Although the Super Bowl has yet to be played, we are weeks away from the NFL Scouting Combine: a breeding ground for excitement for hyper-athletic incoming rookies. That hype machine affects a player’s NFL draft position in April as well as their fantasy football draft stock in the ensuing summer.
The personnel situations of players’ respective NFL teams will eventually determine a large part of their individual statistical success—especially early in their careers. If Alfred Morris was drafted to the Houston Texans, for example, he most likely would not have run for 1,613 yards on 335 carries as a rookie.
Arian Foster led the NFL with 351 rushing attempts.
Running backs are the likeliest of position players to make immediate fantasy impact in the NFL. Wide receivers and quarterbacks tend to take longer to put things together, and there just aren’t that many big-time talents at tight end. Players at a position that could be an invaluable mismatch for NFL defensive backs haven’t been taken in the first round of the NFL draft since Jermaine Gresham was taken 21st overall in 2010.
Rob Gronkowski went 21 picks later, as the 10th pick of the second round.
Being one of the first rushers off the board is no guarantee that huge numbers are imminent for a guy's rookie season. David Wilson was drafted in the first round by the New York Giants—who already had an established ball-carrier in Ahmad Bradshaw—and was relegated to return duties in his first year. The number of kick returns he had (57) was 14 fewer than his rushing attempts (71) as a rookie.
With the all-important caveat that draft position certainly matters in terms of a rookie’s fantasy potential for a given season, there are a few runners from whom big things should be expected.
Eddie Lacy received just 95 attempts behind eventual third-overall pick Trent Richardson with the Alabama Crimson Tide in 2011, but took those for 674 yards—a whopping 7.1 average—and seven touchdowns.
Richardson averaged 5.9 yards per tote in 2011.
After Richardson’s departure a season later, Lacy’s workload doubled (204 carries), as did his production. The 6’1”, 220-pound. runner churned out 1,511 scrimmage yards (1,322 rushing) and 19 total touchdowns (17 rushing) in 2012. He’s got a 73-yard run to go along with his collegiate credits, showing off some speed.
If there’s one thing Montee Ball has proven in college, it’s that he’s durable: after taking 331 touches as a junior—and scoring 39 touchdowns with them—in 2011, Ball was entrusted to move the football 366 times as a senior.
In his last three seasons, Ball ran 826 times for 4,749 yards (5.75 avg) and 73 touchdowns. This is a guy who holds the NCAA career record for touchdowns scored. As long as he’s getting the football at the next level, it would be counter-intuitive at best not to expect production from him.
Giovani Bernard of North Carolina might be the most attractive fantasy RB for owners in PPR leagues. The draft-eligible sophomore has two 1,200-rushing-yard, 45-catch seasons to his credit. On 423 career carries, Bernard rushed for 2,481 yards and 25 touchdowns.
He caught 45 balls for 362 yards and a touchdown as a freshman, followed by 47 catches for 490 yards and five scores the following season. The soon-to-be former Tar Heel added spectacular plays in the punt return game—263 yards and two TDs on 16 tries—to his repertoire as a sophomore.
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