Everyone knows that the NFL is becoming more of a pass-friendly league with every season. Quarterbacks rack up stats that would have seemed insane just ten years ago, but the true bell cow running back is quickly becoming a dying breed. This scarcity, of course, means that landing a stud RB on your roster puts you in a fantastic position to succeed in your fantasy league, whether you’re in a PPR or standard league.
Today, we’ll look at some potential sleepers and busts in this year’s NFL rookie running back class, and analyze whether you should consider drafting them. We’ve considered these RBs because of their potential fantasy return, or bust potential, based on your draft-day investment and their current ADPs.
Rookie Running Back Sleepers to Target
Terrance West – RB, Cleveland Browns (Current ADP: 125, RB41)
West comes to Cleveland by way of Towson University, an FCS school in Maryland. While the level of collegiate competition he faced may give drafters pause, West managed to smash Towson and FCS records in his 2013 season, accumulating an absolutely insane 2,509 rushing yards and 41 touchdowns. West was a man amongst boys in 2013, and displayed the sort of talent that makes scouts salivate.
He is currently second on the depth chart in Cleveland behind new acquisition Ben Tate, but Tate has an injury history, and West is primed to take over should Tate go down. West is probably best taken as a handcuff if you select Tate in your draft, and in PPR leagues West should excel as well since he proved himself a viable pass catcher in college. If Tate stays healthy, expect him to get the lions share of work, but considering West can be had in round 10 of 12 team drafts, there’s a lot of potential value there as a sleeper.
Carlos Hyde – RB, San Francisco 49ers (Current ADP: 124, RB40)
I am a proud Ohio State undergrad and football fan. With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that I am in no way rational when it comes to Carlos Hyde.
Hyde was the first man ever to rush for 1,000 yards on an Urban Meyer-coached team, which is crazy considering he shared a backfield with Braxton Miller (pour one out for his shoulder) and missed the first three games of the season. He ended up averaging 7.3 yards per carry and scored 18 touchdowns in his senior season. He consistently put the Buckeyes on his back at Northwestern and in the game against Iowa, he did this.
Hyde is a prototypical “bruiser” of a back at 6 feet even and 235 pounds. While he lacks true breakaway speed, he is quick to make his cuts in the backfield and he is a terror to tackle. He fits well with San Francisco’s running back mold, and he will thrive in the 49ers’ offense once he gets his shot. In preseason, he’s been great, rushing for 38 yards on 6 carries in game 3, and posting a 5.87 YPC on 15 total runs across all 3 games.
As of now, though, Frank Gore is firmly entrenched as the starter in the Bay Area, which means Hyde is most valuable as a handcuff for Gore in standard and PPR redraft leagues. If you own Gore, make sure to snag Hyde as well as he’s the arguably the #1 handcuff. Even if you don’t own Gore, Hyde is great value at an ADP of 124 in all formats, and we wouldn’t argue with you reaching for him around pick 100 overall. In dynasty leagues, though, snap him up early. Gore is getting up there in age Hyde and San Francisco are a match made in heaven, and as his career progresses, he will be a reliable source of points at worst.
Jeremy Hill – RB, Cincinnati Bengals (Current ADP: 145, RB47)
Right now, Jeremy Hill is mostly being regarded in terms of what he’ll do to Gio Bernard’s productivity in Cincinnati. Whereas Bernard is a quick, home-run-threat type of back, Hill is built much more like a between-the-tackles bruiser. Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson favors the power running game, which favors Hill more than it does Bernard. Unlike the Rams with Tre Mason (who we’ll discuss later in this piece), the Bengals spent a second-round pick on Hill. That is not an insignificant investment, and Hill will get playing time in order to get returns on it.
However, while Hill may seem like the perfect “vulture,” of Bernard’s five rushing touchdowns last season, four of them came from within the 10-yard-line. Ultimately, Hill will most likely replace BenJarvus Green-Ellis in Cincinnati, and Bernard performed just fine with BJGE last season. If you draft Bernard, picking up Hill in the late rounds as a handcuff is definitely not a bad idea. Even if you don’t draft Bernard, snagging Hill around pick 110-120 would be a nice value considering Hill is going to get playing time from day 1.
Lorenzo Taliaferro – RB, Baltimore Ravens (Current ADP: Undrafted)
The Baltimore backfield is something of an RB minefield this season. The Ravens’ rushing production was uncharacteristically abysmal last season, averaging only 83 yards per game, good for 30th in the NFL. Ray Rice stumbled to a line of 660 rushing yards and 4 TDs and was good for only 107 points in ESPN standard scoring, which was tied with BenJarvus Green-Ellis and only two points more than Steven Jackson, who missed five games due to injury. Rice is also suspended for the first two games of the season, which leaves the equally disappointing Bernard Pierce as the Day 1 starter.
However, Pierce has suffered a concussion in the preseason, which may open the door for Taliaferro to start in the Ravens’ season opener. In addition to his positive preseason showing against San Francisco (71 yards on 13 carries) his size and bruising running style are reminiscent of Pierce and fit new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s zone-blocking scheme quite well. We also love Taliaferro’s ability to protect the passer, which is a huge advantage for a rookie running back trying to find playing time.
If Pierce is kept off the field due to injury and Rice returns to his 2013 form, Taliaferro may become an intriguing RB option. There’s too much that has to go wrong in Baltimore to recommend drafting Taliaferro, but if the season gets closer and Pierce’s situation turns bleaker, he’s definitely a running back to consider picking up. At the very least, keep an eye on Taliaferro as the season progresses.
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Rookie Running Backs to Avoid on Draft Day
Bishop Sankey – RB, Tennessee Titans (Current ADP: 62, RB22)
Chris Johnson’s departure left the Titans with the choice between Sankey and Shonn Greene, and while Sankey is practicing with the 2nd and 3rd team in preseason, we still view him as the presumed starter in Tennessee (although it might take a few weeks to get there). Sankey’s ADP currently puts him at the end of the 5th round of 12-team drafts, as the 22nd running back off the board. Much of his perceived value is coming from the fact that he is the presumed number one guy, however this is far too steep a price to pay for a running back who as of preseason game 3 is still not taking reps with the first team.
He has reportedly been struggling with fumbles and pass protection, which leaves Greene as the leader in the Titans’ backfield for the time being. It’s highly likely Sankey rises to the top of the Titans’ depth chart at some point this season, and he might represent a good buy low opportunity before that, but if he’s off the board before guys like Michael Crabtree, Michael Floyd, and Percy Harvin, give him a pass. Right now, I don’t trust him as an RB2, which is what he’s being drafted as.
Tre Mason – RB, St. Louis Rams (Current ADP: 164, RB54)
Going into the season, people were worried about Mason’s presence on the Rams and how it would affect the value of surprise 2013 star Zac Stacy. Sadly for fans of De La Soul and/or Auburn University, Mason has struggled during the preseason, amassing only 30 yards on 12 carries when the Rams played the Packers, and 29 yards on 10 carries against the Browns.
Mason hasn’t shown enough to break meaningfully into the Rams’ backfield this preseason, and he still has the talented (and undrafted) Benny Cunningham to contend with as Stacy’s backup. Mason may progress as a runner during his career, but right now, avoid him in both redraft and dynasty leagues.
If someone has convinced you that Mason will hurt Zac Stacy’s value, allow me to convince you otherwise: running backs who average 2.6 yards per carry in the preseason typically don’t see much playing time, especially when a more talented and better performing backup stands in their way. Don’t worry about the threat to Stacy’s carries, and draft the former Vanderbilt standout with confidence.