The pre-draft process is dark and full of terrors, but through that darkness emerges an exciting jumble of #hawttaeks, half-truths, and quality NFL prospects. Despite the excitement the months before the draft bring, wading through all of the craziness to find the useful bits of fantasy football information can be daunting. With that in mind, here is a simplified look at some of the running backs who will help shape Dynasty drafts and standard fantasy football drafts alike this summer.
Who is the best?
There is little debate about the best running back this year, and I am certainly not going to upset the apple cart here. Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott is the best running back in this class, and, frankly, it is not particularly close.
To put it simply, Elliott has almost everything you want in a running back. He is well built at 6-foot, 225-pounds and puts it to good use breaking tackles and finishing through contact. Despite the size, he has the lateral agility to quickly change direction in the backfield, the initial burst to take advantage of small creases or bounce the run outside, and the long speed to take it all the way to the house. Most importantly, his vision is among the best in the class. He is a patient inside runner whose eyes and feet are perfectly in sync, and when matched with his physical tools, it makes him a dynamic running threat. On top of all of those strengths, Elliott is the best pass blocker in the class and a solid receiver with opportunity to grow.
I normally do not advocate investing heavily in running backs in Dynasty formats because of their relatively short shelf life, but Elliott has the skill set to be a true three-down back in the mold of Le’Veon Bell – I am comparing role more than player here. If he is used that way, he could easily be a top-ten back as a rookie with upside to be the No. 1 overall redraft pick in a season or two. That is valuable enough for the No. 1 rookie pick, and that upside will make him a hot commodity in redraft as well.
Who is the most controversial?
Just like Elliott is clearly the top back, the most controversial is easily Alabama’s Derrick Henry. The interesting thing about the Henry argument, however, is both sides generally agree on what he does and does not do well. The real disagreement is about whether his question marks can be overcome or will seriously hamper him at the next level.
The most impressive attribute for Henry is his rare combination of size and speed, which allows him to grind out yards inside by taking multiple defenders for a ride at the end of seemingly every run as well as gash the defense for big gains whenever he is given an alley to build up speed. He is patient inside, sets up his blocks well both at the line and in the open field, and is decisive when he sees a lane.
The question is whether Henry – or, to be fair, Elliott to a slightly lesser degree – will be able to maintain his success in the considerably smaller running lanes in the NFL. He consistently struggled to deal with quick penetration in college, and it stands to reason he will have to deal with defenders in the backfield more often in the NFL. That said, most running backs struggle when forced to deviate from their original path, and most running backs are not able to both finish runs and take it to the house like Henry.
There is also a question of how Henry fits in the passing game. He improved as a blocker last season, and he has the frame and strength to stand up to any linebacker or defensive lineman who comes his way. He was very rarely used in the passing game at Alabama – just 17 catches in three years – but he reportedly showed well as a receiver at his Pro Day, although he did not appear completely comfortable catching the ball at the Combine.
With his abilities and question marks pretty much set, then, the determining factor of his NFL success will likely be landing spot. There is some debate about which scheme suits him best, but I see him as a prototype one-cut runner who would fit very well in a more downhill zone scheme with a strong offensive line. If he lands somewhere like Dallas, his fantasy value would be substantial. If he lands with a team which asks him to create behind the line of scrimmage and pick through traffic inside, he will likely be overvalued both in Dynasty formats and redraft.
Who is the most underrated?
As always, there are several underrated backs, but UCLA’s Paul Perkins is atop the list for me. Currently the seventh running back off the board in Dynasty League Football mock rookie drafts and the 20th player overall, Perkins is likely being undervalued because of a lack of elite measurables. He is only 208 pounds, he only ran a 4.54 at the Combine – even though that was a surprisingly fast time for him – and he only posted a 32-inch vertical. While those measurables do point to some of Perkins’ biggest flaws – he will never be mistaken for a pile pusher, does not have home-run speed and lacks the burst of other top backs – Perkins has one very clear strength which will serve him well. He is easily the best open-field back in this class.
Perkins routinely made college defenders look silly both in the backfield and at the second level. He flashed an elite jump cut he can use to defeat penetration in the backfield or to make people miss in open space, and he is able to avoid tacklers with subtle cuts while traveling full speed at the second level. He is not a tackle breaker by any stretch, but he does have good balance and flashed the ability to run through arm tackles, although that is unlikely to be a strength moving forward. Still, he is the most slippery back in this class, and that should allow him to be an exceptional yard creator at the next level.
Much like Duke Johnson last year, the issue for Perkins as a fantasy option will be how he is used in the NFL. Perkins averaged over 20 touches a game over the last two seasons, but it is unlikely he will be given a similar workload at the next level. That could leave him in a position like Johnson last year, who only saw 104 carries but was heavily involved in the passing game. Perkins is a solid receiver, but he is not on the same level as Johnson and struggles in pass protection. Unless he can improve in as a blocker, he might struggle to find early playing time, but his upside as an open-field creator makes him well worth the Dynasty pick at the end of the second round.
Arkansas’ Jonathan Williams also falls into this category, but it is more from a real-life perspective than a fantasy perspective – he is currently being taken one pick ahead of Perkins in the aforementioned mocks. Although he did not play last season because of a foot injury, Williams is a big, powerful back with excellent agility and the ability to make people miss. If his health cooperates, he should make a much better pro than his college teammate, who falls in the next category.
Who is the most overrated?
Although the hype around him has dissipated some as the draft process has progressed, Arkansas’ Alex Collins is still routinely discussed among the top backs available. As previously mentioned, he is not even the top back from his own school, and there is little on his film to suggest he is anything resembling a special back.
The most distinct feature – and only real strength – for Collins is his running style, which consists of short, choppy steps that allow him to make quick moves and slip tackles in the backfield and traffic despite limited lateral or straight-line explosion. Collins can be impressive in the backfield, and he had the vision to put that choppy running style to good use behind Arkansas’ massive line. He also is a solid blocker, and that could allow him to serve as a No. 2 at the next level. That said, his lack of physical tools and his inconsistency through contact means he is not going to be a creator at the next level, especially in the open field where his hip tightness and lack of lateral agility comes into sharp focus. He is a one-speed runner who lacks the suddenness to exploit narrow holes, and he does not have the long speed to make a defense pay for over pursuit or a bad fit.
Ultimately, Collins is a solid, get-what-is-blocked runner who is unlikely to add anything to a running game. Those guys are a dime a dozen in the NFL, but that does not mean he will never hold fantasy value. We have seen plenty of JAG backs like Collins find pockets of success in the correct situation, and it is possible Collins lands in a spot which dramatically alters his short-term value. Even then, however, I am not reaching for him in Dynasty formats. Over-drafting middling talents based on opportunities is how you end up with a roster full of Daniel Thomas-s, and that is not a winning long-term approach in Dynasty.
Who has the most upside?
The most upside belongs to a running back who would not have been considered a running back just a year ago. Notre Dame’s C.J. Prosise entered his senior year with just 10 rushing attempts to his name after serving as a wide receiver his first 22 games with the Irish. A loaded depth chart at receiver and a season-ending injury to Tarean Folston gave Prosise a chance in the backfield, and he responded with 1,029 yards and 11 touchdowns on 157 carries.
What was so impressive about Prosise in his first year as a true running back was how comfortable he looked as an inside runner. It was expected the former receiver would shine as a pass catcher and in the open field, but he flashed impressive patience and vision between the tackles for a guy literally playing the position for the first time, and he has the physical tools to take advantage of those natural running skills, which should only get better. Prosise has plenty of work to do as a runner – ball security, pass protection and consistently finishing at contact comes to mind – but increased reps should only help him in those areas.
The issue with Prosise’s upside is it comes with a hefty cost. The fourth running back off the board and 12th player overall in DLF mocks, the upside is already baked into his Dynasty price. I am willing to take that dive, but the bust risk is certainly there, especially considering how much he struggled with injuries late in his first year as a full-time back.
Cal’s Daniel Lasco and Georgia’s Keith Marshall also deserve some mention here. Both backs suffered injuries which derailed their careers to differing degrees – Lasco suffered hip and ankle injuries last season which appeared to limit him while Marshall tore his ACL in 2013 and dealt with several other knee and ankle issues throughout his career – but both posted spectacular numbers at the Combine. Lasco showed off his explosiveness with a 41.5-inch vertical, a 135-inch broad jump and a 4.46 forty, and Marshall wowed scouts with a 4.31 forty of his own. A more decisive and natural runner between the tackles who is solid in both facets of the passing game, Lasco is the better bet to carve out an early role and does not carry the same injury concerns as Marshall, but both are solid upside picks later in rookie drafts.
Who has the highest floor?
With the easiest answer also the best running back, this honor falls an almost as equally deserving candidate: Utah’s Devontae Booker. While he does carry some concerns – most notably his age (24 in May) and a lingering meniscus issue – Booker is a scheme-versatile, three-down back who should be able to find success wherever he lands.
The most impressive part of Booker’s game is his vision. He makes quick, decisive decisions at the first level both in zone looks or behind a pulling lineman in gap schemes, and he matches excellent second-level vision with the quickness and elusiveness to create yards on his own both in open space and the backfield. He does not have pile-moving power, but he runs with good forward lean and has the balance to break arm tackles and consistently fall forward through contact. Booker is also solid in pass protection and a natural receiver.
Booker has ball security concerns and lacks the home-run speed to be a real big-play threat, but he has all the other tools to be a true three-down back. I believe he is the second-best running back in this class, and he represents significant value in the second round of rookie drafts in spite of his age.
Indiana’s Jordan Howard also deserves a mention here. Howard is a limited athlete who is not going to win any footraces, but he is the best finisher in this class, even ahead of Henry. That punishing style makes his long-term durability a question mark and perhaps disqualifies him from this category, but his vision, finishing ability and pass protection skills mean he should be able to contribute immediately and remain a viable backfield option as long as his body holds up.
Who are the small-school prospects with big-time ability?
Louisiana Tech might not be a "small school" – Do not send me letters, I know they play in Conference USA – but they are not in a Power 5 conference, so I am going to count it. Plus, it gives me a chance to discuss Kenneth Dixon. A top-five back for most evaluators, Dixon is currently the third back off the board in DLF mocks and the ninth player overall. While, like almost everyone, I like Dixon a lot as a player and draft prospect, I do wonder if he will get enough opportunities to live up to that draft slot.
Dixon’s calling card is his ability in the open field both in the pass and running game. He does not have elite speed, but he is able to create big plays with great open-field vision, impressive acceleration, good balance and the ability to stack moves on top of moves without losing momentum. He is also a natural pass catcher who consistently creates after the catch and displayed the ability to make tough catches down the field, along the sideline, and over the shoulder. Despite a narrow-ish lower half, Dixon also flashes the ability to lower his shoulder, break tackles and finish runs.
All of that said, I have serious questions about Dixon’s processing speed and vision. The scheme in which he played created tons of open space, but he looked indecisive at times when presented with a muddled front or when asked to deviate from his intended route in the backfield. That said, one man’s indecisiveness is another man’s patience, and I am certainly in the minority in this critique.
Ultimately, Dixon’s relative Dynasty value will come down to his role. If he is viewed as a third-down and change-of-pace back at the next level, he will struggle to live up to his current ADP. If he can carve out more consistent usage, he has the playmaking ability in both the run and pass game to be a valuable fantasy commodity. I fall on the more pessimistic side of that projection, so it is unlikely he lands on any of my Dynasty squads.
Illinois State’s Marshaun Coprich will get some love late in Dynasty drafts because of his excellent, sustained production and good testing numbers (4.47 forty at the Combine, 38-inch vertical at his Pro Day), but he will struggle to transition to the next level. A long-strider who struggles to change direction, Coprich could find some success in a one-cut scheme, but he lacks the power or elusiveness to create a ton of yards on his own against quality competition and needs work as a pass-blocker to secure a third-down role. There are better late-draft dart throws, namely Texas Tech’s DeAndre Washington, TCU’s Aaron Green and New Mexico’s Jhurrell Pressley.