The running back position might not be as important in the NFL anymore, but it is still as important as ever in fantasy football.
The NFL is a pass-first league now, so running backs can barely get more money than kickers and punters on the open market these days. But a few million dollars were still spent by teams on running backs this offseason, as several big-name fantasy stars are starting fresh with different teams heading into the 2014 campaign.
So here is a look at four free-agent running backs who signed with new teams in the offseason and what their fantasy futures are for 2014:
Ben Tate, Cleveland Browns
Tate is no longer Arian Foster’s understudy. He signed a multi-million dollar contract to be the top tailback in Cleveland. I think I speak for all fantasy owners when I say we hope he works out better as a fantasy find than Chris Ogbonnaya did.
Cleveland’s offense is a gigantic question mark since it is uncertain who the starting quarterback is going to be. Will it be Brian Hoyer? Johnny Manziel? Bernie Kozar? And with ESPN reporting that No. 1 receiver Josh Gordon could possibly get suspended for the season, the Browns offense will be relying on Tate to carry a heavy workload.
But will changing uniforms and cities help keep Tate healthier? He was constantly banged-up as a backup with Houston (eight missed games in three years), so more playing time will just give him more chances to strain his hamstring or tear up his knee.
If Tate stays healthy, he could rush for 1,000 yards, but the odds are the same that he misses four-to-six games and has a mediocre fantasy output. He is a bruising runner who unfortunately bruises too easily. His fantasy value is much higher as a starter in Cleveland than it was as a reserve in Houston, though.
Projection: 865 yards and seven touchdowns.
Rashad Jennings, New York Giants
Jennings was one of the biggest surprises in fantasy football in 2013, rushing for 539 yards and six touchdowns over a six-game span for the Oakland Raiders after averaging a paltry 2.8 yards per carry the year before with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Jennings parlayed his sudden success into a sweet $10 million contract with the Giants.
New York’s running back situation was muddier than a Mississippi pickup truck before Jennings signed on. Former phenom David Wilson is still a humongous question mark due to the serious neck injury he suffered last season, and Peyton Hillis was yanked off the scrap heap in the middle of the season as an emergency plug-in when the Giants were desperate.
Jennings will be a stabilizing force for New York’s rushing attack, and the second man in the pecking order might be fourth-rounder Andre Williams out of Boston College instead of Wilson or Hillis, depending on how training camp unfolds.
In the NFL’s new age where teams have two main running backs that split the carries and touches, Jennings seems to be in one of the more enviable positions because of his limited competition. The only thing fantasy owners have to be weary of is that he does not revert to running like he has bowling balls tied to his feet, as he did in 2012.
Projection: 1,062 rushing yards, 400 receiving yards and eight touchdowns.
LeGarrette Blount, Pittsburgh Steelers
Blount’s fantasy value has volleyed back and forth between worthwhile and worthless a couple of times in his career. He rushed for 1,007 yards as a rookie for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before he watched from the bench as Doug Martin stole his job.
But Blount bounced back and went from a mediocre kickoff returner to the top tailback in New England when the Patriots rolled into the playoffs. His 772 rushing yards and seven scores got him a two-year deal with Pittsburgh.
Blount’s big-back, between-the-tackles running sounds like a perfect fit with Pittsburgh, but with super sophomore Le’Veon Bell firmly in front of him on the depth chart, and with the Steelers offensive line always in a state of flux, Blount will not have the fantasy value he had last year with Tom Brady and the Pats.
Projection: 396 yards and four touchdowns.
Andre Brown, Houston Texans
Brown has been great at supplying two things: Touchdowns and fractured legs. With 11 touchdowns over his last 18 games, Brown has shown a nose for the end zone. The problem is that his fragile limbs have caused him to miss 14 contests over the past two years, so he has a nose for the injury report, too.
Brown will back up the aforementioned Foster and run behind a solid offensive line in Houston. His straight-ahead style should mesh well with the offensive players surrounding him. But Foster’s health, and Brown’s own health, will be the key determining factors on what his stats end up being in the end.
Projection: 490 yards and six touchdowns.
Next column: Fantasy projections for New York’s Chris Johnson, Oakland’s Maurice Jones-Drew, Miami’s Knowshon Moreno, San Diego’s Donald Brown and Jacksonville’s Toby Gerhart.