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“Stromme the Way”, Three Rookie Running Backs to Surprise in 2015

I like to compare the running back position to Guns N’ Roses frontman Axl Rose.

Rose, the voice of the most notorious rock band of the late 80’s, could put on an incredible showcase of rock in sold-out stadiums night in, night out. When he was on and feeling good, he would exhibit a display of rock ‘n’ roll prowess that could not be matched. But, then there would be other nights… Nights like July 2, 1991 in St. Louis, MO.

 

 

For those who don’t want to watch the opening riffs of Rocket Queen (and I’m judging you if you don’t), skip ahead to about [1:10]. Amid a routine show, Rose spots somebody in the first few rows filming him and the band. The unauthorized film session irks Axl, and after security fails to rectify the situation, he takes it upon himself to remove the camera. And by remove the camera, I mean jump into the crowd and punch the guy in the face.

The incident resulted in GNR finishing their set early, which did not sit well with the thousands of fans that paid good money to see Axl, Slash, and the rest of the band. The band’s early exit started a riot that caused over $100,000 in damages.

The St. Louis incident, as it is infamously known, was not the only riot-instigating event in which Axl Rose was involved. There was a show in Montreal that ended with cars tipped over. Another in Vancouver where a no-show by the band sent people in a frenzy, and even as recently in 2011, Axl threw a tantrum in England when curfew bylaws ended his show earlier than he expected. No riot, but still… Rose wasn’t a happy camper to say the least.

In addition to starting riots, Rose was infamous for routinely showing up for concerts hours late, fighting paparazzi, and perpetually consuming large sums of drugs and alcohol. You know, regular rock star stuff.

Yes, Axl was (and probably still is) very volatile. Much like the running back position.

Running backs are always surprising fantasy owners. These surprises either make or break your season. More often than not, the team rostering that rookie running back that came out of nowhere (see C.J. Anderson, Tre Mason, Isaiah Crowell last year, Alfred Morris and DeMarco Murray in year’s past)plays deep into the fantasy postseason.

Yes, I know C.J. Anderson wasn’t technically a rookie in 2014, but I don’t think seven carries in 2013 constitutes a full season. For all intents and purposes, Anderson was a rookie last season.

But, for every Morris and Anderson, there’s Bishop Sankey, Darren McFadden, and Shonn Greene. Rookie running backs who were drafted to be rookie studs and fell flat on their faces. Crippled by high draft day expectations.

Here are three running backs who will surprise fantasy owners (one way or another).

Tevin Coleman, Atlanta Falcons

Coleman is a back that fantasy owners are absolutely enamored with, and I can see why. He has blazing speed ( a 4.39 40 time at his pro day) and goes to a pretty sexy situation in Atlanta with a running back friendly coordinator in Kyle Shanahan.

Initial reaction: A speed guy who will routinely see run-friendly fronts with a reasonable path to playing time. Seems legit…

Well, let’s temper those expectations just a little bit.

Sure, in Coleman’s NCAA career at Indiana, he did finish with 452/3,219/28 (that’s 7.12 yards per carry). However, according to Stats Inc., he only broke a tackle or made a defender miss 12.2 % of the time. For comparison’s sake, Melvin Gordon, Todd Gurley, and Jay Ajayi (more on him later), made defenders look bad on over 21% of runs. Cleveland rookie Duke Johnson did it in 19% of opportunities.

Some scouts have compared Coleman to a young CJ2K, others Felix Jones. NFL Network’s Mike Mayock likens him to Darren McFadden. A guy with speed, but ultimately a one-cut runner with stiff hips who will go down without a fight.

An unnamed AFC area scout told NFL.com this in regards to what he thought about Coleman:

“There are two kinds of backs who are successful in this league, runners who break tackles, and runners who can create for themselves. He is neither of them.”

Not exactly a rave review.

His inability to break tackles and make defenders miss could lead to him taking a beating more than he should. For me, durability with Coleman is a concern. In addition to his lack of elusiveness, he also has sickle cell trait.

Sickle cell trait is a blood condition that makes it difficult for athletes to physically push themselves in hot temperatures and high altitudes. It is the same condition that former Steelers safety Ryan Clark has.

Now, Terrell Owens had the same condition and he was able to have a successful career. But, Coleman’s sickle cell trait has already affected him on the field in his career.

In a game against Missouri, Coleman was carted off the field in the first half for what many thought was a leg injury. ESPN.com reported that Coleman did not have any injury, but rather his blood condition reared its ugly head while playing in the 85 degree heat.

Coleman’s condition, in addition to his lack of elusiveness, and competition among him and fellow Falcon running backs Antoine Smith and Devonta Freeman, leads me to believe that the chances of becoming a three-down back are pretty slim. He might be in a timeshare at best, and given where I’ve seen him going in mock drafts thus far, I’ll pass. I would much rather take a chance on somebody else.

 

David Cobb, Tennessee Titans

Now we’re really getting deep here.

Cobb, who was drafted in the early 5th round, is destined to be the three-down back that the Titans wish Bishop Sankey was.

No, his 40 time won’t wow anybody (4.73), but he was hindered by a quad injury at the Combine, so he very well might be faster than his measurables may indicate.  Cobb and his 232 lb frame put up 562/2,893/20 at Minnesota with a terrible offensive line and no other playmakers to speak of.

No, Cobb might not be anything special on tape, but he is the best running back the Titans have. Ask anybody who owned Bishop Sankey last season.

To put things kindly, Sankey was awful, especially down the stretch. Sankey’s last three games went as follow:

4/18/0 against the Colts

14/44/0 at Jacksonville

3/8/0 versus the Jets. The Titans finally threw their hands in the air, yelled “Screw it!”, and gave Shonn Greene 17 carries in that game after they grew tired of watching Sankey struggle.

Will Cobb be that bellcow Sankey never was?

Could Cobb be that bellcow Sankey never was?

Sankey also struggled with learning Whisenhunt’s playbook, taking handoffs, basic footwork/fundamentals, and recognizing defenses. Basically anything a running back needs to do mentally/physically, Sankey reportedly struggled to grasp. If Cobb can show any signs of picking these things up, this job is his.

With a rookie quarterback under center, the Titans might lean on the run early until Mariota gets comfortable in an NFL uniform.

The Titans’ brass also told both running backs to make adjustments to their weight. They wanted Sankey to bulk up to 215-220 lbs, Cobb was told to cut down to 225 from the 232 he weighed in at rookie camp. This could be a routine thing that coaches ask all players to do. Given my lack of participation in an NFL training camps, I’m not sure. To me, this suggests that the Titans want a back who is physically durable enough to handle a crap ton of carries. I firmly believe that back is Cobb, not Sankey.

Take Cobb at the end of your draft and laugh about it all season long.

 

Jay Ajayi, Miami Dolphins

Ajayi will go down as a draft day laugher, for the Dolphins and fantasy owners.

He is a power back with elusiveness and speed who became the first FBS running back to generate over 1,800 rush YDS and 500 receiving YDS. So, if he is statistically the best running back to come out of Boise State since Legarrette Blount, how did he slip to the 5th round?

“Injury concerns.”

And I put injury concerns in quotes for this reason: They’re aren’t any tangible concerns to fret about, other than maybe tearing his ACL in 2011, but it seems like everybody does that these days.

Boise State running back Jay Ajayi (27) carries the ball during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Air Force in Boise, Idaho, Friday, Sept. 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Otto Kitsinger)

Boise State running back Jay Ajayi (27) carries the ball during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Air Force in Boise, Idaho, Friday, Sept. 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Otto Kitsinger)

The concerns over Ajayi came as a result of a medical recheck at the Combine. He reportedly had some sort of bone-on-bone condition in his knee revealed at this recheck. However, his agent tweeted out that Ajayi didn’t even attend this recheck. So, the real question is: who’s knee did NFL doctors look at? Because it wasn’t Ajayi’s.

Dolphins’ GM Dennis Hickey and fellow front office employee Mike Tannenbaum don’t have any injury concerns about Ajayi. In fact, neither did the Cowboys. They would have scooped him up in the 5th round if Miami hadn’t beaten them too the punch according to ESPN Dallas.

The Dolphins front office believe that Ajayi can be a three-down back, and I’m quickly buying into that notion.

They clearly don’t buy that Lamar Miller can be anything more than a change-of-pace back. He has had more than 20 carries in a game only once in his career and more than 15 carries only eight times. That was with the likes of Daniel Thomas and Knowshon Moreno on the roster. Ajayi is physically a superior back to both those guys.

He may even steal passing downs away from Miller as soon as Week 1. As his 500+ receiving yards in 2014 would suggest, he can catch a football. Lamar Miller, well he dropped six of his 48 targets last season.

If Ajayi can get into the game for passing downs and show some success carrying the ball through the tackles, he will be a three-down back in no time. He is well worth a late round flyer.

 

With all the volatility at the running back position, it’s the surprises that win leagues. Whether they’re drafted late or picked up mid-season, they all count. Grab Cobb or Ajayi late and you won’t regret it.

Mike Stromme

@stromme_93

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4 Comments

4 Comments

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