Running back isn't your highest-scoring position in fantasy football—but it is still the most important spot you are picking on draft day in this modern-day NFL. Your quarterback will be your highest scorer regularly, if you have the right one, but running back is where you will suffer the most goose eggs.
To avoid those, you need to find the breakouts candidates at running back. Premium options at the position will be flying off the board in the early rounds, but you have to be the one that locks up early-round return from middle- or late-round picks.
That is why this list—the biggest must-consume one in the entire Bleacher Report fantasy football preview—is of paramount importance.
1. DeMarco Murray, Dallas Cowboys
We thought about making the Patriots' Stevan Ridley No. 1 on this list, but he already broke out for over 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns a year ago. What we were looking for from him—and perhaps DeMarco Murray—was the next back that could enter the Adrian Peterson-Arian Foster-Doug Martin elite tier. You know, the fantasy Holy Grail.
Ridley and Murray are it.
Murray was already drafted in the top 10, if not top five, a year ago before suffering through his second injury-plagued season. The Cowboys' offensive line played poorly; Murray couldn't stay healthy; and after busting out with 131 yards on opening night in a victory over the defending Super Bowl champion Giants, he didn't rush for more than 93 yards again.
That will change this season. In fact, Dallas' new commitment to the running game—to slow the pass rush and take pressure off Tony Romo—could make 90-plus yards rushing a low day for Murray this season. If that happens, the touchdowns will come, too.
Murray is getting picked anywhere from Round 3 to 5 on the major game sites. He is a top-10, if not top-five, back in terms of talent still. Any point after the middle of Round 2, you can justify locking him up—as long as Ridley is not still on the board. Murray is just scratching his stats surface and will be an exciting player to watch this season.
2. David Wilson, New York Giants
If you loved what you saw from Doug Martin, you have to be imagining the possibilities here with David Wilson—in a much more potent offense. You should do a Wilson-like back flip if he falls to the depths from which he is being drafted in Yahoo! leagues. Heck, he is modestly an early fourth-rounder on the other two sites.
Wilson does have some warts. He has to compete for carries and short-yardage work with the more physical Andre Brown, and he also needs to get his pass-protection skills up to an Eli Manning-worthy level. Also, Wilson hasn't had a full season of a workload—heck, he hasn't had a full-game workload—yet. We cannot be sure how his frame will hold up.
But, boy can he run. And flip. This a track star in an NFL running back's body.
Wilson has Chris Johnson-like breakaway speed, and it can be featured in an offense with superior run-blocking lineman to those of the Titans. It is also an offense that can make him a receiving threat, which was a reason the Giants reportedly wanted Martin over Wilson in the 2012 draft before the Bucs jumped up and picked Martin one pick ahead of them.
If you are a fantasy owner who drafts talent over numbers, Wilson is capable of making you look like a genius this season to the tune of 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Brown has not proven durable, and the Giants allowed Ahmad Bradshaw to leave via free agency to hand the feature-back role to the first-rounder Wilson, not a journeyman who has never stayed healthy for more than a few games.
3. Montee Ball, Denver Broncos
The Broncos still list Ronnie Hillman at No. 1 on the depth chart—so Hillman and incumbent Knowshon Moreno are among our running back sleepers—but Ball is the NCAA's all-time touchdown record-holder and was the Broncos' second-round pick for a reason. If Ball earns more than short-yardage carries, look out.
The Broncos have arguably the most potent offense in football, so even if Ball doesn't completely put Hillman and Moreno in the fantasy rear-view, the touchdowns will make him an intriguing pick as a fantasy starter in drafts. His current draft position has him on the board in Round 3 or later, but full-duty work for a defensive-minded and run friendly coach in John Fox could help Ball perform like a first-rounder.
This might be the most important position battle to watch down to the final days of the preseason. Heck, it might even be a time-share situation to open the year. That will merely mitigate Ball's draft position and make him an outstanding pick after the early rounds.
If you are getting grumpy again by our arrogance of listing both of the Broncos' other backs as sleepers and Ball as a breakout candidate, just take this with you: Ball has the highest ceiling, but anyone who emerges from this backfield is going to be an impact fantasy starter in all leagues.
4. Lamar Miller, Miami Dolphins
Lamar Miller is a weird case, because his ability to outperform his draft position might depend on where you draft.
CBS Sports leagues have him going in Round 3—before all of the backs above on this list besides Murray. See, CBS Sports offices are in South Florida, where the hype on the former Miami Hurricane back is higher than anywhere else. That has bumped up expectations and projections on Miller to an unreasonable level there.
Outside of that, Miller is a great value. He will take over the feature-back role from departed free agent Reggie Bush (Detroit), and the early draft entrant can become a pass-catching, every-down player. The Dolphins figure to employ a rhythm passing attack that head coach Joe Philbin had in his days as the Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator. The Packers didn't throw the ball to their backs that much, but they are generally featured in the aerial attack of West Coast offenses.
Daniel Thomas might vulture some touchdowns, but if you have watched the past few years, you don't worry much about what Thomas might do. He hasn't proven anything.
Miller was a back at Miami that could have gone in the first round of the NFL draft if he had stayed one or two more years. His time for a breakthrough is now.
Consider him a must-have back if he slips to Round 5.
5. Stevan Ridley, New England Patriots
Before Le'Veon Bell came down a mid-foot sprain that was feared to be a Lisfranc injury, Ridley was a mere honorable mention here. Ridley is among the top five running back breakouts now.
Yes, Ridley did break out a year ago, but he still is a mere second-round pick in average draft position. Since when did 1,200-12 numbers only warrant a second-round pick? Those are top-five totals.
There are a number of factors allowing Ridley to slip, namely the presence of Shane Vereen, who projects to get all of the duty as a pass receiver. We say, though, Tom Brady's depleted cast of receivers will make the Patriots more of a run-heavy team. That can mean another career year for Ridley to the tune of the fantasy running back holy grail: 1,500 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Also, the passing game figures to go through the backs, as the Patriots have traditionally be a screen-heavy team. Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels know they cannot merely run screens when Vereen is in the game. Ridley will emerge as a slightly better pass receiver, too, which will help him post another career year.
Note: Before the injury development with the Steelers' Le'Veon Bell, we had him as the third breakout on this list. Here is what it looked like before he was injured:
Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers
Bell has been steadily rising the fantasy ranks this preseason, taking over the top rookie spot from Montee Ball of the Broncos, who isn't yet No. 1 on his team's depth chart. The Steelers are expected to hand the feature-back role over to Bell in lieu of plodding veterans Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman, who couldn't take advantage of their opportunities a year ago behind a suspect offensive line.
It is time to ring the Bell in Pittsburgh.
Bell poses a nice mix of power, speed and pass-catching ability and can bring some attitude and rushing ability back to a Steelers offense that sorely needs it. This is still a defensive-minded team that wants to control the clock, even if Ben Roethlisberger is capable of winging it 30-plus times a game.
Unlike the two breakout candidates above, we haven't seen much of Bell yet, but that might be the very reason he falls into the fourth or fifth round in drafts. This is a perennial 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown back, particularly with the Steelers' professed desire to develop an every-down workhorse again.
More Emack Breakout Backs
- Shane Vereen, New England Patriots: One of the few reasons to not pick Ridley in Round 1 is the potential emergence of Vereen, who was once drafted before Ridley to be the running back of the future. Instead, Ridley has starred, and Vereen has had to bide his time. With Brady's receiving corps decimated by free agency, injury and Aaron Hernandez's stupidity, Vereen has been working in camp at wide receiver. Even as a third-down back, Vereen is going to be one of the first backup running backs off the board. If anything happens to Ridley, holy smokes, Vereen will enjoy a meteoric fantasy rise to the elite.
- Chris Ivory, New York Jets: A lot of people like Ivory to emerge as a 1,000-yard workhorse. He certainly has looked capable at times, and the Jets clearly are a ground-and-pound team. Ivory is one of the best fantasy No. 3s to target in drafts this season, but we don't rate him as a sure-fire fantasy starter because of the uncertainty of his handling the weekly workload for a full season and the possibility someone like Bilal Powell steals the show.
- Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati Bengals: We had to at least mention the first rookie back picked this past April. Bernard will open the season sharing time with early-down and short-yardage back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, but the rookie will eventually take over full time. The only reason Bernard rates No. 9 on this list is that BJE figures to cut into his touches and production—at least initially.
- Eddie Lacy, Green Bay Packers: Eddie Lacy was supposed to be the first back off the board in April, if not for injury questions. He lands with a team sorely in need of a feature back, so much so that it drafted burner Jonathan Franklin after Lacy, too. The two have plenty to prove in the way of durability, and the Packers notoriously eschew their running game, but Lacy can benefit from a potent Packers offense as a touchdown vulture.
- Kendall Hunter, San Francisco 49ers: After proving healthy in preseason Week 3 coming off an Achilles' tendon injury, Hunter now shapes up to be the primary handcuff to Frank Gore, one of our running back bust picks. Whoever is the feature back for the 49ers will be a must-start option in all fantasy leagues. Hunter is just one 30-year-old running back injury to Gore from being a huge breakthrough for fantasy owners.
In addition to these breakout picks, any one of the Bleacher Report running back sleepers can also be considered a breakout candidate.
Eric Mack, one of the giants among fantasy writers, is the Fantasy Football Lead Writer for Bleacher Report this season. Follow him on Twitter, where you can ask him endless questions about your team, rip him for his content and even challenge him to a head-to-head fantasy game. You can also listen to him on his podcast that he deprecatingly dubbed the Fantasy FatCast.
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