It is now April, which means the NFL draft is officially this month. Free agency brought some clarity to depth charts, so now it’s easier to see where teams have holes to fill with their picks. Incoming rookies can make big impacts if they walk into the right situation, and this series will compare where the best landing spots are for each position based on team needs and surrounding talent.
Next up is running back, where rookies can often make a seamless transition from college to the pro game rather easily. Having good blocking up front to clear running lanes helps, so a ranking of all 32 offensive lines from Pro Football Focus will be referenced throughout. Situation matters: landing in a good offense or on a team without much competition for touches can set up running backs to shine right away. It may be the position with the shortest shelf life, but rookies can really hit the ground running in the right spot.
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
You may have heard that bit of free agency news involving the greatest quarterback of all time, and the Bucs were already 3rd in both yards and points scored last year despite leading the league with 41 turnovers. The lead ‘back in this offense is going to be in position to score a lot, and it helps that the offensive line was PFF’s 7th-highest ranked. Presumed starter Ronald Jones showed signs of development after a lost rookie season, but it never seemed like Bruce Arians trusted him to carry the load. A rookie who is a capable receiver could become a dangerous weapon here since Tom Brady always makes use of threats out of the backfield, and Arians was prolific at feeding David Johnson touches all over the field when he was coaching in Arizona.
2. Kansas City Chiefs
Lining up in the same backfield as Patrick Mahomes isn’t too shabby either, but the Super Bowl champs are ranked second for two reasons. First, the offensive line was only ranked 16th by PFF and saw Stefen Wisniewski depart in free agency after becoming a strong starter down the stretch. Second, it’s a bit more crowded in the running back room with Damien Williams shining for a second straight postseason, DeAndre Washington joining the team, and depth players like Darrel Williams already chipping in 308 yards and four touchdowns overall in limited action. Still, no running back on the roster was heavily invested in, so it would be easy to see a high draft pick coming in and becoming a star in the league’s most explosive offense right away.
3. Detroit Lions
The Lions may not appear to be as potent of an offense as the previous two teams, but in the eight games that Matthew Stafford was healthy, they averaged 391.25 yards and 25.5 points per game, which quietly would have ranked 4th and 8th in the league, respectively. In a Darrell Bevell offense that likes to run the ball, Kerryon Johnson hasn’t been able to stay healthy or consistently productive, so it would make sense to move him to a complimentary role. PFF’s #11 offensive line lost guard Graham Glasnow in free agency but improved at right tackle by signing Halapoulivaati Vaitai, so a rookie runner could have a great situation around him if he wins the starting job.
4. Los Angeles Rams
Exit Todd Gurley, enter high draft pick? It may not be that simple after trading up for Darrell Henderson in the 3rd round last year, but he struggled to the tune of 3.8 yards per carry and was only trusted with 43 touches. The other backup running back, Malcolm Brown, only has a career high of 72 touches in his five-year career, so the path to opportunities is not daunting. The real problem is an offensive line that PFF ranked 31st in the league. That didn’t stop them from having the 7th-most yards and 11th-most points last year, however, and they were 2nd in both categories the prior season en route to a Super Bowl appearance. It’s not hard to imagine a rookie stepping in to help this offense return to its high-flying ways.
5. Miami Dolphins
This is the one team that ranked lower than the Rams in PFF’s offensive line rankings, so this spot is more about the potential volume a rookie could see due to a lack of competition. 37-year-old quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was the Dolphins’ leading rusher last year, after all. Although Jordan Howard was signed as a stopgap solution, he’s always been a near non-factor in the passing game and only received a two-year deal for a reason. He also didn’t record a touch after Week 9 due to a shoulder injury, and any lingering effects could leave the door open for a rookie to turn a committee into a full-blown workhorse role.
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