Back in my days of heavier offseason blogging one of my favorite topics to discuss was always ranking keepers by position. In recent seasons, I’ve often referred to my favorite home league during the fall, a Simpsons-themed keeper league that is entering its 10th season. It’s the first keeper league I joined and the format we use for it, which puts no restrictions on how long someone can be kept or costs a draft pick for the kept player, quickly made me become obsessed with finding ascending talent.
Sadly, I’ve missed out on many of the players I’ll rank here, but for anyone starting up a new keeper league or debating between two top-notch RB’s to keep, this is for you. As I have in years past, when splitting hairs between the best keepers I look at ability/skill traits first and foremost, recent production, team circumstances and, lastly, a player’s age at the start of the season. I then consider them within a three-year window that I hope to own that player.
Before we look at my top keeper running backs for 2017, however, we need a proper segue. That little preamble doesn’t set the stage adequately. This topic is perhaps the most critical piece of preseason content I will contribute to the fantasy landfills of prognostication, and easily one of the things I’m most excited to discuss. You see, it’s not just that I go gaga for young talent the way Tommy Boy did for a sale (btw talk about a special young talent; R.I.P. Chris Farley). What has me so ridiculously, off the charts, eye-twitchingly anxious for preseason action to start is the best class of rookie running backs to hit the league since Max Power fantasy football kicked off in 2008 (yes, Max Power was Homer’s alias in “Homer to the Max,” season 10, episode 13). And, incidentally, 2008 was the last epically gifted class of tailbacks. Go figure.
That 2008 crop featured an insane 11 future 1,000-yard rushers (including the undrafted BenJarvus Green-Ellis) and some elite fantasy producers. In Max Power’s inaugural draft I snatched up Ray Rice and Jonathan Stewart and after re-drafting him in 2009, I ended up being the only person to ever own Rice. Other studs from that class included Jamaal Charles, Matt Forte and Chris Johnson, while Darren McFadden, Rashard Mendenhall, Steve Slaton, Kevin Smith, Felix Jones, Tim Hightower and Justin Forsett all had their moments as well. Heck, even Peyton Hillis was in that class.
And you know what? I think 2017 will easily rival this group.
So with that bold statement on record, I want to give a brief overview into the stacked rookie running back class that should weigh very heavily on keeper draft decisions. Let’s take a look at my top-10 rookie rushers and some other names to know before getting to the list I’m sure you’re now dying to see.
- Joe Mixon, CIN
– The Le’Veon Bell traits that Mixon displays are uncanny and it should take one training camp for the rookie to unseat Jeremy Hill as the lead back. If you take away Hill’s three longest runs from the last two seasons he’s averaged a pitiful 3.3 YPC on his other 442 attempts. He’s fine at the goal line but his awful vision is a major liability. All the things that Hill and Giovani Bernard do well, Mixon does MUCH better. He’s an elite talent and future workhorse.
- Leonard Fournette, JAC
– If his vision and receiving ability were on par with Mixon’s the top spot would belong to Fournette. Those attributes will add up to multiple seasons over 2,000 scrimmage yards for Mixon, but it’s difficult to see Fournette having any. Nevertheless, he’s a runaway train with the upside of a 10,000-yard, 80-plus touchdown career on the ground alone.
- Dalvin Cook, MIN
– The shiftiest, niftiest back in this class (save Tarik Cohen, who can’t handle triple-digit carries), Cook has a chance to be special and is perhaps the biggest threat to Mixon for next top NFL yardage machine.
- Samaje Perine, WAS
– It’s wildly overlooked that Perine became the all-time rushing leader at Oklahoma in three years while sharing the backfield with Mixon for two. An absolute bulldozer with quality vision, exceptional contact balance and teeth rattling power, he’ll be a perennial source of double-digit scores and consistent ground yardage behind a very good offensive line.
- Christian McCaffrey, CAR
– McCaffrey’s volume could be a problem, but despite his size he has the chance to be a defensive coordinator’s worst nightmare in the mold of a poor man’s Jamaal Charles or LeSean McCoy. A weak offensive line and inaccurate quarterback could be issues for him early on, however.
- Joe Williams, SF
– Williams is the perfect fit for a Kyle Shanahan offense, and the fact that San Fran’s new coach specifically prompted GM John Lynch to draft him speaks volumes. After piling up an eye-popping 1,332 yards on 188 carries in his final seven collegiate games, the patient, one-cut and disappear runner will be an immediate threat to Carlos Hyde’s job.
- Aaron Jones, GB
– Jones reminds me of Devonta Freeman. Similar build, great at seeing creases before they develop, terrific feet to change directions on a dime, and most of all, elite receiving skills out of the backfield. Jamaal Williams may have been drafted higher, but Jones is the more complete talent. If Ty Montgomery goes down or struggles, don’t expect a major timeshare.
- Kareem Hunt, KC
– A great landing spot for Hunt, he should quickly leapfrog Charcandrick West as the primary backup to Spencer Ware. In an Andy Reid offense that leans on its ground game, Hunt’s blend of patience, burst and balance could make him a fantasy darling if Ware’s violent running style sidelines him.
- Marlon Mack, IND
– Mack corners like a sports car and slithers like a snake at the second level. He’s nowhere near as good between the tackles – mostly because he bounces everything outside – but his running style is awfully similar to C.J. Prosise. Once the tank finally hits empty on Frank Gore, this slippery burner could be the No. 1 in an Andrew Luck offense.
- Jeremy McNichols, TB
– Two very talented tailbacks are ahead of McNichols, but neither Doug Martin nor Charles Sims has a very good track record of staying healthy. Given Martin’s recent off-field issues and high salary, another season of struggle could see him out of town with free-agent-to-be Sims in tow. Like Jones in Green Bay, McNichols boasts a similar skill set to Freeman. Watch out if this is his backfield in 2017.
Other names to know:
- Alvin Kamara, NO
- Jamaal Williams, GB
- D’Onta Foreman, HOU
- James Conner, PIT
- Wayne Gallman, NYG
And don’t be surprised if the likes of Tarik Cohen, Devante Mays, Elijah Hood, Elijah McGuire and Brian Hill are fantasy relevant sooner rather than later.
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Okay, now that I’ve scratched that itch, we can get to the real list:
- Ezekiel Elliott, DAL (6-0, 225 ; age 22)
– The offensive line receives a lot of credit, but the fact is there are few better marriages in the league than the combo of Dallas’ elite blocking and Elliott’s nearly unparalleled blend of vision, burst and tenacity as a ball carrier. As well blocked as many of his runs were, Elliott routinely churned out extra yardage using a mix of creativity and ferocity to finish runs going forward. His ceiling may be interchangeable with the next five or so names on this list, but no one can match Elliott’s penthouse floor – as evidenced by 1,994 scrimmage yards and 16 touchdowns as a rookie at a robust 5.1 YPC.
- Le’Veon Bell, PIT (6-1, 225 ; age 25)
– Bell is averaging an astonishing 139.2 scrimmage yards per game since 2014 (counting the playoffs) and only David Johnson and Freeman are comparable talents as dual-threat runners and receivers. Bell bests those two studs for fantasy, however, given the better surrounding talent than Johnson and the lack of competition versus Freeman, who has to fight with Tevin Coleman for touches. Bell is one of the league’s craftiest runners, in one of the five best offenses, behind one of the five best lines and with no serious competition. Barring health – which is a legitimate concern given his injury history – he’ll be a fixture in the top three for a while.
- David Johnson, AZ (6-1, 224 ; age 25)
– Johnson is arguably the most indispensable individual non-quarterback on any offense. And sadly that’s the major issue for his fantasy prospects beyond this year. Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald could both be gone next season and there are zero succession plans for an offense that will suffer greatly without them. Although Johnson is an elite talent, even he is bound to have trouble consistently beating loaded boxes – see his pedestrian 4.2 YPC last year. With an average offensive line and the surrounding skill talent set to take an enormous hit, his touchdown opportunities (the monster has 33 in 32 career games) will be decreasing in the years to come.
- Joe Mixon, CIN (6-1, 226 ; age 21)
– Right now, before having ever played an NFL snap, there are precisely two runners that match Mixon’s unusual combination of vision, size, burst, fluidity and receiving ability. Hill’s often abysmal efficiency and Bernard’s inability to stay healthy or produce between the tackles has the door wide open to Mixon assuming a huge workload from Day 1 and delivering the second coming of Bell.
- Melvin Gordon, LAC (6-1, 215 ; age 24)
– Before getting hurt after three carries in Week 14 last year Gordon averaged 117.6 scrimmage yards and one touchdown per game. Then instead of bringing in depth or re-signing Danny Woodhead the Chargers drafted a monstrous wide receiver in the first 10 picks of the draft and offensive guards with their next two picks, one of whom – Forrest Lamp – could be the next Zack Martin. Gordon has an awesome blend of size and explosiveness to go with soft hands, premier body control and an exuberance that pushes him to compete for every inch. He’s the centerpiece of what could be an elite offense and has no legitimate competition for touches. His remaining time with Philip Rivers is going to equate to a ton of production.
- Leonard Fournette, JAC (6-1, 235 ; age 22)
– Fournette was a man among boys in the SEC with a powerful, angry running style that left many jaws dropped and defenders in his wake. Primed to be among the top five in carries as a rookie, he’s going to quickly come to define the term “workhorse” at the next level. The question marks for Fournette will come down to his productivity as a receiver and his ability to stay healthy given such a punishing running style. Still, he’s a transcendent physical specimen whose ability to hit top gear in a hurry, bury would-be tacklers in the dirt (or field turf) and wear down defenses should translate into a string of 1,000-plus yard, 10-plus score seasons.
- Jordan Howard, CHI (6-0, 222 ; age 22)
– Howard boasts great size and good power, but what truly distinguishes him as an upper echelon talent and what favors him building off a huge rookie year is his superb vision. With limited speed and moderate lateral agility, Howard is never going to be an explosive homerun hitter, but he knows how to follow his blocks and he gets to play behind arguably the most underrated interior offensive line in the league, led by guard Kyle Long and center Cody Whitehair. As long as they’re paving the way and Howard continues improving as a pass catcher, big time yardage will follow, not to mention the upside for double-digit scoring plunges.
- Devonta Freeman, ATL (5-8, 206 ; age 25)
– In his last 33 games (including the postseason), Freeman has piled up 3,463 scrimmage yards and 30 touchdowns on 654 touches for an average of 5.3 yards per touch and nearly a score per contest. In the 27 games his talented teammate, Tevin Coleman, has played during that same stretch, he’s tallied just 1,445 total yards on 254 touches while never getting even 15 carries in a game Freeman started and finished. With arguably the best vision in the league to spot creases and the “genius ankles” like “Steamin” Willie Beamen in Any Given Sunday to make sharp cuts to and through the hole and make defenders look silly on the second level, Freeman is going to continue piling up numbers in one of the league’s top offenses.
- Dalvin Cook, MIN (5-10, 213 ; age 22)
– Two names oft-mentioned as comparisons to Cook leading up to the NFL Draft were Jamaal Charles and Marshall Faulk, two of the most electric runners of the last 25 years. Though such lofty comps may be a bit premature, they’re not without merit. Cook has the smooth feet and body-lean that Faulk utilized to find lanes and weave through traffic like a rock caught in a stream. And like Charles, the all-time leading rusher at Florida State has the acceleration and long-speed to score from anywhere. His ability as a receiver will help him get on the field early, and with an improved o-line in Minnesota and only the workman-like grinder Latavius Murray to fight with for touches, Cook is poised to chase Faulk’s and Charles’ elite numbers.
- Isaiah Crowell, CLE (5-11, 225 ; age 24)
– Still only 24 years old, Crowell is coming off a career best 1,271 scrimmage yards on 238 touches in his first year learning Hue Jackson’s offense. He averaged a very healthy 4.8 YPC by utilizing his good vision, deceptive burst and physicality to his advantage (and did so for a Browns team that won one game, mind you). With Cleveland adding Kevin Zeitler and J.C. Tretter in free agency and re-signing Joel Bitonio, their offense will boast one of the top interior offensive lines in the league to go with future Hall-of-Fame left tackle Joe Thomas. Supported by top-notch blocking and one of the best offensive minds in the game on the sidelines, Crowell – who has not missed a game in his three-year career – is primed to put the dog back in the “Dawg Pound.”
Toughest to keep off the list:
- Jay Ajayi, MIA
- Samaje Perine, WAS
- Todd Gurley, LAR
- LeSean McCoy, BUF
- Lamar Miller, HOU
For any comments, mockery or questions, tweet at me: @Hoover_L_A