2014 Rookie Review: RBs

Cecil Lammey breaks down the rookie running back class.

The value of running backs has changed over recent years in the NFL. For the second time (and second year in a row) since 1967, there were no running backs taken in the first round of the NFL draft. For the first time ever in NFL history, no running back was selected in the first 40 picks of the draft.

Clearly the position is being de-emphasized in the NFL. The rules are geared for teams to be more pass-happy than ever, and many teams are using specialists at the running back position. Running-back-by-committee is the rage in the NFL, and this makes a single running back a rarity as a full-time player.

The change in the way running backs are used and drafted has a big impact on your fantasy team. Quality backs go off the board quickly, and talent dries up fast in most fantasy drafts. Fantasy owners need to be aware of this when approaching their draft, and savvy owners will know where to find value.

This year doesn’t have a lone standout back, but there are a few players with star potential. Second-round pick Jeremy Hill (Bengals), third-round pick Tre Mason (Rams), fourth-round pick Kadeem Carey (Bears) and undrafted free agent Isaiah Crowell (Browns) could all be quality starters someday.

Hill is a big back with speed to rack up big yards once he’s at the second level of the defense. Mason is an efficient runner who is adept at finding small creases to make the most out of every carry. Carey ran a slow 40-yard dash at the combine (4.6 seconds) but he has good pad speed and change of direction skills. Crowell was arguably the most naturally talented runner in this class, but he fell out of the draft due to character concerns.

This draft was full of part-time players with a specified skill set. This includes change-of-pace backs like fourth-round pick Devonta Freeman (Falcons), fourth-round pick De’Anthony Thomas (Chiefs), fourth-round pick James White (Patriots), and sixth-round pick Lache Seastrunk (Washington). This also includes two-down pile-pushers like second-round pick Carlos Hyde (49ers), third-round pick Terrance West (Browns), fourth-round pick Andre Williams (Giants) and sixth-round pick Tyler Gaffney (Panthers).

There were also some good all-purpose backs who lack elite tools. These runners are good at everything, but they lack a “wow” factor to their game. This includes players like second-round pick Bishop Sankey (Titans), third-round pick Charles Sims (Buccaneers) and seventh-round pick Storm Johnson (Jaguars).

As you can see, there’s no one rookie running back this year who is “the man.” However, that doesn’t mean there’s a lack of fantasy talent. Fantasy owners need to add some of these backs, but they may have to wait for them to emerge for several different reasons.

Jeremy Hill, Cincinnati Bengals

Strengths: Hill finishes every run and keeps his legs grind upon contact. He has good footwork, and this allows him to spin away from defenders if need be. Hill is fluid with his cuts, and he does a good job of letting his blocks develop in front of him. He’s an aggressive runner with deceptive speed once he gets to the second level of the defense.

Weaknesses: He doesn’t run with as much authority as perhaps a back of his size should. He tends to run a bit upright at times, and this exposes the ball for defenders to strip away. Needs work as a pass-blocker. Hill has several off-field red flags and character concerns.

2014 Outlook: Hill will split time in the backfield with Gio Bernard. Under new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, the Bengals will have a serious commitment to running the football. Hill is a fine RB4 for your fantasy team this year, and he could be a spot starter during bye weeks. Hill’s current ADP is RB43, and he’s coming off the board at 10.02 in 12-team PPR leagues.

Dynasty Outlook: His size and running style could shorten his career. His production could be somewhat limited by the presence of Bernard. However, Hill could have a few 1,000 yard seasons before his playing days are done.

NFL Comparison: LeGarrette Blount with better receiving ability.

Tre Mason, St. Louis Rams

Strengths: Elite balance is the name of the game with Mason. He has a powerful lower body and can run between the tackles effectively. Mason has great vision, and he does a good job of patiently setting up the blocks in front of him. He understands pursuit angles, and Mason can set up defenders with subtle moves before crossing the line of scrimmage. His footwork is elite, and Mason can make moves in the open field without losing much speed.

Weaknesses: He’s a shorter/smaller than ideal back. Mason may have durability concerns because of his maxed-out frame and determined running style. He wasn’t used much as a receiver at Auburn, and his hands are a question mark.

2014 Outlook: Mason is going to work as a primary backup behind last year’s starter Zac Stacy. He’s more of a handcuff for Stacy or RB5 if you’ve got the roster space this year. If Stacy gets banged up, Mason could take over as the starter and shine. His current ADP is RB48 (11.11) in 12-team PPR leagues.

Dynasty Outlook: His outlook all depends on the performance and durability of Stacy. Mason is a more dynamic back than Stacy, but he lacks the power that Stacy runs with. We could see the team use a RBBC with the lead back changing from week-to-week.

NFL Comparison: Ray Rice with questionable hands.

Kadeem Carey, Chicago Bears

Strengths: Carey has good pad speed, and he’s a natural runner with the vision and footwork to create his own space. He has light feet and can change direction smoothly. Carey has good instincts and can find cutback lanes with ease. He’s arguably the best pass-blocker in this draft class. Carey does a good job of looking in passes, and he can be relied on as a receiver out of the backfield.

Weaknesses: He lacks elite speed, and Carey is not going to be a homerun threat. Several off-field incidents that make him a character risk.

2014 Outlook: Carey is likely to win the primary backup job behind Matt Forte this year. Forte is a three-down bellcow back for the Bears, so Carey’s role could be quite small this year. His current ADP is RB64 (13.12) in 12-team PPR leagues. Carey is a must-handcuff for all Forte owners.

Dynasty Outlook: Forte is entering his seventh year in the NFL. Carey’s time may be sooner than some think. He could be a quality starter for the Bears in the next three years.

NFL Comparison: Ahmad Bradshaw minus an elite second gear.

Isaiah Crowell, Cleveland Browns

Strengths: Crowell can do it all. He’s a strong runner between the tackles who can pick up yards after contact, and he can wear down an opponent as the game goes on. He also has the speed to be a big-play threat once he gets to the open field. Crowell has good moves and agility to make defenders miss once he’s at the second and third level of the defense. He’s a fine receiver out of the backfield with good acceleration after the catch.

Weaknesses: Weapons charges (later dropped) got him bounced from the University of Georgia. Crowell is a career underachiever with questions about his effort and commitment. He needs to improve his pass-protection ability.

2014 Outlook: Crowell is buried on the depth chart right now. At best he has two backs in front of him in Ben Tate and fellow rookie Terrance West. Crowell is a late-round flier with immense talent. His current ADP is RB71 (14.06) in 12-team PPR leagues.

Dynasty Outlook: Tate has an injury history that reads like Infinite Jest. West is not as naturally talented. If Crowell hits, he’s going to have an Arian Foster-like impact. It’s worth noting that Foster was also undrafted after injuries derailed his college career at Tennessee. Crowell is a risk, but this poor class of running backs and his amazing natural talent make him worth the risk at the right spot.

NFL Comparison: Eddie Lacy without the injury history.

Carlos Hyde, San Francisco 49ers

Strengths: Hyde is powerfully built and is tough to bring down when he builds up speed. He can regularly run through arm tackles and loves to punish defenders. Hyde has the speed to get to the edge and around the corner. He can grind for extra yards after contact because of his powerful lower body.

Weaknesses: He likes to bounce too many runs outside, and that simply won't work consistently at the pro level. Hyde benefitted from defenses worried about scrambling quarterback Braxton Miller at Ohio State. Defensive ends and safeties who would usually crash on most backs would hesitate to see if Miller kept the ball or handed off. This reduced the number of defenders in the box that were attacking Hyde. He’ll miss too many cutback lanes as he tries to force a hole or the corner.

2014 Outlook: The 49ers have a jam-packed backfield. Currently Hyde is behind Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter and Marcus Lattimore. He’ll have to wait for his chance. His current ADP is RB44 (10.11) in 12-team PPR leagues.

Dynasty Outlook: Has the potential to be a top-25 fantasy back when he takes over as the primary ball carrier. This is based on the 49ers run-heavy offense more than his natural skill set.

NFL Comparison: Cedric Benson without the vision.

Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons

Strengths: Freeman is not the biggest back, but he runs with deceptive power between the tackles. He does a good job of hiding behind his offensive linemen then bursting quickly through the hole or the cutback lane. His burst also helps him to outrun defenders in the open field. Freeman will cut quickly without losing much speed, and he can toy with defenders to create his own space. He has a low center of gravity, and this helps him keep his balance after contact.

Weaknesses: His frame is maxed out and he lacks ideal size. He’ll struggle to break tackles consistently at the pro level. Freeman has a limited anchor as a pass-protector and he can be overran.

2014 Outlook: Freeman is currently third on the depth chart in Atlanta. He’s behind both Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers. His current ADP is RB42 (10.01) in 12-team PPR leagues.

Dynasty Outlook: He is a better starting option than Rodgers. Freeman could be a quality starter on the Falcons who have a powerful passing game.

NFL Comparison: Maurice Jones-Drew with a little less power.

Charles Sims, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Strengths: Sims is a jack-of-all-trades for a running back. He does a good job of making defenders miss with subtle moves. Sims wastes little motion as a runner, and he won’t try to bounce runs outside. If no hole develops he does a good job of “getting skinny” to squeeze out a few yards. He’s a natural receiver out of the backfield who will catch passes cleanly with arms extended away from his body.

Weaknesses: He lacks any elite skill set. Sims is not fast enough to threaten a defense as a big-play option. He’s not quick enough to create space in tight quarters. Sims lacks power to really push through the pile.

2014 Outlook: Recent news out of Tampa Bay indicates the team is going to use a platoon of running backs under new offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford. This is bad news for Doug Martin’s fantasy owners, but it’s great news for those who pick up Sims. He has a current ADP of RB67 (14.03) and could easily outperform that draft slot this year.

Dynasty Outlook: He can be a reliable full-time starter for the Buccaneers if Martin gets banged up. Sims is going to play in the league for a long time, but he may never truly be a fantasy force.

NFL Comparison: A poor-man’s version of Matt Forte.

Terrance West, Cleveland Browns

Strengths: West is a big back who isn’t afraid to run it between the tackles. He can stay balanced after contact and is tough to bring down when he builds a head of steam. West does a good job of pressing the hole to allow blocks to develop.

Weaknesses: He runs blind at times. West is patient, but sometimes too patient waiting for blocks to develop. His pad level is inconsistent, and he doesn’t run with as much power as one would expect from a back his size. He loves contact, but sometimes just looks for contact and not a cutback lane.

2014 Outlook: West is only behind injury-prone Ben Tate on the depth chart. He’s ahead of fellow rookie Isaiah Crowell on the depth chart at this time. His current ADP is RB41 (9.08) in 12-team PPR leagues.

Dynasty Outlook: He can be a grinder who starts for the Browns for a few years.

NFL Comparison: Anthony Dixon with worse footwork.

Lache Seastrunk, Washington

Strengths: Speed, speed and more speed is the name of the game with Seastrunk. He is incredibly fast and can score any time he touches the ball. Seastrunk has the speed to outrun angles, and he can get to top speed in the blink of an eye. He has fantastic stop/start ability.

Weaknesses: He had more drops (10) than he had receptions (nine) during his college career at Baylor. Seastrunk tries to bounce too many runs outside.

2014 Outlook: Seastrunk is currently buried on the depth chart in Washington. However, his speed makes him an immediate option as a change-of-pace back behind Alfred Morris. His current ADP is RB62 (13.11) in 12-team PPR leagues.

Dynasty Outlook: His speed makes him great as a part-time player. However, his lack of vision and less-than-ideal size makes him only a part-time player as a pro. He gets a slight bump in leagues that reward points for big plays.

NFL Comparison: Chris Johnson with questionable vision.

Bishop Sankey, Tennessee Titans

Strengths: Sankey can do it all. With a poor offensive line, Sankey had to do a lot of creating on his own during his college career at Washington. He’s a jump-cutter who loves to make defenders miss. He has soft hands as a receiver and puts forth good effort in pass-protection.

Weaknesses: He lacks any elite trait to his game. Sankey will get sloppy with the football after he’s knocked off his feet with a hit. He will run out of control at times and his jump cuts make him an easy target as he stops completely before changing direction.

2014 Outlook: Sankey is much closer to playing time than other backs in this draft class. With only Shonn Greene to split carries with, Sankey could be in for a large role. His current ADP is RB19 (4.03) in 12-team PPR leagues.

Dynasty Outlook: Sankey just lacks a “wow” factor to his game. He can be a compiler, but ultimately he should be replaced by a more talented back. At very least, he’s a career RBBC back.

NFL Comparison: Knowshon Moreno with questionable balance.

Andre Williams, New York Giants

Strengths: He’s a workhorse who can grind down opponents with his power. He runs with a proper pad level and has the leg drive to move through arm tackles with ease. Williams has a nose for the end zone, and he should immediately contribute as a short-yardage back.

Weaknesses: He’s a two-down thumper with little ability as a receiver out of the backfield. He’s not sudden with his movements, running with build-up speed and quickness.

2014 Outlook: Williams is going to compete for playing time with Rashad Jennings and David Wilson. He’s a part-time power player at best, no matter where he lands on the depth chart. Williams has a current ADP of RB61 (13.10) in 12-team PPR leagues.

Dynasty Outlook: Williams is a power back who can be relied on between the tackles. His long-term upside is limited by his limited skill set. His nose for the end zone could make him a better option in touchdown-heavy leagues.

NFL Comparison: Andre Brown with suspect vision.

Storm Johnson, Jacksonville Jaguars

Strengths: Like other backs in this class, Johnson is a jack-of-all-trades as a running back. He’s a natural runner with instincts for maximizing yards on most every carry. Johnson is not a speed back, but he’ll use a change-up with his speed to create space and alter angles of pursuing defenders. He stays low when he runs, and Johnson keeps his legs grinding after contact.

Weaknesses: He lacks breakaway speed and is not a power runner even though he can run tough between the tackles.

2014 Outlook: Johnson could have a quicker path to playing time than some think. He’s currently behind Toby Gerhart on the depth chart, but Gerhart is unproven as a starter and that’s why Johnson may get more opportunity. He’s also behind Jordan Todman and Denard Robinson, but they don’t have the all-around game that Johnson does. His current ADP is RB57 (13.09) in 12-team PPR leagues.

Dynasty Outlook: He’s a capable back who can be a reliable (yet uninspiring) starter. His college quarterback (Blake Bortles) is the quarterback of the future for Jacksonville.

NFL Comparison: A less-elusive Pierre Thomas.

James White, New England Patriots

Strengths: White is an efficient runner who wastes little motion with the ball in his hands. He is not the biggest runner, but he can run between the tackles. He does a good job of getting small to push for as many yards as he can. White does not try to take every carry to the outside, but he’ll bounce laterally if inside options are exhausted. White is a decent receiver out of the backfield and can also work well on draw plays.

Weaknesses: His size will always keep him as a part-time runner. White lacks the speed to be a big-play threat.

2014 Outlook: The fit with the Patriots is an interesting one. He’s a reserve change-of-pace back, but he lacks the agility and explosiveness of former Patriots back Danny Woodhead.

Dynasty Outlook: He’s a career committee back. He can stick around for some time because of his all-around skill set, but he may never be much of a fantasy factor.

NFL Comparison: Justin Forsett with less lateral agility.

Marion Grice, San Diego Chargers

Strengths: Grice can plant his foot in the ground and explode out of his cut. He runs with patience and has good acceleration to speed by unsuspecting defenders. Grice is a touchdown machine having scored 33 touchdowns at Blinn College and 39 touchdowns at Arizona State. He is a good receiver out of the backfield, and he could also be used as a return man in the NFL.

Weaknesses: He has an upright running style and that makes him easier to bring down. It also causes ball security problems and opens his midsection to more of a beatdown.

2014 Outlook: He’s buried on the depth chart right now behind Ryan Mathews, Danny Woodhead and Donald Brown.

Dynasty Outlook: Grice could be a spot starter in the NFL.

NFL Comparison: Less explosive Darren McFadden.

Tyler Gaffney, Carolina Panthers

Strengths: Gaffney is a two-down banger between the tackles. He loves contact and he wants to pound opponents into submission. He’s lighter on his feet than some think, and he can change direction by running smoothly with a good pad level. Gaffney has good balance and is tough to bring down.

Weaknesses: He’s limited as a part-time back and is not much of a receiving threat. He’s a one speed runner, and that speed is not that fast.

2014 Outlook: He’s stuck on the depth chart behind DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert.

Dynasty Outlook: Gaffney has more value in touchdown-only leagues, but his fantasy upside is held back by his limited skill set.

NFL Comparison: Brandon Bolden with bad hands.

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