Free agency and the NFL Draft are in the rear-view mirror, which means it is time to get cracking on our 2018 fantasy football forecasts.
The NFL Draft came and went with significant inflection points, plot twists, and a few surprises at the running back position. Saquon Barkley, in fact, ended up as the No. 2 overall selection – but Derrius Guice fell all the way to No. 59 overall to Washington, Kerryon Johnson and Ronald Jones were both top-50 picks, while Rashaad Penny ended up as a late first-rounder.
In these post-NFL Draft ranks, we’ll break down the 2018 rookie running backs from both a high and granular level, look at available opportunity, and assess team fit from a number of different angles. Sure, this is a rankings/tiers piece, but before we start we have to go through the token disclaimer: The most important information is within the myriad of descriptive data, statistics, and percentage points on this year’s running back crop. Rankings are by no means perfect, but they are a fine mechanism for organizing thoughts and contextualizing player situations. The detail is in the player blurbs, not the physical rankings.
Let’s get to it!
Barkley’s Own Tier
1. Saquon Barkley (NYG) — Regardless of what side of the RB Holy War you stand on, Saquon Barkley’s fit with the Giants’ is near perfect for fantasy football purposes. While at Penn State, Barkley ran 100 percent of his sampled carries out of shotgun while 94 percent came from either 10- or 11-personnel (three or more receivers on the field). Last year, new-HC Pat Shurmur’s Vikings’ squad ran the 12th-most run plays from personnel groupings with three or more receivers on the field while Minnesota targeted their backs 105 times (eighth-most). The Giants’ would be wise to use Barkley in a spread scheme that utilizes spacing and allows Barkley to run wild – both as a rusher and receiver – out of shotgun. Over the last three years, only Dalvin Cook (7.23) and Joe Mixon (6.75) have averaged more Yards Created per rush out of shotgun than Barkley (6.04). To boot, Barkley is first in final-year targets and receptions per game among the last three draft classes, he’s tied for second in pass protection execution rate (93%), and he is the most elusive back on a per opportunity basis in that span. The Giants’ are set up flawlessly to allow Saquon to become a workhorse in Week 1, too, as they have the fifth-most rush attempts and seventh-most running back targets available from the 2017 season. Barkley is the clear first pick in dynasty rookie drafts and a shoo-in top-ten selection in 2018 re-draft and best-ball formats.
A Loaded And Confusing Tier Two
2. Rashaad Penny (Sea) — Outside of the Ravens’ taking Hayden Hurst at No. 25 overall, the Seahawks’ coming back two picks later and selecting Rashaad Penny at No. 27 was the second-most shocking storyline amongst skill position players in the first-round of the NFL Draft. The Seahawks’ coveted Penny so much that they “would have taken him at No. 18 overall,” per GM John Schneider. With so much capital invested in Penny, it’s clear the ‘Hawks want to get back to running the football and have supreme confidence Penny can be a foundation back. Whether that works or not remains to be seen. Last year, only the Dolphins and Lions opened up fewer yards before first contact per attempt than the Seahawks. Nevertheless, at San Diego State Penny obliterated his competition regardless of the defensive front and was the only running back in the class to post above-average Yards Created per attempt figures against both stacked (5.31) and neutral boxes (5.79). Penny was also explosive in between the tackles as his 5.90 YC/A on inside carries is fifth-best in Yards Created history behind Joe Mixon, Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt, and Ezekiel Elliott in that order. Penny also finished with average to above-average figures in missed tackles forced per carry via speed (0.11), elusiveness (0.11) and power (0.18) on his 102 sampled carries. Penny will have to work to become a better asset on passing downs – he averaged just 1.26-receptions per game in his final two seasons and his 73% pass protection execution rate is slightly below collegiate average (76%). Still, with so much invested draft capital and little competition on the roster besides 2017 seventh-rounder Chris Carson and oft-injured CJ Prosise, Penny is set up for a monster workload in year one.
3. Sony Michel (NE) — The Pats’ backfield always draws ire for fantasy football, but I love Michel’s landing spot in New England. Dion Lewis is now a Titan, leaving behind 180 carries and 35 targets in his wake. The Pats’ also may have an additional 104 carries available, too, if they decide to either save $2.2M against the cap and cut Mike Gillislee or reduce his role dramatically in 2018. Either way, Sony Michel is walking into Lewis’ old role and a floor of 220 touches. Last year, Lewis played on just 37 percent of Pats’ snaps and finished as the RB17. In most ways, Lewis and Michel win similarly. Michel possesses a rare trifecta of speed, power, and elusiveness as he forced at least one missed tackle on 45.6% of his carries, an 82nd percentile score in Yards Created history. Even though he has a slighter frame at 5-10, 214lbs – Michel is a sustaining runner who created five or more yards on 39 percent of his sampled carries, second-best in Yards Created history behind Joe Mixon (41%). Michel will have to compete for targets with Rex Burkhead and James White in 2018, but no team threw to RBs more often than New England last year (148 targets). The ageless Tom Brady’s QB Rating on such throws was an enormous 112.8 (third-best). Michel may not be a true workhorse, but the Pats’ offensive efficiency and heavy usage of backs in the passing game give Michel palpable upside as a rookie.
4. Derrius Guice (Was) — We don’t (and may never) know why Derrius Guice fell in the NFL Draft – but one thing is for certain: He is a badass on the field. As an explosive, violent, in-your-face runner, Derrius Guice dominated in LSU’s archaic scheme. I mentioned in my in-depth breakdown of Stacked Box Rates and Personnel Groupings that, as a result of LSU’s offensive design, Derrius Guice faced a stacked box (defined as at least one extra defender in the box) on an otherworldly 73 percent of his carries. That is by far the most in the class. It didn’t matter, though. Guice destroyed extra attention in his sample, shredding opposing defenses for 5.88 Yards Created per attempt (third-best in the class). As you would expect, Guice led the class in Yards Created/Attempt out of 12- and 21- personnel as 57% of his runs came from those two personnel groupings (also most in the class). Last year, Jay Gruden’s Redskins ran out of 12-personnel 30 percent of the time, the ninth-highest rate in the league. While Washington needed a foundation runner, Guice may struggle to get on the field in passing situations, though. His 65% pass protection execution rate in college was well below-par (76%) while 51% of Chris Thompson’s total receptions have come on third downs over the last three seasons. Barkley, Penny, Michel, and Jones all have clearer access to fantasy floor-boosting receptions than Guice.
5. Nick Chubb (Cle) — Everything Nick Chubb does with the ball in his hands is silky smooth. As evidenced by his stellar Yards Created data, Chubb arguably has the most efficient feet of any runner I have charted over the last three years. Chubb finished second amongst the 2018 crop in Yards Created per attempt out of shotgun (5.81) behind Saquon Barkley (6.04), he’s third in the class in Missed Tackles Forced per Opportunity (0.469), and he boasted above-average Yards Created figures out of 10- and 11-personnel packages (5.26 YC/A) and 12- and 21-personnel (4.55). Cleveland got a fantastic pure runner at No. 35 overall. Whereas Chubb’s early-down acumen is not in question, the Browns appear to be headed towards a full-blown RBBC in 2018 – but perhaps not the future. Carlos Hyde signed a three-year deal that is basically a one-year proposal (Cleveland can save money by cutting Hyde in 2019) while Duke Johnson is an unrestricted free agent after the 2018 season. Plus, just over 70 percent of the Browns’ 2017 carry share is up for grabs by the way of Isaiah Crowell’s departure. Running behind an offensive line that finished 11th-best in yards before first contact last year (per PFF) and with a depth chart that may be clear of Hyde and Johnson after the 2018 season, Chubb’s long-term dynasty outlook is ticked upwards. The Browns have a sizable hole of carries available, but unless the Browns reduce Duke Johnson’s role after catching 74 passes in 2017, it’s hard to envision Chubb having RB1 fantasy upside as a rookie.
6. Royce Freeman (Den) — The 71st overall pick in the NFL Draft and the eighth running back selected, Freeman goes to a Denver squad with former-fourth round pick Devontae Booker and former-sixth rounder DeAngelo Henderson on the depth chart behind him. CJ Anderson’s departure (245 carries, 40 targets) along with a few straggling carries opens up a gargantuan 354 opportunities in the Broncos’ backfield, by far the most in the league. From a fantasy perspective, Freeman could not have landed in a more wide-open backfield – but that doesn’t mean he’s absolved from downside risk. Freeman is a classic jack of all trades, but a master of none running back that posted reasonable 45th and 42nd percentile scores in YC/A running in between the tackles and outside, respectively. But, he forced at least one defender to miss on just 29.5 percent of his opportunities (24th percentile), and his 1.36 receiving yards gained per route run is second-worst in the 2018 class behind Ronald Jones (1.0). Freeman’s inability to create yardage and force more missed tackles behind Oregon’s offensive line that opened up an immense 1.56 Yards Blocked per attempt (third-most over the last three years) leaves room for concern. Still, only Saquon Barkley and Ronald Jones landed in better situations for touches based on available opportunity and depth chart competition than Royce Freeman.
7. Kerryon Johnson (Det) — As the 43rd overall pick in the NFL Draft, pegging where Kerryon Johnson wins (and doesn’t win) is as easy as it gets. Johnson banged the rock inside early and often at Auburn as 88 percent of his sampled carries where inside of the tackles in Yards Created. To that end, Johnson is the fourth-best back in Yards Created/Attempt between the tackles in the class, and just 13% of his carries were stopped for zero or fewer yards (best). Johnson is an inside grinder that lacks shiftiness as he forced at least one defender to miss a tackle on just 26.7 percent of his sampled carries, the fifth-worst clip in Yards Created’s coffers over the last three years. As a receiver, Johnson also ran a limited route tree at Auburn as 75 percent of his sampled passing down snaps were screens and/or simple routes into the flat. Detroit isn’t exactly the best landing spot for Johnson in fantasy, either. The Lions have finished 32nd, 31st, and 32nd in team rush attempts per game over the last three years while Theo Riddick figures to remain heavily involved as a receiver after catching 4.3 balls per game in that span.
8. Ronald Jones (TB) — Amongst this year’s running back crop, Ronald Jones ranks second-worst in Yards Created per attempt (3.97), he created five or more yards on just 22 percent of his rushes (third-worst), he was last in pass protection execution rate (55%) and receiving yards gained per route run (1.0) while averaging just 0.96-receptions per game in his final two years as a Trojan. Jones is an enigmatic prospect with ample red flags, but he must vault up running back rankings based on his landing spot. Jones’ position in Tampa arguably only trails Barkley in New York for fantasy football goodness. While Jones only averaged 3.06 YC/A on carries in between the tackles (third-worst in the class), he did pop for 7.14 YC/A on carries off-tackle. Jones is a run-to-daylight back and can eat off chunks of yards in a clear and defined lane off-tackle. The Bucs’ offensive line has clear improving to do after ranking 27th in PFF’s yards before first contact and finishing 2018 with an abysmal 3.29 YPC average on interior carries (behind the C or G). Still, there is a bright spot: LT Donovan Smith and RT Demar Dotson were fine run-blockers last year, as Bucs’ backs averaged a modest 4.3 YPC on carries off of the left and right side of the line. Of course, running off-tackle is the one spot where Jones unquestionably wins. I’m not enamored with Jones’ talent, but he’ll get every opportunity to dominate touches in Tampa in 2018. The Bucs’ have 156 opportunities available and an incredibly thin depth chart comprising of tiny-back Jacquizz Rodgers, pass-catcher only Charles Sims, UDFA Peyton Barber, and “Dalton Crossan.”
Two Pass Catching Backs With Muddy Roles
9. Nyheim Hines (Ind) — Paired with Marlon Mack and fifth-round selection from Ole Miss Jordan Wilkins, the Colts’ backfield is filled with youth but is tough to parse from a fantasy lens. A boom/bust runner, a staggering 32% of Mack’s carries failed to gain any yardage at all last year – third-most among qualified backs (minimum 60 carries). The NFL average is 21%. Mack likely still has the inside track to lead-back duties, but Nyheim Hines is no slouch of a receiver after catching 89 passes across 38 games as a mostly part-time player. Hines is a converted slot receiver who, at 5-8 and weighing 198lbs, profiles as a satellite back in Indianapolis. Unfortunately like Mack, Hines is probably not best viewed as a sustaining runner. Hines created five or more yards on just 24 percent of his 63 sampled carries, well below collegiate average (29%). While Hines has 4.38 jets, that straight-line speed failed to turn into missed tackles at the college level. Hines’ 0.206 missed tackles forced per opportunity ranks second-worst in the class and well below-par (0.362). It’s tough to carve out a big role for Hines in year one.
10. Kalen Ballage (Mia) — With just 450 carries on his odometer through four years at Arizona State, making sense of Kalen Ballage‘s small collegiate sample is a tall task. On the one hand, we have a freak athlete with 89th percentile SPARQ athleticism in Ballage who ran a 4.46-forty yard dash at 228lbs (91st percentile weight-adjusted speed). On the other hand, Ballage couldn’t beat out Demario Richard for the workhorse gig at ASU and almost switched to defensive end in college. (For what it’s worth, Demario Richard went undrafted). Ballage was not a consistent producer in college, but he can undeniably impact the passing game as his 5.43 yards gained per route run is fifth-most in Yards Created history. Still, I have major concerns about Ballage’s potential contributions as a runner after he created five or more yards on just 23 percent of his sampled carries, he owns a 40th percentile missed tackle forced score, and his 3.69 YC/A vs. Stacked Boxes (at least one extra defender in the box) was third-worst in the crop. With Ballage and 35-year-old future Hall-of-Famer Frank Gore in tow, Kenyan Drake’s workhorse potential appears safe in 2018.
The Long Shots
11. John Kelly (LAR) — One of Yards Created’s favorites is buried behind Todd Gurley in Los Angeles. It’s a major bummer. Furthermore, Kelly slipped all the way into the sixth-round likely because he is a one-year collegiate producer who is relatively slow at his weight (4.64-forty at 216lbs). Still, even though he’s buried for fantasy, it’s worth mentioning Kelly’s missed tackle rate is fourth-best over the last three years behind Saquon Barkley, Joe Mixon, and Kareem Hunt. An excellent receiver, too, Kelly’s 6.50 receiving yards gained per route run trails only Mixon (10.70) over the last three years, and his 5.40 targets per game are third-most behind Barkley (5.60) and Christian McCaffrey (5.40) in that span. I’m still holding the light on for Kelly, but his year one impact may be nil behind one of the league’s best workhorse backs.
12. Mark Walton (Cin) — Like John Kelly, Miami product Mark Walton is buried behind Joe Mixon and Gio Bernard for the foreseeable future. Mixon is under contract through 2020 while the Bengals have Bernard under wraps until 2019. Mixed with lowly Yards Created figures – Walton’s 3.89 Yards Created per attempt and 0.164 Missed Tackles Forced per rush are the worst two numbers in my database over the last three years – there is no way Walton will have much impact as a rookie unless there are multiple injuries in front of him.
13. Bo Scarbrough (Dal) — Likely the cause of his NFL Draft fall, Bo Scarbrough‘s injury history dates back to his high school days and, unfortunately, followed him to Alabama where he tore his ACL as a freshman in spring practice in 2015 and broke his leg in 2017. Scarbrough ended up touching the ball just 288 times at ‘Bama. While injuries and a lack of receiving production are major red flags, Scarbrough’s 5.29 YC/A with the quarterback under center was second-best in the class behind Derrius Guice (5.42). It makes sense Dallas would be moderately interested in a back that can hammer the rock under center. 76 percent of Dallas’ carries in 2017 came with Dak Prescott under center, the sixth-highest rate in the league. Still, Ezekiel Elliott will play on 80 percent of team snaps again in 2018 and Scarbrough will have to beat out Rod Smith for No. 2 RB duties in Dallas.
(Originally posted May 2018 at Fantasy Guru).