Fantasy fallout: How soon will rookie running backs make an impact?

There are few things more frustrating in fantasy football than a backfield timeshare.

On the flip side, it doesn’t get much better than investing in a rookie running back who breaks out by midseason and leads you into the playoffs. Like Miles Sanders last year, Nick Chubb in 2018 or practically half the rookie class in 2017.

The trick is trying to sort out the difference — especially this year, when so many of the top rookie backs appear headed for supporting roles to start the season.

So we asked ESPN’s NFL Nation reporters how much and how quickly they expect each of the top 10 backs from this year’s NFL draft to contribute.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Kansas City Chiefs (Round 1, Pick 32). The only no-brainer of the bunch. The rookie from LSU is being drafted eighth overall on average in ESPN leagues. And Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher wrote last week about why he’s “worth the hype.”

“I do think Darrel Williams will play some, too. But from what I saw in camp, there’s a clear No. 1, and it’s Edwards-Helaire,” Teicher said.

And as Teicher also pointed out in our recent Fantasy Marathon mailbag, “When the Chiefs have had a healthy lead-featured back under Andy Reid (I’m thinking of Jamaal Charles and Kareem Hunt here), those guys have produced.”

D’Andre Swift, Detroit Lions (Round 2, Pick 35). Swift already was stuck in a timeshare with incumbent Kerryon Johnson. So naturally the Lions went and signed veteran Adrian Peterson to muck up things even further this weekend!

Lions reporter Michael Rothstein said he believes Peterson could indeed see a decent amount of work in Detroit. But there is still a good chance Swift could emerge as the leader in this group down the stretch.

“While Matt Patricia wouldn’t commit to how much the Lions will use Peterson this week against Chicago, there’s reason to believe he’ll at least be part of the game plan for Detroit,” Rothstein said. “The combination of Swift’s injury issues during camp, Bo Scarbrough heading to injured reserve and the Lions’ desire for a committee approach in the first place should lead to at least some work for the 35-year-old along with Johnson and Swift. This could end up being a ‘buyer beware’ situation on all three backs for the time being.

“In the long-term, Swift is the one to count on, especially in PPR leagues. But Detroit could look to bring him along slowly considering he missed over a week of training camp and had no preseason games.”

play

1:29

Neither Matthew Berry nor Field Yates are buying the noise that Jonathan Taylor could have a role in the Colts’ passing game.

Jonathan Taylor, Indianapolis Colts (Round 2, Pick 41). He’s one of the biggest backs in this year’s class (5-foot-10, 226 pounds), one of the fastest (4.39 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the combine). And, oh by the way, he’s also a two-time Doak Walker Award winner who ran for at least 1,977 yards in three straight seasons at Wisconsin.

But Colts reporter Mike Wells wrote about how fantasy owners might get frustrated by what the team has called a “one-one punch” with Taylor and incumbent Marlon Mack running behind “one of the best O-lines in the league.”

“Taylor will get plenty of carries, but expect Mack to average more carries and snaps per game,” Wells said. “Mack is not only the returner who is coming off his first 1,000-yard season, he also has the leg up in Taylor because he’s familiar with the system. Taylor had to learn the offense virtually during the offseason. Also keep in mind that coach Frank Reich believes in having two backs that he can turn to.”

Cam Akers, Los Angeles Rams (Round 2, Pick 52). There’s a huge void to fill in L.A. after Todd Gurley’s release. Unfortunately there are three potential candidates to fill it in Akers, Darrell Henderson Jr. and Malcolm Brown.

And Henderson — who ran for just 147 yards as a third-round choice last year — serves as a bit of a cautionary tale that the Rams won’t automatically force a back into a big role because of how high they drafted him.

“Expect Brown to start when the Rams open the season. But with the Rams hoping to utilize a rotation this season, don’t be surprised when Akers gets a fair amount of carries in Week 1 and beyond,” Rams reporter Lindsey Thiry said. “Since Henderson suffered a hamstring injury during training camp, Akers has received a bump in repetitions. And despite the unusual offseason, he could be on the fast track to earn significant time. Providing a timeline for when, however, is a bit more difficult.

“With Brown in the final season of his contract, Henderson and Akers are clearly the Rams’ running backs of the future. But it’s difficult to determine how long Henderson could be sidelined or slowed, and how quickly Akers will adjust to playing in the NFL.”

play

1:07

Field Yates is high on Ravens RB J.K. Dobbins because of Baltimore’s run-heavy offense and predicts that he could steal the starting RB job from Mark Ingram II by midseason.

J.K. Dobbins, Baltimore Ravens (Round 2, Pick 55). Like Taylor, Dobbins is in a great situation on one of the league’s best rushing attacks. But the Ravens also have an established starter they like a lot in Mark Ingram II.

“Neither coach John Harbaugh nor offensive coordinator Greg Roman will get into specifics about how the touches will get divided, and it doesn’t feel like this is some orchestrated subterfuge,” Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley said. “The Ravens will go with Ingram to start games, but they’ll stick with the hot hand whether it’s Ingram, Dobbins or Gus Edwards. Ravens coaches love to talk about how backs ‘earn’ their opportunities.

“Harbaugh recently said Dobbins will have a ‘significant’ role this year, but no one should expect Dobbins to take over as the starter this year unless Ingram struggles or gets hurt. Dobbins has impressed with his pass-catching and could find his niche as the team’s third-down back. A solid projection for Dobbins is 600 yards rushing and 400 yards receiving. A strong season likely will lead to him becoming Baltimore’s featured back in 2021.”

AJ Dillon, Green Bay Packers (Round 2, Pick 62). Although Dillon’s massive legs have turned heads in camp, Packers reporter Rob Demovsky doesn’t expect the 247-pounder to carve too much out of starter Aaron Jones’ workload this year.

“You know how coaches are, they’re going to go with what’s familiar at first, and that’s Aaron Jones,” said Demovsky, who also stressed that “gadget-back/receiver” Tyler Ervin could have a role in a crowded backfield that still includes veteran Jamaal Williams.

“At some point Dillon will start to become a bigger part of the offense,” Demovsky said. “I just don’t know if it will be until the second half of the season.”

Antonio Gibson, Washington (Round 3, Pick 66). This is still a crowded backfield — but less so after Washington released Adrian Peterson. Washington reporter John Keim broke down the remaining four backs who could split time. But he specifically identified Gibson as the one who made Peterson expendable.

“It’s hard to say how quickly he’ll [make a significant impact] because he’s in a somewhat unique role,” Keim said of Gibson, who primarily played wide receiver at Memphis. “He’s a running back who must learn the position. And because he can align in different spots, he’ll sit in on some WR meetings. Protection is one big key — he said he’s getting used to it, but there will be things he sees for the first time when games begin.

“The team prizes versatility with its RBs, and he definitely has it. And coaches know they’re potentially better with him on the field. It will be a matter of how much he can handle early. And I definitely see that role growing as he gets more comfortable.”

Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Round 3, Pick 76). Even before the Bucs added Leonard Fournette last week, reporter Jenna Laine was skeptical Vaughn would have much of a role early — if at all — this season.

“Playing behind Ronald Jones, Fournette and LeSean McCoy, Vaughn’s going to have a tough time just seeing the field in 2020,” Laine said. “He got a late start already with no offseason, plus he missed the beginning of camp due to being on the reserve/COVID-19 list. When he did take the field, there wasn’t a ‘wow’ factor. Similar to his college tape, he’s lacking in explosiveness.

“When he was drafted, prior to McCoy and Fournette signing, Vaughn stood a much better chance of seeing the field because he had consistent hands in college. But Jones has improved enough in that department, and McCoy and Fournette are both strong additions there. At this point, Vaughn’s best chance to play is on special teams unless there’s an injury.”

Zack Moss, Buffalo Bills (Round 3, Pick 86). We saw the blueprint for a rookie breakout in Buffalo when third-round pick Devin Singletary surpassed veteran Frank Gore as the lead back in their timeshare during the second half of last season. Now Singletary will have to fend off a similar result.

“Buffalo prefers a system in which two backs share the workload,” Bills reporter Marcel Louis-Jacques said. “From Week 9 to Week 16 last season, Singletary outtouched Gore 151-57 including carries and receptions. However, in Weeks 11, 12 and 15, both backs received double-digit carries. That’s a more likely scenario than either Singletary or Moss dominating touches.

“The Bills value their players’ versatility and consider both players to be effective between the 20s and in the red zone, making it difficult to typecast either of them. As far as one back running away with the ‘feature’ role, it’s important to consider that offensive coordinator Brian Daboll continued to give Gore roughly eight carries per game down the stretch last season even as the future Hall of Famer averaged a mere 2.32 yards per carry from Weeks 9 to 16.”

Tennessee Titans, Darrynton Evans (Round 3, Pick 93). Don’t worry if you invested a premium pick on Derrick Henry.

“Evans will get opportunities to contribute, but not enough to truly cut into Henry’s workload,” Titans reporter Turron Davenport said — though he did suggest that Evans’ “home run ability will still allow him to make the most of whatever touches he gets.”

“Some of Evans’ longest runs in college came on stretch plays and outside zone, which is something he’ll get to run with the Titans,” Davenport said of the Appalachian State product. “Look for Evans to have an impact in the passing game, too, where they’ll use his smooth route-running and explosiveness as a ball carrier to create big plays.”