In an era where the so called, “bell-cow” running back has become exceedingly elusive, many fantasy players have found themselves drafting primarily WR’s in the first few rounds, particularly in the PPR formats that I frequently find myself playing. This leaves many players struggling to find enough Running Back depth to fill out their roster. Frequently, owners will take a “swing for the fences” type approach, and stock up on later round running backs in a hope to hit on one or two of them. One potential late-round flier at the Running Back position is rookie Wendell Smallwood, who was drafted in the 5th round of the 2016 NFL Draft by the Philadelphia Eagles.
Smallwood played his college football at West Virginia, and finished as the Big 12’s leading rusher this past season, totaling 1,519 yards rushing. Smallwood also showed well as a pass catcher at WVU, catching 57 passes in his final two years combined. This compares well to other running backs coming out of the draft. For comparison, Derrick Henry caught 17 passes over his ENTIRE CAREER at Alabama, and Smallwood caught 26 in his junior year alone. He ran the top 3-cone drill among RB’s at the 2016 combine, and came in at 5’10”, and around 210 pounds. His athleticism is above average, but not spectacular. However, he was able to successfully produce in various capacities for each of his three years at WVU. Perhaps the skill that most rookie running backs struggle with the most, Smallwood has shown capable, if occasionally inconsistent, in pass protection, making him much more likely to see the field in passing situations than a back who can’t block.
Smallwood does have some significant obstacles to playing time. Currently, Philadelphia has 6 running backs listed on their roster. However, Kenjon Barner and Cedric O’Neal are primarily special teams type players, and Byron Marshall played primarily receiver in his final season at Oregon, despite being listed as a running back by the Eagles. This leaves Smallwood, Darren Sproles, and Ryan Mathews as the three remaining backs on the roster. There have been off and on trade rumors regarding Sproles, who will turn 33 before the season starts. Most recently, Coach Doug Pederson has dismissed these rumors, but with OTA’s just beginning, it’s hard to know definitively who will and won’t be on the roster come the season openers. And as all too many fantasy players know, Ryan Mathews has quite the injury history (like in 2012 when he broke more collarbones than he scored touchdowns). While some dispute whether player’s can be “injury-prone” it’s undeniable that Mathews has had a difficult time staying on the field throughout his career. Mathews’ injuries, combined with Sproles’ age and the possibility of a trade, leaves Smallwood with a chance to see meaningful play time in his rookie season.
Currently going undrafted as of May 26th according to Fantasy Football Calculator’s ADP data, Smallwood is an extremely low-risk prospect who has a legitimate chance to see playing time in his rookie year. In an offense run by a coach who has said himself that he wants to establish the run, in a backfield with a 33-year-old and an oft-injured Ryan Mathews, Smallwood is a perfect late round target for those of us who choose to wait on running backs. His ability as a pass catcher also increases his potential value in PPR settings, a format which often heavily utilizes the “Zero-RB” strategy that has popped up over the past few seasons.
Smallwood’s 2016 value likely hinges on the health of Ryan Mathews. It’s always difficult (near impossible) to project player health. But as a capable pass-catcher, and with some of the early reports coming out of Philadelphia, Smallwood has the potential to earn significant work as the season rolls on. Given the fact that he could find himself getting starter’s carries, he’s absolutely worth a look in the last few rounds of redraft leagues.
Draft Stock: Worth a late round look, particularly if you’re thin at RB.
Could become a starting running back early on in career. Has the necessary pass catching skills, and blocking ability to be kept on the field for all three downs. Size can be a bit of a concern, but at 5’10” and 210 pounds, those concerns are overblown. With a potential early road to starter value, he’s a player worth considering.
Rookie Drafts: 3rd-4th, possibly 5th round. Earlier as possible Mathews handcuff.
Startup Value: Late rounds