Predictions for this year's top rookie running backs


With pro-ready traits -- in an anticipated high-volume role -- Oakland Raidersrookie Josh Jacobs has the highest fantasy ceiling of the 2019 running back class. The touches will be there in Jon Gruden's offense, and the first-round pick also brings three-down ability to the Raiders. But what does the fantasy floor look like for Jacobs?

From Jacobs to David Montgomery and Darrell Henderson, here's how I see the fantasy floors and ceilings for eight rookie backs currently on my radar for the upcoming season, complete with stat projections from ESPN's Mike Clay.

Josh Jacobs, Oakland Raiders

Clay's 2019 projection: 236 carries, 1,034 yards, 7 TDs; 44 receptions, 359 yards, 2 TDs

Current ADP: 37.2 (RB16)

Fantasy Floor: I was all-in on Jacobs during the draft process. He's got the physical makeup of a lead back in the pros. But for Jacobs to cash in on the volume I anticipate, the Raiders have to push the ball down the field more to lighten up that box for the rookie. In 2018, quarterback Derek Carr ranked dead last in air yards per target, resulting in Oakland ranking 29th in rushing yards before first contact last season. It's tough to produce numbers when you can't find daylight.

Yeah, we all expect Carr to take more shots in 2019 after the Raiders added wide receivers Antonio Brown and Tyrell Williams. I get it. Open up that passing game. But if we are talking about Jacobs' "floor," it needs to be mentioned here, along with the fact that Jacobs never saw more than 94 carries in a season at Alabama.

Can he handle the volume over a 16-game season with an early bye week (Week 6)? Now, I do agree with the current ADP on Jacobs. But the rookie could end up producing lower-tier RB2 numbers if the Raiders struggle to play with offensive consistency.

Fantasy Ceiling: It's the volume. Even with veteran Doug Martin on the roster, and third-down back Jalen Richard getting touches for the Raiders, the run game should go through Jacobs. Last season, seven of the top 10 running backs in carries per game were also top 10 running backs in fantasy scoring (Todd Gurley II, Saquon Barkley, Melvin Gordon, Ezekiel Elliott, James Conner, Kareem Hunt and Joe Mixon).

Plus, the pass game upside of Jacobs is true. I can see that on his college film. Screens, quick throws underneath, more. Jacobs looks natural catching the ball and his finishing power jumps off the screen. He will drop the hammer on defensive backs. Just check out his touchdown grab in the Orange Bowl versus Oklahoma in the video below. Physical stuff.

Given the anticipated volume in his rookie season, and the expectation that the Raiders do become more efficient and vertical in the passing game with Brown and Williams, Jacobs has a ceiling of an RB1 in deeper leagues. And there is value here in both PPR and non-PPR formats. In short, I'm going to target him in all of my leagues.

David Montgomery, Chicago Bears

Clay's 2019 projection: 207 carries, 915 yards, 6 TDs; 32 receptions, 261 yards, TD

Current ADP: 69.8 (RB26)

Fantasy Floor: Montgomery's contact balance, change-of-direction quicks and pass-game upside are an ideal fit for Matt Nagy's offense in Chicago. But Montgomery is going to share some of the backfield touches in Chicago for a playcaller who loves to mix personnel.

We know what Tarik Cohen brings to the field for the Bears, especially as a matchup weapon in the pass game. Cohen saw 91 targets in 2019, and 170 total touches. He's a big part of the game plan. And don't forget about the Bears adding veteran Mike Davis in the offseason. The former Seahawk averaged 4.6 yards per carry last season.

The ADP on Montgomery sits at RB26, and that works when I look at how the Bears can utilize him in both early-down and pass-game situations. But with Cohen and Davis getting looks, Montgomery could fade into the flex range this season.

Fantasy Ceiling: If Montgomery truly steps into the role held by Jordan Howard in Chicago last season, then we can project the rookie seeing more than 200 carries, with an uptick in targets and receptions. At Iowa State, Montgomery caught 71 passes during his three-year career, and the running back route tree (think quick passing) meshes with Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, who completed 77.1 percent of his throws under 10 yards (No. 4 in the NFL).

Including the screen passes, Montgomery can release from the backfield to tack on numbers. And if the rookie can emerge as the lead runner in scoring situations, he joins a team that ranked third in both red zone yards per carry and red zone yards per carry before first contact in 2018. That translates to touchdowns for a running back who enters the league with a pro running style, under a dynamic playcaller in Nagy. That could translate to high/mid-tier RB2 numbers for managers in PPR and non-PPR scoring.

Miles Sanders, Philadelphia Eagles

Clay's 2019 projection: 174 carries, 733 yards, 5 TDs; 35 receptions, 278 yards, TD

Current ADP: 83.5 (RB30)

Fantasy Floor: Sanders is a glider with immediate change-of-direction ability and enough pop in his pads to finish plays. Smooth style to his game. However, the Eagles did make the trade for Jordan Howard this offseason (who could emerge as the goal-line back), and the track record of head coach Doug Pederson points to a committee approach again this season in a deep Philadelphia running back room.

In 2018, only four times did an Eagles running back post more than 15 carries in a game. And in 2017, not once did an Eagles back record more than 16 carries in a game. Remember, with a healthy Carson Wentz and the addition of DeSean Jackson, fantasy managers should expect the Eagles to lean on the pass game. And that limits Sanders in terms of total touches, thus dropping his floor into the flex range for deeper leagues.

Fantasy Ceiling: During the draft process, I tagged Sanders as a potential three-down back at the pro level. The traits are there to develop as a receiver and as a reliable pass-blocker for Wentz. If we see Sanders display a quick learning curve here, then his ceiling is going to rise.

Even with the rookie sharing carries in the backfield, adding targets can boost him into the lower-tier RB2 range for PPR managers. And he is a really good fit for the Eagles' run schemes. There's a lot of upside with Sanders if the volume is right.

Darrell Henderson, Los Angeles Rams

Clay's 2019 projection: 125 carries, 566 yards, 3 TDs; 24 receptions, 208 yards, TD

Current ADP: 103.6 (RB34)

Fantasy Floor: I love the fit here for Henderson in Sean McVay's offense as an explosive playmaker with high 4.4 speed in a zone-based scheme. He can go. Need evidence? check the video down below, and watch him turn on the jets in the matchup with Navy last season.

However, if Gurley is healthy and ready to roll, when does Henderson see enough volume to crack a fantasy lineup? Since entering the NFL in 2015, Gurley has a league-high 1,229 touches. And over that stretch, no other Rams back has had a 100-touch season. If that knee is right for Gurley? Yeah, the offense will run through him once again, leaving Henderson as a high-end handcuff based on his current ADP.

Fantasy Ceiling: If Gurley were to miss significant time, or show some limitations in the game plan, then Henderson's value is going to take off. Think of this: In McVay's two seasons with the Rams, L.A. has averaged 4.77 yards per carry (No. 2 in the NFL). And while that is obviously boosted by the play of Gurley, we saw what C.J. Anderson could do in relief last season. Get 11 personnel on the field (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR), align in reduced sets and use misdirection to rip apart lighter run boxes.

With Henderson's one-cut style, big-play chops (he posted 43 runs of 15 yards or more at Memphis last season) and receiving skill set, the rookie could produce RB1-level numbers if he were to step in for an injured Gurley in 2019.

Damien Harris, New England Patriots

Clay's 2019 projection: 66 carries, 278 yards, 2 TDs; 13 receptions, 113 yards, TD

Current ADP: 156.1 (RB48)

Fantasy Floor: Harris has classic Alabama traits at the position. He's a decisive, downhill runner with pass-catching ability. But in New England, the Patriots already have those rolls filled with Sony Michel and James White.

In 2018, Michel played in 16 games -- including the playoffs -- and averaged 17.5 carries. Who can top that? Only Cowboys' running back Ezekiel Elliott averaged more carries per game last season, counting the postseason And looking at White? He averaged 7.6 targets per game, which ranked second overall among RBs, behind Carolina's Christian McCaffrey (7.8). As much as I like Harris' game, and his fit in a pro offense, his floor points to more value as a dynasty-league target.

Fantasy Ceiling: Michel did miss three games last season, and had a knee scope earlier in the summer. That could open a door for Harris to get some early-down touches in the Patriots offense if Michel does have some limitations to start the season. Plus, this New England team wants to run the rock in the red zone.

During the Patriots' record 10-season playoff streak, they have 903 red zone rush attempts, while no other team in the league has more than 750. And the best way to create fantasy production without high volume is to be in an offense that is consistently pushing the ball into scoring position. Cash in on those red zone carries.

Given Harris' play style and his ability to catch the ball, he could still find his way into a flex role this season in deeper, 12-team leagues using either PPR or non-PPR scoring. And the draft value is there, given Harris' current ADP.

Alexander Mattison, Minnesota Vikings

Clay's 2019 projection: 66 carries, 264 yards, 2 TDs; eight receptions, 63 yards

Current ADP: 167.9 (RB55)

Fantasy Floor: With a healthy Dalvin Cook ready to go in 2019, Mattison is expected to take on the role of departed veteran Latavius Murray in the Vikings' offense as the No. 2 back. The Boise State product has the frame at 5-foot-11, 221 pounds, and the downhill style to push the ball inside of the tackles.

While I do expect Mattison to get touches as a rook -- including swings and screens in the pass game -- Cook is slated to carry the load in a system under Kevin Stefanski that will cater to the run. In fact, once Stefanski took over the playcalling duties for the final three weeks of last season, Cook averaged 18 touches per game. He's going to see the rock consistently, which leaves Mattison as a late-round pick who should be drafted as a handcuff to Cook.

Fantasy Ceiling: The availability concerns of Cook have to be discussed here. In two NFL seasons, Cook has played only 15 games and registered just 207 carries. And when Cook did miss four games last season, Murray took on the workload, averaging 18.3 touches per game.

My point? A door could open up here for Mattison, and we know he can hold up in a high-volume role after he posted a monster 302 carries in his final season at Boise State. And he can find the end zone, too. In the video below, watch the big man hurdle a defender versus Wyoming last season.

Remember, this is a physical runner who also has the footwork to slip past defenders. And while Mattison doesn't display the same burst or open-field ability as Cook, if he does get an opportunity due to injury, I believe he can post RB2 numbers, with more value in non-PPR formats. He's a guy I would target in 12-team leagues.

Devin Singletary, Buffalo Bills

Clay's 2019 projection: 55 carries, 255 yards, TD; seven receptions, 59 yards

Current ADP: 169.3 (RB61)

Fantasy Floor: I really like Singletary's traits when I go back to his college tape. It's the lateral quicks and contact balance. Stop-and-start speed for days to shake defenders anywhere on the field. But this is always about volume in fantasy football, and I don't see a situation in Buffalo where Singletary gets enough touches as a rookie.

That running back room in Buffalo is crowded with veterans LeSean McCoy, Frank Gore and T.J. Yeldon. Sure, the Bills averaged 29.3 rushes per game last season (sixth in the NFL). They want to run the rock to help the development of quarterback Josh Allen. However, Gore averaged 11.1 carries for a subpar Miami team last season, and McCoy averaged 11.5 carries in Buffalo. That doesn't leave much left on the bone for Singletary or Yeldon. And remember this: the Bills saw a loaded run box at the third-highest rate last season (41.1%). Until Allen shows more consistency in the passing game, the Bills running backs are going to have to work to find daylight.

Yes, I would target Singletary in dynasty leagues, because I like the talent and the future upside to his game. But this season, Singletary's floor is down in the basement without a clear path to seeing the necessary volume to crack a fantasy lineup.

Fantasy Ceiling: Is McCoy still the guy in Buffalo? That's the question I ask myself consistently when doing mock drafts or rankings this summer. Last season, McCoy ranked 46th out of 47 qualified running backs in yards per carry (3.19). That's rough. And his 0.96 yards after first contact was the worst single-season mark by any qualified running back in the decade that we have tracked that data.

Sure, that speaks to the Bills drafting Singletary, a player who drew some comps to McCoy during the draft process given his running style. If Singletary shows out in training camp and during the preseason schedule, or if the Bills decide to make a move on McCoy, then the rookie jumps into the mix for a team that has led the NFL in red zone rush rate since 2016 (51.3%). And while Singletary would still share touches with Gore and Yeldon, the opportunities could be there for the rookie to produce flex numbers in deeper leagues.

Justice Hill, Baltimore Ravens

Clay's 2019 projection: 27 carries, 114 yards, TD; six receptions, 52 yards, TD

Current ADP: 169.6 (RB65)

Fantasy Floor: Hill is a legit blazer with low-4.4 speed and the ability to rip off explosive plays. The pass-game upside is real, too. But look at the Ravens' move to bring in veteran running back Mark Ingram II. From a scheme perspective, I love Ingram in Roman's offense with quarterback Lamar Jackson. Inside zone all day. And Ingram can produce.

Of the 36 running backs with at least 300 carries over the past three seasons, only Alvin Kamara averaged more yards per carry (5.13) than Ingram (4.91). Add in the QB-designed runs for Jackson, and now Hill is fighting for touches in a run-heavy offense. That's reflected in Clay's projection and in Hill's current ADP. Right now, Hill should be targeted only in dynasty formats.

Fantasy Ceiling: Hill could win out as the passing-down back in the Ravens' offense. And Roman can cater to Hill's game-breaking speed on misdirection concepts. Get this guy in space. That's where he becomes a weapon on short throws for Jackson and in the screen game.

Plus, we have to remember how Jackson impacts opposing defenses from a run perspective. In Weeks 11-17 last season, when Jackson took over as a starter, Ravens running backs ranked sixth overall in yards before first contact. Could Hill be featured in pistol backfield sets with Jackson on "read" concepts? Sure, and that would put the rookie in a position to showcase that top-end speed.

I still believe that the touches will be limited for Hill as a rookie given the current setup in Baltimore. However, for fantasy managers in deeper PPR leagues who are looking for big-play upside, Hill can be targeted in dynasty formats or as a late-round flier.