Each year I seem to kick off my coverage a little differently but I think I will stick with the format that I’m about to drop on y’all starting right here. In past years, I’d often like to lump all the rookies together to make for one large article but, because of the size and the time required, I always felt it was a little light on coverage and information. Instead, this year, I’m going to focus on individual offensive skill positions and then wrap up with a combined listing/ranking given all my research and tape review.
Before going down the rabbit hole on the positions and specific names within them, I’ll first talk about the positional class as a whole in 2016 to gauge talent, depth and opportunity in fantasy. With the NFL Draft a few short months away and the Combine at the end of February, you have to stay tuned to DLF as we start digging in, kicking up dirt and getting you prepared ahead of your competition.
Before I get started, if you have followed me for any length of time, you know what I’m about to say as a word of caution. There are thousands of amateur draft/player analysts out there and a VERY large percentage of them simply parrot what others are saying, become enamored with a player for all the wrong reasons and don’t do their own work. I do all my own work, do listen to what the experts are saying as a comparison tool and am not afraid to go against the grain based on my own research and tape review with keen focus on dozens of traits and characteristics that I believe help identify players to watch and players to avoid. I’m not only interested in player talent for the NFL but, specifically, for fantasy production. There is a difference. Enough about all that – just choose carefully who you trust out there. It’s a jungle and I’ve found very few that I feel are worthy of my time.
Let’s dive in.
Little doubt that the worm has turned in both the NFL and fantasy related to the running back position. With many teams now squarely focused on role playing backs, sometimes three or more in a given system, we’re about to see the great depression in the position as draft season kicks off in fantasy this year. It was a wasteland in 2015 and that giant sucking sound you’re hearing is that of the value coming out of the position for 2016.
Should you need a bit more tangible evidence at how rookie drafts have produced recently, let me take you through the last five years of first round running back selections from my longest running dynasty league.
Drafted position will follow the players name for the given year – i.e. Todd Gurley (2). This league is PPR-based.
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Todd Gurley (2)
Melvin Gordon (3)
Carlos Hyde (3)
Bishop Sankey (6)
Eddie Lacy (1)
Le’Veon Bell (2)
Montee Ball (3)
Gio Bernard (4)
Marcus Lattimore (8)
Trent Richardson (2)
Doug Martin (3)
David Wilson (6)
Isaiah Pead (8)
Mark Ingram (2)
Ryan Williams (3)
Daniel Thomas (4)
Mikel Leshoure (7)
Kendall Hunter (8)
Shane Vereen (10)
There is no sugar coating it – Outside of 2013, this is a pretty poor grouping. Even when surveying 2013, I can’t say I’m overly thrilled. The jury is still out on 2015’s young backs but it does hold potential, especially in the youngster Todd Gurley.
My historical look back over those past five years was specifically given to prove a point that many coaches fail to recognize or believe. It’s very easy to go rookie blind when looking to build or rebuild your team. Outside of a very select few coaches that I’ve witnessed, including myself, trying to assemble a dynasty team via the draft is a fool’s folly. And to attempt it by drafting running backs at the foundation? Even moreso. Make no mistake here, the market has turned for the position and wide receivers are now fully in focus. That’s not to say that there won’t be great players that emerge out of each draft at the running back position, but I would strongly encourage you to seek a trade partner if you don’t hold a very high pick in your 2016 draft, likely the 1.01. Even then, you’re looking at a roughly 50% proposition of getting an every week starter at the position.
It’s no great secret that each year has its own rookie depth, talent pool and intrigue. No drafts are identically stratified although there are similarities that we can draw experience from. Personally, I try not to get lost in comparing one draft with another. Drafts can share similar depth and talent within positions but I’ve never found any true correlations to be leveraged when one year seems to mirror another. Players are different, opportunities and trends are different and drafted situation can really affect long term production for any drafted rookie.
If you’re going to hold a gun to my head and force a comparison here, I believe 2016 does vaguely resemble 2015 in stratification across positions. Perhaps 2012 (Trent Richardson) as well. Not enough to provide any intrigue beyond the first two picks for me. 2016 will offer two highly rated players in Laquon Treadwell (WR) and Ezekiel Elliott (RB). Outside of super-flex (2QB) leagues, I’ll be shocked if any other players sneak in ahead of these two names.
At the running back position, Elliot is the class of this year’s running back group – and it’s not close. 2015’s Heisman trophy winner, Derrick Henry will likely be a day two selection but could slip into the back end of the first round to teams like Houston and Denver or via trade to teams such as Dallas or the New York Giants. Regardless of Henry’s ultimate landing spot, he’s a difficult back to project into fantasy production. He’s not overly elusive and doesn’t project beyond an early down thumper with upside. I do believe he has enough in the tangible skill dept. to have a higher ceiling but projecting that is not something I’ll be looking to do.
Beyond Elliot, the cupboard is largely empty in ’16. The aforementioned Henry is certain to be a top six selection in fantasy but a poor landing spot could threaten that distinction. After Henry, this class lacks any semblance of intrigue or highly projected upside enough to generate excitement beyond one other name of interest to me. It’s the type of draft that will produce a Thomas Rawls, Karlos Williams or Buck Allen scenario as mediocre backs fall to later rounds. Odds are that some of these backs will produce in fantasy but projecting them is going to be as much guess-work as anything else. This year will challenge my tape-review skills but I’m up to the challenge.
To wrap up this summary, if you are needing running back help, this is not the draft for you unless you find yourself with the 1.01 or 1.02 selection. Allow others to go rookie-blind and trade away your first round selection for a younger productive player such as Doug Martin, Lamar Miller or perhaps even Carlos Hyde or a disillusioned Melvin Gordon owner. 2016 is a very poor draft at the running back position.
If you need any greater example of just how poor I think this class is, almost across the board, know that I love the draft, love having draft picks and spinning the wheel for rookies. And for 2016, I’m looking to move every first round selection I hold across all my leagues.
There’s a lot of film review remaining to be done. 2016 is one of those years, due to the large number of lower tier backs, where an increased focus on those that are not household names could pay off in a big way. In most cases like this, it’s far better to wait for the NFL Draft to conclude before doing a lot of tape review on the lower ranked running backs as drafted situation will have an enormous affect on opportunity. Knowing a bit more on backs like Thomas Rawls and Karlos Williams could have provided for a quicker response on the waiver wire once their names hit Twitter. Our goal here at DLF, of course, is for you to know about these players before the Twitterverse knows who they are.
What follows is a relatively shallow and loose ranking of those backs that I have scouted thus far, including some amount of tape review. Much work remains.
Elliot is the unquestioned headliner from the running back position. He’ll be a top-two selection in most every rookie draft unless teams at the top of your draft have a dire need at receiver.
I’ve seen many questions about just how good Elliot is and whether he’s more a product of the Ohio State system or whether his talents can transcend the college game to the NFL. My answer lies somewhere clearly in between. I just recently saw a note on Elliot that he falls between last year’s Gurley and Melvin Gordon. To me, that is too high of a ranking when considering Gurley’s value and, perhaps, too low when considering Gordon. Gordon remains an incredible mystery at the position and his 2015 play was not something I even remotely expected. Elliot is, of course, a completely different back than both Gurley and Gordon.
I cannot hang a first tier label on Elliot. I like him as a runner but he doesn’t possess any elite abilities that make me feel he will have a great NFL career. That’s not to say he isn’t a very good runner. In fact, his top trait is one that I do highly covet, that of running over his hips and behind his pads. He is nearly flawless body position when taking first contact. Run after run on film, you can see him running behind his pads and well centered over his hips through seams preparing for contact. Once contact is made, he has superb positioning to absorb the below but deliver his momentum to the contacting defender. This allows Elliot to remain on his feet to churn out extra yards or break off the big run.
In the passing game he’s capable due to his size in pass protection and his hands are better than advertised. Having reeled in 55 receptions over his past two years, he’s clearly capable of handling as much a load as will be offered at the next level. Speed, elusiveness and agility are fair but I don’t see elite status.
Ezekiel Elliott is light years away from Todd Gurley’s ceiling in my estimation but is an intriguing tier-two back.
Let the games begin!
Henry’s value is all over the map depending on who you talk to. The 2015 Heisman winner picked up momentum in the second half of the year to overtake LSU’s Leonard Fournette for the honors. Henry is a physical specimen and a beast at the second level. There’s a lot of mystery about his long speed and his hands out of the backfield but he’s fun to watch.
The positives of Henry’s game are his obvious size when combined with the speed he does possess. I do like his angular running style as he transitions his shoulders downfield. This style along with a very effective and natural stiff-arm punish approaching defenders taking an inferior angle or contact position. His size and momentum make him a difficult take-down target from behind or laterally. I really like his ball positioning during his runs. He keeps it high and tight and anticipates contact very well.
Alabama’s offensive line was capable of opening large holes that showcased Henry’s ability to get downhill and into his long strides. Most of these lanes will not be available at the next level, which is where the mystery really begins. The key to slowing him down is contact or contact at/near the line of scrimmage. Henry doesn’t possess elite lateral agility or quick feet and his hips are average at best. His elusiveness exists on angular runs combined with a stiff-arm for separation. Out of the backfield, his hands are somewhat raw and untested but his body size should allow for continued development in pass protection duty.
Henry’s value will largely be determined by the offensive line and scheme at the next level. In fantasy, non-PPR formats will raise his value but I fear that his value will slip mightily in any format rewarding receptions, long touchdowns and volume carries. Truth be told, there is the possibility that he’ll be overtaken by the third back in my rankings before it’s all said and done.
Collins is an intriguing back and has a lot of upside. Possessing what I consider to be ideal size at the position, Collins surpassed 1,000 yards all three years as a Razorback, averaging 5.5 ypc. scoring 36 touchdowns over that span.
When reviewing film, he’s fun to watch and has a bit of that “it” factor that I like to see in backs. He’s got very good hips and natural short area agility that he couples with acceleration to burst through seams and lanes into the second level. My favorite aspect of his game is his elite vision and ‘flow’ with the ball in his hands. Both of these traits are natural and quick after taking the hand-off. He’s extremely fluid and feels the lanes forming ahead of him and can dip, side-step and flow naturally to them. I love his effortless and patient slide off his leading blockers, choosing his direction, getting his foot in the ground and bursting into space. Once in the open field, his vision allows him to recognize and adapt quickly to approaching defenders, sometimes before the defenders even realize what they need to do. I’ve potentially overused the word “natural” here but that is exactly what these characteristics are. He gets small when he needs to, bursts through a lane when he needs to, is patient behind his blockers when needed and is very smooth and deliberate with where his feet take him next.
I don’t normally like to link out to review footage so early but you can best see what I’m seeing here:
Long speed, hands out of the backfield and pass protection will hurt his value early but his speed is satisfactory enough and he’s willing in both other areas so as not to be much of a concern. I’ll be focusing more on Collins in the near future with an emphasis on his abilities when plays break down and the lanes are not present.
My list takes a huge fall after Collins above. Finding my fourth ranked back in this class is a difficult exercise because I remain unenamored with those that are left.
Booker has natural back instincts and is an ‘angry’ runner with the ball in his hands. He’s got plus-feet and some measure of angular ability and runs bigger than his size would suggest. He reminds me a lot of Arian Foster with more adept hands. If not for turning 24 soon after the draft, I’d be more excited about Booker’s upside. That said, he’s got the size and ability to be a difference maker early in his career, potentially as a three-down back.
He tore his meniscus in late 2015 and he has seen his fair share of injuries over his career. He’ll be valued for his size, maturity and physicality at the next level and would be a great fit on a fantasy team that already has established running back talent. I expect Booker will fall to the third round in the NFL Draft due to age and injury concern combined with the fact that this class possesses a number of good-sized and capable runners that aren’t elite but could be role players. Much like in fantasy, the NFL continues to devalue the running back position, not in role but in draft value.
Keep an eye on Booker and his drafted situation. While he may be older and, thus, will have a shorter career, this doesn’t mean that he won’t be productive early.
A nifty back with decent feet and good size. I question whether he is really 212 lbs. as he has a leaner frame albeit with a good lower foundation, but I will reserve final opinion until after the Combine. What I like about Dixon is the combination of power, lateral agility and hands. Similar to Ezekiel Elliott, he utilizes great body positioning in preparation for contact such to allow him to absorb the hit while still churning out positive yards after contact. He has a nice jump step and shows good short-area agility and burst. He does prefer to bounce his runs outside the hashmarks but has run with sufficient pad level and power inside as well.
What really works in Dixon’s favor are his hands in the passing game. He extends well to the ball and shows fluidity at little-to-no speed loss while catching the ball in stride. Tech’s offensive line opened mammoth lanes for Dixon to run through and he has shown speed to capitalize. I won’t be surprised if he’s one of the faster backs for his size at the Combine.
Bigger back with good production over his last two years for Indiana. Physical downhill specimen that brings punishment. Stiff in the hips and not much in the way of lateral or angular agility. Runs with good pad level. Fair in the passing game and is willing in protection. He’ll get a chance due to his size but situation will be key.
I question his listed size and he’s a back that definitely has his supporters. I’ve tried to be intrigued but haven’t gotten there yet. Still more work to do.
Another back with a lot of support. He takes a long time to get up to speed in the film I’ve watched, looks like he’s running in molasses to/at the line of scrimmage. If given enough runway, he’s got speed but looks like two different players to the line of scrimmage and in the secondary. The issue is that in the NFL, getting to the secondary consistently takes a great offensive line and more quickness than I’ve seen from Perkins thus far.
The son of long time NFL back Fred Taylor, Kelvin notched his first collegiate 1,000 yard season in 2015, also scoring 13 touchdowns. The Gators suffered at the quarterback position but Taylor was productive nonetheless though never achieved greater than a 4.9 ypc. average. His hands are better than advertised and he wasn’t overly utilized in the passing game. He squares well to the line of scrimmage and shows a good pad level and patience behind his blockers when needed. At times I’ve questioned his long speed but at other times he’s shown better speed than I had seen previously. I’ll be notating his 40 time specifically at the Combine.
It’s hard to project Taylor as anything more than utility role player but if his questionable listed size holds up and he can run a sub 4.50 40, he’s got a chance to turn heads.
After missing the entire 2015 campaign due to a left foot injury suffered in a scrimmage, it looks like he’s headed to the NFL. His injury helped backfield mate Alex Collins.
He’s a big back, runs like a big back but does have a jump cut and shows good balance above his hips. He’s got just enough ‘wiggle’ to get small in lanes and sometimes sheds tacklers easily in traffic. He’s not going to beat many in the secondary with his long speed but his money will be made as an early down thumper with some upside. He shows good patience behind his blockers and displays determination once he sticks his foot in the ground to hit the hole.
- Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State
- Derrick Henry, Alabama
- Alex Collins, Arkansas
- Devontae Booker, Utah
- Kenneth Dixon, LA Tech
- Jordan Howard, Indiana
- C.J. Prosise, Notre Dame
- Paul Perkins, UCLA
- Kelvin Taylor, Florida
- Jonathan Williams, Arkansas
It’s still early and there’s a lot of film review left to do. Once again, this running back class just doesn’t impress me to any great degree and it’s a good year to be out of the market. I do find Alex Collins rising on my board and also believe that Jonathan Williams has upside in the right situation.
Other names will likely be added to the list so stay tuned as we continue to highlight names you should be watching. Next up we’ll be looking at the quarterback class!
Follow me on Twitter: @DLF_Jeff