Entering the 2011 season, fantasy football owners expected injuries and slow starts coming off of an offseason lockout, but I don’t think anyone expected it to be this extreme. Every other week, it seems like a top back succumbs to an injury or a former back up emerges with a strong performance.
More than ever before, depth—especially at RB—has become a necessity as it could be your No. 1 RB that goes down next. Here’s a look at a dozen RBs who are an injury or starting opportunity away from being seriously fantasy relevant.
For owners in deep leagues (14-plus teams), these players should be owned, especially if you have an RB currently ahead of one of these players on their depth chart. In shallower leagues (10 or 12), keep tabs on these guys…it might not hurt to even stash one of two away.
Houston’s Ben Tate may be the best backup RB in football right now. He would start for almost half of the NFL and likely be a top-15 fantasy RB option, but instead he plays second fiddle to one of the top players around in Arian Foster. However, as far as this season, the one knock on Foster has been his propensity for injury; Tate could very well see a starting opportunity again before the season’s end.
Tate is an explosive runner and an elite game breaker. He’s broken runs of 16-plus yards in seven of eight games this season despite starting just three, a tribute to his shiftiness. Among RBs with 64 carries, Tate ranks 11th in DVOA (cred: Football Outsiders), a metric that measures value per carry, further driving home the point.
Whether you’re an Arian Foster owner or simply have an open bench spot, Tate is a must-own. He may not be "startable" right now, but if opportunity presents itself, you’ll have a high-end No. 2 RB to promote from your bench.
Over the past three weeks, Redskins starting RB Ryan Torain has averaged a putrid 1.55 yards per attempt. He has to be done, right? Right. It’s Roy Helu time, folks.
While the box score may show that Torain had eight carries while Helu had none, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Helu actually played 34 snaps (granted, they were all pass plays) while Torain played just 22. Simply put, Helu has proven in limited opportunities that he is the more talented runner. He’s obviously taken over as the team’s primary pass-blocking back, a skill he struggled with when entering the league, and soon enough he has to become the primary ball carrier as well.
And for the record, I’m not worried about the Tashard Choice pickup earlier this week. There’s a reason the Redskins were the only team that put in a claim.
No question about it, San Francisco 49ers RB Frank Gore is racking up the miles this season. He has been one of the most relied upon players in football, averaging over 20 carries per game, third overall. While Gore has put up MVP numbers thus far, the 'Niners know that the extensive workload will take a toll, and for the first time in a while, San Francisco is looking to go well beyond a 13-game season.
For this reason, backup RB Kendall Hunter will be looked to share the workload down the stretch and should the 'Niners clinch, he could even become a feature back there.
So far this season, Hunter has ceased every opportunity he’s been presented, but there’s no overtaking Gore. He’s a quality RB and with an opportunity for an expanded role in the playoffs; Hunter could be a great addition down the stretch.
This weekend, New England head coach Bill Belichick appeared to take a page out of the Mike Shanahan RB handbook, flipping the script on what fantasy football owners have been seeing so far this season.
After trends indicated that BenJarvus Green-Ellis was the lead back followed by rookie Stevan Ridley, all that went out the window against Pittsburgh as Kevin Faulk, just one week removed from the PUP list, led the team in carries and snaps played (39 out of 58)…and actually did pretty well. Temper your expectations on Faulk, as I believe that his heavy workload was the product of a lopsided passing attack, since New England was down most of the game.
In my opinion, the handcuff to BJGE is still Stevan Ridley, despite the fact that he did not receive a single touch in Sunday’s loss. The thing is, both Green-Ellis and Faulk become unrestricted free agents this offseason, meaning Belichick and his staff need to give Ridley and possibly fellow rookie RB Shane Vereen opportunities to see whether or not to bring one of the two veterans back for 2012.
Ridley has been terrific this season when handed the ball (his DVOA ranks higher than Green-Ellis’) and could very well become New England’s future back before the season is over.
Entering the season, Tennessee Titans RB Javon Ringer was considered a handcuff to three-time Pro Bowler Chris Johnson solely from the standpoint of injury. Now it is starting to appear as if Ringer, a two-year veteran out of Michigan State, may have an opportunity to unseat him.
On Sunday, Ringer handedly out-rushed Johnson on equal carries (14 each) while leading the team in receptions as well with five. While head coach Mike Munchak made it clear that Johnson is still the starter, you have to expect Ringer to continue receiving at least a portion of the workload while Johnson struggles.
Granted, a significant amount of Johnson’s struggles can be blamed on the offensive line, so don’t expect to see Ringer break out to fantasy stardom, but until Johnson returns to CJ2K form, Ringer is worth the bench slot.
Buffalo Bills RB turned WR CJ Spiller is a talented playmaker. Entering the season, many expected the Bills' backfield to be a timeshare between the 2010 first-rounder Spiller and Fred Jackson, but boy did that change in a hurry, as Jackson developed into an elite rusher overnight.
While Jackson has solidified his role in the lineup, the Bills have recently shown a concerted effort to get the ball into Spiller’s hands and with injuries to the WR corps, he’s even started to get some work out of the slot and on screens. The results have been promising, and he’s seen a combined eight targets over the last two games.
He may not be getting touches in the backfield, but the Bills clearly know better than to waste a playmaker.
Atlanta Falcons RB Michael Turner has taken a beating over the last couple seasons and sits right up at the top of the touches leaderboard alongside the previously mentioned Frank Gore. Like Gore, Turner has been exceptional this year, especially as of late; however, it’s about time for another Falcons RB to emerge.
Last season it was Jason Snelling, who averaged five to six touches per game. This year, it’s going to be the short rookie playmaker, Jacquizz Rodgers.
Already, Rodgers has recently begun to see more time on the field. He was targeted four times in the Falcons’ victory over Detroit two weeks ago. The Falcons have thrived on the run game for years with Turner, but as the WR corps rounds into full health, the offense has an opportunity to be explosive. A change-of-pace back like Rodgers looks like a perfect fit.
I watched Rodgers slip through defenders and spin his way into the open field too many times during his stint at Oregon State, and he’s proven capable of it even on the NFL level.
Said Falcons head coach Mike Smith just yesterday, “Jaquizz has shown that he has the skill set to be a running back in this league…we need to make sure that we spread the ball around through the second half of the season. We’ve kinda been a little one-sided in our carries." Need more?
As Raiders RB Darren McFadden’s foot continues to force him out of practice, backup RB Michael Bush’s stock continues to rise, heading into a decent matchup against the Denver Broncos. So why doesn’t he end up higher on this list?
For one, Bush looks to be a quick fix this weekend and in my opinion, he's no more than a one-week start. It is McFadden’s backfield and with the Raiders still seemingly in the playoff hunt, the rock is going to Run DMC as often as possible.
Secondly, besides the Kansas City game, Bush hasn’t been that great this season. Over the four games prior to his KC breakout he averaged just 2.5 yards per carry on 30 rushes and even against the Chiefs, over two-thirds of his rushes came on just three carries, meaning he averaged just 2.3 yards per carry on the rest. Even more, over that entire period, only Cleveland was a top-10 defense against the run.
Going back to DVOA, a metric that measures value per carry, Bush has a -1.6 percent, indicating below-NFL-average RB performance on the season. Bush is a fill-in for McFadden owners, but really nothing else. Temper your expectations.
Fantasy football owners hate TD vultures, and chances are Matt Forte’s owners have been cursing Chicago Bears backup RB Marion Barber all season long. With three touchdowns in his past four games, Barber has established himself as a guy who can get the ball across the goal line consistently while allowing Forte to rest up for the next series.
Lately, Barber has been getting six to eight touches per game, plenty enough to be fantasy relevant with the density of those coming in the red zone. Barber is a pound-the-hole-type runner, meaning he won’t rack up the yards for you, but he’s a fantasy option simply based on his ability to get six. Until he shows otherwise, that’s his job. Pick him up, he’s not a bad emergency bye-week option.
It’s been a rough season thus far for Pittsburgh Steelers RB Rashard Mendenhall. Prior to last week’s 70-yard performance against a mediocre New England Patriots rush defense, the Pittsburgh running back had topped 45 yards just twice. His performance has left many people wondering if his excessive workload from last season has simply worn him down.
Over the last two weeks, coach Mike Tomlin has limited Mendenhall’s workload down to 13 rushes in each game while giving the extra six to seven touches to backup RB Isaac Redman. Prior to last week’s stinker vs. New England, Redman has excelled. He had broken double-digit runs in each of his four games and showed soft hands by pulling down a couple balls each game in the flat.
For now, Redman doesn’t have much value and is more so a nuisance to Mendenhall owners. However, if Mendenhall continues to struggle, the Steelers could turn to a split backfield, giving Redman prime opportunity to take over full time.
Once Willis McGehee returns, Ball is no better than a third-string option behind Knowshon Moreno.
However, Ball has the skills to take over the starting role outright if given a shot. By DVOA, he’s one of the most effective RBs in all of football right now on a value-per-carry basis. If we know what thing, it’s that Denver doesn’t like Moreno and if McGehee sits, Ball could very well take the reins of the team.
He’s got the potential to be this year’s LaGarette Blount.