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Fantasy Wild Cards: Is Denver’s Royce Freeman the Rookie Running Back Worth Staking Your Fantasy Season On?

The Broncos’ back is flying off fantasy draft boards in the fourth round, but as his stock inches upward, the risk in taking him becomes magnified

Royce Freeman Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Fantasy football is won and lost by players who wildly outperform—or underperform—expectations. Roll the dice on the right player, and you’ll cruise through your league (hello there, Todd Gurley owners!). But put too much stock in a guy who busts, and it’ll be a long wait until next year’s draft (Isaiah Crowell owners: I’m sorry). Welcome to Fantasy Wild Cards, where we’ll examine the players with the biggest boom-or-bust prospects for the upcoming season. Will these players make your fantasy season, or break it?

Rookie running backs are a perennial fantasy wild card. Last season, Alvin Kamara and Kareem Hunt vastly overperformed their average draft position. The year before, Jordan Howard emerged as a top-10 running back option. And in 2015, Todd Gurley was being drafted in the sixth round before he broke out as a top-five rusher that season. But it can also go the other way: Just look at the relatively lackluster rookie campaigns of Joe Mixon, Derrick Henry, Ameer Abdullah, and Melvin Gordon.

This season, the pride of the rookie running back class is Saquon Barkley, who was taken no. 2 overall by the Giants this year and is currently being selected in the top five in fantasy drafts. After that, though, the class becomes murky. Washington’s Derrius Guice was a front-runner to be the next rookie running back off fantasy boards until he tore his ACL in the preseason. Now the next three rookie rushers up are Rashaad Penny, Ronald Jones II, and Royce Freeman, who are all clustered in the fourth-to-fifth-rounds range.

Penny was a first-round pick in the NFL draft, but he’s had a rough start so far in Seattle. He rushed for just 16 yards on eight carries in the Seahawks’ preseason opener against the Colts, and he was thoroughly outperformed by second-year back Chris Carson. Seattle also had one of the worst offensive lines in the league last season and made almost no changes in the offseason—virtually no running back on the team was playable last year, and that may be true once again. All of this makes Penny a risky bet.

Jones, meanwhile, was called “average” last week by Tampa Bay head coach Dirk Koetter, a distressing sign in a league where coaches generally hype up rookies instead of tearing them down. Jones has also reportedly struggled in pass protection in camp, and Koetter recently reaffirmed that Peyton Barber will be the team’s starting rusher, though he also said he would “take advantage of” Jones.

That leaves Freeman. Denver general manager John Elway hyped Freeman as a “bell-cow”-type back in April, and the former Duck has drawn nothing but solid headlines all offseason. He received a healthy number of reps in Denver’s preseason game against Minnesota and demonstrated considerable potential in those chances.

Freeman is currently being taken 48th in 12-team drafts, making him a late-fourth-rounder. But as Penny and Jones’s stocks fall, Freeman’s is rapidly climbing and may be even higher by late August. Check out how his ADP has moved compared with his rookie colleagues’:

So with Penny and Jones tumbling down the ADP boards, and Barkley firmly entrenched as the no. 1 rookie prospect, is Freeman the rookie running back with the second-most fantasy promise?

Freeman’s recent spike in his ADP may be mostly due to his preseason debut last Thursday, when he had 38 yards on four carries. Yeah, OK, preseason football means almost nothing, but watch this run:

Freeman is a larger back, but he shows off his quickness and agility on that play. Those skills are what make him such a tantalizing prospect and helped make him the all-time leading rusher at Oregon despite injury-riddled junior and senior campaigns. Before the NFL draft, he was the second-highest-graded running back in Football Outsiders’ BackCAST, after Barkley, and Pro Football Focus called him “underrated.” All of that speaks to the idea that a healthy Freeman may be more talented than his status as a third-round pick in the NFL draft would indicate.

Another bonus: He comes into a situation that is ripe for a bell-cow back. C.J. Anderson served in that role last year for Denver, rushing for 1,007 yards on 245 carries, but he’s now with Carolina. Jamaal Charles accounted for another 69 carries last season, but he’s currently a free agent. Devontae Booker (who had 79 carries and 299 yards last season) will serve as Freeman’s main competition for the starting job, and while he was listed atop the team’s initial depth chart, his career average of 3.6 yards per carry helps explain why the Broncos felt they needed to draft a running back in April. Booker’s more likely to be on the field on third downs and passing situations, but Freeman is a more natural fit as the lead back on the ground.

While Denver’s offensive line is nothing to write home about, it shouldn’t be a liability, either. The line often struggled in pass protection last season, but the Broncos ranked ninth in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards, indicating their potential as a run-blocking unit.

In addition, offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave could help install a run-first attack. The old-school coach took over as OC for the final six weeks of the season last year after Mike McCoy was fired, and he immediately installed a rushing mind-set. Denver ranked 13th in rushing attempts over the first 11 weeks of the year and jumped to fifth in the final six with Musgrave at the helm. In his eight full seasons as an NFL offensive coordinator, Musgrave’s teams have ranked in the top 10 in rushing yard five times.

All of this points toward Freeman not only being one of those classic, high-upside rookie running back options, but possibly one with a high floor as well. As ESPN Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold wrote Tuesday, “I think the optimism is justified. At minimum he splits carries, and I think he will be the primary back before too long. Now, that might not mean 250 carries, but he’s going to get work and already blocks well enough to play on third down and in some of the open formations. And he’ll get red zone chances, too.”

Unless Booker somehow dramatically improves on his first two seasons in the league, Freeman should be the lead back in Denver. With that knowledge, Freeman appears to be in the best position to succeed of all rookie runners not named Saquon Barkley. But that comes at a price for fantasy owners—as his stock continues to rise, Freeman will begin passing more established veterans in the fantasy hierarchy. Is it really worth taking Freeman over the Dolphins’ Kenyan Drake, who racked up 851 yards from scrimmage in the nine games after Jay Ajayi was traded? Or over Lamar Miller of the Texans, who put up 620 yards from scrimmage in the seven games Deshaun Watson played in?

As a rookie, Freeman offers tantalizing upside—but so do many established runners who are seen as “safer” picks because they’ve been in the NFL for years already. If Freeman continues to play well this preseason, he’ll become a more and more expensive option in fantasy drafts. Deciding between Freeman and league veterans may turn out to be the mid-round key that unlocks a postseason run for many fantasy teams.