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Fantasy Football Position Primer: Running Back

Fantasy Football Position Primer: Running Back
Latavius Murray may not be the solid fantasy back many expect him to be

Latavius Murray may not be the solid fantasy back many expect him to be

The running back position has become very polarizing in fantasy football. The stability of the position has suffered greatly during the last few seasons as the NFL has moved away from the “bell cow,” ground-and-pound type of back who would get 30 carries. Instead, it has been replaced with more of a committee-style, “what have you done for me lately” approach. The league has also become more of a pass-happy league. Therefore, more carries are taken out of running backs’ hands, and some of those touches are now going to scatbacks.

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Those points above are reasons why if you have a chance to obtain a top running back, you should do so. If you do not have an opportunity to obtain a top running back, you should not panic, as there is still value in a RB if acquired properly. The biggest problem people make is reaching because they see top running backs going off the board and take someone too early for fear of missing out.

When picking running backs in your league’s draft, your draft position and your league’s scoring system should factor heavily in your draft strategy. There are several running backs who should be taken in the top two rounds. After that, it becomes very muddled with committee approaches, injury question marks and performance issues. I have broken down the top 24 into three tiers. Remember, it’s all about where you are in your draft, and what your league scoring settings are.

Tier One
These eight guys are all worthy of a first round pick. They are dual-threat backs who run and catch the ball while getting enough touches to be worthy of a top draft pick. Their position as the top running back is all but solidified on their team. It would take an injury or complete drop in performance to unseat them, as there is no legitimate threat who would question their use. While there is no sure-fire, cant-miss draft pick, if you are picking from a position where these eight are available, then remember that these are all great options to build your team around.

Tier Two
Some question marks surround these eight players, but they are still worthy of a draft pick late in the second and third rounds. Whether it is because they changed teams, or their teams changed coaching staffs, there is some room for skepticism. Some players in this tier still perform at a high level but may have some tread on the tires leading some to believe that the wheels may fall off at any time due to injury. Another reason to be weary is the lack of sample size for some players on this list leading fantasy owners to proceed with caution. They may also be one-half of a dual threat backfield, which sometimes causes game flow to dictate their touches.

Tier Three
These players may be coming back from injury, a down year, or may not have the skill set to be the every down, dual-threat back you need to consider them an RB1. If you are drafting one of these players, you are most likely in a position where you have strong wide receivers or a great quarterback. Remember, strong performances from your running back position are not as imperative to the overall success of your team. This list is comprised of committee players and players with similar skill sets or situations within their team. They are primed for breakout seasons…or are set to share duties with another player. These are late third through fifth round picks.

Who is being overvalued?

Last year’s hype machine got behind Montee Ball (2014 ADP of 17), Doug Martin (23), and Zac Stacy (31).  Although offensive schemes, injury history, and performance sample sizes suggested they may not be the long-term solution at their respective positions. To reward the efforts of those who drafted them, the three finished as the 353rd, 233rd and 300th scorers in 2014. They combined for 141.7 standard fantasy points, or only 0.7 more than our 80th and 81st leading scorers, kickers Steven Hauschka, and Shaun Suisham.

While sometimes this drop in production comes out of nowhere, other times, it stares you right in the face, and you choose to ignore it. This year, Latavius Murray is that player. Murray took over lead back duties midseason in 2014, and when Darren McFadden was not brought back for 2015, he assumed the starting role once again. Murray’s numbers in a handful of starts look good enough to anoint him number one on the depth chart. He carried the ball 82 times for 424 yards and two touchdowns, good for 5.1 yards per carry. However, those numbers can be deceiving.

In one half against the Kansas City Chiefs on Thursday Night Football before he was removed from the game with a concussion, Murray rushed for 110 yards and both of his touchdowns on just four carries. If that game is removed, Murray carried the ball 78 times for 312 yards and no touchdowns for a clip of 4.0 YPC, with no game over 100 rushing yards. Not bad numbers, but not enough numbers to make him a lock for fantasy production in 2015.

First, he is in Oakland, where they just brought in a new coaching regime, and Murray may not end up the lead back. Secondly, they brought in Roy Helu and Trent Richardson so there will most likely be a share of the carries, at least at the beginning of the season. Lastly, he plays for the Raiders. They will most likely be playing catch up most of the time, which opens the door for Helu to be the primary runner out of this backfield due to his pass catching abilities. Murray may be formidable, but his ADP of 42 and his status as the 19th RB off the board is a bit steep in my book.

An honorable mention goes to C.J. Anderson (ADP of 15th overall, ninth among RBs). He is a Denver running back and only three times since 1998 has a Broncos RB repeated as their leading rusher. Yes, he scored the most fantasy points for running backs from Weeks 9 through 17. Yes, he scored eight touchdowns from Week 12 through 17, including three in one game twice. I believe that a sample size of that amount of games is too small to consider him the ninth back off of the board this year. If Father Time has finally caught up with Peyton Manning and if there is no respect for the tight end replacing the huge end zone target that was Julius Thomas, Anderson will get extra attention in the box. Too much up in the air for such a high ADP.

Who is being undervalued?

On the flip side of being an overvalued bust, there are those undervalued sleepers who are going to be sitting there in the middle to late rounds waiting to help your fantasy team get to the next level. Last season, there was Jeremy Hill (ADP of 141), C.J. Anderson, (317), and Justin Forsett (no ADP). They ended up as the eighth, 10th and 11th scoring running backs, respectively, and all of them were ahead of LeSean McCoy. Injuries and performance will usually push this players into starting roles, but it’s about being in the right place at the right time for fantasy owners to be able to have them at your disposal when that situation arises.

The player that fits the criteria right now as being drafted way too low is New York Giants running back Shane Vereen. Vereen (93) is being drafted as the 35th running back off the board, behind players with less stability in their situation, are part of committees or are simply unproven. For example, he is behind Joseph Randle (59) and Darren McFadden (76) who are both in Dallas with no clear-cut starter. The fact that McFadden and his injury history are projected as the 31st running back off the board is mind-boggling.

Vereen isn’t even the top Giants’ running back in terms of ADP, making way for Rashad Jennings (74) who projects as the main back for Tom Coughlin in 2015. I disagree. Jennings is on his third team in his seven-year career and has never played a full season. In fact, he has missed 32 of a possible 96 career games, or 33%. He only played 11 games last season and failed to top 1,000 total yards for the fifth time in six years. He has little receiving value (127 catches, zero touchdowns for his career). Plus, he’s not going to get you goal line scores either (TD vulture Andre Williams scored six of his seven TDs in 2014 from inside the three-yard line.) Vereen, on the other hand, may not be an every down back, but should see enough touches to be closer to fantasy relevance than he currently projects, especially with Jennings as injury prone as he has shown to be. Vereen is a dual threat who was a huge factor in the passing game for the Patriots as they won the Super Bowl. Vereen finished fifth in the NFL among running backs in receptions and receiving yardage. Even if he only figures as a change-of-pace, third-down option for Eli Manning, he is worthy of a higher ADP. Vereen is much closer to the likes of comparable players such as C.J. Spiller (63) and Giovani Bernard (64).

Which backups could take over lead RB duties?

Every season there are players who take over for a game or two and run away with a position because of performance, injury or opportunity. Last year, C.J. Anderson was the third in line to carry the ball in Denver before Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman proved to be ineffective or couldn’t stay on the field. Jeremy Hill took over when Giovani Bernard couldn’t stay healthy. Justin Forsett was the lead back in Baltimore after the smoke settled with the Ray Rice situation, overtaking Bernard Pierce and Lorenzo Taliaferro. While it is hard to predict who will fail, it is easy to look back and see who has struggled to stay on the field to see what trends may develop. This list would not include lesser talent replacing other lesser talent (i.e. the Joseph Randle/Darren McFadden situation). This is more about an established player with a high ranking being replaced permanently.

Given this criteria, I can see Alfred Blue falling into this category. No team rushed the ball more in 2014 than the Houston Texans, with both Blue (169) and starter Arian Foster (260) finishing in the top 25 in carries last season. Foster has been a workhorse since he came into the NFL in 2009, and at age 28 already has nearly 1,400 carries. If Houston continues to struggle with their QB situation, expect them to continue to utilize their ball carriers as much as they did last season. This could be trouble for Foster, who has struggled to stay healthy over the last two seasons, missing 11 games in the process. Alfred Blue proved to be a formidable handcuff last season and opens this season as the backup on the depth chart. He saw double-digit carries six times last year including three even in games where Foster suited up. From Week 8 and beyond, Blue did not see less than seven carries in a game and may be setting himself up to take over if Arian Foster cannot go.

Who bounces back in 2015?

Given their draft stock in 2014 and their final fantasy performance, LeSean McCoy and Adrian Peterson have the most to prove.

McCoy had the highest ADP of anyone in the NFL last season and finished as an RB12, and the 49th leading scorer. He was in Chip Kelly’s offense, where the ball went to anyone and everyone. Now he’s in a situation in Buffalo where the passing game is lacking and they will rely on running the ball and defense to win games. He lost goal line carries to Chris Polk and lost third-down duties to Darren Sproles last season. This season he finds himself competing for touches with an aging Fred Jackson and the unproven Karlos Williams. It is a much better situation, and he will have a lot to prove. Buffalo has the ninth easiest fantasy schedule in the NFL this year and the 11th easiest for running backs.

Adrian Peterson’s 2014 was marred with controversy, playing only one game before being suspended for the remainder of the season. Peterson’s ADP was the third highest in the league last year, and fantasy owners were left with the 464th best scorer in the NFL. Peterson has doubters because of his age, his one-year absence and because he has a lot of tread on the tires. The last time Peterson missed any time was after he tore his ACL in 2011. He returned in 2012 and cranked out 2,097 yards with no passing game behind him. He comes back this season with a retooled offense and more weapons around him, giving “All Day” more lanes to run and more chances to score.

Which rookie will take the league by storm?

No rookie running back enters the league with a bigger opportunity at immediate impact than Melvin Gordon in San Diego. Gordon, out of Wisconsin, rushed for 2,587 yards and 29 touchdowns last season for the Badgers. He is currently projected as the 14th running back off the draft board and with good reason. Not only is he talented, but he also enters a situation in San Diego where there was no clear-cut starter. Oft-injured Ryan Mathews has departed for Philadelphia. Danny Woodhead is coming back from injury, but even when healthy he was more of a change of pace back. Branden Oliver returns but faltered at the end of the season after a strong start. Gordon joins the Chargers and their 15th ranked fantasy schedule against the run and should be a factor right away as the Chargers look to add more balance to their offensive scheme.

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Michael Vincent is a correspondent at FantasyPros. To read more from Michael, check out his archive and follow him @MVtweetshere.

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