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 …
… 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.
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.
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.
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.
Projected 2017 Starter: David Johnson
Projected Backup: Elijah Hood (2017 rookie)
Projected 2017 Starter: Devonta Freeman
Projected Backup: Tevin Coleman
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.
Projected 2017 Starter: LeSean McCoy
Projected Backup: Mike Gillislee/Jonathan Williams
Projected 2017 Starter: Jonathan Stewart
Projected Backup: D’Onta Foreman (2017 rookie)
Projected 2017 Starter: Jordan Howard
Projected Backup: Jeremy Langford
Projected 2017 Starter: Leonard Fournette (2017 rookie)
Projected Backup: Jeremy Hill
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.
Projected 2017 Starter: Ezekiel Elliott
Projected 2017 Backup: Alfred Morris
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.
Projected 2017 Starter: Jamaal Charles
Projected Backup: Theo Riddick/Ameer Abdullah
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.
Projected 2017 Starter: Lamar Miller
Projected Backup: Jeremy McNichols (2017 rookie)
Projected 2017 Starter: Dalvin Cook (2017 rookie)
Projected Backup: Andre Ellington
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.
Projected 2017 Starter: Jay Ajayi
Projected Backup: Kenyan Drake
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Projected 2017 Starter: DeMarco Murray
Projected 2017 Backup: Derrick Henry
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.
- Kidding, of course, not even Dragonglass can kill Jeff Fisher. (back)
- 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)
- The Lions may be 8-4, but they still rank No. 26 in DVOA. (back)
- 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)