If your name wasn’t Todd Gurley you probably didn’t live up to expectations in your rookie season last year. A lot of guys who many thought would make an impact for their teams hit the dreaded rookie wall. In the past the NFL had a steeper learning curve at the wide receiver position but in today’s game it’s the running backs who now stumble out of the blocks. With the league moving towards a more specialized brand of football, the three-down back is a rarity causing many gifted runners to watch the game from the sidelines in certain situations. If you can’t pass protect you need to sit down, if you lack ball security you need to sit down, if you can’t catch the ball you need to sit down, and if you can’t stay healthy there is another running back on your roster that will gladly take your reps. Let’s take a look at the 2nd-year running backs who are looking to make the most of their opportunities in 2016.
Todd Gurley – L.A. Rams
2015 Stats: 229 carries 1106 yards 10 TDs
The next great superstar in this league lived up to the expectations as a Top 10 pick with eye popping plays and game breaking talent in his rookie season despite recovering from a gruesome knee injury and missing the first 3 games of the 2015 season. So what can you expect for an encore in 2016? More dominance as he separates himself from his 2015 running back classmates. Head Coach Jeff Fisher loves to pound the rock therefore Gurley will surpass his 219 carry rookie season total easily and be in line for 1200+ yards and double digit TDs. Gurley is certified, enough said.
Melvin Gordon – San Diego Chargers
2015 stats: 184 carries 641 yards 0 TDs
Those of you who witnessed Melvin Gordon at Wisconsin in his collegiate days probably didn’t expect him to struggle this bad averaging 3.5 yards per carry and NO touchdowns. Yes, the battered offensive line didn’t help but even when the hole was there Gordon didn’t explode through it as we grew accustomed to at the collegiate level. I’m betting on his talent this year as he should be a more decisive back with a healthier offensive line and the speed of the game should slow down for him. Expect a bounce back season as he should be around 1,000 yards and 6 TDs.
T.J. Yeldon – Jacksonville Jaguars
2015 stats: 182 carries 740 yards 2 TDs
Yeldon performed admirably for stretches last season stabilizing the Jaguars’ improved offense and running game. He did a lot of good things in his rookie season but one thing he struggled with was his inability to run like a 225 pound running back. He didn’t utilize his size to push for tough yardage hence his touchdown total of 2. In the offseason, Yeldon worked on his strength but the Jaguars signed the more physical Chris Ivory which hampers Yeldon’s opportunities. I believe the move will help the Jags tremendously and help Yeldon become a better back. But for fantasy purposes he will be risky selection earlier in your drafts. Look for Yeldon to produce similarly to last season’s totals.
Ameer Abdullah – Detroit Lions
2015 stats: 143 carries 597 yards 2 TDs
I’m putting my stamp on Abdullah this season, he is my second-year breakout candidate. The Lions clearly had an agenda this offseason to get more physical up front which will benefit Abdullah and the Lions offense. The only thing holding Abdullah back at this point in his career is what was referenced above, ball security and pass protection. If he solves those issues then the sky is the limit for the explosive and elusive ball carrier.
Tevin Coleman – Atlanta Falcons
2015 stats: 87 carries 392 yards 1 TD
Tevin Coleman opened last season as the starting running back for the Atlanta Falcons and was going to be given every opportunity to be a factor until he got Devonta Freeman’d after his Week 2 injury. The organization is currently talking up Coleman who they selected in the third round in last year’s draft. I strongly believe there is a role for him but the performance by Freeman last season will make it difficult for Coleman to get more than 10 carries per game. Coleman needs a Freeman injury to reach his full potential in 2016.
Duke Johnson – Cleveland Browns
2015 stats: 104 carries 379 yards 0 TD
You can ignore the rushing numbers above as Johnson was a dynamic playmaker out of the backfield last season catching 61 passes for 534 yards and 2 TDs. Now with new head coach Hue Jackson calling the offense there is a lot to be excited about for Johnson’s fantasy owners. Think Gio Bernard last season but with more opportunities as I believe Johnson will cut into “lead back” Isaiah Crowell’s 1st and 2nd down touches. Don’t forget Johnson was a three-down back in the Hurricanes pro-style offense in college.
David Johnson – Arizona Cardinals
2015 stats: 125 carries 581 yards 8 TDs
Remember when David Johnson was a fantasy sleeper? Well those days are done as his breakout rookie season (13 total TDs) has catapulted him into a potential Top 10 fantasy pick this season. Johnson has all the tools to outperform his numbers from last season as he is now the unquestioned lead back in Bruce Arians’ vertical offense. Teams will be foolish to stack the box against the Cardinals which should make Johnson rack up huge yardage early and often against six-man fronts. Target this guy in your draft and you will walk away a happy owner.
Matt Jones – Washington Redskins
2015 season stats: 144 carries 490 yards 3 TDs
Matt Jones had a season to forget last year as ball security issues and injuries reared their ugly heads. One of the most talked about names in fantasy circles (at least mine) wowed fantasy suitors in the preseason with game breaking speed and toughness. Now with last year’s starter Alfred Morris in Dallas, this gives Jones another opportunity to claim the position and play up to his can’t miss talent. Jones is a name to watch this season yet again. Scoop him up later in your draft and he should outperform his draft position substantially.
Jeremy Langford – Chicago Bears
2015 stats: 148 carries 537 yards 6 TDs
Depending on who you ask you will get different answers on how successful Jeremy Langford’s rookie campaign was. On the surface Langford seemed to give the Bears offense exactly what it needed when starter Matt Forte went down with an injury. But deeper analytics from Pro Football Focus show the opposite as Langford was an inefficient runner averaging 3.6 yards per carry and an even worse 2.7 yards per carry against base defenses. A total of only 7 missed tackles, 8 drops, and poor pass blocking grade make him a risky selection at his current average draft position (24th). Head Coach John Fox has a history of using a running back by committee approach which further suggests why fantasy owners should shy away from Langford come draft day. So, are you ready for my take? He is currently the best back on the Bears’ roster who struggled in areas last season as a ROOKIE. FYI…Le’Veon Bell averaged 3.5 yards per carry as a rookie. Not saying he has Bell’s talent but don’t dismiss Langford just yet. I admit the average draft position is too high for my liking but I have a feeling that will go down as we draw closer to the start of the season.
Jay Ajayi – Miami Dolphins
2015 stats: 49 carries 187 yards 1 TD
Here is the back I am the most unsure about out of all the 2nd year backs. When I say unsure it’s not that I’m unsure of his talent, I am unsure of how the Dolphins will use him. The word out of Dolphins’ camp is that they view Ajayi as their starter but he needs to improve as a receiver out of the backfield. Coming out of Boise State I was higher on him than most for that very reason, his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. If he gets the opportunity he can be a sleeper selection that can give you RB2 production but I also understand if you pass on him because of the uncertainty. More to watch in training camp and preseason so we can get a better gauge of the Dolphins’ backfield.
Karlos Williams – Buffalo Bills
2015 stats: 93 carries 517 yards 7 TDs
The big play, touchdown making Karlos Williams shined when given the opportunity to tote the rock. His 5.6 yards per carry and nose for the end zone makes him a guy to target later in your draft. Handcuff Alert!!! If lead back LeSean McCoy goes down with an injury Williams will be sought after heavily, make sure he is already on your roster especially if you are a Shady owner.
Thomas Rawls – Seattle Seahawks
2015 stats: 147 carries 830 yards 4 TDs
I would be remiss not to mention the un-drafted rookie who exhibited toughness, desire, power, and with each and every carry last season. Baby Beast Most will be the new Beast Mode in the Seahawks offense with the retirement of Marshawn Lynch. The only question mark Rawls has is the ankle he broke in Week 14 last season. If he is cleared by the medical staff at the beginning of the season I believe Rawls is a RB1 that can carry your team to fantasy glory. The Seahawks drafting 3 RBs might scare off some fantasy owners but I am not one of them.