While browsing through Twitter a few days ago, I came across a Tweet from @hjchami which made me think.
James Conner, Elijah Hood, Aaron Jones, Jeremy McNichols are looking pretty good as late rookie RB lottery tickets.
— Hilal ☪ (@hjchami) May 28, 2017
All of these late-round RB’s possess NFL talent based on the fact that were drafted. But as is usually the case with a late round running back, there is usually a guy already on the team ahead of them on the depth chart. I am going to take these four running backs and add Marlon Mack into the mix and see who is most likely to give you fantasy success.
James Conner (Pittsburgh Steelers)
So, Pittsburgh surprised me when they took Conner. They already had a high-powered offense with Bell, Brown, Bryant and Ben; then they decided to add Juju Smith-Schuster and James Conner into the mix.
College career – Conner emerged as one of the stars of college football back in 2014 when he ran for over 1,700 yards and earned the coveted ACC Player of the year. He was unable to defend this title due to suffering a torn MCL early in the 2015 season, meaning he missed the rest of the season. To add to this, he was then diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma but came back with a bang in the 2016 season. He ran for over 1,000 yards on 216 carries, including 16 touchdowns. Even after missing practically a whole season, he still finished up at Pitt with 3,733 yards and 52 touchdowns.
Receiving game – In his first two seasons at Pitt, Conner managed just 103 yards off 8 receptions with no touchdowns. Ignoring his unfortunate 2015 season, Conner announced himself as a receiving back in the 2016 season pulling in 21 receptions for 302 yards including 4 touchdowns. The majority of his receptions came on wheel routes and screen plays. He runs both routes well and shows good patience running behind his blockers after the catch.
Measurables – At 6’2” and 235lb his size is not an issue. During the combine he managed a 4.65-second 40-yard dash and managed 20 reps on the bench press, only 8 running backs performed better on the bench. He possesses the size to be an NFL running back and has the mental strength to succeed. One thing that is slightly lacking is his speed. A 4.65 40-yard dash is not overly impressive, but in his defence, it takes time to develop all of your physical traits after overcoming cancer.
Situation – At the date of the draft, the Steelers had their clear number one back in Le’veon Bell, backed up by Knile Davis and Fitzgerald Toussaint. I am fairly sure that I wasn’t the only person who was underwhelmed by Davis in his time at Kansas City, so I don’t see him as a reliable option if Bell were to get injured (or suspended again). Toussaint, in his career so far with Pittsburgh, has only had 32 carries and turned that into 100 yards, averaging 3.12 yards per carry. Davis looks similar to this throughout his career as he has so far managed 805 yards on 250 carries, averaging 3.20 yards per carry.
Needless to say, Todd Haley and Mike Tomlin will not be looking to either of these players to carry the workload on the off chance that they lose Bell. So that is where Conner comes in. So what if Bell never misses any time? We can look at Conner as somebody who can be rotated into Pittsburgh’s offense to give Bell a rest or maybe just for something different to keep the defense guessing. It’s hard to expect too much from Conner though, when Bell takes the field and is 100% healthy, he is rarely taken off. Bell is the workhorse for Pittsburgh when healthy.
The biggest factor that works in Conner’s favor is Bell’s current contract situation. He was franchise tagged in this offseason and will earn $12 million next season. Whether Pittsburgh wants to pay out the money it will take to keep him after this season is anyone’s guess. But if Conner impresses the coaching staff enough, why would they? (For what it’s worth, I very much hope Pittsburgh keeps Bell – for the purpose of this article, I am happy to play devil’s advocate)
Elijah Hood (Oakland Raiders)
Hood was one of the stronger round 7 pickups in this year’s draft. He is only 21 and there is an argument that an additional season in college would have benefited him. But, if I were a Raiders fan, I would feel positive about having Hood in the backfield.
College career – As I said, Hood only played three years in college. Hood produced three fairly productive years, but still only three. His freshman season in 2014 was underwhelming with just 259 yards off 67 carries including 4 touchdowns. Hood broke out in 2015 though when he ran for 1,463 yards and 17 touchdowns off 219 carries. His production during his last season at UNC took a hit as he started 11 games but had to share the backfield with T.J. Logan. Across all three years though, he still managed to average 5.98 yards per carry, a relatively solid effort.
Receiving game – Hood didn’t show too much production as a receiver throughout his college career. He only had 40 receptions across all three years and managed 211 yards from these.
Measurables – At 5’11” and 232 lb, Hood is big enough and possesses a lot of power due to his stocky build. He does lack speed but uses his power to force his way through tackles to buy himself extra yards. Unfortunately, due to a leg injury, Hood was unable to do most of the drills at the combine although he did manage 18 reps on the bench press. This certainly played a role in him falling so low in the NFL draft.
Situation – Hood falls into a crowded backfield in Oakland. The Raiders running backs consist of the born-again Marshawn Lynch, Jalen Richard, DeAndre Washington and Taiwan Jones. Now don’t get me wrong, I like Hood a lot. But as mentioned previously, I firmly believe he came out of college a year too soon. As a result of this, he is likely to be sat on the Raiders’ practice squad for the near future.
This isn’t a complete disaster for anybody that has already drafted him in fantasy leagues. Take a look at Peyton Barber in Tampa Bay, he started last season on the practice squad and managed to work his way onto the main roster. True, Barber did little to next to nothing with the opportunity, but Hood possesses more talent than Barber.
When I look at Hood, I see him as a better player than Barber who can create a good situation for himself if the opportunity arises. That opportunity could arrive sooner than later depending which Marshawn Lynch turns up to play for Oakland. The 2014 version managed 1,306 yards in 280 attempts scoring 13 touchdowns. Fast forward a year to 2015 and an injury plagued season meant Lynch only played in 7 games, managing 417 yards off 111 carries.
Aaron Jones (Green Bay Packers)
Aaron Jones is a player I was extremely high on before the NFL draft, as shown in the “In the player Pit” interview/profile piece I did on Jones. Green Bay picked him in the 5th round even after they had taken Jamaal Williams one round prior.
College career – To say Jones was productive during his four years at UTEP is a massive understatement. On 658 carries across his four years (only 32 coming during the 2015 season due to injury), he managed 4,114 yards and 33 touchdowns. Jones showed improved production every season, with the obvious exception of his injury-plagued season. The ankle injury didn’t hold him back at all as he exploded during his senior season for 1,773 yards averaging 7.7 yards per carry.
Receiving game – Jones is a highly versatile player and was utilized well in the passing game. He had 71 receptions across his four years where he went for 646 yards and 7 touchdowns. Hell, he even had a Dontari Poe-esque passing touchdown for 3 yards against Old Dominion which can be seen here:
Measurables – At 5’9” and 208lb, there is an argument that Jones is undersized. I strongly disagree with that. Jones shows an incredible amount of strength and has a stiff arm that would make”Beast Mode” proud. Jones displayed his strength at the combine where he managed 16 reps on the bench press. His speed also looks good as he managed a 4.56 in the 40-yard sprint at the combine. Jones possesses the perfect combination of power and speed to be an NFL running back.
Situation – This is where it gets tricky to predict for Aaron Jones. The obvious starter next season is likely to be Ty Montgomery. The wide receiver switched to running back last season under trying circumstances for Green Bay. During this transition Montgomery exceeded expectations, finishing the season with 457 yards and three touchdowns on 77 carries. But now he has competition.
It will be interesting to see how OTA’s and the preseason unfold as Jones, Montgomery, and Williams all battle for the starting job. If you selected Jones in your rookie draft, don’t feel disheartened if early in the season he doesn’t put up big numbers.
Out of the three, Jones is the most talented running back, if he gets the right coaching early in the season he will take the starting job by mid-season. You may be wondering where Jamaal Williams comes into this. In my opinion, he lacks the passion and intensity that Jones has and will be outworked by him to take the starting role. Heck, Green Bay may even surprise everyone and switch Montgomery back to wide receiver.
Jeremy McNichols (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
As late round running backs go, McNichols was heavily fancied by many pundits to be a big success. Tampa Bay agreed with this as they took him in the 5th round of the draft to allow him to join up with another Boise State alumni in Doug Martin.
College career – McNichols only played two full seasons in college, which explains his drop to the 5th round. His freshman year in 2014 was cut short due to injury allowing him only to have 17 rushing attempts going for 159 yards and 1 touchdown. He announced himself to the NCAA in 2015 when he rushed for 1,337 yards and 20 touchdowns on 240 attempts, averaging 5.6 yards per carry. Following these stats up in 2016 with 1,709 yards and 23 touchdowns on 314 attempts. McNichols production is strong, albeit against Mountain West opposition, but you can only beat what is in front of you right? Check out his highlights below:
Receiving game – His production doesn’t stop in the ground game, McNichols is also extremely productive in the passing game. With 103 receptions across his three seasons, he managed 1,089 yards and 11 touchdowns. He is excellent at tracking the ball when it is in the air and is more than capable of hauling in a circus catch if necessary. He was initially recruited by Boise State as a wide receiver from Santa Margarita High School but transitioned to running back before the start of his freshman season.
Measurables – At first glance, McNichols appears to be a slightly larger version of Darren Sproles. A 5’9”, 212lb pass catching running back. His main issue seems to be a weak lower body which could cause problems when hit by NFL standard sized defensive players. His upper body strength is also lacking, which causes obvious problems in pass protection for an NFL running back. McNichols fumbled too much at the college level, fumbling the ball 8 times over the last two seasons, this is purely down to ball protection.
Situation – So we look at Tampa Bays’ depth chart and see Doug Martin, Charles Sims, Jacquizz Rodgers, Peyton Barber and Jeremy McNichols. With Tampa Bay at full strength, Doug Martin is the obvious starter. He is the most talented and is ‘tried and tested’ in the NFL. In fact, Martin tested positive for non-ped’s and must serve a suspension for the first four games of the season. Martin’s misfortune can only help boost McNichol’s opportunity to get additional some snaps.
Charles Sims has been used (and will continue to be) the change of pace back, thrown in when the Bucs want to try something different. Jacquizz Rodgers put together a nice run last season but has largely been irrelevant for fantasy purposes most of his career.
So where does that leave us with McNichols? McNichols returned some kickoffs at Boise State. In his freshman year, he returned 20 kicks for a total of 393 yards, his longest return being 30 yards. I get that these aren’t big numbers on special teams, but I feel this is the only place in the short term where he will fit into Tampa Bay’s lineup. Given the injuries Tampa Bay had last year, it may worth stashing McNichols in case an opportunity comes up where he may get the starting job. But as much as I liked McNichols in college, I don’t think I will be rushing to get him on my fantasy roster.
Marlon Mack (Indianapolis Colts)
College production – In his three years at college, Mack started strong and built on it. In his 586 rushing attempts, he managed 3609 yards for 32 touchdowns, 15 of which came in the 2016 season. In his junior season, he averaged 6.82 yards per carry, the 12th highest out of the FBS, ahead of the likes of Joe Mixon and Christian McCaffrey. My only issue with this stat is that Quinton Flowers (USF Quarterback) finished 4th with 7.73. That the offensive line may have had a giant helping hand in Mack compiling those gaudy numbers seems evident. As a footnote to this, it is worth mentioning that six of his fifteen touchdowns in his junior year covered 40+ yards, an impressive feat at any level.
Receiving game – Mack’s receiving stats are okay. Statistically, there is nothing to get too excited about, but still no cause for concern. In his last season at college he was averaging 8.1 yards per catch, which is good for a running back, but it’s the lack of receiving touchdowns that is disappointing. Across his three years in college, he hauled in 65 receptions for a total of 498 yards and only the one touchdown. Nothing here convinces me that he would be a superior receiving back in the NFL, but at the same time – he could still be utilised in that part of the game.
Measurables – Mack comes in at 6’0” and 210lb, not a million miles off the likes of Le’veon Bell. He clocked a 4.50-second 40-yard dash at the combine, and by watching his tape, it is easy to see how he utilises his speed.
He is an unbelievably shifty player capable of breaking ankles of oncoming defenders. My only issue with Mack is that he is prone to fumbles.
Just by looking at his tape you can see he doesn’t always look comfortable in the way he holds the ball. Though a minor hindrance at the college level, once you get to the NFL, this becomes a major issue. Highly skilled defensive players in the NFL will be more than capable of knocking the ball out if they believe the running back is not in full control of the ball, this could cause an issue for Mack.
Situation – Looking at the Colts depth chart at running back, it ‘s hard to get too excited. Frank Gore is going to be the starter week 1. Behind Gore, there’s Robert Turbin, Josh Ferguson, Christine Michael and of course, Marlon Mack. Looking past Gore, the depth chart is underwhelming. Ferguson hasn’t shown much on limited opportunities so far. Robert Turbin and Christine Michael are just players that seem to bounce around different team’s depth charts and never actually amount to much.
As much as Gore has evaded ‘Father time’ up to now, it is going to catch him eventually, be that at the end of this season or maybe next season. It made sense for the Colts to find his replacement sooner rather than later, that is where Marlon Mack comes in. Fantasy owners can expect low-end production from Mack during the first season (suggesting Gore doesn’t get injured). But once he is gone, I give you my word that Mack will be Indy’s starting running back.
So, who out of these players is the best late-round rb to target? Well, there is no definitive answer. Conner has plenty of upside in a high-power offense. Hood has the talent but could be limited to a banger role. Aaron Jones has landed in a perfect situation to allow him to showcase his skills. McNichols is on a depth chart where opportunities are sure to arise. There isn’t much in the way of talent challenging Mack for a backup role currently on the roster.
Looking short term, the most productive out of any of these players will be Aaron Jones. I believed in his talent before the draft, and I certainly believe in him after the draft. He is a hard worker, and there is no doubt he will force his way into getting some carries in Green Bay. Long term, I look to Marlon Mack. He is the only real threat to Frank Gore for a starting job. Once Gore finally calls it time on his career, Mack will be there to take the reins and run with an ever improving Indianapolis offense.
Thanks for reading, let me know your thoughts in the comments below. You can follow me on Twitter @DFF_JamesH if you want to talk football.