Fantasy Football 2014: 5 Running Backs to Avoid Early in Fantasy Drafts

James ParadisContributor IIJuly 22, 2014

Fantasy Football 2014: 5 Running Backs to Avoid Early in Fantasy Drafts

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    Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

    Training camps are about to open from coast to coast, which means fantasy football draft season is almost upon us. As you prepare over the next month, it’s vital to weed out the riskiest players to avoid this upcoming season.

    And no other position has more ticking time bombs than running back.

    A common fantasy drafting pitfall is rushing to roster a second or third running back early, rather than selecting the players most likely to provide the greatest return on investment.

    Such a move can put your team at an unnecessary risk, and knowing which running backs to beware of in these early rounds can save your season.

    Here, we take a look at five of the top RB bust candidates.

    We will first profile two unproven NFL running backs—Bishop Sankey and Rashad Jennings—currently being drafted as mid-RB2 options.

    Both players have received plenty of hype as lead backs on new teams; however, neither guy may have a clear path to a primary back workload, a good enough offense or enough experience to produce at a high level this season.

    We will then take a brief look at three other backs with major red flags. Chris Johnson, Trent Richardson and Ben Tate all have significant question marks regarding their fantasy value in 2014, and each guy has a current ADP as a low-end RB2 or high-end flex option in standard leagues.

    With the wide receiver position deepening each year due to a continually more pass friendly league, there is now an abundance of safe, high-upside receivers coming at a solid value in the early-to-mid rounds.

    Therefore, it is not recommended to burn a premium draft pick on a highly questionable running back with a limited track record. Doing so could spell disaster for your fantasy season.

    Don’t put yourself in that position—avoid these five running backs in the early rounds of your draft and give your team a better chance for fantasy glory in 2014.

     

    Note: All references to ADP and positional ranking derived from FantasyFootballCalculator.com data for 12-team standard (non-PPR) leagues.

Bishop Sankey, Tennessee Titans

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press
    Average Draft Position:RB19 (39th overall)
    Recommended Draft Position:RB34 (78th overall)

     

    It’s easy to get enamored with rookie running backs. They’re the shiny new toys of the fantasy world, with young legs and unknown upside.

    Nearly every drafted NFL running back was a mega-stud for his respective college team, and this star role can sometimes mislead fantasy owners to believe that such a prolific player will immediately translate his skills to the pro level.

    Sankey was one of those mega-studs at the University of Washington, boasting more than 2,100 total yards and 21 touchdowns in 2013. Now, drafted by the Tennessee Titans in the second round, the 21-year-old likely holds the clearest path to a lead role among all rookie rushers.

    As a result of this perceived opportunity, Sankey finds himself in the conversation of the top 20 fantasy running backs, with no other first-year player remotely close in ADP—the next-highest drafted rookie running backs are Terrence West (more on him later), currently going in the eighth round and Jeremy Hill, falling to the 10th.

    With former Titans franchise back Chris Johnson now with the New York Jets, Sankey seems to have minimal competition for the starting gig. But is he really a shoe-in to dominate the team’s backfield touches?

    In June, ESPN NFL Insider Adam Caplan reported that team executives see Sankey in a part-time role this year.

    Will be very interested to see how the Titans use Sankey. Widely viewed as a change-of-pace RB by personnel execs. Is he more than that?

    — Adam Caplan (@caplannfl) June 17, 2014

    Recently, team beat writer Jim Wyatt of the Tennessean unequivocally stated that “the Titans plan on using a running back by committee approach,” mixing in offseason acquisition Dexter McCluster with Sankey, Shonn Greene and Jackie Battle.

    Wyatt refers to McCluster as the team’s “offseason star” thus far, remarking that the Titans have “much bigger plans for him as a jack-of-all-trades player.”

    The report identifies the depth chart competition between Sankey and McCluster as a “battle to watch” in training camp, though Wyatt admits Sankey should be “the busiest back this season in terms of carries and production.”

    If Greene can recover from offseason knee surgery, the team hopes that he can be the “power back in goal-line and short-yardage situations,” per Wyatt. First, however, Greene must get healthy and make the final 53-man roster.

     

    2014 Projection

    There’s a chance Sankey will be the next breakout rookie running back for fantasy. He’s a gifted player, and the Titans certainly are not brimming with out-of-this-world backfield talent.

    The question for fantasy owners is whether or not Sankey is worth a gamble at his current value.

    Acquiring him would likely mean passing on high-ceiling players at wide receiver, such as Pierre Garcon, Larry Fitzgerald and Roddy White—all much safer bets to finish top 20 at their position and all have easily as much upside as Sankey.

    It would be wise to invest your third-round pick elsewhere. Don't risk drafting a guy who could potentially earn less than half of the running back touches in a mediocre offense.

    2014 Projection:160 ATT30 REC870 YDS5 TD

Rashad Jennings, New York Giants

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    Julie Jacobson/Associated Press
    Average Draft Position:RB21 (44th overall)
    Recommended Draft Position:RB33 (77th overall)

     

    Six different running backs led the New York Giants in rushing yards at least once during a horrific 2013 season. As a result, the team made it a priority to address the position this offseason in an attempt to find some stability in its backfield.

    To accomplish this goal, the Giants have made two significant moves since season’s end. First, the team signed six-year veteran Rashad Jennings to a four-year deal worth $10 million. Then, in the draft, the G-Men used a fourth-round pick on 2013 Heisman trophy finalist Andre Williams.

    This marks the second time in three years that the team invested heavily at running back during the offseason.

    In 2012, the Giants used their first-round pick to draft dynamic Virginia Tech rusher David Wilson. Undeniably explosive and gifted, Wilson’s career thus far has been marred by ball-security issues and a scary season-ending neck injury suffered in Week 5 of last season.

    Unsure if the team would ever see Wilson’s healthy return following such a worrisome injury, the additions of Jennings and Williams were well justified.

    But on Monday, Wilson broke the news that things are about to get a bit more crowded in the Giants backfield.

    Just got cleared ..... #cleared for everything now the story continues #pocketrocket http://t.co/thjqbeLtfy

    — David E. Wilson (@4stillRunning) July 21, 2014

    With Wilson cleared, the division of labor among Giants’ running backs could become more thinly spread. The team will assuredly exercise caution with Wilson’s workload as he resumes football activity, but there’s no doubt head coach Tom Coughlin and Co. would love to see the former first-rounder begin to live up to his draft investment.

    For now, Jennings is the guy. The team has deemed him as its No. 1 running back headed into camp, with general manager Jerry Reese going so far as to call Jennings a “bellcow type” player back in June, according to a report from CBS New York following team minicamps.

    Reese also made his affinity for Wilson known in the same report. “Any time [Wilson] touches the ball he can go the distance,” Reese said. “In this West Coast Offense, we’ll try to get the ball to him in different ways and obviously he’ll help in the return game.”

    Wilson will clearly be a factor if he can stay on the field.

    The questions surrounding Jennings and his chances for a breakout season aren’t just about workload. Like Wilson, he has a limited track record and durability questions of his own.

    Jennings has never played a full NFL season and missed all of 2011 with a knee injury. And while he played quite well after taking over the starting gig in Oakland over the second half of last season, that stretch comprises the extent of his resume as a competent starter.

     

    2014 Projection

    At 29 years old, Jennings is likely just a stop-gap measure for the Giants. The team obviously hopes that 23-year-old Wilson and 21-year-old Williams can be the future of the backfield. But for now, Jennings provides insurance to help the team avoid another 2013-esque implosion.

    Skill-wise, Jennings is a good all-around back who proved last year that he is capable of putting up respectable numbers, when healthy and receiving 20-plus touches per game.

    But is he worthy of a fourth-round pick over the other options available at that spot?

    Should fantasy owners trust one half-season of solid production in five years and have faith that Jennings can stay upright and fend off substantial competition for touches?

    Obviously, the Giants backfield situation will be one to pay close attention to throughout training camp and the preseason. For now, Jennings’ risk is too high at his current value compared to the other options around his ADP.

    2014 Projection:155 ATT35 REC915 YDS5 TD

Chris Johnson, New York Jets

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    Mel Evans/Associated Press
    Average Draft Position:RB24 (52nd overall)
    Recommended Draft Position:RB29 (67th overall)

     

    After posting career lows in total yards and average yards per carry in 2013, the Titans cut ties with the former face of their franchise. Now in New York, Chris Johnson will compete for touches with Jets’ incumbent starter Chris Ivory and, to a lesser extent, plodder Bilal Powell.

    The team is expected to implement a RBBC this year, but the divide in workload is currently unknown, according to Rich Cimini of ESPN New York.

    Employing a timeshare seems logical, as Johnson’s skill set complements Ivory’s quite well.

    At age 29, CJ’s lost a step as a rusher, but he is still dangerous as a receiver out of the backfield, totaling 52 receptions and four receiving touchdowns last year. Ivory, on the other hand, is an effective between-the-tackles bruiser but a complete non-factor in the pass game (five career receptions).

    Johnson has never missed a game due to injury in his career and would become much more interesting for fantasy purposes if the oft-banged-up Ivory misses any time. For that reason, CJ still remains a solid flex consideration in 2014.

    2014 Projection:150 ATT50 REC975 YDS5 TD

Trent Richardson, Indianapolis Colts

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    Marc Serota/Associated Press
    Average Draft Position:RB25 (55th overall)
    Recommended Draft Position:RB32 (76th overall)

     

    Trent Richardson is on the hot seat in 2014.

    Though he’s projected as the team’s starter headed into training camp, Mike Wells of ESPN.com reports that “it’s unlikely the Colts will wait for [Richardson] to get going” if fellow backfield teammates Ahmad Bradshaw and Vick Ballard “are producing when given the opportunity.”

    This should come as no surprise—Richardson was relegated to backup duties last season when Donald Brown proved to be the much more effective rusher. The Colts will have little patience if the former Cleveland Browns first-round pick continues his struggles to gain yardage (2.9 YPC in 2013).

    Once fully recovered from season-ending injuries sustained early last year, Ballard and Bradshaw are legitimate threats to steal work. With most of Richardson’s success coming as a pass-catcher last year (9.5 yards per reception), the team could decide to move him into more of a third-down role, splitting early-down touches between the other backs.

    Richardson is only 23 years old—there’s still reason to believe he could find his way at the pro level. His ceiling is still high, but his floor is dangerously low. Therefore, he makes for a much better flex option than a fantasy starter.

    2014 Projection:150 ATT45 REC875 YDS6 TD

Ben Tate, Cleveland Browns

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    Mark Duncan/Associated Press
    Average Draft Position:RB26 (57th overall)
    Recommended Draft Position:RB39 (100th overall)

     

    Ben Tate is far from a lock to lead the Cleveland Browns backfield in 2014. According to Vic Carucci of the team’s official website, Tate is a “slight favorite to win the starting job,” but third-round draft pick Terrance West is a “formidable challenger” to steal the gig.

    Per Carucci, when the team selected West, it “dramatically changed” the backfield picture. The report notes that “it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising if [West] ends up winning the starting job or at least getting a significant number of carries.” 

    Tate, who has missed 24 games due to injury in his four-year pro career, will have to find a way to stay on the field to retain a featured role—something he already has failed to do this offseason, as reported by Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal.

    #Browns HC Mike Pettine said RB Ben Tate was a little nicked up during minicamp but took reps when he could.

    — Nate Ulrich (@NateUlrichABJ) June 12, 2014

    Due to his injury-prone reputation, the Browns only signed Tate to a two-year, $6.2 million contract—essentially a “prove-it” deal. The contract includes nearly $50K in roster bonuses for each game Tate is active. The Browns are not heavily invested in Tate and have no reason to force him into a primary role if he does not earn it.

    Tate’s case is similar to that of the aforementioned Jennings. He’s displayed flashes of brilliance, but his limited track record, concerning injury history and mediocre offensive situation severely muddle his prospects for fantasy.

    Tate is a boom-or-bust candidate of the highest order. Draft him as anything more than a low-end flex consideration at your own risk.

    2014 Projection:120 ATT25 REC725 YDS4 TD

     

    All statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated. All contract-related information courtesy of Spotrac.com.

    James Paradis is a fantasy football featured columnist for Bleacher Report. Be sure to check out his entire archive on fantasy strategy and analysis.

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