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2017 Fantasy Football: The Year of the Rookie Running Back

As you probably know if you’ve ever looked at the placemat at any Chinese restaurant, the Chinese calendar assigns animals to represent each year. Those born in this year can, theoretically, see the animal assigned for their year and learn important things about themselves and who they should associate with. For example, I was born in 1996, the year of the rat – this means I partner well with Dragons and Monkeys, and my characteristics include intelligent, charming, and sociable. And if you need any more proof on the accuracy of the calendar and its signs, look no further than Roger Goodell, who was born in 1959 — the year of the pig.

Why do I bring this all up? Well, for starters, I got to call Goodell a pig. That was kinda fun. But aside from that, the Chinese calendar imitates something the media loves to do in sports — assign labels to seasons, sometimes before they even begin. For instance, the 2010 MLB season is commonly referred to as the Year of the Pitcher due to the numerous accomplishments — including 4 no-hitters and 2 (almost 3) perfect games — that MLB pitchers amassed that season.

Often times, when we attempt to label a season before it even begins, we’re dead wrong. But this time, I couldn’t feel more confident in labelling the 2017 NFL season The Year of Rookie Running Backs. Why? If you’re asking that, you haven’t been paying attention. In this year’s draft, 4 running backs were taken in the first 2 rounds, and 26 RBs in total found their way onto NFL rosters over the 7 rounds of the draft. A handful of these backs now find themselves in prime positions to positively impact NFL rosters in 2017. Here they are.

Tier 1: The Big Boys

Christian McCaffrey

Currently The Wolf’s RB11 heading into 2017, Christian McCaffrey might be the rookie RB in the best position to make a legitimate impact right off the bat. He currently finds himself behind 30-year-old incumbent Jonathan Stewart for the lead back role in Carolina, but with the unique skill set McCaffrey possesses, that shouldn’t be too much of a roadblock. Fresh off a senior season in which he led the NCAA with over 210 all-purpose yards per game, he’ll likely be used by the Panthers in a number of roles. Particularly on 2nd/3rd and long situations, McCaffrey’s elusiveness and “between the tackles vision,” as Panthers GM Marty Hurney put it, will be on full display. Carolina’s offensive line has been steadily improving with additions like Matt Kalil and Taylor Moton, and Cam Newton is looking to bounce back after a disappointing, albeit still productive, 2016 season.

McCaffrey is a lock for at least 15 or so carries a game, with many in the form of sweeps allowing him to get into the open field and showcase why he was one of the best college football players we’ve seen in decades. Where he could really stand out among the other backs in this conversation, however, is in the passing game. A quick look at the numbers may not support this — in 2016, Carolina threw to RBs on only 14.4% of their pass attempts, lowest in the league and well below the league average of 22.1% — but then again, the Panthers have never had a threat quite like McCaffrey. Carolina OC Mike Shula, a creative play caller who has a knack for squeezing the most out of his players’ skill sets, is a great fit for McCaffrey, and I see no problem with his current ADP of 28.

Kareem Hunt

About a week or so ago, Kareem Hunt would not have been in this tier. Not due to a lack of talent — that certainly isn’t the case — but because of a lack of opportunity. Spencer Ware was well on his way to a superb fantasy season in Kansas City, and Hunt looked like a bench stash backup at best. But with Ware now watching from home after tearing his PCL on August 25th, Hunt is the next man up and looking like a breakout candidate in year 1.

Obviously Kareem Hunt is a very talented back, but there’s much more to his recent rise (now The Wolf’s RB13) than that. For starters, Andy Reid has a knack for getting fantasy production out of running backs — his RB1’s have averaged over 19 fantasy points per game in his career. Despite employing a league-average offensive line, Reid got a top-20 season out of Ware last season, with Charcandrick West contributing as well. The line is steadily improving now with a great deal of youth and the steady improvement of former #1 overall pick Eric Fisher, and with Reid’s run-heavy scheme (KC ran the ball on 43% of its plays in 2016, just above the league average) combined with Hunt’s superb pass-catching abilities, he’ll have no shortage of opportunity.

When you can use just a 3rd or 4th round pick on a guy who can do this

As well as this

And even mix in a little of this

How can you say no?

Dalvin Cook

Rounding out the top tier, we have Dalvin Cook in Minnesota. The Vikings used their 2nd round pick (41st overall) to bring Cook in after a stellar career at FSU in which he amassed almost 5,400 yards from scrimmage and broke Warrick Dunn’s school record for career rushing yards — in 1 fewer season than Dunn. The Vikings clearly think Cook’s collegiate success can translate to a prosperous NFL career, which is why they selected him despite having just spent close to $15 million on 3 years of Latavius Murray, who suited up for the team’s 3rd preseason game after recovering from offseason ankle surgery. But while Murray fights to get back to 100% and Jerick McKinnon remains as fantasy-relevant as a backup punter, this is Cook’s backfield to own.

Currently The Wolf’s RB12, Cook has gone from a possibly-forgotten rookie RB to a workhorse candidate, a guy who could easily top 300 carries in 2017 and beyond. The Vikings offensive line is currently 14th on PFF’s rankings for 2017 despite not boasting much eye-catching talent outside of Joe Berger, the league’s 7th-ranked guard. Pat Shurmur is back as offensive coordinator after finishing the 2016 season as the interim OC, and as a west coast offense guy who has also been with Sam Bradford since his days in Philly, he’ll make sure Cook gets his share of receptions out of the backfield as well. Which Bradford seems to be okay with.

“I think he’s going to be a valuable asset, not only in the run game, but I think we’re going to be able to utilize him in the pass game,” said Bradford.

-RotoWorld, August 11

Tier 2: Next Men Up

Joe Mixon

In this next tier, I’ll highlight a couple guys who may have the talent to be big-time fantasy producers as rookies, but may not have the chance to do so for other reasons. And we start with Cincinnati’s Joe Mixon, who fell to the #48th overall pick in 2017 due to some, well, legal troubles. The pick was perfect for those of us who like to poke fun, as the “Pacman Jones and Vontaze Burfict mentoring Mixon” jokes basically write themselves, but it was also a very good pick for the Bengals from a football standpoint. Cincinnati has been using Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard relatively evenly for the last 3 years, with Hill garnering more rushes each year but Gio typically serving as the pass-catching back. But now, with Joe Mixon, the Bengals have both of those talents wrapped up in a neat little 6 foot tall package.

Mixon was a force to be reckoned with during his final season at Oklahoma, totaling over 2,200 all-purpose yards and 16 TDs between rushing, receiving, and kickoff returns. And he’s been no slouch so far this preseason, either, rushing for 78 yards on 20 attempts and doing THIS to Josh Norman:

Ultimately, Mixon is a guy who, in another situation, could be heading towards a monster rookie season. And down the road, we could be looking at one of the premier running backs in football, a guy who can combine strength and speed in a way we don’t see all that often. But as a rookie in a crowded backfield where he currently sits at FOURTH on the official depth chart — behind Hill, Gio, and veteran back Cedric Peerman — fantasy relevance is a longshot. But hey, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more than a few highlights come from this guy in 2017.

Leonard Fournette

Sometimes, when life gets me down, I like to watch the following video and thank my lucky stars that my name isn’t Deontay Anderson.

Hoooooooooly shit. Leonard Fournette‘s career at LSU was full of plays like this, and just one look at him shows you why. Coming in at 6 ft, 240 pounds with a 4.51 40 time, it’s no wonder he was the first running back off the board in this year’s draft. Jacksonville got themselves a guy who was one of the most menacing figures in college football a season ago, and very well could be that guy in the NFL. Despite this, he’s currently The Wolf’s RB19, and dropping. So why isn’t Fournette getting the love of a top fantasy prospect?

Well, for starters, the Jaguars are gonna Jaguar. Jacksonville didn’t exactly prepare its roster for a stud rookie RB, and they now have 3 viable options at running back: Fournette, T.J. Yeldon, and Chris Ivory. While Fournette is currently the RB1 on the team’s depth chart, all 3 backs are likely to have a significant stake in the offense in 2017, and Ivory has been rumored to be the team’s go-to goal line back. So touches won’t exactly be flying Fournette’s way, especially on a team that’s rarely in the position to be running the ball very often (read: they’re usually losing).

On top of that, Fournette struggled with injuries in his final year at LSU, only playing 7 games last season due to a nagging ankle problem. He was injured in the team’s first preseason game, too, and hasn’t played in their last 2 contests. As tantalizing as he is as a prospect and as talented as he could certainly be in the NFL, running backs that prove to be injury prone rarely succeed for very long in the NFL, no matter how big and fast they are. The talent is there, but too many red flags for me to get too excited just yet.

Tier 3: The Remaining Few

Samaje Perine

Samaje Perine comes in at RB50 on The Wolf’s rankings, 24 spots behind teammate and Redskins starter Robert Kelley. He showed flashes of greatness in college, like a 427 yard outburst against Kansas his freshman year, but didn’t do enough to warrant more than a 4th round selection in this year’s draft. He also failed to record more than 15 receptions in any collegiate season, displaying his lack of pass-catching prowess out of the backfield, and currently sits behind both Kelley and Chris Thompson on Washington’s depth chart. He’s no more than a bench stash in very deep leagues, at least for the time being.

Joe Williams

Selected 7 picks after Perine by the 49ers, Joe Williams finds himself in a similar situation to the Skins rookie. He’s also currently 3rd on his team’s depth chart, after Carlos Hyde and Tim Hightower, and although he raised some eyebrows in college, it wasn’t enough to really knock the socks off any NFL GMs. And like Perine, Williams also showed little as a pass catcher in college, hauling in just 20 receptions in 2 seasons at Utah. Barring injury, his rookie season likely won’t carry any fantasy relevance.

Agree with our list? Sound off below or hit me up on Twitter.

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