Which rookie running backs carry the most fantasy value?

Matt Bowen
ESPN INSIDER



New York Giants' rookie running back Saquon Barkley is an ideal fit for today's NFL game. It's the freakish athleticism, the home run speed and the receiving skills. That's RB1 material in an offense that will feed Barkley the ball. But after the former Penn State star comes off the board, which rookie backs should fantasy managers target?

Today, let's take a deeper look at this rookie class. Here are my rankings for eight first-year pros with upside in both the 2018 season and dynasty leagues, along with two late-round fliers to put on the fantasy radar.

1. Saquon Barkley, New York Giants

A versatile talent with 4.40-second speed in the 40-yard dash at 233 pounds, Barkley is primed to make an immediate impact in the Giants' offense. The lower body strength, instant burst and wiggle are there for Barkley to produce on the ground. He can hit the long ball too. But it's the receiving skill set that really pushes his ceiling up into the mid-RB1 ranks. Barkley caught 54 passes at Penn State last season, shaking defenders in coverage and creating matchups versus linebackers in space. With a complete game, and the anticipation of consistent volume in Pat Shurmur's playbook, Barkley is a first-round lock, and he should also be a top priority in dynasty leagues.

2. Derrius Guice, Washington Redskins

The LSU product is in a position to handle the early-down touches and goal-line duties in the Washington offense. And I love his style. Guice is a "finisher," a violent downhill runner who displays serious pop in his pads at 224 pounds to plow through first contact. And he has enough speed (4.49) to rip off explosive runs. With the Redskins expected to feature Chris Thompson on third downs, Guice won't rack up big numbers in the passing game as a rookie. But he can still contribute on screens, swings and checkdowns in Jay Gruden's playbook, with the potential to develop into a passing threat later in his career. Given the talent base I saw on the college film, plus Guice's ability to handle a heavy workload on the ground (he averaged more than 19 carries a game last year at LSU), there is RB2 value here for fantasy managers in 2018. And I like the upside in dynasty formats, if Guice can show consistent growth in passing situations.

3. Rashaad Penny, Seattle Seahawks

Penny rushed for a whopping 2,248 yards and 23 touchdowns in 2017 at San Diego State. The size is there (5-foot-10, 220 pounds) to attack inside of the tackles, and the speed (4.46) jumps when you throw on the film. He can go when the lane opens up. While Penny needs work in pass pro (a common thread with the majority of rookie running backs), he impressed me at the Senior Bowl workouts as a receiver out of the backfield. I saw some quicks to separate from linebackers down in Mobile, Alabama. Given that Penny is expected to emerge from training camp ahead of Chris Carson as the lead back in Seattle, managers should target him in that low-end RB2 tier. And if Penny develops at an accelerated rate in pass protection, he carries a high ceiling in dynasty formats as a three-down back with big-play ability.

4. Ronald Jones II, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

I tagged Jones as my fantasy "sleeper" at the running back position because of the opportunity in Tampa, plus a skill set that can be highlighted in a pro offense. At 205 pounds, Jones does carry a lean frame, and that could limit his overall workload in the NFL. However, the body control is there to bounce off tackles, the jump-cuts are nasty and Jones has the "game speed" to hit the edge. Plus, I believe there is enough projected versatility here for Jones to play a role in the passing game this season. With Doug Martin now in Oakland, look for Jones to move ahead of Peyton Barber on the Bucs' depth chart during camp and surprise with his ability to create chunk plays. I see a Flex starter who can push his way into fantasy lineups as an RB2 this year, with added dynasty value, given a skill set that can be maximized in the NFL.

5. Sony Michel, New England Patriots

Michel is a slasher in the run game who hits the hole at max speed. That style fits in the NFL on zone schemes and caters to Michel's ability to make sharp, clean cuts once he gets to the second level. Michel averaged a ridiculous 7.9 yards a carry in his final season at Georgia. He showed some long speed too. And while he only caught nine passes for the Bulldogs last season, Michel grabbed 22 receptions in 2016 and 26 in 2015, and he does show up in pass protection. The versatility is there to slide into the Patriots' route concepts as an underneath target for Tom Brady: burst to the flat, run option routes, produce on screens. Yes, that running back room in New England is full right now. I get it. But Michel can fill that Dion Lewis role in Josh McDaniels' offense as a both a runner and a receiver. He is the Patriots' running back I would target as a Flex starter with a higher ceiling in PPR leagues.

6. Royce Freeman, Denver Broncos

Freeman left Oregon as the all-time FBS rushing leader (5,621 yards), with a Pac-12 record 60 scores on the ground. He's a grinder too. A heavy-volume back (244 carries in 2017) who can tote the rock consistently with that 6-foot, 230-pound frame to pair with his mid-4.5 speed. That's dangerous. In Denver, Freeman will share the load with Devontae Booker to start the season, with the veteran most likely seeing the ball in passing situations. Similar to Guice in Washington, Freeman fits here as that first- and second-down runner who can log carries, get downhill on the goal line and close out games in the fourth quarter. And that's key for a Denver offense that wants to run the ball to create passing opportunities for new starting quarterback Case Keenum. I'm targeting Freeman as a Flex in drafts, but he can quickly climb the ranks and provide much more dynasty value if he is featured as the No.1 back for the Broncos. Show a little more as a pass-catcher? Yeah, then we are talking about a legit RB2 who can handle 20 to 25 touches a game and find the end zone.

7. Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns

Throughout the draft process, I started to point to Chubb as one of the top fits for an NFL run game, given his size (5-foot-11, 227 pounds), footwork, power and the athletic testing he showcased at the combine. He has 4.52 speed with the pad level to bust through defenders. But the former Georgia stud joins a crowded -- and talented -- backfield in Cleveland that features veteran Carlos Hyde and dynamic pass-catcher Duke Johnson Jr. That's my concern for this season with Chubb. His game is built for early-down work with limited upside as a receiving target. And with Hyde in the mix, how many touches can managers bank on to start the year? Now, I do like Chubb in dynasty leagues, as I believe he eventually will take the lead role in Cleveland as the primary ball carrier. But as it stands at this point, Chubb is a borderline Flex play until we see how the touches shake out in the Browns' game plan.

8. Kerryon Johnson, Detroit Lions

With the patience to set up defenders and the quick burst to get upfield, Johnson has a silky-smooth style that will sell in the NFL: stop-and-go speed with a workhorse mentality after logging 285 carries last season in the Auburn system. There is some surprising power there too at 213 pounds. However, with the Lions adding LeGarrette Blount this offseason to join Theo Riddick and Ameer Abdullah, will the rookie be set up to cash in on scoring opportunities? Blount figures to get the short yardage/goal-line carries, and Riddick is the lead man in the passing game. I'd still take Johnson as a Flex option this season, but the real value here is for managers in dynasty leagues. Johnson has the makeup of a future No.1 back with legit upside in the pro game.

Late-round fliers


Here are two rookie backs I would add late in drafts, given potential game minutes and scoring upside.

Nyheim Hines, Indianapolis Colts

Picture Hines as a "joker" in the Colts' game plan with his blistering 4.3 speed and receiving skill set. At 5-foot-8, 195 pounds, Hines isn't going to log consistent downhill carries. We know that. But his ability to flex from the core of the formation as a passing target or possibly run the rock out of three-wide receiver personnel is intriguing to me. He's worth a late-round stash, given he can produce on limited touches; and there is upside in PPR formats if Colts quarterback Andrew Luck is back on the field.

Kalen Ballage, Miami Dolphins

Ballage put together an impressive week at the Senior Bowl practices. At 6-foot-2, 228 pounds, the Arizona State product showcased a sudden burst to get through the hole, and his route running popped during one-on-one work. He's a big back with athleticism. In Miami, Ballage joins Kenyan Drake and veteran Frank Gore. However, I would take a flier here, given the small sample size on Drake and Gore's age. There could be some carries and a role for the rookie in 2018.