Fantasy football 2014 draft preview: Running back position primer
Will the running backs position be able to stop the bleeding? In recent years, a handful of first-rounders have turned to busts while some second- and third-rounders increased their value. This makes the first round of the draft very tricky, especially if you draw a late-first round pick. Last season was worse than usual, as nearly half of the first-round running backs stumbled across the finish line.
FANTASY FOOTBALL POSITION RANKINGS AND PROJECTIONS:
Should owners avoid a running back in the first round, or do you stand firm and try to make the best out of a bad situation, grabbing the best running back available, even if that means waiting to get an elite receiver or quarterback? The problem, for the most part, is that teams are splitting up duties with their running backs,which hurts their fantasy value in most formats.
There were only two running backs (Jamaal Charles and Marshawn Lynch) with 300 or more carries last season, compared to an average of five over the previous five years. It makes sense that running backs, while a fragile position, is a group that everyone wants to dip into early, since there are so few featured backs with ample scoring opportunities and relatively few injury concerns.
There will likely be 18-20 running backs drafted by the end of the third round -- that’s more than half of the 36 draft spots in a 12-team league.
You’ll hear some experts extol the virtues of drafting two wide receivers early on, claiming they’re more reliable than running backs. The problem is if most running backs are selected in the first two rounds, then you’ll be left with damaged goods or what-if running backs in the third, fourth and fifth rounds. Roll the dice if you wish, but understand that early-round gambles can put you into a deep hole from which your late-round sleepers can’t save you.
Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs -- One of the backs who amassed 300 carries last season, Charles thrived in new head coach Andy Reid’s offense. He was a workhorse both as a runner and pass catcher, and he has a chance to duplicate that effort in 2014. For those considering LeSean McCoy with their first overall pick instead, they will be happy to know that over the past 10 years or so, the second running back chosen has outscored the first running back about 50-percent of the time. The Chiefs want to give the ball more to Knile Davis, the second-year tailback out of Arkansas, which could mean fewer carries for Charles. The Chiefs’ schedule starts off fairly easy in the first half of the season, but it gets more difficult as the season progresses.
Montee Ball, Denver Broncos -- Plenty has been made about Ball taking over as the starting tailback in Denver, but it remains shocking that he is a first-round draft pick in many mocks. Knowshon Moreno had a top-five fantasy season for a running back last year, and his exit to Miami opens a huge opportunity in Peyton Manning’s offense. But let’s not forget that the Broncos have famously juggled running backs in John Fox’s tenure. Ever since Fox got to Denver, after killing fantasy owners with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart in Carolina for years, the Broncos have had a tough time starting the season with the same running back they end up with at the end. Remember when Ronnie Hillman was a great pick in 2012? I like Ball – just not as a first-rounder or even an early second-rounder. I’ll most likely not own him in 2014 because of that.
Shane Vereen, New England Patriots -- Who doesn’t love a running back with great hands, excellent speed and the ability to score from all over the field – in Tom Brady’s offense? Stevan Ridley is expected to be the starting tailback for New England, but his short leash is probably at its shortest after major fumble issues last year. Vereen broke a small bone in his wrist during the first game of the season last year, a week when he was the only running back to rush for more than 100 yards. He sat out eight games, and while he’s still dealing with wrist issues, he has played through tough injuries in the past. Some see rookie James White as a big threat to steal touches, but considering LeGarrette Blount is now in Pittsburgh, there are still plenty of touches to go around.
Arian Foster, Houston Texans -- Back injuries and running backs are rarely a good marriage, and the Texans’ best player enters 2014 reportedly in good health. His injury cost owners that gambled on him last year, as he missed the final nine games. New head coach Bill O’Brien will lean on the running game, which makes a healthy Foster even more integral. While I still like him as a top-10 running back, I like his backup, Andre Brown, as a late-round handcuff even better.
Bishop Sankey, Tennesee Titans -- The rookie out of Washington is expected to be both the first rookie drafted in fantasy leagues – and the first Tennessee Titans player. He’s a well-rounded back with good hands, but he’s stepping into an interesting situation with a new head coach in Ken Whisenhunt. It’s tough to justify a fourth-round pick on Sankey when there are other backs, like Vereen, Ryan Mathews and Rashad Jennings available. Getting him in the fifth or sixth round is a good thing, however.
Running back tier explanations
All stats below represent projections for the 2014 season.
First Tier -- This first group is stacked with the best players in fantasy football, each of whom are not only featured backs, but they’re also the players the rest of the team has been built around. All four have done it before, year after year, and only an untimely injury will cause them to bust.
1Jamaal CharlesRB | Kansas City Chiefs
Rush YDs Rush TDs Rec REC YDs Rec TDs BYE Value 1,350 11 65 600 5 6 $60
2LeSean McCoyRB | Philadelphia Eagles
Rush YDs Rush TDs Rec REC YDs Rec TDs BYE Value 1,450 10 55 515 3 9 $59
3Matt ForteRB | Chicago Bears
Rush YDs Rush TDs Rec REC YDs Rec TDs BYE Value 1,150 9 62 525 3 9 $55
4Adrian PetersonRB | Minnesota Vikings
Rush YDs Rush TDs Rec REC YDs Rec TDs BYE Value 1,285 12 35 230 2 10 $53
Second Tier -- Four different second-year running backs proliferate this second tier, only one year after no running back was taken in the first round of the NFL Draft in over 40 years. These guys are still bell cows for their offense, but they have some smaller issues that should drive owners to consider taking elite wide receivers and Jimmy Graham over them.
5Eddie LacyRB | Green Bay Packers
Rush YDs Rush TDs Rec REC YDs Rec TDs BYE Value 1,250 11 40 280 2 9 $48
6Marshawn LynchRB | Seattle Seahawks
Rush YDs Rush TDs Rec REC YDs Rec TDs BYE Value 1,150 11 30 265 2 4 $46
7Le'Veon BellRB | Pittsburgh Steelers
Rush YDs Rush TDs Rec REC YDs Rec TDs BYE Value 1,200 8 50 450 1 12 $45
8DeMarco MurrayRB | Dallas Cowboys
Rush YDs Rush TDs Rec REC YDs Rec TDs BYE Value 1,250 8 48 325 2 11 $42
9Montee BallRB | Denver Broncos
Rush YDs Rush TDs Rec REC YDs Rec TDs BYE Value 1,150 8 45 310 2 4 $40
10Arian FosterRB | Houston Texans
Rush YDs Rush TDs Rec REC YDs Rec TDs BYE Value 1,085 9 30 285 2 10 $38
Third Tier -- Whether it’s an injury history (C.J. Spiller, Ryan Mathews), shared duties (Reggie Bush) or one-note ability (Alfred Morris), this third tier is stacked with the best RB2s in the game.
Fourth Tier -- As we begin to hit the middle rounds of most fantasy drafts, we’re going to see a lot of running backs that are inexperienced as featured backs (Rashad Jennings, Toby Gerhart, Ben Tate, Bishop Sankey) or running backs with some questions to answer (Frank Gore, Ray Rice, Chris Johnson).
Fifth Tier -- Many of these players are either running backs that will struggle to keep the No. 1 job (Steven Jackson, Pierre Thomas) or ones that are very good older backups, with an eye on starting (Maurice Jones-Drew, Fred Jackson).
Sixth Tier -- For the most part, these are backups in less favorable setups (Chris Ivory, Mark Ingram) and another stack of rookies looking for a crack to become starters (Terrance West, Devonta Freeman, Tre Mason).
Seventh Tier -- As we move outside of the top-50 running backs, we’re entering sleeper territory. There are some stellar handcuff options in this grouping, led by Knile Davis and Christine Michael.
Eighth Tier -- While many of these players are essentially backups (Bryce Brown, James White, Latavius Murray) behind their team’s running back duos, they’re still talented enough to serve as quality fantasy starters if the move up a level on the depth chart.
Ninth Tier -- When you look up “longshots” in the fantasy dictionary, you’ll see pictures of guys like Isaiah Crowell, the former SEC Freshman of the Year, and Marcus Lattimore, who suffered a horrific knee injury and still isn’t quite right.
Tenth Tier -- These players are essentially buried on the depth chart as their team’s third running back, but many in this group have exceptional speed. That means they could score from any distance – if they ever got enough snaps.
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