Opportunity is paramount to fantasy viability. Sometimes overt talent forcefully carves their own opportunity, other times there is a void where any baseline talent can become a fantasy starter by opportunity alone.
Looking back at 2016 team statistics, here are the NFL teams with the highest ratios of available running back carries heading into the NFL Draft:
LeGarrette Blount is the notable back off the roster. Reports have been of mutual interest in reuniting down the line. Blount has garnered minimal interest from non-New England teams in recent years. Rex Burkhead was the notable addition earlier in the offseason and his fantasy appeal shot up after being buried on Cincinnati's depth chart for a number of years with sporadic flashes. Burkhead fits the profile of a veteran who can do damage with New England after fleeting moments of an impact elsewhere earlier in his career. While the dynasty market peaked in the early Round 2-type range of rookie picks for Burkhead in trading, the buyers are generally cooling as Blount or another veteran signing is a real threat to Burkhead's 2017 projection. Plus James White and Dion Lewis will have a heavy majority of any pass-catching duties in addition to the Patriots high weekly variance of game-planning. In terms of between-the-tackles running backs, the Patriots have not drafted a back since Stevan Ridley in 2011 (No.73) and Laurence Maroney in 2006 (No.21). In the Bill Belichick era, a veteran addition appears far more likely than a splash draft pick at the position.
Eddie Lacy and James Starks, stalwart rostered running backs in recent years are both gone. Ty Montgomery transitioned to the position in 2016, logging a top-5 finish in DVOA by FootballOutsiders if he had enough qualifying touches. Surprisingly, Montgomery - the former wide receiver - was less efficient as a pass-catcher last season. Montgomery's status is one of the bigger positional points to track this offseason. From Week 14 on, Montgomery played seven games including the postseason and totaled five rushing touchdowns and five games of at least three receptions. Lacy and Johnathan Franklin were the last notable draft picks at running back for Green Bay back in 2013. Starks was a long-standing contributor from 2010 and Round 6. Green Bay's offensive line was average across the board by FootballOutsiders and near the bottom of the league in Power Success last year. With Montgomery likely a heavy contributor in the pass game (plus Randall Cobb venturing into the backfield from time to time), outside of a Christian McCaffrey or Joe Mixon type being a Packers pick, this spot is more likely a capped ceiling landing for a notable rookie selection.
Rashad Jennings is notably out of New York from their 2016 running back rotation - and that's good news as the tires came off Jennings in his twilight years and he was one of the least efficient running backs in the NFL last season. Rookie Paul Perkins was marginally better and he did not see much traction this offseason in dynasty leagues as the future lead back. Over the final month of the season, Perkins had 10 or more carries in every game and hit at least 4.5 yards-per-carry in 3-of-4 contests. The Giants' offensive line ranked similarly to Green Bay's overall in 2016, but in a different path. The Giants struggled generating big plays on the ground (No.29 in open field yards) while being above-average in Power Success and their 'Stuffed' rate. This is a sneaky spot for fantasy value in 2017. The passing game saw a notable uptick, signing Brandon Marshall, who supplants a disappointing Victor Cruz in the secondary perimeter role from last season. Paul Perkins' valuation is low enough to warrant acquisition. Like a Devonta Freeman, Perkins has enough well-rounded skills to be a lead back in a quality passing offense. Looking back at Perkins as a prospect through the lens of my Projection Model, his +45% RUSH score and +81% REC score from the Day 3 ranks is a similar profile to the likes of Ahmad Bradshaw, Jacquizz Rodgers, Joseph Randle, and other backs who have secured meaningful roles over a span of time in NFL backfields. Finding underpriced RB1 performers by my research has typically been in the redraft RB20-30 price point of ADP and the biggest values are when a veteran gets no confidence to hold the job as the team drafts a rookie running back. Freeman was in a similar situation with Tevin Coleman drafted and I project the Giants to take a running back in 2017, but outside of being a Round 1 (or early Round 2) option, Perkins is the best value play of the backfield for current year impact from the start.
Adrian Peterson is notably gone and Latavius Murray is the biggest addition to the Minnesota backfield. Murray was a lackluster starting option in Oakland, needing a significant runway to get up to speed. Without the ability to create often on his own, Murray's tepid endorsement of a 3-year, $15-million deal (with an easy out for the Vikings after 2017) is another caution sign. Despite a fringe top-10 run-blocking grade from Oakland's line in 2016, Murray was in the 20-25 range of running back ranking by efficiency. Oakland moved on and now Murray gets a bottom-3 run-blocking unit in Minnesota from a year ago. The passing game is limited as well. Murray has received even less dynasty interest in early offseason trading than Paul Perkins. Few believe the ceiling for Murray is higher than mid-RB2 numbers, fueled by volume. My projections have Minnesota with a 10% shot to draft a running back on Day 2 (they do not have a Round 1 selection) with a middle-of-the-road overall need at running back. Jerick McKinnon has failed to secure more than a mild 'change of pace' role in the Vikings backfield, even with Adrian Peterson out of the lineup in recent years. Bishop Sankey is still on the roster as an NFL fringe type name after flaming out of multiple stops already.
Oakland possesses a quality offensive line, quarterback, and overall passing game. With Latavius Murray gone, DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard - both 2016 rookies - are the 'incumbents' on the overall unproven current depth chart. The Raiders have been strong projections for a running back draft pick within the first three rounds. I project a 15-20% chance of Round 1 (No.24 overall) with 40% odds of a Day 2 pick (if not a Day 1 selection at the position). Washington and Richard fit the ancillary running back profile more than higher volume edition in the NFL. In my Projection Model, Washington's -52% RUSH score and +25% REC score, along with his 204-pound build point to a clear third down-type option if he sticks in the NFL with a relevant role. Richard has an even more slanted metric profile with -76% RUSH score and +12% REC mark from the undrafted ranks. The Raiders are the best blend of opportunity, situation, and likely Year 1 role thus far on the list.
Mark Ingram has yet to get the full high-volume treatment in New Orleans' piecemeal running back approach. Tim Hightower left for San Francisco, creating a committee opening. Daniel Lasco is the upside rostered back of note behind Ingram. Lasco's 2016 prospect profile from the Projection Model reads much the same as DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard above with -59% RUSH and -1% REC marks, pointing to a pass-centric secondary NFL role if successful. Ingram has seen more carries of late in his six-year career with 17.4, 13.8, and 12.8 totes per contest the past three seasons. However, a committee is the expectation with Ingram and the Saints system of late. Outside of seeing 10+ touchdowns on the ground (yet to happen for Ingram as tight ends and ancillary backs get routine goal line nods), the upside is capped here for Ingram or an incoming back. The exception would be an ideal pass-centric back (see Reggie Bush) where 60+ optimal targets are the projection with upside from there. While there is a buzz of Christian McCaffrey being a top-10 lock, the Saints reside at No.11 overall and would be the match to fit the upside PPR criteria above. Another would be Joe Mixon if he makes it to No.32 (Saints have New England's Round 1 selection).
Kyle Shanahan's addition creates genuine fantasy possibilities as well as the addition of underrated Brian Hoyer as the likely Week 1 starter. Carlos Hyde is the clear top back with an open opportunity for RB1 production. However, Shaun Draughn has vacated the primary backup role. Tim Hightower was signed and is a very intriguing Carlos Hyde hedge for 2017. Hightower was No.3 in FootballOutsiders DVOA at running back in 2016 and has always been a quality two-way back through the air as well. The 49ers, like Oakland, are a strong bet to draft a running back of note in the opening 4-5 rounds of the NFL Draft. Hyde has missed 14 games in his first three NFL seasons and enters a critical final season of his rookie contract. While initially blocked by Hyde and Hightower, this is a sneaky landing spot for late-season or 2018 running back production for an incoming rookie.
Like San Francisco, Pittsburgh is a long-term landing spot of consequence at running back. DeAngelo Williams is gone from 2016 and LeVeon Bell is playing under the franchise tag in 2017 (plus has been suspended and injured in the past). A rookie can step in to the primary backup role with RB1 upside if Bell were out of the lineup in 2017 with the lead role within sights in 2018 and beyond. I project 15% odds the Steelers draft a running back on Day 2 or higher and a near-lock to add a back on Day 3 if they pass early.
Danny Woodhead is the notable subtraction from the 2016 depth chart. Melvin Gordon saw upwards of 90% of the snaps in games where Woodhead was out in 2016 before missing time himself late in the season. Gordon is the clear starter, but less-than-optimal BMI back, Gordon's durabilty and multiple knee injuries already in his 2-year NFL career present opportunity for a primary backup. Branden Oliver returns from his own injury and Kenneth Farrow offers some appeal with size and lateral agility in his profile. However, both are long shots for legitimate fantasy upside for more than a game or two in succession. The Chargers are another prime candidate to land a 3-down viable back on Day 3 of a deep running back class in the draft.
While the turnover is low at 20% of available targets, both Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill's fantasy stock have taken a hit this offseason. Hill, a straight-line runner, underwhelmed in 2016 with outside-the-top-20 finishes in most FootballOutsider categories. Cincinnati's offensive line was in the average zone of run-blocking grades, making Hill an over underperformer. Hill is a free agent after 2017 and likely gone without a stark turnaround from his 3.6 and 3.8 yards-per-carry in successive seasons. Giovani Bernard is coming off a torn ACL in 2016 after missing only three games through his first three seasons and earning a second contract from Cincinnati. Bernard has overt talent, but being undersized precludes him from a heavy and consistent workload. The Bengals, like other landing spots on this list, are a forward-thinking landing spot for a prototypically-sized back in the draft. Bernard is likely to stick as the secondary option, but Hill out in 2018 paves the way for substantial early down and goal line opportunity. I project 60% odds the Bengals draft a running back by the end of Day 2 with near 100% odds of a drafted running back overall. Samaje Perine or D'Onta Foreman would be quality pairings with Giovani Bernard with their No.73 or No.116 selections if available.
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