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Tigers, rhinos and the workhorse running back.
All facing extinction.
The NFL doesn’t value running backs nearly as much as it once did, and as a result, we aren’t seeing rushers with that huge workload as often as we once would. In 2013, the league saw 22 backs carry the ball at least 200 times, however, last year, that number dropped to just 17. To put it into perspective, back in 2006, the NFL had 27 different running backs carry the ball 200 times, while nearly 11 touched the football 300 times. Getting a consistent 20-touch guy is pretty important to your fantasy football team nowadays, especially when you consider that only 11 backs averaged 10 fantasy points per game, the lowest number since 1996. Because of the landscape of the position, fantasy players have implemented different strategies on draft day. I, for one, whether I take on in the first round or not, load, load and load up on running backs, especially because the position comes with so much variance … guys get hurt, benched, you name it.
Speaking of variance, the last time we sat down and ranked running backs, it was the beginning of January. Free agency and the draft are both over, and plenty of running back situations have either cleared or become murky.
Let’s sort it out again, shall we?
-No running back in the NFL scored more fantasy points than DeMarco Murray last year, who saw an incredible workload. His 449 total touches were the most a running back has seen since Larry Johnson back in 2006. He was phenomenal, opening the season with eight consecutive 100-yard performances, an NFL record. No running back rushed for more yards (1,845) or scored more touchdowns (13), and he finished as at least a top-12 fantasy back in every single week of the season. That type of consistency is unreal. True “set it and forget it” player right here. And while I’m not a believer in the Dallas offensive line being the entire reason behind his success, I am downgrading him a bit with the move to Philadelphia.
He’s obviously not going to see that same workload this year, and the Eagles are going to use the likes of Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles. And I’m a bit hesitant with running backs after a 400-touch season.
I mentioned it before, but Jamey Eisenberg of CBS Sports did a fantastic study of 400-touch running backs. Over the last 10 years, 27 rushers have accomplished that feat, while 33 percent of those rushers actually suffered an injury the next year, and only five saw an actual increase in fantasy production. I still view Murray as a top-10 fantasy back, especially since the Eagles ranked fifth in rushing touchdowns last year (16). But I don’t view him as a surefire first rounder.
-I’m pretty sure that Le’Veon Bell would be everyone’s number-one ranked running back if he hadn’t been suspended for the first three games of the season. Heck, a ton of people still have him ranked first. That’s how good he was in 2014. His 272 fantasy points were second among rushers, and only Clinton Portis (2002) and Edgerrin James (1999) accumulated more fantasy points at a younger age than Bell. His sophomore season was no slump, finishing second in the NFL in rushing yards, third in rushing yards per game and eighth in touchdowns. Bell was a true workhorse for the Steelers, averaging an insane 23 offensive touches per game. My only wish is that Pittsburgh ran the ball more when up close, as they only pounded the rock 35 percent of the time when in the red zone last year. Ok, yeah. I guess I wish he wasn’t suspended, too.
–LeSean McCoy went from a running back I never liked, but is really good, to a running back I still don’t like, is still really good, but I’ll have to like him this year (Bills fan). Last year, McCoy had one of the worst seasons of his career, posting his worst YPC (4.2), as well as a career-worst 28 receptions. Meanwhile, no running back in football posted more runs of negative yards last season (42). Of course, the Eagles offensive line was often in shambles. For instance, Lane Johnson missed the first four weeks, and during that span, McCoy averaged under 50 yards per game, sporting under three yards per clip. However, when Johnson returned, Shady averaged 94 yards per game the rest of the season. The Philadelphia line was a revolving door, as they saw nine different lineman see 100 snaps last year, via ESPN Stats and Info. Sure, the Bills offensive line is worse than the Eagles, but I love, love the potential workload. Rex Ryan is in love with his new toy, stating they want him to lead the league in carries. Meanwhile, Greg Roman is a run-oriented coordinator, and under Roman in San Francisco, Frank Gore ranked 5th, 12th, 8th, 8th in carries.
-No player in all of football saw more carries from inside the five yard line last year than Mark Ingram (20). That, via Mike Clay of PFF. The Saints transitioned to a more run-oriented approach on offense, and Ingram benefited, finishing as a top-15 fantasy rusher. They also pounded the rock when in close a ton more, going from 28th in rushing touchdown percentage in 2013 (22.6) to 9th in 2014 (32.6). Now with no Jimmy Graham, look for the Saints to run the ball even more often when inside the red zone, and the additions of Max Unger and Andrus Peat. And even though Drew Brees may be regressing a tiny bit, the Saints still ranked third in the NFL in red zone scoring chances per game (4.1), and his offenses have ranked inside the top-eight in every season since 2008.
-“Yeah, but he doesn’t catch passes.” Yeah, but I don’t care. Alfred Morris has been one of the most productive rushers since he entered the league. In his first three seasons, he’s rushed for an awesome 3,962 yards (4.5 YPC), 28 touchdowns and has yet to miss a game. Sure, he only has 37 career receptions, but he’s an absolute workhorse, ranking top-10 in carries in all three seasons, including two top-five finishes. Morris is a lock for red zone work, too, ranking top-five in carries from inside an opponent’s 20-yard line last year. He’s their best offensive player, and the Redskins need to understand that giving him the rock is their best chance to win games. I still view him as a borderline top-12 back in standard leagues, and in PPR formats, he falls so much that I end up getting him pretty cheap. I love it.
-In a year where all of the rookie wideouts garnered the hype (well deserved), there was a rookie rusher who made heads turn. Jeremy Hill finished his rookie season ranking eighth in rushing yards (1,124) and third in touchdowns (9). Despite not getting starter’s workload until the middle of the year, Hill still finished as a top-10 fantasy back, and via PFF, his 0.38 fantasy points per snap ranked fourth among qualified backs. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson relied on the running game, as only four teams in football ran the ball more often than the Bengals, and Cincinnati was one of the top run-blocking units in football.
-I’ve gone into detail about how much I like C.J. Spiller and his fit with the Saints, so let’s be a bit more brief than usual. Spiller is a tremendous pass-catching talent, the Saints have been stating how excited they are to use him, and with Jimmy Graham and Pierre Thomas gone, so are the near 400 targets over the last two seasons. Drew Brees is the best intermediate/screen passer in football, and the Saints use the running backs in the passing game as much as any other team in football.
-Three rookie rushers headline this next tier. Tevin Coleman is my favorite of the bunch, mainly due to landing spot. The Falcons still have a high-powered offense with Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and company, and Coleman will have every opportunity to earn the starting job. He has more big play ability than Devonta Freeman, as he posted the highest breakaway percentage in college football last year (57%), and he had an impressive 30 rushes of 15 yards or more.
-Then there’s TJ Yeldon, my favorite running back in this class. He’s not going to wow you with athletic ability, but he simply produced at the highest level of college football, leaving Alabama with the fifth-most carries, fourth-most yards and third-most touchdowns, behind only Shaun Alexander and Mark Ingram. Yeldon could lead all rookies in carries this year, as the Jaguars are lacking in the backfield. He also fits Jacksonville’s zone-blocking scheme pretty well, and again, we want running backs who have the opportunity to carry the football at least 15 times per game.
-Todd Gurley is probably the best overall back in this class, and is my best bet to be a Pro Bowler. However, the Rams stated that they are likely going to take a conservative approach with their rookie back, who underwent ACL surgery in November. He could open up the season on the PUP list, which would sideline him for the first month of the year. However, once he returns, he’ll likely ease his way into a heavy workload, and based off talent alone, I love the guy.
-This is the “what if” tier. What if Darren McFadden gets the starting role AND stays healthy? What if Ryan Mathews sees work in a fantasy friendly offense AND stays healthy? What if Bishop Sankey can take advantage of this opportunity? What if Doug Martin isn’t a one-year wonder? What if Devonta Freeman opens the year as the starting running back in a high-powered Falcons offense?
Only time will tell, folks.
Photo Credit: Kyle Engman/flickr
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