The idea of a sure thing at the running back position is probably as close to extinct as it could possibly be. There’s always going to be a group of rock-solid guys, and this year that group goes about five or six deep. After that, everyone comes with a question mark. Can DeMarco Murray stay healthy? Will Giovani Bernard do enough to make up for a lack of goal-line touches? Is Andre Ellington capable of handling 16-20 touches per game? It’s easy to see how the question marks start to mount once you get beyond the Adrian Petersons and Matt Fortes of the world.
One guy with obvious question marks that fantasy owners should be targeting is Rashad Jennings, the new starter for the New York Giants. A career backup, Jennings has always proved himself capable when given a chance to perform. He has averaged 4.3 yards per carry across his career, picking up 1,677 yards and 13 touchdowns on 387 totes. Last year, he got at least 10 touches in nine games. In those contests, he had 928 yards from scrimmage, six touchdowns and 30 receptions. That translates to a total of 128.8 fantasy points in standard scoring leagues, or 14.3 points per game. Eight running backs averaged at least 14 fantasy points per game last year. The list? Jamaal Charles (20.8), LeSean McCoy (17.5), Forte (16.6), Marshawn Lynch (15.1), Peterson (15), Murray (14.8), Knowshon Moreno (14.8) and Eddie Lacy (14). Charles, McCoy, Forte, Lynch, Peterson and Lacy are generally considered the top-six backs in some order, and Murray is typically inside the top 10. I’d say Jennings is in pretty good company.
Jennings has also shown flashes of explosiveness in his career. Many fantasy owners will remember his 80-yard touchdown run against the Texans last year, but he has had that home-run ability his entire career. Jennings has eight carries of at least 20 yards, representing 2.1 percent of his career rushing attempts. Everyone’s favorite big-play back, the Eagles’ McCoy, had 20-plus yard runs on 2.9 percent of his carries last year. Charles was at 2.3 percent. Again, Jennings can play with the big boys.
Some early drafters have been scared off by the fact that Jennings is 29 years old. Thanks to all his years as a backup, though, he doesn’t have nearly as much wear and tear as your typical 29-year-old running back. As stated earlier, Jennings has run the ball 387 times in his career. Add in his 97 receptions and 13 kickoff returns, and that’s 497 career touches. By comparison, C.J. Spiller, who will be 27 years old when the season starts and has played four full seasons in the league (Jennings missed the entire 2011 season due to injury), has 804 career touches. It’s more about mileage rather than age, and Jennings has rarely been brought out of the garage. He should be fresh heading into the 2014 season.
Jennings’ average draft position currently has him rubbing elbows with Toby Gerhart, Frank Gore and Bishop Sankey. If things hold, he’ll likely be off the board by the middle of the fourth round in a 12-team draft. Not only is that an appropriate price, I’d be comfortable spending a bit more on him. Jennings will turn a profit for his fantasy owners this year.
Most overvalued player
Rueben Randle, WR -- I do like Randle at a certain price, but there are some pretty useful receivers ranked right around him now. Randle is being drafted in the same neighborhood as guys like Reggie Wayne, Golden Tate, Cecil Shorts, Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans and Marvin Jones. Wayne, Tate and Shorts should all be taken before him, and Watkins and Evans certainly have higher ceilings. Meanwhile, all Jones did last year was catch 10 touchdown passes. Four of them were in one game, but he’s in a pass-happy offense and has A.J. Green occupying the defense’s attention on the other side of the field. There’s definitely a time and a place for Randle, but I think it’s after all of these guys are off the board.
Most undervalued player
Eli Manning, QB -- Yes, Manning endured a nightmare 2013 season, passing for just 18 touchdowns and 6.93 yards per attempt while getting picked off 27 times. But don’t forget: He entered the season having narrowly missed his fourth-straight campaign with at least 4,000 yards and 25 touchdown passes. He’s not a regular fantasy starter, nor is he likely to become one in typical one-quarterback leagues. He is a capable backup -- a strong second option for owners who go cheap at the position and end up with someone like Jay Cutler or Philip Rivers as their starter -- and a wholly capable starter in two-quarterback leagues. Victor Cruz gives him a big-play receiver, and the team added reinforcements to the wide receiver corps in the form of rookie Odell Beckham Jr., the 12th overall pick out of LSU. As we’ve already seen, Jennings is a very good receiver out of the backfield. Manning will be inside the top 20 at the quarterback position this year.
QB: Eli Manning, Curtis Painter, Ryan Nassib
RB: Rashad Jennings, Andre Williams, David Wilson, Peyton Hillis
WR: Victor Cruz, Rueben Randle, Odell Beckham Jr., Mario Manningham, Julian Talley
TE: Adrien Robinson, Kellen Davis
In real life, the Giants didn’t have that bad of a defense last year. They gave up 332.3 yards and 23.9 points per game, ranking at, or a little better than, league average. They were also tied for 10th in the league with 29 takeaways, though their 34 sacks ranked 25th. Pro Football Focus ranked the Giants 15th overall, fifth against the run, 29th in pass rush and 11th in pass coverage.
The same unit returns largely intact, beginning with coach Tom Coughlin and defensive coordinator Perry Fewell. The only major difference in the front seven is the addition of linebacker Jameel McClain, who spent the first six years of his career with the Ravens. He had 52 tackles in 10 games last year, and doesn’t really move the needle for the unit, nor does he warrant IDP consideration. The line returns the same starters from last year, and desperately needs more out of Jason Pierre-Paul than it got a season ago. He played in just 11 games and had a paltry 2.5 sacks. If the pass rush is going to improve over last year, he will have to be the linchpin.
New York’s secondary has two new starters in cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and safety Quintin Demps. The group was quite good last year, especially when you consider how little help it got from the front four. Holdover Antrel Rolle is worthy of selection in IDP leagues, as is safety Stevie Brown, who missed all of last year with a torn ACL. He could start at free safety rather than Demps.
One other guy to keep an eye on is Jon Beason. After a huge start to his career with the Panthers, Beason tore his Achilles early in the 2011 season. He then lost his job to Luke Kuechly in 2012 and Chase Blackburn last year. However, he began his career with four straight seasons of least 120 tackles while manning the middle for the Panthers. The Giants are anything but set in their linebacker group, and Beason could certainly jump into the mix.