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Rookie Running Backs with Receiving Upside: Redraft Strategy for the Passing Revolution, Part 4

Welcome to my NFL Passing Revolution series, where I examine how the NFL’s shift towards efficient pass-heavy offenses has affected the landscape of fantasy football.

In Parts 2 and 3, I examined modern archetypes for fantasy RB1s, RB2s and RB3s. That analysis revealed that fantasy RB1s and RB3s share similar rushing vs. receiving splits but obvious differences in overall opportunity and production. RB2s, on the other hand, look very different than either of the other fantasy groups. Modern PPR RB2s boast high rushing usage but poor overall receiving upside.

So, to close out our discussion on the running back position, I’d like to highlight rookie running backs who demonstrated above-average receiving aptitude in college and discuss each player’s team fit.

Be sure to check out this series’ previous installments:

Can We Predict Rookie RB Success Based on College Performance?

Predicting which college athletes will project into NFL stars is no easy task. If it were, NFL franchises would rarely miss on early-round draft picks. So, we cannot simply examine raw college statistics, rank order players accordingly, and project NFL usage from that alone. At best, what we can do is to analyze which college statistics correlate strongest with NFL performance and make some informed guesses.

So, I performed that kind of correlational analysis for all running backs who have entered the NFL since 2010 (when the “passing revolution” began in earnest). I analyzed all players drafted in 2010 or later who played the running back position at an FBS school in college and were drafted as a running back by their NFL team. These players must also have played in at least one game during their rookie season and contributed at least one offensive statistic.

These conditions produced a few notable exclusions from our analysis, namely: Tarik Cohen, David Johnson, Chase Edmonds, De’Angelo Henderson, Jerick McKinnon, Terrance West, Khiry Robinson, Travaris Cadet and Trenton Cannon — all of whom came from FCS colleges. Our resultant college running back population after these exclusions is 240 total players, including undrafted free agents.

Which College Stats Matter Most?

Then, I ran Pearson’s correlation for the entire remaining running back population for every college statistic at my disposal. I examined raw statistics, per-game statistics, per-touch statistics, manually-calculated PPR metrics, rushing vs. receiving production, etc. for each player’s entire college career and their final full season (8 or more games played) of college production. When I was finished gathering and calculating each of these statistics and metrics, there were over 100 statistics for every player in our sample population.

In Part 1 we found that top-12 RBs in today’s NFL tend to get nearly half their fantasy scoring from receiving production, so being able to predict how a college RB will score his fantasy points in the NFL becomes extremely important. Out of all the 100 statistics I examined, only four proved statistically significant (r=0.40 or higher) in projecting rookie season or career PPR receiving percentage: receptions per game, receiving yards per game, PPR receiving percentage and draft round. Draft round notwithstanding, the other three stats all have to do with players’ receiving acumen.

Notable Correlations for Rookie Season Production:

  • Receptions per game vs. PPR Rec. %: r=0.491
  • Receiving yards per game vs. PPR Rec. %: r=0.515

Notable Correlations for Career PPR Production:

  • Receptions per game vs. PPR Rec. %: r=0.542
  • Receiving yards per game vs. PPR Rec. %: r=0.504
  • College PPR Rec. % vs. NFL PPR Rec. %: r=0.483
  • Draft Round vs. NFL PPR points per game: r=0.510

Receptions per game, receiving yards per game and college PPR rec. % all produced correlational coefficients of r=0.40 or higher related to NFL PPR receiving percentage. Essentially, this means that if a running back was an elite receiver in college, he’s also more likely to be an elite receiver in the NFL.

However, none of these statistics reported meaningful correlations with PPR points per game. While we may use these three stats to project a players rushing vs. receiving distribution in the NFL, we cannot use them to project the magnitude of a player’s fantasy production. Rather, the only stat that produced a meaningful correlation with PPR points per game is draft round.

So, the ideal rookie fantasy running back candidate is drafted in the early rounds and boasts above-average receiving production in college. Let’s examine which 2019 rookies fit the bill.

2019 Rookie RBs Who Don’t Project as Future Fantasy RB1s

Among players drafted in the first four rounds of the 2019 NFL draft, four stand out as particularly poor fantasy options based on their college receiving statistics: Benny Snell, Devin Singletary, Justice Hill and Bryce Love. These players’ high draft selection may result in above-average usage, but their poor receiving acumen limits their upside. As a result, it’s difficult for me to project any of them as possible future fantasy RB1s. Instead, they’re more in the fantasy RB2-or-bust category.

Two other players stand out due to their high draft selection but middling college receiving production: Damien Harris and Miles Sanders. Neither of these players were near the bottom of the list in terms of college receiving production, but they’re also far from being elite receiving producers. Both find themselves in 2019 committees in New England and Philadelphia, respectively.

Public consensus suggests that Sanders may have an inside shot at lead-back duties for the Eagles, but his college receiving usage (0.9 receptions per game, 5.4 receiving yards per game for his career) concerns me. If you’re targeting him in 2019, make sure you have fantasy RB2-level expectations at best.

2019 Rookie RBs with Receiving and Fantasy Upside

Now on to the players who boast above-average college receiving upside:

These players are more likely than most to produce an above-average PPR Rec. % in the NFL. As we’ve discussed in previous articles, these kinds of players — that is, those who command high receiving usage in their offenses — represent the new archetype for modern fantasy RB1s and RB3s. The key limiting factor for these players’ PPR upside is simply opportunity. So, let’s discuss each player’s 2019 team fit and potential usage in their respective offenses.

Tony Pollard, Dallas Cowboys, ADP: RB72

Pollard is an interesting case to start off with. He shared a Memphis backfield that included college star and workhorse Darrell Henderson and a 1,000-yard rusher in Patrick Taylor Jr. Among the three backs, Pollard was most-utilized in the receiving game, racking up nearly 1,300 receiving yards in his three-year college career.

He now joins a Cowboys backfield with Ezekiel Elliott and will surely struggle to eat into Elliott’s hefty rushing workload. However, he may find a niche role as a receiving back. Better yet, Dallas may have drafted him as a potential slot replacement for the departed Cole Beasley. It’s hard to trust any Dallas running back not named Ezekiel Elliott, but Pollard may be worth stashing with your final round draft pick.

Josh Jacobs, Oakland Raiders, ADP: RB18

Do I actually need to talk about Jacobs? Do you really need another analyst gassing him up this offseason? He’s a no-brainer in the Raiders antiquated but running back-friendly system, and his college receiving acumen is a huge bonus that elevates his upside even further. Enough said.

Darrell Henderson, Los Angeles Rams, ADP: RB33

Now this one’s compelling. Henderson was one of the most prolific rushers in college football last season, racking up 1,909 yards on the ground with a 8.9 average yards per carry. Importantly, he also added 295 receiving yards and three touchdowns through the air.

When he was drafted by Los Angeles, sports media and fans had speculated that Todd Gurley may not be 100% healthy. Now we know for sure that Gurley is indeed dealing with chronic knee arthritis, and it’s likely Sean McVay and the coaching staff will try to limit his touches to some degree in 2019. That makes Henderson an ideal handcuff with legitimate RB1 upside in McVay’s modern 3-wide offensive scheme.

Of course, Malcolm Brown also got paid this offseason, which may complicate matters, but it’s hard to imagine that the Rams spent a third-round draft pick on just an insurance policy.

David Montgomery, Chicago Bears, ADP: RB24

Much like Josh Jacobs, the fantasy community is already on top of Montgomery as a possible impact player in 2019. The Bears have moved on from Jordan Howard, and Montgomery (and/or Mike Davis) seems poised to take Howard’s place as Chicago’s lead-back.

In his final two seasons at Iowa State, Montgomery produced back-to-back 1,000-plus yard rushing seasons and 24 total touchdowns. He also averaged 29 receptions and 252 receiving yards per season as a sophomore and junior.

While he’s by no-means the top receiving threat on this list, he may represent the most balanced rookie running back entering 2019. Guys like Tony Pollard or James Williams boast higher receiving production, but they can’t touch Montgomery’s rushing proficiency. Conversely, Henderson may out-class Montgomery as a rusher, but Montgomery is a more prolific receiver.

Among all the running backs in this list, Montgomery stands out as the best long-term RB1 option — if he indeed earns Howard’s previous level of opportunity.

Alexander Mattison, Minnesota Vikings, ADP: RB54

Mattison’s role with the Vikings is easy to envision. Minnesota finally parted ways with Latavius Murray this offseason, and as much as I love Roc Thomas and Mike Boone (sincerely – last year’s preseason made me a fan), they weren’t cut out to fill Murray’s shoes. So, they added Ameer Abdullah via free agency and drafted Mattison in the third round.

Dalvin Cook is already an excellent back in space, but he doesn’t have the best hands in the world. Mattison could fit a need as the Vikings’ go-to No. 2 running back in their offense, and Murray proved last season that role has viable fantasy upside.

Darwin Thompson, Kansas City Chiefs, ADP: RB60

Thompson is a sneaky sixth round draft pick that few people are talking about — but they should be. In his lone season at Utah State, he amassed 1,044 rushing yards, 351 receiving yards and 16 total touchdowns. He now joins a crowded Chiefs backfield with Damien WilliamsDarrel WilliamsCarlos Hyde, and James Williams.

Thompson possess the kind of three-down skillset that Andy Reid admires. On top of that, Reid has always utilized two running backs in his system even back to his days with the Eagles. So, it’s possible that Kansas City drafted Thompson with that No. 2 running back potential in mind. Nonetheless, the Chiefs may also just be restocking the kitchen cupboard after last season’s Kareem Hunt fallout.

Time will tell, but Thompson is worth monitoring in redraft leagues and worth buying in dynasty.

James Williams, Kansas City Chiefs, ADP: RB153

Williams is an interesting player to finish with. He went undrafted out of Washington State and landed on the Chiefs roster via free agency. Everything I wrote on Darwin Thompson may also be said for James Williams — although Williams’ college receiving totals easily eclipse Thompson and every other running back on this list.

Williams may not even make the Chiefs’ Week 1 roster, but if he does, expect him to be involved in the passing game. He has Theo Riddick– or Charles Sims-style upside and is one of the most prolific college receiving threats in the entire study.

Moreover, if you’re bearish on Damien Williams this season, target Thompson and/or James Williams in redraft as a way to bet against Damien Williams and gain leverage over the field.

What to Expect in Part 5

In this series’ next installment, we’ll pivot away from the running back position and instead focus on fantasy tight ends. This year’s class of elite tight ends is enticing, but should you really pull the trigger on one with a first or second round draft pick?

Image Credit: George Walker/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Darrell Henderson.

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