Analyzing the Major Rookie Running Back Opportunities

Is Le'Veon Bell the rookie runner to own this season in fantasy?

Talent times opportunity equals value.

It’s the most basic formula fantasy footballers use to determine the worth of a player. If a guy is talented but gets little usage, then he’s not necessarily the most valuable asset to the fake sport. On the other hand, poor talent can be made up for by high usage. Remember Michael Turner in 2012? Exactly.

With rookie running backs, the talent side of the equation is often more difficult to dissect. Sure, we can rely on draftniks and film studiers to give us some sort of evaluation, and we can also do comparables to see the statistical side too. But in the end, these first-year guys have played as many snaps as you or I have on an NFL field (unless, of course, a current or ex-NFL player is reading this). Compared to a veteran, they’re professional-level talent is much more difficult to predict.

That’s why we often rely on the opportunity side of the equation when making a rookie back selection in fantasy football. Is the running back in a favorable offense? Does he have much competition at the position? Does the coach trust him?

There are four important rookie runners entering 2013. Each has a different skill set, sure, but they also have diverse opportunities. And these opportunities can help shed light to which ones hold the most fantasy value entering the season.

Montee Ball

Ronnie Hillman is currently listed as the Broncos number one back, with Montee Ball at two and Knowshon Moreno at three. There’s no reason to look too far into this because it's still early August, but take it for what it's worth.

Hillman has been getting plenty of love from Broncos beat writers since camp started. Many point to head coach John Fox’s reluctance to play a rookie running back, while others say rookie Montee Ball just isn’t the guy.

Let’s take a closer look at how Hillman did during his low-volume rookie season to see what Ball’s up against:

PlayerRush NEP/AttemptRank
Ronnie Hillman-.1765th of 72
Willis McGahee-.0129th of 72
Knowshon Moreno-.0234th of 72

Yes, Ronnie Hillman was a rookie, but the numbers still show us something very alarming. Last season, Hillman was by far the least efficient runner in Denver, ranking over 30 slots lower than Knowshon Moreno in terms of rushing net expected points per attempt (minimum 50 attempts). This metric tells us how many points – real ones, not fantasy ones – a player added towards his team’s output on a per attempt basis. To put it kindly, Ronnie Hillman’s rookie season was dreadful. Like, Jacquizz Rodgers dreadful.

Expected points data (along with other metrics) typically correlates nicely with fantasy success. It doesn’t look at just the raw numbers, which is important; those typically tell just part of a story.

What’s interesting is seeing just how bad the Broncos running backs were efficiency-wise a season ago with Peyton Manning under center. That’s not typical for a Manning-led team, as Joseph Addai, the last lead back Manning had when he played in Indianapolis, finished with just two negative rushing NEP per attempt seasons during his six years with the Colts.

Ball’s competition doesn’t appear incredibly stellar, making it seem like he has a great opportunity. The unfortunate part, however, is that Ball’s statistical comparables aren’t very exciting; he may be just as mediocre as the guys in front of him. His opportunity, in other words, is more than likely being minimized by his true talent, not the talent of his peers.

Denver should pull ahead in games, especially considering their awful division, giving each running back on the team some sort of chance. They ranked 9th last season in rushing plays, showing that volume shouldn’t be an issue.

Verdict: If Ball can ball, he should be able to eventually take the lead role in Denver. Mind you, that’s a big “if” at this point. Though Hillman is listed as the top Broncos runner, his scores from last season don’t make it seem reasonable to think he can consistently carry the ball for the team. Or, at the very least, he’ll have to make a big improvement in order to do so. Knowshon Moreno, albeit not a fantastic runner, is there too. The competition is fierce in Denver, and could be a fantasy football situation to avoid if we don't get more clarity.

Le’Veon Bell

The Steelers ranked third to last in adjusted rushing efficiency last season, forcing a second round draft selection in running back Le’Veon Bell. Last year was Todd Haley’s first season as offensive coordinator, and the guys he had to work with were Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman; two players who had never been full-time, every-down backs. Here’s how they performed in terms of rushing net expected points per play:

PlayerRush NEP/AttemptRank
Isaac Redman-.1158th of 72
Jonathan Dwyer-.0955th of 72

Not good. Both Redman and Dwyer had negative Rush NEP’s, finishing in the bottom quarter among 50-plus attempt NFL runners. Redman was about as effective as Peyton Hillis, and Dwyer was worse than Dolphins runner Daniel Thomas. No wonder the Steelers went and got Bell.

The good news is that Bell is already running with the starters, and should assume the top role in Pittsburgh. Even if he doesn’t perform spectacularly, you can see that he’ll be better than what the Steelers had a year ago. The offensive line is still an issue, but from an opportunity perspective, there may be no rookie running back with more.

Verdict: Bell is like a Harvard graduate trying to land a gig at a community college job fair. He has the most opportunity – by far – compared to any other rookie running back.

Eddie Lacy

The Packers ranked better than both Denver and Pittsburgh in terms of adjusted rushing efficiency last season, finishing the year in the 18 spot. Not bad for a team who used a complete carousel of runners throughout the season.

Green Bay went on and selected the once highly coveted Eddie Lacy in the second round of April’s draft, making him an almost sure thing in terms of fantasy relevancy. And then, just two rounds later, the Pack selected Johnathan Franklin. Fantasy owners, after so much hope, quickly began to scramble for reasons.

Could things be any more muddled?

Oh, and don’t forget about DuJuan Harris. Though he’s not getting the same attention as the rookies are, Harris was actually the only Packers running back who successfully snagged a positive rushing efficiency score last year. On each tote, Harris added a staggering .16 points to the Packers score. Much of that had to do with the fact that he didn’t secure a whole lot of carries, but the potential is there for Harris to grab hold of some lead back touches this year.

That being said, Eddie Lacy has been the superior talent in camp thus far, and is looking to take on the number one role in Green Bay. The competition is the most unknown of all worthwhile rookie scenarios, making him a slight risk if you were to draft tomorrow. Luckily, most fantasy drafts don’t happen until the preseason is over, where we’ll get a better idea of the Packers situation.

The biggest thing to remember in Green Bay is that, although they have Aaron Rodgers, they should be able to run the ball very effectively. We saw them rank in the top 20 last season with ordinary talent. Just imagine what they’d be able to do if Eddie Lacy lives up to his potential.

Verdict: Eddie Lacy could end up being the most underrated of all the rookie backs in terms of opportunity entering the season. DuJuan Harris has been efficient, but has yet to carry the load. Johnathan Franklin, Lacy’s rookie counterpart, should steal touches, too, but there will be plenty to go around in what should be a more balanced Green Bay offense.

Giovani Bernard

The Bengals ranked 6th in team adjusted rushing efficiency last season, adding .06 points to their score each time they ran the ball.

Then why’d they get a fresh running back in the 2013 draft, you ask?

Well, for a lot of reasons. BenJarvus Green-Ellis isn’t the best back in the world, though he did perform better than the 2012 runners named above. He ranked 30th among 50-attempt runners in rushing efficiency, which is in the top 50 percent. But one thing Green-Ellis doesn’t do well is catch the football. In 2012, Green-Ellis ranked 50th of 59 backs (minimum 20 targets) in receiving net expected points per target, adding just .08 points to the Bengals score every time he was targeted through the air. Even worse, The Law Firm scored dead last at running back on the Bengals roster in the receiving category.

Enter Giovani Bernard.

Opportunity-wise, Bernard is going to fill a role that no running back really had in Cincinnati a season ago. Green-Ellis caught a grand total of 22 passes last season, which, to be fair, was almost double the amount he had in any other season. But he’s not a receiving threat, which is something the Bengals could use out of the backfield. Bernard has been scouted as having incredibly reliable hands, and he could be the burst needed to take the Bengals offense to the next level, Andy Dalton aside.

His opportunity as a pure runner isn’t as favorable as Bell, Ball or even Lacy, but let’s not overstate Green-Ellis’ abilities: the Bengals back last season still had a negative Rush NEP. Entering the upcoming season, Bernard has a lot of PPR allure with running game upside. If Green-Ellis continues to be a moderate runner, the Bengals could lean more heavily on Bernard than some think.

Verdict: Bernard makes more sense in PPR leagues than standard ones, but given Green-Ellis’ lack of elite effectiveness, Gio could dig into the lead back’s carries. He should be drafted with caution, but has a lot of rookie upside, especially if the Bengals lean more on Dalton in 2013.