Look around and the adage “What’s old is new again” applies. Outdated not long ago, high-top fades, tight-rolled jeans and Hollywood classics (Sidebar: The trailer for “It” reaffirmed my deep-seated fear of clowns) are again en vogue.
The NFL, too, has turned back the clock.
Call it The Zeke Effect.
Running backs once ruled the roost. Back in the day before today’s pass-happy permutations dominated the league, average QB play, or even slightly below, was acceptable. During smashmouth’s golden years throwbacks like Earl Campbell, Eric Dickerson and Marcus Allen operated as offensive centerpieces, statistical juggernauts who shouldered massive loads in do-it-all roles.
Flash forward and ground attacks are in the midst of a renaissance, a revival breathing new life into a suffering fantasy position.
Just eight of the top-20 greatest rookie RB performances occurred this century. Ezekiel Elliott and Jordan Howard’s accomplishments last fall, however, were two of them. The former is No. 3 on the list (behind Dickerson and George Rodgers’ 1981 seasons), while the latter slots in at No. 19 (28 yards shy of Adrian Peterson’s memorable 2007). Interestingly, 2016 went down as the most productive rushing season in the 96-year history of the NFL. Teams netted an all-time low 26 rush attempts per game but recorded 4.2 yards per attempt, the third highest ever. Volume may not be the emphasis, but efficiency certainly is.
As a result of Elliott’s achievements, front offices feverishly tried to discover their own chain mover in this year’s Draft. The NFL, after all, is a copycat league. That’s why Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Joe Mixon, among others, were selected within the first two rounds. Whether through a single three-down back or via multiple options in specified roles (e.g. New England) many GMs want to strike a balance and alleviate extreme pressure on QBs.
Even though more glaring needs were needed in some cases, several executives willingly put cart before horse. It didn’t come as a surprise. In the weeks leading up to the exercise, scouts and insiders spouted almost presidential hyperbole about the 2017 RB Draft class (e.g. “historic” and “all-time great”). Dallas proved last year a robust o-line is imperative for instant success, but this year’s batch of newcomers is deep and talented. Multiple sterling fantasy performances could be on the horizon.
Last year, 10 RBs tallied 13 or more fantasy points per game in standard formats, the most in five seasons. This fall, bank on that number climbing.
A running back rebirth is underway.
Now if we can only bring tear-away jerseys back …
After weeks of poking, prodding and Wonderlicking, destinations are now determined. What newcomers could be cornerstones on fantasy rosters this season? Here are five players poised to make their mark (in order of projected contribution):
Leonard Fournette, RB, JAX (Early ADP: 29.9, RB13)
When healthy and aggressive, Fournette is a balled up Sonic the Hedgehog barreling through enemies. He’s completely 16-bit, an old school player from a bygone era when running backs acted as 300-carry wrecking balls. For that reason, he drew comparisons to Bo Jackson and AP pre-Draft. The LSU product, despite concerns regarding his lateral movement, possesses more wiggle than some believe. An ankle injury hampered him greatly last year. At full strength in 2015, he evaded the most tackles in college football and compiled 3.6 yards after contact per attempt. Only Derrick Henry terrorized would-be tacklers more.
On the downside, doubters question Fournette’s three-down abilities. Underutilized as a receiver, he dropped numerous catchable balls when leaned upon. But he showed well during LSU’s pro day repeatedly plucking balls cleanly. His willingness to get his nose dirty against the blitz is another transferable attribute.
As most anticipated, Fournette didn’t slip past the Jaguars at No. 4. His pack animal demeanor and power-scheme fit suggest he’ll be the focal point in Nathaniel Hackett’s retooled ball-control system. Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon pose little threat. If Jacksonville’s upgraded defense delivers on its promise and the offensive line run blocks at an average or better level (No. 25 in ’16), he will easily crack the RB1 ranks in 12-team formats.
Don’t fear the unknown, ignoramus. This fall, Fournette will be the closest version of Elliott 2016.
Fearless Forecast: 286 attempts, 1,244 rushing yards, 24 receptions, 193 receiving yards, 8 total touchdowns
Christian McCaffrey, RB, CAR (Early ADP: 51.8, RB20)
To many, McCaffrey is misunderstood and mislabeled. On the surface, shortsighted mouthpieces compare him to Danny Woodhead, a lazy assessment for obvious reasons. Roger Goodell’s laughable belief marijuana is “addictive” and “unhealthy,” in an era where many former/current players are hooked on opioids no less, offers more defensibility.
The former Heisman runner-up isn’t your average pass-catching safety valve. He’s football’s version of Doctor Strange, a player who seemingly alters space and time with every touch. He’s insanely elusive, lightning quick and generally tough to wrangle in space, which is why people connect simple dots. His tacky hands, sharp route running and special teams contributions echo Reggie Bush. But McCaffrey owns multiple tools. In reality, he has more in common with Le’Veon Bell or David Johnson. Though best suited for a zone scheme, he cuts and explodes downhill and gains appreciable yards after contact. He posted a 3.3 YAC with Stanford last year.
Overall, McCaffrey reminds me of a Thurman Thomas or Charlie Garner. He will inflict heavy damage utilized as a Swiss Army knife. Already on bended knee, PPR players are fully prepared to propose. It would be no surprise if he eclipsed 60 receptions out of the gate, especially on a Carolina team desperate for playmakers. Initially, he’ll work in various capacities likely registering 14-16 touches per game until Jonathan Stewart is inevitably taken out by a random marmot attack. When that occurs he could become a certifiable workhorse. Assuming he immediately nets 55-65 percent of the opportunity share, bank on a top-15 contribution no matter format.
Fearless Forecast: 183 carries, 794 rushing yards, 61 receptions, 512 receiving yards, 7 total touchdowns
Joe Mixon, CIN, RB (Early ADP: 64.0, RB22)
Justifiably, Mixon, per ESPN’s Adam Schefter, was reportedly featured on only four team pre-Draft lists. His reprehensible domestic violence incident from 2014, which was chillingly caught on tape, turned many suitors away. However, Cincinnati, an organization known for welcoming the seedy, found his incredible talents too irresistible and shelled out a Round 2 pick. Risky.
Excess baggage aside, Mixon is arguably the most talented back in this year’s rich class. He possesses a robust build, plus wiggle, open-field electricity, forward lean, off-edge burst and tremendous receiving skills. Pass-blocking is his lone downside. He’ll need to stand out in that area during training camp to secure playing time.
Undoubtedly Mixon’s arrival triggers a public relations nightmare for the Bengals. If on the straight and narrow, he should leapfrog a fast fading Jeremy Hill (No. 66 in juke rate last year) and Gio Bernard (knee recovery) in short order. The path to touches is very clear. Enter Week 1 the starter and Mixon vaults into the RB top-20 with relative ease. In fact, the separation between him, Fournette and McCaffrey is nearly negligible. He’s that splashy, especially given the environment around him.
Fearless Forecast: 216 carries, 930 rushing yards, 32 receptions, 255 receiving yards, 6 total touchdowns
Corey Davis, TEN, WR (Early ADP: 76.6, WR38)
Antonio Brown, Julian Edelman, Greg Jennings – over the years the MAC has cranked out quality wide receivers. Soon fantasy owners will add the Western Michigan product to the list. At 6-foot-2, 209 pounds, Davis is monolith by comparison. He accrued numbers in Kalamazoo that would drive even the weakest fantasy libido. His 5,279 receiving yards over four years is unrivaled in college football history.
What most impresses about Davis is his versatility and route savvy. He, like Michael Thomas last year, is an instant plug-and-play weapon. He creates separation from defenders off the line, can climb tall ladders, uses his body as a shield and makes beautiful in-air adjustments. His acceleration and physicality after the catch also bulge eyes. Weaknesses in his game really don’t exist.
The Titans do have suitable weapons. Rishard Matthews emerged from the shadows to produce the 24th-most valuable wide receiver line in 2016. Delanie Walker and DeMarco Murray, too, rocked rosters tallying 118 combined receptions. Still, Davis should promptly leap Tajae Sharpe on the depth chart and entice at least 20 percent of the Titans target share. He and Marcus Mariota, who has the aligned stars needed to skyrocket this season, could become one of the game’s most prolific combinations. A borderline top-20 WR in the making, Davis is a wise investment anytime after Round 6 of 12-team leagues.
Fearless Forecast: 70 receptions, 1,086 receiving yards, 6 touchdowns
Samaje Perine, Was, RB (Early ADP: 172.6, RB56)
Fantasy is an opportunity game and the former Sooner has a golden one in Washington. It’s entirely possible Perine is the virtual game’s next Howard. Built like Porky Pig (WITH PANTS!), he’s thick (5-foot-11, 233 pounds), tough and could soon have Rob Kelley backers saying “That’s all folks!”
Perine is the definition of “power back.” His remarkable balance, leg churn and fall forward nature pushes piles. He netted 3.5 yards after contact per attempt in his three-year collegiate career. Additionally, he freely stood up oncoming blitzers and plucked passes cleanly when targeted. Though overshadowed by Mixon last year, he’s a wrecking ball who can shoulder a hefty workload.
Jay Gruden’s adoration for Kelley is no secret. The undrafted RB’s rise last fall is why Matt Jones may soon man a drive-thru window. Though R. Kelley penned a few hits during his rookie season (No. 20 in fantasy points per snap), Perine is the more skillful rusher. It’s not a matter of if, but when, the rookie climbs the depth chart. Do so, and he could replicate Howard’s midseason ascension. Keep in mind, Washington’s offensive line was the sixth most efficient run-blocking unit in the NFL last year and the passing game is quite formidable on paper – wide lanes, friends, wide lanes.
Presumably available in the double-digit rounds, Perine will be a difference maker by midseason.
Fearless Forecast: 177 carries, 766 rushing yards, 19 receptions, 97 receiving yards, 6 total touchdowns
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