Sophomore RB study, part 1: Breakout candidates

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The sophomore slump is almost too cliché.

There is evidence that this phenomenon exists in everything from sports to music to television.

When it comes to fantasy running backs, there is some historical proof to back up claims that there will be players who don't live up to the hype in their second season following successful rookie campaigns, however that success may have been defined. Many fantasy owners fell victim to this last year when second-year backs like Jeremy Hill and Carlos Hyde did not return on their draft value.

Don't get too worried though. We at @NFLFantasy are here to do the dirty work for you, so that on draft day you can be as informed as possible on which players are poised to break out and who might be candidates to suffer from that cliche second-season slump.

That's why this two-part series studying running backs entering Year 2 in the NFL exists. From statistical output as rookies, to evidence of their good or bad attributes on film, to situational circumstances, consider this a drill-down on what you can expect from Todd Gurley, David Johnson, Thomas Rawls, Jay Ajayi, Matt Jones, Duke Johnson and Jeremy Langford from a fantasy perspective as they prepare for their sophomore campaigns.

Check back for part 2 later in the week.

Note: All ADP data from FantasyFootballCalculator.com

Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams


2015 stats: 229 rush attempts | 1,106 rush yards | 10 rush touchdowns | 21 receptions | 188 receiving yards | 187.40 fantasy points

Todd Gurley ranked first among all rookie backs in rushing attempts, rushing yards, rushing touchdowns and total fantasy points in 2015, averaging 14.4 fantasy points per game (FPPG). In 13 contests, Gurley's output was good enough for him to finish as the RB5 on the season and earned him a nod as the NFL's Rookie of the Year.

It's safe to say that those who invested in his Round 5 ADP last year (concerns about his knee injury made some skeptical) were handsomely rewarded.

In his second season, the Rams' featured back is locked in as an RB1 in fantasy with a first round asking price, and the argument could be made to draft him first overall based on his natural skillset. On film, he makes his job look almost too easy, effortlessly bursting through gaps and when combined with his uncanny vision to see space developing ahead of him, Gurley is truly awe-inspiring to watch.

Other than Adrian Peterson, there may not be a running back in the NFL who is more important to his team's success than Gurley. Poised for elite-level fantasy production this season and for years to come, Los Angeles has no other choice but to force-feed Gurley the ball as they develop rookie signal-caller Jared Goff. The only thing that could keep Gurley from reaching astronomical statistical heights is the efficiency of the offense that he is a part of, but there is absolutely no reason to second-guess drafting him with your first pick no matter what the format.

David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals


2015 stats: 125 rush attempts | 581 rush yards | 8 rush touchdowns | 36 receptions | 457 receiving yards | 4 receiving touchdowns | 173.80 fantasy points

Even before he was slotted into the bell cow role in Week 13, David Johnson was a huge story in the early weeks of the 2015 season. He was used sparingly early on, seeing no greater than eight rush attempts through Week 12, but flashed his versatility and almost always capitalized on limited opportunities with four double-digit fantasy weeks in his first five NFL games.

The talented Northern Iowa product single-handedly won fantasy leagues with explosive, high-volume outings in the final weeks of the season including 229 total yards (22 percent of his season yards from scrimmage) and three touchdowns in Week 15 against Philadelphia (40.9 fantasy points).

Since Johnson is being hailed as the workhorse for the highly productive Cardinals' offense in 2016, he has earned himself a late first round ADP and like Gurley, the second-year Arizona back has a shot at leading the league in rushing. In addition, Johnson is an elite pass-catching back; he ranked first among all running backs last season with 12.7 yards per reception. This guy can do it all.

Concerns regarding the Cardinals' depth at running back are valid (Chris Johnson, Andre Ellington), but coach Bruce Arians has gushed about Johnson this spring saying things like he "earned the right now to be the bell cow," and that Johnson "has a chance to be one of the all-time best." Yeah, we'll take our chances on Johnson in the first round. Thanks, coach.

Thomas Rawls, Seattle Seahawks


2015 stats: 147 rush attempts | 830 rush yards | 4 rush touchdowns | 9 receptions | 76 receiving yards | 1 receiving touchdown | 118.60 fantasy points

An undrafted free agent out of Central Michigan, Thomas Rawls began the 2015 season buried on the depth chart. But when Marshawn Lynch was out with an injury in Week 3, Rawls was thrust into the starting role and took his 16 rushes for 104 yards in his first high-volume opportunity, quickly becoming a waiver-wire darling.

He received greater than 16 carries in five more games through the year and finished second among rookie backs in rushing yards while tying for second among rookie runners in the yards per carry category with an impressive 5.6.

Rawls put on tape proof that he's capable of handling a high-volume workload. He ran both between the tackles and outside with decisiveness, toughness and conviction every single time he touched the ball. His destructive running style invoked shades of Beast Mode and was backed up by a league-leading 2.68 yards after contact average.

Unfortunately, he suffered a broken ankle in Week 14 which included ligament damage so his status for training camp remains unclear. The hope, according to coach Pete Carroll, is that Rawls will be ready to go in Week 1. If that is truly the case, he projects as the team's bell cow, but none of that is certain. Concerns about his health have Rawls' ADP dropping as far as Round 3.

Even if Rawls is the primary back in the Seattle backfield, he was minimally involved as a receiver last year with a mere nine receptions. That leaves room for a guy like rookie C.J. Prosise to sneak into a third-down role which would in turn diminish Rawls' playing time. This is not a major concern since Rawls can still put up RB1 numbers on 18-20 touches per game but it's something to keep in mind as far as when you want to target him on draft day.

Jay Ajayi, Miami Dolphins


2015 stats: 49 rush attempts | 187 rush yards | 1 rush touchdown | 7 receptions | 90 receiving yards | 35.70 fantasy points

Some thought that the Miami backfield would be a committee last year between Lamar Miller and fifth-round rookie out of Boise State, Jay Ajayi. That was not the case since Ajayi suffered a cracked rib in Miami's final preseason game and didn't see a single snap until Week 9. When Ajayi did make it back to the gridiron, he swiped a few carries during the second half of the regular season but nothing significant enough to make a difference from a fantasy perspective. The rookie collected fewer than 10 rush attempts in each of the nine games he played, averaging just 5.2 attempts per game.

It's too small of a sample size for us to conclude much from a statistical standpoint (especially considering the sorry state of Miami's offense last year) but at least his limited playing time provided us with some film to study on him heading into his second year.

On tape, Ajayi displayed great balance gaining valuable yards after contact, and ran with conviction and toughness. Perhaps the best example of his resilient running style came in Week 15 on his only touchdown run as a rookie. Ajayi received a handoff as he planted his feet, changed direction just in time to elude a would-be tackler, used a spin-move to shed another sure tackle and used his momentum to stumble into the end zone for the score. It was an impressive run to say the least, and he sprinkled in similarly notable carries throughout the latter part of 2015. He's not the fastest guy out there (4.57 40-yard dash), but he has enough speed to get around the corner on outside runs and is strong enough to plow through defenders when running between the tackles, too.

Ajayi fell in the draft because of health issues with his knee coming out of college, but since that is more of a long-term issue, it shouldn't be of any concern in terms of his value in redraft leagues this season. According to new Dolphins head coach Adam Gase, Ajayi has already separated himself from the rest of the backs on Miami's roster which is not really a shocker considering the rest of the team's running back depth chart.

With a Round 6 ADP, Ajayi is a top mid-round running back target for those who are employing a "Zero RB" draft strategy, or anyone looking for high-upside lead backs in the middle rounds. Some have questioned his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield following reports during mini camp that he "dropped a few balls", but he logged 50 receptions in his final college season and this drop issue is nothing more than a June trope that's being blown way out of proportion.

Miami running backs combined for 103 targets last season, 55 percent of which went Miller's direction (57 total, which ranked Miller 14th in RB targets). If Gase plans to have his backs more involved in the passing game, that total targets number should only increase, and Ajayi's owners would surely benefit from those added looks.

Ajayi was pegged as a three-down candidate coming out of college, and for a running back with a Round 6 ADP, he represents a ridiculous steal with potential RB1 upside.

Matt Jones, Washington Redskins


2015 stats: 144 rush attempts | 490 rush yards | 3 rush touchdowns | 19 receptions | 304 receiving yards | 1 receiving touchdown | 95.40 fantasy points

From a statistical standpoint, there is not much positive to take away from Matt Jones' rookie campaign. In games where the third-rounder out of Florida received double-digit carries (eight total) he averaged fewer than 3.5 yards per carry six times. In fact, Jones took home the title for worst yards per carry average among rookie running backs who received at least 100 rush attempts in 2015.

Even more of an issue for Jones, other than his lack of consistency and efficiency, was his ball security. He lost four of his five fumbles on the season including a soul-crushing goal-line turnover in Week 3 as he leaped toward the end zone and was inches from scoring.

Two of his three rushing touchdowns on the season came in a single game, and he scored 51.6 percent of his 95.4 fantasy points in just two games (Week 2 vs Rams, Week 10 vs Saints). The thing is, when he played well he played really well; He ran with violence and complete disregard for other humans in his path (which come to think of it, may have had something to do with his ball security issues). When he played poorly, it was tough to tell if it was his lack of understanding of the game at the NFL level, Washington's sub-par offensive line play, or just a matter of Jones failing to get into a groove while splitting carries with Alfred Morris and Chris Thompson.

From a fantasy perspective, 2016 is a clean slate and presents a brand new opportunity for Jones. Washington is ready to put him in a position to break out as they groom him to be their primary back. Morris has moved on to Dallas and Jones is now set up for a high-volume workload. Right now Jones is coming off of draft boards in the middle of Round 5 which feels about right. The upside with the unproven Jones is 250 rush attempts that he can hopefully be productive with. That potential volume alone is worth a draft selection in Round 5. But the risk is that Jones' inconsistency and fumbling issues continue, and that he ends up losing snaps to Chris Thompson (and possibly rookie Keith Marshall) who has been used mainly as a third-down back during his few seasons in the league. Jones is has the size to handle goal-line work as well, but once the team realized that he was a fumble risk in the red zone, Kirk Cousins just started tossing up end zone balls to Jordan Reed when the team was in a position to score points. You probably would lean on the pass too if your backfield averaged 1.75 yards per carry on 48 red zone attempts, with just three touchdowns and one lost fumble, as Alex Gelhar recently pointed out.

To put it simply, Jones is shaping up as a high-risk, high-reward RB2 for the 2016 campaign.

Duke Johnson, Cleveland Browns


2015 stats: 104 rush attempts | 379 rush yards | 61 receptions | 2 receiving touchdowns | 103.30 fantasy points

Duke Johnson entered 2015 as a late-round sleeper candidate due to his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. And despite missing the first two games with an injury, he ended up leading all rookie running backs in targets, receptions (Johnson was second to only wideout Amari Cooper in receptions among all rookies) and receiving yards. Unfortunately, his lack of touchdown scoring kept his usage in fantasy limited to the role of a PPR-flex type. In standard scoring he only had one double-digit fantasy point game all season.

Johnson is definitely not an early down guy due to his size and had little success as a rusher as evidenced by his mediocre 3.6 yards per carry average. That doesn't mean that the sophomore back is incapable of returning great value this season for fantasy squads.

Despite Duke's failures as a rusher last season, he still out-snapped his teammate and early-down banger Isaiah Crowell. Much of that has to do with the fact that Cleveland's offense was just plain bad last year, and was playing from behind frequently. With a new front office and fresh coaching staff in Cleveland entering 2016, look for coach Hue Jackson and company to make a statement early on. Jackson is a run-first kind of coach, and his run-to-pass play ratios in his last few seasons as the Bengals' offensive coordinator prove that.

The Browns were questioned for not drafting a single running back in April, but Jackson instilled confidence in Johnson and Crowell in short order talking the duo up as "the best he's seen" and calling their talent "extreme". Coming from a guy who has coached Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard the last few seasons that kind of remark should not be taken lightly. The Browns brass believe in their backs, and with the wideout position a huge question mark with a handful of rookies competing for snaps, Johnson seems like the only sure thing in terms of high target volume. There's a good chance that the sophomore back sees upwards of 80 receptions this year and if that ends up being the case, his yardage and touchdown totals have nowhere to go but up.

Jeremy Langford, Chicago Bears


2015 stats: 148 rush attempts | 537 rush yards | 6 rush touchdowns | 22 receptions | 279 receiving yards | 1 receiving touchdown | 125.60 fantasy points

Jeremy Langford had a solid four-game streak of double-digit fantasy outings as a rookie when he was thrust into the starting role in Matt Forte's stead. The speedster out of Michigan State collected 366 yards from scrimmage and four total touchdowns on 64 touches in Weeks 9 through 11, finishing as fantasy's RB4, RB1 and RB18 each of those weeks while Forte was sidelined with an injury.

When Forte returned, Langford had proven to the Bears' coaching staff that he still deserved to be involved and received double-digit rush attempts in every game for the rest of the season (except Week 17). He finished 2015 ranked third among rookie backs in total fantasy points, and ranked fourth in both rush attempts and rushing scores among first year backs.

Clearly, Langford proved talented enough to have earned himself an increased role in the Bears rushing attack last season, but now that Forte has moved on, the question remains whether or not Langford is capable of being Chicago's bell cow.

Fantasy analyst Mike Clay of ESPN (formerly of ProFootballFocus) has been firm on his belief that Langford is an overvalued asset for fantasy purposes this season, and he raises some great points to back up that claim.

When it comes to the film, Langford flashed his elite speed and athletic abilities on a few big plays but for the most part he didn't display the same wow-factor that guys like Gurley or David Johnson did that have elevated them into the top tier of sophomore backs.

There have been whispers of a running back by committee developing in Chicago -- a strategy head coach John Fox has a history of employing with his backfields -- with Langford, Ka'Deem Carey, Jacquizz Rodgers and rookie Jordan Howard all in the mix, fantasy managers will have to decide if Langford's late-Round 4 asking price (which has been on a steady decline over the last month) is reasonable. He's the fourth sophomore back being drafted behind Gurley, David Johnson and Rawls. For a player who will probably be splitting snaps, there is no reason to throw away a fourth round pick on a committee back when there are more proven, reliable and/or high-volume options that remain on the board.

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-- Follow Matt on Twitter @MattFranchise

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