Fantasy Football History: Lessons learned from previous rookie RB classes to apply in 2024

NFL teams have shifted their running back strategy in recent years. Teams are less interested in drafting them early — with rare exceptions — and most NFL offenses employ some kind of backfield platoon. The days of dominating your fantasy draft with a slew of early running back picks are long over.

But rookie production at this position has been fairly predictable and stable for a solid decade or so. I've spent a few days mining the last decade of rookie stats at this key spot, and the yearly hauls look remarkably similar.

[Venture into rookie fantasy history: QBs | RBs | WRs | TEs]

In each of the past 10 seasons, there have been between 4-8 rookie backs who scored 100 fantasy points or more (scoring 100 fantasy points most seasons will land you inside the RB40 cutline, which is a rough proxy for holding fantasy value). There have been 55 backs in all who cleared this number.

Here's how that group of 55 stacks up by NFL draft round; the players who made the 100-point club as rookies:

  • 1st round: 12 players

  • 2nd round: 11 players

  • 3rd round: 12 players

  • 4th round: 9 players

  • 5th round: 3 players

  • 6th round: 1 player

  • 7th round: 1 player

  • Undrafted: 6 players

This list isn't dominated by early picks, but then again, there are more bites of the apple outside the first round. Let's look at some recent rookie classes and see what common trends emerge.

I get that Jahmyr Gibbs and Bijan Robinson could be frustrating as rookies — Gibbs had to share with David Montgomery, while Robinson had to live in the mercurial world of Arthur Smith — but they charted as the RB10 and RB12, respectively, by year's end. That's a hit, and they certainly seemed to justify the first-round draft capital their NFL clubs spent on them. They're both fantasy first-rounders for 2024, justifiably.

Speed merchant De'Von Achane landed at RB21 despite a modest 130 touches. Tyjae Spears landed at RB39 and has a chance to be Tennessee's best back this year, no matter what you think of Tony Pollard. Zach Charbonnet was rostered most of the fantasy season but seldom popped, while Tank Bigsby looked like a bust in Jacksonville.

The league didn't select a first-round back in the spring of 2022, but it found plenty of talent at the position. Kenneth Walker (RB15) was the most impactful, while Tyler Allgeier, Dameon Pierce and Isiah Pacheco all succeeded despite modest draft capital (Picks 151, 107 and 251 at the NFL Draft, respectively). Breece Hall just missed this 100-point list, mostly because he was limited to seven games. Alas, he showed star quality as a rookie (5.8 yards per carry, 6.9 yards per touch), and he backed that up during a full 2023.

Najee Harris came out of the box with an RB4 season; he's been RB12 and RB20 since, and the Steelers didn't pick up his fifth-year option. This pick has always been about volume, not explosion. Travis Etienne was a 2021 draft pick who didn't debut until 2022 due to a foot injury; he was an efficiency darling in Year 1 (5.1 YPC) and more of a volume accumulator last year (3.8 YPC, but 12 touchdowns), six of them from the 6-yard line and in). Opportunity will always be a gigantic part of our fantasy search.

The rest of that rookie class already feels a little dated; Michael Carter, Elijah Mitchell and Chuba Hubbard don't look like long-term answers, Javonte Williams has competition in Denver, and Rhamondre Stevenson is coming off a mediocre year.

Jonathan Taylor was RB4 in his rookie year and RB1 as the follow-up. He's been hurt much of the past two seasons, but into an age-25 year and surrounded by good Indianapolis infrastructure, he's a proactive pick for me in 2024.

Antonio Gibson was useful his first two seasons (RB14, RB10) and a bit player since then. He's now looking to break into the New England backfield. J.K. Dobbins was solid as a freshman (RB17) but he's been mostly injured since then. He looks to resurrect his career with the run-first Chargers.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire was definitely an overdraft by the Chiefs (Pick 32), and the same probably goes for D'Andre Swift with Detroit (Pick 35) and AJ Dillon with Green Bay (Pick 62).

Josh Jacobs and David Montgomery have been consistent fantasy grinders between the tackles, while Miles Sanders and Devin Singletary have been hit-and-miss players and better served as secondary options. It's interesting that all four of these backs have moved past their original draft team. Tony Pollard was an interesting backup for Dallas, but he didn't do much when finally pressed into a featured role last year. Alexander Mattison had a similar arc with Minnesota; he didn't produce much when finally asked to handle a sizable workload last season.

The Giants ignored modern draft theory and spent the No. 2 overall pick on Saquon Barkley; it was a smash in Year 1 (RB2) but it's been spotty since (RB10, RB119, RB34, RB6, RB13). Now he's set up to succeed as part of the Philly offensive infrastructure.

The Patriots took Sony Michel four picks before his Georgia teammate, Nick Chubb, but Chubb's always been the better pro. Kerryon Johnson had a solid rookie year with Detroit (RB33) but quickly fizzled out. Philip Lindsay was a welcome surprise as an undrafted 24-year-old rookie.

We had one major hit (Christian McCaffrey) and one primary miss (Leonard Fournette) in the top eight picks, though the Buccaneers did offer Fournette a useful second act in 2021 and 2022. The later rounds offered some nifty hits, with Alvin Kamara a third-round smash and Joe Mixon a steady second-round grinder. Kareem Hunt was the star of this group initially (RB3, RB8), but he hasn't aged well. Jamaal Williams somehow scored 17 touchdowns with the Lions two years ago, then one touchdown in New Orleans last fall.

Ezekiel Elliott became something of a punchline over the last couple of years, but his first six Dallas seasons were fantasy gold (RB2, RB9, RB5, RB4, RB11, RB6). And he's still a very good converter in short-yardage spots, so maybe he has something left for his age-29 season. Derrick Henry wasn't asked to do much as a rookie (123 touches) but was a star two years later; I expect an easy 12-14 touchdowns for him in Baltimore this fall.

Three forgettable rookies (Jordan Howard, Devontae Booker, Robert Kelley) joined Zeke on the 100-point chart.

Todd Gurley and David Johnson both had their moments as the king of fantasy football, though neither player aged well. Gurley never made it to his age-27 season, and Johnson's final four years were pedestrian (RB37, RB19, RB67, RB132). Melvin Gordon notoriously didn't have any touchdowns as a rookie, then plunged in 12 times in his second season.

Although this class scored well for first-year utility, only Gordon, Gurley and Johnson made it past 3,500 career rushing yards. When did you last think about Jeremy Langford, T.J. Yeldon or Duke Johnson?

This is another class that was more useful early but didn't hold value long. Carlos Hyde almost made it to 5,000 career rushing yards, and Devonta Freeman was a shocking fantasy right answer in 2015 (and held value for the next two seasons). James White eventually emerged as a value Patriots piece, a nifty find with Pick 130. Though the voters went with Tom Brady, White could have been MVP of Super Bowl 51 (14-110-1 through the air, three total touchdowns).

So, history tells us four of these players (at least) will make it to 100 fantasy points, but it's hard to see those paths at the moment. Obviously no backs were taken in the first round of the 2024 Draft, and the first name called, Jonathon Brooks, is coming off a November ACL tear.

The three third-round backs have interesting cases for plausible upside. Trey Benson has the chops to challenge James Conner quickly, and Conner usually needs some maintenance time every season. The Rams turned Kyren Williams into a star last year, but volume was a large part of the story. With Blake Corum holding third-round capital, you have to assume Sean McVay envisions a role for Corum right away. New Packer MarShawn Lloyd had a fumbling problem at USC, but he also made his share of chunk plays.

There will always be some sneaky backs who emerge from the later rounds. Bucky Irving doesn't have major competition ahead of him in Tampa Bay. Jaylen Wright fits right in with Miami, another speed darling. Kimani Vidal has room to rise with the Chargers. New Bronco Audric Estimé did some impressive things at Notre Dame.

This is probably the first year in a while where no rookie back immediately translates into a startle RB2. But remember, at running back more than any other position, opportunity and volume drive value. Any player who eventually works his way into a projectable 10-13 touches a week will have to be seen as a flex candidate at worst in the coming week. As usual, you'll want several stash-and-hope backs for the back of your roster.