This article is part of our DRAFT NFL series.
This is the third edition of this series. I think I'll do one more before trying to summarize and call it a day. The general situation is that I'm drafting a lot of receivers in the first two rounds, so this entry will talk a lot about how I'm handling the running back position while often heading into the third round with none.
Click on the starting draft slot ranges listed below to get carried to the third round counterpart pick.
1. If Picks 1.12 and 2.01: Pick 3.12Potential previous picks: Odell Beckham, Julio Jones, Davante Adams, A.J. Green
Next targets:Adam Thielen, Derrick Henry, Derrius Guice, Jordan Howard, Rashaad Penny
If I'm stuck with the 12th pick and Kareem Hunt doesn't make a surprise tumble to that slot, I'm almost certainly heading into the third round with no running backs. That just about compels me to take at least one running back when the third/fourth-round turn comes up for my next two picks.
Derrick Henry often doesn't make it to the 3.12 slot, but if he does he's an easy pick for me in this scenario. Even if you're a Henry skeptic – which I certainly am not – the turn of the third and fourth rounds is late enough that you should concede that the risk is more than sufficiently factored into his price. While I can admit he has some red flags, namely the fact that he's unlikely to do much as a pass catcher, I remain higher on Henry than most. Dion Lewis' presence raises the reasonable fear that Henry's dependence on running production might make him vulnerable to game script, making him a dud in games where Tennessee falls behind. I admit this is a rational fear, but some similar concern applies to any running back on the board in this range, and I otherwise find it unreasonable when people suggest that Henry will also rank behind Lewis as a runner.
Lewis had a nice half-season run with the Patriots after Mike Gillislee burned out and Rex Burkhead got hurt, but Lewis has never produced as a lead runner for a full season and his success to this point has generally occurred in limited exposures. I think this is very obviously a split workload, with Lewis holding a disproportionate share of passing work while Henry holds a disproportionate share of the rushing work, including a near monopoly on short-yardage carries. Henry is point blank the better overall runner between these two players. He's actually faster than Lewis at 50 pounds heavier, and there's of course no power comparison.
My optimism with Henry is otherwise driven by my high expectations for the Tennessee offense as a whole. Indeed, I'm a fan of both Henry and Lewis this year because I expect the Titans to contend for the league lead in rushing production. The Titans should take on an uptempo approach with Matt LaFleur replacing Mike Mularkey, and the new big-play upside is huge thanks to increased tempo, RPOs, and motion. With Marcus Mariota's safety-splitting and contain-breaking speed widening the gaps, I expect Henry and Lewis both to enjoy strong per-carry production, and I think Henry will be among the league leaders for rushing touchdowns and runs of 20 or more yards.
I doubt my pro-Rashaad Penny opinions need any elaboration given that I was howling about him even during the winter, but it's safe to say I'm among those who think Chris Carson poses little or no threat to Penny's workload. Carson couldn't earn a starting role at Oklahoma State, muted by a 180-pound freshman running back at the time, whereas Penny – who is bigger and much faster than Carson – ran for more than 200 yards in six of his 13 games last year. That the Seahawks selected Penny in the first round gives reason to think they'll give him about as much work as he can handle, and at the price he goes for I'm willing to overlook the distinctly nauseating fact that Brian Schottenheimer conned his way into this offensive coordinator job.
2. If Picks (1.10 or 1.11) and (2.02 or 2.03): Picks 3.10 or 3.11Potential previous picks: DeAndre Hopkins, Odell Beckham, Kareem Hunt, Julio Jones, Davante Adams, A.J. Green
Next targets:Joe Mixon, Adam Thielen, Derrick Henry, Derrius Guice, Jordan Howard
As you can see from the targets named, I'm likely to end up with the same sorts of players at 3.12 in addition to 3.10 and 3.11. While the player list is basically the same, I'll use this additional space to elaborate on my thoughts regarding Joe Mixon and Derrius Guice.
Based on my previous pick patterns, I'm unlikely to get Mixon as an RB2. So long as my prior two wide receiver picks hit, I'm okay with that. I think Mixon has legitimate RB1 upside this year, and with Jeremy Hill out of the picture it should be easier for Mixon to find a rhythm. More importantly than Hill's exit is the arrival of Cordy Glenn at left tackle and rookie first-round pick Billy Price at center, giving Cincinnati some hope that its horrific offensive line from 2017 remains just a memory.
As bad as Mixon's rookie season went – and 3.5 yards per carry is indeed bad – he was better in the season's second half and showed standout pass-catching upside the entire year. The offensive line should improve, and Mixon should play at a higher speed on his own behalf with some experience against NFL alignments. I don't see a meaningful projection difference between Mixon and the likes of Leonard Fournette and Melvin Gordon, let alone Dalvin Cook and Jerick McKinnon. I expect Mixon to approach 210 carries and at least 40 receptions if he stays healthy this year, and in the group of previously mentioned runners going ahead of Mixon, only Cook offers clearly superior per-touch efficiency (though I'm not as confident about the workload in Cook's case).
As my third-favorite running back in the next target category, Guice is another player I'm drafting many shares of near the turn of the third and fourth rounds. I admittedly got the Washington backfield wrong last year – I thought Samaje Perine would push aside Rob Kelley early in the year – yet Kelley didn't let go and Perine turned out to be more Shonn Greene than Stephen Davis. So I don't blame you if you ignore me when I say: Trust me, Guice is different.
Kelley and Perine will pose no resistance here. My reason for liking Perine late last year was because of how inferior of a runner Kelley is, yet Perine wasn't good enough himself to provide a contrast obvious to his coaches. There is no such concern with Guice, who possesses obvious All-Pro raw talent. I keep saying it: Guice is another Corey Dillon or Fred Taylor. Backs over 220 pounds are not supposed to be this explosive. Kelley and Perine combined for over 230 carries last year, and I consider almost all of that Guice's to lose.
Chris Thompson is an overstated threat as well – Washington had always aimed to limit Thompson's workloads, but poor production at running back and receiver both left Washington desperate, and they begrudgingly upped Thompson's workload in response. Then he broke his leg. Expect Thompson's production to look more like his 2016 season, when he totaled 68 carries in 16 games in contrast to the 64 carries in just 10 games from last year. Washington's fear with Thompson came true – why would they tempt it again?
3. If Picks (1.07 thru 1.09) and (2.04 thru 2.06): Picks 3.07 thru 3.09Potential previous picks: Antonio Brown, Alvin Kamara, Saquon Barkley, DeAndre Hopkins, Odell Beckham, Davante Adams, A.J. Green, Doug Baldwin
Next targets:Devonta Freeman, Joe Mixon, Adam Thielen, Derrick Henry
I'd be surprised to see Devonta Freeman on the board in the mid-third, but if he is I'd be thrilled to select him. Freeman is a guy I neither target nor avoid specifically, but I don't have many shares because I usually just like some other player more. He's someone I'd like to add a few shares of before we go live. With that said, I'm more realistically leaving the third round with one of Mixon, Henry, Guice, or Howard.
4. If Picks (1.03 thru 1.06) and (2.07 thru 2.10): Picks 3.03 thru 3.06Potential previous picks:Antonio Brown, Ezekiel Elliott, David Johnson, Alvin Kamara, Saquon Barkley, Doug Baldwin, Rob Gronkowski, Keenan Allen, Michael Thomas, Travis Kelce
Next targets:LeSean McCoy, Devonta Freeman, Joe Mixon, Adam Thielen
I hate writing about LeSean McCoy these days because it's downright depressing to see such talent go to waste. McCoy is great, not good, but I'm utterly convinced in the ability (maybe even the intention!) of the Bills to ruin everything. It was bad enough that they voluntarily assembled a quarterback rotation of Nathan Peterman, A.J. McCarron, and Josh Allen, but they also decided to ship out left tackle Cordy Glenn for some reason, even with the insane but otherwise serviceable Richie Incognito retiring. Despite all these concerns, I'm willing to draft McCoy if he falls to this range. For better or worse, he very rarely does.
5. If (Pick 1.01 or 1.02) and (2.11 or 2.12): Picks 3.01 or 3.02Potential previous picks:Todd Gurley, Le'Veon Bell, Doug Baldwin, Rob Gronkowski, Keenan Allen, Michael Thomas
Next targets:Jerick McKinnon, LeSean McCoy, Devonta Freeman, Joe Mixon, Adam Thielen
People are often mad at me for myriad reasons, but lately the easiest nerve to set off is sensitivity toward Jerick McKinnon, the advocates of whom apparently evaluate as a top-20 sort of fantasy pick heading into 2018. Even the mildest expression of skepticism or merely concern can provoke a horde of recently graduated experts on the NFL salary cap, propelled by the premise that contract numbers dictate usage. This is not a subtweet toward my colleague Jerry Donabedian, who is higher on McKinnon than me but probably still something of a skeptic himself relative to the full spectrum. But there are at least two people who were provoked to the point of calling me a moron just because I squirmed at the idea of McKinnon's infallibility.
What's so stupid about this is I like McKinnon! I think he's an interesting player in one of my five favorite NFL offenses! I just don't feel like picking him before the third round, especially outside of PPR formats.
That McKinnon was awarded a "four-year, $30 million" contract (good for him, by the way!) does not fully ease my concern over the fact that McKinnon would have been Minnesota's No. 3 running back last year if Dalvin Cook hadn't torn his ACL. I'm especially uneasy about the fact that Latavius Murray, an easily replaced running back, was the other runner ahead of McKinnon. Does the fact that an ostensible big-play back like McKinnon has just nine carries of more than 20 yards in 474 attempts make me feel better? It does not. Nor does his career average of 4.0 yards per carry – 3.7 the last two years.
I have full confidence that Kyle Shanahan will put McKinnon in better position to succeed than his Minnesota coaches did, but my greatest concern is basically that McKinnon will be vulnerable to workload vultures if he experiences as many cold stretches as he did with the Vikings. I don't think McKinnon's contract, which is actually a one- or two-year deal worth a trivial percentage of San Francisco's flush salary cap space, would make him immune to accountability in this scenario. That's particularly true because the theoretical positives of McKinnon – the speed, quickness, pass-catching skills – are traits also held by Matt Breida and Jeremy McNichols. Then there's Joe Williams, who I don't think is any good but was enough of a pet favorite of Shanahan last year that the 49ers selected him in the fourth round.
Just because Shanahan likes McKinnon doesn't mean he hates the other San Francisco running backs, in other words, and that short-term contract isn't going to make Shanahan any more eager to eat a series of three-and-outs if McKinnon provides as many as he did to the Vikings.
WITH ALL THAT SAID, I do like McKinnon again when I don't have to pay a top-20 pick to get him. It seems generally unlikely that he will, but if McKinnon falls into the third round I'll start aiming for some shares. If he doesn't fall that far, I'm willing to test my luck with none.