You don't need me to tell you about the changing landscape of fantasy football running backs. By my count, only 12 of 32 teams will enter 2016 employing a bell cow approach, with one back locking down most of the backfield's opportunity. Those 12 teams offer solid, volume-heavy rushers (and sometimes receivers) to the draft board, but the other 20 hold either multiple defined backfield roles or serious question marks at the position. Accurately parsing through them typically makes or breaks a fantasy season.
So for your review, I've broken down the current backfield situations as we know them to be, with plenty of help from the Footballguys Training Camp Updates, as well as my own projections for each backfield. Those projections are rooted in expected play volume and rush/target splits, by role, over the last 2-3 seasons. The model isn't perfect, nor is it designed to be. Rather, the projections serve as guidelines that take in a player's statistical profile and spit out general expectations. Is he explosive? Does he see the field on passing downs? Has his team invested a lot of capital in him? These assumptions and others are considered to churn out general projections.
(Note: Everyone who's not suspended is projected for a full 16-game slate. While guys like Arian Foster and Mark Ingram II are indeed injury-prone guys, it's foolhardy to predict and try to quantify future injuries.)
When one back projects to take roughly 55% or more of team RB rushes and 50% or more of team RB targets
This one may be a little more fragile than many believe – David Johnson's rushing efficiency fell off a cliff late last year, after all – so I'm only fairly confident in these projections. Chris Johnson could work his way into some kind of timeshare, but he's a limited weapon who doesn't contribute in the passing game. Andre Ellington is a potential homerun hitter on every touch, but fragile and easily outclassed by David Johnson. In all, the stars look aligned for the second-year phenom. His athleticism and receiving prowess can't be questioned, and even if he struggles it will be difficult to wrest touches away.
Devonta Freeman's 2015 usage rates were mind-boggling, and while Tevin Coleman is talented, it's telling that he was given next to no role behind a healthy Freeman. He's a handcuff only as Freeman looks poised to again threaten the NFL's touch lead. He's not particularly dynamic, but his volume in both facets of offense – as well as near the goal line – lock him in as a top-6 RB. Terron Ward and undrafted rookie Brandon Wilds will battle for the role of seldom-used No. 3.
As long as he's in the lineup, LeSean McCoy will dominate the ball, and his efficiency will determine whether he's a fantasy RB1. The volume will certainly be there. Don't let Karlos Williams' 2015 touchdown explosion throw you: he wasn't used much in the passing game or near the goal line, making his hay on big plays. The best candidate to replicate that kind of eruption is probably Mike Gillislee – he ripped off TD runs of 60, 15, and 19 yards in limited time last year – but the handcuff situation is extremely murky. Rookie Jonathan Williams is in the mix, and Reggie Bush was added as a receiving specialist and punt returner.
Jonathan Stewart may not be sexy, but he's clearly the dominant hand here. He commanded 75% of the team's 2015 RB touches when healthy, and Of course, Stewart isn't the typical bell cow; he'll lose 20-25% of his chunk to Cam Newton, including a lot of red zone work. Cameron Artis-Payne is a second-year man to watch. He's an average athlete, but was productive at Auburn and his potential 2016 role has been talked up this offseason. If anyone needs a reliable backup, it's the aging, injury-wrecked Stewart.
This represents a best-case scenario for Elliott, but I don't consider it a likely one. It's just how the numbers came out based on the Cowboys' recent distributions. They prefer a workhorse, and Elliott will get every opportunity to be one. Just note that these projections don't account for the very real risk that he doesn't master the game and draw overwhelming touches. Morris is a viable, yet overpriced, handcuff and nothing more; he and either Darren McFadden or Lance Dunbar would split time evenly in place of Elliott.
It'll be the C.J. Anderson show – especially if the team parts ways with the absurdly ineffective Ronnie Hillman. With so little proven depth behind him, Anderson should dominate the run game, and his value would stay intact even if Devontae Booker takes a hefty chunk of passing downs.
It's conceivable Lamar Miller seizes the bell cow role and approaches 300 rushes. But he's never topped 216 in a season – despite playing in every game over the last three years – so I'll pump the brakes. Still, he was paid an ungodly amount of money for a committee back; I like these projections for him. Alfred Blue looks like his best handcuff, though he'll lose tons of receiving opportunity to Jonathan Grimes and dynamic rookie Tyler Ervin. In fact, Ervin makes for a sneaky last-round PPR pick in this high-paced offense.
Barring the unforeseen, Frank Gore will absolutely dominate this backfield. In fact, there's even room for more touches than these projections indicate; Josh Ferguson's emergence in the passing game might be wishful thinking. Robert Turbin (or Jordan Todman) are nondescript backups who will be helmet-less for much of 2016. Assuming the Colts offense rounds back into its 2014 form, I cannot overstress how much you want to draft Gore in Round 7.
He's your man, and he's fantastic. I'm lukewarm on Gurley for 2016 – his price tag is astronomical for a guy who doesn't catch many passes and plays in such a poor offense – but there's no questioning his market share. It wouldn't surprise me a bit to see these projections turn out low. Malcolm Brown is the best guess as his direct backup, while Benny Cunningham will again serve as the third-down specialist, though neither should sniff 75 touches.
Adrian Peterson remains the ground-game bell cow, and it's unlikely he'll lose too much of last year's 69% rushing share. But there's wiggle room there: Jerick McKinnon is among the NFL's most explosive and exciting athletes, and Peterson is 31 years old. Still, expect Peterson to keep the lion's share of rushes, even as McKinnon cuts heavily into his passing game usage. Trust the former as a rock-solid (if low-upside) RB1, and the latter as an elite PPR handcuff. Matt Asiata would see a role if Peterson went down, but not to an intriguing degree.
Mark Ingram II has ascended to the point that he locks down his backfield – when healthy, of course. He's become a bell cow, punctuated by his 2015 eruption of 4.2 catches per game. But be wary of a few things that keep this backfield interesting. Ingram has played 14 or more games only once in five seasons, so this 16-game projection is laughable. Not to mention, he'd never caught more than 2.2 balls a game prior to last year; it seems more likely his 2015 role exploded due to C.J. Spiller's lack of an impact. This year, I expect the combination of Spiller and athletic rookie Daniel Lasco to cut free a few of those catches. Still, Ingram is a fairly certain commodity among the lower-end RB1s, so spend a Round 3 pick with (some) confidence. Hightower is a worthy handcuff to Ingram right now, but he's no guarantee to survive final cuts.
Latavius Murray spend the first half of the offseason being shredded by the fantasy community for his inefficient 2015. But he's still entrenched atop an uninspiring bunch and should again dominate touches. Rookie DeAndre Washington is an intriguing PPR back, but there's no indication he'll cut much into Murray's role. The fullbacks play a lot, but don't project to much.
DeAngelo Williams is a red-hot handcuff target, thanks to Le'Veon Bell's three-game suspension, but this is still a one-man backfield. Whoever starts a game as featured back absorbs nearly all of the opportunity. Assuming Bell returns healthy in Week 4, he'll carry the overwhelming share of rushing and receiving duties. In other words, Williams is a handcuff and carries no standalone value beyond Week 3.
Running back by committee
When two or more backs appear locked into consistent, prominent roles
Jeremy Langford is hardly anyone's idea of a bell cow. He was remarkably inefficient as a rookie, averaging just 3.6 yards per rush and somehow posting an atrocious 52% catch rate. I expect improvement in Year 2 – Langford tested well in speed evaluation at his combine, and he wasn't half-bad in short yardage last year. I expect him to mostly hold off rookie Jordan Howard (or perhaps Ka'deem Carey) for the backfield lead, especially in terms of receiving, but nothing's for sure here. Jacquizz Rodgers' projections could go out the window, as he's no lock for a role, just a historically solid piece of passing-down depth.
Here's another difficult backfield to project. With Hue Jackson gone, the team's voluminous power running game will likely relax and balance a bit. That bodes well for Giovani Bernard, a premium pass-catcher who sees a solid rushing share in his own right. Jeremy Hill isn't the picture of consistency – he's struggled with open-field running and ball security – and Bernard could command noticeably more offensive series. It's hard to look past Hill's awesome touchdown outlook, but Bernard looks more insulated from game flow.
The roles seem easy to flesh out: interior runner Isaiah Crowell on early downs, and impressive second-year specimen Duke Johnson Jr chipping in while catching most of the passes. That's the setup Hue Jackson utilized over the last two years in Cincinnati, where his deep love of the smashmouth running game provided plenty of RB volume. In any event, though, both carry capped upsides. This offense should be hit-or-miss, meaning shorter drives and fewer RB scoring opportunities, and the team's rough overall outlook suggests they'll pass more than Jackson typically does. Obviously, that's good news for Johnson, but he's still a dicey RB2 option.
Ameer Abdullah will start, and he'll get plenty of run as the starter. But he stands to lose inside and short-yardage work – and perhaps even more – to Zach Zenner. An athletic phenom who dominated Division I FCS at South Dakota State, Zenner profiles best as a complement, but his dynamism and receiving skills suggest he'd be a fine spot replacement should Abdullah fail or get injured. Both will, of course, cede at least 80 targets to Theo Riddick, but he's not a threat to the current running game.
I can't call this one "up in the air," as Eddie Lacy projects to dominate rushes and isn't pulled on many passing downs. But his fragility – always a concern over conditioning and injury, with a long concussion history – and tendency to fall out of coach Mike McCarthy's favor keeps Starks very relevant. After all, in 2015, Starks posted seven top-24 PPR RB weeks, and some of those came with Lacy starting the game. Lacy is a fairly overvalued early-rounder, but Starks is a high-level handcuff and fair RB4 producer in his own right. Crockett is semi-intriguing, but won't have a 2016 role barring injury.
Jamaal Charles, when healthy, still owns this backfield outright. But given the rushing volume and receiving opportunity Andy Reid gives his backs – as well as the talent level of the backups – just about everyone is in play. Together, Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware form a fine handcuff, so deep-leaguers are encouraged to pick up both. Ware may find more touchdown opportunity in the lineup, but West is a far superior athlete and saw more touches than Ware after Charles' injury. Thomas is constantly injured and could lose his role to rookie Tyreek Hill.
New York Giants
This one could vacillate plenty between now and midseason. A brief recap: the Giants forced an unholy abomination of a four-man committee on us for nearly two years, before handing Rashad Jennings the featured role over the final month of 2015. He responded with an efficient running/receiving stretch that likely solidifies his ground role for Week 1. Be advised, though: Jennings is 31 and has played a full NFL season only once, and his receiving game share will probably fall even more with the drafting of Paul Perkins. Shane Vereen handles most of the passing game, though, so Perkins is unlikely to have much 2016 impact. Sluggish Andre Williams could lose his roster spot by Week 1.
New York Jets
I'm annually down on Matt Forte the runner, and 2016 is no exception. Still, I'm giving him close to Chris Ivory's 2015 share, with the expectation he'll lose some short-yardage work as usual. I'm not buying all of the Bilal Powell hype; I see him as a try-hard, change-of-pace talent and little else. He'll nip his share of snaps, but I think he and Khiry Robinson will leave more than enough for Forte to mostly control the backfield. His volume projection here seems low.
Melvin Gordon III will, of course, get another year to prove his awesomeness as a prospect will translate. And while many knock him by pointing to receiving specialist Danny Woodhead, don't lose sight of the fact that Gordon drew 2.6 targets a game in a timeshare. He could easily catch 40 balls in Year 2, while 31-year-old Woodhead should see a little less run. Branden Oliver is a nondescript backup, but he'll be a waiver wire necessity if either Gordon or Woodhead goes down.
It's fair to be excited over the arrival of Chip Kelly's high-volume offense. Just be advised: it'll be split. Carlos Hyde, who's been plagued by injuries through his first two years and doesn't catch many passes, will cede a decent chunk of work to third-down back Shaun Draughn. Both will carry value, but Draughn is the far, far better target by ADP.
Thomas Rawls appears healthy and installed as the lead dog. And that's been a pretty voluminous role with these Seahawks – lead (non-passing down) backs handled 89% of team carries last year. What stops me from calling Rawls a bell cow is that he's never been much of a pass-catcher, while C.J. Prosise was a wideout in school and Christine Michael has taken passing snaps this preseason. Rawls is a candidate for the league rushing title, but he'll ding your RB1 or 2 slot more than you'd like in PPR leagues.
Doug Martin is a fine runner with plenty going for him, but he's inconsistent and one of the league's worst receiving backs. He'll carry the mail and produce yardage, but the dynamic Sims is among the league's best backfield receivers, and an explosive athlete in his own right. Both should produce well, but Sims is the much better value, currently going 4-5 rounds later.
I'll probably never trust Matt Jones, a solid athlete but iffy college producer who carries several NFL red flags. His rookie year "featured" well-publicized bouts with consistency and fumbling, and he's never been a pass-catcher. Low-drafted rookies Rob Kelley and Keith Marshall will push for opportunity, though neither looks too exciting based on preseason action. Chris Thompson isn't much of a threat to the rushing load, but he's one of the league's more heavily utilized receiving backs; there's real 50-catch potential there.
Up in the Air
When the names are known, but the roles are uncertain in August
Probably the trickiest backfield to parse through, we can only go on what we know. We know Javorius Allen is a reliable and dynamic receiver, while Terrance West is likely the best runner of the group. We also know rookie Kenneth Dixon is (somewhat) valued by the team and is also a skilled receiver. I'm going out on a limb and predicting Justin Forsett to be released, but if he's retained, you can expect a slightly better two-way line than West has here.
These projections assume Dion Lewis' eventual return, which may not happen. But he's a better all-around back than replacement James White, and I do expect that he'd return to the passing down driver's seat. But whichever handles third downs for the Patriots will be quite productive – either Lewis, White, or Shane Vereen finished RB24 or higher in 15 weeks over the last two years (and top-7 seven times). There's also gobs of value in LeGarrette Blount at his current ADP, as the team often turns run-heavy in easy wins. And Tyler Gaffney could unseat him at some point, so he's worth a speculative end-of-draft pick. Stocking two Patriots RBs on a best ball roster is an enormous, cheap boon.
Ryan Mathews opens the year in the lineup, but can he be trusted? Based on his history of injury and marginal efficiency, I lean toward no. Darren Sproles still dominates the passing game, and rookie Wendell Smallwood is a threat to Mathews' two-down role even when he isn't hurt. Considering the Eagles will pace way down without Chip Kelly – and trail for most of the season – I've got no confidence in Mathews' volume numbers. He could carry the ball 75 times or 275.
You figure this one out. I'm confident DeMarco Murray will run away with lion's share, but he's anything but reliable and will lose real time to Heisman rookie Derrick Henry. These share projections are the closest thing model comes to guesswork, though Dexter McCluster seems to have a specific niche. Expect a little less of him, though, in favor of the talented lead backs
At this point, I doubt even the coaches know
There are two very strong schools of thought on this. One states that T.J. Yeldon was impressive enough as a rookie to keep the majority of rushes, while the other notes his poor measurables and lack of rookie red zone involvement and assumes veteran Chris Ivory will take the reins. I'm split, but more in Ivory's camp. Yeldon looks to me like a very average every-down back, but one with decent potential as a receiver and open-field runner. Denard Robinson, to quote Portlandia's Spyke, is "over."
Yes, I know who Arian Foster is (was?), but there's no way he'll completely commandeer this backfield. He's excessively injury-prone, he looked nearly dead as a runner last year, and Jay Ajayi is still the fine prospect he was before that bizarre knee evaluation. Perhaps I'm overly smitten by Ajayi's awesome college profile and athletic testing, but I expect him to handle a slightly higher rushing workload than Foster. And while I peg Foster as the team's go-to receiving back, Ajayi's history suggests he could easily steal some of that work. Besides, there's a solid chance Foster is out of commission by midseason, which would vault Ajayi to near-RB1 status. Williams, a trusty if talent-starved third-down back, will likely hold off injured rookie Kenyan Drake for 2016.