Immediate Impact Rookies: The Running Backs
These running backs are making all the right moves to position themselves as fantasy juggernauts come gameday:
Dalvin Cook, Vikings: With perhaps the clearest path ahead of him of all rookies to the starting job (besides Leonard Fournette) Cook is primed to lead the Vikings backfield from day one. He’s a utility back of sorts that doesn’t need to come off the field in passing situations. His main competition for touches will be Latavius Murray, who won’t have the luxury of Oakland’s stellar O-line to mitigate his lackluster athleticism, plus Murray has just been placed on the Active/PUP list, so who even knows when he’ll see the practice field before the season gets underway? In addition, special teams coach Mike Priefer is actively petitioning head coach Mike Zimmer to allow Cook to be his primary kick returner, which would only strengthen his chances for fantasy production.
Leonard Fournette, Jaguars: The closest thing to a slam dunk when it comes to rookies with immediate fantasy value, Fournette has all the tools to be a 3-down back in the NFL. A 230 lb battering ram, he has the footwork and vision to hurt you from the goal line or from the opposite 20. He wasn’t asked to catch many passes during his time at LSU, but Fournette has shown soft hands during OTAs, rounding out his game nicely. Coach Doug Marrone has stated that Fournette will have to “earn” his role, but the truth is that it’s his job to lose – which seems unlikely with the bungling Ivory and Yeldon behind him in the pecking order. The one concern with Fournette is that his early season strength of schedule is brutal, so it could be a slow start in Weeks 1-4.
Christian McCaffrey, Panters: Now I’m not as bullish on McCaffrey being the bell cow in Carolina as some, Jonathan Stewart is still going to be an integral part of the offense – especially on the goal line, but McCaffrey is going to be impossible to keep off the field for long with his Tecmo Bowl-like skillset and a hype train going full steam ahead. The Panthers don’t throw a bunch to their running backs from a historical slant, but we’ve seen how Mike Tolbert was used to great effect back in the day, and McCaffrey is so much more versatile than he ever was. Carolina runs the ball more than enough to get consistent usage out of Stewart and McCaffrey. Cam Newton actively campaigned for the Panthers to take McCaffrey over Fournette because of McCaffrey’s versatile set of skills so you know Newton will be excited to get him the football.
Joe Mixon, Bengals: Mixon is going to have to do a lot, or not do a lot, to dispel his reputation as a character concern, but he’s off to a good start so far in Cincinnati. The only causes for concern, and only for his opponents, have been his breakaway speed and burst during practices. He’s also working on pass catching and blitz pickups, something any good full time back needs to have a handle on. We know from college tape that hands will be no issue for Mixon at the NFL level. Jeremy Hill is still in the mix, as is Gio Bernard, but Bernard is still recovering from an ACL injury that could keep him off the field for the beginning of the season, leaving a space for Mixon to get involved early and often.
Joe Williams, 49ers: It’s almost impossible to tell what’s going on with Carlos Hyde in San Fran. One day he’s the future of the team, the next he’s a candidate to be cut and/or traded. One thing about the 49ers backfield is for sure, and that’s that Williams is going to get opportunities to produce. Unlike Hyde, Williams was handpicked by new coach, and former Falcon OC, Kyle Shanahan to fill in that Tevin Coleman role and possibly more. With 4.41 wheels, Williams seems more than up to the task. Don’t be surprised if he quickly assumes the 1A role to Hyde’s 1B, if Hyde even stays with the team.
Kareem Hunt, Chiefs: The highest-drafted running back by an Andy Reid-led Chiefs team, 3rd rounder and RW All-Senior Bowl alumnus Hunt is getting everything thrown his way during practices, and he’s passing with flying colors. His ability to make mountainous gains out of mole hills is evident to even the most casual observers in Kansas City, and he can make shoestring grabs without losing his stride. Spencer Ware is going to have to do everything within his limited capabilities to hold Hunt off, but it’s unlikely to work. Hunt is fast on the rise on a team that throws the ball as a last resort it seems.
Samaje Perine, Redskins: You probably have something going for you when you’re the all-time leading rusher at the same school that Adrian Peterson went to (and when you played during the same period as Joe Mixon who bit into touches) and for Samaje Perine that seems to be a indomitable downhill running style that will help him challenge Rob Kelley for the starting role come September. He’s already surpassed Matt Jones according to sources close to the team, and it only seems like a matter of time before he runs away with the job. The Redskins have an electric offense that will make it easy for a back of Perine’s ability to flourish.