Happy 4th of July FA Nation and welcome to the 2017 Fantasy Football Season! Never has there been such great depth and young talent at the running back position. In fact this draft class could very well be more talented than the 2015 class of rookies that featured names like David Johnson, Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon, Ameer Abdullah, Tevin Coleman, and Jay Ajayi. All those names listed above will likely be taken in the first 8 rounds of your draft this season, some of them in the first two rounds. So who are the rookies to target this year? There are the obvious names at the top, but there are plenty of guys worth stashing that currently find themselves in the mix of a committee or are just further down the depth charts right now.
The Cream of the Crop
Both Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey were taken in the Top 10 of this year’s draft and both are expected to make big contributions this year. Fournette sits atop the Jaguars depth chart with a pretty decent offensive line in front of him. Early expectations could easily see Fournette getting 10-15 touches per game and that’s a healthy amount for a rookie. The only concern is the Jags tend to fall behind and have been airing the ball out more late in the game the past couple seasons. This has led to Blake Bortles and Allen Robinson being quite relevant for fantasy due to their garbage time production. The Jags are a team still coming off a 3-13 season and it’s entirely feasible that they may find themselves behind in 2017 and may revert to throwing the ball more to play catch up. But Fournette is still a game-changing RB that could make a strong imprint on this offense behind a much-improved offensive line.
If you’re drafting in a standard non-PPR league then Fournette is at the top of the list for rookie RB’s. If it’s PPR then McCaffrey might get a bump. Taken 4 picks behind Fournette, McCaffrey landed in a nice offense with a much better QB than Fournette did. The Panthers had a disappointing 2016 season, but enter 2017 with the potential to have a highly explosive offensive unit. The Panthers have never had a running back like McCaffrey before. He can line up in the backfield as well as the slot and he could become a favorite target of Cam Newton. Like Fournette, you can assume McCaffrey will be featured heavily in the offense with an aging Jonathan Stewart the only other realistic candidate for work in the backfield.
Just because these guys are in the mid-tier doesn’t mean they won’t have the opportunity to run. Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine are two guys to keep an eye on. Perine can be had much later than Mixon but both have the ability to earn the jobs as the #1 backs on their respective teams. In Cincinnati, Mixon (6’1” 228 pounds) features better size than Gio Bernard (5’9” 202 pounds) and could easily overtake him as the pass-catching back. Mixon caught 65 passes for 894 yards in 25 games in college to go with his 2,027 career rushing yards on the ground. While Mixon may be a PPR gem, his college teammate, Perine, could be a nice option in standard formats. In his three years as a Sooner Perine had 3 straight seasons with 1,000 rushing yards and totaled 49 TD’s on the ground. His numbers dropped off each season, but keep in mind he was splitting work with Mixon. If Perine can grapple the starting job from Rob Kelley he could be in line for a great rookie season.
Jamaal Williams has a fantastic opportunity to earn the lead RB job in Green Bay. The Packers had a big need to satisfy in the offseason at RB as Eddie Lacy departed and Christine Michael was released in May. So the team turned to RB-turned-WR Ty Montgomery who performed well at times, but the Packers needed a true NFL running back and they found one in the 4th round with Williams.
Kareem Hunt is another name in this middle tier of rookies that could make a very strong impact if given the opportunity. With Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware both failing to get control of the starting job, Hunt could step in and strip it from both of them. Heading into camp he’s behind them on the depth chart, but if history repeats itself with West and Ware struggling with a heavy workload then Hunt will get his touches.
Dalvin Cook is another rookie that has great upside, but the opportunity right now doesn’t appear great. There are still some questions surrounding the offensive line despite Minnesota’s offseason moves. He has great speed and he has big shoes to fill with Adrian Peterson now in New Orleans, but Cook is certainly a guy to monitor throughout training camp.
Alvin Kamara is another mid-tier rookie running back. He’s coming to a great offense, but he’s behind Adrian Peterson and Mark Ingram on the depth charts. He’s worth taking a flyer in the late rounds if Peterson gets hurt and Ingram struggles to get in the Saints good graces.
Sleepers to Keep an Eye On
Finally we have a batch of guys that all fantasy owners should at least monitor. Most notably in this tier is Joe Williams with the 49ers. Incoming head coach Kyle Shanahan was adamant about taking Williams in the 4th round and he appears to be a sneaky favorite of the young coach’s. Shanahan will run an up-tempo fast offense. There’s little known about how much faith is in Carlos Hyde the new coaching staff or even how well he’ll adapt to the new offense so Williams could turn out to be a solid late-round option.
D’Onta Foreman is a big time bruiser and could be a nice goal line option if the Texans can effectively move the ball. Unfortunately his prospects for 2017 aren’t great. Houston still wants to feature Lamar Miller as their top option and the offensive line isn’t very good.
Others worth watching? Jeremy McNichols with Tampa Bay could get some work, but he’s behind Doug Martin (suspended 3 games) and Jacquizz Rodgers so there’s an opportunity for McNichols to make a strong impression early. James Conner could be the #2 behind Le’Veon Bell especially with DeAngelo Williams now 34 years old. Conner is only worth taking as a potential handcuff. Marlon Mack should find an opportunity with the Colts especially since their #1 RB on offense is Frank Gore. Donnel Pumphrey is also worth keeping an eye on as he’ll get plenty of opportunities to earn reps in training camp, plus the Eagles have a very good offensive line.