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Fantasy Football 2015: Way-Too-Early Rankings — Running Back

Adam Pfeifer

Adam Pfeifer is a fantasy sports writer for ProjectRoto and XN Sports. He covers the NFL, NBA and MLB. You can follow him on Twitter @aPfeiferRS.

Zero.

That’s how I very well might be approaching the running back position in the 2015 campaign. Zero-Running Back. It’s a strategy that many have implemented recently, something that RotoViz contributor Shawn Siegele really believes in, as he wrote about it in full at RotoViz over a year ago.  And while not everyone may agree with it, the philosophy makes a ton of sense if you sit down and look at every aspect of it.

This past season, according to Tristan Cockroft of ESPN, the running back position was actually better in fantasy than it was in 2013– by 0.037 points per game. The position is so unpredictable, filled with injuries, and it’s so easily replaceable that it’s difficult to find that true workhorse back nowadays. In 2013, the NFL saw 22 running backs carry the football at least 200 times. In 2014, that number dropped to just 17. Also, in 2013, we had 11 rushers see at least 250 totes, but this past season, the NFL only saw eight. The workhorse back is a dying breed, whether it be by injury, backfield committee, whatever.

This year, only 11 rushers averaged 10 points per game, the lowest number since 1996. Meanwhile, the wide receiver position continues to score at will, scoring a combined 10,534 fantasy points in 2014, according to Cockroft. Over the last four seasons, the number of receivers to post at least 150 fantasy points continues to grow, going from 13, 12, 15, and 17 from this past year. But we aren’t here to talk wide receivers. No, we already did that. Instead, let’s rank some of the top fantasy running backs for the 2015 fantasy campaign. Early, you say?

Well, it’s officially 2015 now, so back off.

2015 Way-too-early RB Ranks (1-10)

1-10

DeMarco Murray was led the NFL in running back fantasy points, but was barely inside the top-50 in the history of the position in that regard with a strong 281 points. That’s how good the running back position has been over the years, but it continues to decline. Still, there’s no denying what Murray did this year, starting the season with eight consecutive 100-yard games, an NFL record. He went on to easily lead the league in carries (392), rushing yards (1,845) and rushing touchdowns (13). Murray finished as a top-12 fantasy running back every single week of the season. That type of consistency is pretty rare. There was no bigger workhorse in football this year, seeing at least 20 carries in 81 percent of his contests, including six games with 25 or more totes.

So why isn’t this year’s number one fantasy back the number one back in my rankings? Well, I don’t know where he’s playing. Murray is slated to be a free agent this offseason, and while he’s clearly an elite talent at running back, not being behind the game’s best offensive line wouldn’t be welcoming for his fantasy value. Also, we’ve seen guys with such workloads absolutely vanish the following season.

Notable RB After 400-Touch Seasons

RB Touches

Jamey Eisenberg of CBS Sports did a study where he looked at the 27 rushers over the last 10 years to touch the ball 400 times in a season (including playoffs). It turns out that only five saw an increase in fantasy points the following year, while 33 percent of those rushers suffered an injury the next season.

-And then there’s Le’Veon Bell, who may be my favorite running back to watch in the league. He finished second in points at his position with 272, but consider this. Tristan Cockroft recapped the running back position here  and it turns out that only Clinton Portis (2002) and Edgerrin James (1999) scored more fantasy points than Bell at a younger age. In his sophomore season, there was no slump, as Bell finished second in rushing yards, third in rushing yards per game, and eighth in touchdowns. He was also a workhorse, averaging just over 23 offensive touches per game for the Steelers. He ran the ball 290 times, while hauling in 83 passes, serving as a massive piece of the puzzle. His role won’t change in 2015 as Pittsburgh’s offense continues to improve, and he also left some touchdowns on the table, as the Steelers only ran the ball around 35 percent of the time when in the red zone.

-In a year where rookie wideouts soaked up all the headlines, Jeremy Hill was clearly one of the best first-year players in 2014. Despite not starting until the second half of the year, Hill still finished eighth in the NFL with 1,124 rushing yards, scoring nine touchdowns, the third-most in football. He averaged a very impressive 5.1 yards per carry, and Cincinnati clearly wasn’t afraid to feed him, as he saw at least 20 carries in each of his final three regular season contests. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson stated he wants the offense to have a featured back, and Hill became that guy, ranking fourth in the league in fantasy points per snap (0.38), according to Pro Football Focus. Under Jackson, the former running backs coach, Cincinnati ran the ball quite a bit, averaging 30.8 attempts per game, the fifth-most in football. Behind one of the league’s best run-blocking units, under a coach that likes him and wants to run the football, Hill should be at least a top-12 guy for 2015. He finished as RB10, despite limited work to open the season.

11-20

11-20

-After the top-10 running backs, it starts to get pretty ugly, pretty quickly. Many may be lower on a guy like Alfred Morris than me, mainly because he doesn’t catch passes. He only has 37 career receptions, but I don’t care. Alf has now rushed for 1,000 yards in each of his first three campaigns, scoring 28 rushing touchdowns during that same span. And while many people want to label him a bust in 2014, he still finished as the number 13 fantasy running back, a strong finish considering the turmoil in Washington this season. He’s going to get the short-yardage work, ranking top-five in football in terms of red zone carries. He’s been a true workhorse, ranking inside the top-five in carries twice in his career, and finishing top-10 every season. Entering 2015, I think Washington realizes that their best chance of winning is getting Alf going. I still like him as a borderline top-12 back in standard leagues.

-How about the year from Lamar Miller? The uber-talented back out of Miami struggled to get going last year, but served as a major post-hype sleeper in 2014. When Knowshon Moreno was healthy, it appeared that he was the lead back, but he battled a handful of injuries, cutting his season short. That opened the door for Miller to serve as the lead back, and he delivered, rushing for 1,099 yards and eight scores. Those numbers ranked 10th and 8th in the NFL, respectively. He also added 38 catches and a score.

The Miami offense was interesting in year one under Bill Lazor. They were a better overall unit, but not in the red zone. They actually lead the league in red zone snaps, giving Miller ample scoring opportunity. He finished third among running backs in carries inside the five-yard line (15), scoring seven touchdowns in such scenarios. So he benefited from short-yardage touchdowns, but I still like the Dolphins offense next year. Moreno is set to be a free agent, and with the way Miller produced this year, Miami may let Knowshon walk, assuring Miller as the lead back. Again, lead backs are pretty rare nowadays, and Miller clearly has the talent to exploit nice workloads.

-Not many people expected Mark Ingram to be the best player on the Saints offense in 2014. But he kind of was, finishing the season just 36 yards shy of 1,000 yards. He also scored nine rushing touchdowns, good for the third most in football, and averaged just under 75 rushing yards per game, good for seventh-best. Ingram was mostly effective when he was on the field, averaging a strong 0.35 fantasy points per snap, according to Pro Football Focus. Only five running backs were better in that regard. Ingram has always been this team’s preferred goal line back, and that didn’t change this year, seeing about 74 percent of New Orleans’ team rushing attempts from the goal line. The Saints continue to transition, not to a run-heavy team, but a little bit more of a balanced one, as 33 percent of the touchdowns they scored this year came on the ground, ranking 10th in football. They also ranked 20th in rushing attempts per game in 2014, one year after ranking 25th in that category. Ingram averaged almost 18 carries per game, and considering he’s only 25 years old, he’ll stay relevant for owners.

21-30

21-30

-I really, really wanted to put Justin Forsett way, way higher than 28th. And he certainly deserves it. Serving as potentially the waiver wire darling of the year, Forsett rushed for 1,266 yards (fifth in the NFL), eight touchdowns (eighth) and led the league in yards per carry (5.4). This guy was a practice squad participant heading into the season, and no one had him on their fantasy radars. But he ended up scoring the eighth-most fantasy points among running backs, more than guys like LeSean McCoy and Alfred Morris.

Pro Football Focus ranked him as the sixth-best overall back in the NFL this year, and it’s no doubt he was Baltimore’s MVP in 2014. So why is he sitting at 28 in my rankings? Well, first of all, I’m not sure where he’s playing next year. Forsett was only signed to a one-year deal, making less than a million dollars. You would think Baltimore would extend him after the spark he provided them, but it’s still no guarantee, especially with the way the running back position is. If he returns to Baltimore as the starting back, he’ll probably move up to the top-12 in my ranks, especially behind two guards in Marshall Yanda and Kelechi Osemele, who ranked first and fourth in terms of run-blocking guards this year, via PFF.

-I’m not sure what took Oakland so long, but they finally gave the backfield to Latavius Murray, who runs circles around Darren McFadden and Maurice Jones-Drew. During the final four games of the year (all of which he started), Murray posted 23, 12, 23, and 10 carries, but two of those games saw game flow destroy his volume. During the two close games, the Raiders handed him the ball 23 times, and head coach Tony Sparano stated that Murray can handle the every-down role. Now, of course, Sparano may not even be coaching the Raiders next year, but you’d have to assume the talented Central Florida product will be a huge part of the offense next year. I mean, the guy is a 6-foot-3, 225-pound running back. That’s hard to ignore. Each time I watched him, I grew more and more impressed.

-I love Fred Jackson. I love Fred Jackson. I love Fred Jackson. While the production was down from last year, FJax once again was criminally overlooked on draft day, and was more than serviceable, finishing as a RB2 in fantasy. He only rushed for 525 yards and two scores, but he missed a few games, too. More importantly, the guy caught a career-high 68 passes for 500 more yards and a touchdown. He saw a healthy 35 percent of the Bills’ carries this year, and with C.J. Spiller heading to free agency, Jackson could once again see the bulk of the work in what could be his final season in Buffalo in 2015. He’s going to get all the short-yardage work, seeing 45 percent of red zone totes and 58 percent of carries from the goal line. Next year, he’ll fall too far in drafts, and I’ll be both upset and happy at the same time.

31-40

31-40

-This is where it gets pretty thin. The most intriguing guy on this list to me is Devonta Freeman, a guy who I really liked when he entered the league. Steven Jackson‘s demise didn’t happen like most predicted (hoped), limiting Freeman’s playing time. And despite being a tremendous pass-blocker at Florida State, he didn’t pick up the NFL speed as quickly as the Falcons hoped. Still, I think he starts to become the Falcons’ lead back in 2015, as he showed his ability during the end of the season. SJax turns 32 years old during the summer, and Freeman fits Dirk Koetter’s offensive scheme pretty well. I don’t think it would surprise anyone if Freeman led the Atlanta backfield in carries in 2015.

41-50

41-50

*Note: This rankings WILL change quite a bit. It’s super early.