Throughout the season, the Rookie Report Card has covered some of the biggest rookies and not only looked at their performance to date – but also their long term upside. Now that the regular season has wrapped up and fantasy owners are looking towards the future, we have an opportunity to take one last look at the 2015 season and assess the rookies – A final report card if you will. I already covered the quarterbacks so let’s move on.
We covered 25 rookies throughout the season, including nine running backs. Let’s put a bow on the season by taking one more look at those signal callers’ first shot running the ball on Sundays, as well as a quick glimpse into their futures in part two of the Final Rookie Report Card – Running Backs.
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David Johnson, RB ARI
Season Stats: 125 carries, 581 rushing yards (4.6 YPC), 8 touchdowns, 36 catches, 457 receiving yards, four touchdown receptions
I’ve loved Johnson since the first time I saw him play at Northern Iowa but I never believed he’d make this kind of impact this quickly.
After being a change-of-pace back behind Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington early in the season, Johnson has taken advantage of injuries and used his incredible speed, impressive cutback ability, powerful tackle breaking skills and soft hands to take over as the Cardinals’ three-down tailback. He looks like the future in the Arizona backfield and in that offense, carries elite upside entering 2016. His youth and RB1 potential make him a top-four dynasty asset at running back and worthy of a late second-round draft pick in startups.
T.J. Yeldon, RB JAX
Season Stats: 182 carries, 740 rushing yards (4.1 YPC), two touchdowns, 36 catches, 279 receiving yards, one touchdown reception
Like many of the rookies mentioned here, Yeldon played behind a below-average run blocking unit as a rookie. Because the Jaguars played from behind for much of the season, game flow dictated often that he wouldn’t get a lot of touches and that translated into only two games with more than 70 rushing yards on the year. He also averaged less than 4.0 yards per carry in half of his 12 games. Despite those numbers though, Yeldon showed signs of having what it takes to be a lead runner in the league. He was decisive and showed explosion through the hole while also making tacklers miss with regularity.
With a current ADP in the middle of the third round, dynasty owners are relying on Yeldon (and Jaguars’ offensive line) to make improvements going into his second year. With the other skill position players already in place, Yeldon should be in line to make a big leap as a sophomore and could realize his RB1 potential as soon as next season.
Thomas Rawls, RB SEA
Season Stats: 147 carries, 830 rushing yards (5.6 YPC), four touchdowns, nine receptions, 76 receiving yards, one touchdown reception
An undrafted free agent, Rawls burst onto the scene with a powerful running style and sharp cutback ability. Always running behind his pads, he doles out punishment and keeps his balance to consistently gain extra yards after contact.
Remind you of anybody? Perhaps the guy he backed up to start his rookie year, Marshawn Lynch?
Rumors are running rampant that Lynch have played his final snaps in Seattle (and perhaps as a pro.) If that’s the case, Rawls will enter 2015 as an RB1. If not however, he’ll be in a timeshare at best. Although I like Rawls and think he has upside to be a top-12 fantasy runner in Seattle, I’m a bit too leery to pay RB1 prices for him considering the question marks surrounding him including Lynch, his ankle injury and his questionable skills on third down. If I had him, I’d hold him unless somebody blew me away with an offer. But I certainly wouldn’t want to be the one forced to make such an offer to acquire him.
Jeremy Langford, RB CHI
Season Stats: 148 carries, 537 rushing yards (3.6 YPC), six touchdowns, 22 receptions, 279 receiving yards, one touchdown reception
When I covered Langford in the Rookie Report Card back in week 9, I concluded that although he has good vision, very good lateral quickness and excellent hands, he lacks the ability to consistently break tackles and insists on bouncing runs to the perimeter when nothing is there rather than lowering his head and churning his legs for as many yards as possible. Nothing has changed since I wrote that.
Langford is a quality football player but lacks the skills to be a high-end fantasy asset. He’s currently being drafted as the overall RB13 and is being drafted around players like Jordan Reed, Mark Ingram, Jamaal Charles and LeSean McCoy. If I owned him, I’d gladly accept that type of value in return to move him.
Matt Jones, RB WAS
Season Stats: 144 carries, 490 rushing yards (3.4 YPC), three touchdowns, 19 receptions, 304 receiving yards, one touchdown reception
Jones got off to a hot start in his rookie season, averaging 6.04 yards per carry and scoring a pair of touchdowns over his first two games. Things slowed considerable after that point as he averaged just 2.85 yards per carry over his next 11 games. After tapering off so heavily, he missed time late in the year with a hip injury.
I highlighted Jones after his biggest game of the year in week two’s edition of the Rookie Report Card and concluded that although he’s quick off the line of scrimmage, can break tackles and has the power necessary to move a pile, he lacks the patience and vision to be a successful featured runner.
At best, Jones is a mid-RB2 and that depends on him getting the backfield to himself. Although Alfred Morris is a free agent and will likely move on in the off-season which could pave the way for a bigger role, becoming a consistent RB2 is unlikely due to his limitations.
Duke Johnson, RB CLE
Season Stats: 104 carries, 379 rushing yards (3.6 YPC), 61 receptions, 534 receiving yards, two touchdown receptions
Johnson was one of my favorite tailbacks in last year’s class. With elite burst and cutback ability, he profiled as an explosive weapon that could turn any play into a touchdown in a blink despite his small stature (5-foot-9, 207 pounds). As his rookie season progressed, it was clear that the Mike Pettine and the rest of the Browns’ coaching staff didn’t trust Johnson as anything more than a third-down tailback. Now that Pettine and company have been shown the door, it will be interesting to see how new coach Hue Jackson – who used the similarly sized Giovani Bernard (5-foot-9, 205 pounds) with success in Cincinnati – will use the talented tailback.
Although his fantasy value centers on how the new coaching staff will use him going forward, it’s difficult to believe Johnson won’t have every opportunity to make a splash in Cleveland in year two. He has RB2 upside in all leagues and could crack the top-15 in PPR leagues which makes him a prime trade target going into 2016.
Karlos Williams, RB BUF
Season Stats: 93 carries, 517 yards (5.6 YPC), seven touchdowns, 11 receptions, 96 receiving yards, two touchdown receptions
Williams burst onto the scene in Buffalo as an explosive playmaker backing up LeSean McCoy. On top of scoring nine touchdowns in just 11 games, he averaged 5.6 yards per carry and was routinely used ahead of McCoy in the red zone. Injuries slowed Williams’ progress as he missed six games and parts of a couple more but when he was on the field, his size (6-foot-1, 230 pounds) and explosiveness at the line of scrimmage complimented his physical running style perfectly.
When both were healthy, it was apparent Rex Ryan and Bills intended to use McCoy as the primary ball carrier between the 20s and Williams as a change up and goal line back. Although that isn’t ideal for his dynasty owners, there’s still value to be had as Williams proved he was capable of putting up RB2/flex numbers with just 6-12 touches in a game.
Williams has RB1 potential if he ever gets the opportunity to be a workhorse and can stay healthy, but as long as McCoy is around and on the field he’ll likely be a top-end flex player with that massive upside.
Zach Zenner, RB DET
Season Stats: 17 carries, 60 rushing yards (3.5 YPC), two receptions, 11 receiving yards, zero touchdowns
One of the forgotten names of the 2015 rookie running back class is Zenner due to a lung injury he suffered in week six. A downhill runner with excellent feet and a blue collar work ethic, he makes great cuts, hits the hole hard and always works for extra yardage after contact. Despite being undrafted out of South Dakota State University, he made a splash in the preseason and rumors were swirling up until his injury that he could start taking carries away from Joique Bell.
While there’s nothing guaranteed to him going into his second season and he’ll be a part of a full backfield that also features fellow sophomore Ameer Abdullah as well as Theo Riddick, Zenner could take over Bell’s role as early down runner. If he does so, he could have flex appeal as soon as this fall.
Josh Robinson, RB IND
Season Stats: 17 carries, 39 rushing yards (2.3 YPC), six receptions, 33 receiving yards, zero touchdowns
Robinson started the season as the primary backup to Frank Gore but was released after averaging just 2.3 yards per carry and struggling with fumbles. He was re-signed to the practice squad but never got called back up to the active roster.
Overall, Robinson is a replacement level tailback that lacks vision and creativity as a runner. He shouldn’t be rostered except in the deepest of dynasty leagues.
Check back in the coming days for my look at the rookie class of receivers.
Find Dan on Twitter at @dmeylor22