By Nick Martinez
My sophomore year of high school I rocked the same long flowing hair and a creepy goatee that Danny Woodhead wears today. This just goes to show that sophomore year isn’t always easy.
In the NFL it’s no different. Teams and coaches no longer accept the excuse of “rookie mistakes” as the player has had a full season to see what it’s actually like being in the league. You aren’t new to the league anymore and teams adjust their defenses for you. Much like many of these running backs on the list, you take on bigger roles.
Here’s what to look for in the top five drafted sophomore running backs this season:
Todd Gurley (1.04 ADP) – Currently the fourth player off the board, the expectations are higher than ever for the rookie rushing leader. After missing the first three games recovering from his ACL tear in college, Gurley literally exploded on the scene with four straight games with more than 125 rushing yards. He finished the year to the sweet sound of 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns, good enough for fifth amongst running backs.
Gurley was by far the most explosive running back in the league, turning average days into stellar ones in a matter of seconds. He led the league in runs longer than 20 yards with 14. Almost half of his yards came on those big runs, leading the NFL in breakaway percentage (percent of yardage gained on long runs). He was also one of the toughest backs to bring down, ranking 7th in the league in broken tackles with 47. All these stats prove that Gurley is completely healed from his knee injury as he was one of the leagues true workhorse backs.
The Rams rode Gurley most of the year, giving him at least 19 carries in 8 out of the 13 games he played in. He finished the year with 229 carries which is more than the rest of the teams rushing attempts combined despite missing three games. Above and beyond the most talented player on the team, there is no reason for him not to get the ball at least 20 times a game.
The Rams should also see improved quarterback play with rookie Jared Goff. He’ll still have a lot to learn, but he’ll be much better than Nick Foles, Case Keenum and company. This will help take some pressure off Gurley as defenses won’t stack the box against him every play.
There is no reason why Gurley shouldn’t be the first or second running back off the board in your drafts. He is a bonafide stud who will be getting an incredible amount of touches. Heck, I might take him number one overall, he told us to.
David Johnson (1.07 ADP) – I’ll admit it. When I first decided write this article, I wasn’t the biggest David Johnson supporter. On the surface, I just didn’t feel comfortable taking a second year running back who only started five games last year. Then I dove into it.
No one finished the year hotter than Johnson, totaling 581 yards on 125 carries, adding 457 yards on 36 catches, and found the end zone 12 times. In his final five games, Johnson averaged 18.2 standard points a game, including a 40 point performance on Sunday Night Football against the Eagles in Week 15.
Once he took over after Chris Johnson’s injury, the Cardinals went all in on the third round running back. David Johnson accounted for almost 90% of Arizona’s running back looks, and over 45% of the team’s total red zone looks over those five games. When the Cardinals gave him the ball on the goal line, the guy delivered, converting six of his 10 attempts within the five yard line. Johnson is an athletic freak who’s both a threat as a runner and as a pass catcher.
It also doesn’t hurt that Johnson is on one of the best offenses in football. The Cardinals ranked first in yards per game, and second in total points and points per game. The team also has one of the top five offensive lines in the league. With everyone returning healthy, Johnson will slip right back into that work horse role.
Another reason I wasn’t the biggest fan of Johnson was Arians history of running backs. He takes his time committing to a young back, but Johnson is different. In the show on Amazon video, “All or Nothing” (which is fantastic by the way, all football fans would love it, especially if you like Hard Knocks), Arians talks about how much he believes in Johnson. After Week 1 the head coach knew that they had something special in Johnson and that he was going “be a workhorse by Thanksgiving. That’s a lot of praise after one NFL game.
Have I been blindsided by the numbers and fame to push my worries about Johnson to the side? Maybe, but I don’t think so. Johnson is a RB1 stud and I would feel confident taking him very early in the first round.
Thomas Rawls (2.11 ADP) – Leading the league in YPC at 5.6 last year, Thomas Rawls season was cut short after breaking his ankle in Week 14. Many who swooped him off the waiver wire honestly believed that he would lead them to the promise land and there’s a good chance he could have.
Rawls completed his rookie campaign with 147 rushes for 830 yards and four touchdowns, adding 9 catches for 76 yards and a touchdown through the air. After starting in Week 11, he scored 67.9 points in just three games, almost 20 more than any other running back in the league.
Reports are that he will be ready for training camp, but it’s something to watch throughout the preseason. Rawls ceiling is huge, with Marshawn Lynch gone, the job really is his to lose. Rookie C.J. Prosise will take some third down snaps, but Rawls should get the bulk of the carries.
Everyone knows how much the Seahawks love to run the ball and this year will be no different. Last season the team ran the ball on over 50% of their snaps with only three teams finishing with a higher percentage. He’ll also have the easiest schedule for any running back in the league.
Rawls is one back who has an upside that could put him in the top 10 or drop him off the map if he struggles to regain his form after the ligament damage in his ankle. Known around the league as a defensive team, the Seahawk’s offense is on the rise. If all the signs point to him being a full go at the start of the season, I feel fully confident in taking him in the second round as a high RB2 with RB1 potential.
Jeremy Langford (4.07 ADP) – Chicago Bears running back Jeremey Langford probably has the biggest shoes to fill in the absence of Matt Forte. Forte has been one of the faces of the franchise since he came into the league back in 2008 and Langford will be part of the new wave of young players for the Bears.
Langford thrived last year when Forte was injured. Starting two games, he had two very impressive outings of 22 and 29 standard fantasy points. He finished the year with 148 carries for 537 yards and six touchdowns, adding 22 catches for 279 yards and a receiving touchdown.
Being able to catch the ball out of the backfield makes the former Michigan State running back the perfect fit for the Bears offensive. The conservative head coach John Fox will lean on Langford and the run game because like many of us, he doesn’t want to watch Jay Cutler sling the ball all game.
With the sixth easiest schedule for running backs, he and the Bears will feel comfortable with him toting the rock each game. Currently with an ADP in the fourth round, I feel confident he can provide some good value. Langford is a mid-RB2 with upside this year.
Matt Jones (5.01 ADP) – When you Google “Matt Jones,” the first thing that pops up is the actor who played “Badger” in Breaking Bad, not the Washington Redskin running back. This is exactly how you should look at the running back Matt Jones this upcoming season, just as an afterthought.
Jones rookie hype really peaked in Week 2 when he rushed for 123 yards against a tough Rams defense. He didn’t rush for more than 62 yards in a game the rest of the season, rushing for less than 30 in 7 of those games. Only averaging 3.4 yards per carry, Jones also fumbled five times in just 163 touches.
Yes, Jones will get opportunities with Alfred Morris gone but you can’t be fooled by opportunity alone because it doesn’t mean anything if he can’t do something with it.
I am staying away from Jones in all re-draft leagues. Could he prove me wrong and put up RB2 numbers? Sure. Kirk Cousins is leading the offseason on the rise and they play in an easy division. They have plenty of weapons through the air so defenses won’t be focused on him. He’ll also have the ninth easiest schedule for running backs.
But all this leads back to his stats from last year; Jones hasn’t shown he can be relied on as a true workhorse. Being drafted as the 21st running back off the board, I think there is no way he finishes in the top 20. I would much rather take my chances on Ryan Mathews and Johnathan Stewart, two players that are being taken later them him. Jones is a low-end RB2 that I wouldn’t feel comfortable drafting. Just because opportunity knocks, doesn’t mean he’ll be able to answer the door.