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Rookie Running Back Progress Report


We're basically a quarter of the way into the NFL season (unless you're a Jets or 49ers fan, in which case your team isn't 25 percent done with football). The quarter mark is an interesting time, because we don't really have enough of a sample size to make real judgments about players yet, but we have enough of a sample size that we think we can make judgments about players.

Case in point: Based on performance and usage, we can probably make some conclusions about this year's class of rookie running backs and how they'll perform moving forward in 2019, though we don't have enough data to really say very much about their long-term outlook.

But this is a fantasy sports website, and the most popular forms of fantasy sports are still re-draft, not dynasty, so conclusions about 2019 are what y'all are likely here for, so let's talk about where the rookie rushers are so far.

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Above Expectations

Josh Jacobs - Oakland Raiders

Expectations were pretty high for Jacobs and through four games he ranks ninth in the league in rushing yards. That feels a little like overachieving, because there were definitely some questions about how he'd perform in Oakland and if he could succeed in an expanded role.

Well, he's succeeding. Jacobs is now the Raiders' all-time leader in rushing yards through the first four games of a career. While his lack of serious involvement in the passing game -- three catches in four games -- is discouraging for owners in PPR leagues, Jacobs is having a strong start to his NFL career.

Devin Singletary - Buffalo Bills

Singletary has missed the last two games with injury but before that he was looking very good. Singletary's NFL debut saw him run for 70 yards on four carries and catch five passes for 28 yards. He played 68 percent of the team's snaps.

His second game saw him exit with the hamstring injury that kept him out in Week 3 and 4, but not before he rushed for 57 yards and a touchdown on just six carries.

Singletary's per touch production has been very good in 2019. Yes, the injury is frustrating and Frank Gore playing well while Singletary's been out could lead to a reduced role when he returns, but you still should feel good about those first two games and what they mean when Singletary is back and healthy.

Alexander Mattison - Minnesota Vikings

Mattison is playing behind Dalvin Cook, who's arguably been the league's best running back through four games, but Mattison has also been playing some really good football when he's gotten the chance to be on the field.

Because the Vikings really, really like to run, Mattison has 27 carries already despite never playing more than 31 percent of the team's offensive snaps. In Week 3, he had 12 carries, finishing with 58 yards and a touchdown.

No, you don't really want to be starting Mattison in a fantasy league, but he's proving to be one of the league's top handcuffs should Cook suffer an injury.

Tony Pollard - Dallas Cowboys

Yes, it was against the Dolphins, but Pollard has a 100-yard game to his name this year, which instantly vaults him into the top tier of this list.

Pollard was only being drafted as an "in case of emergency" option when Ezekiel Elliott was holding out. The fact he's gotten a 13-carry, 103-yard game to his name is incredibly impressive.

Pollard only played two snaps in Week 4 because at the end of the day, he's just the backup for a running back who's led the NFL in rushing yards multiple times and you want Zeke on the field as much as possible against the Saints. That said, Pollard has made the most of his chances and looks to be a high-end handcuff.

 

Meeting Expectations

Miles Sanders - Philadelphia Eagles

Expectation: Part of a running back committee who'll occasionally make a big impact.

The reality: Yeah, basically that.

Sanders struggled in his first two games, but against the Lions in Week 3, he had 53 rushing yards and 73 receiving yards. He's not going to be the team's best option in the receiving game and he's not going to get enough red-zone work with Jordan Howard in Philadelphia, but he looks like he can be an RB3/4 going forward. He was being drafted as the RB29 and is currently the RB39, but his past couple of games have him trending far enough in the right direction for me to place him here.

Ryquell Armstead - Jacksonville Jaguars

I debated how to judge Armstead, because the first three games of his career saw him as a virtual afterthought. But he was also kind of expected to be an afterthought on an offense where Leonard Fournette was the unquestioned bell cow back, and that's what Armstead has been.

In Week 4, in the altitude of Denver, we got a chance to see what Armstead looked like when he got an opportunity. With the team looking to give Fournette more rest, Armstead got a season-high nine touches, finishing with 42 rushing yards on eight carries and adding seven yards as a receiver.

If Fournette goes down for any reason, Armstead showed he can step in and be productive. If Fournette stays healthy, Armstead isn't fantasy relevant. That's pretty much what we expected.

David Montgomery - Chicago Bears

Montgomery has been a little more disappointing than expected, but not so much more that I'm ready to call him underperforming. Montgomery was being drafted as an RB2. So far, he's a very high-end RB3 whose snap rate has been rising steadily. Like Josh Jacobs, his lack of involvement in the passing game limits some of his upside. Like the rest of this tier, he isn't consistently putting up enough solid performances to jump up into the "outperforming expectations" part of this list.

Montgomery is playing fine. He struggled against the Vikings, but the Vikings have a good defense. He's still steadily improving and should wind up taking over 70 percent of Chicago's snaps in Week 5, and there are enough good signs to outweigh the bad.

But there's also a reason I'm writing about Montgomery last in this section and if there's a mid-season update to this and Montgomery is still putting up the same numbers, we might have to think of his rookie year in different terms.

 

Underperforming - Needs Improvement

Damien Harris - New England Patriots

He's played five special team snaps this year. With Sony Michel not running the ball well at all, you'd think Harris could get some touches, but that hasn't been the case. If you took a flier on him in the late rounds, I'm assuming you already dropped him.

Darrell Henderson - Los Angeles Rams

Henderson was supposed to be Todd Gurley's backup, so of course he's got one carry for zero yards while Malcolm Brown has 25 carries already. Like with Harris, you should've dropped Henderson in re-draft leagues. In fact, with how Brown's been playing, I'd rather hold onto Damien Harris over Darrell Henderson if I had to keep one.

Justice Hill - Baltimore Ravens

Man, this one hurts. I was a big believer of what Hill could do in this Ravens offense, but then Mark Ingram showed he was actually as good as New Orleans made him look, Lamar Jackson got invested in throwing the deep ball, and Hill's role as a change of pace back and pass-catcher just hasn't materialized. His seven-carry, 27-yard debut is the high point of his season and in Week 4 he received just four touches.

I do think Hill has the best chance of these three players to develop into something, but he's not getting the requisite chances in Baltimore right now to develop into something immediately.

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