The running back position bounced back as a whole in 2016 compared to the overall performance in 2015. That doesn’t mean that some running backs did not disappoint, however, and that provides the fantasy community with some bounce-back candidates heading into 2017.
Thomas Rawls: Seattle Seahawks
Thomas Rawls was a trendy name during draft season in 2016 thanks to averaging 5.6 yards per carry during his rookie campaign in 2015. Last season wasn’t nearly as productive for him, as he averaged just 3.2 yards per carry and was limited greatly by injury. With the brief emergence of C.J. Prosise last season and the offseason addition of Eddie Lacy, it appears that there is little room to Rawls to make an impact this season.
Upon digging a little deeper, however, Rawls is worth a late round flier for his bounce-back potential. His current price tag is a late pick in the ninth round, according to fantasyfootballcalculator.com, meaning his draft capital won’t derail fantasy teams even if he doesn’t deliver.
Additionally, the signing of Eddie Lacy isn’t a death knell to Rawls’ workload. Since average 18.93 carries per game in 2016, Lacy’s per game carry totals have been 15.37, 12.46, and 14.2 from 2014 to 2016 respectively. In today’s NFL, those totals aren’t out of the ordinary, but they also aren’t numbers of a back who will take over the backfield of a team to the detriment of all other runners. C.J. Prosise has already exhibited injury and durability concerns, and the skills that Prosise and Rawls possess wouldn’t lend to a competing role even if Prosis remains healthy.
Given the early comments from Seattle’s camp, team context should also work in favor of Rawls this season. As a team, the Seahawks have run the ball less each of the past three years, as their rush attempts per season have gone from 32.7 to 30 to 25.7 from the 2014 to 2016 respectively.
If in fact the Seahawks commit to running the ball 30 times per game once again, Rawls can reasonably expect to see a floor of 12 carries per game even if Lacy were to supplant him as the primary running back. With a return of health and efficiency, that makes him enough of a bounce back candidate to spend a late-round flier on.
Todd Gurley: Los Angeles Rams
Volume saved Todd Gurley owners last season, and based on the offseason additions, or lack thereof, that should remain the case heading into the season. Not only did Gurley carry the ball 278 times last season, but he also increased his targets from 21 to 57 from 2015 to 2016. He was plenty involved in the offense, but for a bounce-back season, his efficiency must improve.
Gurley’s yards per carry dropped from a very solid 4.8 in 2015 to a miserable 3.2 in 2016. He also found the endzone much less frequently, leading to a disappointing season. However, things could be looking up for Gurley as the Rams signed Andrew Whitworth to bolster their offensive line in the offseason. This is a move that will strengthen their line for both pass protection and to create creases in the run game.
In addition, Sean McVay was tabbed head coach after the departure of Jeff Fisher. McVay has had previous success in Washington and should be able to make the offense more efficient overall, even if it doesn’t resemble the “Greatest Show on Turf.”
Two key factors for success are solidly in favor of Gurley succeeding this season. The first is volume, which fantasy owners should be confident in given past seasons and the Rams lack of additions at the position. The second is Gurley’s ability to put up excellent fantasy numbers, an ability he displayed his rookie season of 2015.
The only thing left is for Gurley to be a part of a more efficient offense that will give him the chance to punch the ball into the endzone more frequently and pick up chunks of yards with greater frequency. With a more creative mind calling the shots on offense, this is a distinct possibility in 2017, making Gurley a strong bounce-back candidate.
Lamar Miller: Houston Texans
Lamar Miller got serious buzz after leaving Miami as he was expected to be an every-down workhorse back for the first time in his career. That workload did come from work running the ball as Miller set a new season high carry total by 52 carries.
The rest of his stat line was lacking in two key ways. First, Miller traded volume for efficiency. Despite recording 52 carries more than he did in 2014, he rushed for 26 fewer yards and three fewer touchdowns. Second, Miller saw his targets in the passing game drop by 12 and 17 respectively from the 2016 and 2015 seasons. When he did get the ball as a receiver, he averaged just 6.1 yards per catch, the lowest of his career.
The most obvious explanation to these shortcomings was the terrible play of quarterback Brock Osweiler. Not only could defenses focus on stuffing the run, but Osweiler averaged just 5.8 yards per attempt. That had a clear negative effect on the entire Texans’ offense, and Miller was no exception.
The offseason has been productive in that regard for the team, as they both unloaded Osweiler and brought in promising rookie DeShaun Watson. While Watson is unproven at the NFL level, he presents the chance that there is an improvement in the Texans’ offense.
The other explanation is that Miller doesn’t have the size to be a workhorse back. Miami always limited his carries, much to the chagrin of fantasy owners, but he always remained an efficient runner while on their team. Just like the quarterback position, the Texans addressed this concern in the offseason through the NFL Draft with the selection of D’Onta Foreman. Foreman is a big back who should be able to lighten the burden on Miller’s workload, with the hope that his efficiency returns.
Foreman may be discussed most frequently as a negative for Miller’s value, but he may be the perfect compliment to help Miller return to the form fantasy owners have expected. That said, the pieces are in place for Miller to return to his previous efficiency, and that makes him a strong candidate for a bounce-back performance in 2017.