4 Rookie Running Backs with Immediate Opportunities for Success
For the second consecutive year, no running backs were selected in the first round of the NFL Draft.
But that doesn't mean there won't be impact rookies in the backfield this season.
Last season, two second-round runners made a significant impact for their teams. Green Bay Packers back Eddie Lacy and Pittsburgh Steelers back Le'Veon Bell received enough carries to emerge as the top runners in the class. Lacy finished with 284 carries (fifth in the NFL), 1,178 yards (eighth), and 11 rushing touchdowns (third). Bell, who missed three games, racked up 244 attempts (12th), 860 yards (17th), and 8 touchdowns (tied for 11th).
Fellow rookie Giovani Bernard became a dual-threat for the Cincinnati Bengals, accounting for 226 touches, 1,209 rushing and receiving yards and 8 total touchdowns.
These three runners emerged in various types of opportunities. Lacy impressed in Packers training camp; Bell took over for an inefficient Steelers run game after missing the first three weeks with a foot injury; Bernard was drafted into a great opportunity.
Two of the rookies drafted into promising situations are Bishop Sankey, whom the Tennessee Titans selected as the first running back off the board, and Devonta Freeman, who went to the Atlanta Falcons in the fourth round. You can read extensively about Sankey's situation here and about Freeman's here.
Aside from Sankey and Freeman, rookie running backs from this class have less direct paths to starting roles or guaranteed volume, but there are bound to be, as always, backs who emerge. After all, don't forget that Lacy was in a running back pile up last season in training camp with Johnathan Franklin, DuJuan Harris, and Alex Green.
Four Rookies with Great Opportunities
Tre Mason (St. Louis Rams) - Fantasy owners might be curious (or furious) as to why I'm saying Mason has a pretty good opportunity. Sure, Zac Stacy was a formidable fantasy back last season (and is currently going in the second round of some mock drafts), but in terms of actual production, he was much less impressive. Of the 35 running backs with at least 150 carries last season, Stacy finished 18th in Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) per attempt. Stacy's Rushing NEP per attempt was -0.04, meaning each carry he received netted the Rams -0.04 points. For context, the average of those backs with 150 carries was -0.02. Stacy was below average and was, effectively, designated the starting running back by default. Similar to the situation Lacy faced last season, Stacy was competing with Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead, who failed to impress head coach Jeff Fisher.
It's Stacy's job to lose, but in his final season at Auburn, Mason amassed 1,816 yards on 317 carries for 23 touchdowns behind offensive tackle Greg Robinson, whom the Rams selected second overall in this year's draft. Mason exhibits more dynamic talent than does Stacy, who has proven himself a reliable - but not explosive - NFL talent. As it stands, Stacy is in line for more carries, but if he fails to replicate his steady production (250 carries, 973 yards, and 7 touchdowns), Mason could prove to be a high-upside runner for the Rams.
Terrance West (Cleveland Browns) - The Browns could be in trouble already. The organization will be facing a starting quarterback quandary between Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel, and they also face the possibility of the entire season without stud wide receiver Josh Gordon, which would leave them in a very bad situation in terms of receiving.
Cleveland opted to draft Joel Bitonio, who played tackle in college but might be best suited to play guard in the NFL, instead of a receiver 35th overall in the draft. The addition of former Houston Texan Ben Tate and the dearth of receivers might cause Cleveland to shift their focus from passing to rushing. Cleveland was the second-most pass heavy team in the league last year in terms of pass-to-run ratio (though they ran the most pass plays), and their decision to draft an offensive lineman and to trade up to draft West instead of a pass-catcher indicates they'd like this trend to renege.
While Tate has long awaited his opportunity to be a feature back, he has struggled with injuries throughout his career. Additionally, Tate has never topped 185 carries in his three-year career. Of the 25 running backs who recorded 150 to 250 carries last season, Tate (who had 181 attempts) tied for 12th in Rushing NEP per attempt (-0.06). The Texans as a whole were ineffective rushing the ball, finishing tied for 23rd in Adjusted Rushing NEP per attempt (-0.04), so Tate might not be entirely to blame; however, he has never topped 1,000 yards or 5 touchdowns, so West, who should be a more viable pass-catching option than Tate, should have his opportunities for the Browns this season. West's final season at Towson, albeit a small school and against FCS opponents, was a rather astounding affair: he converted 413 carries for 2,509 yards and 41 TDs.
Jeremy Hill (Cincinnati Bengals) - Hill, like Mason, is an SEC runner who has faced tougher defenses than West. However, Hill is heading into a rather promising opportunity with the Bengals. He'll be playing behind last year's highest-drafted running back, Giovani Bernard. Bernard is a speedy runner who has all the tools to be an every down back, but at 5'9" and 200 pounds, he may never be an optimal choice in short-yardage and at the goal line. Hill is 6'2", 235 pounds and has the ability to get to shed tackles both with power and elusiveness.
Basically, he has the potential to be what Cincinnati needed BenJarvus Green-Ellis to be last season. Of the 22 running backs who recorded at least 200 carries last season, Green-Ellis ranked 19th in Rushing NEP (-17.96) and well below the average Rushing NEP of that subset, which was -2.94. Additionally, Green-Ellis' yards per carry (3.43) ranked 41st out of the 48 backs with at least 100 carries. Even with his ineffectiveness, Green-Ellis recorded 220 carries and 7 touchdowns; if Hill can be even remotely effective, then the Bengals would likely give their second-round pick the opportunity to improve on those marks.
Working in his favor is the AFC North. Based on Adjusted Rushing NEP per play, the Browns were the ninth-most generous team to opposing rushing attacks, and the Steelers were 10th. Also, the Bengals were the 10th-most reliant team on the run in the NFL last season, passing the ball only 1.28 times for every rushing attempt compared to the league average of 1.44. With favorable matchups, a run-heavy offense, a smaller lead back, and the likely limited touches from Green-Ellis, Hill has plenty of reasons to excel straightaway in the NFL.
Andre Williams (New York Giants) - The Giants might have David Wilson, who's recovering from neck surgery, back this season. As insurance, they signed Rashad Jennings to a four-year, $10 million contract to be, ostensibly, the lead back. If Wilson returns and Jennings has another successful season, then Williams won't have much room for touches. Of the 25 running backs who recorded between 100 and 200 carries last season, Jennings ranked second in Rushing NEP (11.80) and well above the average in that subset (-7.25).
While Jennings had an above average season based on his volume in 2013, his track record is less promising. Jennings has played four NFL seasons and has carried the ball 39, 84, 101, and 163 times, respectively. He's recorded only 13 rushing touchdowns in 53 career games. Jennings is a reliable back who has been limited early in his career by playing behind Maurice Jones-Drew. But Jennings has never been very dynamic when given his chance, and with the poor offensive line play from the Giants, his production might be limited. Brought in as an insurance back and unable to win starting gigs consistently in his career, Jennings may not be the answer if Wilson's injury continues to keep him off the field.
Williams, who is a tough runner, then might be the best option for a featured role for the ineffective Giants running game, which finished 31st in Adjusted Rushing NEP last season. Williams averaged only 116.3 carries during his first three seasons but amassed 355 attempts for 2,177 yards and 18 touchdowns in his senior season at Boston College. He wasn't a workhorse for four seasons before being drafted but showed the capability of bearing a heavy workload. If the Giants find themselves in need of a 250-plus carry back, Williams, a fourth-round draft choice, might be a better choice than Jennings or a recovering Wilson.