In fantasy football, you need difference makers on your team. Consistent high-floor players are needed as well, but in order to take your team to the next level it is necessary to have week-winners. The first three rounds of drafts usually assure you of locking in a week-to-week star. Things start to get a little tricky once the fourth rolls around, as you begin to identify and project players who you believe will outperform their previous seasons and develop into fantasy studs. Most of it is a guessing game, though applying historical research and identifying patterns related to each player may give you a slight edge over your fellow drafters.
Rookies are an integral part of a lot of high-scoring fantasy teams. I can assure you that Odell Beckham Jr., Jeremy Hill and Mike Evans were on a lot of championship-winning teams last year. And I bet many teams got essential contributions from other rookies like Jordan Matthews, Sammy Watkins and even Teddy Bridgewater. Whether drafted or picked up off waivers, owners got way more than their money's worth. When drafting this year, owners must consider whether the uncertainty of waivers is more convenient than a mid-round, or potentially higher, draft pick. Rookies seem to be more in demand this year, especially earlier in drafts. Melvin Gordon, Amari Cooper and T.J. Yeldon are currently the three rookies being drafted the highest. Ameer Abdullah is right behind them.
For me, Abdullah is the most intriguing out of any rookie in this year's class, both from a real football and fantasy football perspective. Drafted in the second round with the 54th pick, the Detroit Lions chose him relatively (in today's NFL) early. They did so because of the departing Reggie Bush and the various health concerns of Joique Bell. Being one of the most productive running backs in college football over the last three seasons made the decision even easier. From a pure football perspective, Abdullah is a perfect fit for the Lions' offense. Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi was the offensive assistant and subsequent quarterbacks coach for the New Orleans Saints from 2007-2013. During his time there, he saw Reggie Bush, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles enjoy very productive seasons, especially from a PPR fantasy viewpoint.
Ameer Abdullah is in a similar mold as those three mentioned. Here are his measurables, courtesy of Mock Draftable:
As you can see, he isn't one of those height/weight/speed specimens that the current NFL has grown fond of. His agility and explosion scores are incredible, though, which is paramount for a running back. If we only looked at size and speed, Ray Rice, Darren Sproles and Justin Forsett would never get a chance. Explosiveness, lateral agility and vision are arguably the most important traits for a running back to excel at. Abdullah possesses all three, and has the opportunity to show it off in this Detroit Lions offense.
Fantasy-wise, let's look at what kinds of numbers Detroit Lions running backs have put up over the last few seasons, in standard scoring leagues. In 2013, Reggie Bush finished as the 11th-best running back and Joique Bell finished as the 17th-best. In 2014, in the first year under Lombardi, Bell finished as the 14th-best, while Bush's year was dampened by injuries. If you combine Bush's 2014 stats and Theo Riddick's, that player would have finished as the 21st-best running back. This Detroit offense is great for a fantasy running back, mainly because of the attention drawn by Calvin Johnson and Stafford's indecisions leading to a lot of catches for the running backs.
While looking for a logical baseline for Abdullah's 2015 projection, I came across Giovani Bernard's 2013 rookie season for the Cincinnati Bengals. The Lions and Bengals offenses are somewhat similar, while the backfield situations for both were identical. Bernard was the agile rookie picked in the second round to help out a running game that depended on a slow, plodding bruiser in Benjarvus Green-Ellis. Gio had a great season, finishing as the 16th-best running back in standard leagues and 12th-best in PPR leagues. That finish would have made him the 9th-best running back in PPR leagues in 2014. That's pretty good for a baseline, isn't it? I say that's a baseline because I believe Abdullah is even more talented than Bernard. Joique Bell would be Green-Ellis in this situation, and though that may seem harsh on Bell, it's really not. Bell's yards per carry over the last two seasons: 3.9. Green-Ellis' career yards per carry: 3.9.
There are a lot of signs pointing to Bell's decline starting in 2015. He isn't off to a good start as he's already on the PUP list, while Abdullah has been taking all the starter reps in practices. Abdullah is more talented and has the opportunity to take the starting job for a running back friendly offense and never look back. Some may argue that Abdullah's fantasy draft price is getting too high. With his current ADP at 63.0 and being drafted as the RB29, that may not seem like a value.
Yet it very much is, especially at a position that's hard to get right in fantasy football. Hedge your bets on the talent and opportunity and you will come away with a week-to-week difference maker at running back.