For years, dynasty owners have looked forward to the running back class of 2015 as the one that would save the position, which has been slowing fading as a priority. This was the group that was supposed to change things though, and for good reason. The crop of rookies includes one of the top prospects to come along in years in Todd Gurley, college record breakers like Melvin Gordon and enough depth to make us all drool.
Following the NFL Draft, it felt fairly easy to rank this group of rookies, with Gurley and Gordon topping the list and second tier talents like Tevin Coleman, Ameer Abdullah, TJ Yeldon and Duke Johnson being selected in the mid-first to early second round range. The remaining rookie backs came off the board in the third and fourth round of rookie drafts due to a lack of elite talent or what seemed to be a subpar situation.
Obviously, after nearly three months of actual NFL game action, the way we view and value these young players has dramatically changed. As I was working on a rankings update for DLF earlier this week, it became clear the task of ranking running backs, specifically the rookie running backs, was a huge challenge. As I often do, I sought input on this difficult decision. Once I completed the task, I wanted to see how the community was currently valuing these players. I created a survey and asked my Twitter followers to take part by ranking fourteen dynasty relevant rookie runners. I was hoping for at least 50 responses to provide an adequate sample size for this article. Instead, over 300 of you spent a few minutes ranking the 14 running backs.
As Kentucky basketball head coach John Calipari often says to the overzealous Wildcat fans, “you people are crazy!”
Before I get to the results, here is an overview of the players I included in the survey and exactly what we’ve seen from them in their brief career.
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Todd Gurley, STL
Although he suffered a season ending injury in his final year at Georgia, that didn’t stop the Rams from selecting Gurley early in the first round and the same can be said for dynasty owners who chose him with a top two rookie pick this off-season. His debut was delayed due to that knee injury, but once he hit the field, he’s made a quick and substantial impact. His impressive start, combined with the knee injury suffered by Steelers’ back Le’Veon Bell has most valuing Gurley as the top back in the game.
Melvin Gordon, SD
When he landed in sunny San Diego, Gordon became the favorite as the top running back after Gurley. The Chargers had just said good bye to former starter Ryan Mathews and while Danny Woodhead was still there, he was not expected to stand in Gordon’s way as the lead back in the Chargers’ offense. Through 11 weeks, Gordon has fallen flat and showing little reason to expect a turnaround, while Woodhead is the more explosive, more trusted and simply better overall player.
Ameer Abdullah, DET
The former Nebraska runner, Abdullah was either loved or hated as a prospect entering the league. Many had him ranked as the second back behind Gurley, while others were concerned with his history of injuries and fumbles. It looked as if the Lions had hit the jackpot after Adbullah had some highlight reel runs in the preseason and then opened his career with a long touchdown run. Things have been downhill since though and Abdullah’s role has been decreasing in the past few weeks as the Lions’ leadership is trying desperately to save their jobs.
Jeremy Langford, CHI
Although he was not considered a top prospect entering the league, Langford quickly ascended to the prime backup behind Matt Forte in Chicago. When Forte went down with a knee injury a few weeks ago, Langford got his shot and he’s been more impressive than anyone could’ve predicted. Involved in the passing game as well as carrying the ball, Langford’s play has some suggesting this could be Forte’s final season in the Windy City. Forte will be a free agent following the season and also turning 30 in just a couple of weeks.
Thomas Rawls, DET
The former highly ranked college recruit, Rawls landed at small school Central Michigan after some off-field issues cost him his spot with the Wolverines or Michigan. After going undrafted, Rawls inked with the Seahawks, which looked like a terrible decision given the loaded depth chart including starter Marshawn Lynch and quality backups Robert Turbin and Christine Michael. Rawls’ play eventually led the Seahawks to part ways with both backups. With Lynch battling multiple injuries throughout the season, Rawls has gotten a chance at significant playing time and has been one of the biggest surprises of the season. Like Forte in Chicago, rumors are popping up that Rawls could also send Lynch out of town.
TJ Yeldon, JAX
When he was chosen by running back needy Jacksonville, Yeldon’s dynasty stock shot up and even though he missed much of training camp and pre-season, his value was steadily climbing in rookie and startup drafts. He has been a solid addition for the young Jaguars’ offense, but their strong passing game has limited his short-term upside.
Duke Johnson, CLE
The Cleveland Browns selected former Hurricanes back Johnson and it was a head-scratcher at the time, considering they had just added Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West the year before. The team eventually dumped West and Johnson has been playing primarily on passing downs. While he has not made his mark in the running game, he has shown some upside in PPR leagues.
Tevin Coleman, ATL
Things started very well for Coleman as he beat out Devonta Freeman for the Falcons’ starting job. After Coleman suffered a minor injury early in the season, Freeman began his breakout year that has moved him to the elite tier of fantasy scorers. Even with Freeman out of action last week, Coleman failed to impress in an every down role. His upside could be capped for years to come with Freeman in the picture.
David Johnson, ARZ
All Johnson does is score touchdowns. That is a good thing for the Cardinals, but not so good for fantasy owners, who are unsure when Johnson will make a big play as a runner, receiver or return man. With veterans Andre Ellington and Chris Johnson both fully healthy, Johnson’s opportunities have been limited. Those big plays serve as a sneak peek of his long-term upside once Ellington and/or Johnson are out of the picture.
Jay Ajayi, MIA
When reports broke that former Boise State star Ajayi had some serious injury concerns, his stock, both in the NFL Draft and dynasty rookie drafts, plummeted. Once considered a top five pick, he was routinely falling out of the top two rounds of rookie drafts and many had nearly forgotten about him by the time he made his NFL debut just a couple weeks ago. Ajayi has been impressive in a limited role though, rushing for nearly seven yards per carry through two weeks. With Lamar Miller also in Miami, Ajayi’s future role is uncertain.
Matt Jones, WAS
Everyone was surprised when the Redskins made Jones a day two pick during the NFL Draft, but Jones has been a solid contributor and quickly turned the Washington backfield into a committee attack. Jones has had some issues holding onto the ball, but the wide assumption is this will be Alfred Morris’ final season with the team, potentially opening a larger role for Jones.
Javorius Allen, BAL
With backup Lorenzo Taliaferro dealing with some early season injuries, the former USC bruising back Allen got an opportunity, but wasn’t able to capitalize. Since that time, both Taliaferro and starter Justin Forsett, along with most of the other offensive skill players for the Ravens, have been placed on the injured reserve list with season ending injuries. Forsett suffered a broken arm just last week and Allen is now in line to get the bulk of the work the remainder of the season. Allen has done little to increase his value so far, but will have the chance in the coming weeks.
Karlos Williams, BUF
Early on, it didn’t appear as if Williams would get any work during his rookie year. Not only was he dealing with a mysterious ailment that cost him most of the preseason, but he looked buried behind starter LeSean McCoy, Fred Jackson and Bryce Brown. Similar to Rawls’ situation in Seattle, the Bills liked Williams enough to part ways with both Jackson and Brown. With McCoy dealing with some periodic injuries, Williams has seen a lot of playing time and rewarded the Bills with many big plays.
David Cobb, TEN
The former Minnesota back, Cobb landed with the Titans and looked like a player who could steal the starting job from Bishop Sankey. At about the same time, the Titans traded for Terrance West and then placed Cobb on the injured reserve list, with a designation to return at some point during the season. That point was last week when Cobb made his season debut against the Jaguars. It was uneventful as he was actually held to negative yardage. The good news is the Titans’ run game is in terrible shape, with Sankey a non-factor and former undrafted free agent Antonio Andrews uninspiringly leading the rushing attack. The door is still open for Cobb to earn the starting job before the season ends.
For the majority of dynasty players, and the majority of those participating in this exercise, beginning this ranking with Gurley was an easy choice, but became very tricky as early as the second spot. The off-season favorite for that pick, Gordon, has been just plain bad and while his youth, draft pedigree and potential to earn a bulk of the carries for his team still give him solid dynasty value, it’s not as high as it was in the summer. The main issue making these rankings, and any rankings, difficult is synthesizing expectations with actual production. When players like Langford and Rawls are two of the most productive runners, should they automatically bypass formerly high draft picks like Gordon, Yeldon, Coleman and others? That is the ultimate question we all face.
As I mentioned, there was an overwhelming response, which provides us all with some solid data to learn how these rookies are being valued in comparison to one another. After collecting and organizing the data from 310 sets of rankings, I found the average rank of each player, along with the standard deviation, which was nearly identical for the group, outside of one outlier on each side of the data. I’ll include that information, along with the high and low rank for each player among the hundreds of responses.
|Rank||Name||Average Rank||High Rank||Low Rank||Standard Deviation|
As you can see, the majority of the data is similar for most of these players, with all players outside of Gurley and Rawls peaking with a rank between two and four and the majority of players being ranked last on at least one list. Gurley was the clear favorite, followed by Yeldon, while Cobb was bringing up the rear. Everyone else had a standard deviation between two and three
Let’s quickly run through the list, focusing the the top risers and fallers since the season began:
There’s no surprise at the top as Gurley was a top two pick in the majority of dynasty leagues and he’s proven why. Not only is he widely considered the top rookie running back, he’s the top overall running back according the many dynasty players, myself included. He was the top ranked player on 306 of the 310 lists.
The second ranked rookie, Yeldon, is also the expected choice, considering he was chosen in the top half of rookie drafts and has been fairly successful early on for the Jaguars. Unlike Gordon is San Diego, there is really no serious threat to Yeldon’s snaps, lending him some additional dynasty value.
Now we get to one of the main reasons I conducted this exercise. With the recent hot streak of a couple of surprise rookie backs, I wondered how they were being valued in relation to their peers and your answer was strong and loud. Rawls is not only the third back on the list, but he was the only player other than Gurley to be listed as the top back on a list, garnering that spot four times. Following close behind him is Langford, the Bears’ upstart rookie. While both are obviously highly regarded overall, they still have their non-believers too, based on the low rank assigned by some respondents. The value of both of these players will ultimately come down to the future of their veteran teammates, Lynch and Forte.
Next, we have Gordon averaging out to be the fifth ranked rookie running back. Many participants still had Gordon ranked second, which was the pre-season consensus and he’s testing the question as to how we balance projections and production. If any of the backs below him had shown more consistency, I think Gordon would have fallen even further.
Williams as the sixth ranked back was somewhat of a surprise for me. The Bills have given him touches, but have also shown a loyalty to their new starter, McCoy. Williams was ranked as a top four back on a large number of lists and might make a good sell high candidate if you can find one of his supporters in your league.
The next four backs, Abdullah, Duke Johnson, Jones and David Johnson have all flashed at times this season, but all are dealing with typical issues for rookies, including crowded depth charts, trouble hanging onto the ball and inconsistent playing time. If this survey was conducted earlier in the season, it may have been one or more of these backs in Rawls’ or Langford’s spot.
The final four players haven’t had the opportunity that most of counterparts have, mostly due to injury. Ajayi and Cobb just recently made their NFL debuts, while Coleman has been stuck behind Freeman. Allen will get his chance starting this coming Monday night against the Browns. Each of these players could quickly rise up this type of list with a could of strong performances in the season’s final weeks.
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