It's that time of year again, folks. I have been blown away at the amount of response I recieved last year as well as the continued questions of "when will you start covering the 2016 season?" Well, the time is now. This year I will try and shorten my rants and raves so that we can get right down to business.
First off, know the scoring rules of your league. Is it a PPR? Are there any scoring bonuses? How about return yards? All of this feeds into building a draft strategy. It will tell you the most important part of drafting: what is the VALUE of a player and position NOT what his scoring potential is. That is, what is the difference between the elite, the very good, and the average.
Consider this: if you drew a line at the No. 20 back ( in terms of yardage), Samaje Perine had 1350 rushing yards. That is almost a THOUSAND less than the number No. 1 back, Derrick Henry. However, if you draw a line at No. 50, Michael Gordon had 1,062 yards. That's a 300 yard drop-off even though it is 30 spots below. That's not much change in value between a very good to average back.
Repeating with touchdowns, Henry lead the pack with 28. Skipping down to around 25(lots of ties), Stanford's McCaffery had 15. That's half the TD production between an elite to very good back. Looking at the 50th spot, OU's Joe Mixon had 11, only four less than McCaffery.
What's all of this mean? There is a tremendous swing in value from the top five elite backs to the very good backs and virtually no value from the very good to the average. In other words, if you can't get the elite, there is no reason to really burn early draft picks on the other backs instead of other positions with similar spreads. If you are the last few picks of the draft, you should really consider taking one of the elite backs first while everyone is picking up QBs.
Christian McCaffery(Stanford) - This guy will be one of the very first players off the board. McCaffery had almost 200 more total yards from scrimmage (2600) than the next back. He did trail Heisman winner Derrick Henry by about the same amount in rushing yards. He also was woefully short in terms of touchdowns. Where Henry had 28, McCaffery had only 8. He was tied for fifth in receiving TDs for a back with 45 catches for 645 yards, second best in college football. I caution people, however, not to take No. 5 too early. Stanford replaces all but one member of their offensive line including the Outland Trophy winner and will be breaking in a new QB. There is little doubt that McCaffery is a special back, but he does his damage in volume, not scores. However, if your league scores return yards and offers bonuses for big-time yardage or is a PPR league, then McCaffery should be a top back. Know your rules, because it makes or breaks McCaffery's value.
Dalvin Cook(FSU) - Cook has none of the problems that McCaffery has. Cook will be running behind a line that returns four of five starters in a top-scoring offense with a new QB. Where as McCaffery was dependant on yardage volume, Cook offers a blend of both. He had 1,700 rushing yards and 20 TDs, that was good for sixth and seventh, respectively. Unlike McCaffery, he isn't a threat elsewhere. FSU will lean heavily on Cook. FSU does play some tough games against Ole Miss, at Louisville, Boston College (tops in the country on defense), Clemson, and North Carolina. But, let's be real, the chances of these being low scoring affairs is slim. Cook should be one of the first three backs off the board and possibly a first round pick (depending on the depth of your league).
Leonard Fournette (LSU) - There isn't much to say about this guy. He almost eclipsed 2,000 yards and added 22 TDs. His 162 yards per game was the best in the nation. LSU returns the majority of its offense including the center and left tackle and guard. The other projected linemen are both upper classmen. It's been said a million times, but all that makes LSU a national contender is a QB. the Tigers were 107th in passing in 2015 and 7th in the rush. But, when it was crunch time, LSU struggled to get it done on the ground. One might say that having the lack of down field ability helps Fournette's touches. But with talented WRs Dupre and Dural, 3rd down could become magical for Fournette owners if the QB is just a tiny bit of a threat to throw down field. Some people wonder if Fournette might be spared for the NFL. Indeed, he has first round potential and has a capable backup in Derrius Guice. It shouldn't scare owners from drafting him in the top three backs, but it shouldn't be a question that owners should also own Guice, too.
Royce Freeman (Oregon) - It is no secret that Oregon struggled for the first time in many years to win games. Yet, they were still the 5th best scoring team in the nation. Along the way, Royce Freeman quietly had an incredible year with over 1,800 rushing yards and 17 TDs. Additionally, he was 16th in catches for a back with 26 for 350 yards and 2 TDs. Unfortunately, Freeman won't have an experienced line to run behind as only two returning starters come back. In fact, Freeman and the two linemen are the only returning starters. The good news is that Montana State transfer Dakota Pruckup will be this year's starter. While Pruckup is a severe running threat which will steal carries, it will only help Freeman's quality of runs. Is he a top five RB pick? I don't think so, but certainly a top 10 or 15. Pruckup will steal a ton of redzone carries, the line is inexperienced, and the quality of opponents is backloaded on the schedule, right about playoff time.
Wayne Gallman (Clemson) - Gallman's ascension was no surprise. The redshirt sophomore added over 100 carries to his 2014 total of 161. He ran for 1,500 yards on 283 and added 13 rushing TDs. With Deshaun Watson poised to become a top overall pick in this upcoming draft, expect Gallman to absorb many of the redzone carries that Watson had exploited in previous years. That will boost those TD numbers way up. Additionally, defenses will key on Watson and it doesn't really matter if it works or not. It will help Gallman's efficiency. Simply put, Clemson is the best offense in the nation and it pays to own the lead back. Gallman is as safe a bet as there is in fantasy football. Expect the yardage to remain around 1,500 but the TD mark to go up to around 20. He is a top fantasy option.
Not So Big Names
Jeremy McNichols (Boise State) - If I asked you what running back was second in TDs in 2015, would you have known McNichols? I gotta be honest, I don't even remember him from fantasy. His 26 total TDs ( 20 rushing and an amazing 6 receiving TDs on 51 catches for 460 yards) was good for second in all of college RBs. However, it's his lack of yard volume (thanks to All-Mountain West Brett Rypien and WR Thomas Sperbeck) hurt his overall value. Still, McNichols rushed for over 1,300 yards as the Broncos piled up a 15th best offense behind a very good passing attack. McNichols is primed to be a top five guy thanks to four of five returning linemen. Expect Rypien to take a slight sophomore dip. Regardless, Boise State is still in the Mountain West and play no one. If you are in a PPR league, McNichols should be a top five pick.
Donnel Pumphrey (SDSU) - Pumphrey returned for his senior season to break Marshall Faulk's career rushing mark. Just think about that. SDSU isn't a great offense, thanks to the inability to pass the ball (119th in the country). But the 14th best rushing attack was good in 2015 and will be very good in 2016 thanks to returning most of the line. Pumphrey has to do it in volume. He was fourth in the nation is carries and one of the worst for premier backs in terms of YPC (5.3). His 1,600 yards was good enough for sixth and he was tied for 10th in total TDs. Pumphrey adds an extra dimension in the passing game which is vital in a PPR league. He lead the team in receptions with 28 for 400 yards and another three scores. The Aztecs must develop a down field passing game. Doing so will improve his efficiency as a runner as well as a pass catcher. The Aztec defense is amazing and it creates short fields for the offense. The defense was fifth overall and had a 1.57 turnover margin a game. They play a very soft schedule, making Pumphrey a first five back.
Joel Bouagnon (NIU) - Bouagnon finished tied for 10th in scoring and 29th in total yards in 2015. Normally, that kind of disparity is a cause to avoid a player. Typically you'd want to avoid a touchdown dependant player, especially as a RB1. However, Bouagnon (and NIU) fell on some hard times in 2015 as they lost a top fantasy player in Drew Hare to an injury, then a backup. Then another backup. The Huskies ended the year with a true freshman QB and three straight losses. A typically stellar offense suffered to a 66th ranking. No one was hurt more than Bouagnon, who failed to score a TD in his last three games after scoring at least one in 11 in ten games including two more more in six of those ten. Additionally, after rushing for over 100 yards in four straight games and five out of ten, Bouagnon ended the year never eclipsing 70. Drew Hare is back and with him most of the offensive line and game breaking WR Kenny Golladay. This unit will be good, though Hare will also steal some carries but Bouagnon will be a red zone threat. Only SDSU posses a serious threat to stop the Huskies.
Kareem Hunt (Toledo) - After missing three of his first four games, Hunt responded by scoring in all but one game and getting two TDs in five of his last eight games.That was a quiet year for a player who put up 1,600 yards and 16 TDs the year before. He has been called "the best player you've never heard of" by Bleacherreport. Consider this, if Hunt had played every game in 2016, he would have racked up 1,200 yards and 16 TDs. Coulda woulda shoulda and it still doesn't put him in the elite category. But, it would put him in at least the "very good." I believe that is his absolute floor. His upside? Well, he returns four of his five linemen while the Rockets have to break in a new QB. Meanwhile, they play a very soft defensive schedule that will feature a lot of scoring. You don't have to buy the hype on him, but the NFL is. He is the second rated RB in the 2017 class. Hunt, if he can stay healthy, is a potential 1,800 or more yard rusher that can be stolen in the later rounds.
Marcus Cox (App State) - Many fantasy owners took a "wait and see" approach when the Mountaineers moved over to the big time. They have not disappointed. Cox has been incredibly productive in his career, rushing for at least 1,200 yards each and every year. Though he had career marks in YPC and total yardage in 2015, he had a serious dip in TDs. HE had 15 and 19 in 2013 and 2014, respectively before just scoring 9 times last season. This offensive unit returns five of the six linemen. Taylor Lamb, the returning QB, had 31 TD passes and was 10th in passing efficiency on a unit that was the best in the Sun Belt and 26th overall despite being 93rd in passing yards. They do have to replace the entire WR core, which is a major benefit to Cox who has caught 77 balls for 8 TDs in his career. He will be carrying a lot of the load. Though they get started with Tennessee in Knoxville, don't be afraid to start him every game this coming year.
Corey Clement (Wisconsin) - The heir to Melvin Gordon had a horrendous year with injuries and suspension. After almost 1,000 yards as as backup to Gordon, Clement gained just 250-ish yards in 2015. In his place, Dare Ogunbowale ran for 800 yards and seven scores. That isn't the Wisconsin fans know. The Badgers ranked 95th in rushing. The interior offensive line returns as well as seven players who started for a mixed unit in 2015. Unfortunately, they get LSU in game one before a two game reprieve ahead of a Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State slate. Luckily, come playoff time, the Badgers get softer opponents like Northwestern, Illinois, Purdue, and Minnesota. It's tough to believe in both Wisconsin and Clement, but he has huge upside, perhaps more than any other player. Clement is the No. 1 rated RB in the 2017 class.
Jovon Robinson (Auburn) - Before you label this a homer pick, just hear me out. Robinson was pushing for playing time as a true freshman before an academic issue sent him to the JUCO ranks. He was slated to get carries behind Roc Thomas, though most everyone knew Robinson was the better all-purpose back. Then, he was injured in his first carry of the first game. He responded in a huge way to close out the 2015 season and earned Birmingham Bowl MVP. His numbers were very modest. In fact, he isn't a top 100 back according to fantasy stats. However, he will be the bell-cow for a much improved Auburn unit that looks to be a run-first approach. He has the makings for at least 1,000 yards and 12 TDs as a floor. Chances are those stats will be closer to 1,500 yards and 15 TDs, earning him a terrific sleeper pick for a top 20 back in the league. He has the line and the offensive system to be a star.
James Conner (Pitt) - Conner has had it rough the last year. First, a game one injury knocked him out for the year and then he had to beat cancer. Will the talented back be ready? He was cleared to begin his return back in May. This could be your gem of the draft as many might not think of the player who rushed for just 77 yards and 2 TDs in 2016 before the injury. His 2014 season was magical as he rushed for 1,700 yards and 26 scores while averaging 6 yards per rush. Steamrolling ahead of Conner is four of five returning linemen that still managed to be 40th best in the nation against some quality foes. Sandwiched in between some tough teams like Penn State and Clemson is light opponents like Villanova, Marshall, Oklahoma State, and Syracuse. Regardless, Conner is a 300 touch player. If Conner does indeed make a return, he is a mid-round steal. Just don't wait too late.
Mathew Dayes (NC State) - NC State's philosophy is simple: schedule a ridiculously easy non-conference schedule early and beat up on those teams before losing in conference play. That's exactly what happened last year as Dayes ran for 865 yards and 12 TDs before a season-ending injury against Clemson. Extrapolating, Dayes would have rushed for 1,600 yards and 22 TDs. Of course, that probably wouldn't have happened against the better competition that he had yet to face, but the point is that you can get half a season of monster numbers from Daye before trading him. I have the October 15th game against Louisville circled as a trade date. Meanwhile, enjoy a player that has caught 66 balls for 6 TDs on top of his 24 rushing TDs. He managed to be held out of the endzone only once when healthy and found it multiple times in five of his seven games he finished. Along the way were two three TD performances. He didn't record a receiving TD after having five in 2014. That should change this year too. He is a great play as a flyer.