Kareem Hunt Will Be the Top Rookie Running Back in Fantasy Football This Year

It's looking like Spencer Ware is going to be out for the season, which means Kareem Hunt is stepping into a fantastic situation for fantasy football owners.

And just like that, Kareem Hunt is the Kansas City Chiefs' featured running back.

On Friday, Chiefs lead rusher Spencer Ware went down with a knee injury. Today, it's looking like a season-ender, which will force the rookie Hunt to the top of the depth chart. As one group of fantasy owners shed tears (I hope not), another is elated over having a new starting running back on their roster.

This is fantasy football. And it's obnoxious.

But this is the hand we're dealt. And my goodness, for those of you who drafted Hunt later in your fantasy drafts prior to Friday, you may have just landed a pair of aces.

Stepping In and Up

Kareem Hunt's no stranger to a large workload. At Toledo last season, Hunt toted the rock 262 times, finishing the year with a 51.17% rushing attempt market share -- the percentage of team rushes that went to Hunt -- in the backfield. Among relevant backs in this year's draft class, that ranked seventh best.

He also made the most of his workload, accounting for over 58% of Toledo's rushing yards and rushing touchdowns, ranking above average in both market share categories.

Moreover, Hunt ranked eighth in this class in reception market share, catching over 14% of Toledo's completed passes last season.

The man was -- and profiles to be -- a three-down back.

He'll now enter a role in the Chiefs' offense where he needs to be one. Over the last four years in Kansas City -- the four years since Andy Reid has been the head coach -- the player with the highest rushing market share has also seen a significant number of targets through the air. You can see how that jumped from 2012 (no Andy Reid) to 2013 (with Reid) in the table below, too.

Player Year Att Market Share Targets Market Share
Jamaal Charles 2012 285 57.00% 48 10.11%
Jamaal Charles 2013 259 58.60% 104 19.05%
Jamaal Charles 2014 206 49.05% 59 11.97%
Charcandrick West 2015 160 36.70% 34 7.19%
Spencer Ware 2016 214 51.94% 42 7.69%

For reference, only 13 running backs hit the 10% target market share mark in 2016, while 32 made it to 7%. Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware didn't even play full seasons as starters over the last two years, and they were still in that top-25 range within the metric. That's how much the team utilizes their lead back in the passing game.

On the ground -- you know, where running backs are known for doing things -- we should generally expect a rushing market share north of 50%. Again, this is a strong number at the position: it was matched by just 17 backs last year. Ware himself was pacing to a near 60% market share season had he been healthy, too.

And speaking of Spencer Ware, he's actually a reason to feel hopeful about Hunt. Ware wasn't nearly the type of prospect Hunt is, having played behind Jeremy Hill during his final season at Louisiana State. Despite the fact that Ware never hit 200 or more carries in a single season dating back to forever (he never did it in college), the Chiefs had no problem feeding him the rock in 2016.

Whether that was due to a lack of competition (Jamaal Charles was done for) or a love for using true three-down backs, it really shouldn't matter when we're analyzing Kareem Hunt's 2017 potential.

That's exactly what he has going for him, too: there's no competition.

A Running Back's Potential

We know volume is king in fantasy football. It's why bad players with volume can be effective for your pretend teams, and why someone like DeSean Jackson, who always helps his offenses out tremendously by stretching the field, isn't always the best fantasy football option.

This is truest at the running back position. While a wide receiver's volume comes from a combination of scheme, coaching, separation, and quarterback choices (they've got to want to throw the ball to that receiver), a running back's volume is almost entirely driven by coaching decisions and play-calling. That means that evaluation means less: if a wide receiver is good, he'll not only be on the field, but the quarterback -- the guy throwing him the ball -- will notice. If the quarterback thinks a running back is bad, it doesn't really matter. If the back is on the field, he's on the field. He's getting volume.

He's going to be relevant in fantasy football.

This is mostly to say that we shouldn't overvalue running back talent when we inherently know that situation matters more in fantasy football.

From a fantasy perspective, there are five really basic questions we need to ask about the potential for a running back: Does the running back have competition? Is the running back an early-down back? Is the running back going to see goal-line work? Is the running back going to see passing-down work? Is the running back in a good offense?

And when you break things down this way, it's pretty clear that Hunt could finish as this year's best rookie running back.

Does the Running Back Have Competition?

If we peek at average draft position data, it's obvious who the top rookie running backs are in fantasy football heading into the season. We've got Leonard Fournette in Jacksonville, Christian McCaffrey in Carolina, Joe Mixon in Cincinnati, and Dalvin Cook in Minnesota. Each player is being drafted as a starter in a 12-team standard league, and each back was selected significantly higher -- especially Fournette and McCaffrey -- in the NFL Draft when compared to Hunt.

Let's kick things off by looking at the backfield competition each one of these players faces this season.

Player Competition
Leonard Fournette Chris Ivory, TJ Yeldon
Christian McCaffrey Jonathan Stewart, Cam Newton
Joe Mixon Jeremy Hill, Giovani Bernard
Dalvin Cook Latavius Murray, Jerick McKinnon
Kareem Hunt Charcandrick West, CJ Spiller

Now, before you burn my Twitter mentions, I agree that each of these players can and should supplant the other runners in their respective backfields this year. But the already-injured Fournette has to deal with an early-down bruiser in Chris Ivory, who's carried the ball 744 times over the last four years. That's on top of T.J. Yeldon, who caught 50 balls last year, the 11th-most in the NFL. McCaffrey's got a dynamic rushing quarterback and a talented (former first-round selection, albeit now aged) back in Jonathan Stewart. Mixon isn't even starting preseason games because of his competition, and Cook has Latavius Murray, who signed a decent-enough sized contract for a running back with the Vikings this offseason.

Kareem Hunt has the corpse of C.J. Spiller and a player who's been pushed back to a third-down role over the last two seasons in Charcandrick West.

Is the Running Back an Early-Down Back?

Since we don't have NFL data on these players, the best we can do when analyzing their early-down workhorse potential is by looking at how they were used in college. And, unsurprisingly given the notes above, Kareem Hunt carried the load at a similar rate as the other top backs in this year's class. (Note: Fournette's 2015 is used below due to his 2016 injury.)

Name Year Att/Game Att Market Share
Leonard Fournette 2015 25.00 59.41%
Christian McCaffrey 2016 23.00 48.47%
Dalvin Cook 2016 22.15 55.60%
Kareem Hunt 2016 20.15 51.17%
Joe Mixon 2016 15.58 32.69%

Is the Running Back Going to See Goal-Line Work?

Of the top-60 running back seasons we've seen in fantasy football (PPR) over the last six years (10 per season), just five have scored fewer than five rushing touchdowns. And a solid 73.33% of them have hit the seven-touchdown mark.

Spoiler alert: a running back needs to score touchdowns to be successful in fantasy football.

Is Dalvin Cook a lock to see touches close to his opponent's end zone? Not necessarily. With Oakland last year, Latavius Murray saw 17 touches from within his opponent's 5-yard line, which was the sixth-highest total in football. And Murray missed two games. He thrived in the role, scoring more touchdowns from that distance than anyone not named LeGarrette Blount or David Johnson.

What about Christian McCaffrey? Well, Jonathan Stewart saw 16 goal-line attempts last year, which was just one fewer than the aforementioned Murray. And Cam Newton also exists. Newton's scored the most rushing touchdowns in the entire NFL from within his opponent's five-yard line since entering the league in 2011. That list includes running backs.

And, lastly, Mixon's competing with a player in Jeremy Hill who's literally only been valuable in fantasy football over the last two years because he scores touchdowns.

Fournette should dominate these types of looks for the Jags, but aside from him, shouldn't you feel most confident about Hunt getting goal-line carries?

Is the Running Back Going to See Passing-Down Work?

Given their college profiles, we should feel fairly confident that each of the rookies we're looking at can play a pass-catching role in their offense.

Name Year Rec Market Share Rec Yds Market Share
Christian McCaffrey 2016 20.67% 15.08%
Kareem Hunt 2016 14.09% 9.60%
Joe Mixon 2016 13.65% 13.01%
Dalvin Cook 2016 13.52% 14.21%
Leonard Fournette 2015 12.75% 11.69%

Cook and McCaffrey appeared locked into a receiving role in their offense. Cook already has eight targets in the preseason, and McCaffrey's one of the best -- if not the best -- receiving running back prospects we've ever seen.

Mixon should be projected to catch a lot of balls, but Giovani Bernard is there, and he's seen 50-plus targets in all four seasons he's played in the NFL. Meanwhile, T.J. Yeldon has received praise for his pass protection and is slotted in as the Jaguars' receiving running back (as long as he can stay healthy).

While Charcandrick West may see passing downs at times, the original chart above showing how Andy Reid uses his backs as receivers should shed some optimism to Hunt's pass-catching situation.

Is the Running Back in a Good Offense?

Naturally, you'd rather have your running back in a good offense than in a bad one. According to our schedule-adjusted Net Expected Points model, here's where numberFire's algorithm ranked each of the running back's offenses last season.

PlayerOffense Rank
Joe Mixon12th
Kareem Hunt17th
Christian McCaffrey21st
Dalvin Cook22nd
Leonard Fournette30th

These figures will undoubtedly change this year (especially Carolina's ranking), but it should be noted that, under Andy Reid, the Chiefs have ranked 17th, 15th, 13th, and 22nd in overall offensive efficiency. They won't be crushing opposing defenses this year, but it's a safe bet to say that they'll be around an average to slightly below-average offense.

Oh, and also: this should be one of the biggest dings to Leonard Fournette. During the Blake Bortles era, the team has failed to score double-digit rushing touchdowns in a single season.

Thanks for the negative game scripts, Blake.

Bringing It Together

Is Christian McCaffrey in a better situation than Kareem Hunt? There's certainly an argument, but he's competing for the always-necessary goal-line touches with two very capable scorers.

How about Dalvin Cook? It's the same deal. What if Minnesota uses the recently-purchased Latavius Murray as their goal-line back?

Joe Mixon? What about Joe Mixon?

Is Joe Mixon even going to be the team's starter to begin the year?

What about fourth-overall pick Leonard Fournette? Well, not only is Fournette nursing an injury right now, but he's not projected to be the passing-down back in an offense that's seen loads of negative game scripts with their incompetent quarterback under center over the last three years. That's resulted in a capped ceiling for running backs, no matter who the running back is.

What's there not to like about Kareem Hunt?

Kareem Hunt. That's what's not to like about Kareem Hunt.

But I'd maintain that if you're making your running back decisions in fantasy football off of talent and not situation, then you're overlooking the obvious foundation of the game.

It's about opportunity. It's not just about talent.

And, hey -- Kareem Hunt, with loads of opportunity, may also be loaded with talent.