There is arguably nothing more valuable than a talented rookie running back in today’s NFL. Okay, maybe a couple of things like Tom Brady or Pat Mahomes, but just hear me out for a minute. Although these rookie runners bask in the spotlight at a young age, this fact is catastrophic for the young rushers themselves. The ever-growing trend of running these young backs into the turf only to dump them after their low cap-hit rookie deals expire continues to gain ground. Nonetheless, we’re not here to offer our opinion on the famed “Do Running Backs Matter” debate – you can research for yourself using Pro Football Focus’ Wins Above Replacement metric. Per PFF’s 2018 study, Christian McCaffrey was the top-ranked RB last year and he placed 36th in the NFL overall (McCaffrey is my RB1 this year, by the way). NFL GM’s and head coaches alike are not as prepared to take the long-term plunge investing in their aging rushers as they once were. They would rather draft talented rushers and maximize their value while they’re cheap. Warren Sharp of SharpFootballStats looked at the RB cap hits of all Super Bowl Champion teams from 2005-2017. He found that the average cap hit of their top rusher (measured by touches) was $2.1mm. Compare that with Todd Gurley’s $17.25mm 2020 cap hit & take into account his newly discovered knee issues. The return on investment isn’t justifying these costly extensions.
Now, what does this all mean for fantasy football? Rookie rushers can be had for pennies on the dollar, and are more likely to be utilized early and often much to the delight of the fantasy owners willing to invest in these young assets. In 2018, three rookies finished inside the top 15: Saquon Barkley, Phillip Lindsay & Nick Chubb. The year prior, four backs were able to crack the same threshold: Kareem Hunt, Alvin Kamara, Leonard Fournette & Christian McCaffrey. Let’s take a look at two fantasy rookie rushers to watch in 2019 who could pay similar dividends. Side note: I’m leaving out Josh Jacobs as no rookie has gotten more attention & hype this offseason, but I still project him to finish as a top 15 play at the position.
Speaking of Todd Gurley’s unfortunate knee ailments, let’s kick it off (no pun intended) with his inevitable replacement. The Rams didn’t trade up almost a full round (24 spots) in this year’s NFL Draft to snag Darrell Henderson only for him to ride the pine. Expect an impact right from the get-go from this insanely talented rookie. Henderson’s college production won’t be replicated in the NFL, but during his time at Memphis, he averaged a career YPC of 8.2. 8.2 yards per carry. Yes, 8.2. I had to re-type it because I have never seen a statistic so absolutely ludicrous. Now, Memphis never had to face the Seattle Seahawks’ Bobby Wagner or the San Francisco 49ers’ DeForest Buckner twice a year, but the talent is unquestionable.
Henderson isn’t just a ground and pound type runner either – he is the epitome of explosiveness. The Memphis product tallied 19 plays from scrimmage that went for 30+ yards during his final collegiate season. That’s a higher total than one New York Giant running back whose last name rhymes with Tarkley. Per PFF, Henderson ranked 1st in Yards after Contact among all RBs with at least 150 attempts, 3rd in 10+ yard runs, and 7th in overall grade.
Bottom line, this kid is as talented as they come. Now, drop him into the second most efficient offense in the NFL in the LA Rams, per Football Outsiders DVOA metric. Simply watch this running highlight reel continue to churn out big play after big play. Gurley will likely still command the lion’s share of touches in the LA backfield to start, but Sean McVay has already touted the possibility of an increase in two-back sets. This makes Henderson a viable flex play even with Gurley on the field. If Gurley were to miss significant time, we’re looking at a weekly top-15 play with a top-5 ceiling. He is essentially a considerably more talented late-season CJ Anderson with less mileage & better receiving skills. Per The Fantasy Football Calculator, he’s going in the back half of the 6th round, which seems to be the right price given the massive upside. Don’t let Gurley scare you off the scent – Henderson will be among the most explosive backs in the league on arguably the most explosive and innovative rushing attack in football.
Brian Westbrook. LeSean McCoy. Miles Sanders? Philly hasn’t had a rusher this talented on their roster since the likes of the aforementioned studs. Now we’re looking at one of the most innovative offenses in the league commanded by a young superstar QB in Carson Wentz, and perhaps the best O-Line in football. Talk about Sanders landing in the ideal situation for immediate fantasy stardom. I wouldn’t scoff at the presence of Jordan Howard, Corey Clement, or Wendell Smallwood, but Sanders is the most talented of the bunch and Howie Roseman invested a second-round pick in the Penn State product for a good reason.
The Eagles are in dire need of a three-down talent as their stable of backs listed above doesn’t quite fit the bill. Howard is an aging bruiser whose best days are likely behind him – exactly what the NFL is trending away from. Clement and Smallwood are one-trick pony pass-catching specialists. Once the rookie can grasp the offensive schemes and pass protection Doug Pederson is looking to deploy, look for Sanders to easily unseat the competition and command upwards of 18-20 touches per contest.
In an interview with Pro Football Focus, Sanders’ claimed to be the most complete running back in this year’s draft class. His self-confidence isn’t lacking, and Sander’s isn’t too far off in his prognostication. Per PFF, Sanders ranked 8th in yards after contact per touch among 55 qualifying FBS backs last season, and 7th in yards after contact when touched at or behind the line of scrimmage.
While his overall college production might not compare to the likes of Darrell Henderson, Sanders has been touted as the most athletically gifted rookie RB in his class. Standing at 5’11” 210 pounds, he is the prototypical NFL bell-cow back. Per PlayerProfiler, he ran a sub 4.5 40-yard dash at the combine, and his Agility Score placed him in the 82nd-percentile. He was also the top-ranked RB in the nation coming out of high school just three years ago.
For Sanders, the talent has always been there, but the opportunity and therefore, production, has seemingly brushed him aside. Another superstar Penn State rusher now playing for the New York Giants overshadowed Sanders’ brief career as a Nittany Lion, but Sanders has now taken to the air as a high flying Philadelphia Eagle. Expect the rookie to take back the lion’s share of touches and become the clear cut three-down back no later than the end of Philly’s training camp.
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