Q&A QB: Which Rookie Running Backs Are Worth Drafting?

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QUESTION: What are your thoughts on some of the rookie running backs in the later rounds?

I have a feeling someone in my league will jump on the McFadden bandwagon and take him second or third round. I’m not sold on him that high, but what about Matt Forte in the later rounds (sixth or seventh)? Maybe Jonathan Stewart and Rashard Mendenhall? A sleeper pick I am looking at for the tenth or eleventh round is Ray Rice. What are your thoughts on him?

To answer this question, let’s just break down all the rookie RBs worth drafting. Rankings are at the bottom for those of you who like to cheat.

Darren McFadden RB Oakland Raiders

Darren McFadden is going earlier than I think he deserves. He’s not going to put up Adrian Peterson numbers this year. I think fourth round is really the best round to snag him in for value. Any sooner than that is expecting more than you are going to get.

I am not a fan of the crowded backfield in Oakland. He will eventually be the starting running back there, but the Raider offense is still very weak and unproven in the passing game. They will lean heavily on their running game and get McFadden decent numbers with a few exceptional performances. He won’t be breaking any rookie records.

In the second round, let someone else spend a high pick on him. Solid running backs that will out produce him for 2008 are still available there. You can find a better RB2. Make McFadden a FLEX or RB3.

Matt Forte RB Chicago Bears

Matt Forte is a reliable pick. He won’t put up any crazy stat weeks, but he should be good for some consistent yardage and a few scores.

He’s a nice pick because he is actually going at his value.

There is a slight scare now that Kevin Jones has returned from his injury that he will take Forte’s job away, but I think the Bears still want to put the ball in Forte’s hands as their back of the future. Even if they share time, I think I like the chances for Forte to be successful.

You can get Forte in the later rounds, and if he does end up producing more than consistent yardage and the occasional score, he’s has great value there.

Jonathan Stewart RB Carolina Panthers

I really Jonathan Stewart this year, but no one is sure whether he will get the start in Carolina.

Last season, Carolina screwed everyone by starting DeShaun Foster after consensus opinion was that DeAngelo Williams would have won the role. It could happen again with Stewart and Williams.

Depending upon who you ask, Carolina has one of the easiest rushing schedules in 2008. If you can get Stewart in the fifth round and DeAngelo Williams in the sixth or seventh, the pair creates a strong RB2 for any fantasy team.

If you draft Stewart in the fifth round or so, just make sure you get Williams or another solid start in case Stewart doesn’t win the starting job right away.

Rashard Mendenhall RB Pittsburgh Steelers

Rashard Mendenhall’s value isn’t really clear at this point.

He’s likely to steal short yardage looks for Willie Parker, but I don’t see him taking command of this offense this year as much as Jonathan Stewart could. He might be a bye week fill late in the season if he sees an increased role, but for now, he is merely a good backup to roster late for Willie Parker owners.

Some people are going to be really high on him like I am on Stewart, but I don’t buy him being a big fantasy producer in the Steelers’ offense this year. Take Mendenhall later in your draft if you get Willie Parker, but he should go off the boards only after all the RBs with the chance to start are gone.

Ray Rice RB Baltimore Ravens

Ray Rice is a smart pick to close out your draft — especially with McGahee returning slowly from his recent surgery. Rice could end up playing a larger role in this offense than we originally thought for 2008 if McGahee falters.

Cam Cameron knows how to make phenomenal RBs. If Rice has the job given to him, he will benefit, but I still think McGahee is the guy in 2008. He’ll get past his injury before the season gets going.

Steve Slaton RB Houston Texans

Steve Slaton is a better flier late in your draft than Ray Rice. He has a good chance to start by the end of this season.

Houston has Ahman Green in the starting role, but he is on his way out. They brought Chris Brown to play a stopgap role in case Green is injured again this season and to hold them over until Slaton can start, but Brown has injury troubles again as well.

Slaton is the future of the franchise at RB — unless Chris Taylor lives up to all that “coach speak” love from offseason last year. Luckily for fantasy owners, Taylor is being transitioned into a fullback. If Slaton shines enough, he could have the starting job.

If the Texans RBs are plagued with injury, Slaton will start and produce well. He could work his way into a role worth of a RB2 spot on your fantasy team. If you are willing to wait on him — and he’s a better one to wait on than Ray Rice or Mendenhall — he’s more likely than other rookies to have a significant role by the middle of the season.

Chris Johnson RB Tennessee Titans

The wild card rookie this year is Chris Johnson. He set the NFL Combine ablaze when he posted the fastest 40 time. That speed got him drafted in the first round by the Titans.

He’s sharing a backfield with LenDale White, but he also has explosive, big play potential. The Titans could use him like Reggie Bush was utilized in the Saints’ offense during his rookie season.

Johnson is already gunning for offensive rookie of the year and talking it up. With a crowded backfield for McFadden in Oakland and the absence of receiving playmakers in the Tennessee offense, it just might happen.

The only drawback of drafting Johnson is that he is skyrocketing up draft boards. He’s going ahead of LenDale in some drafts now. If he falls to the sixth or seventh in your draft, he is a steal there. Taking him as a RB2 is not advised, but a FLEX or RB3 is a perfect place to put him. Don’t pay too much for a guy you can’t be sure about.

Kevin Smith RB Detroit Lions

When Tatum Bell returned to the Lions, he thought he would be the starting Detroit RB. Too bad…

Kevin Smith almost broke the record for total yardage in a season while in college. He can handle a big workload. Plus, he ran in the Detroit Lions same system while in college. The Lions won’t be great this year, but as long as he has another strong showing in the Week 4 preseason game, the Lions are likely to declare him the starter over Bell. That means he’ll be worth something in fantasy.

He’s barely worth a RB3 spot right now, but taking him as a backup RB could end up being a smart move when Detroit faces weak run defenses.

Ryan Torain RB Denver Broncos

It’s no secret that Mike Shanahan is in love with Ryan Torain. He likes his physical size and abilities and compares him to Terrell Davis.

Torain could have overtaken Selvin Young before he injured his elbow in the preseason. Now, he should miss the first part of the season and return in a backup role, but don’t be surprised to see him get on the field.

Selvin Young, for all his talk this offseason, is not a feature back. While Young can carry the load early this season, he could easily struggle or suffer an injury. It’ll be hard for him to keep a guy like Torain on the bench as long as Mike Shanahan likes the new rookie RB.

He’s not worth drafting, but he’s a player to watch as the season progresses. Just like every other guy on Shanahan’s list, Torain could put up some fantasy points when he’s back on Denver’s RB depth chart.

Felix Jones RB Dallas Cowboys

To use the incredibly over-killed phrase, Felix Jones is the lightning to Marion Barber’s thunder. (I already feel cheaper for having said that.)

Unlike the fading Julius Jones, Felix Jones brings some impact speed to the Cowboys running game. He’ll likely play more snaps than Julius Jones did late last season and compliment Barber with some big yardage breaks and a few big touchdowns.

He doesn’t have the same super speed as Chris Johnson, but he is worth putting on your roster before you start going after some of the iffy starting RBs. Dallas’ offense is powerful, and Jones will put up points by just being in that machine. You could take him in the seventh or eighth round for a potent FLEX player or backup RB.

More rookie RBs that just aren’t worth drafting yet:

  • Tim Hightower, Arizona Cardinals (He won’t steal Edge’s job just yet)
  • Mike Hart, Indianapolis Colts (Addai and Rhodes in front of him)
  • Tashard Choice, Dallas Cowboys (He’ll give Barber breathers but not much else)
  • Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs (Not impressive enough to steal much time from LJ or Kolby Smith)

Which rookie RBs are worth drafting and where?

Rankings go by who I would want on my team the most, not necessarily where you’ll have to draft them to get them on your team. Round recommendations are the earliest I would suggest drafting the rookie RB based on a 12-team, non-PPR league. Average draft position stats from Footballguys.com.

1 Darren McFadden ADP: 40 4th Rd
2 Jonathan Stewart ADP: 64 5th Rd
3 Chris Johnson ADP: 96 6th Rd to 8th Rd
4 Matt Forte ADP: 66 6th Rd
5 Felix Jones ADP: 98 7th Rd to 8th Rd
6 Kevin Smith ADP: 67 6th Rd
7 Steve Slaton ADP:153 12th Rd
8 Rashard Mendenhall ADP: 87 9th Rd to 10th Rd
9 Ray Rice ADP:114 12th Rd (Late Flier)
10 Ryan Torain ADP:198 Undrafted (Late Flier)
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