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Using Running Back Tiers to Guide your Strategy

Aug 17, 2014

FootballGuysMatt Harmon uses tiers to explain why fantasy owners can wait to target running backs this season.

 

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Conventional wisdom says that running back is the most important position in fantasy football. So many new theories are beginning to dispute that, such as upside down drafting and the zero running back models. As we race closer to opening weekend, my draft strategy incorporates more credos from the new age theories. There is strength in the middle of the running back draft list that allows you to wait. Plenty of rounds feature multiple players ready to exceed their current ADPs. If you choose wisely, you can assemble a capable stable of backs to compliment juggernauts at receiver, tight end and maybe even quarterback.

 

Regardless of whether you follow innovation or tradition you need to know how to breakdown the 2014 fantasy football running back class. I’ve broken down the group into the following six tiers using the PPR league ADP data from Fantasy Football Calculator:
 
FantasyPros Draft Wizard

  • Tier 1: The Elite
  • Tier 2: The Emerging
  • Tier 3: The Meat
  • Tier 4: Old Dogs and New Tricks
  • Tier 5: Handcuff City
  • Tier 6: The Riff-Raff

 

Within each tier I’ll give you a few favorite, least favorite and tolerable picks. This should help you decide whether you plan to wait, as I am, or strike on targets in the first few rounds.

 

TIER 1: THE ELITE

(Draft Territory: picks 1.01 to 1.05)

 

Members

LeSean McCoy

Jamaal Charles

Matt Forte

Adrian Peterson

 

The sure-fire RB1 candidates of the first round are hard to criticize. Barring injury, these four players are the best of the best at their position. There are not many feature backs in the NFL outside of the four in this tier.

 

Each player provides several reasons for optimism. LeSean McCoy and Matt Forte both play in elite offenses. Their respective teams are under the dutiful eyes of some of the games’ brightest offensive minds in Chip Kelly and Marc Trestman. In addition to being do-it-all runners, Forte and McCoy are two of the best pass catching backs in the league. The physical gifts both possess are too much for linebackers to handle, and they run deadly routes out of the backfield.

 

You have to love Jamaal Charles and Adrian Peterson due to the passion and aggression both run with. Each has at least one legendary season to their name. Adrian Peterson is akin to a mythical creature. He’s on a Hall of Fame path, and has defied the logic of man at every step. Jamaal Charles runs with his heart on his sleeve and outpaced all fantasy running backs last year. Charles and Peterson aren’t in top-end offenses—on paper—like their other “The Elite” counterparts. Yet, each makes up for it by being the clear centerpiece of the scoring unit.

 

If you’re picking inside the top four of your fantasy drafts this year, it seems like a no brainer to take one of these four. “The Elite” are the only running backs that are no doubt worth a first round pick, and they can make your team an instant contender. Just remember, if you select one of these players you are tying your team’s fate to them. Given how historically fragile the running back position is, there is reason to pause when on the clock. Nevertheless, the small risk likely outweighs the reward with “The Elite”.

 

Favorite pick

LeSean McCoy gets the nod for me at the 1.01. Chip Kelly showed an instant infatuation with McCoy, who is a perfect fit for his system. The Eagles’ runner cuts unlike anyone else in the open field; he is the true slasher that Kelly covets.

 

Kelly’s run heavy offense will feed McCoy plenty of touches. His receiving ability will also keep his workload full and his fantasy owners happy. While I am confident that McCoy will see plenty of action, I’m also pleased that there are a few others to share the burden. With Darren Sproles in town, Chris Polk impressing and Nick Foles capable of facilitating the offense, McCoy need not truck on alone. Of the four running backs in “The Elite” tier, I feel like McCoy has the best chance of not being beat into the ground this season.

 

The final factor that seals LeSean McCoy’s place at the top is Philadelphia’s offensive line. It’s hard to come up with a better starting five than the one blocking for McCoy. Jason Kelce, Evan Mathis and Jason Peters headline a group of athletic, and Pro Bowler caliber linemen. They can mash defenders in the trenches, and dominate in space on the second level.

 

Least favorite pick

There are no wrong answers here. While you can argue and debate the order of these four, in the end you are splitting hairs.

 

Okay – but not thrilled with it – pick

Adrian Peterson is the oldest of “The Elite” and it’s a big factor in why he earns this designation. Peterson is an all-time great, but he is 29 years old and did wear down towards the conclusion of 2013. He’ll also line up behind the most unsettled quarterback situation, unless Teddy Bridgewater quickly delivers on his potential.

 

Many will question Peterson’s usage in the passing game, but that might not develop into an issue. Norv Turner has insisted his running backs catch 50 to 60 passes every season. He doesn’t see Peterson as an exception to that standard. He might not see the astronomical targets the other members of this tier will, but Peterson could best his career high of 43 catches.

 

All in all, landing Adrian Peterson as your RB1 should not inspire any worry or fear. I’d just rather have one of McCoy, Charles or Forte before considering him. If you see it differently, I can’t debate you with much confidence. Anyone would want a cyborg as the face of his or her fantasy team.

 

TIER 2: THE EMERGING

(Draft Territory: 1.06 through Round 3)

 

Members

Eddie Lacy

DeMarco Murray

Montee Ball

Marshawn Lynch

Giovani Bernard

Le’Veon Bell

Arian Foster

Doug Martin

Andre Ellington

Reggie Bush

Alfred Morris

Zac Stacy

 

The late-first, second and third rounds of fantasy drafts will be filled with young running backs. There are some veterans with question marks, but youth is the main theme here.

 

Second year running backs like Eddie Lacy and Montee Ball typically go off the board in the first round. Giovani Bernard and LeVeon Bell are popular second round picks. Owners are seeing Andre Ellington and Zac Stacy come off the board in the third round. Even Doug Martin and Alfred Morris are still young talents; despite the scrutiny both have faced this offseason. Arian Foster and Marshawn Lynch are the elder statesmen, while DeMarco Murray and Reggie Bush each come with questions.

 

The trouble with this tier is that you are counting on a few too many young players to make a leap or veterans to retain most of their value. The running back position is inherently volatile. It’s quite possible that close to 50% of the second year backs fail to meet inflated expectations. Arian Foster and Marshawn Lynch could fall apart, while Bush and Murray might break down yet again.

 

While there is so much new and exciting talent, and even some reliability, in “The Emerging” tier, I’m tending to shy away. It’s not that there aren’t good players here. I’m just not sure that there is a massive gap between this lot and the next tier.

 

Favorite picks

DeMarco Murray gets a bad rap as an injury prone player. But when he is on the field, he produces big time numbers. He’s an adept receiver out of the backfield, and should see more rushing lanes behind a revamped offensive line. While he isn’t a safe pick, Murray presents a lot of upside for owners looking at running backs around the turn.

 

Giovani Bernard, in my estimation, is the most talented player in this tier. That fact alone makes me want to consider him above other options near his ADP. Despite the shiny new toy in Jeremy Hill, I still think Hue Jackson will feature Bernard in his run first offense. Not to mention he’ll be a dump off option for a quarterback the Bengals plan to rein in. Bernard feels like a lock for more than 60 catches, and over 1,200 yards.

 

Zac Stacy gets overlooked, but its tough to figure out why. The raw rookie Tre Mason is a well-known name, but all of his buzz has been industry manufactured, to this point. Stacy might be a volume runner, but a challenger for his workload doesn’t exist on this roster. The Rams are also in position to be a better team this year, and at the least have a much better offensive line. St. Louis found an identity riding Stacy late last season. Neither his team, nor fantasy owners, should want to ignore Zac Stacy.

 

Least favorite picks

Alfred Morris has been a good player during the first two years of his career. I don’t doubt that he belongs in the NFL, or has the talent to stick. However, there are enough questions for me to back away from him in fantasy drafts this year. Running backs tend to take a step back, at the least, when exiting the Shanahan’s style of zone blocking scheme. Morris also doesn’t seem to mesh with Jay Gruden’s desires for the position, as he offers nothing in the passing game. We already know the young back is not averse to being hurt by the game script. Alfred Morris is not a bad player, but we may have already seen the best he has to offer fantasy owners. There are too many red flags for me to buy in, unless he’s an extreme value.

 

Montee Ball is going in the tail end of many first rounds, and it has nothing to do with him as a player. The sophomore running back is being taken simply because he is set to work under Peyton Manning. That’s not the worst justification in the world. However, it’s not enough for me to feel the need to invest where he’s currently coming off the board in drafts. I’m not typically taking running backs at the turn, or through the third round, so Ball is rarely on my teams. Even if I deviate from that, I won’t be doing so for an unproven player who hasn’t shown great talent level at any point.

 

Doug Martin burned many owners last season. While I’m not one to shy away from a player based off that, I’m not sure he is set to earn our trust back yet. Martin’s end of year stats as a rookie look great, but most of those numbers came from a handful of big games. The other weeks he was barely a fantasy starter. He did not overcome a bad situation pre-injury last season, and the table is not set for him excel in 2014. The Buccaneers have one of the NFL’s worst offensive lines, and an average at best quarterback situation. Defenses can still tee off on Martin as they did early last season. Now throw in those factors with the likelihood that Tampa Bay will employ some sort of running back by committee approach. It doesn’t look like Doug Martin is set up to justify his average draft position.

 

Okay – but not thrilled with it – pick

Arian Foster is the only game in town. The Texans released and jettisoned all other recognizable names, before adding Ronnie Brown to the mix. Arian Foster comes with concerns, but figures to see a massive volume when he’s on the field. Should he stay healthy, he can benefit from a workload similar to members of “The Elite” tier of running backs. Not many in “The Emerging” tier can say that. Yet, Foster does appear to be wearing down, and has developed a few nagging injuries. He’s also set up as the main focus on an offense quarterbacked by Ryan Fitzpatrick. Defenses will look to shut down Foster first and foremost. His pass catching prowess, and potential carry number makes me interested. The Houston offense’s potential to be a disaster, and his own durability, leaves me a bit less than excited to land Foster.

 

TIER 3: THE MEAT

(Draft Territory: Round 4 to pick 7.10)

 

Members

C.J. Spiller

Shane Vereen

Toby Gerhart

Rashad Jennings

Bishop Sankey

Ryan Mathews

Joique Bell

Ray Rice

Trent Richardson

Pierre Thomas

Frank Gore

Chris Johnson

Ben Tate

Lamar Miller

Darren Sproles

Danny Woodhead

Stevan Ridley

 

Heads up to those who subscribe to upside down drafting, anti-fragility and zero running back theorems. If you plan on waiting to grab running backs this year, its because of the quality and depth of this tier. There are several backs that could be bargain workhorses for fantasy teams.

 

The movement of Toby Gerhart and Rashad Jennings in free agency really set things in motion. Both new arrivals seem likely to ascend to feature back status in their new homes. Joique Bell and Pierre Thomas are two undrafted running backs that have carved out sizable roles in high-powered offenses. Ray Rice, Trent Richardson, C.J. Spiller and Lamar Miller all let down fantasy owners in a big way last season. Despite the 2013 lull, there is at least a chance that they could rebound this season. PPR mainstays like Darren Sproles and Danny Woodhead find their ADPs falling into this tier, but have a bit left to offer. Even Stevan Ridley (coaching staff’s trust) and Ben Tate (health) could exceed RB3 value, if their warts don’t hold them back.

 

You have to have some degree of faith to believe most of these players hit their ceilings. Still, I’d argue there isn’t much greater chance of downside than you’d see with the running backs in the tier above “The Meat”. There are several solid RB2 candidates in this tier. You just have to navigate through the waters to the right targets.

 

Favorite picks

C.J. Spiller was one of the many first round running back busts from last season. Based on his current ADP, the scorn has caused fantasy owners to let him fall all the way to the 4.01. There’s no doubt that Spiller was a train wreck in 2013, and owning him was a headache. With how low his price tag is these days, he’s become well worth the risk. Spiller is the most talented running back on an up-tempo, run heavy offense. When he is right he can be a version of LeSean McCoy. Don’t forget that when Spiller rested his body, and took weeks off last year, he’d return to excellent form the following week. Here’s to hoping he’ll look that way for the duration of 2014.

 

Toby Gerhart is the Jacksonville Jaguars’ version of Michael Turner. Gerhart is a young free agent addition that figures to be the team’s high volume, bruising bell cow. Jacksonville’s new starter is solid in all areas of the game, and can contribute in any situation. Gerhart is available in the fourth round of many drafts, but will receive the workload of many backs going before him. He is not in a perfect situation, but his opportunity alone dictates he’ll be a great RB2 that might approach RB1 status. If you are an upside down drafter this season, Toby Gerhart can keep your rushing stable afloat. Oddly enough, all the positives about Gerhart are pieces of the story for the Giants’ Rashad Jennings as well.

 

Joique Bell is capable of being the highest scoring Lions’ running back. Yet, he’s available a full two rounds after Reggie Bush. Bell is immune to situation. He’s an adept receiver out of the backfield, but big enough to carry the load. He is the most likely guy out of all the Detroit rushers to receive goal line looks. There’s every chance that Bell vastly out produces his current ADP.

 

Ryan Mathews was the sixteenth ranked running back in PPR leagues last season. It makes little sense why he’s falling to the 4.12 pick, and into the 20’s among running backs. Don’t be scared off by his injury prone label. The Chargers rode him into the ground late last season, but signed Donald Brown to prevent that from being necessary again. Brining his 285 carries down could actually help his 4.4 yards per attempt go up. Despite the presence of Brown and Danny Woodhead, Mathews is still the leading man in the San Diego backfield. Expect him to outpace a few of the RB2 candidates from “The Emerging” tier.

 

Danny Woodhead, like his teammate Ryan Mathews, will have great fantasy relevance this season. A similar player in Pierre Thomas gets plenty of publicity in the fantasy community. So much so that Woodhead gets overlooked. There is no impending threat to eat into the 76 catches he posted last season. The Chargers rely on Woodhead, and will even work him in as a runner. He’s still a great value at his late sixth round ADP in PPR leagues.

 

Least favorite picks

Chris Johnson looks just about finished. He is a volume dependent runner on a poor offense. Johnson will be another year older in 2014, and be running behind a much worse offensive line. He doesn’t add much in the passing game, and has a few malcontent tendencies. Outside of his name value, I’m not sure why anyone would take him in the fifth round of fantasy drafts.

 

Bishop Sankey is the hottest rookie name this season. He was the first back selected in May’s draft, and inherits Johnson’s former workload. Sankey is the likely starter in Tennessee, but fantasy owners should be patient. Too many draft evaluators, myself among them, concluded that Bishop Sankey is an average talent. Shonn Greene is still the first name on the Titans’ depth chart, and he might eat into Sankey’s work more than we think. The rookie could be good this season, but there’s no need to sink a fourth round pick into the endeavor of finding out.

 

Okay – but not thrilled with it – picks

 

Shane Vereen is a specialty player in New England, but one of the best in the game at his role. Vereen is an excellent receiver out of the backfield that really ads another dimension to the Patriots’ offense. When he is on the field, there is a noticeable difference. Remaining there has been Vereen’s biggest issue. While you can get an elite PPR back in the fourth round by taking him, you could also be acquiring a dud. I’d peruse other options, but do not hate having him on my roster.

 

Trent Richardson was a landmine that so many stepped on last season. He was a bad player in an awful situation in Indianapolis. Have things become much better this year? The early returns are not looking good. If you take Richardson in the fifth round this year, you are betting he’ll be at least 80% of the player he once was. Should you end up with something like what we saw last year, then you should have known better.

 

TIER 4: OLD DOGS AND NEW TRICKS

(Draft Territory: Pick 7.11 to 10.07)

 

This is a critical potion of the 2014 RB group. A healthy mix of veterans and young players exists in this tier. Picking between them will say a lot about a fantasy owner’s fortitude.

 

If you are waiting on running backs, navigating this group is of vital importance. You’ve probably come away with two low-end RB2s from “The Meat” tier to pair with your strong WR and TE group. The question is now do you go for upside with Khiry Robinson, Bernard Pierce or a host of rookies? Or do you veer on the safe path with familiar names like Fred Jackson and DeAngelo Williams.

 

Members

Maurice Jones-Drew

Steven Jackson

Terrance West

Fred Jackson

Bernard Pierce

Devonta Freeman

Carlos Hyde

Jeremy Hill

Darren McFadden

Andre Williams

Khiry Robinson

DeAngelo Williams

 

Favorite picks

Terrance West is a Ben Tate injury away from being a goldmine. Tate’s injury history increases the likelihood West exceeds expectations. He’s a powerful and quick running back in a Shanahan zone-blocking scheme. We’ve seen plenty of players with less talent than West take that role and turn it into greatness. Terrance West has a chance to be relevant even with Tate in the fold. If the veteran cannot stay healthy again, look out.

 

Bernard Pierce has a path to fantasy stardom. Gary Kubiak is an offensive mastermind, and is known for transforming running games. Pierce is a hard-nosed, one cut runner that can get downhill in this system. Despite a poor showing last season, Pierce is young and talented enough to rebound fast. With Kubiak and a revamped offensive line, I want to own a piece of the Ravens’ backfield this season. The return of Ray Rice’s burst complicates supporting Pierce. Nevertheless, Pierce will have a two game audition all to himself, while Rice is suspended to start the season. He could easily prove himself worthy of the bulk of Baltimore’s carries. His cost is more tenable than Rice’s at the moment, and that breaks the tie in favor of Pierce.

 

Khiry Robinson is the latest addition to a rotating three-headed backfield in New Orleans. That doesn’t sound so appealing, but it’s no death nail for Robinson. The Saints usually have three fantasy relevant rushers, and this season Robinson might be their most talented candidate. He can do it all; run between the tackles and catch a few passes. Robinson is still very cheap in most fantasy leagues, and could be quite the steal.

 

Least favorite picks

Darren McFadden is not worth his current draft position. I’m not sure there is any spot in the draft I’d feel comfortable taking him. Whether its injuries or just poor play, it’s been quite awhile since there were any nice words to say about his play. McFadden’s elite season feels like a past life. Couple his dubious nature with the poor offense he plays in and you have a fantasy dead zone. Just say no and don’t think twice, no matter the result.

 

Andre Williams is somehow creeping up towards a ninth round ADP. This despite the fact he was going almost undrafted a few weeks ago. The only thing that changed was his Hall of Fame game performance, and David Wilson’s retirement. Wilson was a long shot to ever contribute, and was never a big part of the Giants’ plans. So, if you are one of those propelling Andre Williams based off him running through backups in a pre-preseason game, I can’t help you.

 

Okay – but not thrilled with it – pick

Devonta Freeman has a chance to secure the Falcons lead back job. Steven Jackson is old, and currently injured. His recent history suggests he is closer to done than a bounce back candidate. If Freeman can be a competent alternative, his touches will rise throughout the season. He’s in a good situation for his skillset, but I’d prefer to take him later.

 

TIER 5: HANDCUFF CITY

(Draft Territory: pick 10.08 to 13.07)

 

Here lie in wait the backups behind the starters. This tier is filled with depth players who have some nice potential should disaster strike. Some could have stand-alone value; others will only matter if the man ahead of them is unavailable. Welcome to “Handcuff City”.

 

Members

Christine Michael

Knowshon Moreno

Ahmad Bradshaw

Tre Mason

James White

Lance Dunbar

Knile Davis

Jonathan Stewart

Dexter McCluster

Mark Ingram

 

Favorite picks

Ahmad Bradshaw is one of the members from this tier with stand-alone value. Trent Richardson’s unreliability means that Bradshaw will play a role for the Colts. Vick Ballard going down with an injury sealed Bradshaw’s spot as the top backup running back. There’s little chance he stays healthy for the majority of the season. However, there will be a few times when Bradshaw can help you win your week.

 

Dexter McCluster is set up to be Ken Whisenhunt’s Danny Woodhead in Tennessee. No matter what you think of the former Chiefs’ back, he has some value this season. The Titans specifically targeted him in free agency, and have a plan in place to utilize him as a pass catching running back—not a gadget, running slot receiver. He won’t headline anyone’s fantasy team, but McCluster will have a better than expected role in 2014.

 

Jonathan Stewart, I just can’t quit you. The reports from Panthers’ training camp were all centered on Stewart being fully healthy. Right up until he wasn’t anymore. Theoretically, he is a talented back on a team that needs a foundation running game. Still, you are more than likely punting any pick you invest in Stewart. The fact that you can often get him even later than this makes the small risk more bearable. I’ll try to squeeze the last drop of water that might still be in this well.

 

Least favorite picks

Christine Michael is ultra-talented, but needs a Marshawn Lynch injury to have any real value. The Seahawks can talk about a committee all they want, but Lynch will be their main man. Fantasy owners are better off waiting until it’s truly Michael’s time before drafting him.

 

Tre Mason is a rookie who has been labeled a change of pace back by his own team. He’s also barely seeing any work with players who will make the Rams’ roster. It’s hard to ascertain why any fantasy owner is taking Mason at this point.

 

Okay – but not thrilled with it – picks

Knile Davis needs an injury to have stand-alone value. The Chiefs might work him in a bit more this season, but his primary role is that of depth. If Jamaal Charles ever did go down to a long-term injury, Davis would be the hottest name around. He showed he could help carry this offense in the playoff loss to the Colts last season. Davis is a competent running back in a system that produces big numbers.

 

Mark Ingram continues to improve as a runner with each passing viewing. He’s still rough around the edges as a fantasy pick, but I’m fine with taking him on late. I prefer Khiry Robinson to Ingram, but there is a chance I have that order wrong. There’s no shame in bringing the former first round pick onto your bench as an upside play.

 

TIER 6: THE RIFF-RAFF

(Draft Territory: pick 13.08 and on)

 

At the end of the draft you are sifting through long shots and players living on a prayer. Most of these guys will never bring much to your starting lineups. However, if you play it correctly, you can locate a potential contributor. If you are looking for your roster’s last running back, there are still clear right and wrongs.

 

Members

Chris Ivory

Bryce Brown

LeGarrette Blount

Ronnie Hillman

James Starks

Roy Helu

Charles Sims

C.J. Anderson

Donald Brown

Shonn Greene

 

Favorite picks

James Starks is getting better as an NFL player, and put out his best season in 2013. He is the clear backup to Eddie Lacy, and would inherit a massive workload in the event of an injury. Remember that Lacy has not always been the picture of health. Starks has no stand-alone value, but has a higher ceiling than some of the handcuffs going before him.

 

Roy Helu is severely underrated in PPR leagues, and is the steal of those formats. Washington will pass more this season, and Helu is the only reliable receiver in this backfield. He’s a virtual lock for 50-plus receptions and you can get him for dirt-cheap. Don’t forget that Helu had a stretch as the starting running back for this team. He’s not inept as a ball carrier.

 

Least favorite picks

Ronnie Hillman has already fallen out of favor enough in Denver. There is no amount of offseason press clippings that will lead me to believe he’ll ever gain a significant role there again.

 

Donald Brown is the third best running back on his team, and is generating virtually no buzz. Brown’s picture is just too muddy to select him with any sort of clarity. He’s a name to keep on the waiver-wire short list, but look elsewhere to end your draft.

 

Okay – but not thrilled with it – pick

Chris Ivory is already injured this preseason. Yet, he took first team reps at times ahead of Chris Johnson. Ivory is the banger that this offense truly needs. He’ll probably have a usable week or two, but they will be mired in an injury-ridden mess again.

 

Shonne Greene is similar to Ivory. He has his own injury issues, but is looked on favorably by his team, despite them adding completion. Greene could have some sneaky value as a pesky goal line threat. He’s more of a thorn in Bishop Sankey believers’ sides than anything else.
 
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