Fantasy fallout: Barkley, Freeman surge ahead in rookie RB race

Saquon 'tweaks' leg in practice (0:48)

The NFL Live crew reacts to Jordan Raanan's report that Giants RB Saquon Barkley walked away from practice "gingerly" after apparently "tweaking" his leg. (0:48)

The Giants' Saquon Barkley is expected to be fine after tweaking his hamstring in Monday's practice. So it appears that his growing legion of fantasy owners can breathe a sigh of relief (he's going sixth overall on average in ESPN fantasy drafts).

But let's face it, the New York Giants rookie could probably sit out the rest of the preseason and still be locked into that draft slot after his Week 1 preseason debut somehow managed to live up to the hype.

Barkley's first NFL carry was a dazzling 39-yard run that showed off both his speed and his elusiveness with a nasty jump-cut at the line of scrimmage.

Barkley's draft stock wasn't much of a question heading into the preseason, though. It was the rest of the NFL's rookie running back class that moved the needle more -- for better or worse -- in Week 1. Here are some updates, courtesy of ESPN's NFL Nation:

Replacing Guice

The most deflating news from the preseason openers was Derrius Guice being lost for the year with a torn ACL. The Washington Redskins' second-round pick was generating the most buzz of any rookie runner outside of Barkley. Now the Redskins and fantasy owners alike will have to decide if they can sell themselves on former starters such as Rob Kelley and Samaje Perine.

ESPN Redskins reporter John Keim wrote that coaches say both Kelley and Perine are quicker and running with more confidence this summer, owing to their familiarity with the offense and perhaps shedding some weight (Kelley in particular). So Keim writes there is reason to believe both could be better.

But Keim said it's hard to know if the Redskins will choose either one as a true lead back to pair with runner/receiver Chris Thompson. And he pointed out the Redskins are now counting mostly on the same group of runners and blockers that led to them ranking 30th in the NFL in yards per rush and 28th in total rushing yards last season. The appeal with Guice was that he might be able to create more yards on his own.

Faith in Freeman

The problem with the rest of the rookie running backs is that they appear to be stuck in timeshares to start the season. But the guy who looks most likely to emerge as a true No. 1 the earliest is the Denver Broncos' Royce Freeman.

Not only did the third-round draft pick look more impressive than veteran Devontae Booker in the preseason opener with four carries for 38 yards (including a 23-yard touchdown), but ESPN Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold has continued to stress that, "He's just too big, too fast not to play, and he runs with vision."

Freeman (6 feet, 238 pounds) is going 18th among running backs in ESPN drafts, and Legwold said, "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."

Veterans in the way?

As for first-round picks Rashaad Penny and Sony Michel and second-rounders Nick Chubb, Ronald Jones II and Kerryon Johnson, all of them still have the potential to become midseason breakouts. But they all appear to be blocked early by veterans playing well at their positions.

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter Brady Henderson said Penny has looked impressive, so he'll play. But second-year pro Chris Carson has remained the first-string running back all offseason and looks like he's back to the pre-injury form that helped him win the starting job heading into last season. Henderson also pointed out that Seahawks offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said during most of his years with the New York Jets when they were running the ball well, "there was always at least two guys. There's a Thomas Jones and a Shonn Greene and there was a LaDainian Tomlinson and a Leon Washington. It takes more than one, for sure."

It's virtually the same scenario in Tampa Bay, where Buccaneers veteran Peyton Barber has been running well ahead of Jones so far -- and Barber looks good after dropping 13 pounds in the offseason. Jones, meanwhile, got off to a slow start in the preseason opener and battled some dropped passes. ESPN Bucs reporter Jenna Laine pointed out how much more complimentary coach Dirk Koetter was of Barber's performance ("really good job") than Jones' ("pretty average") in the preseason opener -- though there could be some motivational tactics involved. Laine said it could be a situation where Barber starts the season and Jones comes on stronger later.

Michel is dealing with a minor knee issue that isn't expected to keep him out long. But the already-crowded New England Patriots backfield got even murkier on Thursday when veteran Jeremy Hill busted loose with 11 carries for 51 yards and a TD. ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss said Hill has dropped about 10 pounds to 226 this year. If he emerges as a goal-line factor in New England, it could shrink Michel's ceiling a bit in a backfield that also includes Rex Burkhead and James White.

As ESPN Detroit Lions reporter Michael Rothstein wrote, Johnson had a terrific debut Thursday -- on both his 57-yard run that was called back by holding and an equally impressive run that barely made it back to the line of scrimmage. But Lions incumbent Ameer Abdullah also looked good in the first half before Johnson came on strong with the backup units.

Chubb was already being drafted behind fellow Cleveland Browns backs Duke Johnson Jr. and Carlos Hyde in ESPN drafts -- and his 15 yards on 11 carries in his preseason debut won't change that. Obviously, he could be another candidate for a bigger role as the season goes on, though.

Quick hits

  • Jaguars: Speaking of players who shed weight in the offseason, ESPN Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco wrote that a "leaner, meaner Leonard Fournette" is primed for a huge second season after losing almost 20 pounds.

  • Bengals: Another second-year running back, Joe Mixon signaled he is ready for a Year 2 surge with his dazzling 24-yard touchdown catch in Cincinnati's preseason opener. ESPN Bengals reporter Katherine Terrell said there is no question Mixon is "the guy" at this point with Hill now in New England. Mixon will split some touches with runner/receiver Giovani Bernard. But Mixon can catch the ball, too -- and he was actually lined up as a receiver on his TD catch.

  • Steelers: Second-year Pittsburgh receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster did nothing to quiet the buzz around him, showing off his leaping ability and dynamic speed on a 71-yard touchdown catch. As a result, he jumped from 23rd to 20th among receivers in ESPN drafts over the weekend. ESPN Steelers reporter Jeremy Fowler says that seems like the right draft range for him since he has continued to impress throughout training camp. He does need to prove he can consistently succeed both inside and outside while drawing more attention from defenses, though, now that deep threat Martavis Bryant is no longer around to draw attention from safeties. ... Further down the sleeper list, Fowler also wrote Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger is intrigued by rookie WR James Washington's potential.

  • Cowboys: Another rookie receiver earning his way onto the radar is Michael Gallup, who caught a 30-yard TD pass from Dak Prescott. But ESPN Cowboys reporter Todd Archer thinks Dallas will spread the ball around to three or four guys this season in the absence of former go-to guys such as Dez Bryant and Jason Witten. Archer writes veteran slot receiver Cole Beasley should lead the team in catches, but he might not be a big factor in the red zone. Gallup and veteran Allen Hurns could make bigger plays and score more TDs. Veteran Terrance Williams should remain in the mix, too. ... Also, expect running back Ezekiel Elliott to be more involved in the passing game, which should boost his PPR value.

  • Bills: Buffalo receiver Kelvin Benjamin let his play do the talking after he blew off former Carolina Panthers teammate Cam Newton in a pregame meeting on the field. Benjamin had four catches for 59 yards and a TD. ESPN Bills reporter Mike Rodak said Benjamin still needs to prove he can stay healthy and show consistency as a true No. 1 receiver. But that was a good start. Also, Rodak notes receiver Jeremy Kerley as a consideration in deep leagues since he seems to have solidified a role as the slot receiver in new coordinator Brian Daboll's offense. As Rodak said, "it's the Patriots system, and we know that spot has put up numbers in the past (Wes Welker, Julian Edelman, etc.)"

  • Packers: Running back Jamaal Williams had a promising start for Green Bay (five carries for 16 yards, plus an 8-yard TD catch on the opening drive). And ESPN Packers reporter Rob Demovsky said Williams should start the year as Green Bay's workhorse, with the more versatile Ty Montgomery as the no huddle/two-minute back. But Demovsky has consistently predicted that Aaron Jones could eventually emerge as the most dynamic back in the trio once he returns from a two-game suspension. So Jones might offer the most draft-day value in a crowded backfield.

  • 49ers: Last but not least, receiver Marquise Goodwin has continued to establish himself as the 49ers' top receiver (even though Pierre Garcon is still being drafted four spots ahead of him in ESPN drafts). ESPN 49ers reporter Nick Wagoner said Garcon should still get a lot of targets, especially on third downs. And both receivers might finish with a similar number of receptions. But "Goodwin is clearly Jimmy Garoppolo's favorite target" and should have more touchdowns and more yards per catch.