The NFL preseason starts in a couple weeks and the time for fantasy football research is dwindling. Luckily, I’ve got you covered! What else are you going to do, watch baseball? [editor's note: damn right!] This is the second of my position primers. I shook up the lineup and put tight ends in the leadoff spot. Now I’m taking a deep cut on the running back position. First, prepare yourself by getting up to speed on free agents moves, then hop aboard this fantasy football train with express service to Knowledge Station!
The top 35 running backs, which I’ve put into 5 tiers, offer a lot of intrigue and upside. After that, expectations get extremely speculative and too dependent on injuries, stars aligning, voodoo dolls, etc. With that said, I recommend drafting 3-4 of these 35 backs. Keep in mind, they’ll dry up as early as round 7 in a 12-team league. Preferably you can lock down an RB1 from the top two tiers. Then you can stockpile depth from the remaining tiers, essentially using a RB2-by-committee approach. After the first 7-8 rounds, while other guys are drafting duds like McFadden, Ingram or David Wilson, you’ll be scooping high-upside wide receivers like Mike Evans, Rueben Randle, or Marvin Jones. At the same time, you could also draft a QBBC with Cutler, Rivers, Romo, or Manziel, just to name a few.
None of these Tier One names will surprise you, but the order might. If you want to take McCoy first overall, I won’t try to change your mind. I’m actually toying with the idea of swapping McCoy and Peterson in my rankings. Forte, Lynch and Lacy should be beasts as well. I’m a little low on Jamaal Charles. He’s a great player, but his offensive line was decimated in free agency and his 19 TDs are not likely repeatable. He’s still worthy of a first round pick though. In fact, I would love to have ANY of these 6 backs on my team. Calvin Johnson is the only player I would consider taking before these backs are off the board. Tier Two
Tier Two has some very talented running backs, too. But, unlike the first tier names, they all have some question marks. Le’Veon Bell put up very good stats in his rookie year, but some analysts are scared by his low YPC average and predict a Trent Richarson-esque dumpster fire. I’m giving him a pass due to a foot injury that would have derailed lesser running backs, and like his chances after a healthy offseason. Two other youngsters, Ball and Stacy have potential for great seasons. The Rams have a great O-line, but Stacy must fend off Tre Mason. Ball has very little competition, and defenses will be focused on the passing game, but he’s unproven. Murray, and especially Foster, have had big seasons in the past, but have also struggled to stay on the field. Shore up your bench if you draft one of them.
Tier Three has some very good backs too, but they have more limited upsides. Bernard is extremely talented, but limited touches will probably cap him off at 1400/9 combined rushing and receiving. Alfred Morris and Ryan Mathews are both capable of repeating, or exceeding, their 2013 seasons (~1350/7 all-purpose). I’ll talk more about Martin, Bell and Jennings later.
Things get interesting in Tier Four. Andre Ellington is an explosive player, although it’s dangerous to extrapolate his stellar yards/touch into 200+ touches. Also, his slight frame means he relies on long-distance touchdowns. We all know Gore is a great back, but there’s talk of reducing his carries from 275 to 225 (and presumably giving them to Carlos Hyde). I bet Atlanta will put S-Jax on a pitch count too. Bush had a nice 2013 season, but the word in Detroit is that Bell is getting a larger share of the touches. Sankey, the rookie, is guaranteed a heavy workload and Shonn Greene does NOT pose a threat. My feelings on Chris Johnson are well documented here. Spiller and Tate are two young backs who have struggled with injuries and overall consistency. Tier Five
When we get to Tier Five, the floors get significantly lower, and at this point you should be drafting for upside only. Vereen’s role isn’t clearly defined, though he certainly has upside. He flashed it during two 160-combined-yard performances last season. A Darren Sproles type, I would rank him a lot higher in PPR formats. Gerhart, Richardson and Williams all have clear paths to starting roles, but they’re not exploding with upside. Fred Jackson’s potential is inversely tied to Spiller’s ability to return to his 2012 self. Rice, Ridley and MJD have all been great in the past, but it remains to be seen if they can return to that level. (Rice is likely suspended a few games, which gives Bernard Pierce a chance to take the job and run with it, literally). Pierre Thomas is Pierre Thomas. You know what you’re getting with him.
People are forgetting how bad Trent Richardson was last season [Editor's note: not everyone]. As 2013 gets further in the rear view mirror, he’s creeping up in drafts and going in the 5th round as the 22nd RB. Don’t even think about him as your RB2! He should be bench depth only. I’ll concede that he’s hit rock bottom and has nowhere to go but up, so draft him for your bench if he’s still available. However, if you reach on him, hoping for a repeat of his rookie year (12 TDs), you will be sorely disappointed.
Doug Martin is going around the first turn of 12-team snake drafts as the 7th RB off the board. Look elsewhere for your RB1. The “muscle hamster” is still a worthy bounce back candidate, but temper your expectations. Tampa will feature a RBBC with James/Rainey getting a few carries and rookie Charles Sims getting significant third down work. A RB2-caliber season with about 1400/8 all-purpose yards/TDs is possible, but less than that is more likely.
Rashad Jennings is being drafted early in the 6th round of 12-team drafts at RB24. He’s certainly the Giants’ best back, and their offense will be better than last year’s blooper reel. Jennings should easily be a top 20 back this season. I expect him to surpass the 1260/6 all-purpose that Ahmad Bradshaw compiled for the G-men in 2012.
Like Jennings, Joique Bell is also being drafted in the 6th round. This potent offense can comfortably support two top 20 rushers, and Bell has top 10 upside. The Lions have hinted at a 50/50 split in touches between Bell and Bush (last season was closer to 60/40). Given the even distribution, Bell gets the fantasy nod over Bush because of his goal line carries. In PPR leagues, I would even take him ahead of Morris and Mathews. Drafting Bush over Bell will come with a heaping pile of buyer’s remorse.
Look out Ben Tate! The Browns’ starting running back is acting confident, but he better not get complacent. Terrance West is eager for his shot at a starting gig. If Tate shows a lack of drive or signs of wear (like he did last season in Houston), West will quickly steal carries from him. If Tate gets injured, West could take his job permanently. There’s a small question as to whether West can make the jump from Towson’s small-potatoes competition to the NFL, but a few preseason games will help give us an answer.
Christine Michael is another backup that could pay big dividends. He has been making lots of noise during Seattle’s OTAs, including a sick cutback run that was so good all video proof has strangely disappeared. Make no mistake, Marshawn Lynch is still the bell cow. However, Michael will get some touches and Lynch has had some back problems in recent seasons. Regardless of Lynch’s health, Michael’s future is bright and he has significant dynasty value.
If you want some even deeper sleepers, try Khiry Robinson and Theo Riddick on for size. Both are young talents that are lower on the depth chart, but local beat writers are buzzing about them. (Dynasty anyone?) They could blow up given the right opportunity.