Examining the Year One Impact of the Rookie Running Backs

The NFL offense has been a passing league for a while now, but does that mean that there is no place for running backs in the league? With the way that all but the most talented runners fell in the draft, some may think so. Jon Ledyard examines the year one impact of the rookie running backs from the 2016 NFL Draft.

Many wont look at the 2016 NFL draft class and see a group of running backs primed to make a major impact early in their careers, largely based on the lack of value NFL teams seemed to place on the group a little over a month ago. The only standout from the 2016 class is Ezekiel Elliott, who represents a vast exception to the recent trend, being chosen with the No. 4 overall pick thanks to Jerry Jones, who envisioned Elliott romping through defenses behind his unstoppable collection of talented offensive linemen. But outside of Elliott, many NFL teams were not scrambling to get their hands on what was widely considered to be a strong class of running backs during the pre-draft process. In fact, just four backs came off the board in the first 100 picks, by far the lowest mark in NFL draft history.

Nevertheless, talented playmakers slipped into the drafts middle rounds, allowing several teams to collect outstanding value at a key position further down the board than expected. In this piece Ill take a look at what the potential year one impact may be for many of these NFL rookies given the roster situations of their respective teams.

Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys

Outlook: One of the safer, more well-rounded prospects at the position in recent memory, Elliott can be a dominant threat out of the backfield for Dallas as both a receiver and a rusher. Dallas prides themselves on their ability to run zone concepts as well as any team in the league, and Elliott’s quick feet and vision make him a perfect fit for the Cowboys’ scheme. Behind the team’s world-class offensive line, expect Elliott to not only work his way into offensive rookie of the year conversations, but to challenge for the NFL rushing title as well.

Prediction: Starter, NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate

Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans

Outlook: The Titans have made no secret about their desire to pound the football with a power-scheme approach, and Henry fits perfectly into that mold despite his time in Alabamas zone-blocking scheme. An extremely cerebral back with excellent vision and the burst to get north in a hurry, Henrys massive frame and NFL-ready intelligence will allow him to push DeMarco Murray for carries as the season progresses. His year-one impact may be hit-or-miss from week-to-week, but Henrys long-term prognosis in Tennessee appears safe.

Prediction: Role player

Kenyan Drake, Miami Dolphins

Outlook: Drake was the third running back off the board despite having just one career start, a move the Dolphins will someday regret given the other players that were available to them. Drake is a talented athlete with good hands, but he needs improvement in pass protection, and his vision leaves a lot to be desired between the tackles. Hell make an early impact as a return man and change-of-pace back, but I expect Jay Ajayi to be the guy in Miami if he can stay healthy. The one positive for Drake? There isnt a lot of talent between he and the second-string spot on the Dolphins depth chart.

Prediction: Limited Reserve

C.J. Prosise, Seattle Seahawks

Outlook: This is a tough one. Ideally youd like to see Prosise build on his lone collegiate season at running back with a small role as a rookie, but Thomas Rawls is returning from a broken ankle, and Christine Michaels career has been wildly unimpressive to this point. Seattle drafted Prosise, Alex Collins, and Zac Brooks in that order, but of the three Collins is probably the most NFL-ready, hailing from Arkansaspro-style offense where he rushed for over 1,000 yards in all three of his seasons with the Razorbacks. Prosise may actually factor into Seattles offense more as a receiver, his original position at Notre Dame, than as a running back during his rookie campaign. Either way, hes too talented to keep off the field entirely, regardless of his level of inexperience.

Prediction: Role player

Tyler Ervin, Houston Texans

Outlook: I had a 4th round grade on Ervin, but didnt expect the San Jose State rusher to be the fifth running back off the board. The Texans are obviously set at the position with Lamar Miller, but Ervin is going to be a factor this season, either from the slot, as a return man, or even as a situational ball carrier. Hes an electric athlete who should shine despite his likely limited contributions as a pure rusher.

Prediction: Versatile role player

Kenneth Dixon, Baltimore Ravens

Outlook: Justin Forsett is currently the guy in Baltimore, but the veteran struggled with injuries last season, and it wont be long before Dixon supplants him on the Ravens depth chart. The Louisiana Tech product is smart, well-rounded and elusive, traits that should help him push for a starting spot throughout the season

Prediction: Eventual starter

Devontae Booker, Denver Broncos

Outlook: I think C.J. Anderson is better than Booker, but Denvers past reluctance to trust the veteran back with a full-time role could leave the door open for the Utah rookie to steal carries. However, Ronnie Hillmans return further complicates things in the Broncos’ backfield for what should be a run-heavy attack this season. Booker is NFL-ready, but will need to resolve fumbling concerns and stay healthy to make an impact in year one.

Prediction: Limited reserve

DeAndre Washington, Oakland Raiders

Outlook: Washington will have to battle Roy Helu for a third down role behind Latavius Murray, but I expect the talented Texas Tech product to work his way onto the field sooner rather than later. Given the growth of Oaklands offense over the past two years, the rookie could be surprisingly productive given his abilities as a receiver out of the backfield.

Prediction: Versatile role player

Paul Perkins, New York Giants

Outlook: For my money, Perkins is already the best running back on the Giants roster, and should quickly pass up a duo the team does not appear high on in Rashad Jennings and Andre Williams. Ignore his fifth round draft position, as Ill be surprised if Perkins isnt starting this season in New York.

Prediction: Eventual starter

Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears

Outlook: Howard will be an excellent change-of-pace runner for the Bears, but I dont think hell start as a rookie. Jeremy Langford and KaDeem Carey will be the key cogs for Chicagos rushing attack, but expect Howard to see plenty of action in short yardage and goal line situation, where his powerful frame and north-south running style will come in quite handy.

Prediction: Role player

Wendell Smallwood, Philadelphia Eagles

Outlook: Ryan Mathews’ career has been littered with injury after injury and he cannot be relied upon to carry a full workload in a season, which means that Smallwood probably gets the nod over Darren Sproles as a heavy-workload back. I wasnt a big fan of the WVU rusher coming out of the draft, but hell have an opportunity to prove his mettle if (when) Mathews suffers a knock.

Prediction: Limited reserve

Jonathan Williams, Buffalo Bills

Outlook: Theres a strong chance that Jonathan Williams will eventually become the Bills feature running back, but it probably wont be in 2016. Coming off a 2015 campaign that saw Williams sidelined for the entirety of the season with an injured foot, the Arkansas product will likely be the third-string back in Buffalo, behind LeSean McCoy and Karlos Williams. Jonathan Williams might be better than both running backs when he gets his legs under him again, but may not have the chance to prove it until later in his career.

Prediction: Limited reserve

Alex Collins, Seattle Seahawks

Outlook: If Thomas Rawls is healthy, Collinsrole will be as a situational runner who is difficult to bring down in short-yardage spots. If not, the Arkansas running back could push for time as a starter while competing with Michael and Prosise for carries.

Prediction: Role player

Kelvin Taylor, San Francisco 49ers

Outlook: Carlos Hyde is the unquestioned starter in San Francisco, while Mike Davis should step into the No. 2 role this season. Taylor is likely on the outside looking in as a rookie, but does have pro-ready traits if called upon.

Prediction: Limited reserve

Darius Jackson, Dallas Cowboys

Outlook: If Jackson makes the team, hell have a host of talented backs in front of him, including Elliott, Darren McFadden, Alfred Morris, and Lance Dunbar. It will be a redshirt year for the talented Eastern Michigan running back if he makes the roster in Dallas.

Prediction: No impact

Dwayne Washington, Detroit Lions

Outlook: Ameer Abdullah is ready for a feature role, and Theo Riddick and Zach Zenner should be perfect complements to the second-year rusher in a Lions backfield with little foreseeable room for Washington right now.

Prediction: No impact

Daniel Lasco, New Orleans Saints

Outlook: I liked Lasco coming out, but the seventh-round pick is stuck behind Mark Ingram, Travaris Cadet, C.J. Spiller, and Marcus Murphy in New Orleans. Hes going to  have to work hard to make the roster at all, let alone have an early impact.

Prediction: No impact

Keith Marshall, Washington

Outlook: Marshall should have relatively little trouble making Washingtons 53-man roster, as only Chris Thompson and Mack Brown stand between him and backing up Matt Jones. If Marshall can finally stay healthy, he could see a decent amount of opportunites at a position that lacks significant depth for Washington.

Prediction: Role player

Zac Brooks, Seattle Seahawks

Outlook: Whenever a team takes two players at your position ahead of you in the draft, your chances of making a final roster are usually slim. Brooks is wedged behind a number of talented players in Seattles backfield, so he may ultimately have a better shot of succeeding elsewhere in the NFL.

Prediction: No impact

Follow Jon on Twitter @LedyardNFLDraft. Check out his article on Auburn defensive end Carl Lawson.

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