By Matt Citak
With opening kickoff right around the corner, it’s time to prepare for your upcoming fantasy football draft. Most fantasy rosters consist of a majority of proven veterans, some young upside players with potential, and maybe a rookie or two. Finding and selecting potential breakout players before the rest of your league is one of the best parts about participating in fantasy football. It helps your team become stronger, and normally will come at an affordable price on draft day. We already looked at a few quarterbacks that could end up having a big 2017 campaign. Now here are some running backs with breakout potential entering the 2017 NFL season.
Isaiah Crowell, Cleveland Browns
Crowell had a very productive season in 2016, carrying the ball 198 times for 952 yards and seven touchdowns, and adding 40 receptions for 319 yards. He averaged 4.8 yards per carry, which ranked seventh in the league among backs with at least 150 carries. That average landed him between Le’Veon Bell (4.9) and Devonta Freeman (4.8), both of whom were selected to the Pro Bowl. At 5-foot-11, 225-pounds, Crowell proved to be one of the toughest running backs to tackle last year. His 3.18 yards after contact was the third-highest mark among qualifying running backs, according to Pro Football Focus. Crowell was great at creating yards after contact last season, but he also showed he has explosive upside; only Jay Ajayi finished the year with more runs of 40+ yards. The biggest concern with Crowell is volume. The Browns ranked second in the NFL in percentage of passing plays per game in 2016, leading to Crowell getting just 14.9 touches per game.
While Cleveland was the worst team in the NFL last season, the Browns front office worked hard over the offseason to improve both sides of the ball. Signing Jamie Collins to an extension, along with drafting Myles Garrett and Jabril Peppers in the first round, should do wonders to improve the Browns’ defense and help keep Cleveland in games. But it was the additions on the offense that look like they could make a big difference in 2017. On the first day of free agency, Cleveland agreed to deals with offensive linemen Kevin Zeitler and J.C. Tretter, who both received top 10 grades among players at their positions from PFF last season. Those two join Joe Thomas, Joel Bitonio, and Shon Coleman to form one of the NFL’s strongest offensive lines. The Browns also drafted DeShone Kizer, who was recently named the team’s starting quarterback and will serve as an upgrade over the group of quarterbacks that took snaps under center last season, and tight end David Njoku, in addition to signing wide receiver Kenny Britt. All of a sudden, Cleveland looks like they could have a very solid offense in 2017.
With all of the new faces on offense, the Browns figure to be much improved this season. This is great news for Crowell, who’s only downside last year was a limited number of carries. Cleveland’s head coach Hue Jackson has already said this summer that he plans on feeding Crowell the ball early and often, which makes the fourth-year back poised for a breakout campaign.
Kareem Hunt, Kansas City Chiefs
Even before Spencer Ware went down with a likely season-ending injury during Kansas City’s third preseason game, there were rumblings that Hunt could play a major role in the offense this season. The rookie will now serve as the Chiefs’ feature back, which elevates his fantasy ceiling significantly. Hunt ran the ball 262 times for 1,475 yards (5.6 yards per carry) and 10 touchdowns in his senior year at Toledo. He also caught 41 receptions for 403 yards and a touchdown, and received the highest grade among all college running backs from PFF. In fact, his 95.1 mark was the second-highest grade the analytics site has given a running back in its first three years tracking college football. Hunt is also known for his ability to make defenders miss. The back forced a total of 98 missed tackles on 302 total touches, giving him an elusive rating of 112.1, the third-best among draft eligible backs (elusive rating is a runner’s success beyond the point of being helped by his blockers).
Since Andy Reid took over as head coach for Kansas City in 2013, the Chiefs have found great success in running the ball. Kansas City ranks eighth in total rushing yards with an average of 1,942 per season, and have the second-most rushing touchdowns with 69 (average of 17 per year). Hunt now takes over as the Chiefs’ three-down back, only one year after Ware received 214 carries in just 14 games. The rookie has shown flashes of his potential throughout the preseason, taking 18 carries and turning it into 79 yards (64 of which came after contact). Hunt has forced five missed tackles on 13 total touches, giving him an elusive rating of 141.0, which ranks second among 29 qualified running backs. Between his senior year at Toledo and the first three weeks of the preseason, Hunt has shown he can do it all. He had some of the best hands of any running back in the 2017 draft, as demonstrated by his not dropping a single one of his 41 catchable targets last year, along with the fact that he did not fumble any of his 302 offensive touches.
Hunt’s draft stock has skyrocketed over the last couple of days, with his ADP moving from the end of the sixth round to the fourth round. And it’s quite possible he continues to rise up draft boards as more and more fantasy owners realize the potential he has to succeed in Reid’s offense. Although he was the sixth running back taken in the NFL draft, don’t be surprised if Hunt ends up with the most successful rookie season.
Bilal Powell, New York Jets
Powell turns 29 in October, which may sound old for a breakout running back candidate. But it’s important to keep in mind that, although he entered the league in 2011, Powell has served as a reserve for most of his career. He has never received more than 176 carries in a season, and has only broken 100 rushing attempts in three of his six NFL campaigns. So why does Powell find himself on this list? After Matt Forte dominated the Jets’ touches for the first 10 weeks of the season, Todd Bowles decided to roll with Powell following the team’s Week 11 bye. From that point on, the running back out of Louisville played over 69 percent of the team’s offensive snaps, averaging 18.8 touches per game, and ranked as a top 12 PPR running back in three of those six games. Powell finished the season with 722 rushing yards on 131 carries (5.5 yards per carry) and three rushing touchdowns to go along with his 58 receptions for 388 yards and two receiving touchdowns.
When given the chance, Powell has shined with the ball in his hands. Among the 42 running backs that carried the ball at least 100 times last season, Powell led in percentage of carries that went for first downs (34.4 percent), while his 58 receptions ranked third. He also finished fifth in fantasy points per touch, and his ability to force a missed tackle on every 0.14 rushing attempts equaled that of both David Johnson and Devonta Freeman. There’s no denying that the Jets are going to be awful this season. However someone is still going to have to be the team’s lead back, and with Forte turning 32 in a few months, that title looks like it could be going to Powell. But even if Forte does keep a large role in the running game, Powell could still have a breakout fantasy season. With the departures of wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, along with the injury to Quincy Enunwa, New York’s number one receiver this season is now Robby Anderson. While the undrafted, second-year receiver was decent in 2016, he is by no means a big threat to opposing defenses. Because of this, it’s likely that Powell ends up being the most reliable target in the Jets’ passing game.
Most fantasy drafts have Powell going at the end of the fifth to beginning of the sixth round, which could end up being an absolute steal. Reports came out recently that the Jets are gauging the trade market for the veteran Forte, looking to shed him and the $4 million he is owed this year. That may prove to be difficult, as his salary is fully guaranteed and he looked like a shell of his old self last season. But if New York does get rid of Forte, then Powell suddenly becomes a three-down back and a strong fantasy option.
Matt Citak is a producer for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter or send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.