The 2017 NFL Draft has been in the books for a while now, and here at Razzball we’ve already provided some great content recapping the draft in MB’s article and the Razzcast episode from Friday, but I wanted to provide a closer look at the draft from the running back perspective. The reason why I am choosing to do this is because they are the only position that is impacted in such a big way. Offensive lines are upgraded, flashy new rookies are drafted, and even important role players are selected each year that garners our attention. Sure, new information will come out between now and the start of the season in September, but it’s important now to analyze the information in front of us to start to gain an edge over the rest of your buddies in your fantasy leagues.
So let’s get to it!
The Rookie Class
My friend his a pretty big Stanford Cardinal fan. He’s spent the past two years watching every game and to say that he knows a thing or two about Christian McCaffrey is an understatement. He and I had a conversation during the first night of the draft, and when McCaffrey went to the Panthers at the 8 spot, he didn’t think it was the best for his NFL career. He told me he hated the fit. Why? Well, because he felt that McCaffrey’s game as a pass-catcher bets suits an environment where a QB can dump it off after going through his primary reads, i.e. Joe Flacco. He told me that he didn’t know if Cam did that. “Cam’s last option isn’t the dump off. His last option is to take it himself.”
I really like this viewpoint, not just because I think it’s wrong (it is), but because I think it’s a popular viewpoint as well. Yes, for most of his career, Cam’s last read is… well… himself. However, I think Cam’s running numbers will decrease very significantly this year compared to previous ones. Simply put, he’s had too many concussions (not to mention he had surgery in late March to repair a torn rotator cuff). After some pretty grueling hits to the head suffered in Week 1 versus Denver, and then again in Week 4 against Atlanta. Opposing defenses know the only way to stop a 6’5, 245 lb. QB is to hit him hard. And in the best interest of Newton and the team’s future, I really do believe Ron Rivera will put a stop to this. He can’t afford to have the franchise QB be sidelined again. And so, I think it’s safe to say that McCaffrey (or even Stewart) will become Newton’s last read.
We already know that McCaffrey can play on passing downs, but what about the work between the tackles? Well, coming into the 2016 season, Pro Football Focus graded Carolina as the second-best offensive line in the NFL, so we know the upside is there as a unit, however, due to injuries and a whole host of other problems, that grade did not translate well at all. They did not do a very good job at preventing opposing defenses from stuffing the run, and they did not do so well either at created efficient running lanes for Stewart to work the open field. In fact, the only thing they did well on was creating enough space for the power runs on 3rd and 4th and short. This can likely be attributed to the poor play of Mike Remmers and Michael Oher (when he wasn’t hurt). This needs to be addressed during OTA’s and camp, and with the arrival of rookie OT Taylor Moton from Western Michigan, the Panthers know they needed to address this gap, and I am confident that their O-Line will be improved heading into 2017. Maybe not the second-best in the NFL, but definitely improved.
As for his counterpart Leonard Fournette, to say that his O-Line situation is less than ideal is putting it nicely. In 2016, it seemed like the Jags offensive line couldn’t even do the little things right, failing to produce efficient lanes for T.J. Yeldon and Chris Ivory (not that they would have used them anyway). However, there is reason to be optimistic. He is, by definition, a power runner, so the Jaguars did add one of the best offensive tackles in the draft in Cam Robinson. I had him going pretty early in the first (did not think that only two OT’s would be taken in the first round, wow), but Jacksonville got a steal by taking him in the second. There is no reason to not believe that Robinson will help out in more ways than one for this rushing attack. Another reason to feel optimistic is because of Fournette’s schedule. He’ll face the weak run defenses of Indianapolis (twice), Cincinnati, Cleveland, and San Francisco. Yes, these were all bad defenses in 2016, and things could change this year, but it is still a good sign to see that he doesn’t have too daunting of a schedule.
And what about the rest of the class? Well, I really liked Dalvin Cook, but he slid in the draft, and now finds himself in Minnesota. I’m not very high on Cook heading into the year due to a terrible offensive line situation. Sure, they added Pat Elflein, but that doesn’t really fix anything, it’s like puting a band-aid on a gunshot wound. Sure, I still stand by my claim that Cook is better than McCaffrey and Fournette, but his excellent vision and speed will be for naught if he can’t get passed the line of scrimmage. Then, there is the mess that is Joe Mixon. Cincinnati again did not shy away to controversy once again, and now it seems like Mixon will be a strong candidate to take some workload away from the duo of Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard. I understand that Mixon is a talented runner, and that may very well be the case, however this is a fantasy situation in which we’ll have to monitor Marvin Lewis’ thoughts and conferences and see what happens after OTA’s and then during camp in July and August.
A sleeper I mentioned on the Razzcast that you guys should keep track of is Samaje Perine. Largely ignored because of his Oklahoma counterpart Mixon, but he has a chance to make a splash immediately in fantasy based on how well he impresses Washington in OTA’s and camp. Jay Gruden and Co. don’t really seem to be in love with any of their current backs, and have even said they’re willing to even give Keith Marshall a shot if he can have a good summer. The chance is there for the taking for Perine, and if he gets the starting job (or even the passing downs role), it’s a good enough O-Line where he can make an impact as a late-round flier in fantasy.
Elliot is Still The King
So there are some very good picks in this year’s draft when it comes to the running back position. Stars were added and solid role players were added that can push the stars to the next level were added as well. But none of these rookies will match the expected production (and the production we saw last year) from those backs at the top, specifically Ezekiel Elliot. When Elliot was drafted, many saw this as a bust pick waiting to happen. Lots of claims suggested that taking a running back at 4th overall was a huge error, and he would have to play like Barry Sanders for this pick to pay off. If you kept up with my content last spring, I merely suggested he would have to play better than Darren McFadden, which wasn’t that hard to do, and I think it’s safe to say he accomplished this goal. By the time Training camp rolled around last year, we all wanted a piece of Elliot in drafts and pretty high up in them too, but I can’t say the same for anyone in this year’s class. His upside (and floor for that matter) is still better than this year’s rookie class, and it isn’t even close. He is still playing behind the best offensive line in football, and he’ll face some great opponents in Denver, Green Bay, San Francisco and Washington (twice).
It doesn’t stop with Elliot either. I still want established guys like Le’Veon Bell, LeSean McCoy, David Johnson, Jordan Howard, and even down to a guy like Jay Ajayi before I would start considering McCaffrey or Fournette. Sure, things can happen between now and the start of the season, and if reports out of Charlotte indicate that McCaffrey will be a bell-cow, then I would have to change my opinions. But as of now, I want the established guys to fill my RB1 and RB2 roles on my teams come fall.
The Big Uglies
I think a crucial part of the NFL Draft that gets largely overlooked by the common fantasy player is how well a team improves their offensive line. I don’t need to tell you the importance of a solid offensive line and the impact it has on rushing production.
With the 20th pick, the Broncos needed to address their O-Line concerns, and they did just that with the selection of Garett Bolles from Utah. It’s interesting to see how the carries will be split by Devontae Booker and C.J. Anderson, but this pick definitely helps out their stock for 2017. It doesn’t solve everything for Denver, and I would still love to see someone take the lead (we’ll most likely figure out who the lead is by camp). But as of now, I would grade Anderson as a RB3 and Booker as a low-RB3, high RB4.
Again, I addressed it above, but I cannot understand for the life of me why Cam Robinson fell to the Jaguars in the second round. He’s a great prospect, and it benefits Fournette greatly. Great move by Coughlin and Co in the front office.
The Chargers also got a pretty good steal at the Guard spot in the second round with the selection of Forrest Lamp. L.A. (that sounds weird) didn’t have the worst O-Line in the NFL last year, but the addition is a very solid one, and you’ve got to like Melvin Gordon heading into the year now that Danny Woodhead is in Baltimore. Let’s hope his production in 2017 isn’t so TD-dependent like it was last year.
The Seahawks put a band-aid on a gunshot wound with their 2nd-round selection of Ethan Pocic from LSU. Sure, he’s a good enough prospect, but they didn’t do enough to fix their mess of an O-Line. Sure, they’ll get better as the unit gets healthy before the start of the year, but as of now, I really am not that interested in the trio of Rawls-Prosise-Lacy, as it doesn’t seem like any of these backs are the lead at the moment.
The Bills added another solid piece to their O-Line with Dion Dawkins at the 63rd overall pick to help out Shady. And to be honest, I really do believe that McCoy has the potential to be the best running back in fantasy, and as of now (I’ll have another rankings post out soon), he is my #1 back in fantasy. With a good O-Line, a lack of receiving weapons aside from Sammy Watkins, and Mike Gillislee, is it too crazy of an idea to think that based on workload alone, he can be the best? I don’t.
Other rookie linemen may pop up on our radar as we approach rookie mini-camp’s and OTA’s, but as of now, these are the most important selections that we need to know for our fantasy leagues. Oh, and Minnesota also put a band-aid on a gunshot wound too (I think I’ve exhausted that metaphor), but I addressed that above when dealing with Dalvin Cook.
Alright guys, you know the drill. If you have a question, comment, or issue with any talking points above, please do not hesitate to leave a comment below. And I appreciate you guys for keeping me company. Stay tuned for an updated look at my Top 100. It’s shaping up to be a great summer.
Only 18 more weeks until the season starts. But until then, go read a book.
You Can Follow Me on Twitter @razzball_zach.