After running through the top-10 wide receivers and then WRs 11-40 yesterday, we are continuing to break down this incoming rookie class for Dynasty Rookie Drafts, startups, and even the potential these young players can have on the 2022 seasonal formats. Even prior to the actual NFL Draft in April, rookies are available in Best Ball formats across all platforms.
Now that the NFL combine has passed, we have a plethora of new athletic data on this upcoming rookie class. That information can be applied to athletic models and used to shape out the full portfolio for prospects to go along with production profiles, which is a general overlay of what these players put on tape for NFL teams.
As we get more athletic testing data coming in, we will add notes here to those prospects. However, overall, athletic testing has a low correlation to actual fantasy output and when it does, it is typically counted twice from a productive player in the first place. But when a prospect has subpar athletic testing paired with a limited or nonexistent production resume, then we are playing with fire when attempting to elevate or count on that player for NFL production.
For running backs, nothing matters more to the position than invested draft capital. Over the past decade, fantasy production years 1-3 has a 32% correlation to draft capital alone. While that correlation is also leaving a lot of room on the table for variance, it is by far and away the most predictive measure for backs and early career fantasy output.
Post-draft we’ll have the added influence of draft investment and landing spot to add to the layout, but opportunity is the name of the game for the running back position. If you can find the field and accrue touches, that’s the starting block we care about.
Setting up some more of the process here, although I do prospect models for each of the skill positions and will share the ranks for the players in those models, my personal ranks do not strictly follow those models linearly. I use the prospect models in a similar fashion as I do projection models for the NFL season. We are looking for immediate market inefficiencies in leagues where we are drafting rookies prior to the actual NFL draft.
1. Breece Hall, Iowa State, Final Year Age: 20.6 (Model Rank: RB1)
Hall checks every box we are looking for. He had an early career breakout at age 18 with 1,149 yards and 10 touchdowns that rolled into posting seasons with 1,752 and 1,774 yards afterward with 23 touchdowns in each. He caught 20 or more passes in all three seasons while averaging 22.2 touches per game, the most in this draft class over their collegiate careers.
At the combine, Hall checked out physically at 5’11” and 217 pounds while registering as a 90th percentile athlete in the model’s physical score. There is a reason Hall is the consensus RB1 in this class and it is hard to objectively push back on it.
2. Kenneth Walker, Michigan State, FY Age: 21.2 (MR: RB2)
Transferring over to Michigan State after two years at Wake Forest, Walker flourished in his new environment. After posting 1,205 yards and 17 touchdowns on 223 touches over those two seasons at Wake, Walker exploded for 1,725 yards and 19 scores with the Spartans in 2021. Walker averaged a career-high 6.3 yards per touch, living on big runs. He was second in class in the rate of runs to gain 15 or more yards (11.5%) while a class-high 53.9% of his rushing yardage came on those carries. Walker also did this while facing loaded boxes on 19.9% of his carries, the sixth-highest rate in the class.
Walker did more than necessary at the combine to back his breakaway yardage, checking out with a 92nd percentile speed score at 211 pounds. Walker also ranks third in this class in avoiding a tackle once every 2.9 carries while he averaged 4.46 yards after contact per carry (also third).
An explosive runner, the one thing Walker lacks is the reception totals, catching 19 passes combined over his three collegiate seasons. Only three backs in this class posted a lower target rate per route run than Walker (7.8%). He also averaged just 6.8 yards per catch on his 13 grabs in 2021. Not catching passes in college is not necessarily a function of not being able to catch passes at the next level, but it just leaves the door open for Walker to share those passing game opportunities at the next level.
3. Isaiah Spiller, Texas A&M, FY Age: 21.1 (MR: RB8)
Our first player out moving away from the model, which dings Spiller a bit for stagnant college production, Spiller checks a lot of the boxes we are looking for, especially in context of this class. Spiller posted over 1,100 yards in three seasons at Texas A&M. He never cleared more than 208 touches in any of those seasons, but he still secured over 20 receptions all three seasons while averaging 5.9 yards per touch in each of the past two years.
Spiller Is not particularly an elite standout in any department, but he does a lot of things well compared to much of this class, which is limited in some capacity in three-down potential from this point on. This is why Spiller is still retaining traction in projected draft capital in context of this class. At 6’0” and 217 pounds, Spiller did not do much at the combine outside of show he has the frame for three-down work, but we largely only care about where he is drafted.
4. Rachaad White, Arizona State, FY Age: 23.0 (MR: RB3)
As a JUCO transfer in 2020, White averaged an impressive 11.4 yards per touch with six touchdowns on just 50 touches in his first season with Arizona State. That exciting sample landed White in the driver’s seat entering 2021 and he did not disappoint, turning in 1,456 yards (6.5 yards per touch) with 16 touchdowns.
Where White stands out in this class is out of the backfield. He accounted for 20.9% of the team receptions and 19.5% of the receiving yards, the highest rates in this class. Not just a product of volume in the passing game, White also led this class in yards per route run (2.25).
White has the size (6’0” and 214 pounds) to be more than a satellite back at the next level while he posted a 74th percentile speed score and 87th percentile explosion score (vert plus broad) at the combine. If a team is aggressive with White on Day 2 of the draft, then he will be someone I am heavily targeting from this class of backs.
5. Zamir White, Georgia, FY Age: 22.3 (MR: RB12)
Following up with another White, Zamir is a former five-star recruit that was the top-rated player at his position leaving high school. White tore his ACL as a freshman (after tearing his ACL in his other knee as a senior in high school) and then never got over the hump as the feature back at Georgia, playing behind D’Andre Swift in 2019 and then sharing work with James Cook this past season. White only topped out with a season-high of 169 touches over his three seasons at Georgia.
He never materialized as a pass catcher, catching just 17 total passes through three seasons, conceding pass downs in each season. White ran fewer pass routes this past season than all but one running back, and it was C.J. Verdell, who only played in five games.
The model dings White for his lack of being a workhorse and collegiate production, but I believe when reaching the depths of this class, White’s pedigree entering Georgia, the Georgia RB stigma itself, and the fact that he came out of Indy last week on a high note, that he will is one of the better bets at this stage of the position to draw tangible draft capital.
White looks the part of a two-down back in the NFL, but did come out of the combine positively with an 83rd percentile physical score, running a 4.40 forty at 214 pounds and posting the best broad jump (10’8”) at the position.
6. James Cook, Georgia, FY Age: 22.3 (MR: RB14)
White’s partner in the Georgia backfield, Cook ended his career on a high note, posting 1,012 yards and 11 touchdowns on 140 touches after totaling 1,221 yards and nine touchdowns on 157 touchdowns over his first three seasons, playing limited snaps behind Swift and White.
Cook has been hyper-efficient per touch over his career (7.5 yards) due to the types of touches he gets paired with the Georgia environment. Cook is one of the better pass catchers in this class, averaging 10.9 yards per reception over his career while averaging 1.63 yards per route in 2021, fourth in this class.
Where Cook takes projection is as a runner. At 199 pounds, Cook was 11 pounds lighter than his brother (Dalvin) at the combine, and he will unlikely be given initial work on early downs. His pass catching ability will have him in the mix to potentially be selected in the area of his teammate, but we really wish we could make both White and Cook one Voltron-style back to lock into as a potential three-down option at the next level.
7. Dameon Pierce, Florida, FY Age: 21.9 (MR: RB21)
Pierce is one of the more intriguing prospects in this class. He never garnered much work over his career at Florida, topping out with a career-high 123 touches over his four seasons. That said, there are a number of peripheral metrics that show he was criminally underused.
This past season, Pierce only managed 119 touches, but averaged 6.6 yards per touch with 16 touchdowns. Pierce ranked second this draft class in rate of runs to gain a first down or touchdown (37.0%), he forced a missed tackle once every 2.56 carries (first), while averaging 3.65 yards after contact per carry (12th) with a run of 15 or more yards on 9.0% of his carries (11th). Pierce also averaged 1.80 yards per route run (third in this class) while he did not allow a single pressure in pass protection.
Pierce takes a step of faith in projection since his production is nearly all efficiency-based, but he has the frame (5’10” and 218 pounds) to handle more work than we saw him handle in college.
8. Brian Robinson, Alabama, FY Age: 22.8 (MR: RB6)
As a fifth-year senior, Robinson had to bide his time, but Robinson stepped right into the vacated role left open with Najee Harris going to the NFL, handling 306 touches for 1,639 yards and 16 touchdowns this past season.
Robinson doesn’t carry the sizzle of previous Alabama backs in the draft, but he is also the type of back that is likely going to contribute and find a home at the next level as reliable depth that can also play on early downs. Robinson is 6’2” and 225 pounds, forcing 79 missed tackles, third in this class. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Robinson selected higher than some draft crushes out there.
9. Jerome Ford, Cincinnati., FY Age: 22.3 (MR: RB7)
After two seasons buried on the Alabama depth chart, Ford transferred to Cincinnati in 2020. On limited work playing behind Gerrid Doaks, Ford produced 6.6 yards and eight touchdowns on 81 touches in 2021 before being given the keys to the backfield this past season.
With grips on the lead job, Ford tallied 1,539 yards (6.5 yards per touch) with 20 touchdowns on 236 touches, tacking on 21 receptions for 10.5 yards per grab. Ford found the end zone in all but two games in 2021.
Ford checked out physically at the combine (5’10” and 210 pounds) while registering a 74th percentile speed score (4.46 forty time). Ford is another back that needs real investment to solidify his place in this class.
10. Pierre Strong, South Dakota State, FY Age: 23.1 (MR: RB4)
Strong is someone that many will be waiting to see when and where he lands in the draft. If you are going to have a look at an FCS running back, they better be extra productive and Strong has a decorated production resume, racking up 5,108 career yards and 43 touchdowns at South Dakota State. This past season, he ripped off 1,673 rushing yards on 7.0 yards per carry. He also caught 62 passes over his collegiate career.
Strong has the size (5’11” and 207 pounds) paired with registering a 91st percentile speed score and 82nd percentile explosion score at the combine to give him an extra pulse in being on the map for teams during the draft, potentially on the Elijah Mitchell spectrum. Of course, we also have Zach Zenner PTSD, so we still need to see the investment the league places into Strong in April.