Over? Did you say “over”? Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!
Did someone say that Fantasy Football season was over? Pardon me, but I didn’t get the memo (and neither did Bluto, apparently). Continuing my “Crystal Ball” series, this week we will look at the running back position, and closely examine several players for the 2014 season.
With keeper and dynasty leagues becoming increasingly popular, it is important that owners select the best value at the position. Not everyone came out of 2013 with Jamaal Charles and LeSean McCoy on their roster. Who broke through this year and is primed for long-term success? Let’s dive in.
2013 In Review
Heading into 2013, it was common practice to select a running back in the first round since both the quarterback and wide receiver positions were considered “deep”, whereas running back was top-heavy. The first tier of players consisted (usually) of Adrian Peterson, Arian Foster, Ray Rice, Doug Martin and Jamaal Charles. Unfortunately, only two of those players finished within the Top 10 in PPR leagues (Charles and Peterson). Foster and Martin were hurt and missed the vast majority of the season, and Rice finished 24th in PPR leagues due to a horrific offensive line and general ineffectiveness. After reviewing the draft kits of several major websites, the running back position easily had the most turmoil and number of overall busts. In addition to the players mentioned above, Trent Richardson, C.J. Spiller and Steven Jackson were all considered top-tier options, and each one finished outside the top 30.
The good news for owners is that while the position had quite a few disappointments, a number of rookies stepped up in a major way, promising a very bright future. Eddie Lacy, Giovani Bernard and Le’Veon Bell all finished within the Top 15, and Zac Stacy wasn’t far behind at 19. Lacy led the way at seventh overall, despite missing two games with an injury. An absolute workhorse, Lacy finished with 20 or more carries in 10 of the 14 games that he played in, racking up 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns. Despite splitting time with BenJarvus Green-Ellis during the season, Giovani Bernard flashed Barry Sanders-esque moves and proved to be a PPR monster. Le’Veon Bell finished the season with touchdowns in four of the final five games, and he is unquestionably the 2014 starter in a previously crowded Pittsburgh Steelers backfield. Stacy emerged as the starter for the St. Louis Rams after Week 4, piling up nearly 1000 yards and eight touchdowns.
There were also a number of surprises at the position, perhaps none more shocking than Knowshon Moreno’s season. Initially listed behind Ronnie Hillman on the Denver Broncos depth chart (and with much-hyped rookie Montee Ball breathing down his neck), Moreno finished the season with 1,038 yards on 241 carries and 10 touchdowns, while chipping in 60 catches for 548 receiving yards and three receiving touchdowns for good measure.
With so much upheaval at the running back position, who should you keep heading into 2014 that isn’t obvious? Here are my picks:
DeMarco Murray – Although he missed two weeks this season, Murray still finished the as the sixth highest scoring running back in PPR leagues, largely under the radar. Murray had a stellar year and set new personal bests in just about every offensive category, including rushing attempts (217), rushing yards (1,124), rushing touchdowns (9), receptions (53) and receiving yards (350). Next season is a contract year for Murray, and I would fully anticipate a larger workload provided he can stay on the field. The statistic is largely overused, but the Dallas Cowboys have never lost a game when Murray received at least 20 carries. Owner Jerry Jones has publically criticized the play selection of coach Jason Garrett, who is also entering his final season. Murray is a definite RB1 next season.
Giovani Bernard – Entering the preseason, it was assumed that Bernard would be mostly used as the change of pace back for the Cincinnati Bengals with BenJarvus Green-Ellis getting the first and second down touches, thus limiting his upside and value. Those thoughts quickly subsided when Bernard received goal line work in the preseason in addition to passing down duties. Throughout the season, he was eased into the offense and he ended up with double-digit carries in each of his final seven games. Green-Ellis is due $2.5 million in 2014, and it certainly wouldn’t surprise anyone to see him part ways with the team. Without question, Bernard should be the focal point of the rushing game next year; his upside is tremendous, especially in PPR leagues.
Ryan Mathews – Due to his injury-plagued history, Mathews was largely viewed as a RB3 entering 2013, but he proved to be one of the biggest surprises of the year. He ended up setting career highs in rushing attempts (285) and rushing yards (1,255) while finishing just outside of the Top 10 at the position in PPR leagues. Some would argue that the San Diego Chargers became more reliant on the run after losing both Danario Alexander and Malcolm Floyd early in the year, but the arrow points upwards for Mathews. Danny Woodhead was an exceptional addition to the team, who provided much-needed breathers for Mathews during each game, allowing him to remain both healthy and effective. Mathews has high-end RB2/low-end RB1 upside for 2014.
Toss ‘Em Back
Chris Johnson – Johnson finished his 2013 season with 1,077 rushing yards to put him over the 1000 yard mark for the sixth consecutive season, only the sixth player in NFL history to do so. He also finished as the tenth ranked running back in PPR leagues, which may cause you to wonder why I recommend throwing him back. The answers are simple – Johnson is scheduled to earn $8 million next year, and there is absolutely no way that the Tennessee Titans are going to pay him that much money. His free agent value purely depends on which team ends up signing him, and his projected usage. He could end up settling in with either the New York Giants, the Jacksonville Jaguars or the Oakland Raiders as their featured back; but do you honestly want to take that chance? I’d rather avoid the risk if I could. Thanks for the memories, CJ2K.
Pierre Thomas – If you want to win a bar bet; ask someone who finished with the most receptions at the running back position in 2013? Most certainly wouldn’t think of Thomas with Darren Sproles supposedly being the third down option; but it is true. Thomas led the charge for the crowded New Orleans backfield and finished with over 1,000 all-purpose yards. Unfortunately, the Saints have a logjam in the backfield, and had four backs with at least 50 rushing attempts last year (Thomas, Sproles, Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson). The situation (and not Thomas’ talent by any means) clouds his future, and I just can’t bank on that. Should the team release or trade some of these players, then this is subject to change, but we can’t assume that.
Fred Jackson – Heading into the season, owners heard how the Buffalo Bills were going to feed C.J. Spiller the ball “until he vomits”. Many (myself included) grimaced when they heard that, as Spiller isn’t a grinder and would be best suited to 12-15 carries per game to reduce injury risk. During Week 4, Spiller suffered a high-ankle sprain and Jackson made the most of the opportunity, totaling 1,283 all-purpose yards with 10 touchdowns down the stretch. Finishing as the 11th ranked running back in PPR leagues, Jackson publically stated that he has at least three or four quality years remaining, but I just don’t see it. The coaching staff clearly wants to get Spiller more involved, so despite his fantastic season, I don’t see Jackson coming close to these numbers again in 2014.
Alfred Morris – Let’s face it, the Washington Redskins were a disaster in 2013. Coach Mike Shanahan had his dirty laundry shared through the media about his squabbles with owner Dan Snyder and quarterback Robert Griffin III, which eventually led to his dismissal in the offseason. When RGIII returned to the field after missing the entire preseason, he was incredibly rusty and couldn’t escape from a wet paper bag. Yet, in spite all of this; Morris managed to finish in the Top 5 in rushing yards for the second consecutive season with 1,275. Redskins offensive coordinator Sean McVay has already publically stated that the team’s running game under new coach Jay Gruden will retain their zone-blocking scheme, which bodes well for Morris. Most owners will be quick to remember his drop in production, which should lead to a significant opportunity.
Doug Martin – To say that 2013 was a disappointment for Martin is a giant understatement. Selected widely among the top three picks in most drafts, Martin was ineffective in the first seven games of the season, averaging only 3.6 yards per carry before tearing his labrum and going on injured reserve. In his absence, both Mike James and Bobby Rainey filled in admirably, which could lead to the carries being spread around more next year. So, why the optimism? Simply put, it was evident that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have an elite offensive line, and it doesn’t matter who runs behind it; holes will be there. Coach Greg Schiano was mercifully released and Lovie Smith was hired on January 9th. New offensive coach Jeff Tedford confirmed that the team would continue to be run-first and feature Martin. He will likely be remembered more for his awful sophomore campaign than his brilliant rookie year.