2014 Fantasy Football Draft Guide: Eric Mack's RB Blueprint
There is an annual Catch-22 at running back in fantasy football. And we are not talking about the long-gone days of drafting Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith.
The most important position in fantasy is also the riskiest. That is why it is important to get it right, yet it is incredibly tough to do so.
We present the most thorough breakdown of the running back position there is in one unique slideshow. We have the rankings, tiers, rookies, position battles, injury risk assessments, breakouts, busts, sleepers, contract-year targets and overall strategies at hammering the position which will make or break you on draft day.
As much as we pour our heart, souls and summer reading time into analyzing the backs, everything in the preseason tends to get flipped on its ear in the regular season. You can prepare yourself better by fully digesting all aspects of this click-through. This can be the difference between caring about fantasy come November or not.
Running Back Rankings and Tiers: Jamaal Charles vs. LeSean McCoy Is a Tight Race
Before we dissect the running back position piece by piece, take a look at our complete rankings from Nos. 1 through 85 below. If you need them further broken down into tiers, they can be like so:
Tier 1: The MVPs
These should be the first four players off the board in all standard leagues. The only other consideration would be going quarterback (Peyton Manning) or tight end (Jimmy Graham), but those positions are better waited on. These backs are the ones heavily used in their offenses above all others.
By the way, the decision between Charles or LeSean McCoy at No. 1 overall is tightening by the day. See our pre-August review of that here at B/R.
Tier II: The Bell Cows
No. 5 Eddie Lacy to No. 16 Zac Stacy
These guys are all heavily featured as well but with a lower ceiling than that ultimate foursome. There is not much to choose between the members of this group, so if you're picking among them, you might consider going wide receiver first and then dipping into this group. You will want to try to get two of these guys by the middle of Round 3.
Tier III: Remaining Weekly Must-Starts
No. 17 Reggie Bush to No. 24 Toby Gerhart
If you don't get two backs through the end of this group, you are going to need to really hit the running back position by volume in the middle rounds. These guys can be trusted to be regulars in your fantasy lineup even if they are not spectacular.
Tier IV: Part-Time Starters
No. 25 Trent Richardson to No. 37 Pierre Thomas
Players in this group are going to have some good weeks and some quiet ones. Not only will you have to draft these guys, but you will also have to burn a roster spot, potentially, picking their sidekick. That makes it even more important to make sure you have a pair of starting running backs before this point.
Tier V: Late-Round Fliers/Handcuffs
No. 38 Fred Jackson to No. 61 Knile Davis
There are wide ranges of utility and potential here, but don't bank on any of them truly impacting your season at this point. Again, the best strategy is to give yourself a lot of outs with backs. Box your starters with their handcuffs, gobble up the best handcuffs of your competitors and generally take running back fliers whenever you can.
Tier VI: Everybody Else
These guys won't necessarily be drafted this summer, but they could emerge as bye-week replacements or even starters if they rise on the depth chart due to injuries above them.
|Rank||Running Backs||Team||ECR||vs. ECR|
Rookie RB Rankings: Bishop Sankey Leads a Deep Group That Needs Some Time
- Bishop Sankey, Tennessee Titans
- Jeremy Hill, Cincinnati Bengals
- Andre Williams, New York Giants
- Carlos Hyde, San Francisco 49ers
- Terrance West, Cleveland Browns
- Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons
- Tre Mason, St. Louis Rams
- Charles Sims, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- Ka'Deem Carey, Chicago Bears
- James White, New England Patriots
- Jerick McKinnon, Minnesota Vikings
- Lache Seastrunk, Washington Redskins
- Isaiah Crowell, Cleveland Browns
- Storm Johnson, Jacksonville Jaguars
- Alfred Blue, Houston Texans
- Dri Archer, Pittsburgh Steelers
- De'Anthony Thomas, Kansas City Chiefs
- Lorenzo Taliaferro, Baltimore Ravens
- Marion Grice, San Diego Chargers
- FB Jay Prosch, Houston Texans
Rookie running backs have huge upsides, but usually the top ones tend to be huge disappointments. Montee Ball was last year's example. He was outproduced by Eddie Lacy, Giovani Bernard and late-rounder Zac Stacy, who took over as the season wore on.
The ironic thing is most rookie backs are stymied by their teams because of something other than their running and receiving skill. They need to be great in pass protection right away. That is not easy to do, especially as they go from run-heavy college offenses to the pass-happy NFL ones.
This year's class is pretty deep, but it lacks the preseason star that projects to produce on the level of what Lacy did for the Green Bay Packers. If drafts were held today, here is how the rookies should go off the board:
All of these rookie backs are opening the preseason in the aforementioned part-time fantasy starter or handcuff tiers. They really need things to go right for them to contribute. That doesn't mean they won't, though.
The Rams' Stacy showed that a late-round running back in the NFL draft and from fantasy drafts can be a major impact player down the stretch of the season. You are going to want to take a couple of fliers in this group, particularly within those first eight options.
If you need immediate results, Hill and Williams look like they could start the year as touchdown vultures. Those are nice to have. Sankey might be the only true Week 1 starter, and even that's not a sure thing yet.
RB Position Battles: There Is Still a Lot to Be Determined This Preseason
- New England Patriots: Stevan Ridley needs to get out of the Bill Belichick doghouse through better ball security. If he can do that this preseason, he can push Shane Vereen back to being the receiving back he should be. Ridley has the ability of a fantasy first-rounder, but he will be on the board a long time if he doesn't earn snaps on early downs.
- Miami Dolphins: We know what Knowshon Moreno can do and what Lamar Miller cannot—at least we thought we did. We need to find how just how healthy Moreno will be later this month and whether Miller is as good in pads as he was out of them this spring. Preseason should give us answers.
- New Orleans Saints: They haven't been a rushing-friendly offense, but they cast off their receiving back, so there is some value to be garnered here. Pierre Thomas is the leader, but Mark Ingram was the first-round pick and Khiry Robinson has shown flashes of upside. It is a three-headed monster right now, but if one runs away as a feature guy (say, Ingram), look out.
- New York Giants: Rashad Jennings is the starter and the receiving back in a West Coast offense that will throw to him, but rookie Andre Williams split time with the first team Sunday in the preseason opener and served as the goal-line back as anticipated. Williams can really steal some value here with a strong preseason.
- St. Louis Rams: The Zac Stacy-Tre Mason battle hasn't materialized yet, but it still could. Even if it doesn't before Week 1, all you have to do is remember where Stacy came from last year. He went from waiver fodder to a starter.
- Tennessee Titans: We figured Bishop Sankey would be handed the starting job, but he still needs that baton passed, apparently. Shonn Greene will eventually relinquish it. Regardless, Greene has very minimal value.
- Cleveland Browns: Ben Tate is paid to be the starter, but we cannot discount the talent of Terrance West or even Isaiah Crowell. Tate's injury history figures to make this a wide-open battle sooner than later.
- Oakland Raiders: The team's official website lists Maurice Jones-Drew over Darren McFadden right now. Neither back will make it through the year healthy, but the Week 1 depth chart will determine how these backups get picked in fantasy.
- New York Jets: Chris Johnson isn't the inside runner Chris Ivory or Bilal Powell are, but he is twice the talent. Johnson is actually going to surprise people this year. He needs to convince the Jets he can handle the workload, though.
- Indianapolis Colts: Trent Richardson got a boost when Vick Ballard went down for the season, but Ahmad Bradshaw can still steal some thunder, perhaps.
Every training camp, the position battles that have the greatest impact on fantasy value come at the running back position. This year is no different. There are some tight duels that can create some sudden value later this month.
We break down the top 10 position battles here that can most alter the players' respective draft statuses:
Injury Risks: They Are Everywhere at Running Back, so Study Long and Hard
There isn't a position in sports that puts its players in more dangerous positions than running back. Pitchers in baseball might suffer more career-threatening injuries, but football's running backs are always a funny twist or misplaced hit from missing time. There isn't a running back in fantasy that isn't an injury risk.
So, that makes this slide one of the most important to us. You have to assess and manage the running back injury risk, because it is everywhere here.
Age-Related Injury Risks
Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, Chris Johnson, Frank Gore, Steven Jackson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Darren Sproles, DeAngelo Williams, Pierre Thomas, Fred Jackson, Danny Woodhead, Shonn Greene, Ahmad Bradshaw, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, James Starks, Peyton Hillis
We will go in-depth on the breakdowns of older backs in the busts slide, but all of these guys are already age 28 or older. That might not seem old, and 30 notoriously is the fantasy age of breakdown, but running backs peak at age 27 and decline from there (again, more on that in the bust slide).
Drafting any of these guys puts you at risk of picking someone who is susceptible to injury. Age means wear and the combination of both can lead to injury and longer recovery time. You need to burn premium picks on running backs, so you cannot afford to lose them. Drafting backs 27 years old or younger reduces your risk significantly.
Bleacher Report's injury expert Will Carroll chimed in on the first guy on that list, who is a No. 1 overall candidate on some boards (including ESPN.com's), as referenced by FantasyPros.com's average draft position consensus report.
He's aging, he has a new offense, and he's had significant injuries each of the past three seasons. He's also among the best running backs in the game. The two appear to be in opposition, but they're really not. Given the lack of rock solid top-end backs, the risk adjustment for Peterson is small. The groin issues seem to be behind him, and he still has burst.
Arian Foster, Houston Texans
We have to admit, we liked Foster coming into training camp for a rebound year. We probably need to downgrade him out of the first round before late August now.
Foster has admitted to ESPN.com's Tania Ganguli that his back injury made him contemplate retirement after last season, and various other leg issues have kept him inactive early in camp. Things are not looking up for Foster, which means consider Andre Brown (another injury-prone guy) and unheralded rookie Alfred Blue important late-round pickups.
Jake Davidow, who uses advanced analytic tools at SportsInjuryPredictor.com, says Foster is "one of the most likely players across all positions to get injured this year."
B/R's Carroll said don't touch Foster at all, at any round:
Arian Foster remains as risky a back as there is. When he's healthy, he's productive, but he's had one healthy season going back to high school. As he ages and wears, that's not likely to get better. Add in a new system, a new quarterback and a confusing backup situation, and I'm staying away from him completely. Not only 'Well, if he falls to me in the second round,' but completely away.
Ryan Mathews, San Diego Chargers
Here is one who has more varied opinions on his risk. After his first 16-game season a year ago, there are believers he has put his problems in the past. B/R's Carroll is entirely in that camp:
Mathews has flipped completely. While he's definitely an injury risk, it was largely based on workload and a bit overstated. He's played 12 games a year at least and it's easy to price that in. Now with Danny Woodhead and Donald Brown, the risk is more on assessing his role properly. If a projection has properly valued his role, there's only a slight risk adjustment needed beyond that.
Davidow is less convinced, citing the nicks he sustained while playing that seemingly full season a year ago.
This 'healthy' 2013 season is misleading because if you look beyond the Games Started statistic, you will see that he suffered a hamstring pull and a concussion that had him removed from 2 games. So while he did not miss any games, he continued his record of being injured in every season he has played in.
Davidow's file on Mathews lists:
- Fractured collarbone (2007 and 2012)
- Fractured foot (2008)
- Torn ligaments in ankle (2010)
- Three concussions
The concussions are the most concerning to Davidow, who said "those tend to become cumulative over time, occurring more frequently and with less contact."
Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Coming off shoulder surgery, Martin has fallen from being a top-three pick a year ago to potentially no better than a mid-second-round guy. We still rank him among the top 10 running backs, though, because a shoulder injury is more disconcerting for another position. Running backs rely on their legs and those appear strong for the Muscle Hamster. (He hates that nickname, by the way, as reported by Deadspin.)
Carroll is watching Martin but fully expects him to rebound with a big season. Yours truly agrees whole heartily. Carroll
Martin is coming off a major shoulder injury, but this type of injury doesn't tend to recur. I'm watching to see if he's running a bit more upright to protect that early, but I doubt we'll see it. He's low to begin with and runs like a bag of angry hyenas. I'm not sure I can ignore the injury enough to put him in the Charles-McCoy-Peterson tier, but I fully expect him to be the comeback player of the year.
Martin wasn't one of Davidow's top three injury risks, by the way.
Andre Ellington, Arizona Cardinals
This is one to watch, particularly since we have already seen a similar undersized back, David Wilson (neck), forced into retirement and have spent years seemingly wasting premium picks on the Buffalo Bills' C.J. Spiller. Ellington, who is also from Clemson, is the next Spiller...in more ways than just game-breaking ability.
Like No. 1 overall candidate Jamaal Charles, Ellington is as dynamic as he is risky because of his smaller, 200-, 210-pound frames. Davidow asks whether Ellington can prove to be the outlier like Charles has done for an undersized burner and provided this injury history:
- Two surgeries in college (foot and ankle).
- In 2013, he missed two games (Week 1 concussion and Week 13 with an MCL sprain)
- He was unable to fully take part in the combine due to a pulled hamstring.
- Bruce Arians is talking up Ellington as a true workhorse back for 2014—this only increases his likelihood of injury during the season.
Breakouts: Trio of Second-Year Backs Are the Ones to Watch in This Category
To us, a breakout at running back is a player ranked in our top 25 at the position that can fire his value up into the top 10, maybe even the top five. We will hype up anyone lower than the top 25 in the sleepers section later in this slideshow.
A breakout season happened last year with Knowshon Moreno and rookie Eddie Lacy, and both of those players were middle- to late-round sleepers in addition to being breakouts. Here are three favorite breakout candidates who can blow the doors off fantasy this year, each of who should be available late in Round 1, if not until the turn into Round 3.
Montee Ball, Denver Broncos
Naturally, if Moreno can rush for 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns in the most prolific passing offense in NFL history, his replacement has to be watched closely. Don't worry about Ball's training camp appendectomy because that won't impact his availability for when the stats begin to count, as tweeted by NFL insider Adam Schefter.
Ball is a perfect fit for a John Fox team. Fox is still a defensive guy who likes to pound the football. As Peyton Manning approaches 40, the Denver Broncos are going to rely more and more on the running game. Ball not only has the potential to beat his draft position, he might even be able to become the highest-scoring back in fantasy this season. Write that down.
If Ball stays healthy and manages his previous fumble issues, he can push for 1,400 yards and 15 combined touchdowns. It is fantasy awesomeness enough to make him as high as a top-10 pick.
Andre Ellington, Arizona Cardinals
Here is one we admit to flipping back and forth on. On one side, Ellington is going to get a huge piece of the pie for Bruce Arians' Arizona Cardinals offense. On the other side, Ellington—despite adding bulk in the offseason to handle more of the workload, according to Mike Jurecki of Fox Sports 910 in Arizona—is still an injury risk because of his stature (5'9, somewhere between 200-210 pounds).
Also, Ellington hasn't proven capable of staying healthy or handling the optimistic workload he will get. That latter piece is what is so exciting, though. Darren Urban of the Cardinals' official website tweets Arians is ready to make his new starter a bell cow, especially when it comes to catching passes out of the backfield.
If Ellington proves he can be durable as a scat back like Charles and LeSean McCoy, he could join that exclusive group atop the running back food chain this season.
Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati Bengals
Like Ellington, Bernard has some limitations because of his size and ability to handle the between-the-tackles and goal-line work. Those things will likely go to rookie big back Jeremy Hill, because Hue Jackson is now the offensive coordinator in Cincinnati and he promises to bring a power running game with him. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis is a defensive-minded guy, and those types want to control the clock with the running game.
Bernard is the clear starter and leader for the Bengals ground attack, even if Hill and veteran BenJarvus Green-Ellis will still get touches. Bernard might not hit double digits in touchdowns, but he can reach 300 combined touches as various media outlets reported, including ESPN.com's Coley Harvey.
If Bernard gets to that level, we are going to see a season of 2,000-plus combined yards and one where he crushes his current No. 21 overall ADP at FantasyPros.com.
Busts: Again, They Can Come from Anywhere at This High-Risk Position
- Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs
- Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks
- Arian Foster, Houston Texans
- Frank Gore, San Francisco (already past the age of 30)
- Rashad Jennings, New York Giants
- Steven Jackson, Atlanta Falcons (already past the age of 30)
- Maurice Jones-Drew, Oakland Raiders
- Darren Sproles, Philadelphia Eagles
- DeAngelo Williams, Carolina Panthers
- Pierre Thomas, New Orleans Saints
The potential busts at the running back position are many. Age and injury have the tendency to do that with players who put themselves so much at risk with so much exposure to contact over time.
Since a previous slide already pounded the injury-risk aspect, this bust slide will focus on age-related busts. Running backs approaching 30—and anyone over the age of 27—are entering their years of decline.
Two offseason data visuals help us display this to the masses. One came from @ESPNNFL on Twitter, which showed a peak of rushing yards at age 27 and a sharp decline thereafter. The second came in response from MBA student Brandon Pilzner (@bpilzner), who showed advanced regression analysis of age vs. fantasy points. I featured both of these telling graphs in this early fantasy trends story last week at Bleacher Report and in David Gonos' e-book 101 Fantasy Football Tips, which was released this week.
In addition to the potential running back busts I chronicled in late July here at B/R, these 10 older backs are at risk of letting you down relative to their lofty draft positions (after all, busts only come from players that everyone values highly going in):
Sleepers: At a Position of so Much Risk, There Are a Lot of Potential Surprises
- Bishop Sankey, Tennessee Titans—That offensive line has been bulked up to do some serious damage. Sankey has a real high rookie ceiling.
- Lamar Miller, Miami Dolphins—We aren't copping out in listing Miller and his roster-battler below here. Someone can take off in this offense.
- Stevan Ridley, New England Patriots—If he earns back his starting job, he is a top-10 player in all leagues.
- Jeremy Hill, Cincinnati Bengals—Run-heavy offense and a smaller starter ahead of him could take him from being a 10-touchdown, short-yardage guy to a complete beast.
- Knowshon Moreno, Miami Dolphins—Recovery from June knee 'scope is clouding his value, but that appears to be an opportunity to score value later in drafts...assuming he can get himself right this August.
- Christine Michael, Seattle Seahawks—He is going to take a bigger piece of the pie, and if Lynch finally wears down, look out!
- Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints—Don't laugh. We cannot let go of the "potential" here.
- Andre Williams, New York Giants—The 2,000-yard collegian is already a goal-line back, apparently. He might be the feature guy over Rashad Jennings before too long.
- Carlos Hyde, San Francisco 49ers—He would be higher on this list if Frank Gore wasn't so timeless. Heck, Gore is as high risk as anyone, and 49ers backs have dropped like flies this preseason. Hyde is on the verge of being a monster.
- Khiry Robinson, New Orleans Saints—Just in case Ingram flames out...again.
- Terrance West, Cleveland Browns—Talented and on a run-heavy team.
- Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons—You might have to bide your time with this one, but Steven Jackson going down is only a matter of time.
- Tre Mason, St. Louis Rams—You don't break Bo Jackson's records at Auburn without having some serious juice.
- Charles Sims, Tampa Bay Buccaneers—Accomplished rookie pass receiver behind a running back coming off a season-ending injury. This is going to be running back friendly offense.
- Robert Turbin, Seattle Seahawks—Yet another Lynch handcuff. We don't think we should lose sight of the one-time Incredible SeaHulk.
As promised earlier, we are going to outline some of the backs outside of our top 25 that can emerge as 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown stats monsters like Knowshon Moreno did a year ago. These guys won't be drafted in the first three rounds, perhaps, but they could wind up being first-round picks next year.
There are a lot of players in this category, so we will save in the complex analysis on them for a story closer to drafts later this August.
Running Back Sleepers
Contract Years: DeMarco Murray Motivated for a Career-Making Season
- DeMarco Murray, Dallas Cowboys
- Ryan Mathews, San Diego Chargers
- Shane Vereen, New England Patriots
- Frank Gore, San Francisco (meh, too old)
- Stevan Ridley, New England Patriots (love this one)
- Knowshon Moreno, Miami Dolphins (hey, he did it for us once!)
- Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints (maybe, just maybe, this is it)
- Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders (not that last year worked out so well)
- Andre Brown, Houston Texans (if he could only stay healthy for one season)
- Brandon Bolden, New England (a lot of potential turnover here, eh?)
It was a bad offseason for running backs in free agency. NFL front offices are running their teams like we profess you do in fantasy: caveat wmptor on running backs. Buyer beware.
Or, as one GM noted (famously tweeted by NFL Insider Adam Schefter this winter): "That position needs its own union. We treat our equipment people better than we treat our running backs."
Moral of the story here: Running back is a kids position. It is no place for a contract-year guy.
Still, here are the top running backs currently slated to hit free agency next winter (list courtesy of Spotrac.com):
Those are the guys most motivated to post big numbers to earn a contract next season, even if the NFL is getting stingy and picky with its running backs on the free market.
Draft-Day Strategies: Pick Your Backs Early and Often
- Lock up one of the top 10—This means you have to pick a running back either in Round 1 or 2. It is becoming more feasible as wide receivers and a tight end (Jimmy Graham) are sucking more early real estate.
- Try to get two of the top 15—So, going further, you have to pick two backs among your first three picks to accomplish this. This is advisable in all formats still.
- Draft your No. 1 running back's handcuff—Injury can be inevitable. Buy some insurance on the run-heavy team you choose their starter from.
- Draft backs 27 years old and younger—See the breakouts, busts and sleepers slides.
- Take some fliers on rookies—See the sleepers slide.
The most obvious way to attack the most pivotal, yet risky, position in fantasy is to hit it early and often. That strategy just doesn't give you enough direction. Here are the ways to do it, specifically:
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.