This year’s running back pool is… well… disgusting. Teams are trying to protect their investments (player salaries) by rotating a duo or trio of backs because they are just passing the majority of the time anyways and they can save some salary cap space by not needing to seek out and pay an elite talent in free agency. For this season’s draft, I am going to focus on the guys with the best chance at seeing the lion’s share of the workload. Whether it be one member of a duo whose partner is injury prone or a new talent coming up behind an aging veteran. I am generally not looking to draft anyone in a three-way time-share and while there are some players from these teams inside my top 50, I think avoiding any running backs from Washington, Carolina, New England or New Orleans is a VERY sound strategy. Let’s break them down by tier.
The Top 10
I apologize for my deception but this are the guys who, in the past, are worthy of a top 10 ranking at the RB position. There are so few teams that still focus on the running game first and even fewer that have a workhorse back. These three guys are the only ones who are almost fool-proof picks worthy of a first round draft pick.
Ray Rice is both a workhorse and the focal point of the offense. Joe Flacco has matured into an above average “game-manager” but the wide receiver talent is not quite up to par. Rice is a true three-down back who can run inside and outside the tackles. There is no reason that I can see for the Ravens to take him off the field other than he needs a breather. Because of this, he is the first non-QB on my draft board and my third overall ranked player.
Arian Foster has one minor “wart”. It’s name is Ben Tate. Tate is a young talent that sees enough carries to keep Foster from topping my preseason rankings. Foster is still certain to see the lion’s share of the work for the Houston offense that runs a vast majority of the time. With Matt Schaub recovering from a foot injury and Andre Johnson barely able to make it on the field for half of the games, I would be astonished if Houston made a drastic change in their offensive philosophy and suddenly started airing it out. I don’t have a serious injury concern here either so Foster is another great first round selection.
The Philadelphia Eagles may have a plethora of talent on the offensive side of the ball but there is only one irreplaceable cog in the machine: LeSean McCoy. Michael Vick has matured into more of a pocket passer but he has also maintained the ability to score any time he decides to scramble. This forces defenses to respect him at all times and this usually means that one of the 7 or 8 men in the box is not focused on McCoy over the first few seconds of the play.
Alright, there has to be a top 10 guys so here are the rest of them:
I generally do not want to have to pick from this group of players and would heavily consider looking to the available QBs, Tight Ends or Calvin Johnsons if you are considering one of these guys with your first round pick. At least four of these guys have to go somewhere in the first round though, so I will focus on the guys I feel you should take a chance on should you be stuck in a tough spot when it’s your turn to pick.
The problem with Forte is that he just doesn’t get many rushing touchdowns. He had just three all last season. Mike Martz’s offensive scheme really helps him to stay a consistent producer and I am not very scared of Michael Bush vulturing any scores from Forte… because he doesn’t get any. Forte still had just shy of 1500 all purpose yards last year and was the 17th best running back. Impressive when you account for the fact that he didn’t really play after week 12.
Jamaal Charles is coming off of a torn ACL. This is stereo-typically a death sentence for an NFL running back for the following season. I am willing to take a risk on him is because he is so young and his injury occurred in week 2. This means that Charles will have less of a trip back to full speed than Adrian Peterson and Rashard Mendenhall, who each suffered the same injury. The other thing that I like about Charles is that he does not require a high volume of carries to be a great fantasy producer. I expect him to average 15 touches per game and if he plays all 16 games, he is a safe-bet to finish the year as the top 10 back you wanted when you drafted him.
Darren McFadden has one HUGE blemish on his record, injury risk. McFadden has only played in 70% of the possible games throughout his career and last season, he only suited up for 7. Michael Bush has left town and left the workload to Run DMC. The reason to take McFadden is that he is GOING to give you good production when healthy and he has the upside to be the number one RB at the end of the season, should the stars align and he plays in all 16 games.
Eleven through twenty in the rankings are the fantasy-backups, or RB2, in your standard league so here they are:
Have I mentioned how bad the running back pool is this season?
Marshawn Lynch had a run-in with the law and is a likely candidate for a suspension. The worst-case scenario is 4 games in my eyes and the likely scenario is one or two games, if any. I have seen him crack the top 10 in plenty of rankings but as a Bills fan, I’ve been cheated by his flashes of brilliance before. He has to be considered at least an RB2 because he is the unquestioned starter and that gives him top 10 upside but I don’t expect the Seahawks to take too many steps forward this year and Lynch will likely be back to his inconsistent ways. I would look elsewhere, unless Lynch falls to the end of round 2 or somewhere in round 3.
Frank Gore is a guy that most people are staying far away from. They are expecting his production to fall off of a cliff this season and I agree that it will almost certainly NOT be increasing. The 9ers have more receiving options than in years past and Alex Smith showed some ability to move the ball down the field last season. I believe that Gore still has some gas in the tank and he will be able to provide consistency to someone who might opt to follow my advice and go QB, WR and/or TE in the first few rounds and still needs their RB1 approaching the middle rounds.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a really interesting guy this year and I think he has an enormous opportunity ahead of him in Cincinnati. Cedric Benson was easily a top 20 guy during his time as a Bengal, almost entirely on the number of carries he would get per game. Benson’s talents have not yet landed him a team on free agency and the law firm’s talents attracted the Bengals enough to drop Benson and sign him. My favorite law firm fact is that he has NEVER fumbled. Never. Thirty carries a game from an elusive runner with sure hands a nose for the end zone? Sign me up.
Trent Richardson is surrounded by a lot of hype right now and I don’t expect that having his knee scoped will really impact that. A scope is not a very big deal for such a young guy and by week 2, Richardson should be at full speed. He is the unquestioned starter for the Browns but I don’t think that I can muster up enough faith in Brandon Weeden extending drives on third and long to expect much more than 20 carries and 75 yards in a game before Cleveland has to abandon the running game completely. I really like him as a third round pick because there is a chance that he is good enough to carry the offense or that Weeden is a legitimate Quarterback and provides some balance to the offense. If either of these turn out to be true, he has a chance to be a top 5 guy but that makes him a late third round, early fourth round pick on my board and I think someone is going to reach for him sooner in almost every draft.
The Big Maybes
Because of how incredibly deep the wide receiver position is this year, you want to stock pile a fair few of these guys on your team and hope that you hit the jackpot. You can always just go and pick up a viable replacement receiver off the waiver wire should a need arise but an outside shot at a break out player is pretty darn valuable valuable in the later rounds of your draft. These are the picks that decide championships so pay attention.
Ryan Mathews was much higher in my rankings last night before he broke his clavicle on the first play of the preseason opener Thursday night. This might be an over reaction as he should be just as swift on his feet when he returns. Early word has said that he will miss about two weeks of the regular season. How long until he is back on your I/R spot? I’m just going to steer clear this season.
A lot of negativity surrounds LeGarrette Blount and there has been nothing but positive words about Doug Martin. They are pretty close in my ranks for the preseason because I expect Martin to be the starter by week 4 or so but there will always be a time-share in place as long as they are both healthy.
Reggie Bush was the 12th highest scoring RB in fantasy last season. I wrote him off last year and while my expectations are still conservative, he is my 23rd ranked back. The Dolphins will continue to involve him in the offense this season but with the QB question incredibly unanswered, I can’t feel comfortable with him as my RB2.
Peyton Hillis makes for a safe pick up late to fill out your roster in the last third of your draft. Charles isn’t going to get over 20 touches in a game and plenty of them will be in the passing game. The Chiefs are definitely going to look to establish the run early and Hillis is going to be a big part of that. If Charles goes down or just misses a game or two, you might have a top 20 guy on your hands for those weeks.