year’s winner, they are looking to assemble a monster that will terrorize their leagues for years to come. Keeping that in mind, here are a few of this years’ most promising rookies and how they might benefit owners in both the short and long-terms.
Bishop Sankey – 2nd round and 54th overall pick to Tennessee Titans.
Sankey is arriving at just the right time as the Titans have problems to solve at both the quarterback and running back positions. Quarterback and fellow Washington Husky Jake Locker has yet to live up to expectations of an eighth overall pick, is coming off season-ending Lisfranc foot injury, and is coming to the end of his rookie contract, meaning there are questions if he will be a Titan this time next year. Behind him are untested former SEC quarterbacks Charlie Whitehurst, Tyler Wilson and Zack Mettenberger. In other words, the Titans will be a run-first team.
At running back, Chris Johnson is gone to the Jets and this years possible starter, Shonn Greene, is coming off injuries that only allowed him four touchdowns last year. Dexter McCluster has been added to the roster but he will serve mostly as a punt returner and all-around offensive wild card.
Short-term Impact: Bishop Sankey has a good chance to start training camp second on the depth chart and go on to begin the season at number one. He broke Corey Dillon’s rushing record at Washington while proving he could catch the ball, will be running behind an upgraded offensive line, and has running-minded Ken Whisenhunt as his coach. Everything is in place for Sankey to reward owners’ trust from day one.
Long-term Impact: Sankey is somewhat light at 209 pounds and may need to bulk up to have a longer career, but he has a golden opportunity to make an immediate fantasy impact and follow in Chris Johnson’s footsteps.
Carlos Hyde – 2nd round and 57th overall pick to San Francisco 49ers.
The 49ers already have plenty of backups for Frank Gore including Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James, and last year’s draft pick Marcus Lattimore, yet Hyde has a great chance to quickly move up the depth chart. Gore is still one of the leagues’ best and most consistent, but at 31 who knows how long he can keep it up. Beyond him, Kendall has disappointed, James looks like a return specialist, and Lattimore will try to come back from serious injuries that might end his career before it begins. The door is open for Hyde.
What Hyde brings is a big frame and consistent yards-per-carry. He can be compared to Denver’s Montee Ball as he lacks breakaway speed but will consistently grind out yards every time he touches the ball. Lucky for him, the 49ers are a seasoned team with an offense built to keep defenses off-balance, and anyone running the ball for them will have plenty of opportunities to gain yards and score points.
Short-term Impact: the 49ers need a change-of-pace back for Frank Gore and all eyes should be on Hyde. Assuming Gore stays healthy, Hyde will have to wait to make a significant fantasy impact. Still, there should be opportunities for points each week.
Long-term Impact: it is worth repeating: Gore is 31 and at that age fantasy football owners need a backup plan. If Gore goes down the next man up will be starting for one of the league’s elite offenses and have an open path to a productive career. The rookie out of The Ohio State University- and his fantasy owners- could all find themselves in a valuable position.
Jeremy Hill – 2nd round and 55th overall pick to Cincinnati Bengals.
The Bengals are not a one running back team, which is where the rookie from LSU comes in. Last years’ early round bet on Giovani Bernard has payed off nicely for the Bengals, and now the team has to decide if it is worth keeping BenJarvus Green-Ellis as Bernard’s backup. Two reasons Jeremy Hill might quickly overtake Green-Ellis: Law Firm disappointed in his backup roll last year and his services carry a hefty price tag. The league being what it is, Jeremy Hill could have Green-Ellis’ job before the season is through.
Hill has a few downsides. He has had legal troubles, including a sexual assault in high school and altercations in college. As a result, he is on probation until July of next year. Physically, he is a slow runner, but at 233 pounds he is able to power the ball for consistent yards and is good in pass protection. Paired with the smaller and faster Bernard, Hill can make an effective change-of-pace back.
Short-term Impact: the Law Firm has not closed up and left town yet. Green-Ellis is still a viable back and will use Hill as motivation to keep himself on the roster. But if the Bengals decide they can get the same production for rookie money, Jeremy Hill will be the guy and will find himself a valuable cog in an above-average offensive engine. If he can find the field sooner rather than later, Hill should be good for several points a game for fantasy football owners.
Long-term Impact: Giovani Bernard has the look of a stud running back and Hill should be happy, for now, to be his backup. But everyone knows it is a next-up league and any number two can be number one in a flash. Even if Bernard sticks around for multiple seasons a good one-two tandem can provide consistent points for owners, and if Hill can prove himself in Cincinnati he could quickly find top-billed success at another team down the line.
Devonta Freeman – 4th round and 103rd overall pick to Atlanta Falcons
Do not let the fourth round pickup of the rookie from Florida State deceive; he is in one the best running back situations in the league. The legendary Steven Jackson leads the team but, at 31 and with nagging injuries, the home for retired future Hall of Famers awaits. Next is Jacquizz Rodgers, the diminutive Oregon State speedster who was supposed to disappear between the tackles but instead has just disappeared with a 3.6 YPC average so far in his career.
So Devonta Freemen has a good opportunity to be an immediate contributor, and more. Assuming Rodgers keeps underperforming, Freemen should have no trouble becoming Jackson’s change-of-pace back and counting on Jackson’s viability right now is a bit like playing blackjack in Vegas: a decent chance at winning in the short term but ultimately the house odds catch up. Steven Jackson will likely be out of the league within a year or two and Freemen could be in the perfect position to take over.
Short-term impact: as the main running back for the National Champion Seminoles, Freemen knows winning. He could easily walk into the Georgia Dome and begin producing points from game one. If Steven Jackson stays healthy, Freemen’s fantasy value will be low, but one wrong step and Freemen will have the chance to take over.
Long-term impact: Devonta Freemen could turn out to be the best long-term prospect from this year’s rookie running back class. Not to overemphasize the point, but Steven Jackson is likely not long for the NFL and Jaquizz Rodgers has little chance of being next man up. Assuming Freemen proves himself right away, he could be a fantasy football stud for years to come.
Commentary by Andrew Elfenbein