Value Plays: Running Backs

The Footballguys staff finds value at the running back position

A fantasy draft is all about obtaining the most value with each selection. There is value available throughout a draft, and grabbing it is one of the most important keys to a successful fantasy team. In an attempt to point out this value, we asked our staff to look through the top 150 players and identify players that should outperform their draft position.

Players Receiving 3 Votes

Ameer Abdullah, Detroit Lions

Brimacombe: If it wasn’t for the high draft picks of Melvin Gordon III and Todd Gurley, Ameer Abdullah would be getting more love as one of the darling rookie running backs to start the year. Well he was still a 2nd round pick and a highly touted one at that and all the reports out of camp so far on Abdullah are positive and it might just be a matter of time before he has replaced Joique Bell as the top RB on the Lions depth chart. If you miss out on some of the better known names as your RB2 you have to try to snag a guy like Abdullah and play with his upside.

Waldman: A special player, Abdullah was the No. 2 RB in the 2015 Rookie Scouting Portfolio and he had the second-highest grade of all the 150+ prospects in my publication. Abdullah's burst, change of direction, balance, versatility, and decision-making make him lead back material. Coach's call guys like Abdullah "football players" as the ultimate compliment rather than refer to them by their position. I have Abdullah conservatively valued a round earlier than his ADP. His upside is good enough to take over the every-down role. It won't happen this year unless Joique Bell can't stay healthy, but look for Abdullah to provide RB2 production at a RB3-RB4 price.

Wood: Ameer Abdullah is an explosive back that never lacked for highlight reel plays at Nebraska. Once the coaches see Abdullah's vision, work ethic and overall talent, he's going to push for significant snaps. At a minimum, he can step right into the Lions offense and fill the role Reggie Bush was known for. Remember, Bush was a top 10 fantasy running back in 2013. It wouldn't surprise me if Abdullah was the main ball-carrier within a month or two. Provided the Lions offensive line rounds into shape, I see Abdullah as one of the few rookie running backs capable of a Top 20 season.

Tre Mason, St. Louis Rams

Gray: Todd Gurley is extremely talented and was very fun to watch in college. And he's still rehabbing his torn ACL. Head coach Jeff Fisher has already ruled Gurley out of the entire preseason, and it would be smart to expect nothing more than spotty play from him at least through September. That will give Tre Mason a good month as the primary ballcarrier. Plus, Gurley will never be a 25-carry per game back. Mason will have a role all season long.

Pasquino: Everyone seems to be jumping on the bandwagon of Todd Gurley, the rookie from Georgia who was picked in the first round by St. Louis. Gurley has a lot of talent, but he is still recovering from ACL surgery and will likely miss some time to start the year. That keeps the door open for Tre Mason to step up and perform in September, and if he picks up where he left off from last year he could keep Gurley on the sideline more. Mason represents a starting tailback from last year who is undervalued due to expectations that a rookie will take his job. If that doesn’t happen, you get a great value – and at the very least, a solid starting back for the first part of the year.

Simpkins: While his value has taken a bath since the NFL Draft, don’t count Mason completely out. Despite the good things we’re hearing about Gurley’s recovery, count on the Rams to be overly cautious with him. This could translate into several starts for Mason and several games in which he leads the committee, with Gurley being eased into action. If the Rams are even more careful than anticipated, Mason could spend the majority of the year as the lead option. Mason is currently going in the late eighth or early ninth round of drafts, but anticipate that his stock will continue to fall over the summer with each positive news item about Gurley’s recovery. He’s certainly worth taking a flier on at such a low price.

Players Receiving 2 Votes

C.J. Anderson, Denver Broncos

Parsons: Anderson is commonly available near the Round 1-2 turn this preseason. With top overall running back upside (and an RB1 floor), Anderson is an equalizer for owners with a late draft position. Plus, drafters can add an elite receiver to their start. The news of Juwan Thompson being in the mix for No.2 duties in Denver, makes it appear Montee Ball will not be a threat to Anderson’s lead workload. While I am skeptical of Peyton Manning’s upside in 2015, Anderson is a high-upside and high-floor combination.

Wimer: Anderson is in a perfect situation - Peyton Manning forces teams to commit to stopping the passing game, and that opens gaps in the defense for Anderson to exploit. He's also a solid receiver with 34 receptions out of 44 targets last year (77% reception percentage). His upside is RB #1, yet his ADP is much lower than Le'Veon Bell.

Andre Ellington, Arizona Cardinals

Haseley: The Arizona Cardinals bolstered their offensive line in the off season signing veterans Jared Veldheer and Mike Iupati, plus the drafting of Tackle D.J. Humphrey. The end result should make the running game more potent, especially Andre Ellington. A preseason foot injury affected Ellington most, if not all year long, however he was still able to finish in the Top 20, even with sub par quarterback play. Now that he's healthy, I expect Ellington to produce big numbers and continue to be a threat as a receiver. Any starting running back who is projected to reach 45-50 receptions is someone I want on my roster and Ellington fits that mold.

Waldman: There are some people who believe Ellington isn't a good decision-maker. I saw an increased level of patience and skill to set up creases on interior runs. I've shown the film and so has the likes of Merril Hoge. Ellington was the No.9 fantasy RB after 12 weeks of games, playing with an injury, working behind a poor offensive line, and co-existing with a backup quarterback. With the QB healthy, two upgrades to the line, and Ellington fully rehabilitated, I expect no less than high-end RB2 production.

Chris Ivory, New York Jets

Alexander: Ivory is currently being drafted in the same neighborhood as Tre Mason and Ryan Mathews, which I can’t imagine will be the case for much longer. A quick peek at David Dodd’s projections shows Mason and Mathews are due for about 130-140 touches. He has Ivory slated for 220, and I believe the upside is there for more now that the Jets have one of the best defenses in the NFL to help keep them in games. Ivory’s competition for carries is overblown. Stevan Ridley has yet to step on the practice field, Zac Stacy is rumored to be a camp casualty, and while Bilal Powell seems like a good bet for passing down duties, he’s a marginal NFL talent. At worst, Ivory is the cheapest source of 200 carries currently available in fantasy drafts. At best, the improvements the Jets made on both sides of the ball will help establish him as a consistent week-to-week RB2.

Brimacombe: The Jets whole offense seems to be a big avoid for the fantasy community and that is something that you can use to your advantage. A player like Ivory goes under the radar because of the team he plays on but in reality he is in a perfect situation to succeed as a fantasy RB. The Jets brought in Stevan Ridley to compete with Ivory, but Ridley is still coming back from a bad injury and has had fumble concerns over the years. Ivory finished as the 20th best fantasy RB last season playing in all 16 games and posting a 820/6 stateliness on 198 carries. He also added 18/123/1 in the receiving game. While not having the most upside, Ivory does offer a nice RB3/Flex type of play that will add value to your fantasy team and he comes at a bargain at his current ADP.

Rashad Jennings, New York Giants

Hester: Despite the contract given to Shane Vereen and the presence of second-year player Andre Williams, there is still only one running back for the Giants who can be described as a “do-it-all” player. Jennings has shown that he can be a good short-yardage runner (Williams’ only strength) and has shown the ability to pass block and catch passes (a la Vereen). He isn’t a lock to be removed on passing downs and hurry-up situations like an Alfred Morris type. Jennings should be “the guy” in New York for two downs at the very least.

Holloway: Jennings played well for the Giants over the first five weeks of the season, but hurt his MCL in that game. To that point, he had averaged 18 rushes per game and 4.34 ypc. He missed a portion of the fifth game and then all of the next four games. He remained involved in the offense after he returned and had more receptions (19 of his 30) over those games, but his average per carry fell by a yard per carry. The Giants passing offense will be improved in the second year of the McAdoo system and even though their offensive line may struggle, the running game could improve because of the effectiveness of the passing game.

Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Brimacombe: The Tampa Bay offense finally has a Quarterback that can be consistent and help the offense move the ball down the field. This will benefit the Buccaneers running game and all signs are pointing to Doug Martin being in the good graces of the coaching staff and has been looking very good in training camp. The past two years fantasy owners have been burned by Martin and people have shyed away from drafting him in the top couple of tiers of RBs. We all know what he did as a rookie back in 2012 where he rushed for 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns, while catching another 49 passes for 472 yards and a touchdown. If Martin can stay healthy he should be able to stay on the field and at the very least get to 1,000 rushing yards and a handful of touchdowns.

Waldman: The Buccaneers have experienced massive turnover along its offensive line, its quarterback, and its coaching staff during the past three years. Martin wasn't healthy in 2013 and he was out of shape in 2014. This year, Martin is in great shape and the Buccaneers declared the veteran its starter within the first week of training camp. The offensive line will start a rookie left tackle and right guard, but veterans Logan Mankins and Evan Deitrich-Smith will have a second year together as a LG-C combo. Continuity at center is the most important face of good line play. The Buccaneers also have 10 games this year against fantasy-friendly run defenses that ranked in the top 13 last year in points allowed to backs.

DeMarco Murray, Philadelphia Eagles

Brown: This is still the same guy who absolutely blew up the league last year, right? I’m just checking, because I’m seeing that he’s going after guys like LeSean McCoy and Adrian Peterson, and it’s blowing my mind a little bit. It’s true that Murray is leaving the best offensive line in football, but he’s also joining a team with a very creative offensive philosophy – a team that paid him a boatload of money to be the focal point of the offense. They will find ways to get the ball in his hands all season long, they’re committed to the run game, and Murray has a proven track record even before the Dallas o-line was dominant. In other words, it wasn’t all them. The guy is talented. A first round finish is likely.

Holloway: Murray moves within the NFC East from Dallas over to Philadelphia, but still has an outstanding offensive line. The Eagles will want to run the ball more frequently in 2015 and expect Murray to handle the majority of the carries. He will not have as many carries as a year ago, but will continue to gain over 4.5 ypc and catch more passes than most anticipate.

Joseph Randle, Dallas Cowboys

Brown: Yes, the Cowboys brought in Darren McFadden seemingly to be the featured back. But surprise of all surprises, McFadden is already on the PUP list. I hate to label someone as injury prone, but perception is reality sometimes. He just hasn’t been able to stay healthy. Perhaps even more importantly, Randle by all accounts has the skill set to be a featured back in the NFL. After average 6.7 yards per carry a season ago, Randle has shown an ability to make things happen on the field. Many internal accounts from Dallas personnel have suggested that they are extremely high on Randle. And if the only competition is coming from a player who has averaged 3.3, 3.3, and 3.4 yards per carry over the past three seasons…well, I’m not too worried about it being much of a competition.

Hester: As camp continues to progress without Dallas bringing in another running back to add to its roster, we’re getting more and more clarity that Randle will be Dallas’ lead back. With their elite offense line and potential for “plus” game scripts, Randle could be a player we’re projecting as an every-week low-end RB1 beginning as early as mid-to-late September.

C.J. Spiller, New Orleans Saints

Hicks: The Saints have lost Pierre Thomas, Kenny Stills and Jimmy Graham. Marques Colston is another year older. The only player added was C.J. Spiller. Spiller simply didn’t fit the Doug Marrone offense in Buffalo. In New Orleans he will share the running with Mark Ingram II, but will be an integral outlet for Drew Brees following the departure of Thomas and Graham. It would not surprise if Spiller returned to something close to his breakout year in 2012 when he finished as the 7th highest scoring fantasy back. At his current draft price he has a very strong upside and little downside.

Holloway: The Saints running backs have averaged 139 receptions per year over the past three seasons and the players with 352 of those 418 receptions (P. Thomas, Darren Sproles and Travaris Cadet) are no longer with the team. The hold-over running backs, Ingram (70 targets, 53 career receptions and 5.4 ypc) and Khiry Robison (11 targets, 8 career receptions and 7.9 ypc) have both played their entire NFL careers with Brees and yet their passing game production has been limited. Spiller’s skill set matches very well with what the Saints need and what Coach Sean Payton has a strong history of using. Spiller may also be more active in the running game than most expect, as he has a career average 5.0 ypc, which is the best on the Saints.

Darren Sproles, Philadelphia Eagles

Haseley: People are forgetting how versatile Darren Sproles is. As long as he stays healthy, he can eclipse 50 receptions. He can be drafted after round ten and be one of the last running backs selected on your roster.

Pasquino: When in doubt, draft a Chip Kelly player with a ton of skill. That is what Darren Sproles offers, and the Eagles are already trying to figure out how to get him the ball more often this year. Sproles is a solid receiver and has been lining up quite a bit in the slot as a receiver during training camp, which makes a ton of sense. Getting Sproles the ball in space is a great idea, especially with TE Zach Ertz now injured. DeMarco Murray may steal the headlines as the lead running back in Philadelphia, but Sproles will still get plenty of chances to produce.

Players Receiving 1 Vote

Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati Bengals

Holloway: Giovani Bernard had only two fewer rushes in 2014 than he had in his rookie season, even though he missed three games last year. The Bengals will continue to keep Bernard involved in the running game and he will be targeted more frequently than a year ago. Look for more explosive plays as Bernard is kept fresh, having about ten runs and four catches per week.

David Cobb, Tennessee Titans

Simpkins: The drumbeat throughout OTAs is that Sankey is improving, but remember that this may just be coming from the regime who drafted him in an effort to save face. Sankey will start the season, but anticipate that Cobb will be the one asked to finish as the leader in this RBBC. Cobb is a bigger back than Sankey and, though he’s not a standout in any particular category, he does all things well. Backs like Cobb endear themselves to their coaches and earn playing time because of their dependability. With defenses likely keying on the mobile Mariota and his wideouts and with Sankey’s failures on the field, Cobb has the potential to quietly move into the lead role in Tennessee and vastly outperform his eleventh-round ADP in 12-team leagues.

Isaiah Crowell, Cleveland Browns

Haseley: The Browns have one of the better offensive lines in the league and I expect I Isiah Crowell to be the team's primary ball carrier, while Duke Johnson Jr gets acclimated to the NFL. Crowell has a nose for the end zone and should see most of the goal line carries as a result. He's a player you can get as your RB3, who can put up RB2 numbers.

Knile Davis, Kansas City Chiefs

Simpkins: Previous owners of Jamaal Charles know that even though he’s electric when on the field, he does tend to spend some time off of it each season with minor injuries. When asked to fill in for Charles or simply as a change of pace option, Davis has shown some surprising juice of his own. Davis logged 4 touchdowns and 610 yards last year. If Charles ever misses for injury again, Davis instantly becomes an RB2. Owners that want to roll the dice on this possibility will need to take Davis in the early eleventh round of 12-team drafts. He’ll yield about 80% of Charles’ production if he sees significant time.

Justin Forsett, Baltimore Ravens

Brown: A lifetime ago, an unheralded Ravens RB put up solid numbers every chance he got. But for some reason, those opportunities never really sustained themselves. It took him going to Kansas City to really break out. That player, of course, was Priest Holmes. Now before we get ahead of ourselves, I’m not suggesting Forsett is the next Holmes. But prior to joining Baltimore, Forsett had 347 career carries for 1,693 yards and 8 scores – so it’s not like 2014 came out of nowhere. And the beauty is that he doesn’t have to become Holmes to provide value. Forsett has averaged over 5 YPC for his career, and is coming off a 1500-yard campaign. There is little competition for touches, he is expected to see a bigger role, and the Ravens brought in a coordinator who oversaw Matt Forte catch 102 passes a year ago. Forsett oozes value.

Matt Forte, Chicago Bears

Wimer: Turmoil at quarterback makes the running game a focus in Chicago, though Forte may catch less footballs this season. He's still a featured back on a solid offense, something that is hard to find in an era of running-backs-by-committee. I think Forte could be in the top-three conversation by year's end.

Frank Gore, Indianapolis Colts

Hester: Generally, it’s not sound strategy to go after a running back of Gore’s age. However, Indianapolis should be among the league’s best offenses, and Gore will benefit from that efficiency. Gore is also among the best pass-blocking backs in the NFL, which should leave him on the field for all three downs. While he wasn’t used much as a receiver in San Francisco in the past four seasons, Gore had a five-year stretch where he caught between 43 and 61 passes in each of those seasons. Considering how often Indianapolis threw to their running backs in 2014 (92 receptions by the backs), Gore could see his receptions total exceed that of his past three seasons combined (55).

Jeremy Hill, Cincinnati Bengals

Hicks: After easing Jeremy Hill into action during his rookie season, the Bengals didn’t mess around once they knew what they had in the 2nd rounder. Six 100 yard games, with 5 closer to or over 150 yards over the last 9 games with 6 touchdowns are numbers that are imposing should the Bengals continue to feed him the ball. We know Andy Dalton isn’t going to carry this offense so Hill will be the driving force for this team. Expect him to push 300 carries and 10 touchdowns as long as he has the hunger to do so and remains injury free.

Eddie Lacy, Green Bay Packers

Wimer: It's not often I choose a top-five running back pick as a 'value', but Eddie Lacy is a value at fourth running back selected according to ADP. Lacy is number one on my running back board because A). he starts off 2015 healthy and therefore B). projects to play in all 14 regular season games for his his fantasy owners (plus be available during fantasy playoffs) - Le'Veon Bell will miss 20% of the 14-game regular season, so he falls off the top of my rankings/projections due to his looming three game suspension.

Jonathan Stewart, Carolina Panthers

Pasquino: It seemed like it was a running back by committee in Carolina every year for several seasons, but that is just not the case entering 2015. Jonathan Stewart is the clear feature back for Carolina with no true running back to threaten his workload. Stewart is a seasoned veteran and he is not as old as you think (28). With DeAngelo Williams out of the picture, Stewart has the opportunity to start every game for Carolina if he can remain healthy all season. Cam Newton may vulture a few touchdowns, but overall I really like Stewart’s value considering how late you can get him in most drafts.

Danny Woodhead, San Diego Chargers

Wood: Fantasy owners have short memories. Last year, Woodhead missed 13 games and was a non-factor. Ergo, fantasy owners are assuming he's not a viable fantasy commodity. BIG MISTAKE. In 2013, his first year in San Diego, Woodhead was a Top 20 fantasy running back in PPR leagues (RB19) thanks to his work as a receiver (76 receptions for 605 yards and 6 touchdowns). While Melvin Gordon III is set to be the new workhorse on 1st and 2nd down, he'll likely cede snaps to Woodhead on 3rd down and obvious passing situations. I'm not advocating for Woodhead as your RB2 on draft day, but he's absolutely worth consideration as your RB3 in PPR leagues, particularly if you emphasize receiver and tight end earlier in the draft.