Fantasy Football 2014: How Will Schematic Changes Affect These Star Fantasy RBs?
Over the next week, NFL training camps open across the country, and several fantasy football stars will take the field under new leadership in a new offensive system.
The NFL saw significant coaching turnover this offseason, including seven head coaches, 12 offensive coordinators and 10 defensive coordinators. And with these changes come new offensive philosophies, especially in the case of the ever-evolving running back position.
Understanding the impact of these new staff hires is essential to accurately project the fantasy outlook for many of today’s stud players.
Sometimes, a change in regime can bring with it fantasy fortune, prominently featuring previously under-utilized players and helping them reach their fullest potential. Such was the case with the top three fantasy running backs from last season—Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy and Matt Forte—as each saw a significant boost in production following their team’s change in regime.
At other times, a new scheme can throw a wrench in a player’s fantasy prospects, limiting their opportunities to excel.
Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati Bengals
- In January, the Bengals promoted running backs coach Hue Jackson to offensive coordinator, replacing Jay Gruden, hired as head coach of the Washington Redskins.
- In May, the team selected power running back Jeremy Hill in the second round of the NFL draft.
|Bengals Coaching Changes|
|Offensive Coordinator:||Hue Jackson (replaces Jay Gruden)|
|Defensive Coordinator:||Paul Guenther (replaces Mike Zimmer)|
|Giovani Bernard 2013 Stats|
|170 ATT||56 REC||1,209 YDS||9 TD|
A highly touted prospect coming out of college, Giovani Bernard came into the NFL last year with the utmost of expectations. Selected in the second round by the Cincinnati Bengals, many expected Bernard to supplant BenJarvus Green-Ellis as the team’s lead back from day one.
Though he did lead Cincy’s backfield with 226 touches, “Gio” ended up in a near 50-50 timeshare with Green-Ellis, who totaled 224 touches. Bernard’s fantasy owners were frustrated with the team's persistent usage of the "Law Firm,” despite his plodding 3.4 yards per rushing attempt and declining effectiveness as a rusher.
Hue's the Man
By year’s end, it seemed clear that Bernard’s workload would expand in 2014, given his far superior play-making ability among Cincinnati backs; however, this presumption has been called into question by two changes since the end of the 2013 season.
Hill, a far superior talent to Green-Ellis, is essentially a shoe-in to take over the Law Firm’s early-down and goal-line duties. The pick also makes perfect sense for OC Jackson, a strong advocate of the power-run style of offense.
An Up-Hill Battle
Bernard’s once clear RB1 fantasy prospects were suddenly a bit murkier. Drafting Hill with a premium pick led many in the fantasy community to wonder how the backfield hierarchy would shake out.
For example, the week after the draft, ESPN held its fantasy rankings summit. Following the summit, ESPN Senior Fantasy analyst Matthew Berry begrudgingly stated that the consensus opinion on Bernard ranked him just barely inside the top 15 RBs.
I had to argue hard to get Gio Bernard to RB14 - still think we're too low. #ESPNRanks— Matthew Berry (@MatthewBerryTMR) May 13, 2014
Obviously, opinions on Hill's impact on Gio's fantasy value were split.
Recently, Cincinnati.com's Bengals beat writer Paul Dehner reignited the conversation surrounding Bernard fantasy stock, projecting 300 touches for the 22-year-old in his sophomore year.
If proven correct, such a generous prediction should vault Gio back into top-10 consideration among fantasy running backs.
And Dehner’s not alone in his expectation for Bernard in 2014. Mike Clay of Pro Football Focus shares his optimism.
Meanwhile, Rotoworld’s Evan Silva sees Hill taking a slightly larger slice of the rushing pie.
My take is Jeremy Hill ends up with more carries & TDs than ppl think. Gio has v good year but not spectacular in FF. Finishes ~275 touches.— Evan Silva (@evansilva) July 16, 2014
In Jackson’s run-heavy scheme, there should be plenty of work to go around for both Bernard and Hill, though 300 touches for either back is unlikely, barring injury. The level of talent in this RB tandem should phase Green-Ellis out of the backfield equation almost entirely.
At 6’1”, 238 pounds, Hill figures to be the thunder to Bernard’s (5’9”, 208 pounds) lightning. He may see precious few red-zone opportunities, but Gio’s game-breaking explosiveness should retain the majority of his value.
It will be important to keep a close eye on this situation throughout training camp and the preseason. Gleaning the most accurate information for fantasy will help distinguish Bernard as either a low-end RB1 or a high-end RB2.
|2014 Projection:||210 ATT||65 REC||1,475 YDS||8 TD|
Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
|Buccaneers Coaching Changes|
|Head Coach:||Lovie Smith (replaces Greg Schiano)|
|Offensive Coordinator:||Jeff Tedford (replaces Mike Sullivan)|
|Defensive Coordinator:||Leslie Frazier (replaces Bill Sheridan)|
|Doug Martin 2013 Stats|
|127 ATT||12 REC||522 YDS||1 TD|
A Rookie Wrecking Ball
An ultra-stud his rookie year, totaling 1,926 yards and 12 touchdowns, Doug Martin appeared to be a lock for top-five fantasy running back status for years to come.
Versatile and seemingly durable, given the 368 touches he compiled in 2012, “Muscle Hamster” was justifiably drafted as the second overall player in fantasy, prior to last season.
However, a serious shoulder injury shortened his sophomore campaign, as Martin played in just six games and scored one solitary touchdown.
All You Need Is Lovie
Tampa Bay's season went up in flames with Martin’s, limping to a 4-12 record. The Bucs' brass promptly replaced head coach Greg Schiano with Lovie Smith, formerly of the Chicago Bears, also adding longtime college head coach Jeff Tedford to serve as offensive coordinator.
Schiano believed in pounding the rock with one primary workhorse in the run game, thus leading to Martin’s monstrous 2012 season. So, how will the new regime with Smith and Tedford at the helm affect Martin’s production going forward?
Early indications from Smith led to positive speculation about Martin’s heavy usage under the new regime. Soon after his hiring, Smith expressed his desire to implement a run-first offense, according to the Pewter Report:
Smith said expects the Bucs offense to include power running game with big play ability in the passing game.— PewterReport.com (@PewterReport) January 6, 2014
This seemed to bode well for Martin, who is a power runner but also possesses solid receiving skills, exhibited by his 49 receptions for 472 yards in 2012.
However, OC Tedford quickly threw some cold water on the notion of Martin returning to his 350-plus-touch workload. The Tampa Tribune reported in January that “Tedford plans to use a two- and maybe even three-back scheme that constantly forces defenses to adjust to his personnel.”
With backups Mike James and Bobby Rainey both proving productive in Martin’s absence last season, Teford clearly sees the opportunity to preserve Martin when possible to avoid exacerbating his health issues.
Along Came Charlie
Then in May, the Bucs selected running back Charles Sims in the third round of the draft, further crowding the backfield picture in Tampa Bay. A pass-catching specialist, Sims’ selection adds further evidence to suggest that the team will not lean solely on Martin to be an every-down guy.
Following the draft, Smith confirmed that Martin is still the team’s unquestioned No. 1 back, but that the addition of Sims will allow Martin to stay fresh, according to ESPN’s Pat Yasinskas.
“There’s nothing to dislike about Doug Martin,” Smith said, per Yasinskas. “At the same time,” Smith continued, “we want Doug around for many years. By that, you need to have some other guys. He can’t carry it every second of the way.”
With the Bucs nowhere close to Super Bowl-contender status, Smith sees no value in risking Martin’s health with an immense workload anytime soon.
Most recently, Tedford reiterated during OTAs his plan to “alternate” running backs this year, explaining that he does not believe “one back can carry the load,” according to Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times.
Tampa Bay is a young team with considerable talent on both sides of its roster, but there’s little expectation that the team will make its way into the playoff conversation in the stacked NFC.
As a result, the conservationist running back philosophy of Smith and Tedford signals a decreased workload for Martin in 2014, limiting his fantasy ceiling.
But for a player like Martin, he can still reach low-end RB1 status even with a reduced role.
|2014 Projection:||250 ATT||35 REC||1,450 YDS||10 TD|
Alfred Morris, Washington
|Washington Coaching Changes|
|Head Coach:||Jay Gruden (replaces Mike Shanahan)|
|Offensive Coordinator:||Sean McVay (replaces Kyle Shanahan)|
|Alfred Morris 2013 Stats|
|276 ATT||9 REC||1,353 YDS||7 TD|
A Sixth-Round Sensation
Like Martin, Alfred Morris exploded out of the gates his rookie season, racking up nearly 1,700 yards and 13 touchdowns. Also like Muscle Hamster, Alf instantly assumed a bell-cow role and averaged more than 20 touches a game. And finally, like Martin, Morris did not meet the lofty expectations set for him the following year (though he sure came a lot closer than Martin).
Morris' sophomore slump did not come as a result of injury—the sixth-round selection out of Florida Atlantic has a near perfect health record as a pro. Rather, Washington regressed as a whole in 2013, and Morris’ production took a hit, finishing 15th among running backs in fantasy scoring (down from fifth in 2012).
No More Shanahanigans
Following Washington's dumpster fire of a season, falling to an NFC-worst 3-13 record, both head coach Mike Shanahan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan were sent packing. The aforementioned Bengals OC Gruden was brought in to take over head coaching duties, and Washington promoted tight ends coach Sean McVay to fill in as the new OC.
So, what will this change in regime mean for Morris and his fantasy value in 2014?
Gruden is a West Coast offense guy, favoring a high-octane aerial attack and a balanced run game. As described earlier, Cincinnati’s backfield under Gruden saw a pretty even split in work between his two main backs.
John Tuvey of USA Today Sports sees Gruden bringing over a version of this same backfield scheme employed. Per Tuvey,
That likely means a somewhat lighter workload for Alfred Morris, with increased touches for Roy Helu Jr.—not quite to the point of the BenJarvus Green-Ellis/Giovani Bernard split, but certainly a more equitable share than we’ve seen the past couple of seasons.
Can't Catch a Break
Morris thrived in Shanahan’s running back-friendly zone-blocking scheme, and he’s easily the most talented running back on the team. But juxtaposed to Bernard, Morris is deficient as a receiver out of the backfield—a trait integral to Gruden’s offensive system.
This leaves the door open for Washington’s more gifted pass-catching backs, likely Helu, to see an instant boost in touches. That is, unless Morris can evolve his game—and quickly.
ESPN’s John Keim reported in March that Gruden hopes to see Morris grow as a receiver.
Gruden says he'd like Morris to be more pass catching threat. Hopes he can get 20-25 catches. Says not natural hands— John Keim (@john_keim) March 26, 2014
While the sentiment is positive, the takeaway from Keim’s report is that Gruden cannot see Morris exceeding a pedestrian 20-25 catches. For reference, Helu totaled 31 receptions last year in a very limited role.
Rotoworld’s Silva also sees Gruden’s presence hampering Morris’ fantasy value. In an interview with Comcast Sportsnet’s Ben Standig, Silva said that “Roy Helu is vastly superior as a receiver and blocker, and I could definitely envision a scenario where Helu's playing time rises at Alf's expense.”
But not everyone predicts a dip in value for Morris.
In May, I asked FootballPerspective.com’s Chase Stuart for his opinion on Gruden’s impact on Washington’s backfield situation.
@JamesParadisNFL Morris didn't have super high fantasy value pre-Gruden, but he's a better talent than most think. I'm not downgrading him.— Football Perspective (@fbgchase) May 27, 2014
Mike Shanahan has a long history of riding workhorse running backs to phenomenal fantasy success. Morris is a shining talent, but he undoubtedly is a better fit for Shanahan’s offensive approach than Gruden's.
Morris' chances of seeing close to the 350 touches he received his rookie season are very low in 2014. Still, he’s far too dangerous of a weapon to ignore. Alf will still lead the backfield and should dominate at the goal line. He should make for a safe RB2 but with a limited ceiling.
|2014 Projection:||240 ATT||20 REC||1,300 YDS||10 TDS|
Reggie Bush, Detroit Lions
|Lions Coaching Changes|
|Head Coach:||Jim Caldwell (replaces Jim Schwartz)|
|Offensive Coordinator:||Joe Lombardi (replaces Scott Linehan)|
|Defensive Coordinator:||Teryl Austin (replaces Gunther Cunningham)|
|Reggie Bush 2013 Stats|
|223 ATT||54 REC||1,512 YDS||7 TD|
Heisman Hype, Hope and Hamstrings
Reggie Bush had his best statistical year as a pro in 2013.
The feature back in offensive coordinator Scott Linehan’s pass-happy scheme, Bush started the season looking like he had finally found the right system to reach the full potential many foresaw in 2006, when the former Heisman trophy winner was drafted second overall by the New Orleans Saints.
Entering his eighth NFL season last year, Bush posted two monstrous performances of 180-plus total yards and a touchdown in Weeks 1 and 3 of the regular season.
As for Week 2? Bush had 25 rushing yards on nine attempts, hindered by a strained groin muscle from the prior week’s massive workload.
Though Bush may have finished the year as a low-end RB1, his production was erratic. But anyone who’s owned Bush since he left New Orleans in 2010 knows that this boom-or-bust production characterizes his career as a lead back.
At age 29, Bush has enjoyed three straight seasons as a top-15 fantasy running back; however, over that span, he’s had 10 performances of 125-plus total yards mixed in with 20 performances totaling fewer than 75 yards.
While Bush is clearly one of the most athletically gifted athletes at the position, he’s been a frequent flyer on the injury report, dealing with (disclosed) injuries to his ankle, knee, shin, hamstring, fibula, groin, neck, hip and calf, since coming into the league. These cumulative health issues have undoubtedly kept Bush from ever putting together an entire season of the elite-level production he’s capable of on a week-to-week basis.
Back to the Bayou
Looking forward to 2014, Bush will face his fifth new offensive system in as many years. But this newest system should actually be familiar to Bush, as he will be reunited with Joe Lombardi, formerly of the Saints.
Taking over the reigns as Detroit’s offensive coordinator, Lombardi’s offense is expected to “mimic what New Orleans has done with deploying a multitude of tailbacks,” according to Lions team president Tom Lewand in a report from Kyle Meinke of mlive.com.
The team re-signed Bush’s teammate Joique Bell to a three-year, $9.3 million contract this offseason and added fullback Jed Collins, with the intention of using “more two-back sets,” per Meinke.
In all likelihood, this would move Bush into the Darren Sproles role, employed in New Orleans after the Saints replaced Bush with Sproles in 2011. This role would cater to Bush’s greatest strengths, allowing him to make plays in space and serve first and foremost as a receiver out of the backfield. Meanwhile, power-runner Bell should shoulder more of the early-down and between-the-tackles workload.
Eyes on the End Game
According to ESPN Detroit’s Michael Rothstein, Bush is “fine with [his] potentially reduced workload” under this new regime.
Focused more on his own longevity as a player and the importance of staying healthy for a possible playoff run, Bush understands that “even if the workload is less for both [himself and Bell], that’s only going to help us to stay healthy and probably play a little bit stronger and better toward the end of the season.”
While his rushing attempts should dip considerably from the 223 he saw in 2013, Tim Twentyman of the team’s official website could see Bush’s 54 receptions from last year “significantly increased in 2014”—a reasonable prediction considering Sproles averaged 77 catches during his three-year tenure with Lombardi and the Saints.
An injury-prone running back headed into his ninth professional season is typically a situation to avoid in fantasy. But Bush is a special talent, and, when healthy, his ceiling is as high as any player in the game.
Joique Bell has earned a bigger role in the offense after a breakout season, and it appears the team plans to give him that opportunity. Using Bush in space and limiteding his between-the-tackles carries should help preserve him throughout the season. So, although Bush’s overall production should decline as a result of fewer touches, keeping Bush fresh should help him become a more consistent weekly option.
Draft Bush as a safe RB2 in standard leagues, and a low-end RB1 in PPR formats.
|2014 Projection:||170 ATT||65 REC||1,400 YDS||7 TD|
James Paradis is a fantasy football featured columnist for Bleacher Report. Be sure to check out his entire archive on fantasy strategy and analysis.