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Evaluating Rookie Running Backs

By Steve Schwarz | 6/10/21 |

Last week we analyzed which fantasy quarterbacks might be a factor in the 2021 football season, this week we dive into rookie running backs.

And as with the last study, I researched running backs who were drafted in the first three rounds over the past 10 seasons (there were 71 players, who averaged 9.48 FPts/G in full PPR leagues), to see if we could find a common thread among the most successful rookie running backs which might help us evaluate the 2021 draft class.

I found two significant factors which made rookie backs viable fantasy options in their freshman season.

The first should be obvious, but the more opportunities to touch the ball the greater the chance to post elite fantasy numbers.

Of the top-24 running backs according to touches-per-game, 23-of-24 averaged double-digit fantasy points. In fact, they averaged 15.1 FPts/G. Last season, the 24th-best running back (who played at least two games), Clyde Edwards-Helaire, averaged 13.5 FPts/G.

Ezekiel Elliott saw the most touches of any back over the past 10 seasons (23.6-per-game) and turned them into 21.8 FPts/G which ranked No.3 in 2016 behind veterans Le’Veon Bell and David Johnson. Saquon Barkley produced the most points of any freshman back - racking up 24.0 FPts/G in 2018.

Wonder why future superstar running back Derrick Henry averaged only averaged 7.6 FPts/G his rookie season? Perhaps, because his head coach Mike Mularkey only let him touch the ball 8.8 times per game, preferring an already overused DeMarco Murray instead.

The second factor in the “making of a fantasy worthy rookie running back” is the ability to catch the football. Since many rookies see limited touches, the best rookie backs usually made the most of those opportunities by being efficient. And the most efficient rookie backs almost always catch the ball (efficiency for me = fantasy points per touch).

It will therefore be no surprise to anyone that Alvin Kamara was the most efficient rookie running back over the past 10 seasons. In 2017 he averaged 19.7 FPts/G despite just 12.6 touches because of his receiving ability. His 81 catches (826 yards, 5 TDs) helped him average a stunning 1.56 fantasy points every time he touched the football.

Although that output is extremely high, it isn’t unusual in the way he got there. What do David Johnson (1.31), C.J. Prosise (1.31), D’Andre Swift (1.21), Christian McCaffrey (1.17) and Barkley (1.09) have in common besides being the top-six in efficiency in this study? They all have great hands. They catch the ball and they run well after the catch.

The first factor bodes extremely well for the Steeler’s Najee Harris. With James Conner moving on to the Arizona Cardinals, Pittsburgh had a huge hole at running back which it filled with their first-round pick (24th overall) choosing Harris and he should do quite nicely. Conner, despite a number of injuries in recent years, still averaged 17.3 touches-per-game from 2018-2020. Harris proved in college he can both run and catch the football. In his final two seasons at Alabama he rushed 460 times (2690 yards, 39 TDs) and caught 70 balls (520 yards, 11 TDs). Given the other options of; Anthony McFarland, Benny Snell, Jaylen Samuels, Kalen Ballage and Trey Edmunds, Harris should get every chance to be a three-down back.

Travis Etienne

Meanwhile, this same factor would seem to work against the second drafted back - Travis Etienne. Bringing in a teammate for rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence might be a calming factor for a young signal-caller, but the Jaguars already had a 1,000-yard running back from 2019 in James Robinson (240-1070-7 rushing and 49-344-3 receiving). Etienne did make himself a very good receiving back at Clemson which might save his fantasy value. Still, the addition of Etienne is likely to split the load between the two, lowering their upside, and reducing both backs to RB2 and RB3 status, respectively. And don’t overlook the signing of Carlos Hyde. He’s going to get some work too, particularly at the goal line where his 230 lbs. might matter. Therefore in my mind, Etienne won’t be a great option in 2021.

Denver drafted Javonte Williams in the second round (No.35 overall), but his path to fantasy-worthiness is blocked by Melvin Gordon (215-986-9 rushing and 32-258-1 receiving). On the other hand, the Broncos have reason to be concerned about Gordon, who in the past held out into the regular season for a new contract (showing little loyalty to his team) and recently had an “off-the-field issue” (though that seems to have miraculously gone away). Williams was part of a dynamic duo at North Carolina with Jets rookie Michael Carter. Williams rushed for 1140 yards and 19 TDs, but wasn’t part of the passing game because of Carter’s skills in that area. His arrival in Denver (they traded up five spots to get him) doesn’t bode well for Gordon long-term outlook in the Mile High City, but until Williams completely replaces Gordon, the rookie’s fantasy value and touches will be limited.

The fourth and final running back selected in the first three rounds was Trey Sermon by the San Francisco 49ers. He joins a messy backfield where Raheem Mostert is the top dog, but frequently injured. Gone is Tevin Coleman and Jerick McKinnon so Sermon should jump ahead of the remainder of lackluster veterans; JaMycal Hasty, Jeff Wilson (inj) and Wayne Gallman. Mostert should get first shot at the starting job coming off his high-ankle injury, but Sermon should be waiting in the wings should/when he is sidelined again (he’s only played more than 12 games in a season once since arriving in 2015). Sermon is a handcuff, but not an opening day starter, barring a preseason injury.

Could someone explode on the scene as Robinson did last season as an undrafted free agent or a lower draft pick like Carter or Chuba Hubbard?

Here is what you need to hunt for in your search for a “diamond-in-the-rough.”

The most important factor is getting on the field for any rookie. Twenty-four of the 71 running backs in this study averaged at least 12.4 FPts/G (the average 24th-best back over 10 seasons) and that group averaged 17.7 touches. The three backs who reached our target points-goal with the fewest touches were: Johnson (10.1), McCaffrey (12.3) and Kamara (12.6). Great pass receivers all. The 47 backs who didn’t reach the minimum points target averaged just 8.3 touches per game.

Therefore, the bottom line for predicting any rookie as a viable first-year fantasy back is; can you see them getting the ball more than 17 times-a-game? Or at least a dozen if they have the pass-catching ability of McCaffrey or Kamara?

Happy hunting.

 Top-Three round rookie production from 2011-2020
2020 Player Rd FPts/G Touches/G
  Clyde Edwards-Helaire 1 13.5 16.7
  D'Andre Swift 2 14.9 12.3
  Jonathon Taylor 2 17.0 17.9
  Cam Akers 2 9.4 14.2
  J.K. Dobbins 2 11.0 10.1
  AJ Dillon 2 4.5 5.3
  Antonio Gibson 3 14.7 14.7
  Ke'Shawn Vaughn 3 4.2 5.2
  Lynn Bowden 3 2.4 3.4
  Zack Moss 3 7.8 9.7
  Darrynton Evans 3 3.2 3.2
  Josh Jacobs 1 14.9 20.2
  Miles Sanders 2 13.7 14.3
  Darrell Henderson 2 1.7 3.3
  David Montgomery 3 10.9 16.7
  Devin Singletary 3 12.5 14.2
  Damien Harris 3 0.6 2.0
  Saquon Barkley 1 24.0 22.0
  Rashaad Penny 1 5.9 7.8
  Sony Michel 1 10.9 16.6
  Nick Chubb 2 12.2 13.3
  Ronald Jones 2 3.5 5.0
  Kerryon Johnson 2 14.1 15.0
  Derrius Guice 2 0.0 0.0
  Royce Freeman 3 7.4 10.3
  Leonard Fournette 1 17.7 23.4
  Christian McCaffrey 1 14.4 12.3
  Dalvin Cook 2 16.9 21.3
  Joe Mixon 2 10.4 14.9
  Alvin Kamara 3 19.7 12.6
  Kareem Hunt 3 18.6 20.3
  D'Onta Foreman 3 6.6 9.3
  Ezekiel Elliott 1 21.8 23.6
  Derrick Henry 2 7.6 8.8
  Kenyan Drake 3 3.3 3.2
  C.J. Prosise 3 10.2 7.8
  Todd Gurley 1 16.2 19.2
  Melvin Gordon 1 8.3 15.5
  T.J. Yeldon 2 13.0 18.2
  Ameer Abdullah 2 7.6 10.5
  Tevin Coleman 3 4.1 7.4
  Duke Johnson 3 10.3 10.3
  David Johnson 3 13.2 10.1
  Matt Jones 3 9.4 12.5
  Bishop Sankey 2 6.3 10.7
  Jeremy Hill 2 13.4 15.6
  Carlos Hyde 2 5.4 6.8
  Charles Sims 3 7.8 10.6
  Tre Mason 3 11.4 15.4
  Terrance West 3 8.2 13.0
  Jerick McKinnon 3 8.6 12.7
  Giovani Bernard 2 14.1 14.1
  Le'Veon Bell 2 16.9 22.2
  Montee Ball 2 7.6 9.3
  Eddie Lacy 2 16.3 21.3
  Christine Michael 2 2.6 6.0
  Trent Richardson 1 17.0 21.2
  Doug Martin 1 19.6 23.0
  David Wilson 1 5.2 5.4
  Isaiah Pead 2 1.3 1.6
  LaMichael James 2 4.6 7.5
  Ronnie Hillman 3 3.9 6.7
  Bernard Pierce 3 4.7 7.7
  Mark Ingram 1 9.3 13.3
  Ryan Williams 2 0.0 0.0
  Shane Vereen 2 2.3 3.0
  Mikel Leshoure 2 0.0 0.0
  Daniel Thomas 2 6.4 13.6
  DeMarco Murray 3 11.2 14.5
  Stevan Ridley 3 3.9 6.5
  Alex Green 3 0.7 1.0