It’s a widely held opinion that the 2019 rookie class is light on running back talent. There are a couple of interesting high-end options, but I mostly agree — the strength of this class is in its variety of borderline elite wide receiver talent.
There are running backs in this class I’m interested in, but not at the expense of an N’Keal Harry or AJ Brown in the early first round, or even an Andy Isabella or JJ Arcega-Whiteside in the late first or early second. Pulling a David Montgomery or Josh Jacobs-level back into the first round of a rookie draft based on need means losing out on an upper-tier wide receiver prospect, and likely failing to maximize the value of your roster.
The good news is that the 2020 running back class looks to be stocked with top-end options, and while this class might not have high peaks, it is deep and flat. This article will outline some quality arbitrage plays at the running back position that will allow dynasty gamers to take advantage of this class’ strong receiver options while taking shots on late-round runners that are just as good as (if not better than) some of the backs going at the top of the draft.
Higher-ADP running back: Josh Jacobs, Alabama (ADP of 5.4, per DLF)
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Later-round alternative: Devine Ozigbo, Nebraska (39.0)
Jacobs doesn’t boast quality production or even average athleticism, but he is an appealing prospect, largely due to his impressive efficiency on limited work at Alabama, as well as the versatility he offers as a workhorse-sized back with legitimate chops in the passing game.
Devine Ozigbo out of Nebraska checks the same boxes in addition to having adequate production and quality athletic ability. Ozigbo stands 6’, 222 pounds to Jacobs’ 5’10, 220, and enters the NFL with a college Satellite Score (a metric that adjusts receiving production for total offensive involvement to better predict a player’s passing game role in the NFL) of 37.0. That 67th-percentile figure indicates strong ability in the passing game (it’s a mark higher than Kareem Hunt, Marlon Mack, Maurice Jones-Drew, and Devonta Freeman coming out — Jacobs leaves Alabama with a Score of 33.6).
Ozigbo was a comparably efficient runner to Jacobs in 2018 according to metrics like True Yards Per Carry (he produced a 4.56 mark to Jacobs’ 4.51) and Breakaway Rate (he boasts a 7.7% rate of 20+ yard runs to Jacobs’ 0.8%), and his final season Dominator Rating of 25.5% dwarfs Jacobs’ 13.9% mark. Ozigbo also displayed superior athleticism at his pro day, running sub-4.60 seconds in the 40-yard dash and producing an 81st-percentile Burst Score.
Jacobs will almost certainly be selected earlier than Ozigbo in the NFL Draft, and that higher draft capital will likely come with increased early-career opportunity. If you can stomach a selection of Hakeem Butler or AJ Brown in the early-to-mid first round of your rookie draft though, pass on Jacobs. You’ll be able to draft Ozigbo substantially later, and, in my opinion, you’ll get the better player.
Higher-ADP running back: David Montgomery, Iowa State (7.7)
Later-round alternative: Alexander Mattison, Boise State (undrafted)
Iowa State’s Montgomery is another sub-athlete, bellcow-sized runner boasting three-down ability being taken at the top of this rookie running back class, but unlike his counterpart Jacobs, Montgomery has a quality college production profile.
Most notably, Montgomery posted two upper-percentile Dominator Rating seasons in 2017 and 2018 in which he twice ran for 1,000 yards while smashing Pro Football Focus metrics for missed tackles forced per attempt. In addition to his success as a rusher, Montgomery proved to be a capable pass-catcher, hauling in a combined 58 receptions in his final two seasons and posting a 67th-percentile Satellite Score of 37.3 in 2017.
Alexander Mattison checks many of the same boxes and can currently be had at the very end of rookie drafts, if not as a free agent pick-up afterwards. He leaves Boise State following a 29% Dominator Rating season in which he ran for 1,000 yards and caught at least 27 passes for the second year in a row. While not quite the tackle-breaking machine that Montgomery was in college, Mattison proved impressive in that area in his own right, and boasts an athletic profile that bests Montgomery’s.
Mattison improved upon his disappointing 4.67 40-time from the Combine with an adjusted 4.60 at his pro day, and showed good strength and explosiveness with a 22-rep effort on the bench and a performance in the jumps that produced a 75th-percentile Burst Score.
Montgomery has no athletic traits that measure as even average. While the Iowa State product’s combination of size, tackle-breaking ability, and receiving chops likely ensures a strong role in the NFL, Mattison brings all that to the table but with quality athletic traits to boot. He offers workhorse potential in the latest stages of a rookie draft.
Higher-ADP running back: Justice Hill, Oklahoma State (21.0)
Later-round alternative: Travis Homer, Miami (45.5)
Hill is a smaller back with explosive athleticism who enters the NFL after averaging 98.3 rushing yards per game during his career at Oklahoma State. Currently being taken in the second round of dynasty rookie drafts, Hill offers tantalizing upside as a 91.6% athletic match to Reggie Bush, per my player comparison model.
The problem is Hill comes with a production profile that doesn’t suggest he’s anything more than an average pass-catcher. While never producing a Dominator Rating that exceeds the 41st percentile, Hill posted a 66th-percentile Satellite Score in 2017 that is book-ended by scores from 2016 and 2018 that land in the fifth and 30th percentiles, respectively.
It’s difficult to project a small, relatively unproductive back for a solid role in the NFL if you can’t confidently pin them as a strong receiving threat. If you’re a fan of the Justice Hill archetype — the fast and explosive 200-pound scatback — then you might as well take a shot on a player that fits the mold while also offering quality receiving ability.
Miami’s Travis Homer is 5’10, 201 pounds (Hill is just under 5’10, 200) and runs a 4.48 40-yard dash to Hill’s 4.40 while boasting a 94th-percentile Burst Score of 132.2 (Hill’s is 133.0). He produced similarly to Hill in college while posting Satellite Scores that never dipped below the 52nd percentile, with a 78th-percentile final season Score of 41.5.
Homer is a similar prospect to Hill in almost every way, but his more impressive college receiving profile means he projects much more cleanly for a role as an explosive satellite back in the NFL than does Hill. With nearly 25 picks separating them in rookie drafts, I’m taking the value of Homer every time.
Higher-ADP running back: Devin Singletary, Florida Atlantic (21.7)
Later-round alternative: Bryce Love, Stanford (32.2)
The hype has cooled a bit on Florida Atlantic product Singletary, but he is still being taken in the second round of dynasty rookie drafts. A super producer in Conference USA, Singletary enters the NFL on the heels of back-to-back 79th-percentile or better Dominator Rating seasons.
He’s a highlight video hero who routinely made defenders look stupid in college with his Shady McCoy x Maurice Jones-Drew running style, but at just 5’7 and 203 pounds, Singletary doesn’t profile as a high-volume rusher in the NFL. His yearly decrease in target share and the seventh-percentile Satellite Score of 12.8 that he posted in 2018 call his potential role in the pros into even more question. Adding to all that his abysmal Combine performance (4.66 in the 40-yard dash, 17th-percentile Agility Score, and a 46th-percentile Burst Score as the highlight), and it’s difficult to picture Singletary making much of an impact in the NFL.
If you’re small, unathletic, and not a plus in the passing game, what reason does an offensive coordinator have for involving you in the gameplan? And if you’re a fantasy gamer interested in swinging for the fences on the productive, bite-sized running back with big question marks, why go Singletary over someone like Stanford’s Bryce Love?
At 5’9 and 200 pounds, Love was similarly productive (37.7% Dominator Rating in 2017 before an injury-ravaged 2018) in a much stronger conference, and while the specifics of his athletic profile are unknown due to the ACL tear he suffered last season, he’s very obviously a superior athletic talent to Singletary (Love was a track and field prodigy as a kid, and broke off 20+ yard runs at a 9.1% higher rate than the rest of his Cardinal teammates during his healthy 2017 season, a mark better than Darrell Henderson’s 7.9% rate from 2018, the best in this year’s class).
Love, like Singletary, offers questionable receiving ability, as while he caught 20 passes this last year, his most productive collegiate campaign saw him produce just a 7.4 Satellite Score, a figure that would rank in the second percentile. Considering his size, ambiguous receiving chops, and injury history, Love is by no means a risk-free prospect. The point here is that Singletary isn’t either, and if you’re taking shots on risky, undersized runners, go with the one with elite speed who produced in a Power Five conference, never mind the fact that you can grab him a round later.
Higher-ADP running back: James Williams, Washington State (34.5)
Later-round alternative: Patrick Laird, Cal (undrafted)
Former Washington State satellite back Williams is one of the more obviously elite pass-catching backs to come out in several years. With over 200 career receptions, Williams’ yearly Satellite Score output never dipped below the 94th percentile, and the 91.1 Score he produced in 2017 would be the fifth-highest in my entire database.
His production and athletic profiles are both decent, as he pairs a 43rd-percentile Dominator Rating in 2018 with a 4.58 40-yard dash and Burst and Agility Scores that each reach at least the 63rd percentile. While his ceiling is not incredibly high, Williams seems like as much of a sure thing as there is in prospect evaluation. He will be a quality satellite back in the NFL. While Williams is being taken in the third or fourth round of rookie drafts, another (perhaps even more impressive) receiving back prospect is currently going undrafted.
Patrick Laird of Cal is a converted wide receiver with a superior college production profile to Williams. He ends his Bear career after two straight seasons with Dominator Ratings in at least the 60th percentile, with Satellite Scores in those seasons that bottomed out at the 81st-percentile.
At 5’11 and 205 pounds, he has a heavier, denser frame than Williams’ 5’9, 197, and Laird’s 98th-percentile Agility Score of 10.80 means he boasts elite lateral quickness in addition to the adequate speed and burst he displayed at his pro day (4.61 in the 40, 44th-percentile Burst Score). Per my comparison model, Laird is at least an 83.5% overall match to quality pro backs Christian McCaffrey, Duke Johnson, and Giovani Bernard (Williams’ closest successful comp is his 81.0% match to Dion Lewis).
I’m not convinced that Laird isn’t a better prospect than Williams in a vacuum, and with the disparity in price, it’s no contest. Whether you take him with your last selection or pick him up as a free agent after the draft, just get Laird on your team.
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