“Off the Matt” A Tale of Two Positions (Rookie Running Backs / Tight Ends)
Last week, we reviewed the struggles that rookie quarterbacks often face in their first season. It was also documented that it is incredibly rare for them to make a splash in the fantasy pool. I also touched on rookie receivers. While the 2014 class was something special, that is certainly not the norm. However, if there has been one position that has yielded success from the rookie crop year after year it is the running back.
Here is some data from the previous five seasons.
- Five rookie running backs have eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing.
- Seven rookie running backs have finished in the top 10 in scoring at their position. (three in the top 5)
- 18 rookie running backs finished in the top 30. If you play in a league with a flex that means these guys were contributing.
- Of the 10 rookie running backs who received 200+ carries seven of them finished in the top 15. The three that didn’t make the mark were Andre Williams, Zac Stacy, and Vick Ballard. I will let you draw your own conclusion on that.
- 2011 was the last year that a rookie running back didn’t finish in the top 10.
I get that five years isn’t a huge sample size, but it is clear the direction the league is heading. There is a great chance that one or more of these names will be dependable contributors in fantasy lineups.
Ezekiel Elliott – Cowboys
I can write line after line about how strong, fast, and agile Zeke is. Then follow that up with an entire book on his patience, vision, explosion, and cutting ability. However, if Hugh Hefner taught me anything, it is that a picture is better than words–or something like that.
Basically any positive adjective you can use to describe a running back’s game, Elliott demonstrated it at the college level. While I expect these skills to translate to the pro game, there is one necessary skill that I know will translate. His ability and willingness to block will help keep him on the field and more importantly for Cowboy fans, keep Tony Romo healthy.
In regards to fantasy, I would have a hard time spending a first round pick on a player that has never taken a snap in the NFL. However, I believe there will be someone in most leagues who is willing to take that gamble because the situation is that good. How good? Well let’s put it like this. Darren McFadden didn’t carry the ball more than 10 times in a game until Week 7 and still managed to finish as the 13th best fantasy back. I like Elliott’s chances to be a top 10 running back if he stays healthy.
Derrick Henry – Titans
As excited as I was for Elliott’s landing spot, I felt the exact opposite when I heard Derrick Henry’s name announced as the Titans 2nd round draft pick. Eventually, I talked myself into Murray and Henry being a potent 1-2 punch and both guys carrying fantasy value.
See that guy Henry just abused? That isn’t some backup player for a small FCS school. No sir, that is Shilique Calhoun who was a 3rd round draft pick.
At 6’3” 247 and running a 4.54 Henry possesses an extremely rare size/speed combination at the running back position. Against Auburn he had one of the best individual performances in recent memory posting 46/271/1. When I say “best individual performance” I am not just referring to the stat line which is pretty special in its own right. I came away even more impressed that every single person in the stadium knew he was going to carry the ball and it still didn’t matter. You hear the expression, “gets stronger as the game goes” all the time but it really is true with Henry. He wears defenses down and the fact that 30% of his explosive runs game in the 4th quarter is evidence of that.
So a question has to be asked. Will Henry be dependent on high-volume carries in order to be successful? Good question. I believe that he steps in and automatically becomes an elite short-yardage/goal line back. However, I am under the belief that Murray is still the lead back in this offense. The Titans are building an identity that is going to be a run first, run second offense. I think there will be enough carries to go around for both to have fantasy success and from the team perspective keep both backs fresh.
Kenyan Drake – Dolphins
Drake was probably the most versatile back in this year’s class. I am not just referring to his ability to both run and catch. For Alabama he proved to be a special teams maven who did everything from returning kicks to covering punts.
Scouts described Drake as being the type of player that an interested team will have to have a plan for because he doesn’t fit the mold of an every down back. With his quick feet and ability to catch the football he will likely work in as a change of pace back and could potentially hold value in PPR formats. However, his ability to contribute in so many different ways will make him a valuable piece on the Dolphins 53 man roster.
C.J. Prosise – Seahawks
Speaking of PPR, Prosise brings an interesting skill-set to the now Lynchless Seahawks. In 2014 he played receiver for Notre Dame and hauled in 29 catches for 516 yards. Depth issues forced him to shift to running back last year, and he excelled averaging a robust 6.6 yards per carry on 157 attempts.
Having just one year of experience under his belt as a running back makes him a bit of a wildcard. He had ball security issues last season, fumbling five times. Also, as you can imagine with the limited experience in the backfield he struggled with pass protection.
Having a running back on the field that has the ability to run quality receiver routes at all three levels makes for a nightmare matchup. I am intrigued by the running back situation in Seattle and will be monitoring it closely in camp/preseason.
Tyler Ervin – Texans
Ervin has speed for days and clocked the second fastest 40-time (4.41) among running backs. He will likely start the season as a kick returner and work in with the offense as a scat back. His open field shiftiness has drawn comparisons to Darren Sproles. His slight frame will prevent him from being an every down back, but ask any fantasy owner who faced Danny Woodhead last year in Week 15 if a diminutive scat back can make a big impact on a fantasy matchup. Yep, five months later I am still bitter. Big whoop wanna fight about it.
Kenneth Dixon – Ravens
If I had to choose a rookie running back not named Ezekiel Elliott to finish in the top 10, Dixon would be my pick. He was insanely productive at Louisiana Tech and even held the FBS touchdown record for a few days before rookie teammate Keenan Reynolds overtook him.
Dixon fits the mold of a three down back and was regarded by some as the best pass catcher at the position.
This is music to Marc Trestman’s ears. His play designs aided Matt Forte in setting the receptions record at the running back position two seasons ago. Catching passes isn’t the only thing he does well though. He runs with tremendous power. On the season he averaged 1.7 yards gained before contact. He then churned out another 3.3 yards after contact which illustrates just how hard he is to bring down. The Baltimore backfield is crowded, and the three down back is a dying breed, but if Dixon can win the job I expect big things from him.
Devontae Booker – Broncos
Booker was a workhorse at Utah. He posted 30+ carries in five games and added 37 receptions showing his versatility. His one-cut, downhill running style could be a perfect match for Gary Kubiak’s zone-blocking scheme. If there is one knock on Booker, it is that he lacks top end speed. He was able to get away with it in the Pac-12, but the speed of the NFL might turn some of those 10 yard pops into minimal gains. Booker should push Ronnie Hillman for the second back into the rotation, and with his versatility he could end up carving out a nice role in an offense that should be run-heavy.
Paul Perkins – Giants
Quick. Who was the leading rusher for the Giants in 2015? If you guessed Rashad Jennings and his 53 yards per game, good for you. Not so good for the Giants though. The Giants desperately need a spark in their backfield and Perkins could provide it. Scouts referred to Perkins as “a poor man’s Jamaal Charles.” Perkins has great feet and can make a tackler miss in a phone booth. Not that phone booths even exist anymore, but you get the idea.
Perkins biggest hurdle will be finding playing time. The roles in the Giants backfield seem to be defined. Jennings will be the first and second down back. Shane Vereen will be the third down back and Andre Williams will likely be the goal line back. Quick side note on Andre Williams. The man looks like he is wearing a blind fold when he runs. I don’t know how much longer he will be in the league if he looks like he did last year. Keep an eye on this backfield during training camp to see if Perkins can find a role. He has the high upside that I like gambling on late in the draft.
While Elliott is the heavy favorite to be the rookie running back that blows up, it could be any one of these guys. Good luck selecting the correct one.
History has not been as kind to rookie tight ends.
Top 5 rookie tight end fantasy seasons in the last decade.
5. Tony Moeaki (2010): 47 / 556 / 3 – – 20th rated tight end
4. Tim Wright (2013): 54 / 571 / 5 – – 13th rated tight end
3. Aaron Hernandez (2010): 45 / 563 / 6 – – 11th rated tight end
2. John Carlson (2008): 55 / 627 / 5 – – 7th rated tight end
1. Rob Gronkowski (2010): 42 / 546 / 10 – – 5th rated tight end
Only one tight end has surpassed six receiving touchdowns as rookie in the last decade. It just so happens that tight end was Rob Gronkowski who is on schedule to be the most dominant tight end to ever play the game. John Carlson joined Gronk as the only other rookie tight end to crack the top 10. Perhaps this trend will eventually change, but until it does I am steering clear of rookie tight ends.
While I don’t expect any of these tight ends to make a fantasy impact, they were drafted for a reason and will have a chance to contribute in some shape or form to their teams.
Hunter Henry – Chargers
The name Hunter Henry sounds like an NFL tight end. So at the least, he has that going for him. Henry was regarded across the board as the top tight end in this year’s class. Not only that, but he has been touted as the most complete tight end prospect in years. Having the opportunity to learn from one of the best to ever play the position in Antonio Gates doesn’t hurt.
Austin Hooper – Falcons
The Falcons need an all around tight end and Hooper should fit the bill. He has the flexibility to play as either an inline or move tight end. He demonstrated the ability at Stanford to have enough burst to run by linebackers and the ball skills to win the 50/50 balls against safeties. One of the knocks on Hooper is that he lacks the foot speed to beat press man coverage. He did his best work in college on free releases. It will be interesting to see how he adapts to the pressure coverage he is likely to see in the NFL.
Nick Vannett – Seahawks
Vannett lined up all over the field for Ohio St. At 6’6’’ he is a tough match up for opposing defenses. Playing in a run-heavy college offense, Vannett failed to wow anyone statistically, but his tools should translate to the NFL game. Good luck to opposing defenses trying to match up in the red zone with two 6’6’’ (Jimmy Graham) tight ends that can move.
Tyler Higbee – Rams
With the Rams losing Jared Cook in free agency, Higbee should have a chance to be on the field Week 1. Higbee, a former receiver, is very crisp in his route running and has the soft hands to match. He has the dynamic size/speed combination to stretch a defense and get down the seam. The only thing that could keep him from making some early contributions is his inability to be a consistent blocker.
The Rams also selected Temarrick Hemingway from South Carolina St. He is a very raw talent but has upside with exceptional speed and athleticism. If he can improve his blocking and route running he could get some snaps.
As mentioned earlier, it would be my recommendation to stay away from rookie tight ends. However, if I had to roster one I think Henry could scratch out 500/4 playing in a offense that likes to throw the ball around. I think the best long-term project is Vannett playing in Seattle.
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