For the second consecutive draft, no running back heard his name called in the first round. But while it’s clear the position is being devalued by the NFL, fantasy owners aren’t as quick to bail on the RBs.
So while there’s no Adrian Peterson—or, hopefully, no Trent Richardson—in this draft class, there are several Day Two backs with the potential to emulate the success second-rounder Eddie Lacy had last season en route to winning Rookie of the Year honors. Here’s an overview of the fantasy prospects for this year’s running back class.
BISHOP SANKEY, TITANS
Bishop Sankey hits the fantasy lottery landing in Tennessee. For starters, the Titans just got rid of high-workload feature back Chris Johnson, so there’s an opportunity for touches. Shonn Greene, who shared some of CJ?K’s carries last season and currently stands as the incumbent back, is fresh off of knee surgery. Moreover, the Titans have enough question marks at quarterback that they’re slated to be a run-heavy offense again this season. And oh yeah, they have a talented offensive line and just added mammoth tackle Taylor Lewan in the first round.
So the opportunity is high, and faithful readers of “Fantasy Football: The Next Level” know that number gets doubled in the running back value equation. Sankey’s situation and talent aren’t bad, either; he was widely considered the most complete back in this year’s draft class. At minimum he offers a speedy complement to Greene in much the same way Giovanni Bernard complemented BenJarvus Green-Ellis last year. The upside, if Greene’s injury or other factors push Sankey into 20-plus touches per game, is a Doug Martin-esque rookie season. We strongly suggest taking a step or two back if you happen to mention Sankey’s name in DMD’s presence.
JEREMY HILL, BENGALS
While Jeremy Hill’s on-field performance warranted first-round consideration, a litany of off-the-field issues bumped him to the second day of the draft—and made him a perfect fit for the Bengals. A powerful, north-south runner who doesn’t put the ball on the ground, Hill is a younger, hopefully faster version of BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Don’t be at all surprised if Hill relegates BJGE to the bench or waiver wire, taking over the complementary gig in Giovanni Bernard’s backfield and becoming a solid fantasy contributor right off the bat—especially in touchdown-heavy scoring systems.
CARLOS HYDE, 49ERS
Eventually, someday, Frank Gore will ride off into the sunset. We thought the Niners were preparing for the inevitable when they drafted Marcus Lattimore last year, but San Francisco spending a second-round pick on Carlos Hyde suggests that Lattimore has yet to regain the magic he lost to an ACL injury.
Hyde’s game stands on its own, and in a division where Marshawn Lynch reigns supreme the 49ers now have a similar back—a big bruiser with quick feet who has drawn comparisons to Lynch and last year’s ROY, Eddie Lacy. Behind the mauling San Francisco line, Hyde seems perfectly suited to take the mantle from Gore—perhaps sooner rather than later—and carry on the recent 49ers tradition of ball-control offense.
TRE MASON, RAMS
The Rams went fishing for running back help in last year’s draft, ending up with Zac Stacy as their primary ball-carrier. Spending a third-round pick on Mason in this year’s draft isn’t necessarily an indictment of Stacy; rather, the smallish Mason might be best served—initially, at least—as a complementary back rather than attempt to be a workhorse at 5-8 and 207 pounds.
Not that Mason can’t eventually become a feature back along the lines of Ray Rice or Julius Jones, to whom he has drawn comparisons. But out of the gates look for Mason to use his speed and agility as a third-down/change of pace guy to Stacy’s between the tackles work. Dynasty leaguers shouldn’t be shy about bumping Mason up a bit, as anyone capable of breaking Bo Jackson’s single-season rushing record at least warrants a look-see as a 20-touch per game back in the NFL.
TERRANCE WEST, BROWNS
The Baltimore Ravens had their sights set on taking Terrance West in the third round, keeping the Towson University product close to home. However, the Browns had other ideas and traded ahead of their division rivals to add West to a backfield mix that also includes free agent signee Ben Tate and undrafted rookie Isaiah Crowell. West is getting a ton of love from fantasy owners as perhaps the best fantasy option of the trio. At minimum, the 225-pound West projects to be a complimentary piece of the Cleveland backfield—notably at the stripe, as his 86 career touchdowns (84 rushing) suggest he has a nose for the goal line.
There are certainly other reasons to be enamored with West’s fantasy prospects. For starters, Tate hasn’t exactly been a bastion of good health despite limited workloads in Houston. Factor in the likely absence of Josh Gordon this season and the Browns will by necessity be a run-heavy attack. And if you view Johnny Manziel as a Robert Griffin III clone in Kyle Shanahan’s offense, that potentially makes West another Alfred Morris—a very good thing, indeed.
DEVONTA FREEMAN, FALCONS
The Falcons tried to complement Michael Turner with Jaquizz Rodgers, then used Steven Jackson with a smattering of Rodgers and some Jason Snelling mixed in. Neither produced the desired results, so Rodgers—and to some degree, Jackson—could be pushed by fourth-round pick Devonta Freeman. A low-mileage, high-effort back who’s shifty and more powerful than his 5-8, 206 pound size might suggest, Freeman could serve as a complementary back this year before nudging Jackson out the door at some point down the road.
DEEPER DYNASTY CONSIDERATIONS
Michael Bush is gone as Matt Forte’s running mate in Chicago, and while Forte didn’t need much complementing a year ago Marc Trestman’s track record has been to give multiple backs meaningful touches. Fourth-round pick Ka’Deem Carey is far more Bush-like than Forte-esque, a physical inside runner who could move quickly into that complementary role this season… With Jay Gruden at the helm in Washington, the offense may be looking for a pass-catching back to complement Alfred Morris. Roy Helu is the incumbent in that role, but sixth-round pick Lache Seastrunk –a compact, powerfully-built back with video-game moves—could push for the gig as well… Already loaded with backs, the Buccaneers’ third-round selection of Charles Sims seemed superfluous. Sims’ primary skill is his receiving ability, so perhaps Tampa Bay’s coaching staff has a role along those lines planned for him; either that, or they’re really cleaning house—or backfield, as it were… The Vikings came into the draft looking for a replacement for Toby Gerhart in the unenviable job of backing up Adrian Peterson; rather than add an experienced, plug-and-play back Minnesota opted for the athletic upside of converted option quarterback Jerick McKinnon. There’s talent there, but he’ll need to develop more quickly than, say, Denard Robinson to have a fantasy impact in the foreseeable future… The aforementioned Isaiah Crowell went undrafted due to off-the-field issues, but the former SEC Freshman of the Year signed with Cleveland and will compete with Ben Tate and fellow rookie Terrance West for touches. If he’s cleaned up his act, Crowell could wind up being the best of that bunch.