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Fool Me Once... Second-Year Running Backs Set to Bust Again


For each Saquon Barkley, there are five Trenton Cannons. Which is to say, for each elite rookie running back, there a bunch of newcomer tailbacks that plainly underperform and see themselves out of relevance before they can even realize they were in the NFL.

A lot has been said about the importance (or not) of the running back position and the rushing game in today's NFL. I'm not going to enter that discussion here, but the main takeaway is that almost any RB is replaceable. What does that mean for fantasy players? It may sound like you can throw a dart to the running back group and strike gold. Of course, it is not as simple as that, but you get the idea. If someone fails to achieve a certain threshold of production, just cut ties with him and move to greener pastures.

With that in mind, I bring you three second-year running backs that underperformed one way or another and therefore are better off your roster this season. These rookies had a chance and blew it. It's time to make room for better options. You may have fooled me once, but I've learned from my mistakes!

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Ronald Jones II, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

There were 21 running backs selected in the 2018 NFL draft. Ronald Jones was the fifth to hear his name called (at the 38th pick). His season was split into four chunks: he stayed out until Week 4; then he played four contests until he got injured; he missed four more games with a hamstring injury; and returned to play the final five games of the season. All in all, Jones finished the season with 23 rush attempts for 44 yards and a touchdown, and with seven receptions for 33 yards.

If I give you those numbers and tell you they belong to a rookie that only played 9 games, well, maybe you consider them somewhat good as a start. Players need to adapt to the pro level, I guess. But we're talking about a second-round pick. Someone drafted that high, playing the running back position, must produce way more than those paltry stats indicate. He couldn't even beat his RB2 competition in veteran Jacquizz Rodgers. Jones finished the season with a ridiculously low 1.9 yards per carry, and 2.6 yards per touch (thanks mostly to catching seven of nine passes thrown his way). His fantasy production of 2.3 PPR points-per-game was the lowest among rookie RBs.

I have to concede that Jones started the season with the effects of a hamstring injury sustained in the offseason still lingering, and missed mid-season playing time due to the same problems. Even with that, things didn't look good in 2018 as they don't for the upcoming season either. Jones will have to compete for touches with a rock-solid and established runner in Peyton Barber. The whispers around the Bucs camp say that the team will give Jones more chances in 2019 to try and make him bounce back. I will have to see it to believe it. Barber is as good a runner as a receiver, and that will get even more touches from Jones. Pass on him. A rough rookie season and potential confidence issues with him wave too big of a red flag over his head.

 

Rashaad Penny, Seattle Seahawks

For all the hoopla surrounding Rashaad Penny and the price Seattle paid to get him (27th pick overall), he finished 2018 in disappointing fashion. At the end of the year, Penny had logged 70.4 PPR points in 14 games for the Seahawks. Perhaps the fact that Seattle is a run-heavy team made them into drafting a running back early in case they lost someone to injury due to a heavy load. That wasn't the case, though, and Penny saw himself buried under the two-headed backfield formed by Chris Carson (267 touches) and Mike Davis (146).

Same as with Ronald Jones, we can't just assess Penny's performance based on raw numbers due to his "low" usage as RB3 in Seattle's attack. Looking at rates, though, we can get a better idea of Penny's performance. In those terms, truth is Penny didn't excel. Among the 10 rookies with at least 85 rushing attempts, Penny ranked eighth in Y/A with 4.93. In terms of receiving, he caught nine of 12 passes thrown his way in a small sample that only made him average 5.4 receiving yards per game (sixth-worst among rookie RBs targeted at least 10 times).

With the departure of Mike Davis, Seattle has 146 touches to spare. Although Chris Carson will remain the bell-cow running back of the Seahawks, an uptick in Penny's usage is expected. As is one in his production, but that doesn't look that clear to me. There are some traits looking good in his profile (6th in Big Run rate, 13th in Juke rate per Player Profiler) but overall there are many safer options for you to draft. Penny's current ADP of 81 is too rich for my blood. Even being the RB33 right now, he's getting off the boards before Duke Johnson and Jordan Howard. Call me crazy but I don't see the reason to make him more than a super-late flier pick.

 

Jaylen Samuels, Pittsburgh Steelers

For a 22-year-old tight end converted into a running back, I guess reaching 90 PPR points wasn't bad in his rookie season. Even with that, though, we're talking about running backs here and Samuels doesn't strike me as someone I'd seriously consider to take on the position this season. Not in any of my fantasy teams' RB slots at least. Samuel fell short of 100 touches (finished with 82) but showed enough to allow us to see what he's capable of.

In an offense that didn't have Le'Veon Bell all season, Samuels was assigned the RB2 role behind James Conner in Pittsburgh. He ran 56 times for 256 yards and averaged 4.57 Y/A, sandwiched between Rashaad Penny (4.93) and Sony Michel (4.45). For a converted TE, his 7.65 yards per reception were nothing special. While he was able to log a Catch% of 89.7 that was suspiciously high and probably hard to sustain, he was beaten in the receiving side of the game by other rookie rushers such as Kerryon Johnson and Nyheim Hines.

This offseason, Pittsburgh has spent a fourth-round pick in Benny Snell, another running back, so the future of Samuels even with Bell out of town is all up in the air. Awarding Samuels a roster spot in your team is not advisable at this point. Even if there is a fair share of chances in the Steelers backfield, Conner will be the go-to option each and every down and Samuel's role will be diminished while battling with Snell for touches. Any injury to James Conner could open the door for Samuels to get more balls and make him reach his upside but it is still not clear if he'd be ahead of Snell in the pecking order. Avoid him for the time being.

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