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Projecting All 32 NFL Backfields for 2017

It’s never too early to start planning for 2017, and a big part of that is knowing which running backs to target and which to sell as the offseason approaches. While such a quixotic endeavor is sure to miss on many projections, it’s an exercise that allows me to get a feel for both free agency and the coming NFL draft.

For more information on free agency, make sure to follow Charles Kleinheksel’s Free Agency Preview Series.

2017 is billed as one of the deepest RB drafts in recent memory. We could see almost twice as many first- and second-round picks as usual, or we could see quality runners fall deep into the draft as GMs jockey to hit the last guy in their elite tier.

We can certainly expect teams to forget the Trent Richardson and Todd Gurley picks that got their coaches and GMs fired1 and attempt to emulate the Ezekiel Elliott pick. We’ll start by looking at some of the possibilities for three superstars who might land in Round 1.

 Which Team Will Follow the Dallas Blueprint?

Andy Dalton is not a superstar at the quarterback position, but he’s a solid upper-echelon starter. With A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert, the Bengals have plenty of front line firepower in the passing game. Their defense is likely to bounce back in 2017, but the thunder-and-lightning duo in the backfield has been noticeably lacking in either boom or flash this season. With Giovani Bernard’s recovery from an ACL injury uncertain and Jeremy Hill running in mud …

hill-bernard-splits

… you could see how much a Leonard Fournette pick might appeal.

A mild bounceback is likely from the Bengals incumbents, but Elliott’s success this season could prove too much of a siren song, especially when you consider that Fournette is considered by many to be a far superior prospect.

Will Ryan Grigson Continue to Manage the Colts Like a Fantasy Team?

Grigson is relentlessly mocked for his obsession with surrounding Andrew Luck with weapons and his simultaneous inability to do it. He’s failed in a wide variety of ways, missing on Coby Fleener and Phillip Dorsett in the draft, wiffing on Andre Johnson in free agency, and wasting a first-round pick on the Trent Richardson trade. Even his solid moves have succeeded in only stopgap fashion. Current starter Frank Gore has been a slightly below average player the last two years, and while his 2017 salary isn’t untenable, it’s also not guaranteed.

gore-splits

While Fournette is already getting the Bo Jackson and Adrian Peterson treatment, draft followers aren’t even unanimous in declaring him the top back in this class. Dalvin Cook shattered records at Florida State, rushing for over 4,300 yards, scoring 47 TDs, and catching 76 passes. He’s so explosive that he averaged more career yards per catch than All-American receiver Zay Jones.

Sure, the Colts need help just about everywhere, but the narrative that Elliott is helping the Dallas defense could provide the cover Grigson needs to pull the trigger here.

Which Team Won’t Be Able to Resist Christian McCaffrey?

While I’ve made the case that Jamaal Charles’ $7 million salary is very favorable for a player of his ilk, age and repeated knee surgeries may make Kansas City leery of paying it.2 Unlike that of runners like Matt Forte and Jonathan Stewart, it isn’t guaranteed.

At the same time, I continue to see bad news for Spencer Ware owners. Ware has been a life-saver this season, but he’s a far cry from Charles.

ware-charles-splits

Of course, no one is Charles. The bigger concern is Ware’s usage as a receiver. Andy Reid had a pass-happy reputation in Philadelphia, but the truth was that a large portion of the “pass-happy” element was merely getting his RBs high-value touches. We can see that by looking at the expected receiving points (reEP) of his past studs.

reid-rb-splits

Part of the drag on Ware’s usage in the receiving game has come in the form of gadget man extraordinaire Tyreek Hill, but Reid would almost certainly like to use his RB more often. Moreover, Kansas City has gotten nothing from Charcandrick West and Knile Davis this year. If they don’t select McCaffrey, a back like Alvin Kamara would be in play later.

A Look at All 32 Backfields

Keep in mind that I’m trying to get an idea of what teams might do, an exercise that helps me evaluate which backs have the most fragile value and what would need to happen for rookies to be worth the exorbitant prices likely to be paid this summer. I used Over the Cap in drawing contract conclusions.

Arizona Cardinals

Projected 2017 Starter: David Johnson

Projected Backup: Elijah Hood (2017 rookie)

Atlanta Falcons

Projected 2017 Starter: Devonta Freeman

Projected Backup: Tevin Coleman

Baltimore Ravens

Projected 2017 Starter: Kenneth Dixon

Projected Backup: Terrance West

Comments: The Ravens are a stealth candidate to select one of the star backs, but Ozzie Newsome has traditionally built in the trenches and probably wants to see what he has in a healthy Dixon.

Buffalo Bills

Projected 2017 Starter: LeSean McCoy

Projected Backup: Mike Gillislee/Jonathan Williams

Carolina Panthers

Projected 2017 Starter: Jonathan Stewart

Projected Backup: D’Onta Foreman (2017 rookie)

Chicago Bears

Projected 2017 Starter: Jordan Howard

Projected Backup: Jeremy Langford

Cincinnati Bengals

Projected 2017 Starter: Leonard Fournette (2017 rookie)

Projected Backup: Jeremy Hill

Cleveland Browns

Projected 2017 Starter: Isaiah Crowell

Projected Backup: Duke Johnson

Comments: Crowell and Johnson have been competent if uninspiring in 2016, and a team with such a heavy emphasis on analytics – and so, so many needs – will likely choose to re-sign RFA Crowell rather than using an early pick at the position.

Dallas Cowboys

Projected 2017 Starter: Ezekiel Elliott

Projected 2017 Backup: Alfred Morris

Denver Broncos

Projected 2017 Starter: Joe Mixon (2017 rookie)

Projected 2017 Backup: C.J. Anderson

Commentary: The Anderson-Devontae Booker duo would probably be enough with strong QB play, but Denver will likely find it easier to surround their signal-caller with weapons than to upgrade the game’s most important position. The Broncos could get away from Anderson’s $3 million contract without difficulty, but Booker’s struggles will likely save his roster spot. Mixon should benefit from the Tyreek Effect.

Detroit Lions

Projected 2017 Starter: Jamaal Charles

Projected Backup: Theo Riddick/Ameer Abdullah

Comments: Neil Dutton suggested Charles to the Lions, and it would be a perfect fit on paper, addressing the RB position while saving picks to attack their myriad weaknesses.3

Green Bay Packers

Projected 2017 Starter: Nick Chubb (2017 rookie)

Projected 2017 Backup: Danny Woodhead

Comments: Wildly overrated when healthy and rarely healthy, UFA Eddie Lacy is likely done in Green Bay. Evaluators are all over the map on Chubb, but he could be the biggest steal of this class if the presence of other stars pushes him down the board.

Houston Texans

Projected 2017 Starter: Lamar Miller

Projected Backup: Jeremy McNichols (2017 rookie)

Indianapolis Colts

Projected 2017 Starter: Dalvin Cook (2017 rookie)

Projected Backup: Andre Ellington

Jacksonville Jaguars

Projected 2017 Starter: Chris Ivory

Projected Backup: Brian Hill (2017 rookie)

Comments: T.J. Yeldon lacks NFL talent and Ivory lacks NFL health, but the woebegone Jags are tied to these backs due to Ivory’s potential dead money and Yeldon’s embarrassing draft slot. A middle-round pick of someone like Hill is probably their best bet to remake the backfield in the short term.

Kansas City Chiefs

Projected 2017 Starter: Christian McCaffrey (2017 rookie)

Projected 2017 Backup: Spencer Ware

Los Angeles Rams

Projected 2017 Starter: Todd Gurley

Projected Backup: Darren McFadden

Comments: Benny Cunningham is a free agent, and it could be difficult to find a quality back to play behind Gurley.

Miami Dolphins

Projected 2017 Starter: Jay Ajayi

Projected Backup: Kenyan Drake

Minnesota Vikings

Projected 2017 Starter: Royce Freeman (2017 rookie)

Projected Backup: Jerick McKinnon

Comments: Adrian Peterson’s $18 million contract isn’t realistic and isn’t guaranteed. A renegotiation is always possible and made the more likely by a 2016 run campaign that has been both historically bad and very limiting for the Vikings offense. Of course, Peterson’s injury illustrates the risk of tying up so much money in an old, injury-prone back.

Two years ago the hype around Gurley, Melvin Gordon, and Ajayi was deafening. While all three have shown flashes of brilliance, David Johnson is now the king of NFL runners. Freeman could be that guy two years from now.4

New England Patriots

Projected 2017 Starter: Dion Lewis

Projected Backup: James White/LeGarrette Blount

Comments: Blount isn’t under contract for 2017, but the Patriots will likely re-sign him or a veteran like Frank Gore if he’s released.

New Orleans Saints

Projected 2017 Starter: Mark Ingram

Projected 2017 Backup: Tim Hightower/Daniel Lasco

Comments: Hightower should return to an elite handcuff situation unless his free agent market is more robust than expected.

New York Giants

Projected 2017 Starter: Paul Perkins

Projected Backup: Rashad Jennings/Shane Vereen

Comments: This is a weird one with Jennings and Vereen both under contract and both offering some value in their roles … and yet not representing so much value or dead money that the team couldn’t go in a different direction if they desired. Add in the intriguing Perkins, and I’m projecting the Giants to address their other weaknesses early in the draft.

New York Jets

Projected 2017 Starter: Matt Forte

Projected Backup: Bilal Powell

Comments: Forte and Powell haven’t been part of the problem in 2016, but they’re also not part of the long-term solution. Fans hoping for new blood may have to wait out their contracts. The Jets are almost as bad at cap management as they are at selecting QBs.

Oakland Raiders

Projected 2017 Starter: Adrian Peterson

Projected Backup: Jalen Richard

Comments: Purple Jesus running behind arguably the NFL’s second-best line? Peterson needs to find the perfect situation to take one more shot at history.

Philadelphia Eagles

Projected 2017 Starter: Wayne Gallman (2017 rookie)

Projected Backup: Wendell Smallwood

Comments: Doug Pederson has viewed Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles as a bridge to young foundation players who could grow up with Carson Wentz.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Projected 2017 Starter: Le’Veon Bell

Projected 2017 Backup: Alvin Kamara (2017 rookie)

Comments: Bell is a prime candidate for the franchise tag, and the Steelers might choose to hedge a little in the draft with DeAngelo Williams also a good bet to depart.

San Diego Chargers

Projected 2017 Starter: Melvin Gordon

Projected 2017 Backup: Kareem Hunt (2017 rookie)

Comments: Gordon hasn’t returned as much receiving value as Woodhead at his best, but he’s been impressive nonetheless. An aging FA, Woodhead should move on.

gordon-woodhead-splits

Seattle Seahawks

Projected 2017 Starter: C.J. Prosise

Projected 2017 Backup: Thomas Rawls

San Francisco 49ers

Projected 2017 Starter: Carlos Hyde

Projected 2017 Backup: Corey Clement (2017 rookie)

Comments: Hyde is a bigger name than talent and this entire organization could look different this summer, but I’m currently guessing they’ll stay the course.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Projected 2017 Starter: Doug Martin

Projected Backup: Charles Sims

Tennessee Titans

Projected 2017 Starter: DeMarco Murray

Projected 2017 Backup: Derrick Henry

Washington

Projected 2017 Starter: Latavius Murray

Projected Backup: Chris Thompson/Rob Kelley

Comments: Washington is a trendy location for a 2017 first-rounder, but Scot McCloughlan appears smitten with Kelley’s hard-charging style. I expect him to follow his San Francisco blueprint as he attempts to build a monster in the trenches. Murray’s size/speed profile would be a great fit, but Washington could also just stick with what they have. They should retain RFA Chris Thompson.

Where Did the Rookies Land?

Leonard Fournette (Round 1) – Cincinnati

Dalvin Cook (Round 1) – Indianapolis

Christian McCaffrey (Round 1) – Kansas City

D’Onta Foreman (Round 2) – Carolina

Royce Freeman (Round 2) – Minnesota

Nick Chubb (Round 2) – Green Bay

Joe Mixon (Round 2) – Denver

Wayne Gallman (Round 3/4) – Philadelphia

Jeremy McNichols (Round 3/4) – Houston

Alvin Kamara (Round 3/4) – Pittsburgh

Brian Hill (Round 4/5) – Jacksonville

Kareem Hunt (Round 5) – San Diego

Elijah Hood (Round 5) – Arizona

Corey Clement (Round 5) – San Francisco

I tried to find good fits for the rookies. It doesn’t help fantasy owners to have DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry on the same team, and it rarely benefits a reality team to use scarce resources at RB if they already have the position addressed. Of course, we know some veterans and rookies alike will end up in bad situations.

I recently added the 2017 rookies to my Dynasty Top 100. Let me know if you think these landing spots would support those rankings. Which scenarios do you find the most and least realistic? We’ll have a lot more on these topics as the offseason soon begins in earnest. If you’re competing for a championship in 2016 and need RB intel for the weekend, make sure to check out this week’s RB Watch List.

  1. Kidding, of course, not even Dragonglass can kill Jeff Fisher.  (back)
  2. The Chiefs have a fairly bleak cap situation, and while that can be misleading with so many offseason moves in the offing, it provides further incentive to release Charles if they don’t feel comfortable with his medical situation.  (back)
  3. The Lions may be 8-4, but they still rank No. 26 in DVOA.  (back)
  4. Of course, the odds that any specific back becomes David Johnson are low, but Freeman is a 230-pound back with plus agility who has prolific rushing numbers to go with 348 receiving yards in 2015.  (back)

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