On Second Thought: Running Backs

A discussion of how my early preseason expectations have changed as we near the start of the regular season

It's hard to believe that we're just a week away from the start of the NFL regular season. For many fans, they're just now starting to pay attention. But for fantasy owners, for FOOTBALLGUYS, we're already many months into our preparation. As one of the contributors to the site's projections, I have to have the entire league modeled and projected by late April. Needless to say, a LOT of things happen between then and the beginning of September. I, along with the other staff, tweak our projections and expectations as we go along. But it occurs to me that very little is ever said about the way our opinions change. This article, and others like it, will highlight in a qualitative manner the assumptions that went into my initial projections that have since changed considerably. Enjoy.

On Second Thought...

Ray Rice (BAL) has RB3 value
I wasn’t alone in disavowing Ray Rice early in the preseason. He was coming off a woeful season and was facing suspension for domestic abuse. As much as I have no interest in rooting for Rice, we have to acknowledge that his 2-game suspension isn’t onerous and Rice has run with the 1st team throughout the preseason. I’m still not drafting him, but it’s hard to project him as anything worse than a RB3/flex option.

Fred Jackson (BUF) remains in the mix, much to C.J. Spiller’s chagrin
I’ve been called a C.J. Spiller apologist at times, and certainly entering this preseason I argued for a return to elite status for the former Clemson Tiger. But the realities of the Bills run game have set in, and I see no reason why Fred Jackson’s role is going to be diminished. That’s bad news for Spiller, and enough to have me avoiding the entire Bills RB situation.

Jonathan Stewart (CAR) lives to run another day
Jonathan Stewart has missed so much time and so when he tweaked his hamstring in a pre-camp practice, and then was unable to practice at the start of camp, I essentially discounted his role completely and bumped up DeAngelo Williams into a low-end RB2 position. However, Stewart returned in mid-August and made an instant impact (2 TDs in his first preseason game). It appears we’re set for another year of RB-by-committee in Carolina.

KaDeem Carey (CHI) and Tre Mason (STL) aren’t draft day handcuffs
Carey and Mason are two rookie running backs that I felt could be starters had they been drafted by RB-hungry teams. Instead, they were drafted behind Matt Forte and Zac Stacy, respectively. I figured they would both secure the RB2 roles and be worth late round draft picks, as either handcuffs or high-upside backups who could be productive if the starters got hurt. Unfortunately both struggled in the preseason and enter the season as third stringers; Shaun Draughn and Benny Cunningham are the #2 backs.

Ben Tate (CLE) is risky as your RB2
When Ben Tate signed in Cleveland in the offseason, excitement abounded as he appeared set to be the feature back in a run-heavy system. I’ve cooled on Tate’s upside after taking a harder look at his injury history combined with the presence of rookie Terrance West; a back I think is arguably better than Tate in all facets of the game.

Montee Ball (DEN) is worth a 1st round pick
I struggled with this decision. Ball’s struggles in pass protection and holding onto the ball last year had me skeptical of the consensus view that Ball was a star-in-the-making. Yet as the preseason wore on it became clear that the Broncos have no such concerns. Ball security and pass protection haven’t been at issue and considering Knowshon Moreno was a top 5 fantasy back last year in the same role, I can no longer argue against drafting Ball in the 1st round.

James Starks (GB) has value if Eddie Lacy gets hurt
Lacy was a workhorse last year but he’s not without injury risk based on his college resume. I generally considered the Packers a team that would use a multi-RB committee in Lacy’s absence. That may ultimately be the case, but I’ve come around on the possibility of Starks being a feature back in Lacy’s stead.

Arian Foster (HOU) is a must avoid at his ADP
Foster was so dominant from 2010-2012 that we psychologically want to believe his 2013 season was an anomaly. Yet even when Foster was producing at an elite level he had injury concerns. I simply can’t endorse drafting Foster as a RB1 given lingering back concerns coupled with a recent hamstring injury. There are too many ways his season could be derailed.

Knowshon Moreno (MIA) is going to outperform Lamar Miller
Moreno struggled to land a big contract in free agency, in spite of finishing as a top 5 back last year, and landed in Miami on a one-year “prove it” deal. Shortly after signing his deal, reports surfaced that Moreno was noticeably out of shape in mini-camp, and then underwent a knee scope. His absence raised Lamar Miller’s stock. Yet, Moreno returned from his scope and quickly worked his way back into shape, and has been the better back over the last few weeks. I think the Dolphins are going to give him the opportunity to be the lead dog, and at his ADP it’s a bet worth making.

...The Saints RB (NO) situation is going to be very frustrating
Pierre Thomas caught 77 passes last year and Darren Sproles now calls Philadelphia home. In PPR formats that sets a floor on Thomas’ value, but what’s his upside? Further confounding things is how strong Mark Ingram II has looked and how unimpressive Khiry Robinson has looked, in turn. There’s no reason to think New Orleans won’t continue to use all three RBs depending on the game script; much to fantasy owners’ dismay.

Andre Williams (NYG) is worth drafting, and could push for a starting job
I’m not a Rashad Jennings believer. He had a solid 8-game stretch last year in what’s been an otherwise forgettable NFL career. Skepticism aside, it’s clear Jennings is the Giants’ #1 running back and should produce in the early weeks as long as he remains healthy. Williams is still worth targeting. Early on he should be the team’s goal-line back and as the season wears on, I expect his violent, power running style will eventually win the starting role – Jennings’ injury or not.

Chris Johnson (NYJ) and Chris Ivory are a dynamic one-two punch
I’m a Johnson supporter and find it fascinating that he finished as the 9th ranked fantasy RB last year, yet so many people view his 2013 as a disappointment. Johnson joins a Jets team that wants to win games with sound defense and a ball-control offense; running behind a plus offensive line. While I’m comfortable with Johnson as a low end fantasy RB2, I was initially dismissive of Chris Ivory’s role and ability. He’s going to have big moments, too. Ultimately this could turn into a Bush/Bell situation where both backs have value while sharing time, but either would be a must start if the other gets hurt.

Maurice Jones-Drew (OAK) is the Raiders back to own
Jones-Drew and Darren McFadden are both talented runners with questionable injury histories. I’m not sure the Raiders offense will be productive enough for either of these guys to have every-week value, but this preseason it’s been Jones-Drew that has flashed more. Of the two, Jones-Drew is the RB I would draft late as a lottery ticket.

Le'Veon Bell (PIT) is not a first rounder
Many have argued that Bell’s 3.5 yards-per-attempt average wasn’t something to be concerned about when projecting his fantasy value in 2014. On its face, that argument made sense and Bell’s workload and the Steelers offensive philosophy were enough to get behind Bell as a late 1st round pick. Yet it’s clear since that not only is Bell a knucklehead, but LeGarrette Blount wasn’t signed as a pure backup. They’re going to share touches, and without 20+ touches per game, Bell ceases to be worth drafting as your RB1.

...Robert Turbin (SEA) remains ahead of Christine Michael
Michael is commonly the first backup RB drafted in leagues this summer, yet I’m not sure that’s a wise move. While I agree that Michael’s ceiling far eclipses Turbin’s, it’s been apparent that Turbin is the #2 based on practice reports and preseason game action. A number of fumbles and coaches’ criticisms are enough to convince me Michael needs to fight hard to earn the #2 role.

Carlos Hyde (SF) ready for stardom
The 49ers are committed to the run game, have a stellar offensive line, and Hyde has the requisite skill set to be an every down back. Frank Gore isn’t going to give up the mantle without a fight, but injuries to Kendall Hunter, Marcus Lattimore and LaMichael James vaulted Hyde into the clear #2. Any injury to Gore is going to give Hyde a chance to dominate, and I expect he’ll be a top-tier fantasy RB for years to come.

Doug Martin (TB) will be a workhorse
Few players are harder to project than Martin. He dominated as a rookie but fell completely apart as a 2nd year player in a toxic situation. With a new coaching staff in place, I worried Martin would be relegated to a committee role alongside rookie Charles Sims. Yet an injury to Sims, and stellar play from Martin in training camp, were enough to raise Martin back into the low end RB1 tier.

Bishop Sankey (TEN) isn’t guaranteed a full-time role
For much of the summer Bishop Sankey was considered the top rookie RB prospect – not because he’s the most talented, but – because he appeared set for a feature-back role behind a great offensive line in a run focused offense. Unfortunately those expectations were a bit aggressive for two reasons. One, Shonn Greene may be ‘just a guy’ but he’s done everything right in the preseason. Two, Sankey hasn’t shown a mastery of pass protection and blitz pickups.

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