Top Rookie Running Backs for 2019 Fantasy Football

by Nick Ercolano April 30, 2019

Top Rookie Running Backs for 2019 Fantasy Football

Yeaaaah we byke, post-NFL Draft, we know where the rookies have landed, we know what's cracking in these backfields, it's time to dive in with some semblance of outlooks on what could actually be for these rookie running backs and their 2019 fantasy football outlooks.

So, basically, I'm going to break down each of these guys as players, as prospects first, then go into their draft spot/capital and team fit.

Josh Jacobs - Oakland Raiders

University of Alabama

Draft Selection: Round 1, Pick 24

It's so important to look at things objectively when you're projecting for fantasy football and I can't find a better example than Josh Jacobs, former University of Alabama, second-string running back. I say that ironically as he saw less work and produced at a much lower volume then backfield mate Damien Harris while the two were rolling tide and probably rolling joints together down in Tuscaloosa.

Josh Jacobs college stats

There is not a single thing about his analytical profile or production profile that screams standout NFL running back. He has never totaled more than 120 carries in a season in his three years at Alabama, meanwhile, Damien Harris had 135+ in each of the three years Jacobs was at Bama. I want to see it before I project. His final season, when he jumped up from 46 carries in 2017 to 120 in 2018, his yards per carry number dropped from 6.2 down to 5.3. He had a college target share of 4.2% which lands him in the 19th percentile for running backs and we look at his metrics and damn do they not do him any favors:

josh jacobs 40 time

He didn't test at the combine and instead opted to do so at Alabam's Pro Day. The one thing that did do him some justice was being one of the very few notable top prospects that measured in with some workhorse size (5'10-220lbs). His 4.64 40-time was miserable (add 0.05 at a Pro Day), puts him in the 29th percentile for WASS, a poor burst score (34th) and he didn't test for agility.

He's also somehow best comparable to Arian Foster on PlayerProfiler, not sure how that happens seeing as how Foster's college dominator was nearly double Jacobs' and Foster's college target share was in the 86th percentile compared to Jacobs' 19th percentile, but regardless, it's got me a little scared as someone who originally wanted no part of Jacobs.

Jacobs, on film, is where he excels. There is no denying that from the big dawg. The guy is explosive, hits the hole hard, can cut on a dime and has the size and quickness to make a guy miss via power, elusiveness or burst. But, you have to be careful on subjective "film analysis", because that's exactly what it is. Especially on a small sample size like we have with Jacobs, you can make an argument for loving anyone based solely on film, that's why you see rookie rankings so varied on Twitter and from different analysts. Look at analytics and numbers, don't listen to people's subjective film takes. For me, consistent production over a long period of time trumps everything for me.

However, I wanted to see if anything I saw on film was backed by more concrete analytics. And they were. From ProFootballFocus: "A whopping 41.0% of Jacobs’ carries resulted in either a first down or a touchdown in 2018, the highest rate in the country." His 0.27 missed tackles forced/attempt tied for 8th in the NCAA among 62 draft-eligible running backs, his 42.1% rate of not being tackled on the first contact ranked 4th in the class, he scored above average in both pass-blocking and YPRR, but also graded off the charts in Graham Barfield's Yards Created data on him. Here's an excerpt from the column:josh jacobs college stats

"All told, Jacobs 0.44 missed tackles per attempt ranks 9th-best over the last four seasons and is in a similar class as Nick Chubb (0.47), Kareem Hunt (0.47), Sony Michel (0.46), and Christian McCaffrey (0.40). The Tide sent Jacobs in motion on one-quarter of his pass snaps and deployed him on a diverse route tree that included seams/go’s, angle routes, out routes, and even curls (when split out wide). Jacobs averaged 2.4 receiving yards per route run in 2018, the second-best clip in the 2019 RB class."

So, it basically backs up what we were saying about the film. He's really good on that, so it's a battle between being great in a small sample, and does he have what it takes to be a great NFL running back, consistently, over a long period of time? I'll let you decide.

Draft Spot/Capital

So, Jacobs is the first running back off the board at pick 24 to the Raiders, and the only running back picked inside the top 52 picks this year. He has the clearest path to opportunities of any of these backs. Jacobs becomes the immediate starter atop a few mediocre backs in newly inked Isaiah Crowell, pass-catching back Jalen Richard, redundant DeAndre Washington, and unnecessarily hyped Chris Warren. Doug Martin isn't being resigned, BeastMode is retiring.

I made a thread on Twitter:

josh jacobs fantasy football

These are very realistic expectations for Jacobs - 225 touches, decent involvement in the passing game, Richard will still be there. An offense that won't be tremendous, 1,000-1,100 YFS and 5-7 total TDs. For season-long leagues I expect his ADP to hit Round 4 by August: a price too steep for my liking. He's far too unproven with a QB and an offense I don't trust. In dynasty, he enters the 1.01 conversation, but still won't be mine, there are WRs I like more.

Miles Sanders - Philadelphia Eagles

Penn State University

Draft Selection: Round 2, Pick 21 (53)

Sanders has steadily crept up rookie dynasty analysts rankings, to the point where I've seen him as many people's over rookie RB1, pre-NFL Draft. He's a former 5-star HS recruit, one of the top overall recruits in the country, he spent two years behind SaGod Barkley at Penn State, touching the ball just 64 times in 23 games from 2016-2017. Barkley left, and Sanders picked up where the all-world back left off.

Sanders' junior year and final season concluded with 1,413 YFS and 9 total touchdowns, touching the ball 244 times, 24 via the air. His 1,274 and 1,413 rushing yards and YFS ranked 2nd and 3rd in the Big Ten among RBs, respectively.

So the production is there. It wasn't until his third collegiate season, unfortunately, but we have possibly the most valid excuse of all time for that. ***INSERT SAQUON CLIP***

Then, his combine blew us away, relatively speaking:

miles sanders fantasy football 2019

He had the 6th fastest 40-times among RBs (4.49 - of the RBs that ran faster times, only Ryquell Armstead of Temple weighs more than Sanders, most are much lighter so their WASS isn't impressive), 3rd fastest 20-yard shuttle and the fastest 3-cone time.

He's arguably the best all-around back in this class. There aren't many that have produced at a high-level in college, have shown the ability to contribute on all three downs (24 receptions), have good size and athleticism. He's not a standout in any particular area, but it's extremely tough to find an objective weakness with Sanders.

He also performed very well in Graham Barfield's yards created:

 miles sanders fantasy football 2019

His full profile on Sanders isn't published yet, but this is certainly a good start. 

Draft Spot/Capital

Sanders is the second RB off the board to Philadelphia as the 53rd pick and the only other back than Jacobs to go within the draft's first two rounds. A surprise as we've had a combined 11 total top-2 round RBs drafted over the last two years. But clearly #FootballTwitter was spot on with its evaluations. His second-round draft capital is great, but doesn't guarantee success. We look back over the last five/six years - we have a handful of absolute stud RBs coming out of the second round (especially of recent years) - Le'Veon Bell, Joe Mixon, Dalvin Cook, Kerryon Johnson, Nick Chubb. But we also have the Christin Michaels, Montee Ball, Gio Bernard, Bishop Sankey, Ameer Abdullah, Ronald Jones types. Just a reminder that you could probably talk yourself into liking any one of these backs if you wanted too.

I had Miles Sanders as my RB2 in rookie drafts behind Jacobs and the order remains the same following the draft. Sanders should step in and immediately compete with Jordan Howard for the starting role. Howard was traded for a 2020 6th round pick. Miles Sanders was a 2019 2nd round pick. Howard has the size advantage, but I'd argue Sanders gets the nod everywhere else, maybe not vision but his game is good enough all-around.

Howie Roseman: "reminds us of other guys we've had around here"

Philly's drafted 3 running backs inside the top 3 rounds since 2002:

  • Miles Sanders
  • LeSean McCoy
  • Brian Westbrook

Am I worried that this will be a committee? Yeah, a little bit. At least at the beginning of the year. We'll have to see if Darren Sproles returns, but Sanders' skill set makes nearly every other RB on the roster (Clement, Smallwood, Pumphrey, Adams) redundant.

But this is a committee in which Jordan Howard will take the touches that aren't valuable. Put his head down, clash with lineman, 2 yards, 4 yards, 3 yards. You don't really care much for those as a fantasy owner. You want the targets, you want the explosive plays, you want the role Sanders is going to have.

What makes Sanders such a great pick in fantasy this year is that the casual fan will use Jordan Howard as a talking point to push Sanders' ADP down. Sanders will probably be a 6th round pick that I'd be happy pulling the trigger on in redraft if I went WR heavy early in my draft. He's my RB2 in rookie drafts and an easy top-5 pick that you'll probably be able to get around pick 5.

Darrell Henderson - Los Angeles Rams

University of Memphis

Draft Selection: Round 3, Pick 6 (70)

Admittedly, Henderson isn't a guy I loved when I watched him play. The holes his lineman opened up were reminiscent of _____. You give someone wiht his speed (4.49) holes like they did at Memphis and he's going to break off plays like he did last year:darrell henderson fantasy football

At some point, I have to put my subjective film analysis aside and say, holy fucking shit. We know the college numbers are impressive, arguably the most impressive we've seen in some time.darrell henderson stats

Every time you're handing him the ball, he's giving you 8.9 yards. That's pretty efficient, as long as you're not asking a nuclear chemist. That mark led the NCAA in both 2017 and 2018. His 1,909 rushing yards did as well. 22 rushing touchdowns, 25 total touchdowns, 2,204 YFS are just a few more categories he led the NCAA in, in 2018.

So what's not to like. My worry is that he depended so heavily on those big plays thanks to the massive o-line holes:

darrell henderson college stats

4.49 is fast, but it's not that fast in the NFL. I'd say half of the starting running backs if not more best that time. And that's fine, you don't need to have great straight-line speed, but when you're his size 5'8-208lbs, you need to be up there.

I also don't think he created yards that well on his own. Graham disagrees with me, however:

So does PFF:

darrell henderson fantasy football

He's a good pass-catcher too. Not great, but consistent production all three seasons at Memphis that check the box for any college back. Miserable pass-blocker, but I'm not concerned about that if he falls somewhere that Mike McCarthy isn't the head coach at.

So, this is me acknowledging that I don't like him, but very well may be wrong here, given the numbers he put up last year.

It goes back to creating on his own for me. He's not good at cutting laterally, moving side to side. He's a straight up runner in my eyes. He has a narrow stance, and just runs straight up. He's point A to point B and sure he makes some guys miss, but his elusiveness in space is mediocre among this class at best. The Yards Created that Graham charts can be created via speed, power or elusiveness, I'm willing to be the majority of them came from speed. I personally don't like backs like that at all. I think you need to be in a really good situation to excel as that kind of back. Sort of like Tevin Coleman. Put him on a bad team, and fade like you're Dirk Nowitzki.

Draft Spot/Capital

He's a change-of-pace back apparently, according to the Rams. But the Rams are worried about Gurley's knee, there is absolutely no doubt about that. Dr. Morse came on my channel a month or so back talking about Gurley's arthritis and that it's a major issue which isn't going away. The Rams know this. You don't match the offer sheet on Malcolm Brown for $6M and then use a 3rd round pick on Henderson, the 3rd back off the board. This isn't only insurance in my opinion, but it's telling us how they feel about Gurley.

It's true that Henderson won't make an impact sitting behind Gurley, but you couldn't have put him in a place with a line like the Rams and Henderson should work wonders with his breakaway ability. I didn't like Henderson much as a player, but this landing spot was his absolute ceiling. I'm expecting Gurley's workload overall to decrease a bit this year to try and keep him healthy for another playoff run. If they ride him like they have the last two years, I'd be pretty sure he gets injured and if that happens, it's wheels up for Henderson who would become a top-15 weekly fantasy RB in Gurley's abscence.

David Montgomery - Chicago Bears

Iowa State University

Draft Selection: Round 3, Pick 9 (73) 

Man is this guy fun to watch in open space. Not running the 40-yard dash. But creating yards.

A great producer meets miserable athletic measurables. We knew Montgomery wasn't a burner, that he wasn't going to test well at the combine. Well, he didn't disappoint. Well, he did. But he didn't, if your expectations were in check.

david montgomery fantasy football

Draft Spot/Capital

Montgomery went three spots after Henderson did, at pick 73 to the Chicago Bears. It was no secret that Chicago planned on taking a back early in this one.

I actually love this fit. But I need to sell myself more on Montgomery as the player. Something I did talk about with Montgomery pre-draft was that it would be important for him to land in an offense that runs from the shotgun often. This is for a few reasons. Because, like Le'Veon Bell, Montgomery can dance mane, but he has very little burst, he's not going to break off the huge runs. Guys that have that long speed and the burst, tremendously benefit from running under center because they get those 2-3 extra steps when they're getting the handoff from the quarterback to burst through the hole that's there. From the shotgun, a guy with vision and agility like Montgomery, you get the ball with no running start you get to sidestep and pick your holes, that's where he'll excel. So, is the Bears offense a good fit?

Indeed. They ran 79% of their plays from the shotgun in 2018, the 2nd highest clip in the NFL, with 33% of the plays from shotgun being a run, the 3rd highest rate in the NFL. This is great news for Montgomery.

There are also some other random, probably nothing, but cool connections to note. For one, obviously, Matt Nagy comes over from the Chiefs who coached Kareem Hunt and says he sees a lot of similar traits between the two. The current recruiting director at Northwestern was the one that recruited Montgomery to Iowa State and Kareem Hunt to Toledo before him.

The explosiveness absolutely still makes me nervous. His breakaway percentage last year was 31.2%, 63rd in the NCAA. Jordan Howard who is also kind of deemed slow ran a 4.57 40, compared to D-Mont's 4.63 but Howards WASS puts him in the 81st %tile. Howard had plenty of plays of 15+ yards with Chicago.

Montgomery will compete with Mike Davis, who the Bears signed to a 2-year, $8M. Montgomery is similarly built to Davis and Howard but much better in the passing game. And I think that's why the Bears took him. So they don't have to rely on Tarik Cohen to be the only pass-catching back on the field and absolutely telegraph all of their plays. It's going to be a great running back duo that they can use on the field at the same time. Cohen will still be heavily involved, but he didn't even line up from the backfield on over 35% of his plays - he was out wide or in the slot for more than a third of the time he was on the field. This is an RBBC, but not much from the running side.

It gets cold in Chicago mane. Towards the end of the year, when they're playing that hard-nosed NFC North football in 20-degree weather, we saw Jordan Howard start getting bigger workloads Montgomery is that back who can thrive down the stretch given his size.

Montgomery becomes an intriguing early-mid round pick in fantasy drafts and even better is that his value in rookie drafts goes up a bit and if you were an RB needy team, it didn't look like a great year for building up your team, but I think with these four landing spots, we can have some faith and feel good. He becomes an early-mid round rookie pick for me.

Other Notes

After these top four guys, there's not much to love at the running back position coming from the 2019 NFL Draft. The other running backs picked within the top three rounds were: Devin Singletary to Buffalo (Round 3, Pick 10 - 74th), Damien Harris to New England (Round 3, Pick 23 - 87th overall) and Alexander Mattison to Minnesota as the last pick in Round 3 (102nd overall).

Again, I echo this to you guys - if you're outside of the top three rounds as a rookie running back, the path to touches and production is exponentially harder. Of course, there will be guys that do it, but the hit rate is so low that you think you know who that guy is going to be is naive. Looking back over the last 10 years, or I suppose 11, since 2008, there've been 39 running backs drafted in the fourth round. Of them, there are a few that have been awesome, they are: Devonta Freeman, Lamar Miller, James White, Marlon Mack, Tarik Cohen. That's it, though. The other 34 backs are out of the league, got hurt, never panned out - aka 88% of them. For every Lamar Miller drafted in Round 4, you're getting 4 Johnny White's, Jamie Harper's, Gartell Johnson's, Jeremy Langford's.

Trying to find out what these guys had and the others didn't will likely be the key to maybe not finding the next Devonta Freeman, but at least fading the next Gartell Johnson, thus making your chances of finding the next Freeman higher. Of the five guys that hit we see a lot of similarities. Freeman ran the worst 40-time at 4.58. So they are all sub 4.58, majority sub 4.50. YPC is the next thing I see, they all have high YPC numbers. Lamar Miller's was the worst at 5.6, which was still 52nd percentile for RBs. The rest of them were 65th percentile or better. Four of the five, everyone but Miller had at least one college season of 15 total touchdowns. Cohen, Mack, Freeman, White and those four all had at least 47 college receptions in their career, all had at least one season of 22 or more catches. Miller is sort of the odd man out here, but he ran a 4.40 40, putting him in the 98th percentile for weight-adjusted speed score, with an 89th percentile agility score. I think we've kind of seen him play out like his college stuff suggests. He was the only of the 5 not to have that 15 total TD season = he's not a big TD scorer in the NFL. The only back here not to catch 22 passes in a college season or 47 in a career, he only had 17 in a season and 28 overall. He's not a big asset in the receiving game. He's kid of been blessed by just being thrust into the workhorse role. So, when you look at these later round picks, you want guys that were very productive (15 total TDs) AND efficient (5.6 ypc+) in college, and don't necessarily have to be fast (4.58 or faster), but not slow, and have a proven history of catching passes. Maybe they don't have to be all of these, but the more they have, the more likely they are to hit success. Their college profiles really paint the picture for what they're likely to be in the NFL. No need to drift too far away from who we already know they are as running backs and project things we've never seen from these guys at the next level.

Can you shoot your shot on your favorite guy? Of course, but temper expectations. And that 88% miss rate only gets worse as we go down the rounds. So, when drafting in rookie drafts, the entire first two rounds should only be used on players drafted in the top three rounds. Let people who think they know something about a round 6 running back take him in the 2nd round. Trust me, they don't.

So, Devin Singletary joins a messy backfield. I love his play on the field at FAU, unbelievable elusiveness, very similar to Shady. Unfortunately, he measured in at 5'7"-203lbs, and a miserable athletic profile. If you're small, you better be fast. He is both small, not fast, agile or equipped with good burst. I like him as a player but he's not going to be a featured back in the NFL - they just signed T.J. Yeldon, they signed Frank Gore this offseason, LeSean is signed through 2019. It's very possible McCoy gets moved, and Gore gets cut, or he's simply there to mentor, but it's a messy situation nonetheless and hard to get excited until we see something tangible happen to the depth chart. Singletary is an early 3rd round rookie target.

The Damien Harris pick really confuses me. The Pats used their first-round pick on Sony Michel last year. In my eyes, Michel is a far, far superior back to the Alabma Crimson Tide running back, Damien Harris. Harris is a good prospect, but Michel is on another level as a pure runner. So, that begs the question, is Harris just a pure depth pick? 3rd round is pretty early for am RB depth pick. Burkhead is signed through 2020 and would cost NE $2M to release so it's hard to imagine that happening. I'm a bit confused, but maybe it just speaks to the overall game plan that New England has for next year leaning heavily on the ground. They do get Isaiah Wynn back this year. The casual football fan may have forgotten about him, but he was actually Patriots first-round pick before Michel last year. They had two and Wynn went 23rd overall but tore his achilles in the preseason. He should be back and a nice boost for the line that was already really good by year's end. I mean, they made 10 picks this year, three coming in the 3rd round so it's possible they just saw Harris as a value pick, maybe they graded him as a top 3 back, a Round-2 player and he fell to them - I don't know the inner workings, but it's hard to see where he really fits here.

Alexander Mattison, out of Boise State, goes to the Vikings to backup Dalvin Cook after Latavius Murray signed with NO in free agency. To be honest, I love this pick... For Dalvin Cook. As someone who wants to invest heavily in Cook this year, I was worried they'd take a running back earlier and one that could threaten Cook. Mattison ain't that guy. The guys who watch tape and don't really understand how to value fantasy backs, love Mattison. When you look at his numbers overall, you're going to be impressed. His 1,415 rushing yards in 2018 ranked 8th in the NCAA and led the Mountain West Conference. As did his 302 carries (2nd in NCAA), and 17 rushing touchdowns (7th in NCAA). He has size too, a big back who measured in at 5'11"-221lbs, something most of this year's top prospects lack. That size gave him the ability to handle a monster workload. Especially down the stretch last year - Boise's last two games these were his stat lines:

  • vs. Utah State: 37-200-3 | 3-12-0
  • vs. Fresno State: 40-200-1

Ridiculous volume. He's also a good pass-catcher, 28 catches as a sophomore, another 27 in 2018. But at the end of the day, he's a plodder that was able to get on the field and just get it done.

He averaged 4.7 yards per carry in his time at Boise State. Really bad. And what's worse is his speed. He ran a 4.67 40. That ain't it. He lacks explosiveness, he had just 9 carries go for 15+ yards last year. On 302 carries... that's 2.9%. He's basically a poor man's David Montgomery - maybe Alex Collins/Jay Ajayi with better passing skills, or Doug Martin with less speed and explosion.



Nick Ercolano
Nick Ercolano

Author



Leave a comment


Also in Blog

Week 7 Picks Against the Spread
Week 7 Picks Against the Spread

by Noah Pires October 17, 2019

Making the best picks in the entire industry for week seven. If you aren't tailing me, you aren't living.

Continue Reading

Week 7 Trade Targets
Week 7 Trade Targets

by Nick Ercolano October 16, 2019

Continue Reading

Trade Advice pt.3
Trade Advice pt.3

by Noah Pires October 12, 2019

After last week's debacle, it was time to go back to the drawing board for some more analysis. This one contains some heavy hitters, so let's take a look at their ROS values and how I'd determine whether or not to accept the deal.

Continue Reading