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Advice for April Rookie Dynasty Drafts: Part II, Running Backs

Matt Waldman shares his rookie running back choices that are best investments for the unique nature of April dynasty drafts. 

If you read Part I on quarterbacks, skip this section titled "Running backs". Otherwise, read on because if you're in a league where you don't have that landing spot data before making your picks, you need to think about the draft a little differently.


Advice for Dynasty League Rookie Drafts Pre-NFL Draft: Part II, Running backs

Welcome to the frontier. If your dynasty league picks rookies before the NFL Draft, that’s where you are. I applaud you for having the stones to pick players without a landing spot.

There aren’t many players with the skills to transcend their landing spot. So unless you are sold lock, stock, and smoking barrels on a specific player’s talent  (Ezekiel Elliott for me at this time last year), you need at least a basic plan tailored for each phase of the draft. Even if your rookie drafts take place after the NFL’s selection weekend, this series of four articles will help you identify players at each position who can help you formulate a strategy with a level of risk that suits your style.

The Basics

After splitting the draft into the typical three phases of early, middle, and late rounds let’s categorize the type of talents that will likely be available in each:

Early Round Types (Rounds 1-2, and possibly the 3rd round in rookie drafts with at least 9 rounds)

  • Transcendent: Prospects with enough versatility to pay in any scheme early on. There aren’t many of them in any draft, and it’s even rarer to find them after the early rounds.
  • Only a Dysfunctional Organization Screws This Up: Prospects with great talent, but their style or skill is specialized to a specific type of system. Although these players have more limitations than transcendent talents, they are often as productive when paired intelligently with a scheme that maximizes their talents. Sadly, there are organizations that screw this up. When it happens, heads roll but these prospects often get left behind in the transition because a new scheme or coaching regime may not be the best fit.
  • Name Brand: Prospects with a strong resume bullet points that NFL front offices use to justify early-round picks, including prototypical height-weight-combine data, big-name college program, few health issues, and strong statistical production.
  • Great Athlete: Prospects with elite physical attributes for their respective positions but limited technical skills and/or flaws that early on could restrict them to a narrow role, at best.

Mid-Round Types (Rounds 3-5, depending on the size of the draft)

  • Great Athlete: See above.
  • Off-Brand Name, Talented Game: NFL front offices like early-round picks that have justifiable resume points of the Name Brand types, but these players lack one or more of these bullet points despite possessing the talent and skill of future starters.
  • Off-Field Issues: Prospects with Early-Round talent but off-field risks.
  • Health Concerns: Talents with starter potential but could be 1-2 years away due to recent injuries.
  • Over Achieving Technician: Prospects with greater football skill than athletic talent but enough physical skill to play in the NFL.

Late Round Types (Rounds 6-9, depending on the size of the draft)

  • Great Athlete: See above.
  • Off-Brand Name, Talented Game: See above.
  • Off-Field Issues: See above.
  • Health Concerns: See above.
  • Over Achieving Technicians: See above.

When you sort players by categories of risk, it will help you identify contingency plans or mid- and late- round values. This article will cover early-round picks of each type and some mid- and late-round contingencies if the desired early picks are gone or you aim for value.

The profiles below are neither scouting reports nor an inclusive list. For an exhaustive look at 22 quarterbacks and 136 other skill prospects, including rankings, tiers, scouting reports, and breakdowns you won’t see anywhere else, download the 2017 Rookie Scouting Portfolio.

You can take the tour of the RSP here:


Running Backs

Times have changed for this position. The depth and range of talent in the 2017 running back class earns comparisons to the rich 2008 class that included Matt Forte, Ray Rice, Chris Johnson, Rashard Mendenhall, Jonathan Stewart and Jamaal Charles.

At that time, many thought that the slam-dunk options were Mendenhall and Darren McFadden, gap-style, downhill runners. Backs like Johnson, Charles and Rice had doubters that they could be anything more than scatbacks.

Fast-forward to 2017 and the changes with NFL offenses have flipped the script. Scouts consider the smaller, versatile Christian McCaffrey the safest pick at the position, and the gap-style banger Leonard Fournette is now a “fit-based talent” with question marks.  

More than any skill position, talented running backs are the cream that rises to the top regardless of draft stock. Whether you invest with patience or create a surplus for trade value, this is a position where it pays to choose plentifully every stage of the draft.

Here are notable options in the early, middle, and late stages that could help you decide when to go strong at the position and when to look elsewhere.

Early Rounds

Transcendent

Christian McCaffrey: Stanford’s do-everything runner reminds me of Brian Westbrook, a two-time Pro-Bowl back with 4020 yards from scrimmage and 23 touchdowns between 2006 and 2007. Like Westbrook, who earned 2550 of those yards and 14 of those scores on the ground, McCaffrey is an underrated runner between the tackles. The only thing McCaffrey doesn’t do at a high level is pass block, and he’s so talented as a receiver that he’ll be regarded as a primary option on passing downs. With the proliferation of spread offenses and hybrid players, McCaffrey offers the widest range of skills at the highest level of talent among the running backs in this class. He’ll thrive anywhere, and it makes him the safest prospect in this draft class.

 

 

 

 

Joe Mixon: Mixon could fall to the middle rounds of the NFL Draft, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s taken in the second or third round. With an ADP already in the 1.07 range, Mixon could become an early first-round pick by May. His all-around skills and physical dimensions are reminiscent of Matt Forte, although not as smart as Forte between the tackles. Even so, his ability is top-five in this running back class. It means don’t play yourself overthinking Mixon because of his off-field issues—either value him as an early first-round pick because of his potential as an every-down back in any scheme or don’t expect to land him later.    

 

 

Only a Dysfunctional Organization Screws This Up

Leonard Fournette: The star from LSU needs a gap or man scheme to thrive.  These run-blocking schemes run plays like power, counter, toss, and trap. These plays mesh well with backs that hit creases hard and fast with a downhill start. This is the strength of Fournette’s game. Ask him to slow down and change direction in dramatic fashion near the line of scrimmage—a common requirement for runners in zone-blocking schemes—and it gives the defense an advantage. With notable exceptions, gap-scheme runs work best with a fullback from the I-formation.

Not as many teams run a gap-heavy scheme as they did 10 years ago which is the reason Fournette has the label of a “fit-based talent.” However, Fournette is so good when paired with this style of offense it’s difficult to imagine that an organization will try to force mold him to the scheme instead of the other way around. Sadly, we’ve seen teams do this before with players and it’s why Fournette isn’t the safest pick despite earning a 1.01 ADP in many rookie dynasty leagues. Fournette’s upside is every bit as good as any rookie in this class, but the potential misfit with a scheme presents greater downside than most want from an option at 1.01.

 

 

 

 

Samaje Perine: Mixon’s teammate is my bet as the potential bargain back of the early rounds. The most powerful runner of this class—and several recent classes—Perine has that Michael Turner-Jamaal Anderson strength that melts the impact of defenders the way a pat of butter disintegrates when it hits a cast-iron skillet.  Perine played heavier than he should have last year, but he lost the weight for the NFL Combine and tested in a range that matches his phenomenal freshman and sophomore tape. Perine is nifty enough to run zone and quick enough to hit gap blocking hard, which makes him a little more versatile as a runner than Fournette. However, running from a shotgun base wouldn’t be the ideal scenario for Perine’s fantasy prospects. If Fournette and Mixon make you nervous, trading back for Perine at the end of the first or early second could be a smart move.

Great Athlete

D’Onta Foreman: The Texas Longhorns starter played at 250 pounds and flashed serious speed on the field. Then, to add validation to the film, he cut 13 pounds to reach Jeremy Hill-like dimensions before the combine and ran a 4.45-second 40-yard dash. When filtering all the responsibilities out of a running back’s job that goes beyond him carrying the football, Foreman is a serious talent. However, you can’t ignore poor ball security. Foreman put the ball on the turf once every 74.3 touches at Texas. It’s a rate commensurate with a part-time contributor when the studying ball security of NFL starters (see the 2017 Rookie Scouting Portfolio for more).

Another contentious issue with Foreman is pass protection. Ask the football media about running back pass pro and you’ll get a wide range of answers about how they grade. I know analysts that believe that basic effort to try to do the job is all that matters because they’ll learn the skills in the NFL.

The problem with that idea is that you’ll never know how much of a learning curve that player has when he sets foot into an NFL facility. Is he a summer away from developing into a trusted passing-down back? A year? Two years? Not helpful.

Then there are entities that grade pass protection, but you don’t know if the graders are calibrated with the process—do analyst A and B understand and interpret the criteria for grading pass blocking the same way, and do they grade consistently?  They may not even define their process in enough detail—if they make it public in the first place.

Others may not use criteria that grades players based on desired techniques that will be needed in the NFL and lean too much on the results in the college game. Foreman prevented defenders from reaching the quarterback at a high enough rate to be considered “good” at Texas, but he faltered when he faced NFL-caliber athletes with high-end skills. Having technique that translates to the NFL game is important and he doesn’t have that in his game at this time.

I post the criteria for my RSP grades in a glossary. Based on that process, Foreman is not yet fit to handle pass protection on a consistent basis in the NFL because of these gaps in his technique.

He drops his head into contact, which forfeits any potential leverage he could obtain and it tips off his intentions. He also leads with his forearms and pads more often than his hands, which makes it harder for him to steer a defender away from the quarterback. Because Foreman doesn’t roll his hips into his punches, he doesn’t deliver a punch with force matching his natural size and strength.

If you’re reading that Foreman grades well as a blocker, then I bet you’re seeing the results of a flawed process for evaluating this area of football. Pass protection and ball security are the litmus test for young runners earning the opportunity to stay on the field. It’s conceivable that Foreman can improve fast enough to earn a significant role on passing downs, but he’ll be one of the exceptions.

Foreman will be a popular first-round pick, and if you keep expectations to a two-down contributor and red zone option as a rookie, you’ll lessen your chances of going through the annual fantasy rollercoaster of angst that comes with sky-high expectations right now and the desire to abandon ship a year later. As long as you aren’t expecting him to provide serviceable starter production in 2017, he’s worth the investment.  

 

 

Alvin Kamara: He’s an exciting player in space with the balance to run through glancing contact from multiple defenders and he accelerates well. However, he fumbles the ball every 71 touches, which is also on the low end of the part-time contributor tier. While Foreman is a mature runner between the tackles, Kamara bounces too many plays outside to the detriment of his offense. If paired with an offense that primarily uses him on plays where he’s expected to operate in space (draws, tosses, screens, and routes to the flat), he could succeed early. Otherwise, he’s a lot riskier than his first-round pre-draft value suggests.

 

 

 

Middle Rounds

Off-Brand Name, Talented Game

Jamaal Williams: Not only is he one of the better pass protectors in this class, he’s an underrated runner with a game that’s mature, physical, and versatile. If you don’t get a shot at one of the top 4-5 backs in this class, I prefer him to Foreman and Kamara as a prospect and within the scope of a dynasty draft. Foreman and Kamara have enough flaws that a tight end or receiver at the end of the first round present a lower risk. Adding Williams in the third round or later is a bonus.  

 

 

 

Aaron Jones: Add Jones to this list of players I’d rather take in the middle rounds than the Great Athlete Tier of the early rounds. Jones’ is an all-around back that will at worst provide what Kamara brings to the field, but with better receiving skills.  

Great Athlete

Joe Williams: Fantasy owners who salivate over athletic profiles will want Williams in the middle rounds because of his 4.4-speed. However, he fumbles the ball every 47.7 touches (fitting of a player who won’t get off the bench) and he still has work to do as a decision-maker between the tackles. He could grow into a role player with upside, but his ADP will likely be higher than the players I’d prefer in the later rounds below.

Late Rounds

Off-Brand Name, Talented Game

Joseph Yearby: The former Miami runner was Dalvin Cook’s high school teammate and his game is even more versatile than Cook. Yearby is an excellent third-down player with big-play upside as a receiver. He’s much quicker than fast, he’s secure with the football, and he runs with excellent vision. Yearby lacks top speed and prototypical size, and Miami rolled with Mark Walton as the starter last year. All of these factors will make Yearby late-round pick or UDFA. Even so, I’d rather take a quality receiver or tight end in the middle rounds ahead of the likes of Joe Williams and get Yearby later.

 

 

Justin Davis: At 208 pounds, Davis 6’1” frame has the weight for another 12-15 pounds of muscle. Although he lacks top-end speed, his acceleration and change of direction, and physicality as a finisher are good fits for a zone running scheme. He’s a flier, but one of those late-round guys who could be a late-bloomer due to minor injuries and a skinny frame.

Great Athlete

T.J. Logan: It’s possible that this back from North Carolina remains a return specialist for the length of his career, but I like his work between the tackles. He’s quick, fast, physical and he’s slightly more mature than Kamara between the tackles. He’s a bargain option who could earn a role as a passing-down back in 2-3 years—maybe sooner with the right fit.

Remember, for an exhaustive look at 46 quarterbacks and 112 other skill prospects, including rankings, tiers, scouting reports, and breakdowns you won’t see anywhere else, download Matt Waldman's 2017 Rookie Scouting Portfolio.

Part IV, Tight Ends

Part III, Receivers

Part I, Quarterbacks