Fantasy Football Preview: Running Backs

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports
Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Fantasy drafts are getting closer, and we here at FakePigskin want to make sure that you are prepared for the big day. A few days ago I previewed the quarterbacks position, ranking and putting them into tiers. Today I’ll be talking about one of the most important positions in fantasy football: running backs.

While running backs may not be what they were a decade ago, they are still vital to your fantasy football success. The NFL has transitioned from a run oriented league to a pass heavy one in recent years, which means there are less backfields that feature just one guy. While talent certainly is a key component in evaluating a running back, the other component is opportunity. Knowshon Moreno might have been a talented prospect at one point, but it wasn’t talent that catapulted him to a top five finishing among running backs, it was a 51% share of the carries with Peyton Manning at the helm.

When I went over the quarterback position, I compared them to sexy celebrities; quarterbacks are the sexy position after all. As for running backs, I’m going to be grouping them into what I find to be the manliest movies. There’s not a tougher position in the NFL than the running back. They’re the ones that carry the ball 200+ times in a season, running into guys who’s job is to stop them in their tracks. To be a successful back, you need to be able to win the war of attrition that goes on in the trenches, which brings me to the running back tiers.

The Elite, featuring Gladiator

1. Adrian Peterson
2. LeSean McCoy
3. Jamaal Charles
4. Matt Forte

In 2009 and 2012, Peterson’s two most dominant years, he had 40+ receptions. With new offensive coordinator Norv Turner calling the show and an improved offense surrounding him, look for Peterson to return to the top…There’s no better player that fits Chip Kelly’s fast offense than McCoy. The addition of Sproles shouldn’t scare you off, as they’ve been reportedly been running plays with both backs on the field…The last time a running back that finished number one overall two years in a row was LaDainian Tomlinson in ’06 and ’07. With the loss of three offensive lineman during the off season and no help incoming, I think Charles sees a slight dip in his fantasy production…If there are doubts of AP accumulating touches, the same should apply to Forte. Since 2008 Forte is 4th in the NFL among running backs with 1551 carries, and led the NFL in offensive snaps with 897. Per ESPN, the last three years, the leader in snaps hasn’t finished in the top nine…

The Next Best, featuring Braveheart

LacyRB

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

5. Eddie Lacy
6. Montee Ball
7. DeMarco Murray

Lacy has both the talent to be a featured back, and the opportunity. He’s no Knowshon Moreno. I wrote an article on sophomore regression, but if there’s a guy who can avoid that, it’s Lacy…Ball is now in the driver’s seat in Peyton Manning’s offense, which means the sky’s the limit for the 2nd year back. If he recovers on time from his appendectomy, which all signs are pointing to, and is able to protect Manning in passing situations, Ball is going to, well, have a ball this season…Say what you will about the Cowboys not running the ball and Murray’s health, but you know that when he’s on the field, he produces. If we look at his scoring from a per game basis, he’s put up 9.2, 11.5 and 14.8 points per game since his rookie year. With an improved offensive line, look for that trend to continue upward…

The Used to be Good, but Falling, featuring Rambo

Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports

Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports

8. Arian Foster
9. Marshawn Lynch
10. Doug Martin

Foster had a lot of time from last year to now to recover from his injuries, so it was a bit concerning when he said he was contemplating retirement. Foster’s one of the most honest and blunt guys in the game, so while I think there’s some truth to his statements, it’ll take a serious injury for him to really retire… Speaking of retirement, Lynch also made similar statements this off-season. I’m more worried about Lynch because of the number of carries he’s accumulated in his career, but he’s still going to be the featured back in a ground and pound offense in Seattle…Martin was ineffective when he was healthy last year, but to be fair the entire buccaneers offense didn’t turn it on until a few weeks after he went down. He’ll be the featured back in love smith’s offense, who has a history of producing fantasy relevant running backs…

Not Sexy, but Solid, featuring Spartacus

Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

11. Alfred Morris
12. Zac Stacy
13. Giovani Bernard
14. Andre Ellington
15. Ryan Mathews
16. Le’Veon Bell
17. C.J. Spiller
18. Frank Gore
19. Toby Gerhart
20. Reggie Bush

Even with the offense playing from behind for most of the year, Morris finished as a top 15 running back. New head coach Jay Gruden has said that he can see an uptick in receptions from Alf. Seeing more snaps from a guy who gets better with more touches is exactly what fantasy owners are looking for…Even if the Rams wind up giving rookie RB Tre Mason some snaps, the goal line work should still be Stacy’s to lose. Stacy had six touchdowns from inside the five last year, and if that doesn’t change, he finishes as an RB1…Bernard is one of the few backs this year where I’m comfortable taking this high even without the goal line touches. Remember this? He’s just that talented…Ellington is another guy who doesn’t necessarily need the goal line touches to be productive in fantasy. Even if Jonathan Dwyer and/or Stephan Taylor steal some carries, 15-20 touches for a guy with Ellington’s talent will keep him in the RB2 conversation…

Mathews might carry some risk at this spot because of the Chargers’ distrust of him in the passing game, but there’s no doubting who the Chargers will use to kill the clock at the end of games. If you’re scared of his injury risk, feel free to take Donald Brown and you’ll lock up the San Diego backfield…This is probably the lowest you’ll see Bell in most rankings, and I think it’s for good reason. Seven out of Bell’s eight rushing touchdowns last year were from within five yards. Blount, who has a similar physical built, could see a majority of those looks from in close. Even if you don’t think that Blount will be the TD vulture, any risk of Bell losing that work leaves you with a guy who averaged 66 yards per game and 3.5 yards per carry. That doesn’t sound like a safe 2nd round pick to me…What are fantasy owners to do with Spiller? Last year many were on the bandwagon of selecting him with a top ten or even a top five pick. This year his ADP is much more reasonable at 34.0, but Fred Jackson is still there, which keeps Spiller from being ranked any higher…

While the 49ers have been able to keep Gore fresh by removing him from passing situations and limiting his overall workload, his goal line work is still there. Gore’s had eight or more touchdowns in each of the last three seasons, and even with the addition of rookie Carlos Hyde, I don’t see him losing those carries. He’s probably a guy that will be lower on most draft boards due to his age, but make sure you don’t overlook him…Gerhart’s is a beast of a running back who led the NFL last year in yards after contact with 3.8, and also boasts a career 74% pass catching rate. He’s relatively fresh too, so don’t be surprised if he gets over 300 carries in his first year in Jacksonville and finishes as a top 20 RB…Bush had over 1,500 yards from scrimmage last year, and added seven total touchdowns for good measure. The fact that the backfield is shaping up to be more of a committee this season is main reason why I don’t have him ranked higher, but Bush is most talented player in this backfield…

Underrated Value, featuring The Last Samurai

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

21. Ben Tate
22. Trent Richardson
23. Joique Bell
24. Chris Johnson
25. Shane Vereen
26. Ray Rice
27. Rashad Jennings
28. Stevan Ridley
29. Fred Jackson
30. Pierre Thomas
31. Lamar Miller
32. Bishop Sankey

Talented offensive line? Check. Zone blocking scheme that fits his running style? Check. Health and no competition for touches? Well…that’s why Tate’s ranked where he is…It’s disheartening to see a young running back’s yards per carry dip from an already concerning 3.6 to 3.0 in his second season. Richardson’s leash will be short in Indy, but it’s not unheard of for there to be a year of a steep learning curve followed by success. Just ask Marshawn Lynch…I like Bush, which is why I ranked him higher, but Bell provides better value. He’s healthy, will get the goal line work, and will be part of an explosive offense…Johnson is now in Gotham City, and the Jets will need to rely on him heavily to keep the pressure of either Michael Vick or Geno Smith. With Ivory’s injury history, I feel comfortable ranking CJ?K in my top 25…If you extrapolate Vereen’s numbers across 16 games, he finishes with 94 receptions…Rice’s career touches caught up to him last year, and Bernard Pierce may solidify his role and take touches away from Rice the rest of the season…

With David Wilson done with football, Jennings has an opportunity to do what he did for Oakland last year over the whole season. He hasn’t proven that he’s been able to handle a full workload yet, but the opportunity is there…Ridley is one of my favorite value picks this season. He’ll be able to start afresh this year, and while he’s a fumble or two away from getting cut, the upside on this guy is undeniable…Fred Jackson is the oldest active running back in the NFL, and yet is still producing solid fantasy numbers. At some point he will get hurt, but until then, draft away…Darren Sproles is gone, and Mark Ingram still can’t put it all together. I don’t think Thomas will be “featured” by any means, but he will pick up a majority of the receptions that Sproles was getting, and be relied on a decent amount in the run game as well…The fact that Knowshown Moreno is in the same backfield as Miller doesn’t worry me, but the loss of Mike Pouncey does…Sankey played behind both Shonn Greene and Dexter McCluster in his first preseason action, so there are definitely some hurdles facing the rookie running back from Baylor.

Don’t Want to Go There, featuring The Thing

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

33. Steven Jackson
34. Maurice Jones-Drew
35. Chris Ivory
36. DeAngelo Williams

Jackson gained some steam at the end of the season, as all of his rushing touchdowns came from mid-November on, but don’t let that allow you to forget what he did (or didn’t do) in the first half o f the season….MJD gets new life in Oakland, who haven’t been awful at running the ball even in their dog years, but with Darren McFadden and Marcel Reece looming, I’m not touching Mojo…Ivory just can’t stay on the field can he…Treat Williams as running back depth, but even then he’s a shaky option…

The Handcuffs, featuring 300

37. Carlos Hyde
38. Danny Woodhead
39. Bernard Pierce
40. Khiry Robinson
41. Knowshon Moreno
42. Tre Mason
43. Shonn Greene
44. Mark Ingram
45. Darren McFadden
46. Christine Michael
47. Jeremy Hill
48. Terrence West
49. LeGarrette Blount
50. Andre Williams

My Strategy:

I’m taking running backs early and often. The bust rate of a running back increases the later you draft them, so in the first four or five rounds, I’m looking at taking three or four running backs. Scarcity at running back also lends to this strategy, as most backups will likely be drafted, forcing you to dig deep if your guy gets hurt. Looking at two specific backfields for the 49ers and the Chargers, if I take Gore or Mathews early, I’m making sure that I take the handcuff (Hyde and Brown respectively), because I know those run games are going to be effective.  In the middle to late rounds, I would snatch up sleepers that I like every once in a while, but if you went running back heavy early, I’m comfortable with playing catch up at the other positions.

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