The instant impact rookie running back. Seemingly every year, one or two rookies are gifted with an opportunity to see a significant workload at a certain point in the season. Some are scheduled to be their team's starter form the get go (think Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch in 2007) while others benefit from a stroke of luck due to an injury to the starting guy or the starting guy is struggling (Branden Oliver, Jeremy Hill in 2014).
As the NFL Draft nears, it's important to look at these situations so you can identify them and play them to your advantage. It's also important to look at past examples so you can hopefully spot a similar situation in the future.
What can the draft tell us about fantasy?
When it comes to identifying what round a player is more likely to have a higher probability of immediately producing at, it can vary by position. One obvious trend is that quarterbacks taken in Rounds 1-3 typically do better. Current top fantasy quarterbacks such as Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Andrew Luck, Ben Reothlisberger and Aaron Rodgers were all drafted in the first two rounds in their respective drafts.
When you look at the wide receiver position, DeMaryius Thomas was a first-rounder as was Odell Beckham Jr. and Dez Bryant. Jordy Nelson was a second-round pick in 2008. Top 2014 fantasy wideout Antonio Brown was one exception to the rule. Brown was selected in the sixth round of the 2010 draft.
Running backs are a different story
Even though there's been some late-round gems at the quarterback and wide receiver position, the running back position is place where you'll find perhaps the highest probability quality fantasy players. More frequently than you'd think, you'll find top fantasy running backs who were drafted in the later rounds or even went undrafted.
There's a lot of variables that play into running backs not getting drafted as high as they used to be, and we could list 1,000 more words telling you why that is, but for the sake of this argument lets just say the NFL is a copy cat league and selecting a running back later on is just the trend right now. Even the 2015 running back class, which is being hyped as the best in years, will still likely only draw two first rounders (Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon). So with a running back class as good as this one, which has many draftniks claiming it could be as good as 14 quality starters deep, it's important to look at how late-round running backs have come to the forefront in the past and made an impact on fantasy teams. Let's take a look at last year's impact fantasy running backs who were rookies.
Case study #1 — Branden Oliver, San Diego Chargers (undrafted)
Oliver was ranked in the Top 40 among fantasy backs in fantasy points in 2014, which wasn't bad for a 5'8 undrafted rookie out of SUNY Buffalo. Oliver got his chance when starter Ryan Mathews went down with an MCL sprain. Of course, nobody saw Oliver's start coming after Mathews was scheduled to sit out the following week. Everybody had Danny Woodhead and Donald Brown pegged as the backups most likely to benefit, myself included. It goes to show you — always look all the way down on the depth chart before picking somebody up off the waiver wire. You never know what can happen.
Well, a stroke of luck happened and Oliver took off against the New York Jets. After Brown went out with a concussion early on and with Mathews already sidelined, Oliver feasted on the weak Jets passing defense and caught four balls for 68 yards and 1 touchdown. He also rushed for over 100 yards and finished with 29 fantasy points.
Watching that game, Oliver's ability in the passing game no doubt helped keep the defense and honest and led to him being more effective on the ground. Oliver also benefitted from Brown leaving the first half of that game with a concussion, which opened up the doors for him within the offense.
He didn't slow down afterward that game either. The Chargers leaned heavily on him the following week and Oliver made a nice second impression with a 101-yard effort against the Oakland Raiders and one touchdown. While those numbers were impressive, it's worth noting Oliver averaged just 3.9 yards a clip on 26 carries against one of the worst rushing defenses in the league, so it was no surprise that Oliver's production eventually dropped off.
While he turned out to be a nice addition off the waiver wire for a brief stretch, Oliver's fantasy value hit a snag after he ran into some tough defenses that started with a 36-yard performance against Denver on Thursday night. He tossed in six more equally ineffective games before finishing with 582 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns for the year, with half of his fantasy points coming in those two games against Oakland and New York.
Oliver proved (at least in his rookie season) to be more of a scat, receiving type back. He's not a guy that can beat you with 20 carries per game. He's more of a Darren Sproles type player who will beat you out of the backfield. But in the right matchup against a weak passing defense, he proved he could produce for at least a few weeks.
One of the takeaways you can use from Oliver is to considers drafting backup running backs where the starter has an injury history. Now, this doesn't always work out. DeMarco Murray was injured almost every season but managed to finish 2014 without any major injuries to speak of. He did suffer a hand injury at one point, but it didn't slow him up much to create a ton of value for the backup running back on Dallas.
In the case of Oliver, starting RB Ryan Mathews also had a long injury history. So keep an eye out for running backs (especially the rookies in this draft) who get drafted to a team with a No. 1 back who is prone to sitting out games.
Next, always be keen on matchups. Oliver benefited from two easy defenses (New York Jets weak passing defense and Oakland's weak rushing defense) when he put up his best numbers.
Lastly, always make sure to scope out the entire depth chart of a team. Danny Woodhead and Donald Brown were the top backups but Oliver was also on the depth chart as well.