Shooting Stars: Running Backs
By Chris Smith
August 14th, 2012

Every season there are players that shock the world and become impact fantasy performers. These players are the ones that fantasy owners gathered around the water cooler talk about, wondering why they didn't see this coming in August. I am going to take a look at each of the four big offensive positions (running back, quarterback, receiving and tight end) and identify players that have the upside and opportunity to be these shooting stars in 2012. This first article will focus on some players within the running back position.

Jacquizz Rodgers, Atlanta Falcons

  • 5'6 and 196 pounds
  • Current ADP is 11.11
  • Last year in his first professional season, Rodgers carried the ball 57 times and caught 21 passes. He totaled 393 yards and scored two touchdowns. He has the appearance of being tiny on paper as the 5'6 height leaps out at you in first glance. However much like Barry Sanders, Maurice Jones-Drew and Ray Rice, being undersized is actually a positive for a running back as long as he is powerful with a strong core and legs. That is exactly what Rodgers brings to the table. In fact he almost looks like a clone of Jones-Drew if you put them side by side. This preseason including training camp, Rodgers has been very noticeable in the field. He runs with power, he runs with speed and is a good pass catcher out of the backfield. He has acclimatized to the speed of the NFL game and looks much more comfortable in 2012.

    The other element necessary for a Rodgers fantasy outbreak season this year is how well the 30-year old Michael Turner holds up. The 237-pound bowling bowl Turner has had four very good years for the Falcons. He has been durable in three of the four seasons playing in all sixteen games and managed to play in eleven games in the one season injuries caught up to him. However Turner has hit the 30-year old level and many running backs have fallen off the map at this point in their career. This is true especially in bigger backs that typically will absorb a lot more punishment than players that rely on quickness and elusiveness to carry the ball. What Turner has going for him is the limited work load he had with the Chargers through the first four years of his NFL career but 30-years old is still a caveat to be aware of.

    What does that mean for Rodgers? The worst case scenario for Rodgers this season is Michael Turner continues to be effective and healthy and Rodgers is the change-of-pace running back throughout the season. If this happens, he may finish with 75 carries and 30+ receptions. However even with those limited touches he will have fantasy value that exceeds his current draft position because he will be much more effective in year two running the ball. Where he averaged less than 6 yards a touch last year, he will average closer to 7 yards a touch in 2012 and should at least double his touchdown production. I have his currently with 90 carries for 425 rushing yards, 35 receptions for 300 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns. That gives him 137.5 fantasy points in PPR leagues which give him value where he is going.

    If Turner hits the wall or has injury issues however, I see Rodgers exploding much like Maurice Jones-Drew did when he got his opportunities. He is powerful at 196 pounds and capable of carrying the load if called upon. He is the perfect example of a player to pick up in your drafts in the mid-rounds who can at worst provide some bye-week starts for your team with the possibility of much greater impact if an opportunity arises.

    Ronnie Hillman, Denver Broncos

  • 5'9 and 200 lbs
  • Current ADP is 10.11
  • Hillman is a 3rd round pick from San Diego State and happened to break Marshall Faulk' s team rushing records during his stint there. Hillman rushed for a total of 3,243 rushing yards in his final two seasons in college and the Broncos moved up in the draft to bring him to the fold. He scored 20 touchdowns in his final season which displays he has a real nose for the end zone. He is surprisingly adept at pounding the ball inside the tackles as he isn't built like a typical power runner. He is blessed with exceptional vision and his lateral movement is second to none. He was a bit of a hidden gem playing for San Diego State, a school that received very little national attention. He has had an exceptional first preseason with the Broncos and the team is excited about what he brings to the table.

    The incumbent starter for the Broncos is Willis McGahee who was a terrific story, resurrecting his career after four seasons as a backup / change of pace back for the Baltimore Ravens. The 31-year old, finished with 249 carries last year and 4 touchdowns but had just 12 receptions. He had a great average of 4.8 yards per carry but he is in the down slope of his career and at an age where running backs frequently hit the wall hard and are never heard of again. The high yards per carry average he managed last year appears to be a bit of an aberration as in six of his eight seasons he averaged 4.1 yards per carry or fewer. He also has only averaged 4.0 yards per reception in the last two years and he certainly is not the player he was coming out of the University of Miami back in 2004.

    What does that mean for Hillman? McGahee is no longer capable of a 300-carry season in my opinion so the worst case scenario for Hillman in his rookie season is 100+ carries, 20+ receptions and 4-5 touchdowns. Those statistics mean he will have some value as a bye week filler or occasional starter for a fantasy team. However, there is a real chance here that Hillman begins to look so good in the first few weeks of the NFL season that the carry-breakdown begins to shift from 2-1 for McGahee to 2-1 for Hillman. He is a talented player and once he gets on the field the Broncos may have a real tough time pulling him off of it. He is the perfect example of a young player to pick up and stash away on roster as he is capable of big things right out of the gate if he gets an opportunity.

    *** Hillman is currently nursing a minor hamstring issue but he should be in the lineup in the second preseason game so get a look at him then.

    Lamar Miller, Miami Dolphins (Daniel Thomas, Miami Dolphins)

  • 5'11 and 212 lbs (6'2 and 230 lbs)
  • Current ADP is 19.11 (10.11)
  • Miller is a 4th round draft choice with a giant chip on his shoulder heading into this season. There was talk he would go much higher in the draft but then tumbled down to the fourth round forcing the Dolphins hand in selecting talent instead of need. He ran a blazing fast 4.40 / forty time at the combine but he was rumored to be a poor pass protector and incapable of picking up a pro playbook quickly. Both of those have proven false and he has received praise in both of those areas. In fact some of the news coming out of Dolphins camp is that Miller appears to be on a different speed plane than the rest of the Dolphins offense. He was very unhappy that he plummeted down to the fourth round and a chip on the shoulder is often a wonderful incentive to give that extra 10-15 percent effort. He tends to dance too much before hitting the hold but his elusiveness and speed cannot be denied. He has the quickness of a 180-pound player but weighs in at 212 pounds. That is impressive.

    Thomas is a big, strong running back from Kansas State who played with injury last year and never really found his stride. He does a lot of things well but is definitely missing the tremendous burst that Miller possesses. The team would like a player such as Thomas to pick up the bulk of the interior carries, freeing up Bush to put his unique pass receiving prowess to use.

    Miller is currently behind both Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas in the depth charts. You can almost make the case for Daniel Thomas to be the shooting star in Miller's place but what separates them is Miller has zero risk as a 19th round draft pick while Thomas is still 10th round in the ADP. Instead of writing up both players, I will simply give a heads up here that Daniel Thomas is a shooting star in his own right and I would have no problem stashing both Thomas and Miller on my team. Reggie Bush surprised with a big rushing season last year as his determination was at a career-high. However he has struggled rushing the ball in his entire career and is a better receiver overall. The Dolphins would love Thomas or Miller to take the bull by the horn and seize the bulk of the carries allowing Bush to be shifted all over the field as a pass receiver. I would be surprised to see Bush approach 216 carries or 5.0 yards per carry average this season. Instead I expect to see him with 70+ receptions as he begins to shift into the role the team envisioned him in when scooping him up.

    What does this mean for Miller (and Thomas): There is a real opportunity for one of these players to greatly exceed their draft positions. The more likely of the two to emerge with 220+ carries, 900+ yards and 8+ touchdowns is Daniel Thomas being in his second season. He is healthy and does have the talent to do well if he can improve his initial burst and hit the hole with more conviction. With an ADP of 10.11, Thomas is a good player to scoop up. Miller is more of a swing for the fences player. He is somebody you can scoop up as a RB6-8 on your roster late in the fantasy draft in the hopes he finds some playing time, does well and builds as the season wears on. He is a high reward no risk kind of late pick that can shock the world if he gets his chance. Honestly targeting both of these players should guarantee some production in 2012.

    David Wilson, New York Giants

  • 5'10 and 206 lbs
  • Current ADP is 9.13
  • The New York Giants drafted Wilson in the 1st round of the NFL Draft this season as they only real option they had in the backfield was former 7th round pick Ahmad Bradshaw. Wilson is an explosive, talented running back out of Virginia Tech, a player that our own Matt Waldman in his rookie report stated may be the best running back to ever come out of Virginia Tech. He has great explosiveness and quickness and has a remarkable toolkit of abilities.

    Ahmad Bradshaw has carved out a nice career for himself. The former 7th round draft choice is entering his sixth season and has had some good fantasy statistics in his time. The only season of the past three however he finished with more than 200 carries was in when he finished with 276 carries and 45 receptions and finished as the 13th best fantasy back. He averaged only 167 carries in the other two years (averaged 45 carries in his first two seasons). He tends to get nagging injuries and is best suited in a RBBC role.

    What does this mean for Wilson: The most talented running back on the Giants roster is David Wilson. That is without question. That is not a statement guaranteeing his starts or plunks Bradshaw on the bench as there is much more to playing each week than talent. However with Bradshaw being a big of an overachiever, best suited in a RBBC and often hit with nagging injuries, Wilson should emerge with 140+ carries this season while sharing time with Bradshaw. Wilson is the type of player that can make the most of those touches and with an ADP of 9.13, he won't cost a fantasy owner much to pick him up as a RB4 and wait for him to get his opportunity. He is a top-10 capable running back if he gets the call and I would rather have him on my team with that ADP than Bradshaw with his current ADP of 2.13.

    Bilal Powell, New York Jets

  • 5'11 and 207 pounds
  • Current ADP is 18.10
  • Bilal Powell was a fourth round draft pick in 2011. The former University of Louisville standout had a very quiet rookie season with only 13 carries and a single reception and did not do anything that made fantasy football fans stand up and take notice. He was miles behind both Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson in the depth charts and was not even on the radar in fantasy leagues. Fast forward to the 2012 season however and things have changed. Head Coach Rex Reed has stated Bilal Powell has a real opportunity to emerge as the backup running back for the Jets this season. This is very significant as the Jets do not view Shonn Greene as a do-everything running back (nor should they). Powell has looked quicker this season and more assertive hitting the holes.

    If he does emerge as the backup running back ahead of Joe McKnight there is a real opportunity here for significant touches. That is due to the relatively ineffective play by Greene during his three-year career. Greene actually has put up decent statistics during this span, including a 1000-yard rushing effort last year but most fans are not enamored by what he has accomplished on the field. Greene is likely to remain the starting running back in 2012, but perhaps 10-12 touches per game could be garnered by the Jets backup running back.

    Powell has a very low ADP if he is drafted at all in fantasy drafts. He is the perfect player to scoop up late in a fantasy draft as a RB5 through RB8 and watch how the season goes out of the block. He may emerge as a player with some fantasy value or a player buried in the charts. His upside however makes him a very intriguing pick in the late stages of your fantasy draft. He is quicker than the heavier Greene and can hit the hole with conviction.

    Mike Goodson, Oakland Raiders

  • 5'11 and 208 pounds
  • Current ADP is 12.03
  • Mike Goodson was a forgotten man with the Carolina Panthers, buried in the depth charts behind two excellent backs in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. He had one flash of glory during the 2010 season due to injuries and looked fantastic over a several game window. He had two 100-yard rushing games and caught 40 passes on the year including an 8-reception performance against the Cleveland Browns. He has always had an excellent burst and acceleration and moving over to the Raiders there appears he may have more opportunities to showcase his talents. He injured his hamstring in week four last season but he was not seeing any playing time with the Panthers in any case.

    The Raiders situation is an intriguing one for sure. Darren McFadden is without question the go-to running back for the Raiders but he has missed nineteen games over his four year career and has NEVER rushed for more than 223 carries in a season (he has averaged less than 140 carries per season). Sure there is a chance Darren McFadden finds durability and has himself a 300-carry season (and he will be the top fantasy running back if that happens) but the likely scenario is there is minimum of 150+ carries left for other running backs on the Raiders roster. The departed Michael Bush had 631 carries over the four years as McFadden's backup.

    Goodson's ADP is higher than most of the players featured in this article but that is due to the risk associated with Darren McFadden's past injury woes. Worst case scenario for a Raiders backup running back this season is 6-8 carries per game in giving McFadden a breather. So Goodson should be able to finish with at least 100 carries and 20+ receptions this year but the upside is much greater than that playing behind a running back that struggles to stay healthy. Picking up Goodson in the 12th round or better is outstanding value.

    Jonathan Dwyer, Pittsburgh Steelers

  • 5'11 and 229 pounds
  • Current ADP is 16.11
  • With Rashard Mendenhall injured and possibly out for a long while still, the starting running back position for the Pittsburgh Steelers is wide open. Isaac Redman has been appointment the role of feature back by most of the fantasy community at this time but I am not convinced he is the best running back in the Steelers organization. In any case, Redman has an average ADP of 5.01 which means you have to take a pretty early pick on him to get him on your fantasy roster. With the possibility of Rashard Mendenhall returning from injury at some point this season, that is a risky pick early in the draft.

    There is another running back in Pittsburgh however who also is a big, powerful running back. I also happen to believe he is a more talented player than Redman. Jonathan Dwyer looked very good out of the gate last season in limited duty but then hurt his foot. He came into camp this season in excellent shape and shed 20 pounds that he didn't need on his frame. The result is a leaner, meaner more explosive player than a year ago and he is really pushing for a bigger role right out of the gate.

    Both Dwyer and Redman will likely get playing time with Mendenhall out of the lineup. Redman may in fact get more of the work throughout the year than Dwyer. However only one of these players represents value heading into the 2012 season and that is Dwyer who may actually emerge as the Steelers feature back this year and beyond. There is a lot to like about him and you can target him in the latter rounds of your fantasy draft.

    Isaiah Pead, St. Louis Rams

  • 5'10 and 197 pounds
  • Current ADP is 13.14
  • Usually 2nd round draft pick rookie running backs garner more attention in fantasy leagues than Isaiah Pead has so far. The Buccaneers drafted Doug Martin at the end of round one and fantasy owners are drooling over him despite the presence of young, talented, bruising running back LeGarrette Blount already on the roster. The reason why Pead is going towards the end of fantasy drafts is due to veteran RB Steven Jackson on the roster. However Jackson is a big back who has a ton of wear and tear on his body and the 2500+ total touches in his career is going to begin having a toll on his body soon. Former players such as Eddie George, Earl Campbell and Shaun Alexander all hit the wall around the same time as Jackson and with the Rams likely looking at another disappointing season; they may begin the transition to a new running back even if Jackson's durability does hold up.

    Pead is an explosive quick running back who knows how to find creases in the defense and exploit them. He will not cost fantasy owners too much with his current ADP of 13.14 so pick him up, stash him away on your roster and know if the cards due come up the right way he is capable of putting up very nice fantasy statistics. Put it this way my friends, I would rather have Isaiah Pead on my roster this season with a 13th round draft pick than the beat up veteran Jackson using a 2nd to 3rd round pick.

    If there are any comments or questions, please send me an e-mail at smith@footballguys.com.

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