An improved Colts offense should help Donald Brown break out this year.
Running back is one of the toughest positions to draft in fantasy football.
Ballcarriers nearly always take a pounding with every touch, and the beatings wear them down faster than most other positions in the NFL. According to a study conducted by Dartmouth University (reported through FootballGuys.com), the average career span of the position is 4.35 years, which is shorter than any other position in football.
With halfbacks' careers lasting only a few years (and their productive peaks being even shorter), it's nearly impossible to predict the top fantasy runners, even on a year-to-year basis.
All it takes is a look at RBs Chris Johnson and Adrian Peterson, the two top running backs just a couple years ago, both of whom suffered major drops in production at 2011 (Peterson ended up tearing his ACL in Week 16).
The RB position in fantasy football is a lot like the closer position in fantasy baseball: It's almost impossible to know where elite production will come from entering any given season, so it's best not to waste a high pick on a less-than-sure thing.
Instead, let's take a look at five running backs with tremendous upside that should be available late in your fantasy draft.
With the ongoing holdout of Maurice Jones-Drew, Jennings becomes a more valuable fantasy back by the day.
Jennings is a between-the-tackles bruiser in the mold of Bears RB Matt Forte, and though he lacks explosiveness, he does not lack for production, averaging 5.4 yards-per-carry in his 123 career carries.
With Jones-Drew holding out for a big contract, Jennings is temporarily slated as a starter. If Jones-Drew is traded, Jennings slots in as the feature back (and a valuable late-round pick). Even if the Jaguars and Drew reach an agreement, players who hold out through the preseason are rarely in game shape and frequently wind up with injuries (as seen with Chris Johnson and Jets CB Darrelle Revis last season).
We might see close to a full season of Jennings as the starting RB for the Jaguars next year, and if you can nab him late in your draft, you might wind up with the next great Jacksonville Jaguars tailback.
Though Mike Shanahan typically favors a committee approach, Royster could emerge from the pack with strong numbers next season.
Typically, backs that share carries in a rotation don't produce at an high enough level to warrant a draft pick.
Evan Royster might be the exception to that rule.
Royster showed some flashes of great upside last season, totaling 39 attempts for 245 yards in two games started. He's a tough back with great vision, and if he was on almost any other team besides the Redskins, he'd be a top-10 runner.
Even with Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan's preferred back-by-committee approach, Royster could see three-quarters of the Skins' carries next year. Tim Hightower will be slowed in his return from an ACL injury, and Shanahan (for some reason) doesn't trust Roy Helu.
Royster is a strong mid-to-late-round pick for a back, and he could be good for a 1,000-yard season next year.
That is, if he gets the ball in his hands.
Murray is an electrifying back who this year could be the best back on a contending fantasy team.
Murray has the rare combination of top-end speed to make big plays and the physicality to finish runs. He produced in a big way given limited carries last year, racking up 897 yards in only 164 carries last season, good for an average of 5.5 yards-per-carry.
He's an explosive athlete and one who could easily be a fantasy team's No. 1 RB, especially since he is a serviceable receiver (26 catches last season).
The only major concern is his health: Murray has had trouble staying on the field since college, when he suffered several injuries, including major knee and hamstring issues. He also needs to improve his red-zone presence, as he only managed two touchdowns last year.
Still, Murray should be the starting back on a strong Cowboys team and has the chance to put up some great numbers next year as a mid-round pick.
Brown could finally produce at a high level this season as opposing Ds key in on QB Andrew Luck.
Mark my words: This is the year Donald Brown reaches his potential.
He's a definite breakout candidate this year, and he could be a steal around the the 10th or 11th round for a shrewd fantasy footballer.
Brown has underperformed since he was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts in the first round in 2009, but this year is his opportunity to finally carry the ball at a clip that will bring in strong fantasy numbers.
With a rookie QB (even one as talented as Andrew Luck) the Colts will look to lighten the passing load by pounding the ball on the ground. And, make no mistake, the rushing load will land squarely on the shoulders of Brown.
Coach Chuck Pagano has been effusive in his praise of Brown and has made clear the intention to keep Brown as their feature back over Delone Carter or Vick Ballard. According to the Indianapolis Star, Pagano has publicly stated his intention for Brown to play as an every-down back, saying:
Donald is our every-down back. He is doing a tremendous job and he is having a fantastic offseason.
That's about as straightforward as it gets when it comes to depth-chart commentary from coaches.
If Brown gets over 200 carries this season and displays the game-breaking ability he showcased at UConn, he'll be a star next season.
Wilson is a blazing speedster with some nifty moves.
Rookie David Wilson isn't the biggest back in the league, but his speed is unbelievable.
The New York Giants are one of those teams that likes to split their touches among a few different backs, and with Brandon Jacobs now a San Francisco 49er, that means there are plenty of carries to go around behind starter Ahmad Bradshaw.
Wilson, who ran a 4.35 40-yard-dash at the pro day workouts, is arguably the fastest back the Giants have ever had. They drafted him at the end of the first round and expect him to contribute in his first season as a big playmaker behind Bradshaw.
He likely won't start unless Bradshaw gets hurt, so he shouldn't be taken until the 13th or 14th round, but he's a great handcuff for Bradshaw owners.
Given Bradshaw's difficulties in staying on the field, drafting Wilson late may yield a huge payoff for fantasy owners. He's a back who could be a great play based on matchups (that is, against a slower front-seven) and a player that pays dividends in the receiving game, too.
Take a flyer on him at the end of your draft, and you might find yourself with a breakout runner this year.