Fantasy Football 2014: RB Rankings, Risers, Fallers, Sleepers and Risks
Here is a completely unsubstantiated theory to share with you—the talented Bleacher Report editing team likely won't even let this fly (they certainly will roll their eyes, at least): Catastrophic fantasy football injuries tend to come early in training camp, early when full-go contact begins and early in the season.
That makes preseason Week 3 the full dress rehearsal for teams really important to watch, especially at the risk-ridden running back position. We break down that and all the rankings, risers, fallers and provide a review of the sleepers in this weekly slideshow, a temperature check on fantasy running backs.
The thought here is: Players who are going to get hurt will once the bell rings and the bodies start flying. We saw it with Kendall Hunter (ACL), LaMichael James (elbow) and David Wilson (neck) even in this camp. Three quarters of play for most teams' starters will kick up the risk for serious injury again this weekend.
We are in the business of prediction in fantasy football. You can buy into the above theory or not, but failing to do so will leave you open for the "told you so." Get caught up to date on the backs before everything can potentially get turned on its ear at the paramount position in fantasy.
RB Rankings: Preseason Week 3 Stands to Decide Things for Us
The early preseason injury attrition at the running back position is over. Now, it is time to see who makes it through the third game healthy. It will determine the overall status of the top backs for your fantasy draft because most of them will hardly play in that fourth preseason game.
Here are some backs we need answers for:
Arian Foster, Houston Texans
He hasn't played in the preseason to date and only last week returned to practice. We once had Foster in the top 10 running backs as a late first-rounder. Now, you might not even want to take the risk on him through Round 2, as Bleacher Report's Rob Goldberg wrote this week.
Chris Johnson, New York Jets
He scored a goal-line touchdown in his Jets debut, but it was after Chris Ivory (ribs) was hurt. Johnson has shown flashes of brilliance in preseason action, but we need to get an extended look at how the Jets use both backs through three quarters this weekend.
Knowshon Moreno, Miami Dolphins
He was cleared for contact last week, but he did not play in this past game. We need to see him at least split carries with Lamar Miller to consider Moreno a real candidate to pick among the top 30 running backs. If it is all Miller, consider moving Miller into the top 25.
Shane Vereen, New England Patriots
Rookie James White has been taking more and more snaps with the first team, while Stevan Ridley fumbled this weekend. We need a good long look at the kind of rotation the Patriots are going to go with.
Updated Running Back Rankings
|Rank||Running Backs||Team||ECR||vs. ECR|
Riser: Might the Carolina Panthers Finally Get a Healthy Jonathan Stewart?
- Stewart is at a running back's statistical peak of age 27.
- The Carolina Panthers have a great defense, a healing quarterback in Cam Newton (ankle) and a revamped receiving corps. This is as run-heavy of a team as there is in football this season.
- Stewart has always had potential clouded by injury woes.
Two touchdowns usually aren't so noteworthy in the preseason. Jonathan Stewart did that this weekend.
Here's the biggest reason we should be moving him up our draft boards: DeAngelo Williams is past the age of breakdown for running backs at age 31.
If Stewart truly proves healthy through the preseason and stays there in the early weeks, you have to consider one of the best backup running backs in fantasy. That is a pretty big "if."
Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil told The AP's Steve Reed, as seen on NewsObserver.com:
When he does get back out there you realize why he is so special and why you keep giving him chances to come back. I've played so many games with him and watched so much film, you see a guy that people want to keep fighting and fighting for. I think he is such a huge part of our running game, and it's great to have him out there. ...
He doesn't go down. He fights for every yard. I think with that you get some of the nicks and knacks that he gets. The guy just fights and fights and fights. I know it kills him to not be able to stay out there all the time, but it is part of the game.
A healthy Stewart winds up being the feature back for one of the best running games in football this season. Williams just cannot keep doing it himself. Stewart is also likely the goal-line back.
We moved Stewart, somewhat optimistically, into the top 40 fantasy running backs, just behind Williams and LeGarrette Blount. Stewart now sits a spot ahead of Cincinnati Bengals rookie Jeremy Hill, potential New Orleans Saints starter Pierre Thomas and the Miami Dolphins' Knowshon Moreno.
Faller: Pittsburgh Steelers' Le'Veon Bell Losing More Than Just Goal-Line Work
The news on Le'Veon Bell in the past week hasn't been kind. It has nothing to do with injury or poor performance either. Free-agent signee LeGarrette Blount is just getting a bigger piece of the pie.
Bell and Blount have split reps with the first team in training camp and the early exhibition action, and now both coach Mike Tomlin and Bell himself—per Dave Richard of CBSSports.com—are expecting Blount to get the goal-line work in addition to sharing the load in the Steelers power-running game. Tomlin told Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
They're both going to get their share. In terms of the details, no, we'll deal with that on a game-by-game basis based on the plan, based on the health of the men and a lot of other variables. We have a great deal of confidence in both guys. Both guys will be central reasons why we're successful. That's the plan and I think they're open to that.
They might be, but fantasy owners picking late in Round 1 are not. We have to move Bell out of the candidates to pick in the back half of the first round if he won't be a true candidate for 10 touchdowns. You can consider Blount a more intriguing handcuff, as long as he stays healthy through this third preseason game.
Riser: St. Louis Rams' Zac Stacy in No Danger of Losing Job to Tre Mason
We cannot summarily dismiss rookie Tre Mason in fantasy drafts. There is still some value in the late rounds as a handcuff pick, particularly with the volume running game for Jeff Fisher's St. Louis Rams. But Zac Stacy has put to rest any thought there was a roster battle in camp.
It wasn't all Stacy's doing either. Mason needed to surprise as a pass protector in his transition to the NFL. He has been typically a work in progress in that regard. Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports Mason missed two blocks that led to sacks this weekend. Fisher told Thomas:
Yeah, I think that's one of the biggest challenges for the position. To learn how to play without the football. Guys have run skills, can carry the ball and run, and do those kind of things. But it's playing without the football. It's protection. Tre needs to keep working on it.
We had moved Stacy into the latter part of Round 2 among running backs, but he is back in the top 10 and now a candidate to pick around the turn of Round 1, perhaps even in the first round in non-PPR formats.
The best part about Stacy, perhaps, is he will be the short-yardage back even if Mason winds up stealing touches down the stretch.
Faller: Bishop Sankey Gives Tennessee Titans Reason to Start with Shonn Greene
At this point of the preseason, you want a rookie running back giving you reasons to start him over an incumbent—not reasons to wait. Whether it is pass protection, ball security, knowledge of the offense or just plain next-level juice, there are plenty of ways a rookie can get shuffled to a waiting list.
Bishop Sankey looked dynamite in his preseason debut. He coughed up that excitement with a fumble this past weekend.
The Tennessean's Jim Wyatt, one of the most respected beat writers in the business, has reported Sankey has had quarterback-exchange issues and speculates "continued fumbling issues will cost him."
Sankey has also had issues with putting veteran plodder Shonn Greene away in a battle for the feature-back role. Ken Whisenhunt told John Glennon of The Tennessean that Sankey, who got a late start in OTAs due to late graduation, will need some time.
I'm impressed with a lot of the things about Bishop, but he's a rookie, and a lot of things that are causing these problems are things that he needs time with and he's got to get better at—whether it's footwork, whether it's how he's taking the balls on handoffs, understanding the protections. He missed a lot of time. He's a smart young man, but some of those things, you need to work with. He's got to continue to get those things, because there's no question he's a talented player.
Greene is at minimum the goal-line back initially. Sankey might merely be the passing-down back out of the gate. It makes picking him before Round 4 difficult right now, but a solid preseason Week 3 performance can be a game-changer for him.
Sleepers: Stevan Ridley Is Either 1,200-12 Back or Completely Worthless
If you are a fan of Stevan Ridley returning to his 2012 form of 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns, you had to be as "sick" as he was for putting the ball on the ground this weekend, per the Boston Herald's Karen Guregian.
Actually, there is the potential it can help you. Ridley might be presumed to be back in the Bill Belichick doghouse and therefore fall into the latter rounds. He sure did in the Fantasy League of Experts (FLEX) PPR draft this weekend in New York City, getting picked all the way at the bottom in Round 10 as the 44th running back.
Ridley told Guregian:
It's too close to call (whether it was a fumble). Either way I need to avoid those plays in general. There’s nothing really else to be said about it ... I hated it and it was a sick feeling for a second. We looked at the play, and it is what it is, but either way, one out is too many. I'm not going to harp on that, I'm going to learn from it. ...
That’s what I'm still trying to figure out. Getting tackled by a few defenders, it's football, they're taught to go after the ball and attack it. It's just staying alert, being conscious of that and trying to get two hands on it. That's really all you can do. ...
When I go back and watch the play, and the ball is out again, Week 2, it kind of sucks. But it's football, man, and I can't get down about it. I can't harp about it. That's why you have preseason. I'm just going to keep on working and keep on pushing.
I just gotta learn from it and keep moving and not sulk on it. I will try not to have this issue and this be the topic the whole year this year because I think I can do a few other things that y’all can write about and hopefully have some good things to say. But either way, I've got to own up to it. That's what it was.
As we said in the introduction to the rankings slide, we need to get a complete look at how the New England Patriots are going to line up their backs. Belichick doesn't tend to display his whole hand, but we should read the clues.
Here is the deal, though:
- Rookie James White isn't a big power back at 195 pounds.
- Shane Vereen isn't either at 205. Vereen caught more passes last year (47) than he had rushing attempts (44). He is a receiving and passing-down back.
- The Pats are decidedly a power-running team now. LeGarrette Blount showed that down the stretch last year when Ridley was buried on the depth chart due to fumbling woes.
- The Pats are not going to put their early-down and goal-line stuff all on Brandon Bolden (5'11", 220 lbs).
Ridley can be the man at 5'11", 220 pounds. He needs to be the man with the ball in his hands, literally and figuratively.
As we reviewed comprehensively in Bleacher Report's RB Blueprint earlier this month, there are potentially dozens of late-round running backs you can stockpile on your bench for potentially huge rewards.
Here are three favorites (based on their potential relative to draft position):
- Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints—Might he finally be ready to take over as a feature back in a potent offense?
- Carlos Hyde, San Francisco 49ers—A big, stud rookie in a run-heavy offense with a 31-year-old Frank Gore who has had a long injury history.
- Robert Turbin, Seattle Seahawks—As we wrote in B/R's Takeaways from Preseason Week 2 on Monday, he is still the No. 2 back over fantasy-favorite Christine Michael.
Risks: They're Everywhere at Running Back, Even Right at the Top
There are no sure things at the running back position. The injury scares of the top two running backs in fantasy this past weekend are a perfect example of that.
Nothing is sacred anymore.
Now, don't go out and pick a quarterback in Round 1 or go crazy with the Zero-RB strategy, which the Washington Post's Neil Greenberg chronicled last week. You just have to give yourself some outs, like a good poker player.
You have to assume more risk at this position—on any running back in any round. As we conclude our weekly report on the landscape of the backs, here is a review of the age-related risks we outlined in B/R's RB Blueprint earlier this preseason:
- Marshawn Lynch, 28, Seattle Seahawks
- Arian Foster, turns 28 this Sunday, Houston Texans
- Frank Gore, 31, San Francisco (already past the age of 30)
- Rashad Jennings, 29, New York Giants
- Steven Jackson, 31, Atlanta Falcons (already past the age of 30)
- Maurice Jones-Drew, 29, Oakland Raiders
- Darren Sproles, 31, Philadelphia Eagles
- DeAngelo Williams, 31, Carolina Panthers
- Pierre Thomas, 29, New Orleans Saints
Eric Mack, one of the giants among fantasy writers, is the Fantasy Football Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. 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.