While the NFL has become more of a passing league, fantasy football championships are still heavily influenced by an owner’s ability to secure two solid running backs in his or her starting lineup.
But with teams relying more on their passing attacks than ever before and moving to committee approaches at the running back position, the number of workhorse running backs has been drastically reduced in recent years.
In 2014, there are fewer than 10 workhorse running backs and some of the players that fall within that category have injury concerns which reduce their fantasy appeal. That being said, just about any workhorse running back is worth gambling on given the short supply.
This season features five solid options at the top of the running back rankings, and these players should be the first players taken in all formats. After that, there are several solid options worth gambling on but the supply of players that have confidence inspiring roles and resumés begins to end after about 20 names with another five or six players having solid value given their current ADP.
But there’s a big difference between solid value meaning, “worth gambling on” than solid value meaning they give you solid comfort they will produce for the entire season.
While you can quibble with the order of these five running backs, you can’t argue with the notion that they should be the first five players off the board in every draft. Bar none. At the top, the Chiefs depleted offensive line raises some concern as to whether Charles should remain the top ranked running back ahead of McCoy and Peterson. Put them in the order you like but if you have a top five selection, you must use your pick on one of these players.
Mike’s Take: There are some red flags for Charles which may prompt a move down within the tier. I am anxious to see what Norv Turner has in store for Adrian Peterson. Eddie Lacy was a later addition to Tier 1. I would be ecstatic to get him with a mid-first round pick. Looking at the top two tiers at RB and WR, I would almost definitely prefer to get one of these 5 RB and best available WR, than the other way around, in most formats.
The second tier of running backs is deep and populated by talented backs, albeit ones with some question marks, even if those question marks are minor. Will Lynch wear down? Can Murray, Ball and Foster remain healthy? Will Bernard and Ellington get enough touches to attain RB1 status? Can Martin bounce back and is Bell more than just a volume guy? While this group is talented, it’s not talented enough to stop fantasy owners from considering the top six or seven wide receivers, the top three quarterbacks and Jimmy Graham ahead of the players in this tier. Of particular concern are Ellington and Foster with Bernard also struggling in the preseason.
Mike’s Take: I often felt like this tier was getting too big when doing our rankings, but really, pretty similar risk-reward profiles across the board. We’ve had Doug Martin higher than most rankings since the start of fantasy prep season, probably too high before, but now reasonable with recent circumstances in the Bucs backfield. People either believe Arian Foster is going to bounce back, or he won’t, without much in between. I’m avoiding drafting him, letting someone else take the chance.
The warts really begin to show in the 3rd tier of running backs. At this point in your draft, feel comfortable grabbing Julius Thomas and Rob Gronkowski at tight end as well as any wide receiver ranked in the Top 15. Mathews, Morris, Vereen, Tate and Bush all have question marks regarding how much they will be used. While Stacy was productive as a rookie, there was a reason he lasted until the 5th round of the NFL Draft, and he was clearly a volume play given his 3.9 yards per carry average. In addition, his performance in the preseason has been disconcerting with reports out of St. Louis that Benny Cunningham could muscle his way into making this more of a timeshare situation. Spiller has the most upside in this group but he is a boom/bust type of pick with the Buffalo Bills coaching staff unwilling to bend their offensive philosophy to get him the ball in space. There is talent in this tier but also some risk. The next tier features safer options, albeit with less upside.
Mike’s Take: Spiller is a tough one to figure out. The Bills should run a lot, benefitting Spiller, but he was a real disappointment last year. The Bills overall offense looks poor, which makes things sketchy for one of your starting running backs. I really like Mathews’ talent. Can he stay healthy and where is his dedication level at? Two big questions. I’m really thinking Shane Vereen could be a S.O.D. (steal of the draft) candidate lately, but given his anticipated role, on the Patriots no less, it is hard to push him up any higher in the rankings.
Tier 4 may actually feature some workhorse runners although none of these running backs are strong candidates to finish in the Top 10. Even Rice seems like a long shot even though he’s been there, done that. Jennings could lose some goal line touches to Andre Williams but he looks like a three down back entering the season as does Gerhart. MJD has looked solid and we all know Darren McFadden‘s injury history. Gore isn’t flashy but he should attain RB2 status in 2014. Sankey needs to overtake Shonn Greene, but once that happens, we expect him to be a feature back. Most of this group represents solid value at their current ADP, and they are going off the board at the point where the wide receivers feature greater risk.
Mike’s Take: On the one hand, Jennings looks like a good fit for the Giants offense. On the other hand, its Rashad Jennings, who has bounced around a bit and never really strung together a consistent streak of solid performances. Gerhart maybe never had an opportunity to do it before, but we are skeptical, and even as a high volume carry guy, how is that going to translate in the Jaguars offense? MJD does look good, and is still coming off the board as an RB3 most of the time. He looks like a worthwhile risk. It may be smoke and mirrors by the Titans indicating Sankey isn’t ready to be their workhorse, yet. We’ve seen it before with teams and rookies. That is part of the risk rolling the dice on rookies. If you draft him, then make sure you don’t absolutely need to rely on him – keep expectations in check and hope for the best.
A quick look at this tier makes it clear why Tier 4 is the place to be. Outside of Trent Richardson, this group features little upside. And even T-rich’s upside must be questioned with his continued struggles in the preseason and the Colts shoddy offensive line. Johnson and Jackson are aging backs while Thomas seems destined for pass receiving duties. Both Miller and Bell figures to split the work in the range of 55/45 with their backfield mates (Knowshon Moreno and Reggie Bush), although it’s up for debate as to which players in each pairing will handle the larger role.
Mike’s Take: Outside of Pierre Thomas, if he drops far enough, these guys might as well all be tagged, “do not draft” on my list. Not that I have anything against Bell, but he typically gets drafted somewhat earlier than I would take him. As for the rest, Richardson continues to look sluggish, it is hard to imagine Jackson staying healthy a month much less a season, Johnson continues to be over-drafted, and Miller could easily be surpassed by Moreno at this point. Do I want to take the chance Miller holds him off, to own a piece of the Dolphins running game? More than likely, I’m drafting other positions around the time these guys are coming off the board.
There is a large gap in the ADP ranges between Tiers 5 and 6. Unfortunately, the ADP gap doesn’t lead to the increase in value that you would expect. Ingram seems ready to finally assume a lead role in New Orleans and Moreno could easily open the season as Miami’s starter. Pierce’s preseason concussion has stunted his momentum while Williams and Woodhead offer pretty much no upside. As for McFadden, I’m fine if somebody grabs him and watches him bust out.
Mike’s Take: I pretty much agree with Dave with one slight exception. In terms of getting a third RB on your roster, I don’t see a ton of difference in outlook between this group and the group above them, except at a discounted price. When the prior group is up in the draft, solidify your receivers or QB position. Then at this point, maybe grab a pair and play the odds one will exceed expectations. Lean to upside with Ingram, Pierce and Moreno. Another reason to de-emphasize depth at RB – they are always easier to grab off waivers as the season progresses. Woodhead is unheralded and will never offer much trade value, but he can put up solid points, especially in a PPR league.
This is the upside tier with all of these running backs having the ability to have breakout seasons provided the players ahead of them on the depth chart suffer significant injuries. While Hyde has looked solid, we fully expect him to work in a pure backup role in his rookie season. West has done little to challenge Ben Tate in Cleveland while Michael can’t seem to overtake Robert Turbin for the lead backup role to Marshawn Lynch in Seattle. That leaves Freeman as the player in this tier most likely to earn a major role with only the aging Steven Jackson ahead of him.
Mike’s Take: Upside tier? I was calling it the handcuff tier. Although the way drafts go these days, in my experience, less and less does the owner of say, Marshawn Lynch, acquire Lynch’s anticipated direct handcuff, Michael. This could also be known as the lottery ticket tier, and everyone likes playing the lottery for a big potential payoff. Just make sure when you buy your ticket, you aren’t overpaying. This tier is also very much in flux as players with the most “upside” move in and out of here constantly.
At this point in your draft, you’re pulling slots although some pulls are better than others. With a 7th round ADP, Ridley and especially Sproles are overvalued. Out of this group, Bradshaw, Hill, Ivory and Dunbar are solid values. Of particular interest are Ivory, who seems a much better match in the Jets offense than free agent signee Chris Johnson, and Jeremy Hill, who could emerge as a solid RB3 if the Bengals determine that Giovani Bernard is more effective in a committee role than as a workhorse back. While Greene may open the season getting a fair amount of touches in Tennessee, we expect that to change early in 2014.
Mike’s Take: This is a mixed bag of handcuffs and role players that could contribute from time to time in the right matchup, and contribute more if one of their teammates goes down. With recent rumors Ridley might not even make the Patriots final roster, his ADP is likely overstated, but he could bounce back quickly if (when) he finds employment elsewhere. Personal preference is the name of the game here, and mine include Bradshaw, Blount and Dunbar.
While there are some solid values in Tier 8, that isn’t as much of the case in Tier 9 outside of one major exception. With Arian Foster struggling with injuries in the preseason, there is no valid reason why Jonathan Grimes is going undrafted in standard 12 team, 15 roster spot formats. His ADP is likely depressed given the late start getting on fantasy players’ radars.
Mike’s Take: Even in 12-team leagues of moderate depth, many of these guys aren’t getting drafted, but you need to know the names so you are ready to grab them off the waiver wire when the time comes a starter goes down. Also refer to our “Not Ranked – On The Radar” section of our RB cheatsheet.