Among the offensive skill positions, rookie running backs have the easiest path to NFL (and fantasy) relevance. Rookie running backs can make an immediate impact day one, while tight ends and wide receivers typically take a couple of years to develop.

The path to fantasy relevance for rookie running backs can occur in a variety of ways.

  1. They’re handed the keys to the offense from the beginning.
  2. They are forced into a starting role due to players in front of them missing time due to injury, poor performance, holdouts, etc.
  3. They impress the coaching staff and earn playing time.

Every year, there are a handful of rookie running backs that surprise fantasy experts and make an impact at some point in the season. If you can hit on one of these players, your fantasy team takes a huge step forward. Last year, Nick Chubb (10th round ADP) and Phillip Lindsay (undrafted) exploded in the NFL and boosted fantasy teams. Other examples of true league winners include Alvin Kamara (2017) and David Johnson (2015).

Here is a list of running backs who were free in fantasy leagues their rookie season but are very relevant this season: David Johnson, Kenyan Drake, Alvin Kamara, James Conner, Marlon Mack, Aaron Jones, Chris Carson, Tarik Cohen, Nick Chubb, Phillip Lindsay, Justin Jackson, the list goes on…

Takeaway

Take a late-round flier on a rookie running back or two! They’re low risk and have a (small) chance to turn into a league winner!

They may make an immediate impact in Week 1. And if they don’t? You can always drop them for waiver wire players. Also, some of them will become relevant later in the season. Now, I’m not saying that you need to draft three rookie running backs and keep them on your team the whole year, clogging roster space. But it’s worth taking a free lottery ticket and keeping your eyes on the rookie running backs throughout the season so that you have an edge on your opponents.

Rookie Running Back Targets

Here is a list of rookie running backs currently being drafted in round 10 or later that you should consider rostering in 2019. Some of them will become relevant later in the season, so keep an eye on them throughout the season.

Devin Singletary (BUF | 3rd round NFL draft pick | ADP 10th round) – Devin Singletary is a smaller back who was very productive in college (Florida Atlantic University), including a 2017 campaign with 33 touchdowns and 2,000 yards from scrimmage. Unfortunately, he’s in a crowded backfield on an offense that lacks excitement. He has the opportunity to pave a path to fantasy relevance by impressing the coaching staff and outperforming the veteran backs on the roster (LeSean McCoy, Frank Gore, T.J. Yeldon). At some point this season, I expect Devin Singletary to be the centerpiece of a “waiver wire targets” article.

Justice Hill (BAL | 4th round NFL draft pick | ADP 10th round) – Justice Hill has impressed during the preseason as a speedster who is great at catching the ball. He led all running backs at the 40-yard dash, vertical jump, and broad jump during the 2019 combine. Unfortunately, he too is in a crowded backfield (Mark Ingram, Gus Edwards, and Kenneth Dixon). Mark Ingram is the clear leader, and I expect him to do well, but he turns 30 this season and may be less talented than Hill at this point in his career.

Todd Olszewski/Getty Images

The offense can easily support Hill. In fact, I think he is the most likely to provide a solid floor among this rookie RB list. The Ravens led the NFL in rushing attempts (547) last season, 32% more than the league average. We should expect the same this year, which means plenty of opportunities to go around. Also, there are 240 vacated targets compared to last year with Crabtree, Brown, and Allen no longer on the team. Our Editor-in-Chief Kyle wrote an article about vacated targets and the correlation with focusing on targeting the RB position more. Enter Justice Hill, pass-catching specialist. He could easily become the 3rd down back in Baltimore with upside if anything were to happen to Ingram.

Alexander Mattison (MIN | 3rd round NFL draft pick | ADP 11th round) – Alexander Mattison secured the backup role to Dalvin Cook, who has missed 17 games in his first two seasons in the NFL. Mattison has done a solid job in the preseason and would be the workhorse replacement for Cook if he were to miss time. Without an injury to Cook, Mattison is most likely just a high-level handcuff.  That being said, there is a world where he has standalone value.  He’s worth a flier.

Damien Harris (NE | 3rd round NFL draft pick | ADP 12th round) – Damien Harris is the type of player Bill Bellicheck dreams about. He outproduced fellow rookie RB Josh Jacobs at Alabama last season in the following categories: rushing attempts, yards per carry, and receptions. Harris is the definition of a coachable player, and he’s impressed the Patriots staff this offseason (who are not easily impressed).

If Sony Michel wasn’t in New England, Damien Harris would be drafted in the middle rounds – and probably at a screaming value. However, Harris is in a crowded backfield with Sony Michel, James White, and Rex Burkhead.  Harris should win the #3 job in front of Burkhead. There is a chance Harris carves a role out for himself, but he probably won’t be an every-week starter unless there’s an injury ahead of him. If Sony Michel or James White miss any time, Harris will have a safe (flex) floor and plenty of upside. Keep in mind that Michel has an injury history and had a minor knee operation early this offseason (although he looked better than ever this preseason). I typically don’t draft handcuffs, but I am all in on the Michel / Harris tandem in the 4th & 12th round this year.

The Patriots were top-3 in rushing attempts last season and should continue to lean on skilled runners so Brady can stay efficient and effective on fewer passes as he turns into grandfather time. Harris is the most intriguing RB to me out of the bunch because he’s the best fit for his team among nearly any rookie RB, and the Patriots manufacture touches for talented players that fit a specific role.

Shoutout Early to Mid Round Rookie RB

While I only wrote narratives for the RB being drafted in double-digit rounds, I encourage you to purchase the Ultimate Draft Kit to learn more about Tony Pollard, Darrell Henderson, Darwin Thompson, Miles Sanders, David Montgomery, and Josh Jacobs. These players are more commonly known and have received a lot of hype. In short, I like Jacobs, Montgomery, and Sanders at their ADP. However, I would personally wait until double-digit rounds for Pollard, Thompson, and Henderson – who I would take in that order. Monitor Zeke news closely, as it has a gigantic impact on Pollard’s value.

Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Reference Chart

Here’s a list of the top-10 projected fantasy rookie running backs entering the 2019 season. I made this table so that fantasy owners have a quick reference chart throughout the season. I’m confident that at least three of them will outproduce their current ADP by a good margin. While all of these players have the potential to vastly outproduce their ADP, I reserved the title “Potential League Winner” exclusively for the mid-to-late round RB who could transform into a top-10 RB for the second half of the season if the stars align – like David Johnson in 2015 and Alvin Kamara in 2017

Take a shot on one of these shiny toys, and enjoy the ride! (Keep in mind this was made based on information available in August).

Player Team 2019 NFL
Draft round
Fantasy ADP
(Draft Round)
Perceived Risk
of Starter
Missing Time?
Path to Relevance
by Outperforming
Starter?
Potential League
Winner*
Good Offense
(Proj.)
Damien Harris NE 3 12 x x
Alexander Mattison MIN 3 11 x x x
Justice Hill BAL 4 10 x x
Devin Singletary BUF 3 10 x
Tony Pollard DAL 4 8 x x x
Darrell Henderson LAR 3 8 x x x
Darwin Thompson KC 6 7 x x x x
Miles Sanders PHI 2 5 Starting RB x x
David Montgomery CHI 3 4 Starting RB x x
Josh Jacobs OAK 1 3 Starting RB x

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