Ranking the Depth of NFL Backfields (#1 to #32)

Jul 6, 2014


Understanding RB depth charts is important for fantasy owners. It offers insight into backfield competition as well as handcuff opportunities that could be attractive. In this article, George Kurtz rates the depth of each team’s backfield (beyond the starter) from best to worst.
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In this column we are going to take a look at each team’s running back position. When it comes to ranking each team, the ranking won’t necessarily be in the order I would pick them in a draft. In most leagues, we expect the top four picks to be LeSean McCoy, Matt Forte, Jamaal Charles, and Adrian Peterson; it just depends on the order. These rankings will reflect the depth behind the starter on each team. As you will see here, some teams are in much better shape than others.



1. San Francisco 49ers: Frank Gore, Carlos Hyde, Kendall Hunter, Marcus Lattimore: Gore is the starter but his best days are behind him and it’s only a matter of time until he is no longer the lead dog for the 49ers. The team drafted Lattimore and Hyde in each of the past two seasons to prepare for the day when Gore is no longer the starter. The only question is whether that day comes at some point this season or in September of 2015.


2. Buffalo Bills: C.J. Spiller, Fred Jackson, Bryce Brown: Will this be the year that Spiller finally shows his true promise? He could be a bargain if you’re able to draft him late in the second or the third round but you will certainly want to grab Jackson at some point in that draft. Jackson will be drafted earlier than just a normal backup, as he is still going to see 8-10 touches minimum each game and could be the goal line guy.


3. Oakland Raiders: Maurice Jones-Drew, Darren McFadden: There are two questions here: how much does Jones-Drew have left in the tank, and how long will McFadden go before suffering an injury? The passing game should at least be stable this season with Matt Schaub at the helm and either player could have a solid Fantasy season. If I was drafting right now I’d take MJD over McFadden.


4. Cincinnati Bengals: Giovani Bernard, Jeremy Hill, Benjarvus Green-Ellis: Bernard is a home run threat every time he touches the ball and he should touch the ball more this season than last. This was going to be true even if the team didn’t hand him the starting job, but more so now that the team has announced that they plan to run the ball more to take the pressure off of quarterback Andy Dalton. The team drafted Hill to give them an insurance policy in case Bernard can’t handle the workload or falters as the season rolls along. “The Law Firm” could become a training camp casualty if the Bengals decide they need the roster spot.


5. Detroit Lions: Reggie Bush, Joique Bell, Mikel Leshoure: Bell sort of came out of nowhere last season to prove that he is more than just someone to be used as a pure backup to Bush. We all know how dynamic Bush can be when he touches the ball in open space, but he has also been pretty brittle over his career. Last season, he stayed healthy for the most part, but he had fumble problems that opened the door for Bell. The problem is there is a different offensive coordinator this season in Detroit, and he may not be inclined to use Bell in the same manner as his predecessor.


6. New York Jets: Chris Johnson, Bilal Powell, Chris Ivory: For all of the Jets problems, and there are many, running back should not be one of them. Not only do they have three capable backs, they also have variety. We all know Johnson is the home run threat. However, he may not be the goal line guy, as that could fall to Ivory just to make sure he gets some touches, with Powell falling somewhere in between. Johnson is the starter, but if he were to go down it’s likely that Powell would be the main back with Ivory serving in a support role.


7. Philadelphia Eagles: LeSean McCoy, Darren Sproles, Chris Polk: If I was drafting today in a PPR league, I would take McCoy first overall. Sproles scares me a little bit. He had a down season last year in New Orleans. Is this a sign of things to come or just one bad season? Playing in Chip Kelly’s offense certainly makes him intriguing, but he no longer should be drafted in the first couple of rounds. Polk is a pure handcuff to McCoy. In standard leagues, he won’t have much value unless McCoy was to suffer an injury. If that were to happen, I would expect Sproles to get more touches as well, but Polk to be the main ball carrier.


8. San Diego Chargers: Ryan Mathews, Danny Woodhead, Donald Brown: The Chargers are built much like the Eagles except their backup running back is a veteran and not a 2nd year player. Mathews finally lived up to his billing last year, rushing for 1,134 yards and catching another 200 yards worth of passes. Woodhead is the pass catcher out of the backfield, like Sproles, and is a valuable Fantasy player too. Brown had a good season last year in Indianapolis, and he could push Mathews for playing time if the veteran gets off to a slow start. But once again, he may need an injury to Mathews to have any Fantasy value.


9. Seattle Seahawks: Marshawn Lynch, Christine Michael, Robert Turbin: The Hawks are loaded with talent in their backfield. Seattle does seem to be destined to run Lynch into the ground, as he has touched the ball, including playoffs, over 1000 times the past three seasons. If and when Lynch does run out of gas, however, the team should be in good hands with Michael. He is more than likely ready to take the load now, but will once again play second fiddle to Lynch as Seattle looks to defend their Super Bowl championship.


10. Green Bay Packers: Eddie Lacy, James Starks, DuJuan Harris: Lacy is a consensus Top 5 RB but the Packers lost some of their depth when Johnathan Frankllin had to retire due to a severe neck injury. Still, Starks is a decent backup but one who’s value is limited unless Lacy has an injury.


11. Washington Redskins: Alfred Morris, Roy Helu: Morris looks like he will be undervalued in drafts this season, as Fantasy owners seem to be worried that new head coach Jay Gruden will not use him as much on offense because he is not the best receiver out of the backfield. While this is true, Helu is not built to be an every down back. I have a hard time seeing how Morris doesn’t have over 1000 rushing yards this season and at least eight touchdowns. I like Helu, but not that much.


12. Carolina Panthers: DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, Mike Tolbert: Well, the easy joke here is that if the Panthers had as many above average receivers as they do running backs, they would be a dangerous team this season. Williams and Stewart are pretty much 1 and 1A when it comes to starters, as they are both flex plays, with Tolbert being the short yardage and goal line guy. With QB Cam Newton coming off ankle surgery, this could be the season he doesn’t run in as many touchdowns to save some wear and tear on his body.


13. Pittsburgh Steelers: Le’Veon Bell, LeGarrette Blount: I know everyone is worried about Blount taking away touchdowns from Bell at the goal line, but if you look at Blount’s history, short yardage is not where he excels. Will he take away some scores? Sure, but that will be because he is in the game at that time to give Bell a breather, not because he is the goal line back. I have Bell as a Top 10 back this season.


14. New England Patriots: Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Brandon Bolden: What do we always say about head coach Bill Belichick when it comes to ruuning backs for Fantasy players? He hates you. Ridley fell out of favor with the Pats last season after putting the ball on the ground multiple times. If he fumbles during the Week One game this season, you may need a milk carton to see him again. Vereen could be the RB you want here; especially in PPR leagues, since quarterback Tom Brady has no problems getting him the ball in the flat. Bolden isn’t a true backup since there is no true number one RB, but his value in standard leagues would only be realized if Ridley continues to have butterfingers.


15. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Doug Martin, Mike James, Bobby Rainey: Martin is sort of the big unknown coming into this season. Two years ago, he was a Fantasy darling that came out of nowhere to have a big season, forcing owners to draft him in the first round last season. However, last year he never got untracked. Sure, we blamed the head coach, the quarterback and the offensive line. In the end, once Martin’s season was ended due to injury, James and Rainey had no problems with basically the same surroundings other than the QB. Martin smells like a boom or bust player this season. As for James and Rainey, whoever has the best pre-season could be the main backup behind Martin.


16. Kansas City Chiefs: Jamaal Charles, Knile Davis: The Chiefs say they will use Davis more often this season to give Charles a breather and keep him fresh. Yeah, we hear this every season, but once the bullets are flying, teams tend to go with the player that gives him the best chance to win. Davis is a legitimate handcuff, and one I would look to obtain if I was a Charles owner, as his injury history still concerns me.


17. Minnesota Vikings: Adrian Peterson, Matt Asiata: This is another straightforward one. Peterson should go among the Top 5 in most drafts with Asiata nothing but a handcuff. He’s the type of cuff that you should be able to get late in your draft, as he will only have value if Peterson goes down with an injury.


18. Chicago Bears: Matt Forte, Ka’Deem Carey: Carey could have more value than a typical handcuff. Forte is great and should have a big season in a Bears offense that is going to be incredibly difficult to stop. However, Forte has also had injury problems in the past and the Bears will make sure they don’t wear him down as the season runs along. Carey could see 6-8 touches a game. Would you want him in a 10 or 12-team league if you don’t own Forte? No, but in any deeper league he’d be worth a late pick.


19. Denver Broncos: Montee Ball, Ronnie Hillman: With Knowshon Moreno gone and Hillman not a true threat to the starting job, everything is set up for Ball to have a big season for Denver. Ball might have won the starting job last season if not for his inability to pick up the blitz and for his tendency to fumble the ball, two problems he fixed as the season went on. We all know this is a Peyton Manning led offense, but we have to remember that Denver is not afraid to run the ball, as they realize a good run game will keep the pressure off him. Defenses are going to play the pass first and the run a distant second. There is no reason to believe that Ball won’t have a Top 10 season for Fantasy owners. Hillman shouldn’t be forgotten either. For a while last season, he was the backup to Moreno, not Ball, who was mostly a third stringer at the time. Hillman will still get touches but his value only takes off if Ball struggles with holding onto the football again or, as with any team, the starting back gets hurt.


20. St. Louis Rams: Zac Stacy, Tre Mason, Benny Cunningham: Stacy proved last season that he could be a big time back in this league. Let’s face it, with the Rams passing game a work in progress, to say the least, Stacy should once again be the lynchpin of their offense. Mason was drafted as insurance should anything happen to Stacy. Mason, however, may end up being too good a player to rot on the bench, so the team may end up using him to spell Stacy from time to time.


21. Dallas Cowboys: DeMarco Murray, Lance Dunbar, Ryan Williams: The Cowboys have an interesting mix at running back. Murray is a Top 10 back and could go as high as sixth overall. His only bugaboo is that he never has played a full season in the NFL, and 2014 may be no different. The Cowboys may have a problem on their hands if/when Murray goes down. Dunbar will be used as a receiving threat out of the backfield even when Murray is healthy, but he can’t be a three down back. The Cowboys signed Ryan Williams (remember when the Cardinals thought he was going to be a franchise back?) and they also have Joe Randle, but it’s really anyone’s guess how well the running game will perform without Murray.


22. New York Giants: Rashad Jennings, David Wilson, Andre Williams: The Giants have an interesting stable of backs, one that is very difficult to judge. Jennings proved last season that he could carry the load for a bad Raiders team, and he will try to do so once again for the Giants this season. What do we do with Wilson? Last year, we drafted him between rounds three and five, but at this point in time we don’t know if or when he will be cleared for contact (neck injury). Williams was drafted by the team to give them insurance in case of injury to either back, and he could be a sneaky draft pick if Wilson is unable to return.


23. Jacksonville Jaguars: Toby Gerhart, Jordan Todman, Denard Robinson: Gerhart has been climbing draft boards in the early going this season for two reasons. First, we all need starting RBs, so just about any starter with a pulse is going to get drafted. Second, he showed that he is more than just a one-trick pony last season, when he took over for the injured Adrian Peterson. Todman performed admirably as well last year and shouldn’t be forgotten. You can bet the Jaguars won’t forget him.


24. Tennessee Titans: Bishop Sankey, Shonn Greene: Sankey may be the odds on favorite to win offensive rookie of the year right now. Technically, he hasn’t been named the starter for Tennessee yet, but that is just a matter of time. Greene will still get his share of touches as well, and could be the short yardage guy; but Sankey is the back you want here.


25. Miami Dolphins: Lamar Miller, Knowshon Moreno, Daniel Thomas: What do we do in with the Miami backs? Miller has never lived up to expectations, although not all of it is his fault, as the Dolphins haven’t possessed the best of offensive lines. The Dolphins signed Moreno in free agency with the thought that he will be the lead back, but he has since undergone knee surgery that may keep him out until training camp opens. If I had to draft today, I’m still taking Moreno over Miller, but the distance separating the two isn’t all that big anymore.


26. New Orleans Saints: Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram, Khiry Robinson: The Saints probably don’t get enough love for their running back depth because they don’t have a stud. Thomas is a better back than he gets credit for, as he combined for over 1000 yards last season. Everyone thinks that the Saints don’t care about the running game, but they do try and keep defenses honest. I’m as guilty as anyone about being on the Ingram bandwagon. Could this be the year? Well, he certainly has incentive after the Saints didn’t pick up the fifth year option in his contract. Robinson could be a nice semi-late pick in drafts, who pays off at some point in the second half of the season.


27. Baltimore Ravens: Bernard Pierce, Ray Rice: There really isn’t too much to like here. Rice is going to get suspended for the domestic violence incident; it’s just a matter of how many games he will miss. Pierce was extremely unimpressive when he replaced Rice last season. Some blame can be given to the offensive line and a possible Super Bowl hangover, but not all of it.


28. Atlanta Falcons: Steven Jackson, Jacquizz Rodgers, Devonta Freeman: How much tread does Jackson have left on the tires? He’ll be 31 years of age this month and that’s ancient for a RB. Does he have another big season left in him? Unlikely, although a porous offensive line and injuries to the receiving corps hurt the entire offense last season. Still, the Falcons drafted Freeman knowing that Jackson’s days are numbered and there are some who believe that Freeman will start to eat into Jackson’s carries from day one, as he is the future at the RB position for Atlanta.


29. Arizona Cardinals: Andre Ellington, Stepfan Taylor, Jonathan Dwyer: I like Ellington, truly, but I have doubts about whether he can last a full season touching the ball 18-20 times a game. I just don’t believe he’s built for that. Still, he is dynamic when he touches the ball and will more than likely be drafted in the second round. However, the Cardinals have depth issues behind Ellington. Dwyer isn’t going to scare anyone and Taylor just hasn’t had the work in the NFL for us to judge what he can do. Still, Taylor should have value in 12-team leagues and above, as someone will have to give Ellington a breather now and again.


30. Houston Texans: Arian Foster, Andre Brown, Dennis Johnson: Like the Texans in general last season, Foster went belly up. He is no longer a first round pick but shouldn’t be forgotten either. He’s still a RB2 and someone who knows how to hit paydirt when near the goal line. Of course, how many opportunities he gets, will depend on how well Ryan Fitzpatrick handles the starting QB job. What role will Andre Brown play? A backup? Someone to give Foster a breather? Brown also has never been known as someone who can stay healthy for any length of time. Johnson would need Foster to go down to have any value.


31. Indianapolis Colts: Trent Richardson, Ahmad Bradshaw, Vick Ballard: What happened to Richardson last season? He was simply horrific once he was traded to Indianapolis. This, even though he was on a pass-heavy team where stopping the run was sort of an afterthought for defenses. Can he turn it around this season? He certainly has no excuses, as he’s now had a full off-season to get acclimated with the team. If he falters, Bradshaw is a pretty good back in his own right, at least until he gets hurt.


32. Cleveland Browns: Ben Tate, Terrance West, Dion Lewis: Speaking of player who can’t stay healthy, we bring you Mr. Tate. He could be productive, but the Browns offense has question marks all over the place. How long will it be until Johnny Manziel starts at quarterback? Will WR Josh Gordon be suspended for the season? Can the offense function without Gordon and with Manziel? Can West prove to be a reliable RB if Tate gets hurt? There are more questions here than in a job interview. I’ll draft Tate as a low end RB2, but I’m not touching anyone else in a redraft league.
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