Once upon a time in fantasy land, it was third-year players (especially wideouts) who broke out with big statistical campaigns. Nowadays, these kids are growing up too darn fast, as we have sophomores making waves (DeAndre Hopkins, C.J. Anderson) and rookies coming out of the gate hot (Odell Beckham, et al). After spending a good chunk of the offseason analyzing the rookies, we thought we'd turn our attention to the sophomores and see who would follow Hopkins' lead and surge to new heights, and who might follow the path of Montee Ball and Cordarrelle Patterson and slump. Below is my first round of analysis on the sophomore running backs, starting with the top three names called in the 2014 NFL Draft: Bishop Sankey, Jeremy Hill, and Carlos Hyde.
When the Titans made Sankey the first running back selected in the 2014 NFL Draft, they thought they had their running back of the future. After a lackluster rookie campaign, that thought has gone out the window and lead to the team drafting David Cobb in the fifth round of 2015. So, what can we expect from Sankey in Year 2? I went to the tape to find out.
2014 IN REVIEW
Due to the University of Washington operating on a quarters system, Sankey missed virtually all of the Titans offseason program last season. This could have led to his struggles as a rookie. However, even as the season wore on, Sankey didn't seem to improve in terms of his vision or ability to read the blocks in front of him. He finished with a disappointing 152 carries for 569 yards (3.7 ypc average) with just two touchdowns and two fumbles. Not exactly what fantasy enthusiasts were hoping for when they pegged him as a sleeper a season ago.
While watching Sankey's rookie year film on GameRewind, I was constantly reminded of Don Henley's hit, "All She Wants to Do is Dance," as Sankey loved to bust needless moves behind the line of scrimmage. Whether from a lack of understanding with the offense or general timidness, he rarely hit the hole with speed or confidence unless it was blocked wide open for him. He would stretch runs outside, or hop around in the backfield waiting for a hole to develop. He showed little feel or anticipation for the flow of his offensive line and the defense, and as a result was frequently tackled around the line of scrimmage while missing the open lane or crease. All too often I'd see Sankey's indecision lead to him bumping into his own teammates or tacklers he should have avoided. Add in the fact that he isn't the quickest to accelerate in general, and you understand why he only had two runs of 15 or more yards in 2014 (for the sake of comparison, Trent Richardson had three).
2015 AND BEYOND
Sankey has been getting the lion's share of reps in OTAs with Shonn Greene a no-show and David Cobb working his way back from a hamstring tweak, but I have serious concerns he can ever be anything more than a journeyman NFL running back. As we see year in and year out, running back is one of the easier positions for college players to transition to in the NFL. Yet, Sankey never seemed to catch on to the pro game last year, and I don't know that he ever will. If Cobb can stay healthy, I don't think he'll have any trouble winning this backfield, which is why he's one of my favorite late-round sleepers in fantasy for 2015. He's not a burner or the most athletic back you'll find, but what he can do is read the defense, make the right cut, and pummle his opponents for extra yards. He's also a sound pass-blocker, which could help his chances of seeing the field even more, as the team desperately needs to keep rookie signal-caller Marcus Mariota upright.
2015 DRAFT VALUE
Slump: He's undraftable for me. Maybe a late-round flier for everyone else.
Hill was drafted in the second round last year, and conventional wisdom was that he'd be a change of pace to the talented lightning bug of Giovani Bernard. However, when Bernard was dogged with injuries, it was Hill who emerged as the breakout back. Heading into 2015, can Hill be trusted as a No. 1 fantasy running back? Here's what I learned on a deep film dive.
2014 IN REVIEW
After starting the season behind Bernard on the depth chart, Hill took his chance for the lead role and ran away with it to the tune of 1,124 yards and nine touchdowns, averaging five yards per carry. The LSU product was a force to be reckoned with from Week 9 on, notching four games with 147 yards or more and scoring six touchdowns over the final nine games. All this while averaging more yards per carry and rushing for more yardage than any other back in the NFL. That stretch helped him finish 10th at his position in fantasy scoring on the year.
It took two plays for me to see just how good Jeremy Hill could be. TWO! On the second rush attempt of his NFL career, he burst through the line for eight yards and seemed to be a half step away from taking it to the house. That's Hill in a nutshell. He has the vision, speed, and strength to pound defenses with several yard gains, but if he gets the space he's a threat to take it to the house any time he touches the football. He is blessed with a rare combination of size, speed instincts and skill. He has quick feet, soft hands and the power to move a pile. He's the real deal. Watching Hill get to the second level with a full head of steam is equivalent to watching a Katamari roll up unwitting bystanders for those of you who have played the PS2 classic "Katamari Damacy." Except when it comes to Hill, DBs and LBs are left in his wake or haplessly hanging from his jersey until he is finally dragged down.
2015 AND BEYOND
Most fantasy pundits have Hill pegged as an early second-round pick, and I think that's a bargain if you get him there. As I said on the latest episode of the NFL Fantasy LIVE podcast I would confidently take Hill in the first round. Yes, Bernard is there and will get his touches and catches out of the backfield, but the Bengals are at their best when Andy Dalton has less on his shoulders, which means Hill will be getting plenty of work. He only had 222 carries last year, and I think he could hit that by Week 10 in 2015. For further proof, read Chris Wesseling's excellent breakdown of the Bengals' sneaky good offense. Jeremy Hill is joining the elite back lounge this season. Whether or not you want to be with him for his inaugural season is up to you.
2015 DRAFT VALUE
Surge: I'd be confident taking Hill as soon as the tried-and-true elite backs are off the board in the first-round. His floor is his production from 2014, and his ceiling is sky-high.
When the 49ers drafted Hyde, it signaled the eventual end of Frank Gore's remarkable run in San Francisco. That came true when Gore signed with the Colts this offseason, paving the way for Hyde to rocket up draft boards and become this offseason's darling sleeper/breakout candidate in the fantasy community. But will he deliver on his hype and opportunity? Here's what I found out watching the tape.
2014 IN REVIEW
Hyde served in a mostly rotational role for the 49ers, spelling Gore at times and occasionally getting his own package or series of work. All told, Hyde had a mere 83 carries for 333 yards (4.0 ypc average) with four touchdowns. He wasn't much on the fantasy radar, and an injured ankle and back ruined his shot at a late-season surge while Gore endured a concussion.
The traits that stand out the most when you watch Hyde on tape are that he makes quick decisions and executes that decision with the fire of a thousand suns. What I mean by that, is this guy hits the hole like a wrecking ball. Would-be tacklers and even his own linemen are left in his wake once he comes barreling through the line of scrimmage. Now, that being said, sometimes this leaves Hyde open to get tackled once he initiates a walloping of contact. It'd be great to seem him couple this power with a little more tact, slowing down a tad to allow himself to change direction, as he has the quick feet to do so. He has tremendous balance for a man of his size (6-foot, 235 pounds) which allows him to gain extra yardage after contact (and thus, more fantasy points).
2015 AND BEYOND
For Hyde, opportunity is going to be everything. San Francisco has lost more players to retirement and free agency than Spinal Tap has had drummers, but they will need a steady ground game to help Colin Kaepernick operate at peak efficiency. While Reggie Bush will see a lot of work and Mike Davis could eat into some touches, Hyde will have every chance to make this HIS backfield. Whether he does or not remains to be seen. I like his chance to have a Mark Ingram 2014-type season, where he loses touches to other backs but is still productive enough to post solid RB2 numbers on a weekly basis. Hyde has the talent and opportunity to do so. Now all fantasy owners need him to do is make the most of those.
2015 DRAFT VALUE
Surge: I like Hyde a lot this year, but there is some risk. The 49ers offense is not what it once was, and he could lose touches to the bevy of running backs around him. With that in mind, he's an excellent target in Rounds 4 to 6 as a solid RB2 or RB3.