While the running back position is being devalued in the NFL draft, the exact opposite rings true when it comes to fantasy football. Due to such a short amount of top-tier ball-carriers—and an even smaller amount of those who don't share carries—obtaining a back early in the draft is crucial to the success of any fantasy owner.
Selecting a running back early simply for the sake of scarcity isn't optimal, though. Each player's value and average draft position (ADP) should come into play when making such an important decision. Simply put: Don't pass up on A.J. Green for Zac Stacy in the second round because of a run on ball-carriers.
This is where the rankings come in. With the above example in mind, Stacy isn't a bad option early in fantasy drafts—he should see the bulk of the workload for the St. Louis Rams this season—but with an ADP of 3.04, and a lower upside than Green, that selection would be a big reach.
To ensure running backs are being taken at the optimal time in your fantasy drafts, let's rank the top-25 ball-carriers for 2014 and highlight a few players with intriguing value—one way or the other.
Sean O'Donnell's Rankings
*ADP based on 12-team standard-scoring leagues, via FantasyFootballCalculator.com.
Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers
It may be strange to see Bell ranked 21st overall despite his ADP of 2.10. Well, there's good reason for that.
While he is listed first on the Steelers' depth chart, he isn't exactly in line to receive the lion's share of the carries. LeGarrette Blount will receive a good amount of the workload out of Pittsburgh's backfield. After all, during an interview with Dave Richard of CBSSports.com, head coach Mike Tomlin said he wants "both guys to have the lead dog mentality" and "both guys are going to be big components of why we're successful."
Bell was interviewed as well, and he was asked about losing goal-line reps to Blount. He said, "They probably will do that, that's probably what will happen. He's a big, strong guy, so when they put him in, he's in. We hopefully get that touchdown and I'm glad. I don't care."
Rotoworld's Adam Levitan tweeted the even workload the backs are already sharing:
Steelers' starters played 17 snaps last night. I had Le'Veon Bell with nine snaps (including the first eight). Blount with eight.— Adam Levitan (@adamlevitan) August 17, 2014
With his workload in question, selecting Bell in the second round, as his ADP suggests, sure seems like a risky endeavor. Draft him with caution.
Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati Bengals
Bernard has recently made his way into the top 10 in fantasy running back rankings. The second-year back will begin the season atop the Bengals' depth chart and could be in for a huge season.
Last season, Bernard's rushes were limited due to the presence of veteran ball-carrier BenJarvus Green-Ellis. However, despite just 170 carries, Bernard amassed 695 yards—an average of 4.1 yards per attempt—and five touchdowns. He also added 56 receptions for 514 yards and three more scores.
Not only will offensive coordinator Hue Jackson focus heavily on the run this season—he served as Cincinnati's running backs coach last year—he's also looking to increase Bernard's touches one way or another. In fact, earlier in the offseason, there was talk about the running back getting work in the slot this season as well.
Expect more goal-line work for Bernard as well in 2014. Bleacher Report's Chris Roling gave his perspective after a short-yardage touchdown during the preseason:
Giovani Bernard just made a lot of fantasy owners happy with that goalline touchdown.— Chris Roling (@Chris_Roling) August 16, 2014
If Bernard was able to accumulate over 1,200 yards from scrimmage last season, imagine what he'll do with a year of experience under his belt and a larger role in the offense. Draft him with confidence.
Andre Ellington, Arizona Cardinals
Here's another second-year running back currently soaring up draft boards. Like Bernard, Ellington was able to flourish in a limited role last season behind Rashard Mendenhall. He carried just 118 times but amassed 652 yards—an average of 5.5 yards per attempt—and three touchdowns. He also caught 39 passes for 371 yards and another score.
This season, Ellington is not only atop the Cardinals' depth chart, but head coach Bruce Arians is singing his praises. Take a look at this comment from early in the offseason, via Darren Urban of AZCardinals.com:
Arians said RB Andre Ellington has added 10 pounds already. "We want to build our offense around him." #CardsCombine— Darren Urban (@Cardschatter) February 21, 2014
It sounds like Arians is ready to give his top running back a big workload this season. According to a recent interview with Urban, Ellington is ready:
I am very confident. Last year I wasn't aware of what my role would be on the team. Now I have got kind of an idea. I am approaching the year a lot differently.
Whatever (Arians) throws in my face. I'll be ready for the possibility.
Ellington is confident heading into the season, and fantasy owners should be as well.