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Rookie Running Back Hype Versus Reality

By Steve Schwarz | 6/29/23

We’re still not into July, players are a few weeks away from training camp, yet the hype for a number of highly-drafted running backs is off the charts. I blame the media. They (sometimes me too) have nothing to write about at this point, so they create magical scenarios.

The offensive line will become the best in the league. They will see 300 carries and 100 targets because there is no one else in the running back room or receiving room worthy of the workload. Their team will always be ahead and running out the clock. They will stay completely healthy for all 17 games.

But what of reality?

Reality is in the boxes at the bottom. There have been some great rookie running backs over the years and some busts. And many in between. Sometimes even the great ones start slowly. The head coach, offensive coordinator and starting quarterback all have to believe that the back is ready for the NFL. That he will run the right play, be in the right place, hold on to the football and protect his quarterback from a huge onrushing lineman/linebacker/corner/safety.

Look at last year’s top rookie by FPts/G -- Breece Hall. His rushing attempts for Weeks 1-3 were; six, seven and eight, respectively. Meanwhile, teammate Michael Carter saw 28 carries over the first three games and a similar number of targets.

Seattle’s Kenneth Walker didn’t see double-digit rushing attempts until Week 6 and that was only by necessity as Rashaad Penny was injured in Week 5 after leading the team in carries (57). Yes, slow starts are a thing.

Even if he gets off to a fast start, what if the OL suffers injuries. The starting quarterback goes down and the backup isn’t good enough to keep a defense honest. The running back could end up going against eight- and nine-man fronts.

However, it’s not all bad.

In 2001 Najee Harris did see 300+ rushing attempts and 94 targets and finished with 1,200 rushing yards, 467 receiving yards on 74 receptions and 10 touchdowns.

Saquon Barkley’s rookie season (2018) was the best of the last five seasons at 24 FPts/G. He did everything for those Giants, racking of 2,028 yards from scrimmage, 91 receptions and 15 touchdowns.

And the all-time best, Eric Dickerson led the league in rushing in 1993 with 1,808 yards and 18 touchdowns along with 51 receptions for 404 yards and two more scores to post a fantastic 24.5 FPts/G.

But enough of the past. What you want to know is what can this year’s rookies do for you?

What can you expect realistically from Atlanta Falcons’ No.8 overall pick Bijan Robinson, or the Lions’ No.12 pick Jahmyr Gibbs? They have been hyped in the media as if they are already superstars. But are they? Can they succeed in their offenses? Can they not only succeed, but thrive? Are they what Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase were to the receivers when they were rookies?

Based on the media hype, you want to know if they can be a top-10 fantasy player at their position because it appears that is the price it will cost you to get them… at least for Robinson who has an ADP of 15.0 and has been the eighth running back off the board in early mock drafts. Gibbs has been going around 17th RB off the board which still makes him a mid-round selection and more reasonable for a guy who has yet to play a down in the NFL.

Let’s look at the factors which will determine their success or failure of those backs who figure to be starters from Day 1.

Bijan Robinson

Bijan Robinson, Atlanta – The media has Robinson as the second coming of Saquon Barkley. He ran the ball more than Barkley in his last college season (258-1,578-18 in 2022), but he caught the ball a lot less at Texas (17-266-2). The best part about his play last year was his 1,006 yards after contact. He also ran well when the box was loaded with eight-or-more (45-190-8). And he played in 31-of-35 games over his three seasons as a Longhorn.

In Atlanta, he’ll be running behind the No. 11 run-blocking OL (per Doug Orth’s elite analysis). The 2022 Falcons ran the ball more than any other team in the league (559 times or 55.3% of their plays). That bodes well for Robinson. On the other hand, he might have to share some of the workload with second-year Tyler Allgeier (210-1,035-3 in 2022) and wideout-turned-running back Cordarrelle Patterson (144-695-8). Patterson was particularly good inside the 5-yard line, scoring six times.

 ATL RBs - 2023
FFT Projections Ru Att Ru Yds Ru TDs Rec Rec Yds Rec TDs FPts
Bijan Robinson 245 1178 8 43 321 2 252.9
Tyler Allgeier 128 587 3 10 73 0 94.0
Cordarrelle Patterson 58 256 2 34 244 1 102.0

If these projections hold, Robinson would be at the bottom of a top-10 running back list. Therefore, his ADP is set at a “fair market value.”

Jahmyr Gibbs, Detroit – The Lions surprised many experts when they selected Gibbs as high as they did. But the Detroit running back room has been entirely made over from D’Andre Swift (in Philadelphia) and Jamaal Williams (New Orleans) to Gibbs and former Chicago Bears starter David Montgomery. Montgomery, a third-round pick in 2019, has had his moments, but has failed to truly make his mark in four seasons. “Monty” only cracked 1,000-yards rushing one time and his yards-per-carry has never been very good. But he is a big back which will match well with the explosive, but smaller, Gibbs.

Gibbs spent two years at Georgia Tech before transferring to Alabama for a final season. At Alabama he rushed for 926 yards on just 151 carries (6.1 ypc) and caught 44 balls for 444 yards. The problem I foresee with Gibbs is that he won’t get into the end zone enough to be a big-time fantasy asset. His two seasons at GT saw him rush for just four touchdowns each year and even behind the elite Crimson Tide OL, he rushed for just seven scores. He’ll also be running behind a top OL in Detroit (ranked No. 3 in run-blocking). What’s noteworthy here, however, Alabama never gave Gibbs the ball inside the 5-yard line. With the 225-lb Montgomery on the roster, he doesn’t figure to get much goal line work in the NFL either. This will severely stunt his fantasy value.

 DET RBs - 2023
FFT Projections Ru Att Ru Yds Ru TDs Rec Rec Yds Rec TDs FPts
Jahmyr Gibbs 181 814 6 46 356 2 211.0
David Montgomery 177 727 6 30 220 1 166.7
Craig Reynolds 35 147 1 11 82 0 39.9

There is a lot more risk with Gibbs than Robinson because Montgomery will see almost a 50-50 split in the workload and Gibbs’ touchdowns will likely have to be from long distance.

Likely non-starters, but those who could see significant workload

Zach Charbonnet, Seattle – If starter Kenneth Walker can stay healthy, he should see a 70-30 split in the workload in favor of the starter. But as we saw in 2022, that didn’t happen. The Seahawks jettisoned oft-injured Rashaad Penny, but Walker also missed games last season due to an ankle injury. He wasn’t particularly injury-prone in college, however, where he played 32-of-35 games. Walker is not an accomplished receiver, so Charbonnet should immediately become the third-down-and-long option in the backfield. That’s probably not enough to be anything but a handcuff for 2023.

Kendre Miller, New Orleans – Miller’s shot at being involved in 2023 depends on Alvin Kamara’s legal situation. Should Kamara be suspended by the league, Miller would immediately see significant time behind Jamaal Williams. Kamara’s trial is expected to start on July 31 so we likely won’t see much of him at training camp or an answer for a while. Long-term, Miller has value given that Williams is already 30-years old and Kamara has seen a lot of punishment in six years (1,566 touches). However, Miller was never used in a pass-catching role in college, so we don’t know about his hands. He’s probably not even insurance in redraft leagues, but does have some value in dynasty.

Tank Bigsby, Jacksonville – Bigsby will first have to beat out D’Ernest Johnson and JaMycal Hasty for the backup role to Travis Etienne, before he can be thought of as having fantasy value. But if he can do that during training camp or preseason, he could develop into a goal-line option over Etienne. Etienne produced just two touchdowns on 10 tries from inside the 5-yard line.

 2022 Rookie RBs
Player Gms FPts FPts/G FPts/G Rank
Breece Hall 7 117.1 16.7 7
Kenneth Walker 15 202.5 13.5 18
Dameon Pierce 13 170.4 13.1 21
Tyler Allgeier 16 157.4 9.8 39
Brian Robinson Jr. 12 112.7 9.4 43
Rachaad White 16 145.1 9.1 45
Zonovan Knight 7 59.0 8.4 50
Isiah Pacheco 17 139.0 8.2 52
James Cook 16 107.7 6.7 66

 2021 Rookie RBs
Player Gms FPts FPts/G FPts/G Rank
Najee Harris 17 300.7 17.7 8
Javonte Williams 17 206.9 12.2 26
Michael Carter 14 156.4 11.2 36
Rhamondre Stevenson 12 116.9 9.7 45
Chuba Hubbard 16 139.6 8.7 50
Kenneth Gainwell 16 123.4 7.7 60
Khalil Herbert 14 78.9 5.6 83
Travis Etienne 0 0.0 0.0

 2020 Rookie RBs
Player Gms FPts FPts/G FPts/G Rank
Jonathan Taylor 15 254.8 17.0 10
D'Andre Swift 13 193.8 14.9 18
Clyde Edwards-Helaire 13 176.0 13.5 25
J.K. Dobbins 15 164.5 11.0 34
Cam Akers 11 103.8 9.4 40
AJ Dillon 9 40.3 4.5 92

 2019 Rookie RBs
Player Gms FPts FPts/G FPts/G Rank
Josh Jacobs 13 193.6 14.9 16
Miles Sanders 16 218.7 13.7 22
Devin Singletary 12 149.9 12.5 27
David Montgomery 16 174.4 10.9 34
Tony Pollard 14 89.2 6.4 66
Darrell Henderson 7 22.4 3.2 106
Damien Harris 1 1.2 1.2 136

 2018 Rookie RBs
Player Gms FPts FPts/G FPts/G Rank
Saquon Barkley 16 383.8 24.0 2
Nick Chubb 16 194.5 12.2 26
Sony Michel 13 141.1 10.9 34
Rashaad Penny 12 70.4 5.9 81
Ronald Jones 6 20.7 3.5 101

 All-Time Great Rookie RBs
Player Gms FPts FPts/G
Eric Dickerson 1993 16 392.2 24.5
Edgerrin James 1999 16 377.9 23.6
Marshall Faulk 1994 16 304.4 19.0
Barry Sanders 1989 15 283.2 18.9
A. Peterson 2007 14 257.9 18.4
Curtis Martin 1995 16 294.8 18.4
L. Tomlinson 2001 16 279.3 17.5
Tony Dorsett 1977 14 235.0 16.8
Jerome Bettis 1993 16 235.1 14.7
Emmitt Smith 1990 16 206.5 12.9
Walter Payton 1975 13 164.2 12.6
Frank Gore 2005 14 107.4 7.7

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