NFL teams may win Super Bowls because of their quarterbacks, but fantasy football teams still win league titles because of their running backs.
Even though the NFL has evolved into a league that revolves around quarterbacks, running backs remain the key to winning fantasy football championships. Running backs are more valuable than any other position, as teams are passing more and spreading out the rushing attempts between multiple backs more than ever before.
And while the list of productive fantasy running backs gets smaller every season, this upcoming season could really shorten the list. There are many familiar names who could see their fantasy values nosedive due to the backups behind them or the offensive systems they are a part of.
Here are six running backs fantasy owners should worry about heading into the 2013 season, beginning with three major names who have served fantasy owners well in recent years.
Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens
What’s not to like about Rice? This Super Bowl winner is coming off another outstanding season where he rushed for 1,143 yards, caught 61 passes for another 478 yards and scored 10 total touchdowns. Fantasy owners should head down to Inner Harbor and have a crab cake in Rice’s honor!
The problem is that Rice’s numbers dropped across the board. Granted, 2011 was the finest season of his five-year career, and it would have been difficult to duplicate it, but the main reason Rice’s stats took a slight dip had more to do with his understudy than it did with his own underachieving.
Backup Bernard Pierce was a revelation during his rookie campaign. He ran hard and fast between the tackles and showed a combination of speed and power that reminded this fantasy pundit of Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch.
Pierce finished with 532 rushing yards and an impressive 4.9 yards-per-carry average. He carried the ball 108 times last season, which meant 108 fewer chances for Rice to touch the ball. You would think Baltimore would like to give Pierce the ball more to keep Rice even fresher, so projecting Pierce for 125-150 carries in 2013 is not outlandish.
Rice is showing no signs of slowing down even though he has had one of the busier workloads among running backs in the NFL over the past five years. But with Pierce cutting into his carries, it is hard to imagine Rice’s yardage and touchdown totals going up when his playing time will be going down.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Cincinnati Bengals
“The Law Firm” might be found guilty of an inflated fantasy value entering the 2013 season.
Green-Ellis is coming off another solid season. He bulled his way for 1,094 rushing yards and a half-dozen touchdowns in his first year with Cincinnati. While he was not the TD hoarder he was when he was piling up the one-yard plunges with the New England Patriots, Green-Ellis proved he does not need a high-powered offense to run for 1,000 yards.
Green-Ellis is not without faults, though. To say his speed is average is like saying the movie R.I.P.D. was a mild disappointment at the box office. Green-Ellis only has two runs over 40 yards in five years and has never had a 50-yard run, so he is not a home-run threat, he is a singles hitter.
And Green-Ellis is not a Danny Woodhead clone on third downs. His career-high for receiving yards in a season is 159. Calvin Johnson’s single-season receiving yards record is surely safe from this man.
That is why Cincinnati drafted North Carolina’s Giovani Bernard in the second round. Bernard can break long runs and make big plays in the passing game, unlike BGE. Because of his versatility and breakaway speed, Bernard will see most of the action on third down and could very well split the carries/touches with Green-Ellis on early downs, too.
Just like Rice’s fantasy value is going to be shoestring-tackled by his backup, the same should happen to Green-Ellis. The big difference, though, is where Rice will not have to worry about losing his starting spot, Green-Ellis may end up losing his.
Reggie Bush, Detroit Lions
Bush and the Lions should be a match made in fantasy football heaven, right? Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford has not had a back he can throw swings and screens to or run draws and sweeps with since Jahvid Best got concussed a couple of years ago, and those are plays perfect for Bush’s skill set.
Plus Bush has proven to his doubters that he can actually stay healthy for a full season when he is given the workload of a starting tailback. In two years with the Miami Dolphins, he carried the ball 443 times for 2,072 yards and added 78 receptions, yet he only missed one game. He is definitely drinking more milk and taking more vitamins than he did during his stint with the New Orleans Saints.
Bush is long overdue for an injury, though. He was the most injury-prone running back in fantasy football for a four-year stretch (20 missed games between 2007-10) until Oakland’s Darren McFadden wrestled the crown from him in recent years. After two healthy campaigns, the odds are against Bush becoming a Brett Favre-like iron man.
And the jury is out on how much Detroit will actually run the ball. Stafford led the NFL in pass attempts the past two years, so if you think Bush is getting 20 touches per game—especially with power back Mikel Leshoure probably getting the carries down by the goal line—you are sadly mistaken.
Bush will be beloved by many fantasy owners and drafted way too high in many leagues. The dream of him racking up 1,000 rushing yards and 700 receiving yards in Detroit’s offense will be too tempting for many, but the wise will be wary of him.
These three are not alone in the “running backs to be alarmed about department.” Here are three more:
Eddie Lacy, Green Bay Packers
This second-rounder’s fantasy value was looking great—until the fourth round of this year's draft, when the Packers drafted Johnathan Franklin. College football fans know how talented Franklin is. Lacy is no lock to be Green Bay’s starting tailback in September.
Vick Ballard, Indianapolis Colts
The signing of metal-footed Ahmad Bradshaw will not bode well for Ballard at some point of the season. Ballard will not get more than 250 carries between Bradshaw being around and Andrew Luck throwing 35-40 times per contest.
Ryan Mathews, San Diego Chargers
Mathews’ lack of durability is troubling enough. His next biggest problem is that he is excellent at catching passes out of the backfield, but now that San Diego brought in Danny Woodhead, how many passes will Mathews be thrown?