Fantasy Football Rookie RBs to Draft and Avoid
The NFL’s preseason schedule is officially underway, which means fantasy draft season is about to reach a fever pitch. It’s the most thrilling time of year as everyone is in contention and everyone is seeking out nuggets of information to gain some sort of advantage over their leaguemates ahead of the most exciting day of the year: draft day.
One particular group of players that always has a ton of buzz each season are the incoming rookies. These stars dazzled in college and now enter the NFL with a whole host of possibilities ahead of them. Sometimes the hype is warranted, sometimes it’s not. How do you know what’s reasonable and what’s a trap? It starts with the price you have to pay to roster them.
Let’s take a look at rookie running backs that I would absolutely draft and avoid at their current ADP. Note: ADP and TDN Rank are reflective of PPR scoring.
TDN Rank: RB26
I’ve been the conductor on the Carter hype train since the winter months, and I’m still as excited as ever to roster the rookie in fantasy. By all accounts, Carter is the best running back in New York Jets camp and is poised to have a major role as a rusher and pass-catcher this season, even if he’s not poised to be a bellcow.
Over the last two years in San Francisco, while current Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur was the passing game coordinator, the 49ers averaged 27.34 rush attempts per game. The top two running backs on the roster averaged roughly 22 carries and a little more than one rushing touchdown per game combined. If we project a somewhat similar setup for LaFleur in New York, it’s fair to assume that Carter receives at least half of those carries—I believe Tevin Coleman will have a significant role for the Jets this season too when healthy. At four yards per carry, Carter should finish with around 750 yards on the ground and he should find the end zone a half-dozen times. But his production doesn’t stop there.
Carter’s best attribute may be his receiving ability out of the backfield. Considering that running backs over LaFleur’s last two years in San Francisco received a 23% target share, 65-70 targets are well within the range of reasonability for Carter. I project him to have 50 catches on 67 targets in 2021, finishing with 463 receiving yards and a trio of touchdowns in the receiving game. Those totals will have Carter as a strong weekly flex play with several weeks inside RB2 territory or higher.
Larry Rountree III
TDN Rank: RB59
No risk it, no biscuit. You’re going to have to take a few shots in the dark late in drafts to find value at the running back position. And in fantasy, opportunity is as important as talent—and there’s opportunity for production for whoever ends up as the RB2 for the Los Angeles Chargers.
Rountree III is in a training camp battle with Joshua Kelley and Justin Jackson to be the backup to Austin Ekeler in 2021. At publish time, Jackson appears to be the favorite to land the No. 2 spot, but there’s plenty of time left before that role is solidified. It is worth noting that the only running back of that group that was drafted/signed by the current coaching staff is Rountree III.
Ekeler is a versatile weapon but is not used as a “traditional” bellcow back. Luckily for him, new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi has seen how a highly-skilled pass-catching back can be used successfully while working under Pete Carmichael and Sean Payton in New Orleans. Lombardi has also seen how working in a second, more traditional running back can help balance the rushing attack. That’s where Rountree III comes in.
Latavius Murray received about 43% of New Orleans’ running back carries when healthy last season. With the previous Chargers regime, Ekeler received only about 40% of the carry share when healthy in 2020. Those two things mean that there’s clearly room for two-down work in the Chargers’ backfield and that their new offensive coordinator has seen how a player like Ekeler can be complemented by a bigger back taking on a healthy role. That’s a formula for success for Los Angeles’ eventual RB2, especially if it’s Rountree III. I’ll take a flyer toward the end of my draft.
TDN Rank: RB60
Remember in the last section when I said “opportunity is as important as talent”? That very much comes into play here with a UDFA in Hawkins. Here is the list of names behind Mike Davis on Atlanta’s RB depth chart: Quadre Ollison, Cordarrelle Patterson, Caleb Huntley, and Hawkins—not exactly a murder’s row. New Falcons head coach Arthur Smith wants to run the football and we have no idea how Davis will hold up over the course of a full season as a starter. Should he get hurt or underperform, someone else on this roster could immediately be in line for fantasy success.
Hawkins is the name that intrigues me the most of the group behind Davis. Hawkins is lightning-quick and is a big play waiting to happen whenever the ball is in his hands. He doesn’t have ideal size, but in a complementary role (particularly late in games in hurry-up, pass-heavy scenarios), Hawkins could excel. Get this rookie on the field and scheme the ball into his hands. You might be surprised at the level of fantasy production that can come from this UDFA in 2021.
TDN Rank: RB40
I love Williams’ talent, I just think we’re one year too early on his ADP. Sign me up for Javonte Williams RB2 stock in 2022, but for this season, he’s a flex play at best. Why? I don’t believe he’s in line for as much work as many hope.
While the rookie is clearly the running back of the future in Denver, Melvin Gordon is still the running back of right now. I anticipate at least a 55/45 split in favor of Gordon when it comes to top-two running back carries with Mike Boone having some work sprinkled in as well. Barring a Gordon injury, I don’t see Williams getting 200 carries, and I do not currently have a running back ranked in RB2 territory or higher with a projection of fewer than 12 carries per game. I do project Williams to cross the 1,000 total yard threshold as a rookie, but I’m not anticipating a ton of touchdown volume nor a full-time starter’s workload that’s required for his current draft position.
TDN Rank: RB44
Sermon earned a lot of fans after his monster performances against Northwestern and Clemson last season, but there’s just too much hype surrounding a guy who was splitting touches with Master Teague III as late as November.
While any running back in a Kyle Shanahan offense is intriguing, Sermon is still a bit buried on the depth chart. Raheem Mostert is the starter while healthy and, for my money, Wayne Gallman is the No. 2. Then rookies Sermon and Elijah Mitchell come into play to round out the RB room until Jeff Wilson Jr. returns mid-season from injury—JaMycal Hasty is also in the equation.
Finding consistent touches for Sermon is difficult, even with Mostert’s injury history—I project just under 11 touches per game for Sermon in 2021. One of the reasons why is that Sermon does not project to be a major player in the receiving game, severely hurting his PPR value. I’m willing to take Sermon where the other high-upside backups are going, but not in the 30s where rushers with more defined roles are being selected.