Even though the fantasy football landscape is starting to shift away from running backs, the position still dominates the opening round. Since there are fewer reliable options, getting one of the top backs now represents a significant advantage.
That said, expect to see a lot more variety in drafts this year in the early rounds. There was a time period when people would take running backs with each of their first three picks because they carried so much value. Those days are, for the most part, gone.
With that in mind, let's check out how the opening round is likely to play out for 2014 along with some sleepers who are worth targeting in the middle rounds. All ranking information is based on Fantasy Pros' consensus rankings.
Projected First-Round Players
Sleepers to Target
Fred Jackson (Buffalo Bills)
Yes, C.J. Spiller is the player with the most upside in the Buffalo backfield. He's not a workhorse and is coming off a frustrating season that featured severe nagging injuries, though. That makes Jackson the more reliable fantasy option.
The veteran battled through a knee injury of his own last year but still featured in all 16 games. The good news is he signed an extension with the Bills during the offseason, and as part of the announcement on the team's official site, he talked about how good he's feeling.
"Better than I have in a long time, that's the number one thing I was talking to my agent about," Jackson said. "I was telling him I haven't felt this good in a long time. So, hopefully I can continue to feel like that and get into this season and make some plays for our team, that way it's all worth it, them giving me this extension."
Jackson scored 10 total touchdowns, compared to just two for Spiller, last season. He was the choice when the team was inside the opponent's 10-yard line, and those roles are unlikely to flip in 2014. The backup also finished with more catches (47 to 33).
Despite those numbers, Spiller is the 17th-rated back, while Jackson is outside the top 30. The latter should provide far more value based on draft position. He's a weekly flex option with the ability to move way up should Spiller miss any time due to injuries.
Greg Jennings (Minnesota Vikings)
Jennings' first season in Minnesota didn't go exactly according to plan. He finished with 68 catches for a shade over 800 yards and four touchdowns—middling numbers across the board. But there's reason for optimism heading into the new campaign.
Matt Cassel has the inside track on the starting quarterback job for the Vikings. That's important, as he seemed to form the best bond with the wideout out of all the options the team cycled through at QB last year. John Paulsen of 4for4.com provides the data:
Cassel (possibly) starting for Vikings would cement Greg Jennings as a sneaky pick in the 12th/13th. 5.9-70-.57 in games with Cassel.— John Paulsen (@4for4_John) August 14, 2014
Over an entire season, those per-game stats would equate to 94 grabs for 1,120 yards and nine touchdowns. While that's too much to expect from a receiver ranked just inside the top 50 at the position, it does illustrate his sleeper upside.
He should push for 80 catches for around 1,000 yards and six TDs. That would represent a strong bounce-back year and make him a solid No. 3 fantasy receiver. Depth selections like Jennings are essential to a championship team.
Jared Cook (St. Louis Rams)
Cook has always possessed the talent to become a valuable fantasy asset, but he still hasn't put together a breakout season. In turn, the attention paid to the athletic tight end in years past has faded, allowing him to fall into the post-hype sleeper category.
Which sleeper will provide the most 2014 value?
The South Carolina product put his potential on display in Week 1 last year. He hauled in two touchdowns en route to 24 points. Unfortunately for excited fantasy owners, he only reached double digits in scoring one more time the rest of the way.
While his fantasy production wasn't overly impressive, it's important to note he did finish as St. Louis' top receiver. He should remain a top target this season, which points toward more consistent results should the offense as a whole take a step forward.
Luckily for Cook, there's a good chance that will happen. Zac Stacy brings more stability to the running game, and Sam Bradford, who's now healthy, showed progress before getting hurt last season. Cook is ranked as a fringe roster player but could very well put up No. 1 TE numbers.