With the 2017 NFL Draft completed, we take an early look at the notable selections and how they will affect the upcoming fantasy football season. Which rookies seem primed to make an instant impact on the fantasy world, and which ones look like they may not be very relevant in your 2017 season? Let’s take a look at Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Joe Mixon, and a handful of other running backs drafted this year.
Leonard Fournette (Jaguars)
Ever since the retirements of Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew, the Jags have struggled to find a quality running game over the past three seasons. Toby Gerhart, Denard Robinson, T.J. Yeldon, and Chris Ivory have all tried, and failed, to make an impact. Other than a valiant effort by their fourth string running back, in a meaningless Week 17 game last season, the Jaguars only had one game where a rusher reached 100 yards. Their top two running backs (Ivory and Yeldon) combined for less than 1,000 yards, averaged 3.7 yards per carry, and totaled a meager four touchdowns. This situation is good for Fournette because he should be the clear favorite to take over as the lead runner in Jacksonville. This situation is also bad because the Jaguars offense was a mess last season, so the excellent blocking that allowed Fournette to make his highlight runs may not be as readily available this season.
Both Ivory and Yeldon got a lot of work catching balls (70 of them) out of the backfield, which is not one of Fournette’s strengths. So they will likely retain that role, but cede the bulk of the rushes to Fournette. Fournette should see a lot of rushing volume, but probably won’t see many receptions. With Blake Bortles’ regression, the team will likely want to throw more often, possibly giving Fournette up to 250 rushes this season. If he can make at least a 10% improvement on their yards per carry, that would give him about 1,000 rushing yards or so. The last time a Jaguars’ running back topped five rushing touchdowns was 2011, so I’ll cautiously be optimistic and give him half a dozen. That production would be a decent RB2 in standard leagues, but likely demote him to a good flex in PPR leagues. If he has some highlight runs this preseason, expect him to be over-drafted.
Christian McCaffrey (Panthers)
Unfortunately for McCaffrey, he landed a spot on a team where fantasy running backs have a hard time being relevant. Quarterback Cam Newton is going to vulture away plenty of touchdowns, and Jonathan Stewart is going to hoard a share of rushes. The Panthers have Greg Olsen and Kelvin Benjamin as their top targets for receptions, meaning McCaffrey’s upside is possibly a Giovani Bernard type of season with perhaps 600 rushing yards, 350 receiving yards, and a few touchdowns. His total yards and touchdowns should fall under Fournette’s, making him solid flex option, but in a PPR league, he could make a push to be a RB2 this season. With Stewart being a 30-year-old running back who has averaged less than 11 games per season during the past five years, McCaffrey has upside to see more volume if Stewart were to get hurt again.
Dalvin Cook (Vikings)
The Eagles were targeting Cook, but the Vikings jumped up to raid him before the Eagles could swoop in during Round 2. The Vikings were abysmal running the ball last season, totaling as a team, only 1,200 rushing yards and a 3.2 yards per carry average. The Vikings signed Latavius Murray from the Oakland Raiders in the off-season, which puts an unfortunate cap on Cook’s touches from a fantasy perspective.
Murray is a much bigger back, and will likely hoard the goal line work. Cook wasn’t a great receiver in college, so his role on the Vikings is somewhat ambiguous, with Jerick McKinnon likely playing the third down role. That probably puts Cook’s workload as a backup or change-of-pace to Murray on first and second down. Without touchdowns and receptions, and stuck behind Murray on the depth chart, Cook’s fantasy value is severely limited in 2017. The best thing working for Cook is Murray coming back from an injury. If Murray isn’t ready to go when training camp starts, Cook could impress his way into a 50/50 split with Murray. Even with that, the lack of scores and catches makes Cook a 3rd or 4th running back on your fantasy team, at best.
Joe Mixon (Bengals)
In a Bengals world where the best players get on the field most frequently, regardless of veteran status, Mixon would figure to be a three-down back. But to a fault, the Bengals have been loyal to getting Jeremy Hill plenty of carries. Could that change in what presumably is Hill’s last year in Cincinnati? Possibly. Mixon is a good receiver, as is Giovani Bernard, who is recovering (apparently quite rapidly) from a major injury. Beginning the season, the Bengals rotation will likely feature Hill on the first two downs with Bernard on third down, and Mixon sprinkled in here and there. But at some point during the season, one has to assume that the talent will take over, and force Marvin Lewis’ hand to get Mixon more involved, and more productive as a fantasy runner. The presence of Hill and Bernard puts a cap on what Mixon will produce, but he makes for an intriguing draft and stash option in larger leagues, or one to keep attentive to on the waiver wire.
Draftable: Late-round or waiver wire
Alvin Kamara (Saints)
To say Kamara was drafted into a crowded backfield would be putting it mildly. The Saints return a healthy Mark Ingram who is coming off a 1,000 yard season with more than 5.0 yards per carry. The Saints also signed Adrian Peterson recently. Ingram and Peterson are going to be the top two rushing workhorses in New Orleans, and going to be the goal line backs, too. Ingram is good enough as a receiver, so Kamara’s role in his rookie year will probably be as the third-string running back, and the second-string third down back, who sees most of his work on special teams. At this point, except in the deepest of leagues, he remains undraftable unless Ingram or Peterson get hurt - which is a possibility.
Kareem Hunt (Chiefs)
The Chiefs were notorious for placing odd restrictions on Jamaal Charles’ touches, opting to get all of their backs involved. If an established, great runner like Charles couldn’t get workhorse touches, don’t expect Hunt to see them either. Spencer Ware is the “starter” in this offense, but expect him, Hunt, and Charcandrick West to all be involved this year. Ware will likely be the goal line back, and all three are options for catches. Expect Hunt to be in a maddening situation for fantasy owners, as the Chiefs’ runners are likely going to be very hit and miss on a weekly basis. Hunt is likely an undrafted runner in fantasy who is a streaming option every so often.
Draftable: No, but potential waiver wire pickup
D’Onta Foreman (Texans)
The Texans’ starting running back Lamar Miller saw a huge jump in touches last season, and it seemed to wear him down during the season. While Miller is the RB1 on this team, there should be some opportunities for his backups to see some work. Unfortunately Foreman is not good in pass catching or pass blocking, meaning he won’t see any role in the passing game, or as a third down back. He’s a big back, but so is the other backup, Alfred Blue. This means Foreman’s size may not even bring him more than a few goal line opportunities this year. Foreman is likely going to be buried behind Miller and Blue all season, dependent on injuries to bring him fantasy relevance. He is likely an undraftable runner in fantasy with upside into a committee if Miller gets hurt.
James Conner (Steelers)
Since Le’Veon Bell was drafted out of Michigan State, the Steelers have been hell-bent on running him into the ground. He saw a high volume of touches in college, and has been one of the most used backs in the NFL per game, since being drafted. This means Conner has no value when Bell is healthy, but when (not if) Bell gets hurt again, Conner will see a lot of value as his backup. Stay tuned to the Steelers’ situation in preseason to see if Conner unseats Fitzgerald Toussaint as the backup to Bell - if he does, he’s a must-own handcuff.
Draftable: Late-round backup.
Samaje Perine (Redskins)
The Redskins return three running backs who all rushed 68~168 times last year. Two of them are bigger backs at around 230 pounds, like Perine. Even if Perine’s selection means Matt Jones is done as a Redskin, he is the third head in a three headed backfield. As it stands now, Rob Kelly would be the workhorse with Chris Thompson playing on third down, and Perine is the true backup to Kelly, meaning his value is severely limited in 2017, barring a rash of injuries in Washington.
Jamaal Williams (Packers)
Williams finds himself in an interesting situation in Green Bay, where converted wide receiver Ty Montgomery is all that stands in his way from ascending the depth chart. Even after drafting Eddie Lacy several years ago, the Packers have operated an offense without a true starting running back. So even if Williams can work his way up the ladder, his fantasy relevance is likely going to vary wildly from week to week, much to the frustration of fantasy owners. As a subpar NFL athlete with limited receiving skills, nothing about him stands out as why he would become relevant in fantasy, other than the uncertain ground that the two running backs ahead of him are standing on. He is easily avoidable in fantasy drafts.
Wayne Gallman (Giants)
Following the release of Rashard Jennings, Paul Perkins takes over as the primary runner in New York, with Shane Vereen as the receiving back. Wayne Gallman will be battling Orleans Darkwa as the third back on the roster. The Giants are also reportedly interested in adding LeGarrette Blount in free agency, which could change this situation further.
Marlon Mack (Colts)
Colts starter Frank Gore will turn 34 before the season begins. Sooner than later, Father Time will have his revenge on the 12 year veteran. Robert Turbin is currently the RB2 in Indianapolis, but Mack is an athletic freak and a dangerous runner, who could provide the Colts a spark in their running game that they have not seen since the days of Marshall Faulk, Edgerrin James, and Joseph Addai. When your fantasy drafts take place, Mack will likely be an overlooked, deep backup. But he could possibly see a much larger role by the end of the season, and possibly even starting. Keep an eye on him as a waiver add waiting to happen.
Draftable: No, but could be a waiver wire add.