When it comes to rookies and fantasy football, it's almost always been the running backs who have made the biggest impact. Whether it was Edgerrin James, Clinton Portis, Fred Taylor or Matt Forte (to name a few), owners knew that it was quite possible to hit on a potential draft-day bargain by taking a chance on a first-year runner. Of course, the NFL has evolved into a passing league in recent seasons that has allowed quarterbacks the likes of Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson to thrive as rookies as well. Unfortunately, this year's class of incoming signal-callers doesn't exactly ooze potential sleeper candidates at the position across the board.
As a result, fantasy leaguers should once again be paying particular attention to the running back position over the next three days. There are plenty of teams out there that need backfield assistance, a list that includes the Cincinnati Bengals, Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos, Green Bay Packers, New York Jets, Pittsburgh Steelers and St. Louis Rams. That means we could see several rookie runners land in a place where starting (or at least prominent) opportunities will be available. The top rookie runners, according to NFL Network draft guru Mike Mayock, include Alabama's Eddie Lacy, Wisconsin's Montee Ball, North Carolina's Giovani Bernard, Clemson's Andre Ellington, Texas A&M's Christine Michael, Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell and UCLA's Johnathan Franklin.
In an effort to prove that several of these runners will be well worth your while in 2013 fantasy drafts, let's take a look back at the last four NFL seasons and the players who have made the biggest immediate impact during that time -- both for their respective NFL teams and fantasy owners alike.
The 2012 campaign was huge for a lot of rookies regardless of position, but the running back position thrived in particular. Doug Martin (2nd - 262.60 points), Alfred Morris (5th - 241 points) and Trent Richardson (9th - 203.70 points) all finished among the 10-best players at their position. Morris was the biggest surprise of the trio, as he had an average draft position (ADP) of Round 15 on NFL.com. Mikel Leshoure (20th - 149.20 points), Vick Ballard (25th - 114.60 points), David Wilson (47th - 67.20 points) and Daryl Richardson (52nd - 61.80 points) made a lesser impact or have the potential for improvement in 2013. The same holds true of Lamar Miller, Bryce Brown, Isaiah Pead, LaMichael James, Ronnie Hillman and Bernard Pierce -- almost all of them will be picked in drafts.
Fantasy leaguers didn't receive a lot of help from rookie runners in 2011. That was due at least in part to the fact that two of the first four backs taken in the draft, Ryan Williams and Leshoure, both missed their entire first campaigns due to major injuries. Overall, there wasn't a single first-year back who finished in the top 25 at the position based on fantasy points alone. The best of the bunch were Ben Tate (28th - 122 points), DeMarco Murray (29th - 120 points) and Roy Helu (33rd - 115.90 points). The first back selected in the NFL draft, Mark Ingram, finished with a mere 474 rushing yards and ranked 45th in points. Fantasy sleeper (at the time) Daniel Thomas (49th - 69.30 points) mustered just 581 yards on the ground and was considered a real disappointment for owners.
The 2010 season saw one rookie, Jahvid Best (22nd - 138.20 points,) finish among the 25 best running backs based on fantasy points. But to be honest, that wasn't a surprise -- this class didn't have a ton of playmaking runners and one of them, Tate, missed the entire season due to injuries. LeGarrette Blount (27th - 132.10 points), who was undrafted coming out of Oregon, was the lone first-year back to rush for 1,000-plus yards -- and he played in just 13 games that season. The first two backs selected in the NFL draft were C.J. Spiller (64th - 44 points) and Ryan Mathews (32nd - 118 points), but neither ranked in the top 30 at the position. Spiller, now a fantasy star, received a meager 98 touches that year behind Fred Jackson and was mostly a fantasy non-factor.
Knowshon Moreno (17th - 162 points) was far and away the best rookie running back from a fantasy perspective in 2009. That was due in large part to the fact that several first-year runners had entered situations where opportunities to be featured options weren't present. Beanie Wells (31st - 131.60 points) split time with Tim Hightower, LeSean McCoy (35th - 118.50 points) lost work to Brian Westbrook and Leonard Weaver, Donald Brown (54th - 63 points) was behind Joseph Addai in Indianapolis and Shonn Greene (56th - 60.10 points) was buried behind Thomas Jones. The lone member of this draft class to become an elite back was, of course, McCoy. Fellow draftees Mike Goodson and Andre Brown could be in positions to make an impact in 2013, though.