This season several rookie running backs from this year's draft have a chance to shine early for their teams and fantasy owners. Guys like Ryan Mathews, C.J. Spiller, Ben Tate, Jahvid Best and Montario Hardesty, should all get a chance to make a dent in 2010. Meanwhile, players like Jonathan Dwyer, Toby Gerhart, Dexter McCluster and Joe McKnight may have to wait for an opening via injury or poor play on the part of others.
Gauging a rookie's impact depends as much on his ability to adapt to the NFL game as it does to the opportunity his situation allows. Ryan Mathews steps right into a starting role in San Diego while Jonathan Dwyer is behind Rashard Mendenhall in Pittsburgh.
So let's take a look at each player and how they might make an impact in 2010.
Ryan Mathews, SDC - Though Mathews was the second running back taken off the board, 12th pick overall, he has the most immediate fantasy upside. He landed in a perfect spot. The LaDainian Tomlinson era is over for the Chargers. Darren Sproles is an effective 3rd down change of pace RB. That leaves Mathews as the man who will be carrying the load for the bolts. He rushed for 1,808 yards and 19 TD at Fresno State in 2009, so the potential to put up big numbers is there. We currently have him ranked 16th, and on average he's being drafted in the late 2nd or early third round in 10-12 team leagues.
C.J. Spiller, BUF - Spiller is high upside talent vs. convoluted opportunity. He was the first running back off the board at 9th overall, and is perhaps the best back in the draft, but unlike Mathews above, his path to fantasy glory is blocked by Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch. In 2010 he has greater value in keeper and dynasty leagues, but he should still get his fair share of touches on a team that will need to rely on the run. Look for Lynch to get traded (likely to the Seattle Seahawks), which would put Spiller in a time share with Jackson and a probable 50/50 split. He could bust 1000 yards this season with his lightning quick speed and playmaking ability. If Lynch stays, it could be a hard year for the rookie. He's currently ranked at 31, but when/if Lynch moves he jumps up several spots. He's being drafted on average in the 7th to 8th round.
Jahvid Best, DET - When the Lions drafted Kevin Smith two seasons ago, he was supposed to be their RB of the future. Instead he's been on the IR more than the field. This season Detroit traded into position to grab Best, and while they are saying Smith and Best will share carries equally, it is becoming clear that Jahvid will be their go-to-guy. Best is built like C.J. Spiller at 5 feet 10 inches and 195lbs, and at least for 2010 he's the better fantasy option as he's more of a lock for heavy carries. I have him ranked at 21st, with the idea Smith will steal 30th% of the carries. Best is going in the 5th to 6th round on average.
Montario Hardesty, CLE - As I said in my article, Four Reasons Not To Draft Jerome Harrison, Montario Hardesty is a great north-south, tank of a runner. G.M. Mike Holmgren believes his running style will prove valuable in the bad winter weather. That assessment alone could spell doom for Jerome Harrison’s value, or at least push him back into his 3rd down, pass-catching role. Regardless, this is shaping up to be more of a platoon situation, with a real chance that Hardesty could be the team’s #1 by the start of the season. Keep an eye on this as the season gets closer. I ultimately believe Hardesty will be the primary back this season, and at the very least a serious touchdown vulture. As the summer progresses, the average draft positions of Hardesty and Harrison grow closer together.
Ben Tate, HOU - We're getting into pre-season hype speculation here. The Texans still have Steve Slaton as their primary back, but he did not impress the team last season after a stellar 2008. Most experts are picking Tate to take over in 2010, which could very well be the case, but I'm not ready to give up on Slaton yet. Tate is one of those players who doesn't wow you, but he gets the job done. He's not spectacular in anyway, but he could be a very solid running back who quietly puts up solid production numbers. he's great between the tackles and he finishes hard. The fantasy upside is there, but unless your sold on the demise of Slaton, you don't want to reach for Tate. I currently have him ranked at 26 which may be a touch high until we see how things play out. He's being drafted around the 7th round.
Toby Gerhart, MIN - Don't assume because this kid is locked behind Adrian Peterson that he has no value in 2010. Gerhart is a bruising touchdown vulture, and he will replace Chester Taylor in the backfield, and probably have a greater fantasy impact. The Minnesota Vikings have a high powered offense and as we continue to see more and more RBBCs, look to see even teams with primary backs get more use out of their back-ups. You can grab him late and get a potential RB3/Flex player out of him.
Dexter McCluster, KCC - McCluster is interesting in a way no other back on this list is. He's a bit like Reggie Bush. Not an every down back, but a beautiful complimentary back. However, the Kansas City Chiefs already have Thomas Jones and Jamaal Charles. Kansas City has already decided to use him as a receiver which is a solid idea given that McCluster is the best receiving back in this class, and has excellent big play ability. He's not quite as big as Bush, but his value is still comparable. How valuable he is in your fantasy league may in part be based on his eligibility. He is an RB playing WR. Check to see how your league lists him. If he has or will have dual eligibility in 2010 that's a big bonus. Regardless, he has been compared to a mini Wes Welker. He should be especially valuable as a low end WR2 or high end WR3 in PPR leagues. In fact he shows up at #50 on my WR rankings. He's going off the boards in the 15th round on average.
Jonathan Dwyer, PIT - My little sleeper pick of the bunch. Dwyer is a bulldozer. He reminds me a bit of Shonn Greene. He will power down the field, and find that endzone. Had he landed elsewhere he might have more fantasy value in 2010. However, there may be more opportunity with the Pittsburgh Steelers than first meets the eye. Rashard Mendenhall had a fantastic year in 2009 taking over for Willie Parker, but prior to his sudden breakout, he struggled. He is considered to be a primary back in this age of RBBCs, but I suspect we'll see more of Dwyer than you'd think. We could end up with another thunder and lightning, with Dwyer playing the bruiser to Mendenhall's finesse and speed. I have him ranked right at #50, but he's being drafted around the 19th round. He could be a nice little surprise.
Joe McKnight, NYJ - Finally there's McKnight, who has issues with inconsistency and health, and now he's stuck behind Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson. I don't expect much from McKnight in 2010, but he has a similar skill set to Reggie Bush, whom he replaced at USC. He possesses excellent speed and burst on the outside which could make him a nice complimentary back, especially in PPR leagues. Leon Washington is gone for the Jets, so McKnight is at least worth keeping an eye on.