After a Fantasy MVP performance from Ezekiel Elliott and 1300 rushing yards from Jordan Howard, expectations for a skilled 2017 running back draft class will be very high. However, when drafting, it is important to understand the risk that comes with drafting a rookie and the circumstances that can affect their fantasy performance.
The rookies with the most carries in the 2016-2017 season were Ezekiel Elliott, Jordan Howard, Devontae Booker, Rob Kelley, and Paul Perkins. They recorded 322, 252, 174, 168, and 112 carries, respectively. Ezekiel Elliott led the league in carries, but Elliott was a special case. Howard finished 11th in the league, Booker finished 24th, Kelley finished 25th, and Perkins finished 36th. Howard, Kelley, and Perkins were all picked below the 135th pick of the 2016 draft. Rob Kelley was not drafted. The rookie running backs that are most successful are not necessarily the ones who get picked early, but the ones who get high workloads.
Rookie running backs who are drafted early are not necessarily successful or given carries. After Ezekiel Elliott, the next three running backs taken were Derrick Henry, Kenyan Drake, and C.J. Prosise. Elliott displayed great running ability, but he also was drafted into a great system, where he was able to handle high workloads behind Pro Football Focus’ number one ranked offensive line in the Dallas Cowboys. Derrick Henry, picked in the second round, performed well when he saw action, taking 110 carries for 490 rushing yards. He also caught 13 passes for 137 receiving yards. However, given he was not drafted into a starting role, Henry’s impressive 4.45 yards per carry only translated into 67.7 points. CJ Prosise was also impressive, recording 172 yards on just 30 carries. Despite an average of 5.7 yards per carry, Prosise was not able to produce for fantasy owners because he was drafted into the three-headed mess of a backfield of Seattle. Kenyan Drake was drafted into a four running back system, and only 33 carries due to the quick rise of Dolphins’ running back Jay Ajayi. For a rookie running back to be successful, they need to be drafted into a good situation where they are set up to carry high workloads and run behind a successful offensive line.
While drafting a rookie running back early brings high risk, as seen with Ezekiel Elliott, it can yield high rewards as well. Especially with a draft class with potential NFL first round picks such as Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook and Christian McCaffrey, it is very easy to be tempted into spending your second or third round on a rookie. However, before spending a second or third round pick on one of these players, fantasy owners should probably consider taking a more reliable player instead. Running backs that come without much risk are difficult to find, so an early pick is better spent on a dependable player than an unpredictable rookie. This being said, rookie running backs are still an interesting use of a late round pick. This draft has many running backs with tremendous upside that are worth a 12-15th round pick such as Joe Mixon, D’Onta Foreman, Donnel Pumphrey, and Marlon Mack.