Ranking the Rookie Running Back Stars
As we close in on the 2017 fantasy playoffs, it’s become increasingly clear that we’re witnessing one of the best running back classes in recent memory. With five stars who could be ranked in almost any order, I wanted to take a closer look at their scoring profiles, examine their pros and cons, and evaluate who will be the biggest dynasty forces in the future.
The 2017 Rookies
I’m extremely high on Tarik Cohen, Aaron Jones, Marlon Mack, D’Onta Foreman, and Austin Ekeler, but let’s narrow today’s exploration to the biggest names.
Five Stars and a Question Mark
- Fournette easily leads in rushing attempts (21) and rushing expected points (ruEP 12.5).
- McCaffrey is averaging double figures in expected points on the receiving side (reEP 12.1).
- Fournette, Hunt, and Kamara are scoring above expectation in both the rushing (ruFPOE) and receiving (reFPOE) games.
- McCaffrey is the only runner below average in both (-0.9 ruFPOE, -0.3 reFPOE).
We can examine the players’ volume from a fantasy perspective by looking at their total expected points.
Leonard Fournette: 17.2
Dalvin Cook: 16.7
Christian McCaffrey: 15.7
Kareem Hunt: 14.8
Alvin Kamara: 12.7
Joe Mixon: 10.3
No. 6 Joe Mixon
Mixon currently resides in a tier below the other five.
Pros: Mixon has scored in consecutive games and owns a 13 to 7 target advantage over Giovani Bernard during the last four games. There hasn’t been as much pressure for the high-value touches as we might have expected going into the season.
Cons: Mixon’s total EP places him well outside the elite tier, and his poor efficiency compounds the problem. He’s still sitting on a season-high 62 rushing yards from Week 3 and gave back some of the receiving volume this week.
No. 5 Kareem Hunt
Hunt was a sensation during the first five weeks of 2017, averaging 14.9 EP a game but scoring 25.8 because he was averaging 10.9 points over expectation. Over the last month, Hunt’s workload has stayed roughly the same (14.5) due to a bump in reEP, but his efficiency has cratered to 1.6 points below expectation.
Pros: Andy Reid emphasizes his bell cow RB in the passing game, an approach that has created numerous fantasy stars, and this higher-scoring version of the Chiefs should continue to put Hunt in many favorable situations. The rookie has vindicated the Kansas City front office, breaking tackles and showing well as an interior runner.
Cons: Hunt has already scored three TDs of 50 yards or more, and that type of performance would be unsustainable for in-their-prime versions of Barry Sanders, Jamaal Charles, or Chris Johnson. Runners with 4.62 forties do not project well to the NFL, and when they succeed it’s usually not because they rip off long scores on a weekly basis. That’s not to say Hunt isn’t already carving himself out as an Arian Foster-like exception.
This is such a fun exercise in part because Dynasty Watch author John Lapinski has had Hunt ranked as his No. 1 rookie since Week 1. That’s how good this class is. And if you’re not reading Lapinski, he’s absolutely fantastic. His Week 10 Terminator column is hilarious.
No. 4 Dalvin Cook
This is where it starts to get tricky. Cook was my No. 1 back last November, and after a dismal draft process, he offered an immediate rebuke to the critics by averaging 18 points per game over his first three. Cook is currently still RB38 despite having only played in four games.
Pros: Cook profiles as an elite RB1 on workload alone, with 10-plus ruEP and 5-plus reEP.1 After acting as an anchor on Adrian Peterson’s value throughout his prime,2 the Vikings offense may be turning a corner. Despite the injury to Cook, turmoil at the QB position, and nagging injuries to perpetual superstar-in-waiting Stefon Diggs, Minnesota ranks 10th in points per game. Since Cook’s injury, Jerick McKinnon has averaged 16.2 EP and logged positive numbers for rush (1.6) and pass (0.9) efficiency. Cook may return to an elite offense in 2018, and we’ve seen what a difference that has made for Todd Gurley.
Cons: Cook isn’t currently available to owners, and we’ve only been able to evaluate a very small stretch of professional play.3
No. 3 Leonard Fournette
Fournette began his NFL career with six straight games in double figures, with four of those games cresting 20 points. I have him as my No. 3 back, but I wouldn’t begrudge those who have him in the top spot. In fact, there’s an argument to be made for Fournette as dynasty’s No. 1 overall.4
Pros: His first month immediately confirmed everything we knew about Fournette’s size/speed/production combination and how well that projected to the NFL. He leads the rookies in EP and has been marvelously efficient, especially when you consider that he plays in a Blake Bortles offense.
Week 10 was an aberration, but it was also a contest that exposed the biggest concerns for Fournette if he falls into the darkest timeline. The Jaguars chose to throw 51 times in a close game, and only four of the 14 RB targets were to Fournette. Superstars like Le’Veon Bell and David Johnson are so valuable because their expected points are so well balanced between run and pass.5 Fournette has impressed in this area, but the Chargers contest was a big step back.
No. 2 Alvin Kamara
In pitching Kamara for in the preseason Zero RB Target List, I compared his partnership with Mark Ingram to the Deuce McAllister/Reggie Bush tandem during Bush’s rookie year.6 With back-to-back 33- and 25-point explosions, Kamara moves up to RB7 on the year, one spot below Ingram.
Pros: Kamara is averaging 8.4 reEP, giving him an extremely high floor and the perfect role in one of the league’s best offenses. He’s what Christian McCaffrey was supposed to be.
Cons: Scoring almost five points above expected should raise some eyebrows and emphasize that his overall workload still suffers from sharing time with Ingram. Of course, his electric play has already led to an expanded role, and workload/efficiency concerns are less severe in an offense that has been in the top 10 in points per drive for every season in the last decade.
No. 1 Christian McCaffrey
Every McCaffrey owner is looking at Kamara with envy. Meanwhile, the Stanford star has struggled mightily in an offensive scheme that’s been a disaster for RBs.
Pros/Cons: For McCaffrey the pros and cons are almost the same. He’s been woefully inefficient and yet sits at RB12 going into tonight’s game. He hasn’t been involved in the running game at all, and yet is averaging 15.7 expected points a game, a crucial factor Ben Gretch has been harping on for several weeks in the deeper-than-deep Stealing Signals.
McCaffrey was selected with the No. 8 pick in the 2017 draft, a choice that was a reach in terms of positional value and likely to be unpopular for a long time due to the early-career successes of third-rounders Hunt and Kamara. But this selection also gives him incredible job security and a great deal of incentive for Carolina to make it work, something we’ve already seen manifested in the Kelvin Benjamin trade.
Moreover, because we’ve seen what McCaffrey could do for such a long stretch in college – and because his combination of production, draft slot, and athleticism give him tremendous comps – we have less reason to panic at the early-season inefficiency. To be sure, even beyond the numbers, he’s been disappointing. We had Pat Daugherty on RotoViz Radio last week, and he noted that McCaffrey seemed smaller somehow than he did at Stanford. He looked more 180 than the 202 from the combine.
I have McCaffrey at No. 1 because his sky-high floor can easily shift into a sky-high ceiling, and because I want to constantly stock up on backs with absurd value in the receiving game. That’s where the NFL is going, and it also helps to get your EP in a form that requires fewer touches as it relates to injury exposure. I give him the slight edge over Kamara for these reasons and because McCaffrey faces much less of an EP threat with Stewart as his sidekick.
This is the first in a series of fun posts meant to look at redraft and dynasty value together and to provide a sense of what the Screener and other RotoViz apps can do. Let me know who you prefer in the comments. Will we see any of these RBs above Bell and Johnson a year from now?
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- Those numbers might have been difficult to sustain over a full season but include his partial Week 4. (back)
- The Vikings offense finished in the top 10 in points per drive only once.
- Which forces us to remember that his summer/pre-draft red flags don’t disappear completely in a four-game hot streak. (back)
- I still have Le’Veon Bell and David Johnson a tier above these backs, but the class is that good. (back)
- Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon are also above 8.0 reEP in 2017. (back)
- Bush and McAllister finished No. 9 and No. 16 in 2006. (back)