As the old saying goes, football is a young man’s game. That’s especially true of the Running Back position, and fantasy owners are always looking for the next rookie RB that’s going to break out. There are the obvious picks each year; guys like Ezekiel Elliott in 2016, Leonard Fournette last year, and Saquon Barkley this year. But we want to go beyond the obvious. The real value lies with the RBs who can carry you to a championship despite being selected late in drafts. Those of you who drafted Kareem Hunt prior to Spencer Ware’s injury last year know exactly what I’m talking about, and those of you who picked up Alvin Kamara as an undrafted free agent know even better. So who are the somewhat under-the-radar potential fantasy studs for the 2018 season? We’re glad you asked.
By: Andy Levin
People simply are not giving Royce Freeman enough attention. Freeman was drafted out of Oregon by the Broncos in the 3rd round (71st overall) in this year’s draft. He steps into a spot where he has potential to be a workhorse as his only competition in the backfield is Devontae Booker. Devontae Booker is flat out not good.
If Freeman is not getting 15-20 carries week 1, it is only a matter of time before he does. Freeman is having a great preseason which is helping make a case for why he should be the go-to Running Back in Denver come week 1. In Freeman’s four years at Oregon, his worst YPC was 5.4. Last year’s #1 fantasy running Back, Todd Gurley, averaged 4.7 YPC. In addition to Freeman being hard to tackle, he will eat up plenty of yards with his speed (4.54 – 40 yard dash) as well. He is sixth leading rusher in college football history. While those stats may be great, defensive tackling ability in college football is admittedly nothing like it is in the NFL. The amount of missed tackles that occur in college football are significantly more than the NFL. However, Royce Freeman has potential to make NFL defenses look like a college one. Last year at Oregon he broke 53 tackles which was fourth-most among draft-eligible running backs.
John Elway and the Broncos coaching staff have been talking very highly of Freeman. Broncos GM John Elway spoke about Freeman. “He’s a bell cow type. First and second down. With the size that he has, and he’s got good speed … heads downhill. He’s a guy that we needed. We needed a thumper.”
The Broncos backfield needed help. The Broncos leading rusher last year, CJ Anderson, was 50th in yards per carry. That was worse than the likes of Wayne Gallman, Jalen Richard, Charles Sims; all players that were ranked significantly lower than him. Why did Anderson end up with more fantasy points? Volume! Almost always being an average RB getting 25 carries a game is a better recipe for success than an above average RB getting 10 carries per game.
Royce Freeman is looking at a big workload for a rookie RB. To go along with that, the Broncos have an improved offensive line and Case Keenum is a big upgrade from Trevor Siemian/Brock Osweiler. On the offensive line, Denver picked up Jason Veldheer from the Cardinals to help sure up the right side. Veldheer was a strong contributor for the Raiders in years past. The middle three of Ronald Leary at left guard, Matt Paradis at center and Connor McGovern at right guard should be enough for the ground game to get going in 2018.
The downside with Freeman would be that Denver will supposedly use a backfield by committee to start the season. Nonetheless, it is likely that changes quickly with no tough competition taking away carries from Freeman. Even before his workload increases as Elway expects, he will get the goal line work and operate in an improved offense. This should have fantasy owners on the lookout for Freeman come draft day. (ADP 47 in non PPR; ADP 45 in PPR on ESPN).
By: Brandon Carney
Kerryon Johnson will be fantasy-relevant in 2018, and it won’t just be because his name was used to create one of the best team names of the season for fans of classic rock (Kerryon My Wayward Son, if you haven’t heard). If you’re looking for rookie RB value and don’t want to spend a 4th-5th round pick, Johnson could be your man.
In terms of week 1, you won’t be able to trust Johnson to start for you, even as a flex. But that fact is baked into his ADP which currently sits at 87 in PPR and 86 in non-PPR in ESPN leagues. That means he’ll likely be your second or third bench piece and you’ll be able to wait a few weeks for him to reach his full potential. Despite being part of a crowded depth chart right now, none of LeGarrette Blount, Theo Riddick, or especially Ameer Abdullah should keep Johnson from the top for very long.
The 2017 SEC player of the year, Johnson turned 285 carries into 1391 yards and a whopping 18 touchdowns on the ground during his final season at Auburn. He also had 24 receptions for 194 yards and 2 touchdowns through the air, showcasing solid ability as a receiver. He’s obviously got the eye-popping stats, but more importantly, all reports out of Lions camp say he’s excelling as a pass blocker. That is the biggest hurdle for rookie Running Backs as an inability to block will keep even the most gifted players off the field. It’s exactly what’s holding back Ronald Jones II, the Buccaneers’ 38th overall pick in the draft, from a prominent early-season role. Johnson’s ability to catch and block will make him a capable three-down back whenever the Lions decide to use him that way.
The offensive line in Detroit also projects to be vastly improved from 2017. Left Tackle Taylor Decker is fully healthy a year removed from surgery to repair a torn pectoral, and the Lions also spent a first-rounder on highly-touted Arkansas Left Guard Frank Ragnow. Pro Football Focus graded the Detroit line as the 19th best unit to end 2017 but bumped them up to 8th overall heading into this season. This improvement will help an already high-powered Lions offense ascend to even greater heights in 2018, and that obviously means good things for Johnson and the run game.
A multi-dimensional RB on a great offense with an improved offensive line and only one-dimensional RBs to compete with for touches? Sign me up. Johnson has as much upside as anyone and for the price of a 7th-8th round pick, it’s almost too good to pass up.