None of the running backs in this year's draft class enters the NFL with as much rookie hype as, say, 2018 No. 2 overall pick Saquon Barkley or 2016 No. 4 overall pick Ezekiel Elliott. But that doesn't mean one of them can't emerge as an important cog in an NFL offense.
Last week, I ranked my top five rookie receivers according to projected first-year production. Below, I've done the same for rookie running backs. Players are arranged according to projected rushing-yard totals.
1) David Montgomery, Chicago Bears
Projected stats: 275 carries, 1,200 rushing yards, 7 rushing TDs, 30 catches.
Drafted: No. 73 overall, Round 3.
Montgomery could very well be the latest third-round running back to make a splash as a rookie, following in the footsteps of Alvin Kamara and Kareem Hunt. The Bears paved the way for Montgomery to become a feature back by trading Jordan Howard to the Eagles before the draft. The Iowa State product rushed for 1,100-plus yards in each of the past two seasons, and if he slides right in and takes up Howard's old workload (270 touches in 2018), Montgomery should produce like crazy. Montgomery can catch the ball better than I thought, and thus offers a bit more versatility than Howard; he should also be a potent goal-line threat. He has a chance to really thrive in the offense of Matt Nagy, who was the Chiefs' offensive coordinator in 2017, when Hunt led the NFL with 1,327 rushing yards.
2) Josh Jacobs, Oakland Raiders
Projected stats: 200 carries, 875 rushing yards, 6 rushing TDs, 25 catches.
Drafted: No. 24, Round 1.
With Marshawn Lynchout of the picture (for now), the Raiders need a new bell cow to step up in 2019. Jacobs has a chance to earn that distinction as a rookie, but he'll have to prove he can be an every-down back after splitting his time at Alabama with Damien Harris. At his pro day, Jacobs put on a show that was off the charts, demonstrating much better pass-catching ability than people expected him to. He's not a straight-line speed guy, but he has the quickness to make up for that. The presence of veterans like capable pass-catching backup Jalen Richard and Doug Martin could eat into Jacobs' workload, but he has the ability to wring the most out of the carries he's given.
3) Tony Pollard, Dallas Cowboys
Projected stats: 115 carries, 512 rushing yards, 5 rush TDs, 35 catches.
Drafted: No. 128, Round 4.
From Week 10 of last season to the Wild Card Round of the playoffs, Ezekiel Elliott rushed for 75-plus yards in eight straight games, putting up 111.4 rushing yards per game in that span. While Elliott has not shown that he's one to suffer late-season declines, it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world to lessen the burden on the one person in the NFL to log more than 1,000 total touches over the last three seasons combined. This is where Pollard will come in. While he had limited opportunities playing alongside Darrell Henderson at Memphis, his style of play has drawn comparisons to Alvin Kamara. Consider Pollard's line at the Tigers' bowl game: With Henderson out, Pollard put up 109 rushing yards on 17 carries (6.4 yards per carry). Pollard can also be a factor as a returner; last season, he returned 27 kicks for 667 yards and a score.
4) Darrell Henderson, Los Angeles Rams
Projected stats: 95 carries, 475 rushing yards, 3 rush TDs, 42 catches.
Drafted: No. 70, Round 3.
With knee issues dogging Todd Gurley at the end of last season, the Rams could choose to limit his snaps in 2019 to ensure his effectiveness at crucial junctures later on in the year. This creates a potential opportunity for Henderson, a matchup nightmare. At Memphis, Henderson showed he has the quickness to hit the hole, the toughness to run through tacklers and the speed to reach the edge. He doesn't need much room to run and tends to finish forward. He was able to split out wide at times at Memphis, and he showed the ability to make adjustments catching passes out of the backfield. He also owns the second-most rushing yards (3,545) and yards from scrimmage (4,303) in Memphis history. His height (5-foot-8) is a source of concern, and he'll have to show he's a better option than current Gurley backup Malcolm Brown, who was not allowed by the Rams to walk as a restricted free agent this offseason.
5) Qadree Ollison, Atlanta Falcons
Projected stats: 96 carries, 391 rushing yards, 7 rush TDs, 22 catches.
Drafted: No. 152, Round 5.
In a perfect world for the Falcons, Devonta Freeman and Ito Smith would handle the bulk of the rushing load this season. But Freeman has struggled to stay healthy, and both he and Smith lack the ideal size for short-yardage situations, which is where the 6-1, 228-pound Ollison can find a niche. It is true that, after a strong freshman season (1,121 rushing yards, 11 touchdowns), Ollison's production dipped quite a bit in 2016 (127 yards, two scores) and '17 (398 and 5). However, in fairness to him, that period coincided with fluctuations on the offensive line. Ollison did run pretty well last season, putting up 1,213 yards and 11 touchdowns (an average of 6.3 yards per carry). And the fact that he served as the primary protector on Pitt's punt team bodes well for his ability to contribute to the passing game as a blocker. Finally, he's capable of catching the ball, as well, which could make him dangerous in Dirk Koetter's offense.
ONE DARK-HORSE CANDIDATE TO CONSIDER:
Devin Singletary, Buffalo Bills
Projected stats: 255 carries, 1,050 rushing yards, 6 rush TDs, 45 catches.
Drafted: No. 74, Round 3.
The Bills have one of the most crowded backfields in the NFL, with free-agent signees Frank Gore and T.J. Yeldon joining Singletary as newcomers to a group already led by LeSean McCoy. If the status quo holds, and Singletary ends up splitting carries or even sitting on the bench for most of his rookie year, he will fall far short of those projected numbers. The fact that his role is still up in the air is why I didn't want to include him among the other five backs in this piece, who have more obvious paths to relevance. The above stats reflect what I think Singletary will do IF his preseason performance convinces the Bills to clear the depth chart, maybe by trading away McCoy or another veteran, and hand him starter-level carries. The fact that the Bills were still willing to draft Singletary in the third round after adding those players speaks to how the team must feel about his potential.