Fantasy football season is year-round entertainment for a number of Dynasty Leagues and many Rookie Drafts have already started. I am in one such league where we set up the draft to start in the beginning of May with only rookies available for the picks. Sifting through all those rookies can be a daunting experience for your fantasy league. These picks can make or break your dynasty team for years to come. I’m going to look at the position many experts consider the most important in fantasy football, the running back and pick out the Top 5 rookie running backs to set your sights on.
1. Ryan Matthews, San Diego Chargers
Ryan Matthews steps into a dream situation in San Diego. All-World Running Back LaDanian Tomlinson has packed his bags and moved on to the Big Apple. The man stepping into that starting job is the diminutive Darren Sproles, a fantastic running back but too small to carry the load for the Chargers. Sproles showed some flash early last season but after week three never carried the ball more than nine times in a game and only broke 40-yards once. With Tomlinson never breaking 100-yards in a game, that shows me they were not sold on Sproles to be the man in San Diego. In steps former Fresno State Bulldog Ryan Matthews. In 2009, he led the nation in rushing averaging 150.6 yards per game. He also stepped it up in big games, being the only player to register three 100-yard performances against Top 25 teams. He will more than likely end up the starter with Sproles coming in for relief and Matthews stands to have the quickest learning curve of rookie backs with San Diego’s passing offense remaining the team’s focus. His fantasy league impact will be hurt slightly by the passing first attitude but he has the best outlook for the future of the running backs in this class.
2. Jahvid Best, Detroit Lions
Kevin Smith struggled in his second year with the Detroit Lions. His yardage and touchdown totals both dropped in large part to the torn ACL he suffered towards the end of the season. However, before that injury he only eclipsed 100-yards once and was a huge disappointment for fantasy owners hoping to see improvement from his promising rookie year. He went on the IR in Week 15 and is only five months removed from the surgery. Jahvid Best will have plenty of opportunities to wrestle carries from the starter and might move up the depth chart with an impressive early showing. Best is not a sure thing. His final collegiate season ended the same as Smith’s NFL season, sitting on the bench nursing an injury. The Cal runner started off quick with 489 all-purpose yards and nine touchdowns in his first three games but, when teams started stacking the line, his production slipped and he ended the season with a concussion and back injury, missing the final four games. The Detroit Lions features a still-developing quarterback in Matthew Stafford and it is not a guarantee that Best or Smith will be seeing the light of day in that offense. With Stafford and stud receiver Calvin Johnson, Best is still someone to target for his long term fantasy football possibilities.
3. C.J. Spiller, Buffalo Bills
It has become scary to put your stock in a Buffalo Bills running back. Everyone who was riding high after taking Marshawn Lynch two years ago are rubbing their wounds after his run-in with the law led to a horrible statistical year in 2009. He quickly lost his starting job to Fred Jackson. Jackson, while putting up slightly better numbers, only broke 100-yards twice last year, including his monster 200+ yard-game against Indianapolis to end the season. His reward for that great performance came in the form of C.J. Spiller as a first round draft pick. Spiller’s talents lie in his big-play ability, drawing comparisons to the New Orleans Saint’s Reggie Bush. The 2009 ACC Player of the Year was an all-purpose weapon, rushing for 3,547 yards and 32 touchdowns while hauling in 123 passes for 1,420 yards and 11 touchdowns. Fifty of his rushing attempts broke 10-yards and 31 runs were for 20-yards or longer. His arrival might mark the end of the road for Lynch, who only carried the ball 12 times in the team’s final three games. Spiller and Jackson have the chance to become a Thunder and Lightning duo and, with the shaky quarterback situation in Buffalo, might be the focus of the offense in 2010.
4. Montario Hardesty, Cleveland Browns
If anyone burst out of the gate in 2009, it was Cleveland Browns running back Jerome Harrison. Jamal Lewis came into the season as the starter but struggled along with the entire team until an injury cut his season short, effectively ending his career on the IR. By the end of the year, it was Harrison who made the best case to take over the starting role Lewis left behind, running for 561-yards and five touchdowns in the final three games of the season. With a new regime coming into Cleveland, the Browns picked up Peyton Hills from Denver and drafted Tennessee standout Montario Hardesty in the second round of the 2010 NFL draft. The biggest knock against Hardesty is his injury problems, only starting six games prior to his senior year. While he has already had three knee surgeries, Hardesty played his entire senior year, averaging 108.8 yards-a-game and scoring 12 touchdowns. He will compete for the job with Harrison and it should be noted that, other than the final three game explosion, Harrison was a non-factor the rest of the season. Hardesty has as good a chance of anyone to enter the season as the starter.
5. Ben Tate, Houston
Maybe the biggest disappointment last year was Houston’s Steve Slaton. After a fantastic rookie year, he struggled to gain any yards in 2009, despite playing behind one of the most prolific passing attacks in the league. He eventually lost carries to journeyman Chris Brown and finished the season on the IR, finishing with 437-yards and 3 touchdowns. Houston responded by drafting Auburn’s Ben Tate in the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft. Tate never really exploded onto the scene until his senior year when he ran for 1,362-yards and 10 touchdowns. The Texans wanted a running back and, after losing out on Ryan Matthews, grabbed Tate in the second round. It is expected that Houston will once again use a running back-by-committee but Tate should be the most valuable. With Slaton’s fumbling problems and Brown’s lack of consistency, Tate might end up coming out of the season with the best fantasy totals of the three.
“Ryan Matthews, RB”, NFLDraftScout.com
“Jahvid Best, RB”, NFLDraftScout.com
“C.J. Spiller, RB”, NFLDraftScout.com
“Montario Hardesty, RB”, NFLDraftScout.com
“Ben Tate, RB”, NFLDraftScout.com