With the NFL season coming to a close and the fantasy season in the rearview mirror, the focus of most dynasty players shifts immediately to offseason priorities. The beauty of dynasty fantasy football is that there really is no offseason, and there is always research to be done in order to gain an advantage over league mates. One of these priorities and one of the best ways to improve your team’s long-term outlook is to infuse your roster with youth via the annual rookie draft.
Rookie drafts typically take place after the NFL Draft concludes but it is never too early to start watching film of the incoming draft class, or at least to formulate a strategy to help narrow the search. In other words, at this time of the year, it can be valuable to identify the traits to look for in a rookie prospect before actually studying the specific players. With the NFL Draft more than 3 months away, the best way to evaluate prospects is by assessing their NFL value before assessing their dynasty fantasy football value. It sounds elementary but is often overlooked by the dynasty community. You and I may believe a player has the tools to be successful, but if NFL general managers don’t give him an opportunity, he has no chance to produce fantasy points.
With this concept in mind, I have identified the traits and characteristics that I believe the NFL values, and have studied film to discover the prospects that possess these qualities. The goal for these prospects is to find a role at the NFL level, and I will provide insight into the players that I believe can fill a role in the league. This will be a three-part series evaluating running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends, and I will begin with the very deep running back class. Keep in mind that with all prospects, but especially with RBs, opportunity is the second most influential factor (talent is first) for dynasty evaluations. A lot will change from now until your rookie draft, but here are my current top 15 running backs according to their projected NFL roles.
Running backs in this category are capable of carrying the rushing load on the first two downs, yet are skilled enough in the receiving game and strong enough in pass protection to remain on the field on 3rd This season, everyone witnessed the extraordinary level of fantasy production that true 3-down RBs can accomplish. Le’Veon Bell and David Johnson dominated the fantasy landscape in 2016, overshadowing the feats of Matt Forte, Devonta Freeman, Lamar Miller, and Jamaal Charles among others as every-down backs in recent years. Dynasty owners are constantly scouring the college ranks to discover the next members of this elite fraternity and will have several legitimate options to choose from within the 2017 rookie class.
Dalvin Cook, FSU (RB1)
Cook is not only my RB1 in this class, but he is currently my overall 1.01 in dynasty rookie drafts. The difference between Dalvin Cook and Leonard Fournette on the first two downs is merely stylistic preference, but what truly separates the two is Cook’s ability in the passing game. Look for Cook to be a 1st round pick in the NFL Draft and be placed atop his team’s depth chart immediately. If you’re looking for the next David Johnson or Le’Veon Bell, look no further. Dalvin Cook will never leave the field.
Christian McCaffrey, Stanford (RB3)
This season, Christian McCaffrey amassed 1,603 rushing yards and 310 receiving yards and combined for 16 total offensive touchdowns. His vision behind the line of scrimmage is unparalleled among this RB class, and his suddenness between cuts is surpassed by only Dalvin Cook. For those who look to collegiate production as an integral feature in a scouting evaluation, McCaffrey checks all the boxes. Owners in PPR leagues need to pay especially close attention, as McCaffrey could lead the class in total touches if he lands in the right situation.
Joe Mixon, Oklahoma (RB4)
Due to recent video footage showing Joe Mixon physically assaulting a woman, there is a chance that he is not selected at all in April’s draft. If he is, however, watch out. Mixon is as athletically gifted as any player available and has the ability to dominate every facet of the game. His patience and decisiveness is shockingly reminiscent of Le’Veon Bell’s (as blasphemous as that may sound), and if given an opportunity he will be a dangerous weapon. Mixon comes with a considerable amount of risk, but he may have the highest upside of anyone in this class.
Wayne Gallman (RB5)
Wayne Gallman is the toughest runner in the 2017 draft class and is one of the most well-rounded. He doesn’t have the power of Leonard Fournette, the lateral agility of Dalvin Cook, or the hands of Joe Mixon, but he has elements of each of those qualities to lesser degrees. Gallman did not need to carry the offense for Clemson this season with fellow NFL prospects Deshaun Watson, Mike Williams, Jordan Leggett, and Artavis Scott demanding the ball, so try not to be swayed by his less-than-dominant statistical output. Gallman fights for every yard, is strong in pass protection, and has become a capable receiver out of the backfield. In the 3rd or 4th round of the NFL draft and in the 2nd round of rookie drafts, Wayne Gallman is as safe a prospect as you will find.
Alvin Kamara, Tennessee (RB7)
One of the recently popular prospects within the dynasty community, Kamara was criminally underutilized for most of his two seasons at Tennessee due to the presence of highly recruited starter Jalen Hurd. When Hurd went down with an injury, Kamara was given the opportunity to showcase his big-play ability and every-down potential. Kamara is 5’10”, 215 lbs, comparable in size to Lamar Miller, and caught 40 passes for 4 TDs in 2016. Kamara played only two years in college and was given a light workload, so his legs should have the least wear and tear of any RB in the class. With a 6.5 and 5.8 yard per carry average in his two seasons of eligibility, respectively, he proved deserving of a larger role in the offense. As the draft process accelerates in the coming months, don’t be surprised when Alvin Kamara is shooting up draft boards.
Jamaal Williams, BYU (RB8)
Jamaal Williams is quickly becoming one of my favorite players in the entire 2017 rookie class, and it feels like I move him up in my rankings every time I watch his tape. At 6’2” 220 lbs, Williams has prototypical size for an NFL running back, and after spending 2015 away from football he returned this season to post a 5.9 ypc average. The only potential weaknesses in his game are his average straight-line speed and upright running style, but he possesses the toughness, burst, and lateral quickness to dominate between the tackles. Williams was rarely utilized as a receiver but demonstrated quality hands in his limited sample size, and might be the best blocker at the position.
Kareem Hunt, Toledo (RB11)
Kareem Hunt is currently flying under the radar of many dynasty owners, but won’t be for long. This class is so deep that value will remain into the 3rd and 4th rounds of rookie drafts, and Hunt will be one of the players that reward due diligence in research. Hunt has good size, patience, and quickness, picking his spots and accelerating through holes with a purpose. He belongs in the every-down category as a result of his comfort level as a receiver, but his ability in pass protection leaves something to be desired.
Elijah McGuire, Louisiana-Lafayette (RB13)
Elijah McGuire is likely to be a polarizing prospect for many, as gaudy numbers are typically expected from small-school RBs looking to make it in the NFL. McGuire’s 1,127 yards, 7 TDs, and 4.9 ypc are hardly dominant against lesser competition, but he has the tools to make a name for himself at the next level. He does not have particularly great size or strength, but shows good vision and is incredibly shifty in the open field. You’re likely to hear comparisons to Kenneth Dixon of last year’s class, and for good reason. McGuire could have some depth chart climbing to do in his rookie season but has the ability to find a niche in an NFL backfield.
Despite the negative connotation that comes with the label of a strict 2-down running back, there is still significant fantasy value in commanding the ball on 1st and 2nd Ezekiel Elliot, Jay Ajayi, Jordan Howard, and Jeremy Hill are examples of players who have posted successful fantasy seasons without recording more than 35 receptions in 2016. These backs may be replaced on 3rd downs, but more often than not are handed the ball in goal-line situations. Touchdowns are the quickest avenue to fantasy points, and these 2-down thumpers are commonly the highest TD-scorers in the league. PPR leagues tend to devalue these players, but standard and half-PPR leagues still rely on non-receiving RBs as elite assets.
Leonard Fournette, LSU (RB2)
Likely the first running back selected in the 2017 NFL Draft, Leonard Fournette is the prize that dynasty owners have been patiently waiting for since his high school graduation. No RB is more powerful and more decisive than Fournette, and his speed is exceptional for a back of his size. If you want a glimpse of the potential dominance that Fournette is capable of, watch LSU vs. Ole Miss this season. His explosion jumps off the screen and he finishes every run falling forward. The only concern with Fournette is his injury history, but when healthy he will rack up yardage and touchdowns in rare fashion. Many mock drafts project him to land with the Panthers with the 8th overall pick, and if that happens, he could have legitimate top-5 fantasy RB potential in his rookie year.
Semaje Perine, Oklahoma (RB6)
Semaje Perine’s statistical production declined in rushing, receiving, and touchdowns scored every season over the course of his three years with Oklahoma, but I don’t believe that to be cause for concern. Joe Mixon emerged as a weapon this season, and the two combined to form a dangerous backfield tandem for the Sooners. Perine is a bowling ball in the mold of Jonathan Stewart, sharing almost identical build and rushing style with the longtime Carolina Panther. There is nothing flashy about his game, but what you see is what you get. In Perine’s case, what you get is a bruiser with fluid hips and a propensity for initiating contact.
D’Onta Foreman, Texas (RB9)
As you might have noticed, I have Foreman ranked considerably lower than most dynasty experts do, and that is not a typo. While his massive production in the Big 12 cannot be ignored or diminished, I was disappointed with what I saw on tape and don’t particularly love his NFL outlook. At 249 lbs., Foreman lacks the burst and ability to create for himself that he’ll need against the bigger and more physical NFL defensive players. If he ends up behind a stable offensive line that can create holes for him, he could be dynamic, but I fail to see the traits of a top 5 RB in this class.
Corey Clement, Wisconsin (RB10)
After spending his sophomore season riding the pine behind Melvin Gordon, and undergoing sports hernia surgery his junior season, Corey Clement finally got his chance to be the featured back for the run-heavy Badgers’ offense in 2016. A hard-nosed, decisive runner who wastes very little movement in making his cuts, Clement almost always gets the most out of what the defense gives him. Like Wayne Gallman, Clement may slip in drafts because of a lack of one discernibly exceptional trait, but he has a very well-rounded game with few weaknesses.
Brian Hill, Wyoming (RB14)
Another one of my personal favorites, Brian Hill was one of the most productive running backs in the country in 2016 and has a very similar skillset to Jamaal Williams. With 1,860 yards and 22 TDs on the ground, my only major knock on Hill is his inactivity in the passing game. At 6’1”, 219 lbs. with unique vision and balance, he could be a player to watch on Day 3 of the NFL Draft. With the incredible depth of this RB class, you would be wise to acquire as many picks as possible and throw as many darts as you can. You could end up hitting the bull’s-eye with Brian Hill.
3rd Down RBs
3rd down running backs may only see the field once every four downs but are invaluable to NFL offenses. As I mentioned earlier, if you can find a way to be valued by an NFL team, you’re likely to find fantasy value as well. These backs are typically excellent receivers out of the backfield and also possess the ability to stay in the pocket to offer pass protection.
Curtis Samuel, Ohio State (RB12)
Samuel might be the most challenging prospect on this list to project at the next level. Listed typically as an RB/WR, Samuel produced 775 yards and 8 TDs rushing to combine with 74 receptions for 865 yards and 7 more scores through the air. Many scouts have compared Samuel to gadget WRs such as Percy Harvin, Cordarrelle Patterson, or Tavon Austin, but I believe that his abilities would be best utilized as a 3rd down back the way the Lions employ Theo Riddick. Samuel’s speed and elusiveness will make him a weapon in any role, but the potential for mismatches with linebackers in the open field will be his safest path to fantasy success. He has enormous PPR upside in the right system, but before we get a clear sense of his role I don’t feel confident enough to put him in the top 10.
Jeremy McNichols, Boise State (RB15)
The more I studied tape of Jeremy McNichols, the more a resemblance developed to a current NFL 3rd down running back: Bobby Rainey. When I dug a little deeper, I discovered that the similarities between the 5’9”, 212 lb. McNichols and the 5’8” 212 lb. Rainey extended beyond their size and similar skillset. McNichols’ usage and statistics in his final year at Boise State (1,709 rushing yards, 37 receptions) almost exactly mirror Rainey’s production in his senior season at Western Kentucky in 2012 (1,695 rushing yards, 36 receptions). While a comparison to Bobby Rainey might not paint the prettiest picture for his NFL future, Rainey has carved out a niche for himself and has seen fantasy relevancy on multiple occasions.