The running back position is hard to predict for the future. Running backs have an increasingly short shelf life in the NFL. Therefore, it’s rare for running backs to break out too much later than their rookie season. We’re still early into this year, but I believe there’s an early candidate for a Tomorrow’s Star at the position. Although he’s starting to shine a little already. This week’s Tomorrow’s Star Today is Eagles running back Kenneth Gainwell.
Who is He?
Gainwell was at Memphis University for three years, although he redshirted his freshman year. This was due to the players on the depth chart in front of him. These included current NFL running backs Tony Pollard and Darrell Henderson. Memphis has gained a reputation for being Running Back University in recent years, with Pollard, Henderson, Gainwell, and Antonio Gibson coming out in recent years.
He became the starter in 2019 and was an incredible success. He gained first-team All-American Athletic Conference and the AAC Rookie of the Year honours after rushing for 1,459 yards and 13 touchdowns. When he came into the NFL, it was notable how few carries Antonio Gibson had in college. Kenneth Gainwell’s success was the reason for that.
Kenneth Gainwell was taken by the Eagles in the the fifth round of the 2021 NFL draft. His slip was a surprise to some, with Gainwell being the ninth running back taken. However, his tape throughout college shows a talented receiving back. He also has no issue taking contact and a great change of direction. This skillset matches perfectly to a third down back in the NFL, which is what many projected for Gainwell.
What’s His Outlook for This Season?
Coming into the season, I don’t think people expected much from Kenneth Gainwell. He was stuck behind established starter Miles Sanders on the depth chart. Alongside this, he plays alongside Jalen Hurts, whose rushing ability caps the upside of any running back on the team. With Gainwell being drafted by the Eagles, he went down in the rankings of many in the fantasy community.
However, the season so far has been a happy surprise for Gainwell. He’s amassed 84 rushing yards with two touchdowns, but more impressively has been his work in the receiving game. Gainwell has seen eighteen targets for thirteen receptions and 114 yards. This currently puts him fifteenth across all running backs in targets per game, averaging 4.5. Most importantly, he’s seeing a target more per game on average than Miles Sanders.
In PPR leagues, Kenneth Gainwell is currently the RB24. This currently puts him at the second highest rookie running back, behind only Najee Harris. Gainwell might not be getting volume, but he’s seeing targets out of the backfield and more goal line work than Miles Sanders, often seeing usage in 3rd downs and two minutes drills. Gainwell is currently seeing 18% of redzone touches for the Eagles offense. This isn’t a huge volume, but for a rookie running back, we can only expect to see his usage increase in this area.
Why is He a Future Star?
The NFL as a whole is stepping away from the idea of bell-cow running back. The Eagles have shown that they don’t seem to trust Miles Sanders within this role. Drafting Gainwell says that for itself, but we could see this already. Much less talented options like Boston Scott, Jordan Howard, and Corey Clement have all been seen to get touches alongside Sanders in previous years. Gainwell has already shown that he’s more talented than those players. The Eagles proclivity towards a running back by committee option has shown that Gainwell is already a flex option. This is only going to improve going forwards.
Crucially to Gainwell’s potential future explosion is the fact that Miles Sanders is a free agent after next year. The Eagles aren’t in a fantastic spot with the salary cap. They have a projected $22m of cap space in 2022. This makes resigning a running back that they likely could not afford. Alongside this, you would presume that Gainwell’s early emergence would make it more likely that they feel comfortable to continue with him as the 1A option. They could potentially bring in a 1B alongside him, but Gainwell’s volume will likely increase into 2022 and beyond.
Future Draft Capital
The Eagles are also in the position of having three first round picks in the 2022 draft. Currently, these are all top ten picks. They already have some exciting young talent on offense, with Devonta Smith, Jalen Hurts, Dallas Goedert, and Jordan Mailata. With a lot of potential in the upcoming draft, the Eagles offense could become much more powerful. With Gainwell continuing to be preferred at the goal line and out of the backfield, there’s a world in which he’s a high upside option in fantasy when Sanders leaves town.
However it’s worth noting that even if Sanders doesn’t leave the Eagles, Gainwell could still have a lot of value. This is the same coaching staff that worked with Nyheim Hines and Austin Ekeler. Gainwell offers similar value in the passing game. It is entirely foreseeable for Gainwell to take a similar PPR role if the Eagles somehow manage to resign Sanders.
I think Gainwell is already a flex option in redraft leagues. He’s currently straddling the RB2/3 value. This means that Gainwell owners are unlikely to sell him this early, as he’s already returning the second round rookie pick value that they spent on him. This is especially true with how shallow the position is. However, I definitely think you could move a veteran running back for Gainwell and a pick, especially if you’re rebuilding. The dream for me would be to sell an older back with immediate value for Gainwell, such as Miles Davis or waiver wire wonder Cordarrelle Patterson. If you can get him for a second, I’d do the deal today.
– Lewis (@LewisWoodFF_UK)