Running backs, after temporarily falling out of favor in some fantasy football circles, are making a comeback. The first four mock draft picks in 12-team point-per-reception, or PPR, leagues are rushers, as are nine of the first 12. That means you need to strike gold on one of those selections to get a quality player for your backfield since many of the high-volume rushers will be gone by the time you make your second pick.
The first tier of running backs is obvious — Todd Gurley, Le’Veon Bell, Ezekiel Elliott, David Johnson are expected to be the first players selected, probably in that order — but the second tier, both in makeup and priority, is up for debate. When it comes to prioritizing a back who will get work both running and receiving, New York Giants rookie Saquon Barkley is the smart bet.
Barkley, the second pick in the 2018 NFL draft, tallied 1,903 total yards and 21 touchdowns as a junior at Penn State. He was also the only college player to carry the ball at least 200 times with 50 catches last year, versatility that pays big dividends in both real and fantasy football.
Barkley is a bruising rusher who averaged 3.3 yards after contact per attempt in 2017, per Sports Info Solutions, with 1,658 of his 2,767 rushing yards (60 percent) over the past two seasons occurring after contact. He’s also elusive, forcing 44 missed or broken tackles on 217 carries in 2017, or roughly one broken tackle for every five rushing attempts. According to the game charters at Pro Football Focus, Barkley had 19 carries producing 15 yards or more last year for a breakaway percentage of 57 percent, his third straight season with more than half his yards coming on huge gains.
“He is unique for me because he has quickness and he has speed,” Giants Coach Pat Shurmur said in April. “He has great vision and then he has what we call in coaching ‘collision balance.’ When he goes through the hole and someone tries to tackle him, he can keep his balance, but also when he is stepping up to try to block someone, he has a good set of lowers to drop his weight on him.”
He can also be split out into the slot or out wide as a receiver. Per PFF, Barkley ranked 17th among draft-eligible running backs in yards per route run in 2017 (1.2) and had the fourth-highest receiving grade in the class (85).
Those two traits should keep Barkley on the field for the first three downs and give him plenty of touches throughout the year. Plus, the Giants don’t have anyone to keep Barkley from remaining at the top of the depth chart.
Orleans Darkwa, who led the team with 171 carries in 2017, is a free agent and Wayne Gallman, who had the second-most carries (111), is now the third option behind Barkley and offseason signee Jonathan Stewart. Stewart could vulture some touchdowns from Barkley but the 31-year-old veteran is also coming off a career low in yards per carry (3.4), his third year of decline. His impact on Barkley’s workload should be minimal, and volume is the key to fantasy football success.
Since 2000, a running back who gets 301 or more opportunities with the ball ends the fantasy football season somewhere between the third and 15th most productive back of the year. If the running back sees 200 or more rushes plus 75 or more targets — benchmarks hit by Bell, Gurley, Melvin Gordon, Carlos Hyde and LeSean McCoy in 2017 — they likely end up in the Top 5 at the position. That’s exactly what you want from a first-round pick.
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