The assault on the running back position is complete. Once the unquestioned center of the fantasy football universe, some owners now consider it just another planet, rather than the sun. Regardless of your fantasy format, you can bet on at least three receivers (Antonio Brown, Dez Bryant, and one of Demaryius Thomas or Odell Beckham) a tight end (Rob Gronkowski) and likely at least one quarterback (Aaron Rodgers or Andrew Luck, anyone?) coming off the board within the first 15 picks of your draft. The first round is no longer the sole purview of the running back position.
And yet, running backs still reign supreme at the very top. Using average draft position as our guide, the first five players selected in a typical draft in 2015 are all running backs. The influence of the high-powered passing attacks may have thinned the ranks of backs in the first few rounds of the draft, but no receiver or tight end or quarterback is capable of knocking the position from its perch atop cheat sheets. As a whole, they may not be as important as they used to be, but there’s still no greater advantage in fantasy than having one of the league’s best running backs. On top of that, the shift in draft philosophies means there are even more bargains than usual to be found once your draft gets into its middle and late rounds.
Adrian Peterson, Vikings: The consensus top-five fantasy backs for 2015—Peterson, Jamaal Charles, Eddie Lacy, Marshawn Lynch and Le’Veon Bell—could all justifiably be in this spot. That group heads into this season with essentially zero question marks, and that even accounts for Bell’s two-game suspension. Peterson gets the nod, however, to drive home the point that he’s still one of the best in the league after missing 15 games last year because of a suspension of his own. His track record is unassailable. The only other season he failed to reach 1,200 rushing yards was one in which he missed four games due to injury, and he has scored at least 10 touchdowns in every year of his career.
Peterson’s ranking among running backs by season in standard-scoring leagues are as follows, beginning with his 2007 rookie year and not including last season: fourth, fourth, second, second, seventh, first, eighth. Is he definitely going to be the No. 1 back this year? No. Is he going to fall outside the top five? Not a chance. That’s what being an elite player at your position is all about. Mike Zimmer has already said that Peterson won’t play in the preseason, so the next time we see him on the field he’ll be more than a year removed from his last game action. It doesn't matter—you’ll recognize the dominance immediately.
Latavius Murray, Raiders: Betting on the Raiders in fantasy leagues is always a risky proposition, but Murray makes it worth the gamble in 2015. You’ll likely recall that Murray languished behind Darren McFadden and Maurice Jones-Drew for the better part of last season while the two veterans appeared dead set on proving which one of them had less left in the tank. Murray finally got his shot on a Thursday night at home against the Chiefs. Here’s what he did the third time he touched the ball.
Murray unfortunately suffered a concussion on his next carry, forcing him to miss the rest of that contest, as well as the Raiders’ next game. He announced his presence with that 90-yard touchdown rumble, essentially staking his claim to the starting job in 2015. The one drawback is that new Raider Roy Helu will handle most of the work on passing downs, and is a bit underrated in his own right, so those of you in full PPR leagues should slide Murray a spot or two down your cheat sheet. The Raiders’ offense may be a hindrance, but they upgraded at center by signing Rodney Hudson, who ranked 15th at his position in run blocking, according to Pro Football Focus. If one back with an ADP outside the top 15 is going to crash the top-10 party, Murray will be the guy.
Lamar Miller, Dolphins: Someone needs to explain to me why such a large swath of the fantasy community continues to sell Miller. Is it still residual scarring from his disappointing sophomore season? Is it a lack of faith in the Miami offense? Mistrust of the Miami coaching staff to get its usage rates right? I know it can’t be based on anything Miller himself did on the field last season, because that was fantasy gold.
Miller racked up 1,364 total yards (1,099 rushing, 275 receiving), 38 receptions and nine touchdowns, finishing as the No. 9 back in standard-scoring leagues. He’s the unquestioned starter in the backfield, with only rookie Jay Ajayi threatening to siphon off touches, and the Dolphins’ offense is on the upswing.
Still, Miller’s 33.4 ADP has him 17th among running backs, and that jibes with his consensus ranking on FantasyPros. Miller will easily turn a profit at that price and could make a case for going higher. I prefer him to Alfred Morris, Mark Ingram and Frank Gore, all of whom are going before him in a typical draft. At their respective draft-day prices, I’d also rather have him than the next guy I'm going to talk about...
DeMarco Murray, Eagles: I made the case against Murray in a player profile when we first started our fantasy football coverage this summer. What follows here is the abridged version.
Red flag No. 1: Including the playoffs, Murray racked up 497 total touches last year, the fourth-most in NFL history. The players who topped him (1992 Emmitt Smith, 1995 Emmitt Smith, 1998 Jamal Anderson) all regressed the following season. Red flag No. 2: Not only did Murray touch the ball nearly 500 times in 2014, it was the first season in which he played 16 games in his career. That means a running back with a checkered injury history is coming off the fourth-busiest season the league has ever seen. Red flag No. 3: Last year, Murray’s quarterback was Tony Romo and he had the benefit of Dez Bryant, arguably the best receiver in the NFL, taking some pressure off him.This year, his quarterback is Sam Bradford, and he doesn’t have one teammate who even comes close to approaching Bryant’s skill level. Red flag No. 4: Ryan Mathews isn’t a threat to take away Murray’s bellcow status, but the Eagles didn’t give him $5 million guaranteed just to spell the starter every now and again. He’ll have a much larger role than Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar did in Dallas last season.
Andre Ellington, Cardinals: Last year at this time, Ellington was the darling of fantasy football’s high society. With Rashard Mendenhall retired and no other established runner in the backfield, the thinking went that Ellington would use his combination of speed and athleticism to vault into the top 10 at the position. It didn’t exactly play out that way. Ellington missed four games due to injury and looked incapable of being a workhorse back. He ran for just 660 yards on 201 carries, good for 3.3 yards per tote.
Ellington’s small stature—the third-year player out of Clemson is just 5'9" and 199 pounds—will always put him at a heightened risk of injury. Indeed, he has missed time due to injury in each of his first two seasons in the league. The Cardinals used a third-round pick on David Johnson, both to give them another option in the backfield and to take some of the workload away from Ellington with an eye on having him healthy for all 16 games. Ellington is a perfectly acceptable player to draft at the right price, but understand that he has a greater likelihood to get injured than most backs and that the Cardinals will do what they can to protect him.
Rookie To Watch
Melvin Gordon, Chargers: With all due respect to Todd Gurley, Gordon is the rookie running back you really want to own this year. The Wisconsin product may have come off the board in the NFL draft three slots later than his counterpart from Georgia, but the Badger landed in a much better spot as far as 2015 fantasy value is concerned. Gordon joins a San Diego offense with an established quarterback at the helm and zero competition in the backfield. While he’ll give way to Danny Woodhead in obvious passing situations, Gordon is going to dominate the touches on first and second down and should be the team’s goal-line back.
The Chargers upgraded their offensive line by stealing away erstwhile Bronco Orlando Franklin, whom Pro Football Focus graded as the 13th-best run-blocking guard in the league last season. Gordon was an absolute force in his final season in Madison, running for nearly 2,600 yards and 29 touchdowns, finishing second in the Heisman voting to Marcus Mariota. He wasn’t asked to catch too many balls at Wisconsin, so he will have some work to do in the aerial facets of the NFL game, but he’s not a star for the future. Gordon has top-10 upside in his rookie season.
Charles Sims, Buccaneers: Sims could already be more than a lottery ticket if he didn’t lose half of the 2014 season to an ankle injury. By time he suited up for his first career game on Nov. 9, the Buccaneers were a lost cause, taking the fantasy value of nearly every skill player on the team down with the ship. Before Sims went on the PUP list to start last season, there was talk of him pushing Doug Martin in the backfield. Martin had another disappointing season, running for 494 yards on 134 carries while missing five games due to injury. He has now missed 15 games over the last two seasons, and has earned every bit of his RB32 ranking by ADP.
While Martin will enter the season as the starter in Tampa Bay, Sims can’t be too far behind. He’s already expected to be the primary back on passing downs, and could quickly work his way into a larger role if he proves himself capable as a runner. Sims’s ADP has him coming off the board in the 12th round of a typical 12-team draft, making him a zero-risk pick. If he finds a way to supplant Martin as the starter, he could pay huge dividends at that draft-day price.