Rookie running backs Ezekiel Elliott and Jordan Howard combined for 2,944 rushing yards and 21 rushing TDs in 2016, becoming only the fourth tandem of first-year backs to each rush for more than 1,300 yards in a season. Elliott would end the year second only to David Johnson in fantasy points scored by an RB, while Howard proved to be the sleeper pick of the year with just over 1,600 total yards and seven total touchdowns as a 13th round running back with an ADP of 162.
As one might expect, both second-year running backs enter 2017 will lofty expectations and high average draft positions. Elliott is poised to be a top-five pick in both standard and PPR formats, and Howard may sneak into the first round as a top 12 pick in some leagues.
Although Elliott and Howard were clearly the top rookie performers in 2016 and will carry the most value this season, there are a few other second-year running backs that could have value as late-round picks this summer.
The most talented pass-catching back in a crowded Seattle backfield, Prosise became a fantasy darling when injuries to Christine Michael and Thomas Rawls opened the door for a starting role against New England Week 9. The former third-round pick from Notre Dame posted 153 total yards on the road against a tough Patriot defense, followed by a four-carry, 76-yard game against Philadelphia, highlighted by a 72-yard touchdown run.
But a shoulder injury in that game against the Eagles cost Prosise the remainder of the 2016 season, and the offseason free agent signing of Eddie Lacy made an already crowded backfield more cramped. On a positive note, Prosise’s role as the third-down back appears to be clear and he will have value in deep PPR and dynasty leagues. With Rawl’s injury history and the chance Eddie Lacy struggles with his new team, it is possible Prosise could have value once again in standard leagues as well.
The departure of Mike Gillislee to rival New England and the fact that Buffalo did not significantly address the running back position via free agency and the draft makes second-year tailback Jonathan Williams one of the biggest offseason winners this spring.
The Bills will likely continue to be a run-first team, and Gillislee proved last season that the complimentary back to LeSean McCoy has value in all formats. There is also the narrative that Williams will have significant value should Shady go down with an injury, but I hesitate to put too much value in that logic based on the fact that McCoy has never missed more than four games in a season.
At 6’0”, 223 pounds, Williams has the size and power to be the hammer for Buffalo and could approach the eight rushing TDs Gillislee produced last season.
A fourth-round selection in the 2016 NFL Draft out of the University of Utah, Booker quickly became a fantasy favorite to replace the oft-injured incumbent starter, C.J. Anderson. A meniscus injury to Anderson Week 7 opened the door for Booker to take control of the starting tailback role for Denver, but Booker struggled with a pedestrian 3.5 yard per carry average while failing to rush for more than 83 yards in a game.
Booker’s poor display as a rookie likely influenced general manager John Elway to use a sixth-round pick to select De’Angelo Henderson from Coastal Carolina, while also signing free agent Jamaal Charles after the veteran back was released from AFC West rival Kansas City.
I am not a Booker apologist, and the first-year film was less than impressive. But the Broncos addressed their offensive line woes with the free agent additions of Ronald Leary and Menelik Watson and the first-round selection of tackle Garett Bolles in the NFL Draft.
With a fragile starter in Anderson and a veteran backup in Charles that is coming off multiple knee surgeries, it is not difficult to envision a path to touches for Booker in 2017. The question is, will the improvements on the offensive line be enough for Booker to improve on his poor play from 2016?
Dixon is arguably the most talented pure running back in a crowded Baltimore backfield that includes Terrence West, Buck Allen, Lorenzo Taliaferro (yes, he is still there), and free-agent addition Danny Woodhead.
West will more than likely start the season as the first-down starter with Woodhead working in on passing downs and as the change-of-pace back, as Dixon will miss the first four weeks of the season after violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. Although the suspension will likely set Dixon back in terms of becoming the lead back in the second half of the season – especially if West plays well, the fact that he will be out for four games will reduce his value in drafts, making him a nice late-round target.
Some owners will naturally shy away from Dixon due to the suspension, but he proved his worth with a 4.3 yard per carry average as a rookie and could be an excellent value pick for owners looking for a second-half breakout player.
The addition of Marshawn Lynch torpedoed the value of second-year Raider running backs Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington, as both players will continue to have a secondary role in the Oakland offense.
Washington and Richard were impressive as rookies, with both averaging over five yards per carry and the ability to catch passes out of the backfield. But Richard was used more actively in the passing game and may continue that role with Lynch taking first- and second-down carries.
Call me a cynic, but I have doubts about the ability of a 31-year-old running back with 2,144 career carries returning to form after taking a year off to travel the world. It is possible, but I think Lynch may struggle to regain his Beastmode form, opening the door for Richard and Washington to have an increase in value. Of the two, I was more impressed with Richard’s game film and his ability to produce in the passing game.