It used to be, picking out the top rookie running back in fantasy football in a given year wasn't that hard. When an NFL team drops a first-round pick on a player, that player is probably going to see the field early.
However, in today's age of devalued running backs and committee backfields, the waters have gotten muddier. That's especially true in 2014, where there's a handful of players for whom a case can be made as this year's top-ranked rookie ball-carrier.
When the dust settles on the 2014 season, however, the king of the fantasy mountain among young buck backs is going to be the player who appears to face the biggest obstacle in reaching that summit.
When the San Francisco 49ers drafted Ohio State's Carlos Hyde in the second round of May's NFL draft, many fantasy football enthusiasts muttered an assortment of words I can't write here.
Mind you, it's certainly not a matter of talent. The 2013 Big Ten running back of the year, Hyde rumbled for over 1,500 yards last year, punctuating that campaign with a team-record 226 yards on the ground in the regular-season finale against Michigan.
|Carlos Hyde 2013 Statistics|
|Per CFB Stats|
The 6'0", 230-pound bruiser is a throwback runner. That isn't to say that Hyde isn't fast or agile (for a man his size), but he's very much a "shortest distance between two points is a straight line" player.
If you happen to be in the way, that's your problem.
As Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com points out, it's that combination of speed and power that makes Hyde so dangerous:
Hyde also possesses a running style that would appear to mesh very well in San Francisco. As Charles Davis of the NFL Network wrote, "The 49ers like to bludgeon people running the football. That's what Hyde can do. He does not turn down carries. Hyde can (also) catch the football out of the backfield so effortlessly."
Given all that, it would seem at first glance that the matter's settled. A talented bruiser on a team that loves pounding opponents into submission. What's not to like?
Well, there's 21 things not to like. As in No. 21.
For all Hyde's talent, there's absolutely zero question who the lead back in San Fran is, and it ain't Carlos Hyde. That would be Frank Gore, who has topped 1,000 yards on the ground for the Niners in seven of the past eight seasons. In six of those seasons, Gore averaged at least 15 carries per game.
Gore is the reason why those fantasy owners I mentioned earlier made with the colorful language. So long as he sits atop the depth chart, it's going to be difficult for Hyde to get the touches necessary to make a significant fantasy dent.
Yes, Hyde is going to get carries, especially with Kendall Hunter out for the season. In fact, given all the questions surrounding this year's other rookie backs, just a complementary role (provided it includes goal-line work) could be enough to keep Hyde among the top five rookie running backs.
After all, Bishop Sankey of the Tennessee Titans (the early favorite to be fantasy's top rookie back this year) hasn't been able to unseat Shonn "three yards and a cloud of mediocrity" Greene to start in Nashville.
Andre Williams of the New York Giants turned heads with his power in last week's Hall of Fame game, but the NCAA's leading rusher is something of a one-trick pony. His pass protection is spotty at best. His receiving ability is non-existent.
And so it goes for every rookie running back this year. For every answer there are two questions.
Still, we aren't talking about Hyde as one of the top rookie running backs this year. We're talking about him as RB numero uno.
And it won't take much for that to happen.
Frank Gore is a very good (some would even say great) running back. Not Canton good, but quite possibly 49ers Ring of Honor good.
However, Gore is also a 31-year-old running back who has carried the ball nearly 2,200 times over his career. Gore has been very durable over his 10-year career, but the proverbial cliff can come at any moment for a back Gore's age.
Were Gore to suffer a significant injury, it's not hard at all to imagine Hyde posting top-10 fantasy numbers at his position. Not among rookies, mind you.
Among all running backs.
Even if Gore stays healthy, all is hardly lost for Hyde's fantasy owners. Gore's 4.1 yards a carry last year, while respectable, was the lowest mark of his career in that regard. In the playoffs, that number fell to an anemic 3.4 yards per tote.
The 49ers didn't draft Hyde so he could watch Gore play. Not with the Niners trying to get back to the Super Bowl and Jim Harbaugh coaching for a new contract.
If Hyde performs in the regular season like he did on the first drive of his NFL career, then the carry "split" is going to start swinging his direction a lot sooner than many think:
Mind you, this isn't to say Hyde's a "can't miss" fantasy pick. Where rookie running backs are concerned in 2014, there is no such thing.
However, Hyde doesn't have any more questions surrounding him or obstacles in front of him than any other first-year back this season. His upside, on the other hand, is miles ahead of the likes of Sankey, Williams, Devonta Freeman of the Atlanta Falcons and so forth.
Fantasy owners who draft Gore and don't "handcuff" Hyde are asking for trouble. Those looking for bye-week depth or a "flex" option in the middle rounds could do worse than a player whose ceiling lies among the elite options at the position.
Frankly, it's not the best of seasons for rookie running backs from a fantasy perspective. Not because there aren't some talented young backs beginning their NFL careers, but because none have a clear path to fantasy stardom.
But if you're going to roll the dice on a rookie back this season, Carlos Hyde's the guy.
Because if El Guapo gets just the tiniest opening, he has the ability to power your fantasy team all the way to a championship.
Gary Davenport is an NFL Analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter @IDPManor.
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