Fantasy Football 2014: Who Is the Top Running Back?

Tyler Horner@BR_TylerHornerCorrespondent IIJune 11, 2014

LeSean McCoy (left) and Adrian Peterson (right)
LeSean McCoy (left) and Adrian Peterson (right)Mark Von Holden/Associated Press

Holding the top pick in your league's fantasy draft often causes more stress than it's worth—usually there are a handful of equally deserving players and you can't help but contemplate the potential ramifications of picking the wrong one. 

The good news is that, if you have a top-three pick in your league's draft this year, you can't go wrong with your choice of running back Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy or Adrian Peterson

The bad news is that each player has a chance of being the top fantasy football producer of 2014, making those holding the top pick likely to spend many sleepless nights in self-debate. 

Well, perhaps you're not that obsessed—it is just fantasy after all. But for those picking first who are looking to prove themselves as newcomers to their league or to redeem their reputation after bringing up the rear in their league last season, you're in the right place. 

The aim of this article is to aid you in making the most informed pick possible, which is what fantasy football comes down to. We can't all foresee the breakout fantasy performers each season, so the next best thing is to research, take notes and apply what you've learned on draft day. 

With that being said, let's get on to the real question at hand: Who will be the top fantasy running back of 2014?

My first consideration when deliberating between multiple potential draft picks is the risk that each carries. Eliminating risk can be a highly effective fantasy football strategy as long as you know how to spot it. 

When calculating risk, I immediately look at an easily derived statistic: average games missed per season. I try to avoid delving too deeply into the specifics of a player's injury history, as I'm not a doctor (and you likely aren't either), so I don't trust my ability to assess how a player's future production will be affected by past injuries. 

Not even Adrian Peterson can produce fantasy points from the sidelines
Not even Adrian Peterson can produce fantasy points from the sidelinesGail Burton/Associated Press

What matters to me is how many games do they typically miss and how vulnerable are they to critical injuries. I can deal with one or two games here or there, as long as I have them back in time for the playoffs, but high proneness to long-term injuries can be a deal-breaker, especially in the first round. 

Both Jamaal Charles and Adrian Peterson suffered torn ACLs in 2011, so those are big marks against them. 

Charles has missed no games due to injury otherwise and while Peterson has a longer list of small injuries, he still only misses 1.5 games per season on average. 

LeSean McCoy presents the smallest injury risk, missing just 1.2 games per season. He did battle concussions in 2012 but has since been injury-free. 

McCoy enjoyed an injury-free 2013 season
McCoy enjoyed an injury-free 2013 seasonEugene Tanner/Associated Press

The next factor of risk is the potential to lose touches because of a change in offensive scheme or addition of a backup running back who could steal playing time and goal-line carries. 

Besides Peterson, whose team introduced new offensive coordinator Norv Turner, none of the players will undergo scheme changes. And although Turner is known for a pass-heavy offense, don't expect that to carry over into Minnesota, where the run game is still the obvious strength. 

As far as the presence of ball-stealing backups, only LeSean McCoy concerns me. Knile Davis and Matt Asiata back up Charles and Peterson, respectively, and have minimal potential to make larger dents in either one's production in 2014. 

However, McCoy's team added the versatile Darren Sproles, who is basically a McCoy-lite. He is a great receiver out of the backfield and one of the shiftiest backs in the NFL. He likely won't see 100 carries, but he will steal third-down playing time and that irks me. 

The addition of Sproles hurts McCoy's value
The addition of Sproles hurts McCoy's valueElaine Thompson/Associated Press

The explosive McCoy is a great third-down producer by land or by air, and any loss of touches in those situations are a legitimate drawback in my eyes. 

The final factor we'll look at will be annual statistical consistency—how likely are they to achieve certain numbers based on their past production. 

Peterson receives the largest markups here as he has accrued over 10 touchdowns in every season since he entered the NFL. Also stunning is that only once has he finished a season with fewer than 1,250 rushing yards. 

How is Peterson's production likely to change this year? If anything, it should improve. The Vikings have done little to better the passing game and have one of the strongest run-blocking offensive lines in the league. If he remains healthy, Peterson could have a career-best fantasy season. 

Peterson has been a great fantasy producer since entering the league in 2007
Peterson has been a great fantasy producer since entering the league in 2007Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

McCoy tends to be the least consistent; he has only seen double-digit rushing touchdowns once in his career (17 in 2011) and only twice has he been a double-digit producer in total touchdowns. Also, just twice has he produced five or less scores in a season. 

McCoy is a bit more consistent in point-per-reception (PPR) leagues, due to his large role in the team's passing game, but he remains a bit more of a wild card than his fellow elite running backs. His offensive line will be one of the league's best again in 2014, but it's hard to make a specific projection as to how his season will end up, as he's so reliant on the big play. 

Charles falls somewhere in between the two. Since becoming the Chiefs' starter in 2009, he has surpassed 1,100 rushing yards in each season besides 2011, when he missed 14 games. He also has accrued 1,700 all-purpose yards three times in his career and as recently as last season, he scored a career-high 17 touchdowns. 

Charles looks to be on a career upswing, but the Chiefs did lose a considerable amount of talent on their offensive line this offseason. Without Branden Albert, the team lacks any one great blocker and outside of center Rodney Hudson, their group is below-average at best

Charles is still a valuable pick because of his explosiveness in the open field and ability to create space for himself, but I wouldn't trust him with the first-overall pick. Peterson and McCoy—despite his inconsistencies—are better choices due to their stronger offensive lines. 

Charles could have less room to work with in 2014
Charles could have less room to work with in 2014Ed Zurga/Associated Press

And that brings us to two. While the right choice may still seem unclear to you, I'll make it clear and simple: Pick Adrian Peterson first in a standard-scoring league and McCoy first in a PPR league. 

In the fantasy football world, Peterson has been doing it better for longer than McCoy so despite his history of nagging injuries, I would have no fears of him failing to be an elite producer in 2014. 

While McCoy has a few more question marks and it's easier for me to imagine him having a down season, he is the better back in PPR leagues because of his 54 receptions per season (Peterson averages just 29) and the loss of DeSean Jackson, which should only increase his role in the passing game. 

In the end, both Peterson and McCoy are worthy of a No. 1 pick
In the end, both Peterson and McCoy are worthy of a No. 1 pickAnn Heisenfelt/Associated Press/Associated Press

You can't really go wrong with either as they're both low-risk players, but this is the ultimate difference you should follow: Peterson has the better upside as a rusher and McCoy has the better upside as a receiver. 


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