Checking in on the 2018 Rookie Running Backs

Around this time last season, I wrote an article about how the widely hyped 2017 rookie RB class was just beginning to make an impact. A couple of months later the NFL welcomed a second consecutive loaded class of running backs, headlined by Saquon Barkley. So has this group lived up to the hype through the first few weeks, and how does their start stack up to the class of 2017?

Obviously, the biggest rookie star this year is Saquon Barkley, who may be the most hyped dynasty rookie in history. Despite the massive expectations, Barkley has made his owners happy so far. Through the first 4 weeks, he is the RB4 in PPR leagues and averaging more than 22 points per game. The volume to support a RB1 season is there in both the passing and running game, and Barkley has regularly flashed the elusiveness and athleticism that made him the #2 overall pick.

Critics will point out that a lot of his production has been based on breaking off big plays like his 68 yard touchdown in week 1 that saved an otherwise unexciting performance. And while he has been helped by those big plays, it’s foolish to overlook them. That’s what Barkley does. He will continue to make NFL defenders look silly every week and big plays will follow. The Giants offensive line and the corpse of Eli Manning will hold him back a bit in the short-term, but the fact that he’s been this good already goes to show that all the hype was warranted.

The next two most promising rookie backs this year have been New England’s Sony Michel and Kerryon Johnson in Detroit. Michel has been eased into playing time for the Patriots, but now has 23 carries for 210 rushing yards over the past 2 weeks. There’s a reason the Patriots took him in the first round and we know the Patriots offense will be great. As long as he stays healthy, Michel has by far the best short-term situation of anybody in this class.

Johnson, like Michel, has been eased into a heavier role. In week 3 he had a season high 16 carries and became the first Lions running back since 2013 to hit the 100 yard mark. While he is still losing some touches to LeGarrette Blount and Theo Riddick, Johnson should continue to take over this backfield. His 11 receptions through 4 games suggest he may end up a true 3 down back for a team that historically loves to throw the ball.

Then in Denver, two rookies are competing for touches and fantasy points. Royce Freeman was a popular pick in both dynasty and redraft leagues thanks to incredible collegiate production, good athletic testing numbers, and a perceived lack of competition in the Broncos backfield. Undrafted Phillip Lindsay was supposed to be that previously mentioned lack of competition. Instead, he IS the competition and he’s making Freeman work for his touches.

Lindsay has been compared by some to Dion Lewis, and I actually think that fits extremely well. They are both undersized at 5’8” and about 190 pounds, and both have a reputation as a 3rd down satellite back despite being surprisingly effective and tough inside runners.

Through 4 games Lindsay has only 5 catches (less than half as many as Kerryon Johnson), but has rushed for 267 yards on 45 carries. Meanwhile, Freeman has 44 carries for 219 yards and just 1 reception. While draft capital is on Freeman’s side, Lindsay has been too effective to go away any time soon.

I don’t expect either player to take control of this backfield this year, but both should be effective flex options. In the long-term, Lindsay’s undrafted status is a big red flag. If owner’s in your league value him as highly as the productive rookies with higher draft capital such as Michel, Johnson and Freeman, I would sell.

Meanwhile in Cleveland, Nick Chubb has struggled to find the field. Through 4 games Chubb only has 10 touches (all carries). He did, however, make the most of his three week 4 carries, taking them for 105 yards and 2 big touchdowns. It was a good reminder of the potential Chubb has. He was drafted to an odd situation. Nobody trusts anything Cleveland does, and the presence of Duke Johnson and Carlos Hyde hurt Chubb’s value, as well as the perception that he was just a plodding 2 down back.

Days like last Sunday can remind us that Chubb isn’t some late round sleeper we’re all just hoping can some day break through. He’s a borderline elite RB prospect whose excellent athletic testing at the combine was overlooked thanks to Saquon Barkley’s absurd numbers. The Browns took Chubb 35th overall and may be headed for better days with Baker Mayfield at the helm. You may need to be patient, but Chubb will get his chance. If owners are impatient, he is an excellent RB prospect who I prefer to any 2019 RB at this point.

Ronald Jones and Rashaad Penny, on the other hand, have been disasters. Jones didn’t even make the Buc’s active game-day roster until week 4. And when he did he only posted 29 yards on 10 carries. To be fair, Jones is extremely young, and the Bucs offensive line has struggled to run block. But a lot of the reports from preseason and camp coupled with his inactive status help to confirm the negatives Jones had as a prospect – particularly his pass blocking and pass catching ability.

Penny has been active all 4 weeks, but that doesn’t mean he has done any better. He has carried only 29 times for just 92 yards and caught 4 passes. Former 7th round pick Chris Carson led the backfield in carries through the first 3 weeks, and when Carson went down in week 4, NFL journeyman Mike Davis led the way over Penny. These are not the kinds of players who should be keeping Rashaad Penny on the sidelines.

On the bright side, Penny’s status as a 1st round pick suggests he should be given every opportunity to prove he is the guy, and while it’s discouraging that Davis and Carson have played over him, they also shouldn’t be very stiff competition for Penny moving forward.

While Jones and Penny have been serious disappointments it’s still too early to panic. If you’re an owner, don’t sell for less than a 1st round pick in 2019. If you can buy for less, I would jump all over that.

Finally we have Derrius Guice. We won’t see Guice this season thanks to a torn ACL, but he was too good of a prospect to not be mentioned. My opinion on Guice hasn’t changed at all since the knee injury. While it hurts to lose him for this season, I would rather have Guice than any 2019 back (as well as most of the 2018 backs). If owners are worried about his knee you may be able to send out your 2019 first round pick and lock in a high level prospect.

*****

How does this class stack up to last years? 2017 will be tough to beat. Alvin Kamara and Saquon Barkley are neck and neck as truly elite dynasty assets. After that, Kareem Hunt, Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, and Joe Mixon have shown more promise than this years group. That says more about 2017 than it does about 2018. This is still shaping up to be a special group – 2017 may have just set our expectations to high.

Looking forward to 2019, running backs look like they will be much harder to come by while wide receivers will rule our dynasty rookie drafts. Don’t be afraid to target the slower starting backs from this years class if you need a young running back to build on.

 

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Eric Braun

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I grew up a die hard Washington Redskins and Penn State football fan and began playing fantasy football in 2007. I've been addicted and learning as much as I can about my favorite hobby ever since.

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