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Potential Rushing Marriages

The Draft is Near…

The NFL Draft is almost upon us and for many of us, our palms sweat with anticipation. Many are counting the days until the draft; some to see where their rookies selected in startups have landed. Some picks will result in elation, but the many landing spots are sure feel like those two friends you just know shouldn’t be together; bound to disappoint. Some dynasty sharks will be sure to start slinging trades based purely on the landing spot value boost. The rest of us, still with our rookie drafts ahead, will be steadily adjusting our personal boards to determine our rookie draft strategy.

Why did I pick this season to follow running backs more closely? I mean this year’s crop is very ‘meh’ according to draft Twitter. In comparison to the draft classes of the last two years, it is easy to see where the consensus is coming from. We should pause and think for a second, “is there any hidden value to be had at the position?” Personally, I would say so. My own dynasty strategy is to draft running backs then trade for receivers, and while it is hardly a unique perspective, this draft highlights that rookie receivers have more value to the community than most other positions (with QBs in Superflex being the obvious exception).

There are fewer promising prospects at running backs than recent years, but there are also fewer positions to be filled. Additionally, with the rise of backfield committees, there are less of those backs in the coveted workhorse role. There are a few running backs that have shown potential to carry the load at the college level due to their athleticism, toughness, and versatility, but it’s a short list. Probably the most a dynasty owner could hope for in this class is a running back that has the versatility of a 3-down back, but perhaps not the quality in all of those 3-down traits a team would desire to make them that workhorse. Typically, this means we won’t get to see them shine until an injury occurs.

The focus here is to leverage my assessments along with visit data to project when these running back needy teams will take their stab at the position. After a quick glance at the draft board and thinking about their needs, these are the following teams I could see drafting a rusher in the first two days of the draft along with their picks in the first three rounds and their total number of prospect meetings:

TEAM PICKS (Overall) RB VISITS
Buffalo 9, 40, 74 6
Chicago 87 15
Houston 23, 54, 55, 86 8
Oakland 4, 24, 27, 35 2
Philadelphia 25, 53, 57 9
Tampa Bay 5, 39, 70 8


While it is understood that there are many different types of visits (and some of them could be complete and utter smoke screen/gamesmanship for draft day), it’s hard to ignore some of the extremes in the above data. Apparently, the Raiders are more comfortable with Crowell as their primary runner if Lynch does not return. There could be something to that as the Raiders actually ranked 8th in 2nd level rushing yards according to Football Outsiders offensive line data. Second level yards had the highest correlation with running back success last season, therefore maybe the addition of Antonio Brown opens a few more running lanes and we are able to see something we haven’t seen much from Crowell like a solid RB1 season.

The team most eager to fill the position appears to be the Bears having met with 15 different running backs (24 different meetings). This all makes sense being that Jordan Howard seemingly wasn’t Matt Nagy’s cup of tea in the run game. Now that Howard dons Eagle wings on his helmet, the Bears are likely looking for a more versatile runner who can complement Tarik Cohen as an early-down back. Unfortunately, for them, they are stuck with a later 3rd round pick, and the Texans who could also use a running back have four picks before them. This could complicate things for the Bears, and given the capital they have spent plus the league-wide devaluation of the position, it is way unlikely they trade up for one.

Which one of these teams will tie the knot with a prospect first? Perhaps they will go off the board something like this:

Darrell Henderson – 35th Overall, Raiders

Ok, pick your jaw up off the floor. This take definitely looks like a chicken wing doused in ghost pepper sauce, but when we look into the visits we see the Raiders only talked to two prospects: Bryce Love and Darrell Henderson. It would be inconceivable, yet not impossible, for the Raiders to draft another running back with whom they haven’t spoken, but there are only two ways to read these tea leaves. First, we could acknowledge the possibility that the Raiders are completely comfortable with their backfield after bringing Crowell into the fold, explaining why they have looked at so few prospects at the position. However, the spicier take would be a surprise to us all, almost like the Rashaad Penny selection by the Seahawks last year. Enter Darrell Henderson; the only running back official 30 visits the Raiders have had this off-season.

Darrell Henderson’s game-breaking ability could be something the Raiders seek given they likely believe they have the line to win in the trenches. Even if he were to come in as a compliment to Crowell, he would be a solid addition of explosiveness to that backfield. Since the Raiders have four top-35 picks, it makes sense that they would shore up defensive needs with the first three, then get their guy with pick 35 before the long wait until round four. This is probably one of the hotter takes and it sits on thin ice in the middle of a lake in winter, but “what if?”

Josh Jacobs – 53rd Overall, Eagles

While many people have mocked Jacobs to the Eagles at 25, let’s imagine for a second that cooler heads prevail in this year’s draft. What if the management of all these franchises make really good decisions for their respective franchise futures, dropping Jacobs into the second round? Given this year’s crop, there are a few we could argue are first-round prospects, but that’s the problem: it’s debatable.

Jacobs appears to have the most versatility in this class between his aggressive running style and his pass-catching ability. The Eagles have been running back-starved since McCoy left, piecing together a running game with spare parts as though it were an old car they just can’t let go. This year the Eagles should call the tow truck to take the “we-won’t-draft-a-running-back-high” vehicle to the junkyard and upgrade their rushing corps with someone who could be considered a lower-end luxury SUV.

Some of you could be thinking, “Well what about Jordan Howard?“ Howard doesn’t have anything guaranteed to him beyond this year, and the Eagles understand the importance of inexpensive talent as it relates to sustaining a competitive window. Therefore, the combination of Jacobs size, speed, agility, and hands makes complete sense for the Eagles as an investment for the future, especially in this competitive window.

Miles Sanders – 55th Overall, Texans

The Texans are the reason that the Eagles drafted Jacobs at 53. They simply knew that the Texans could potentially be looking at a running back since the Texans had two picks between the Eagles picks of 53 and 57. It’s likely that the Texans will be focused on the quality of personnel on their offensive line which is where they spent pick 54. Now that they believe they have addressed that significant weakness the Texans feel they can upgrade their running game to take pressure off of Watson.

Lamar Miller is still present, and he was ranked 12th in rushing yards in 2018. Per Spotrac, Miller is only a 1 million dollar dead cap hit if the Texans were to cut him this year so his position is far from safe, allowing the Texans elect to move on. As much as Alfred Blue was involved in that backfield last year one must wonder how committed the Texans are to Miller at this point. Houston has been competitive with Watson which probably has them looking for young inexpensive talent that can grow with a rising quarterback.

Miles Sanders offers youth, versatility, and ability beyond what Miller can offer at this point. Sander’s ceiling could be insane assuming the Texans’ investments in the offensive line pan out. I believe that we could be talking somewhere between Marlon Mack and Dalvin Cook type of upside.

Bryce Love – 74th Overall, Bills

The Bill’s offensive line situation was dire last season. McCoy had a subpar season and Josh Allen often found himself running for his life. Buffalo has added a tackle and a guard this off season to improve in this area, but it is likely they will make another move in the trenches to help Allen.

At one point this off-season, the Bills’ top three running back had 90+ years in combined age. Obviously, they need some young talent at the position, and it was a tossup for me here between Devin Singletary and Bryce Love. While the Bills only met with Bryce Love at the combine, if they saw the same thing that I saw in his 2017 Stanford tape, it could be enough to take a shot on him. Singletary is a nice prospect, but the Bills realize they need as many shots at high ceiling players (like Love) as possible. If Love can recoup his 2017 form, he adds an element of explosiveness to this offense. Combine this with Josh Allen’s rushing ability and Bryce Love could quickly become one of the more dynamic players in the league. Call this take spicy if you want to, but watch it happen!

Alex Barnes – 100th Overall, Buccaneers

Arians has mentioned that he likes both Ronald Jones and Peyton Barber so this may be a bit of a stretch, but we must take these off-season comments with a grain of salt. It is challenging to see where the Bucs would move on from either of these backs, but that doesn’t eliminate bringing in competition and youth at the position.

Barber is on an inexpensive deal that wouldn’t cost the Bucs much if they decided to part ways. Arians mentioned several key aspects of Barber’s game that he likes per an article from ESPN’s Jenna Laine including his feet and powerful/punishing running style. Barnes brings those same traits to the table, but his tape indicates he could have a higher ceiling in those areas. If Barnes were able to seize the role from Barber, he would be a great compliment to Ronald Jones (assuming RoJo can reach his potential). 

Why Alex Barnes though? This is not a comp to David Johnson, but we must remember that DJ was drafted 86th overall, only 14 spots earlier than this projection. Barnes has shown solid hands to compliment that skillset that could exceed Barber’s ability. If anyone can maximize Barnes versatile skillset it’s Bruce Arians, and Barnes could very well be the steal of rookie drafts in this landing spot.

Alex Mattison – 119th Overall, Bears

The last of these running back needy teams is the Bears. Unfortunately for them, their top-end 2019 capital was spent on moving up to get Anthony Miller in last year’s draft and acquiring Kalil Mack from the Raiders. This has created a situation where they will have to wait patiently (or trade up again) to make a selection. By this time Jacobs, Sanders, Henderson, and Barnes are all gone, and the Bears are still in need of a powerful compliment to Tarik Cohen now that Jordan Howard has been traded for beans to the Eagles.

Many have doubts that the Bears would even go after a running back in this draft because they “solved” the void left by Howard with Mike Davis. If that were the case, why on earth would they spend a third of their official visits at the position? In light of this, Mike Davis seems more like a consolation prize in the event they are unable to land the prospect they want. It is hard to ignore the organization’s persistence in evaluating this season’s crop. In context with their draft position, Mattison is likely to be available and he offers traits that could make the Bears’ backfield more dynamic.

Mattison is an explosive and aggressive runner that would provide the Bears exactly what they need to compliment Cohen. While his testing would indicate that he doesn’t necessarily have the best long speed, the tape seems to indicate otherwise. Adding Mattison will be a significant upgrade over Howard from the versatility Mattison offers in the passing game. He caught 60 balls over his college career and had the second most receptions in 2018 of any running back in this year’s draft class. The Bears could use another type of dynamo in the backfield and Mattison should be turning in Boise State blue for Chicago Bears blue.

Conclusion

As with many draft predictions, mocks, and the like, it is probable that this is way off of how the chips fall in reality. If it were to pan out in this fashion, their value would probably end up in the following order:

  1. Josh Jacobs
  2. Darrell Henderson
  3. Alex Mattison
  4. Miles Sanders (Assuming they make improvements on the offensive line)
  5. Bryce Love (Only because we may have to wait on injury recovery)
  6. Alex Barnes

It’s bound to be exciting to see how this all pans out next Thursday! What do you think will happen?

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