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Rookie Running Back Report: The Rest

Last week we took a look at the running backs that held down starting jobs for a majority of the season. It was an amazing year for that class of running back, with five becoming every week fantasy starters. But there are two more classes of rookie running back to talk about. The guys that needed a little time to become starters and will likely garner high fantasy draft picks, and a couple guys that got some bit part time that may become something in the future.

That first group is incredibly interesting and some of them have more potential than the every week starters we talked about last time. The guys were D’Andre Swift, Cam Akers and J.K. Dobbins. Unlike the last category, this one doesn’t seem quite as guaranteed. 2019 had no one I would consider late starters which are rookies that were on the bench and eventually gained the starting job permanently. 2018 had five guys, although only one or two of them became a clear starter like the three guys in 2020. 

In fantasy leagues, the three guys were drafted in the middle rounds, which makes sense. They are guys that have incredibly high ceilings but bottom floors if they don’t actually get the job. Cam Akers was a late 4th, early 5th rounder. Dobbins and Swift’s average draft position were incredibly close, they came in the early sixth. Once again, it makes sense. Akers didn’t have a clear person in front of him like Dobbins and Swift did.

Skipping past 2019, 2018 had one in the fifth, one in the ninth and the other three were undrafted. This is clearly a variable category as there are a lot of assumptions that need to be made. Is this guy actually the next man up? Will there be a clear opportunity for him? How good is the player or the team? Ask yourselves these questions if you’re hunting for a player of this type.

Alright let’s get to the runners.

Cam Akers ADP 46, RB 25. Actual RB 50. Starter Week 13. RB PPG after Starter Week RB 16

Running back Cam Akers

A lot of information in the header, but it’s all necessary. Akers is an interesting case, sort of a reverse Jonathan Taylor. He actually was the Week 1 and 2 starter, but was forced out of week 2’s game early. He also didn’t lead the Rams in carries in week 1. Akers struggled a lot and Malcolm Brown ended up out-carrying him and out-performing him. The injury ended his starts, even when he came back he was part of a three headed monster, the worst situation for fantasy owners. In week 12 he was the only effective running back for the Rams, and he was rewarded for that, essentially becoming the starter the next week and actually the starter the week after. He also clearly became the man in the playoffs.

Akers had a very strong weeks 12-14, but his momentum was cut short after sustaining an injury in week 15. Even though he missed some of the fantasy playoffs, he did extremely well in the actual playoffs, going over 90 yards and scoring a touchdown in both games. He’s done a lot to cement his status as the top dog on the Rams pile, and the way they used him was encouraging. He averaged 21.5 carries once he got the lead back role, a fantastic number. He also upped his touchdowns, from none to two in the fantasy season, but also two more in the playoffs. More importantly, the other two guys aren’t taking his red zone touches.

The one concerning area is his efficiency. It wasn’t fantastic at just 4.3 yards per carry, tying him for 27th in the league. Even though the Rams are kind of famous for having a rotating door at running backs, if they get a guy they like (Todd Gurley) they will ride him all the way. Akers seems to have become that. But the efficiency reminds me more of Zac Stacy and Tre Mason, two Rams starting running backs that were replaced the following season.

Akers also doesn’t catch the ball often. He had just 14 targets and 11 receptions all year, but all of them did come after becoming a starter. So if he is truly the bell cow back that number might look a lot better next year. I’m just not totally convinced he will be. Darrell Henderson missed the playoffs due to injury, and I’m not sure Aker’s whole body of work deserves a 200+ carry approach for the Rams. 

Perhaps that is too negative. Aker’s playoffs were outstanding. They really needed to lean on him with uncertainty at the quarterback position, and he delivered. He often was the offense in those games. And even in week 17 where he struggled immensely Malcolm Brown (who probably won’t be with the team next year) hardly factored in, showing that maybe the hot hand approach is dead. That being said, Akers will cost a fairly high draft pick next year, and unlike some of the other rookie running backs there is some risk to Akers. Buyer beware. 

D’Andre Swift ADP 60. RB 29. Actual RB 20. Starter Week 9. RB after Starter Week RB 8

Running back D'Andre Swift

Swift moved around a lot during the draft. Kerryon Johnson was there and he was only drafted two years ago in 2018. Then Adrian Peterson got signed and Swift’s stock plummeted. At the beginning of the season the Detroit Lions seemed content to have Swift just catch passes. Week 6 was a breakout game, but then they went away from him again until week 9. He didn’t start that game, but got the majority of carries and was the starter the rest of the way through when healthy.

Unfortunately after his first start in week 10 he suffered a concussion that kept him out for a good chunk of time. They eased him in on his comeback during week 14 and then started the last three games of the season. Like you can see on his RB after Starter Week ranking, he was actually incredibly effective once he finally became the lead back. This was powered by quite a few touchdowns;. Despite only having 114 rushes, Swift had eight rushing touchdowns. He also added two through the air. 

Swift went double digits all but one game since week 9, and was over 20 twice. Like previously stated, he scored a bunch, with four scores in those five weeks. His receiving work also stayed the same, averaging 3.6 catches per game which boosted his consistency.  

The future looks bright for Swift. Kerryon Johnson doesn’t look to really affect Swift’s game, and Peterson’s contract is up so the opportunity to get 90% of the RB touches is right there for Swift.  However even with 90% the number might not be that great. Even when he took over as the starter he still only averaged 12.2 carries per game. Of course Peterson was around, but I’m just not sure they trust Swift fully. Swift’s 4.6 yards per carry is an average mark, both among rookies and amongst RB’s in general. It’s not a number that blows you away, but it’s not one that implies a replacement is needed. 

I say “they”, but “they” have changed. With a new head coach, new GM and presumably a new quarterback, how they handle Swift could be completely different. Honestly, that might be the best thing to happen to Swift. This was Stafford’s team through and through. Now there’s a vacuum that Swift can fill. A new, inexperienced QB might cause the Lions to focus on the run game, and checkdowns might be abundant.  

Fantasy is all about talent + opportunity. Swift looks like he’s got the talent. But the opportunity is in flux. Even after becoming the starter in 2020, he wasn’t getting a TON of touches. 16 touches isn’t bad but it’s far from ideal. A brand new Lions team from top to bottom could be the exact thing Swift needs to become one of fantasy’s premier back. There is a tiny bit of risk. If the new coaching staff for some reason prefers Johnson or a new RB, then Swift is in trouble. But I doubt that happens, and the potential benefit of the new regime is way bigger than the risk. There’s a decent floor with Swift going into next year, but a really high ceiling. 

J.K. Dobbins ADP 62 RB 30. Actual RB 31. Starter Week 8. RB after Starter Week RB 23

Possibly the most interesting rookie running back case, Dobbins can feasibly land anywhere next year. He’s unquestionably talented, putting up crazy numbers in his time at OSU. Then he went to the Ravens, the most run-heavy team in the league in 2019. Mark Ingram performed great for the Ravens last year but the job was vulnerable. Dobbins took advantage of an Ingram injury to seize the “starting” job earlier than the other two names on this list. But starting is in quotations for a reason. While Ingram was phased out almost completely, and Dobbins got the most carries in most games, Gus Edwards AND Lamar Jackson often got nearly the same amount of work as Dobbins each game. 

The talent is mouthwatering. Dobbins averaged an incredible six yards per carry this year, number 1 amongst running backs. He scored nine touchdowns as well, showing the Ravens are not scared to keep him in at the goal line. From week 12 till week 17, Dobbins scored seven total touchdowns, punching in at least one per game. He had ten carries inside the ten yard line compared to Edward’s seven, and was way more successful with his tries. 

There are a lot of problems too though. Again, I can’t reiterate this point enough, the opportunities for Dobbins may not be there. He needed every single bit of his leading yards per carry to BARELY become a fantasy asset. He simply doesn’t touch the ball enough. The Ravens ran the ball 555 times, again the most in the league. Dobbins only got 134 of them. 24%. Even after becoming the lead back, he only averaged around 12 carries per game.

Despite how well Dobbins played, Edwards played pretty well too. His five yards per carry were still top 10. Not only that, but Lamar Jackson was the overall leader in yards per attempt. Dobbins, Edwards and Jackson are so close in carries each and every game it almost seems fake. Dobbins also doesn’t offer much in the receiving game, which could have supplemented his touches. He had just 24 targets all year. 

Dobbins is a high risk high reward player. His floor is lower than you might think. He was barely RB 2 status with league leading efficiency and probably more touchdowns than his touches would suggest. He might get involved in the passing game more, but that isn’t a guarantee. We have two years with Lamar Jackson that suggest he doesn’t throw that many balls to his running backs. If his efficiency drops (and it would be hard not to) Dobbins might not even make flex status.

Then again, if Dobbins manages to get a hold of this job and Gus Edwards turns into more of a bit part player, if Dobbins can turn his 24% carry share into more like 40 or even 50%, Dobbins could easily be the No. 1 RB in fantasy. The problem is I don’t know how likely that is. Lamar Jackson certainly isn’t going anywhere, and there has been no indication that Edwards will either. 

Somewhere in between is where Dobbins most likely settles at. If he can just hit 200 or so carries, he can easily finish as an RB 1. Mark Ingram did in 2019 with just 202 carries, and Dobbins has a lot more potential. It would not surprise me if Dobbins ends up the first running back off the board of all the rookies next year. Last thing to note. Mark Ingram was released, and Gus Edwards is a restricted free agent. The running back room might look much smaller next year. But knowing the Ravens I doubt that this doesn’t remain a running back by committee situation.

Overall

All three running backs in this category will certainly be drafted higher in 2021 than they were in 2020. Some of them might warrant a second round pick. They all have question marks, but they also all have unbelievable potential. If you’re looking for a medium risk high reward player next year, look no further. One word of warning. In 2018 only one of those five rookies that came on late fulfilled their potential, Nick Chubb. He turned into one of the best backs in fantasy. The other four were either replaced or forced into big timeshares. Two of them (Kerryon Johnson and Gus Edwards) are currently getting in the way of 2020’s crop. None of those situations except Chubb looked quite as clear as these three do, but it’s something to be aware of.

The Rest

There were four running backs that got some bit parts due to various injuries or other reasons. Salvon Ahmed, Deejay Dallas, Joshua Kelley and La’mical Perine. The past two years also saw four of these type each. None of the four played particularly well. Three finished with under four yards per carry, showing they don’t really deserve much more work than they got. Three also have entrenched starters in front of them, so there’s not much room for them to make an impact.

The one guy who might have a chance is La’mical Perine. Frank Gore was on a one year deal and a new regime is coming for the Jets. Perine didn’t play well in his very limited time, but as of right now he’s the most likely one to get a starting job. I doubt any of them make an impact,  and none of the past two year’s bit part players have made an impact either.