Fantasy Draft Strategy: Running Backs
We’ve all had that moment in the draft room. Your arch nemesis calls out the name of a running back who you promised yourself you would not let fall past…what round was it? Yeah, the previous one. Now that demonic grin on his face is getting wider as he notices you smacking your forehead in disgust and shame. Not this year, cowpoke. This is the draft you’ll be showing up to with this article, and all that follows for each position, to prevent sneaky Top 24 running backs like Toby Gerhart from falling out of your memory.
I’ve broken out these rankings, if you will (it’s more of a ranking and tier hybrid) into draft rounds based on a 12-team standard scoring league. Each round has three groups of running backs: players who should be gone already, players who should be available and fit the round, and players who you may need to settle for if you’re in desperate need of a running back in that round. It should go without saying that if a player who ought to be gone in a certain round is still available, you need to be all over that pick like a cheap suit. Conversely, if you’re considering settling for a running back in a certain round then be sure there are no steals available at another position, or your need at running back simply can’t wait another round. Chances are, this type of player will be available in the next round, especially if you’re picking close to the turn in a snake draft.
We can debate the order in which the first four come off the board in another article. If you’re lucky enough to have one of those first four picks, then help yourself to your favorite one. If not, Eddie Lacy is a suitable replacement. The next back on my board is DeMarco Murray, who I think is on the verge of a monster year in Dallas behind a great line and really nobody to share carries with. If you have not selected at this point, you’re probably going to choose one of the studs at another position. If running backs are rare in your league, then you can settle for Montee Ball or Marshawn Lynch, though I would advise against it, since they will certainly be available after the turn if they are still hanging around now.
By the middle of the second round, Lynch, Ball, and Murray should all have been rostered. Now you can turn your attention to a couple of AFC North backs in Le’Veon Bell and Giovanni Bernard. Both are top talents in the NFL and both have capable backups that will bleed off a share of carries. Both have Top Five upside without question. It’s that high upside that may have them off the board by the time it’s your turn to pick. In that case I’m settling for Arian Foster. This week it was revealed that Foster contemplated retirement during the offseason. It came to light during training camp where Foster has been noticeably absent from practices (it’s rumored to be his hamstring, but the Texans aren’t saying). Foster remains one of the most talented running backs in the NFL with a nose for the goal line, but his recent behavior makes me want to let him be somebody else’s problem.
Bell and Bernard should be gone by the third round, and if not, then do help that cause. Zac Stacy is a nice fit here if you’re still in the market for a running back. So is Alfred Morris. Owners in point-per-reception (PPR) leagues should be aware that Morris has never been very useful as a receiver in his college or pro career. Though it won’t matter if he returns to his 2012 production of 1600 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns. If you’re desperate in Round 3, Doug Martin is a safe investment to settle for.
Be sure that Martin, Morris, and Stacy have a home already by Round 4. If you were able to land Stacy and Morris, then there is a Saved By The Bell team name sitting there for you to knock out of the park also. (Go Bayside!) The three players you should be looking at in the fourth are CJ Spiller, Andre Ellington, and Toby Gerhart. Spiller is an upside play and may not fall to this round. Ellington and Gerhart are volume plays. They will not be competing for carries in any situation on their respective teams. If none are available, Ryan Mathews and Reggie Bush are solid options to settle for in this spot.
This is my favorite round to draft a running back. We’re looking at the back end of the Top 24, but I can make a case for each of the backs mentioned here to finish in Top 12 at the position. Toby Gerhart should be owned by the fifth round, lock, stock and barrel. Ellington may fall because of concerns with his size, and Spiller because of his workload share with Fred Jackson (OK, perhaps not every back mentioned). Assuming these three are owned set your sights on Rashad Jennings and Ray Rice.
Jennings is running out of teammates to share carries with following the injuries to David Wilson and Peyton Hillis. If their first preseason game is any indication, the Giants plan on incorporating their running backs heavily into the passing game. My impression is that while Eli Manning is learning the new offensive system in New York, he’s going to keep a ton of his passes near the line of scrimmage. I’m expecting a lot of work for Jennings in the first four or five weeks of the season.
Ray Rice’s two game suspension, which is too short given his deplorable behavior, is a blessing for his prospective owners. Consider that Reggie Bush, who will be chosen in the fourth round of your draft, will likely miss a game or two due to injury. Rice on the other hand has essentially two bye weeks to start the season. He’ll be resting while Bernard Pierce is getting stuffed by the Steeler and Bengal defenses. During their careers, Rice has produced fantasy points at a higher rate than Bush and he will likely start the same number of games this season. Rice is a bargain in the fifth. I think he’ll fall into the sixth in leagues with lazy owners, but I’m not going to let him fall past the fifth and neither should you.
Don’t feel bad settling for Joique Bell, Frank Gore, or Bishop Sankey here either. Bell is a pass-catching goal line back in an offense that is going to score a lot of touchdowns. Though on opposite end of their careers, Gore and Sankey will be doing most of the rushing on their squads.
Among the backs I’ve mentioned so far, be sure that Reggie Bush and Ray Rice are off the board. Others may fall, but these two should be owned by now. You’re well into the second tier of running backs at this point, but there is still a lot of value around. Shane Vereen, Chris Johnson and Ben Tate are all at the top of their team’s depth chart and will see a lot of touches. To be clear, Vereen will be sharing his carries in New England, and CJ?K and Tate are on benign offenses. You can also feel good about settling for Trent Richardson in this spot. If another owner wants to over pay for Richardson in an earlier round, let them. Here in the sixth, if he’s your third running back chosen you’ve got nothing to lose.
Joique Bell scored eight touchdowns in 2013. That type of production is must-own by Round 7 for your draft, especially in PPR formats. Stevan Ridley, Steven Jackson and Pierre Thomas are all great selections in the seventh round to be flex options and bye week fill-ins. If Ridley figures out how to hang on to the football he is capable of 1,200 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns like he had in 2012. Maurice Jones-Drew and Fred Jackson are solid timeshares to settle for in the seventh round.
The eight round is where you should be gathering up the remaining Robins in backfield Batman & Robin tandems. Be sure Trent Richardson is owned before looking after Maurice Jones-Drew and Fred Jackson. Lamar Miller is another player to be aware of in the eighth. This Robin may be drafted ahead of his Batman, Knowshon Moreno, with reports of Moreno’s injury and offseason weight gain. Furthermore, injury to center Mike Pouncey will have the Dolphins struggling to snap the football, let alone block for their backfield. The younger back, Miller, may wind up starting by season’s end.
When it comes to handcuffs, the best advice I can give is to forget about drafting your handcuffs and instead draft the best handcuffs. From this point forward in the draft, you should be looking for backs with the best upside. You should start by making sure the last of starters like Pierre Thomas and Steven Jackson are owned before calling on Christine Michael, Bernard Pierce, and Darren Sproles. Michael has been the most impressive handcuff of a top back in the NFL to this point in the preseason. Pierce will get a head start in the new Ravens offense before Ray Rice takes his turn. Sproles is not technically the handcuff in Philadelphia (that goes to Chris Polk), but he is definitely the penultimate option out of the backfield in Chip Kelly’s offense.
At this point you’re taking a shot on running backs who are talented, but need a fortunate circumstance to get them on the field. Three backs that should be owned by the tenth are DeAngelo Williams, Maurice Jones-Drew, and Fred Jackson. Handcuffs Jeremy Hill, Terrance West, and Andre Williams are worth your attention in this round. Williams was impressive, albeit against second a string defense, in the Hall of Fame game against Buffalo and will be seeing more time with all of the injuries in New York. Darren McFadden’s fortunate circumstance is not snapping a hamstring. Settling for him in the tenth round significantly lowers the roster impact of his inevitable injury.
Beyond Round 10
The back end of the draft will be determined by what unfolds in the rest of the preseason. Injuries and ineffectiveness during practice and exhibition game will greatly alter who is being chosen and where (or if at all). Knowshon Moreno, a top five fantasy scorer just a year ago, may be the back selected outside of the first ten rounds to have the best chance at being a Top 24 running back.
Some young players to look for include Khiry Robinson, Carlos Hyde, Devonta Freeman, and CJ Anderson. All of whom are a play away from the starting job on their team. Veterans looking to get to the next level include Andre Brown, Mark Ingram, Shonn Green, Chris Ivory, and LeGarrette Blount.