Consistently good running backs are essential to winning a fantasy football championship.

There’s no way around it. That’s why I cater to that position early and often in the draft, so it’s inevitable that running backs get overrated in the process. And oftentimes, that occurs with rookies.

But at the top of the leaderboard last season, that was a different story. Ezekiel Elliott was a first-round choice as a running back in the draft as a rookie, and he paid major dividends. He finished second to David Johnson in fantasy points and will be a top-three choice in this year’s draft.

In general terms, though, those rookies aren’t necessarily the best bets in fantasy production. Let’s look at that same draft in 2016. The next-best performer that season was Jordan Howard, who was pretty good in his own right. But he wasn’t a main player in the fantasy football drafts. He was drafted in the NFL draft in the fifth round, and there was plenty of confusion on who would carry the ball for the Bears.

The year before in 2015, Todd Gurley performed well, but his other first-round counterpart Melvin Gordon was a major bust. That was supposed to be the year of the rookie running back, with T.J. Yeldon, Ameer Abdullah and Duke Johnson Jr. providing production, too.

That didn’t transpire, and little-known David Johnson was a major player by the end of the season, despite being dumped on pretty much everybody’s waiver wire.

It’s difficult to judge rookie running backs, and in the early going, it always seems head coaches are reluctant to use those top-tier running backs. They may catch steam toward the end of the season, but by then, they may already be on the waiver wire.

Here’s the top picks in the 2017 draft and whether it’s possible to see a rookie RB have another Elliott performance.

Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars

I’m probably a little too sold on Fournette and the Jaguars. The Jaguars have amassed quite a bit of talent. With a new coach, that may be the change agent they’ve needed to be a dark-horse playoff contender.

The offensive line was better last year in the pass game, and with the addition of rookie Cam Robinson, it should get better in the run game. And I’m still a believer in that above-average running backs can make an offensive line look better than what they actually are. Fournette is the likeliest to have an Elliott-esque impact. Among running backs, he’s listed 12th, which is a pretty good place to pick him up in the draft. That would likely put him in that lower second round/upper third round mark, which wouldn’t require much risk.

Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers

Finding out what kind of role McCaffrey will have will be the litmus test on how well he can produce.

Jonathan Stewart is still on the roster, so that will limit McCaffrey’s ability to score touchdowns. I like how Carolina could use him in the pass game, but there’s still too many options in that backfield who have played in recent years (like Fozzy Whittaker and Cameron Artis-Payne) that I’m having a tough time pulling the trigger on McCaffrey in fantasy football.

He’s a player that may not produce in the early going, so he’ll require some patience. It’s likely Stewart will see a reduced role, but he’ll still be in line for some touchdowns, thus taking away McCaffrey’s value. His current ranking of 16th among running backs is a little too high, especially with the uncertainty.

Dalvin Cook won’t be the weapon many believe in 2017. Flickr

Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings

Cook isn’t a guy who I can trust on all three downs just yet, so that limits a lot of his value. He’s also on a team with a starting running back in Latavius Murray, who has had success during the years.

One of the downsides of Murray is that he’s been limited in his carries because Oakland employs one of the most frustrating running-back-by-committees in the NFL. Was that all Oakland or was it because Murray can’t be a bell-cow?

Some of me believes the latter, since Minnesota moved up to get Cook. We’ve seen Minnesota hold back rookies before (see Laquon Treadwell from 2016), so it wouldn’t surprise me if Cook was a clear back-up. He’s currently listed as the 28th-ranked running back, which is too steep for my blood.

Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals are another interesting team with how well their running backs perform. Jeremy Hill was a major bust last season, but he’ll return, along with Giovani Bernard.

But Mixon’s value is all about anticipating Hill underperfoming again and believing Mixon is one of the best running backs in the draft. He’ll likely start out as the No. 3 running back on the depth chart, but with Hill’s performance from last year as a barometer, that may not stick.

Mixon is actually ranked higher than Cook in preseason rankings at 22, and that’s the right move. Murray has proven in the past to be a solid weapon. Hill has disappointed. By mid-season, it’s likely that Mixon will take over the starter’s role in Cincinnati. If you can hold on to him that long, he may be worth the wait.

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