fbpx

Rookie Running Backs: What To Know Before Your Fantasy Football Draft

Las Vegas Raiders running back Zamir White (35) runs the ball against Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Shaquille Quarterman (50) in the first quarter the Hall of Fame game at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium.
Photo Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Running back is one of the most valuable positions in fantasy football, right up there with wide receiver as one of the spots that can make or break an owner’s chances at winning their fantasy league. Because of the value of this position, fantasy owners should be sure to take a close look at rookie running backs going into each season.

In this guide, we break down what owners should look for when considering rookie running backs in fantasy football. We also look at who the best rookie running back in the NFL might be this season, as there are several backs who could make an impact.

What makes rookie running backs successful?

The overall quality and construction of a team’s roster

The environment around a rookie running back is key to how a first-year back performs. Run blocking is important for any running back, as they need lanes to run through in order to get past an opposing defensive front. While evaluating the talent of a rusher is important, evaluating the players who will be blocking for him is also necessary.

Along with the quality of run-blocking a rookie back has at their disposal, the team’s passing offense is an overlooked factor. If a rookie running back plays for an offense with a lackluster passing game, opposing defenses will be able to key in on the run and slow that rookie running back down. If that rookie back plays in an offense where defenses have to respect a dangerous passing attack, that leads to fewer defenders in the box and the potential for more running lanes.

Depth chart considerations

Running back depth on a roster can also determine how much success a rookie running back has. Unless a running back is coached by Bill Belichick, who uses his running backs seemingly at random to mess with fantasy owners, a back often needs to be in the top-two on their team’s depth chart to get enough touches to be a significant factor in fantasy football. Looking at the depth chart for each team can illuminate spots where rookies might shine.

Fantasy owners should also look for spots where injuries could bump these backs up the depth chart. If a rookie sits below a running back that has a history of fragility, that rookie could see more touches than anticipated if that fragile back is unable to play for a portion of the season.

What to look for in fantasy football rookie running backs

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris (22) in action against the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Photo Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Availability

The best ability in fantasy football is availability, and nowhere is that more true than at the running back position. Durability is a must at a position where backs are getting hit by multiple tacklers on a regular basis, while pass catchers are typically taken down in space by fewer defenders. Rookie running backs have to be able to withstand a level of punishment that simply cannot be replicated at the levels of football they played in previously.

Versatility

Versatility is another trait that can really separate running backs from the pack in fantasy football. The ability to make a difference by both carrying the ball and catching passes can help running backs rack up points in ways that pure rushers cannot. This is especially true in PPR (points-per-reception) leagues, where receptions earn players points in addition to their yardage totals.

For rookie running backs, versatility is even more valuable than it is for veteran players in the NFL. The reason for this is that rookies are looking to establish their value in the league and earn expanded roles on their teams. Being able to run the ball and catch passes out of the backfield not only helps fantasy owners, but helps the careers of the young backs gifted enough to do both.

Physicality

Finally, rookie running backs need to have the physical tools to have success at the professional level. Running backs can have success in college without elite size or speed, but at least one of those dimensions is needed to be truly impactful in the NFL. Fantasy owners must make sure that the backs they select from the rookie ranks have the tools to be successful in the pros to avoid carrying a fantasy draft bust on their roster.

Best rookie running backs in previous seasons

Running back may be the position where rookies are best equipped to enter the league and make an immediate impact from a fantasy perspective. When looking at the top fantasy football RBs from recent seasons, rookies have regularly featured in the top-25 in fantasy points scored. Here, we look at the rookie running backs that have finished in the top-25 in fantasy points at their position, per NFL.com:

As you can see, fantasy football rookie RBs have made up at least three of the top-25 overall fantasy running backs in each of the last three seasons. Many of these backs came into favorable situations, joining quality offenses or at least offenses with an immediate need for running back production. The goal for fantasy owners is to determine where those needs exist in this rookie class before drafting.

Best rookie running back to draft in fantasy this season

Now that we have covered what qualities make a rookie running back worth drafting in fantasy football, fantasy owners likely have one remaining question: which rookie running back should I draft? There are several backs entering the league this season that have the potential to be an asset to your lineup. These five running backs are among those with a chance to have strong rookie campaigns for both their teams and your fantasy team:

  • Breece Hall, New York Jets

    One of the top rookie running backs 2022 has to offer could be Breece Hall of the New York Jets. Hall was the first running back taken in this year’s NFL Draft, selected 36th overall in the second round. Hall is set to get heavy usage from the beginning of his professional career, as he is listed first on the Jets’ depth chart coming into the 2022 season.

    Hall scored 50 rushing touchdowns in three seasons at Iowa State, including 41 in his final two seasons with the Cyclones. On a Jets team that struggled with its passing game in Zach Wilson’s first year, Hall will be called upon to bring a new dimension to the Jets offense. His anticipated usage alone makes him worth consideration for fantasy football owners in 2022.
  • Kenneth Walker III, Seattle Seahawks

    The Seattle Seahawks lost Chris Carson to retirement and are looking to rebuild their running game in 2022. With Russell Wilson out and Drew Lock/Geno Smith in, Seattle may not be able to rely on its passing game the way it has in the past. Those circumstances have created something of a perfect storm for incoming rookie Kenneth Walker III, who should factor heavily into the equation for Seattle.

    Walker sits behind only Rashaad Penny on the depth chart for the Seahawks, but Penny is by no means locked into the starting running back job. The Seahawks are likely to use an array of backs this season until they find the most effective option. Early usage for Walker will give him a chance to claim the starting spot and give fantasy players a nice second half push.

Buffalo Bills running back James Cook (28) catches a pass during training camp at St. John Fisher University.
Photo Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports
  • James Cook, Buffalo Bills

    Buffalo comes into this season as the favorites to win the Super Bowl at DraftKings Sportsbook, but the team’s one glaring weakness is its running game. Josh Allen led an explosive offense last season for the Bills, but they were in the bottom half of the league in yards per carry, despite a high rushing yards per game mark. The Bills drafted James Cook out of Georgia in the second round of the 2022 draft, in hopes he can make their rushing attack more explosive to match their passing offense.

    The depth chart at running back for the Bills is going to be crowded this season, with Devin Singletary, Zack Moss, and Duke Johnson joining Cook in the backfield. But Singletary and Moss have not been consistently impressive during their time in Buffalo, while Johnson has become a journeyman. Cook has the potential to break through the clutter to claim a good share of the running back touches.

  • Zamir White, Las Vegas Raiders

    Simply getting the opportunity to make plays with the football is huge for rookie running backs in fantasy football. Zamir White should get the opportunity to do just that in Las Vegas this season, as the Raiders have shown that they are not 100% committed to Josh Jacobs. Jacobs has been taking a lot of preseason snaps, a sign that White may have a better shot than expected to get a decent split of the backfield snaps once the regular season starts.

    White joins Kenyan Drake and Ameer Abdullah in the backfield rotation behind Jacobs in Las Vegas this season. Both Drake and Abdullah are approaching 30 years old, and have not been able to find a steady role in their recent stops around the league. If White can impress early in the season, he could become a viable fantasy option as the season wears on.

  • Isaiah Spiller, Los Angeles Chargers

    Isaiah Spiller of Texas A&M was drafted in the fourth round of the 2022 NFL Draft out of Texas A&M. He is by no means the most highly touted running back coming into the league this season. But Spiller provides a nice contrast to starting running back Austin Ekeler on the Los Angeles Chargers, which could make him an option to score touchdowns on a regular basis in 2022.

    Spiller is a more physical running back than Ekeler, who typically relies more on his speed to make defenders miss. While this pairing may not split goal-line touches down the middle, Spiller could certainly see action when the Chargers get into the red zone. His frame and ability to run through defenders in the preseason is very encouraging.