Running backs occupy most of the top spots on the 2018 cheat sheets. Led by the No. 2 draft pick, here are the rookies fantasy owners want on their taxi squads.
#1 Saquon Barkley, RB, NYG
Even in a strong rookie running back class, Barkley is the unquestioned top target in fantasy football. He grades as the top talent in the group – not surprising for the second pick in April’s draft – and he easily projects for the biggest workload. At 6-feet, 233 pounds, Barkley is the biggest running back on this list, yet his 4.40-second 40-yard dash also ranks first among the group. That’s why Barkley is ranked first among rookie runners, and also why he is among the top fantasy football targets in general this season. To get Barkley in your league, you’ll probably need a top-seven pick, maybe even top five. After running for 1,271 yards (5.9 YPC) and 18 touchdowns last year while adding 54 receptions for 632 yards and three scores at Penn State, Barkley projects as one of the league’s top producers from scrimmage for years to come.
#2 Derrius Guice, RB, WAS
Guice probably won’t do much in passing situations – Chris Thompson is too good in his specialist role to find himself on the bench in hurry-up scenarios – but Guice is an uncommonly talent as a pure runner and should be one of the league’s best in that capacity even as a rookie. At 5-foot-11, 224 pounds, Guice is often compared to Marshawn Lynch due to his power and high-motor running style. But as great as Beast Mode is, Guice is more of a big-play threat in the mold of Corey Dillon and Fred Taylor. Guice finished his LSU career with 3,074 yards (6.5 YPC) and 29 touchdowns in 35 games despite playing behind Leonard Fournette for one season, and for as powerful as he is, Guice’s elusiveness really stands out on tape. Samaje Perine can’t compete. It’s going to be rare for Guice to fall past the fourth round in most fantasy drafts.
#3 Rashaad Penny, RB, SEA
Even longtime advocates of Penny were shocked when the Seahawks selected him 27th overall, as he was universally expected to be a second- or third-round pick. On the other hand, it’s difficult to assemble an argument against why the San Diego State product shouldn’t have been thought of as a first-round pick all along. This is a 220-pound running back who somehow totaled 2,248 yards and 23 touchdowns on the ground in 13 games last year at an average of 7.8 yards per carry. Those are not typos. Nor is any of it a fluke – Penny ran for 1,408 yards and 15 touchdowns at 7.1 yards per carry prior to last year. He also scored seven touchdowns on just 61 kick return attempts over the last three years, averaging 32 yards per return in the process. It would be reasonable to worry that playing in the Mountain West made Penny look more talented than he actually is, but he posted a 4.46-second 40-yard dash at the Combine. There is no doubt – Penny can really run, and the Seahawks presumably drafted him in the first round with the intention of feeding him right away. A questionable offensive line and a dubious offensive coordinator in Brian Schottenheimer are the only things working against Penny.
#4 Sony Michel, RB, NE
Michel doesn’t have the workhorse potential that Barkley, Guice, and Penny do this year, as we all know too well how much the Patriots love to rotate their running backs. But even in a timeshare with Rex Burkhead and James White, Michel could prove a useful RB2 in most leagues. Dion Lewis was able to produce in the same situation last year, and Michel is probably more talented given his first-round pedigree. His athletic gifts are somewhat modest with a 4.54-second 40-yard dash at 5-foot-11, 214 pounds, but his skill set is highly developed, including as a pass catcher. After running for 3,613 yards (6.1 YPC) and 33 touchdowns in his Georgia career, there’s reason to suspect he’s New England’s most skilled pure runner, too. Michel may see inconsistent workloads this year, but the upside is considerable if he can establish himself as the top running back in a Tom Brady offense.
#5 Ronald Jones, RB, TB
Jones (5-foot-11, 205 pounds) doesn’t have a workhorse frame, and he might lose a lot of short-yardage snaps, including goal-line carries, to the more densely built Peyton Barber. On the other hand, Barber’s skill set is limited, and it might not be long before Jones establishes himself at least as the top Tampa Bay running back between the 20s. The second-round pick was exceedingly explosive at USC, finishing with 3,619 yards (6.1 YPC) and 39 touchdowns in 40 games. If the wideout trio of Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, and Chris Godwin produce as expected, Jones could carve out chunks of yardage with relative ease, and he has the wheels to occasionally split the safeties for long touchdowns.
#6 Royce Freeman, RB, DEN
Freeman is a tank of a runner at 6-feet, 229 pounds, and prior to the combine many wrote him off as a plodder with limited big-play ability. Then he ran a 4.54-second 40-yard dash and impressed in the agility drills with a 4.16-second 20-yard shuttle and 6.9-second three-cone drill, and his critics backed off for the most part. Freeman doesn’t have the obvious star potential like some of the players ahead of him on this list, but it would be silly to underestimate the third-round pick after an Oregon career in which he ran for 5,621 yards (5.9 YPC) and 60 touchdowns in 51 games, while adding 79 receptions for 814 yards and four touchdowns. Freeman was so good at Oregon that even as a true freshman the Ducks moved returning starter and 1,000-yard rusher Byron Marshall to wide receiver. Fellow Denver back Devontae Booker is probably the better pass catcher for now, which limits Freeman’s upside somewhat, but Freeman is likely the favorite to establish himself as Denver’s top pure runner, including in the red zone. Like Michel and Jones, Freeman tends to carry an RB2 price tag in 12-team leagues.
#7 Kerryon Johnson, RB, DET
The Lions haven’t been able to run the ball for years, and they decided to trade up for Johnson in the second round to change that. Ameer Abdullah appears to be on the outs in Detroit, and Theo Riddick is a miscast slot receiver. It would appear that LeGarrette Blount is Johnson’s primary competition for touches, and in the long run you’re always going to bet on a second-round pick over a journeyman at the running back position. The question is how soon Johnson pushes Blount aside, not if he will. That ambiguity makes Johnson a potential bargain target, because the cautious expectations for his rookie year have deflated his price tag compared to the previously mentioned runners. If Johnson does manage to supplant Blount right away, he could be a great value at his current RB3/RB4 price. The former Auburn star ran for 2,494 yards (4.8 YPC) and 32 touchdowns over the last three years, and the Lions clearly have plans for him.
#8 Nick Chubb, RB, CLE
You often see Chubb go earlier in drafts than Johnson, and sometimes even Freeman, and it’s a fair enough position for someone to take. Chubb is easily more talented than Johnson or Freeman, and sometimes it proves wise to bet on talent rather than opportunity. But Carlos Hyde isn’t getting paid peanuts, and Duke Johnson isn’t leaving the field in passing situations, so the path to touches isn’t as obvious for Chubb as the runners mentioned above. On the other hand, if Hyde should get hurt or if Chubb should improbably push him to the bench once and for all, the upside could be big. Chubb is a beast – densely built at 5-foot-11, 227 pounds, but explosive with a 4.52-second 40-yard dash and 128-inch broad jump. A nasty knee injury nearly three years ago threw Chubb’s career into some amount of uncertainty at one point, but he looked to be at full form last year, when the former Georgia star ran for 1,345 yards (6.0 YPC) and 15 touchdowns. He bears an on-field resemblance to Ricky Williams.
#9 Anthony Miller, WR, CHI
This rookie class is much stronger at running back than receiver, but Miller is one of a couple guys who could make a mainstream fantasy impact in 2018. The 51st overall selection, Miller (5-foot-11, 190 pounds) is a high-floor prospect with a remarkably developed skill set. That he turns 24 in October perhaps hints at a limited upside, but also serves as that much more reason to expect an immediate impact. Miller totaled 238 receptions for 3,590 yards and 37 touchdowns over the last three years, and in Chicago he steps into an up-tempo Matt Nagy offense that figures to call an aggressive, fast-paced game plan. Miller will need to compete with all of Trey Burton, Tarik Cohen, Taylor Gabriel, and Kevin White for targets, but with his combination of polish and pedigree, Miller could emerge as the second-leading pass catcher in Chicago behind Allen Robinson.
#10 Calvin Ridley, WR, ATL
If Miller isn’t the top rookie receiver in fantasy football this year, Ridley would make a fine candidate for the distinction. Like Miller, Ridley’s skill set is advanced for his level of experience, and that he turns 24 in December means he might be better suited to make an immediate impact than most rookie receivers. The first-round pick out of Alabama is a bit small at 6-foot-1, 189 pounds, but he’s quite fast (4.43-second 40-yard dash) and is a polished route runner. Whether he establishes himself as a fantasy football asset this year depends on how quickly he can push aside incumbent WR2 Mohamed Sanu. Sanu doesn’t have much athleticism to work with, but he’s a reliable player with enough skill that Ridley will need to truly earn the WR2 role – Sanu isn’t going to just hand it over. With defenses fixated on Julio Jones every snap, there’s a real opportunity for the explosive Ridley to make some plays if he can just earn the targets.