Paul Kurywchak @DrPaulFF
Playing the odds on which Rookie RBs will be fantasy relevant in the 2019 season
Draft position for running backs has been a pretty good indicator of future success in the NFL, especially in the first round (sans Rashaad Penny so far). 2019 is the first year an RB wasn’t taken in the top ten since 2014 when one didn’t leave the board until pick 54 in the second round (does anyone remember the name, Bishop Sankey?). As happened in 2019, 2016 was the last time only one RB was selected in each of the first two rounds. However, in 2016 there was a prolific talent by the name of Ezekiel Elliott taken fourth overall, and we certainly don’t see talent like his in this year’s draft.
Despite the tempered expectations for this year’s talent, many of the rookie RBs will have plenty of opportunities to show they have the goods. In this article, I’ll be breaking down past collegiate performance and the current situations of six RBs that are most likely to see their way onto fantasy rosters at some point in the 2019 season. This will help give you an edge over others in your league by either drafting them late or stashing a few of them at the end of your bench weeks before others even know who they are. It’s important to know the names of mid-round RBs because almost every year we see a surprise break out a player that ends up a top ten RB for their rookie season (think Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt, Jordan Howard, and David Johnson).
At the end of each player description, I’ll be adding an optimistic player comp based on what we saw in college and how their skills may translate to the pros. However, these are not declarations that you should expect them to put up numbers like that player as a rookie.
College: Alabama Height: 5-10 Weight: 216 Age: 21
Coming in at number one on the list is Josh Jacobs, who is the only rookie RB in 2019 with a fairly clear starting role for the team that drafted him. He’s coming from the Crimson Tide, which consistently has an abundance of depth at RB, so he only saw 120 carries and 20 catches in his most productive junior year while splitting work with Damien Harris and Najee Harris. However, he made things happen with the work he got against stout SEC defenses, scoring 15 total touchdowns (11 rushing, three receiving, and one kickoff return), 640 yards on the ground, and 247 yards through the air. On top of that, 50 of those carries and 14 of his catches were for either first downs or touchdowns. Keep in mind he was running behind one of the best offensive lines in college football and will be joining a Raiders team that was ranked 28th per PFFs rankings last year, but his combination of power, patience, balance, and overall athleticism is what warranted his first-round draft grade. There’s a chance he’ll lose work to guys like Doug Martin or Marshawn Lynch (if he returns) because of his subpar pass blocking skills, but more than likely he’ll be the week one starter for Jon Gruden’s old-school, run-heavy offense and will get plenty of work to make him relevant for fantasy. Jalen Richard is the only other threat outside of Doug Martin to possibly take work from Jacobs on passing downs, seeing a career-high 68 receptions on 81 targets for 607 yards last year, but given Jacobs versatility, he’ll more than likely be on the field more times than not in those situations. History tells us that Gruden likes to feature one RB when at all possible and it’s safe to say they selected Jacobs in the first round for that reason.
Current player comp: Kareem Hunt – When I watch film on Jacobs, Hunt is the first comp that pops into my mind. Both don’t have top end speed, but both have very similar builds, ability to lower their shoulder or make a cut to effectively avoid a tackle. They also have great hands as receivers and can catch passes out of the backfield, in the slot, or out wide if needed.
College: Penn State Height: 5-10 Weight: 211 Age: 22
Overshadowed by Mr. Tree-trunks-for-legs, Saquon Barkley, in his first two seasons as a Nittany Lion, Sanders saw the field but wasn’t very productive. In his junior year, however, he took the lead role with 220 carries for 1,274 yards, 24 catches for 139 yards, and 9 touchdowns while starting 13 games. Like Jacobs, he has low tread on his tires with only 276 total carries during his college career. Those numbers aren’t particularly better than some other rookie RBs, but he had a great combine showing off his burst and agility, which is why the Eagles took him in the second round. Looking at his situation in the NFL, he joins a crowded backfield comprised of Jordan Howard, Corey Clement, Wendell Smallwood, and Josh Adams. However, Clement, Smallwood, and Adams were a part of the team last year that ranked 28th in rushing and Adams may be cut from the roster soon, so it’s likely that Howard will be handling the early downs while Sanders’ volume matches his draft capital and he takes most of the third-down role. Howard saw a gradual decline with the Bears since his rookie year in 2016, so if his struggles continue in Philly or he gets bit by the injury bug, Sanders could be given a bigger role sooner than expected, given his more complete skill set. The Eagles have a relatively good offensive line, ranking 5th in PFF’s 2018 rankings, boasting well for whoever gets the bulk of the carries in 2019.
Current player comp: Aaron Jones – Similar build and decently fast, but their primary strengths are that both have a lot of burst, great balance, and can deliver an effective stiff arm in the open field when needed. Both also have good hands and can be three down RBs as Jones’ has shown, but durability may be an issue given their size.
College: Iowa State Height: 5-11 Weight: 219 Age: 21
With the departure of Jordan Howard, the Bears traded up to grab first-team All-American (per PFF) David Montgomery in the third round. He was the starter at Iowa State by the end of his freshman year and then had consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons during his sophomore and junior seasons, with 258 carries for 1,146 yards and 11 TDs in 2017, and 257 carries for 1,216 yards and 13 TDs in 2018. In addition, he also tacked on 36 receptions for 296 yards in 2017 and 22 receptions for 157 yards in 2018. Many NFL scouts viewed him as the safest RB in the draft due to his ability to stay calm and balanced in traffic. He has had a heavier workload than the previous two RBs on the list but has shown to be durable over the entirety of a season. He might not be asked to catch passes as often in Chicago with human joystick Tarik Cohen on the roster, but Montgomery’s versatility gives crafty head coach and Andy Reid disciple Matt Nagy the option to utilize both at the same time. Mike Davis is also on the Chicago roster and will probably be utilized for his pass blocking and goal line push, which is something to keep in mind and may limit Montgomery’s upside for fantasy. However, it’s worth mentioning that Montgomery averaged a Big 12-best 3.48 yards after contact per attempt (per PFF), so he may actually also take a majority of that role as well. Unlike Howard was with Chicago, Montgomery isn’t a primarily one-dimensional player, which should soften up opposing defenses and create more space for him to get to the second level and keep the chains moving in Chicago’s slow but dynamic offense.
Current player comp: Sony Michel – Mostly a one-cut runner that can get to the second level quickly, but doesn’t have much ability to make tacklers miss in the open field. Can be indecisive if a lane doesn’t present itself early, but is a durable guy that can wear defenses out with a heavy workload. Fairly reliable on the goal line and can be used as an outlet receiver out of the backfield.
College: Oklahoma State Height: 5-10 Weight: 198 Age: 21
Justice Hill has been productive since he was a freshman at Oklahoma State, starting 10 of 13 games and converting 206 carries into 1,142 yards and 6 touchdowns, which earned him the award of Big 12 Freshman of the Year. He built on that freshman season by having 1,467 yards on 268 carriers and scoring an amazing 15 TDs as a sophomore. He was still productive as a Junior before entering the draft, but his touches were limited and he sustained a rib injury that caused him to miss 3 games and tempered his numbers to 158 carriers for 930 yards and 9 TDs. That rib injury aligns with his biggest concern at the NFL level, his durability to be able to consistently take punishment between the tackles. However, he probably won’t need to do that very often with the Ravens since they acquired former Saint’s bruiser Mark Ingram. Hill’s potential is going to rely heavily on his ability to translate his explosive combine numbers (4.40 40-yard dash (97th percentile), 95th percentile burst) to the NFL level. His sophomore season showed that he’s a capable pass catcher (31 catches for 190 yards) and he can stop on a dime from full speed, so he’ll likely be utilized more as a pass catching back to limit the punishment he takes and give him the opportunity to create mismatches with linebackers. Kenneth Dixon has been plagued by injuries and suspension since he entered the NFL, so he likely will not pose much of a threat to Hill’s opportunity, even close to the beginning of the season.
Current player comp: Alvin Kamara – Hill had a better combine than Kamara, but on film, there are a lot of similarities. First and foremost is elusiveness. Both these guys are undersized but have enough agility and lateral cutting ability to avoid punishment. Not great on short yardage, run through the A gap situations, but can find and fit through small holes when given time.
College: Memphis Height: 5-8 Weight: 208 Age: 21
If Henderson wasn’t behind the elite do-it-all talent of Todd Gurley, he’d probably be number one on this list. He had eye-popping stats at his time in Memphis, particularly in his junior year where he posted a staggering 25 total touchdowns on 214 rush attempts for 1,909 yards and 22 TDs, and 19 receptions for 295 yards and 3 TDs. He didn’t face much elite talent during college, but when he did, he showed he could still be productive, dropping 199 yards and a TD on 31 carries against UCF during their first meeting, and then 210 yards and 3 TDs on only 16 carriers in their second meeting. That’s pretty impressive, even in the American Conference. He might turn out to be undersized at the NFL level, but from a college production and film standpoint, he’s one of the most complete backs coming out of the draft. John Kelly and Malcolm Brown haven’t worked out as backups for Todd Gurley, which led to C.J. Anderson joining the team and getting a large workload while Gurley was unhealthy. With Gurley’s concerning knee injury that forced him to miss two games at the end of the season and struggle through the playoffs, the Rams felt the need to trade up to get Henderson in case that issue turns out to recurring for Gurley. If that’s the case, it’s likely that Henderson would become the new bell cow in Sean McVay’s explosive offense, sending Henderson’s fantasy value to the moon.
Current player comp: Dalvin Cook – Cook has 2 inches on Henderson, but the other metrics between these players is similar. Both have quick acceleration, can bounce off or shed tackles, and can get to the edge quickly. Both keep their stride short to be able to absorb tackles and can make things happen in the open field after receptions, either with straight-line speed or stutter steps.
College: Kentucky Height: 5-10 Weight: 224 Age: 21
Last but not least, number six on the list of rookie RBs to keep an eye on for the 2019 season is Benny Snell Jr. out of Kentucky. Like Montgomery and Hill, Snell Jr. has been productive in a stout SEC conference since he was a rookie in 2016, producing 1,091 yards and 13 TDs only 186 carriers and not playing in the first two games of the season. He maintained and expanded on that strong production throughout his sophomore and junior years as well. In his sophomore year, he carried the ball 262 times for 1,333 yards and 19 TDs. In his junior year, he was featured even more in the Kentucky Wildcat offense, taking 289 carries for 1,449 yards and 16 TDs. Again, that’s against loaded SEC defenses that knew he was the primary source of production for their offense. He’s a physical and durable runner that should be able to effectively take the reins from James Conner, should he get injured during this upcoming season. Snell made this list for his highly impressive production during his college career but sits at the bottom of it because he’s a fairly one-dimensional player that probably won’t have much fantasy relevance unless Conner gets injured. In addition, He still has to beat out Jaylen Samuels for the backup role, who showed a few flashes when Conner was dealing with a concussion last season. However, the Steelers have the best offensive line in the NFL, so whoever is getting 40% or more of the touches out of the backfield is likely worth owning for fantasy, because that player is one injury (or contract holdout) from becoming a superstar and winning you a championship.
Current player comp: Jay Ajayi – Ajayi has a better speed profile than Snell Jr., but both have a similar power running style that makes them reliable for generating yards after contact. Both are tough to take down due to their balanced base and powerful legs but don’t see a lot of forced missed tackles due to their elusiveness. In addition, both can make receptions out of the backfield but don’t offer much outside of check downs.