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Rookie running backs dominated fantasy in 2017

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As a newcomer in any situation, one is faced with certain challenges.

Ever start a new job? You probably worried about learning the ropes and pulling your weight. That time you were introduced to a squad of new friends, you likely stressed about wearing clothes that were "cool" enough. Ever move to a new city? Probably took you a while to figure out how to get around efficiently and where to get the best lunch.

Now try facing all three of those scenarios at the same time, all while learning a new language (playbook) and knowing you're about to face some of the most intimidating defensive players in football on a weekly basis. Yeah, that's what rookie running backs in the NFL have to deal with. It can't be easy.

Since the curtain has closed on the regular season it's time to put it all in perspective and break down just how remarkable this year's highly lauded class of rookie running backs was. The group's entrance into the NFL helped to deepen what felt like a depleted pool of fantasy options at the position. It was a refreshing and exciting few months as we flip the page to a new era at the position.

Anticipation began with the (way too long) draft process. From the NFL Combine (remember Leonard Fournette's silly water-weight issue?) through the NFL Scouting Combine (which Alvin Kamara absolutely dominated), criticism on the top rookie runners and how they might impact the league and fantasy football drafts ranged the entire spectrum:

Is that guy a good fit for this offense?
Can this dude catch?
Will that back be able to pass-protect?
Is this guy big enough to run between the tackles?

Then tape started leaking from training camp. Christian McCaffrey juked linebacker Luke Keuchley out of his shoes. Kareem Hunt made a spectacular over-the-shoulder, one-handed catch. Joe Mixon showcased his speed and Leonard Fournette looked "phenomenal" in drills.

All of these narratives added to the hype, and some players' average draft positions increased as the preseason played out. Then the season came and went, offering up surprises, disappointments and empty promises. In the aftermath, I've created some categories for the most fantasy-relevant rookie backs. Think of it like a freshman yearbook. And remember to keep a lot of these players on your draft lists next summer.

THE 1,000-YARD, 200 PPR-POINT CLUB


I could have categorized this group the Fantastic Four but that's already an overrated super-hero series. So I'll stick to stats.

Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt, Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey all shared a common statistical achievement as rookies: They all reached 1,000 scrimmage yards and 200 PPR fantasy points while finishing as top-10 fantasy backs in 2017. The only other season in which more rookie backs cleared 1,000 scrimmage yards was 2013 (Eddie Lacy, Le'Veon Bell, Giovani Bernard, Zac Stacy and Andre Ellington). According to our amazing NFL Research team, no season in NFL history saw more rookie running backs reach 200 PPR points. So nice work there, kids.

Kamara and McCaffrey both received over 100 targets and 100 carries. The only other rookie to achieve that kind of dual-threat volume was Reggie Bush in 2006.

A total of five rookie running backs recorded two-plus receiving touchdowns and two-plus rushing touchdowns. Kamara, McCaffrey, Hunt, Jamaal Williams and Austin Ekeler shared the honor. More on Williams and Ekeler a little later.

I mean, that's all great but fantasy owners could have used a few more touchdowns. Hopefully, these guys improve in Year 2. (I hope you can sense the sarcasm here. If not, you're blocked.)

ROOKIE RBs AND NEXT GEN STATS


My pals Matt Harmon and James Koh did some great work over the course of the season looking at some new Next Gen Stats metrics like Yards Gained Before Close (YGBC) and Yards Gained After Close (YGAC) and how these numbers can be applied to fantasy analysis. Now that we have a full regular season of data to work with, I thought it'd be beneficial to look at how some of the rookies with the most volume (100+ carries) stacked up against the rest of the league in some of these metrics:

It's clear that Hunt stands out as an elite player in terms of his ability to gain yards after close. The Chiefs back also led the NFL with 48 broken tackles on the season and he was the league's leading rusher. One of Hunt's main strengths in the scouting process was his top-shelf balance and ability to stay on his feet through contact, so this all makes sense. In Kamara's case, he enjoyed excellent run-blocking from his offensive line per his average yards gained before close. The Saints as a team ranked first in average YGBC this season, meaning no team was better at run-blocking. Combine that with Kamara's natural elusive abilities, and you can see how he easily ranked first in averaged yards after close, a perfect storm. Keep a close eye on Harmon and Koh's Twitter timelines, they're surely going to keep churning out Next Gen Stats breakdowns as more data becomes available.

ROOKIE CAMPAIGNS ENDED BY INJURY


» Dalvin Cook: Dalvin Cook's season was cut short by a torn ACL suffered in Week 4 against the Lions, forcing him to miss the final 12 games. While healthy, he averaged 13.6 fantasy points per game, averaged five-plus yards per carry in three of his four starts and had 111 scrimmage yards per game in Weeks 1-4. The Vikings finished with the fifth-highest run percentage in the NFL this season, running the ball on 47.5 percent of their snaps. Cook would have likely been a top-15 fantasy back had he remained healthy.

» D'Onta Foreman: D'Onta Foreman was one of my personal favorites in the draft class, and his landing spot in Houston was promising. Foreman carved out a solid role, logging double-digit touches in seven of the nine games he played and leading the team with a 4.19 yards per carry average. His best outing came in Week 11 when he scored twice against the Cardinals, but tore his Achilles on his second trip to the end zone. Depending on his health, Foreman projects as a mid-to-late rounder next year if Miller retains the starting role.

» Aaron Jones: Thrust into a featured role when Ty Montgomery and Jamaal Williams both went down with injuries in the same Week 4 game, Aaron Jones excelled flashing big-play ability and explosiveness. In his four starts, Jones averaged 10.38 FPPG with a 5.5 yards per carry average on the season. His mid-season run was cut short due to a knee injury, and when he did return, it was to a low-volume role behind Williams. Going forward, Jones projects as a committee member in what should be a split backfield between him and Williams next season.

» Chris Carson: Chris Carson put himself on the radar with this mashing of a defensive lineman at the goal line in the fourth quarter of an exhibition game. He got more and more looks with the first team, and by the time the season started, he was clearly the best back on Seattle's roster. Carson ended up leading the team's backfield in touches, scrimmage yards and fantasy points over the first four weeks of the season before suffering a season-ending knee injury. With Eddie Lacy on a one-year deal and Thomas Rawls looking for a new contract, Carson could be in line for a prominent role in 2018.

2018 SLEEPERS TO WATCH


» Jamaal Williams: A fourth-round draft selection by the Packers, Jamaal Williams' number one strength was his ability to pass-protect, a vital attribute when Aaron Rodgers is your quarterback. When Williams got his chance at a featured role in Week 10, he quickly became a volume-based fantasy RB1. He averaged 13.89 FPPG in seven starts, accumulated 22-plus touches in five of those starts and led his team with 153 carries and 556 rush yards. He'll likely split reps with Jones next season, making both of the team's running backs likely mid-round values.

» Samaje Perine: Samaje Perine finished as Washington's carry (175) and rushing yards (603) leader. He averaged 17.8 attempts per game in Weeks 11 through 16, with two 100-yard outings and one touchdown in that span. Perine was the epitome of a high-volume, low efficiency back who's best fantasy game was an 18.6-point outing in Week 11. Completely ineffective in several games (some of which can be attributed to an injury-riddled offensive line) Perine averaged just 2.9 yards per carry in the final four weeks. He could again be in a timeshare with Rob Kelley and Chris Thompson next year.

» Joe Mixon: As Alex Gelhar pointed out in his biggest disappointments piece, Joe Mixon was lauded as the most purely talented runner of the 2017 class, and was expected to leap Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard as Cincy's lead back. Mixon did get a significant amount of work and led the Bengals in touches and scrimmage yards, but he averaged a meager 3.5 yards per carry, ranking him 41st out of 47 backs who logged 100 or more attempts. He eclipsed 100 rush yards just once all season and while some of his lackluster production can be attributed to the broken offense that Cincinnati was rolling out on a weekly basis, Bernard seemed to have no issue producing, as Matt Harmon pointed out. Mixon will likely be a value pick in drafts next summer.

» Corey Clement: Obscured in a six-player backfield committee, Corey Clement somehow ended up leading the Philadelphia Eagles with four rushing touchdowns and was second among the team's backs with 84 touches. Three of his six total touchdowns on the season came in one game against Denver in Week 9. In a high-powered offense like Philadelphia with what should be a healthy return for Carson Wentz, Clement is a sleeper to keep on the redraft radar.

» Tarik Cohen: Tarik Cohen took the NFL by storm the first few weeks of the regular season. The rookie scatback averaged 94.3 scrimmage yards per game and 17.43 PPR fantasy points per game in Weeks 1 through 3. After Week 3, Cohen averaged just 33.8 scrimmage yards per game with 7.53 FPPG in PPR scoring. He became a low-volume gadget player while Jordan Howard put the offense on his back with 276 carries. Even with a new coaching staff in Chicago, it's difficult to see Cohen becoming anything more than a change-of-pace specialist.

HONORABLE MENTIONS


» Add Marlon Mack to the list of players who was slated to "take over" Frank Gore's gig. Instead, Gore posted over 1,200 scrimmage yards at the age of 34. Mack ended up with 114 total touches, but never really panned out as a legitimate fantasy option. It's difficult to see Mack being on draft boards as anything more than a late-round flier next year with the Colts likely to invest in the position this offseason.

» The 49ers' hype machine is churning full-speed into the offseason. Veteran Carlos Hyde is entering the free agent market, making Matt Breida a name to watch. Breida was a popular handcuff stash in 2017 and he finished his rookie year on a high note with 186 scrimmage yards and a touchdown in the last two regular season games.

» Elijah McGuire, Wayne Gallman and Austin Ekeler all did some good things in their rookie seasons. But none from this trio project as fantasy difference-makers. McGuire shared work with Bilal Powell and Matt Forte in New York and finished with over 100 touches. He'll likely remain a change-of-pace option for the Jets next season. Gallman averaged 82.3 scrimmage yards per game in the final four weeks of the season thanks to additional opportunities as a pass-catcher out of the backfield. Ekeler was efficient, averaging 5.5 yards per carry and 9.1 yards after the catch, but Melvin Gordon is the clear-cut workhorse for the Chargers.

If Khalid doesn't win Best New Artist at the Grammy's this year, I'll be v upset. -- Follow Matt on:
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