In 2019, the running back position has continued to become more replaceable than ever before for NFL teams. The “Running Backs Don’t Matter” movement has gained a lot of steam.
Young running backs who previously struggled for playing time are now playing early and often. Last season rookie Saquon Barkley finished as the RB2 behind only Christian McCaffrey. Rookies Phillip Lindsay and Nick Chubb finished as RB13 and RB17, respectively. In recent years, rookie running backs have provided some of the best value picks in fantasy football leagues.
Generally, running backs are not playing past their thirties and are recycled for newer, younger players. The average NFL starting running back is currently 24.7 years old.
All of this helps illustrate how prominent rookie running backs are in today’s NFL. Below are the rookie running backs who could make a fantasy impact this season.
Be mindful that this rookie class is one of the worst in recent years – and not nearly as productive or athletic as the rookie class that took the NFL by storm last season. Our friends from RotoUnderworld have helped us research each prospect’s athleticism. The running backs are listed in order of draft position.
Josh Jacobs, Oakland Raiders
Typically, the first running back of the board in an NFL draft is an excellent prospect – that is not the case for Josh Jacobs. Jacobs played for Alabama where he received 30 fewer carries and caught two fewer passes than fellow rookie Damien Harris in their final collegiate season, despite being a more heralded prospect and recruit than Harris. He rushed for a half yard fewer per carry than Harris but scored five more total touchdowns. Jacobs was slightly more productive in the receiving game and showed a better ability to make tacklers miss.
His production numbers leave something to be desired – unfortunately, his athleticism does as well. Jacobs didn’t participate in the agility drills but underwhelmed in terms of speed (4.69 forty, which is 24th percentile) and burst (35th percentile). On the plus side, he is just 21 years old – which is promising for his future outlook.
Slotting in as the Raiders starter, Jacobs looks likely to receive the biggest NFL workload as a rookie. There are concerns about how effective he’ll be – which could lead to Jalen Richard stealing passing down work. Richard caught 68 passes last year and is effective on the ground, averaging 5.3 yards per carry for his career.
One of my favorite Zero RB targets: Jalen Richard
– Undrafted on FFCalc (he’s free)
– Richard is underrated (5.3 YPC for career, caught 68 balls last yr)
– Jacobs is overrated (averaged 0.5 YPC fewer than Damien Harris, Harris had 30 more carries & 2 more recs in '18)
— Mike Braude (@BraudeM) June 10, 2019
Miles Sanders, Philadelphia Eagles
Miles Sanders is an intriguing prospect: his production profile for his collegiate career seems lacksingbut he has a good excuse – he was behind all-world running back Saquon Barkley. If we compare their junior years, Sanders holds up his end of the bargain as a rusher.
As an athlete, Sanders is fast (81st percentile), has an above average burst score (76th percentile), and good agility (83rd percentile). At 5′ 11″ 211 lbs., Sanders is arguably the best athlete in this class.
After being drafted in the second round, it’s clear the Eagles identified running back as a problem and selected Sanders to help fix it. The Eagles traded a measly 6th round pick for Jordan Howard and with his lack of receiving ability, I don’t expect him to be much of a roadblock for the rookie.
Darrell Henderson, Los Angeles Rams
This year’s most exciting prospect is Darrell Henderson. Amidst concerns about Todd Gurley’s knee, the Rams selected Henderson in the third round. At 5′ 8″ 208 lbs., Henderson is a little undersized but is among the most efficient running backs in college football history.
Henderson rushed for 8.9 yards per carry in EACH of his last two college seasons – that’s on a total of 344 carries. In his final college season, he averaged an absurd 15.5 yards per reception.
In Graham Barfield’s Yards Created metric, Henderson finished 3rd in yards created per attempt from shotgun formations over the last four college seasons. For reference, that’s behind Dalvin Cook and Joe Mixon, and ahead of Saquon Barkley and Ezekiel Elliott.
Henderson is fast (81st percentile) and difficult to tackle in space. It’s thrown around too frequently these days, but Henderson arguably deserves the Alvin Kamara comps.
David Montgomery, Chicago Bears
After trading Jordan Howard and signing Mike Davis, the Bears traded up to select David Montgomery. It’s a clear attempt from the Bears to be less predictable and play running backs who can be productive in the running and passing games.
At 5′ 10″ 222 lbs., Montgomery is heavy, which impacts his speed (38th percentile) and burst (11th percentile). With a 15th percentile SPARQ score, he’s simply a below average athlete for an NFL running back.
Notching 573 touches over his past two seasons, Montgomery was used as a workhorse. Playing behind one of the NCAA’s worst offensive lines, PFF College credited Montgomery with a nation-high 100 missed tackles forced in 2018. His tackle-breaking ability is good, but his lack ofr long speed consistently led to Montgomery being caught from behind.
Those who like Montgomery, like coach Matt Nagy, compare him to Kareem Hunt. The question for fantasy owners is will Montgomery be able to keep Tarik Cohen off the field?
Devin Singletary, Buffalo Bills
In the third round, the Bills selected Devin Singletary. Singletary was productive in college, rushing for at least 1,000 in each of his three collegiate seasons at Florida Atlantic – including a massive 2,116-yard, 33-touchdown, sophomore season. Per PFF College, Singletary finished second in forced missed tackles behind only Montgomery.
While the production is good, Singletary failed the NFL Combine. At just 5′ 7″ 203 lbs., Singletary plodded to a 4.66 forty – which when combined with his weight leads to a 16th percentile speed score. His agility score of 18th percentile wasn’t much better.
Even without a real roadblock for the future in front of him, it looks unlikely that Singletary has the athleticism to be a productive NFL running back.
Damien Harris, New England Patriots
The Patriots selected Damien Harris in the third round. Another Alabama running back, Harris topped 1,000 yards from scrimmage in three straight seasons but isn’t the youngest back at 22 years old. If there are positives to take away, it’s that he out-touched Josh Jacobs in their final season together.
Harris is 5′ 10″ 216 lbs. and ran a 4.57 40-yard dash. Despite a 77th percentile burst score, Harris looks like an average athlete. A little light in terms of weight but he is expected to be competing for the Patriots early-down role, which was previously occupied by power backs Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount.
Harris’ relevance as a rookie may depend on the health of Sony Michel. Michel has not practiced at minicamp and has a lengthy history of knee issues. Harris has received a ton of reps with Michel out, reportedly running the ball and catching it out of the backfield.
Alexander Mattison, Minnesota Vikings
At the end of the third round, the Vikings selected Alexander Mattison. Mattison was productive in college, amassing over 2,900 yards from scrimmage and 30 touchdowns over his final two seasons. Barely 21 years old, age is on Mattison’s side.
At 5′ 11″ 221 lbs., he is heavy but lacks athleticism. Mattison has below average speed (27th percentile) and agility (47th percentile).
There’s not much to indicate that Mattison has a solid chance to succeed in the NFL. The previous running backs at Boise State have also had production but it hasn’t translated to NFL success. One positive for Mattison is that outside of Dalvin Cook, there’s very little competition on the Vikings depth chart.
Justice Hill, Baltimore Ravens
After signing Mark Ingram, the Ravens selected Justice Hill in the fourth round. Hill had a hot start to his college career, starting over Chris Carson as a freshman. As a sophomore, Hill topped 1,600 yards from scrimmage and scored 16 touchdowns. As a junior, Hill struggled – not topping 1,000 scrimmage yards for the first time in his collegiate career.
Hill is a slight 5′ 10″ 198 lbs. but was arguably the most athletic running back at the combine. He finished with the fastest forty time (97th percentile) and led all running backs in both the vertical and broad jumping drills (95th percentile burst score).
Hill profiles as a solid pass-catching, change of pace back and should be expected to steal third-down work from Ingram. If he proves to be as explosive as his athleticism suggest he could be, Hill could earn more playing time.