The gap between Ezekiel Elliott and the rest of the NFL's new crop of running backs was on display during draft weekend, much like the fashion statement between Elliott's shirt and pants.
It's rare to see 32 NFL teams agree on much. But they agreed Elliott was far and away the best running back of the 2016 class, with Derrick Henry being taken 41 picks after Elliott was selected fourth overall by the Dallas Cowboys. Only two more running backs were even chosen among the top 118 picks.
The chasm between Elliott and the rest of his fellow rookie RBs only figures to widen once the Cowboys' offensive line starts blowing open holes for him. This isn't a rookie class that will shake up fantasy drafts outside of Elliott. Still, there should be roles available and plenty of sleepers to monitor. We've ranked the class below strictly in terms of projected touches in 2016. Which rookie running backs will get the ball the most?
League of his own
The possibility of the Cowboys overusing Elliott is a risk. He's not going to share carries regularly, but the Cowboys should still mix in Darren McFadden or Alfred Morris to keep Elliott fresh. They can't load up Elliott with nearly 500 touches like they did with Murray in 2014. They should at least wait until Elliott is an impending free agent for that strategy.
Fighting for snaps
NFL Media's Daniel Jeremiah is driving the Booker bandwagon, and I'm ready to jump on board. DJ ranked Booker second among his list of rookies likely to make a speedy impact, behind only Cleveland wide receiver Corey Coleman (yes, Jeremiah had Booker ahead of Elliott). Jeremiah argues Booker is the most complete running back on the Broncos' roster and will ultimately pass C.J. Anderson for the starting job. I'm higher on Anderson than that, and the Broncos committed $5.25 million to him this year. But Booker should pass Ronnie Hillman on the depth chart quickly, and it wouldn't be a surprise if Booker becomes option 1B for the defending champions.
Taken seventh among running backs, Booker could wind up second in rookie touches.
Marshawn Lynch is officially retired. Thomas Rawls, the presumptive starter, is coming off a serious ankle injury. General manager John Schneider confirmed Prosise will be used primarily as a third-down back and should have a big role. Collins appears limited to a "thumper" role on early downs if he makes the team. Then again, who expected at this point last year that Rawls would emerge to play like a superstar?
The plan remains for DeMarco Murray to carry the load. That's why the Titans are paying him $6 million this season. It's also why the Titans will give him $6 million more in 2017 and 2018. Murray is a better receiver than Henry and has far more experience as a pass protecter at the pro level. Coach Mike Mularkey wants a "Thunder and Thunder" backfield to batter opponents. That approach, however, relies on constant first downs in order to keep two running backs happy, and the Titans' offense is hoping just to improve to average.
We have doubts about Henry's ability to make a quick impact, especially when a veteran with such a similar skill set is in front of him. Henry's best route to relevance involves Murray getting injured or being ineffective.
Drake is a true projection. He didn't get a lot of runs at Alabama because he backed up Henry and had injury problems. But the Dolphins didn't take him in the third round so he could sit on the bench. They believe he could be a dynamic third-down option at worst, and he's already slated as the clear backup to Jay Ajayi. Considering Ajayi's injury history, Drake could wind up a starter.
The Ravens' backfield is deep and open to competition. Justin Forsett is returning from injury, although his role is far from guaranteed with Dixon, Buck Allen and Lorenzo Taliaferro angling for snaps. NFL Media's Mike Mayock and Bucky Brooks both rated Dixon as their No. 4 rookie running back and his physical running style could earn him regular carries early in his career. The Ravens figure to go with a running back committee, and it wouldn't be a shock if Dixon got a few turns at the front.
The Raiders are looking for a reliable backup to Latavius Murray. The most likely outcome is he will split time with several players, including veteran Roy Helu, but general manager Reggie McKenzie believes Washington is a "complete back" who can make players look silly in space. Washington has a real chance to be the primary backup despite being a fourth-round selection.
It's risky to project a fifth-round pick to do that much. But Smallwood has an NFL-ready skill set and a great opportunity for snaps behind injury-prone starter Ryan Mathews and 33-year-old scat back Darren Sproles. The Eagles really could use Smallwood and their other late picks to contribute because they traded away so much to draft Carson Wentz.
Howard could carve out a short-yardage back role and could quickly take some early-down snaps from Langford. None of the Bears' three backs stand out as special talents, so they should all get plenty of work.
You'll notice a trend in this article. There are a lot of running backs who landed in ideal spots after being drafted a round or two later than expected. Not all of them will make immediate impacts, but Perkins is especially set up to play early.
Shane Vereen is a good third-down back, but the Giants want to do better than Rashad Jennings, Andre Williams and Orleans Darkwa in early downs. Perkins is another complete back who has the shiftiness to make defenders miss in small spaces. He's a deep sleeper for fantasy leagues and he could double my projection with a big August.
Williams is buried on one of the best running back depth charts in the NFL, led by LeSean McCoy and Karlos Williams. We include Williams here because he's got a lot of talent for a fifth-round pick and our Around the NFL Podcast college football consigliere The Spice Rack tabbed Williams the sleeper of the draft.