Fantasy Football Rankings 2015: Early Breakdown of the Top RBs

Alessandro Miglio@@AlexMiglioFeatured ColumnistMay 31, 2015

Fantasy Football Rankings 2015: Early Breakdown of the Top RBs

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    We've taken a look at early fantasy football rankings at quarterback. Let's move on to running back. 

    The running back position can make or break your fantasy team. Take the wrong pair in the first couple of rounds and it might be too late by the time you recover. There is so much volatility at the top, you really need to be careful.

    Situations change, players age and just plain luck can affect outcomes dramatically. Yet many fantasy owners cannot resist the urge to stock up early, mostly because the pool is so shallow among the top options.

    With that in mind, here are some early rankings for the position. These rankings are based on standard fantasy scoring—six points for a rushing or receiving touchdown and a point for every 10 rushing or receiving yards. Nothing more, nothing less.

15. Justin Forsett, Baltimore Ravens

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    One of the biggest fantasy surprises of 2014 came in the form of Justin Forsett.

    The journeyman running back found a major role in Baltimore, one that propelled him to a No. 8 ranking in the fantasy realm. He averaged a whopping 5.4 yards per carry, which seems like an aberration until you realize he is averaging 5.1 YPC for his career.

    In other words, maybe it shouldn't have been such a surprise—he just needed a bona fide opportunity, right?

    Of course the Ravens were scrambling in the wake of the Ray Rice saga, so there wasn't much competition for Forsett. That and offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak's uncanny ability to get the running game going helped get Forsett there.

    One of those things is gone—Kubiak is now the head coach in Denver—so there could be a bit of a drop off in the run game all around. As the roster stands, however, it doesn't seem like Forsett will lose too many touches to the likes of Lorenzo Taliaferro or Javorius Allen if he can remain effective.

14. Jeremy Hill, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Two years ago it was Giovani Bernard breaking out after the Cincinnati Bengals drafted him in the second round. That made him a top-15 option before the 2014 season, even after the Bengals selected Jeremy Hill in the second round of last year's draft.

    Well, things didn't work out so well for anyone who took a shot early on Bernard—the injury bug hit him, and Hill had taken over as the main back once Bernard got back on the field.

    That isn't to say Bernard had an awful season—he did wind up 18th in fantasy scoring—but it seems clear Hill is the back to own in Cincinnati right now.

    That's because Hill is more of an early-down and goal-line option than Bernard, who will probably be relegated to a third-down and change-of-pace role.

    The problem with ranking Hill any higher than this is the very real possibility it will be a 50-50 split in playing time for those two. If we knew more about how the Bengals will use Hill and Bernard if both are healthy, we'd have enough clarity to move them around.

    As it stands, Hill should still be a top-15 guy with Bernard not too far behind. The Bengals are going to run the ball plenty with quarterback Andy Dalton under center.

13. Alfred Morris, Washington

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    Alfred Morris is one of those fantasy football options that seems to blend into the noise. He doesn't have a ton of upside, and he plays for a perennial doormat. But that doesn't mean you should avoid him.

    The fourth-year back exploded onto the fantasy scene with a marvelous rookie season that came out of nowhere, ranking in the top-five backs in 2012. He has fallen off a bit over the past two seasons, but sheer volume has kept him in the top 15 during that span.

    Incidentally, he might have been ranked higher if Washington didn't pull him at the goal line so much.

    Anyway, there is little reason to think Morris will see any reduction in workload. On the contrary, Roy Helu is gone, and there is plenty of uncertainty behind him. Silas Redd and rookie Matt Jones will duke it out for a backup role, and neither is much of a pass-catcher.

    That means Morris could actually see an uptick in the passing game.

    Most important of all, Robert Griffin III is healthy and slated to start going forward. Morris has been far better with Griffin on the field than not, averaging 2.1 standard fantasy points per game more when Griffin takes the snaps.

12. Carlos Hyde, San Francisco 49ers

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    Now that Frank Gore is gone, Carlos Hyde has the backfield to himself, right?

    Well, it's not quite that simple after all, at least not yet. The 49ers signed Reggie Bush, who will presumably take over third-down duties. Kendall Hunter is also back from his ACL injury, and he reportedly looked good in his "starter role" with Hyde temporarily sidelined in organized team activities (OTAs), per Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee.

    It's not as if Hunter hasn't had an opportunity to take on a larger role in the past, however, and he hasn't exactly seized those chances. Bush, meanwhile, is an oft-injured 30-year-old whose upside is probably long gone. 

    In other words, expect Hyde to win the starting gig and majority of touches, and opportunity is half the fantasy battle.

    The other parts of the equation give a bit of pause, however—the 49ers are a dramatically different team than they were even a year ago, including a downgraded offensive line unless Brandon Thomas can make them forget Mike Iupati. 

    Then there is the possibility that Hyde won't ever come anywhere near Gore's effectiveness. His rookie season was rather forgettable, though he didn't see the field too much.

    Those are simply the reasons why Hyde isn't ranked any higher here, however. The second-year back could well put up a top 10 season if he stays healthy.

11. Frank Gore, Indianapolis Colts

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    It'd be easy to dismiss Frank Gore out of hand given he is 32 years old. Not only that, he has 2,784 regular-season touches and countless pass-blocking plays where he took contact under his belt.

    Despite all that, however, Gore hasn't slowed down much. Part of the reason for that is San Francisco managing his playing time a bit over the past couple of seasons, but he topped 1,000 rushing yards for the eighth time in his career—the only two times he didn't he was as a rookie or when injured.

    Gore moved on from the 49ers this offseason, and he couldn't have landed in a better situation. The Indianapolis Colts feature quarterback Andrew Luck and his passing offense, one that should only improve with former Hurricanes receivers Andre Johnson and Phillip Dorsett in the fold.

    Defenses won't be stacking the box like they did trying to stop the ground game in San Francisco when Gore was there.

    Moreover, Gore should retain his workload with ease if he can stay healthy. Dan Herron will spell him, but he isn't serious competition for touches.

10. DeMarco Murray, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Why is the reigning rushing champion and fantasy football king at running back ranked so low here? Simple—his situation is far worse.

    That isn't to say the Eagles offense isn't good—it's difficult to imagine a drop off under head coach Chip Kelly—but everything around Murray points to a significant impact to his fantasy production.

    For starters, the Eagles offensive line isn't as good as Murray's old line in Dallas. Much of the reason Murray broke out last season was that talented group of big uglies. 

    Then there is the fact Murray has to contend with Darren Sproles and fellow free-agent signee Ryan Mathews for touches.

9. C.J. Anderson, Denver Broncos

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    Could C.J. Anderson be in for a massive season?

    After all, he was fantastic once he took over in Denver last year, ranking 12th overall in fantasy scoring despite being inactive for a couple of games and dealing with Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman ahead of him early in the season.

    Then there is the fact running back whisperer Gary Kubiak has taken over at head coach. He's the guy that helped Justin Forsett get into the top 10 last year, as you may recall.

    The problem with ranking Anderson too high is uncertainty about his role in 2015. Despite all the good things he did last year, there is no guarantee he will be the lead back next season. Montee Ball will be back from injury, and Ronnie Hillman and Juwan Thompson are still around, trying to steal touches.

    It's hard to imagine Ball or Hillman truly threatening Anderson, but there is just enough doubt to keep Anderson from being ranked higher here.

8. LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bills

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    Which LeSean McCoy are we going to see this year? The one who got tackled a league-leading 41 times behind the line of scrimmage in 2014, or the human joystick who caught an average of 54 passes a year prior to last season?

    McCoy looked hesitant last season, seemingly not trusting his patchwork offensive line that was hammered by injuries. He also seemed to lose a share of the workload. Despite 312 carries—just two fewer than his league-leading 314 from the previous year—McCoy saw 27 fewer passing targets than the prior season and got pulled at the goal line for the likes of Darren Sproles at times.

    Now that he is with the Buffalo Bills, however, anything could happen to his usage. If new head coach Rex Ryan's history is any indication, McCoy is in for a massive workload.

    Indeed, the Bills plan to use McCoy plenty, as running backs coach Anthony Lynn alluded to when discussing McCoy's potential workload, according to Jay Skurski of the Buffalo News:

    I think he’s got a lot of good years left in him at 27, going into his seventh season. I talk to the guys all the time about Curtis Martin. This guy led the league in rushing his ninth year.

    I’d love to see him get that many rushes. If he’s getting that many touches, that means that we’re winning ball games, we’re running the ball. We’re controlling time of possession. We’re setting up the play action. We’re doing some good things if he touches it that many times.

    The downside to all this is the Buffalo offensive line, one of the worst run-blocking units in the league over the past couple of seasons. The Bills didn't do anything to improve that from a personnel standpoint, which could leech McCoy's fantasy value from an efficiency standpoint.

7. Arian Foster, Houston Texans

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    Another year, another lofty ranking for Arian Foster. Will he stay healthy and live up to it, or will injuries catch up with him once more?

    Last season was a bit of a bounce-back one for Foster, who had a rough 2013 campaign following his massive workload in 2012. Despite missing three more games last season, Foster wound up fifth in fantasy scoring—second on a per-game basis.

    There is, of course, that injury risk he carries annually these days. You can almost bet Foster will miss a game or two with a hamstring or some other malady.

    That doesn't mean you shouldn't draft him, though, particularly if he falls into the second round. Foster will be the lead back when healthy, and he showed last season he can be a valuable fantasy commodity when he is on the field.

6. Matt Forte, Chicago Bears

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    After years of frustration for Matt Forte owners, the dynamic Bears back finally began to deliver on his fantasy football promise two years ago.

    Forte burst onto the scene with a top-five finish as a rookie back in 2008. That fantastic finish put him near the top of preseason fantasy rankings every year, but he hit the top 10 just once over the next four seasons.

    Then Marc Trestman arrived.

    The offensive-minded head coach turned Forte into an elite fantasy back, particularly in PPR leagues. Forte caught an eye-popping 102 passes last season—leading a team with Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Martellus Bennett catching passes—helping propel him to a second consecutive top-five finish in the fantasy realm in the process.

    Unfortunately for Forte and fantasy owners, Trestman is gone. Even worse, Forte isn't thrilled about his contract situation, though he won't hold out, according to ESPN.com's Jeff Dickerson.

    On the flip side, new skipper John Fox is fond of the running game, and offensive coordinator Adam Gase helped guys like Knowshon Moreno and C.J. Anderson become fantasy commodities. Those are the biggest reasons why Forte's fantasy value shouldn't take too big a tumble in 2015.

5. Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    This would be the easiest call of them all were it not for a pesky suspension.

    Le'Veon Bell was, by far, the best running back in all the fantasy realm during the second half of the season, particularly in points-per-reception (PPR) leagues.

    He should have ridden that wave to a consensus top ranking for 2015. But his arrest for marijuana possession a year ago, per Michael David Smith of NBCSports.com, finally caught up with him at the league offices, and he will miss the first three games of the year pending an appeal.

    Granted, despite all that he is still being taken as the top running back on average thus far in fantasy draft season, but is that a wise move? Taking Bell means you will need to adjust your roster construction, perhaps taking other running backs earlier than you might have otherwise done. 

    There is also no guarantee Bell will outscore his peers when he does come back. What if DeAngelo Williams eats into his regular playing time? What if Bell simply falls off a bit from a year ago.

    Then there is the fact Bell is still not fully recovered from a hyperextended knee suffered at the end of the season, per Jacob Klinger of PennLive.com. He should be healthy for the start of the season but keeping him healthy could become a priority for the Steelers.

4. Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings

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    Adrian Peterson wouldn't retire, would he?

    Stranger things have happened. Well, that and exactly the same thing has happened—Jim Brown and Barry Sanders were both around the same age as Peterson when they retired early. In fact, Peterson's situation is analogous to Sanders', who retired after the Detroit Lions refused to trade him.

    Until that happens, though, it's reasonable to assume Peterson will return to action in some form—either the Vikings will call his bluff or decide the drama isn't worth it. 

    Of course, his fantasy rank will surely change depending on landing spot. If Purple Jesus turns blue in Dallas, he might shoot up to No. 1 because of that ridiculous offensive line.

    If nothing changes and Peterson starts for Minnesota in Week 1, though, he should still have a great output. Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata won't challenge him for playing time, and Peterson should still be a focal point on an offense that will be far better all-around—thanks largely to quarterback Teddy Bridgewater—than the last time he stepped foot on the field.

3. Eddie Lacy, Green Bay Packers

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    A morbidly poor start for Eddie Lacy last season left a bad taste in fantasy owners' mouths, but it's easy to forget how good he was after Week 4.

    Lacy scored the fourth-most standard fantasy points per game the rest of the way. He also averaged the most points per opportunity—that is to say, per targets and touches combined—among running backs with more than 90 carries over the final 13 weeks.

    The fact he averaged 5.1 yard per carry in that span—third-most in the league among qualifying peers.

    We can't completely discount the fact he did so poorly those first four weeks because of stiff competition—something he is sure to encounter at least a few times in 2015—but we can be confident Lacy will provide steady production in that offense.

    After all, he'll have the league MVP scaring defenses with the threat of the pass.

2. Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks

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    It seems like Marshawn Lynch is overlooked as a top-flight option on an annual basis, then he turns around and posts another monster year.

    Lynch is currently being drafted as the fifth running back off the board—not terribly disrespectful—but the 10th player off the board altogether, per average draft position (ADP) data over at Footballguys.com. Considering he has been the most reliable fantasy back in football over the past four years, he should be going off the board sooner than that.

    Little has changed for Lynch in terms of workload. The biggest concern for Beast Mode is the loss of Max Unger at center and James Carpenter at guard. If the Seahawks start having problems in run blocking, then Lynch might have some trouble ahead.

1. Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs

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    It comes to this—is Jamaal Charles ready to climb to the top of the fantasy mountain at running back? Despite some annoyance with head coach Andy Reid, the answer is absolutely yes.

    Charles dealt with some injury last season. He suffered a high ankle sprain in Week 2—one of those debilitating injuries for running backs that can linger—causing him to miss a game early. He had just 13 touches for 46 yards through the first three weeks of the season.

    He still wound up ninth in fantasy scoring.

    That was in spite of an awful offensive line and erratic usage, largely thanks averaging 5.0 yards per carry and to quarterback Alex Smith's penchant for checking down to his running back.

    There might be some consistency issues with Charles, but he has more upside than rank-challenger Marshawn Lynch. Charles is fantastic catching passes out of the backfield, and he is one of the most dynamic backs in the league with the ball in his hands.