The Never-Too-Early 2014 RB Rankings
Last week, I took a look at how the QB position is shaping up for 2014, so now it’s time to discuss the perennially in-demand RB position.
I’ll rank them by tiers, but don’t get too caught up in a player’s ranking within a particular tier. These rankings are fluid and will inevitably change as free agency, the NFL Draft, injuries and other factors shape the fantasy landscape.
Note: Any reference to fantasy points assumes a standard scoring format.
Heading into 2014, fantasy owners can’t really go wrong with any of these players as an RB1. Barring injury, they are all very good bets for top 10 finishes. Jamaal Charles had a fantasy MVP-type season in his first season under new HC Andy Reid and it’s doubtful that his usage drops significantly from 2013 levels. Ironically, LeSean McCoy flourished with the departure of Reid and the arrival of Chip Kelly, who got McCoy back into the “best RB in the league” conversation.
Adrian Peterson is the wildcard in this group. He’s coming off of a #6 finish and groin surgery; it’s the second time in three seasons that he has finished outside of the top 5. He turns 29 in March and while he should continue to be very productive when healthy, one wonders if his 2,241 touches are starting to catch up to him. Along with his oftentimes overwhelming talent, there is another reason to be excited about AP’s upside in 2014 — the arrival of OC Norv Turner, who knows what he’s doing on that side of the ball.
Matt Forte had his best fantasy season under new coach Marc Trestman, who utilized Forte heavily as a receiver — he caught a career high 74 passes — while also feeding his star back the ball in the running game (289 carries, the second highest total of his career). Usually we’re looking for coaching stability when using a first round pick on a player, but Charles, McCoy and Forte all blew up under new coaches.
Then there’s the ever-steady Marshawn Lynch, who has finished in the top 5 for three straight seasons and seems as safe of a pick as anyone on this list. There is one concern heading into 2014 — Lynch’s DUI trial (from his 2012 arrest) is set to start in February and depending on the outcome, Lynch could be serving some sort of suspension when the season opens. He’s under contract for two more seasons, so the Seahawks will likely ride him hard before handing the keys over to draftnik-favorite Christine Michael or backup Robert Turbin. Also, Lynch has 1,955 career touches, so he’s no spring chicken, either.
This tier is headlined by three second-year players in Eddie Lacy, Zac Stacy and LeVeon Bell. Lacy finished as the #7 RB in his rookie season and did it in essentially 14 games. Removing Week 2 (where he was concussed and only carried the ball once), Lacy averaged 14.9 fantasy points, which is the 6th-best average, just behind Adrian Peterson. He is a great talent and plays in a potent offense that should be even better in 2014 with a (hopefully) healthy Aaron Rodgers under center. Stacy started to get serious playing time in Week 5, and he never looked back, posting #8 RB numbers the rest of the way. He scored eight TDs in his final 10 games and will enter the 2014 season as the Rams’ bellcow back. Meanwhile, Bell was written off by some after a preseason foot injury, but it turned out to be overblown as he proceeded to post #8 RB numbers once he returned in Week 4.
The five other RBs in this tier will be dealing with new offensive coordinators, which as we learned from the Studs discussion is not always a bad thing. Maybe Jay Gruden will throw to Alfred Morris a bit more (or maybe he’ll use Roy Helu in a Giovani Bernard-type role). Maybe pass-happy Scott Linehan learned something from the Lions’ effective running game and will run DeMarco Murray more consistently than Jason Garrett ever did. Maybe Arian Foster and Doug Martin will bounce back after injury-plagued seasons and thrive under new regimes.
One thing to keep in mind in Detroit is that Joique Bell is a restricted free agent and his future will certainly impact Reggie Bush’s workload. The Lions brought Joe Lombardi in as OC, and he was the offensive assistant in 2007 and 2008 in New Orleans while Bush was there. Bush averaged 11.6 fantasy points in the 22 games he played during those two seasons. Those are low-end RB1-type numbers, so we shouldn’t expect Bush’s workload to drop too much, if it drops at all.
THE STARTERS (A.K.A. THE PART-TIMERS)
This is a tier of talented backs who are not currently playing the “workhorse” role for their respective teams. Giovani Bernard was the #16 RB in 2013, but his touches weren’t truly consistent until Week 9. Jay Gruden is gone, so the Bengals have turned to Hue Jackson, who was the team’s RB coach last season. BenJarvus Green-Ellis was serviceable as a between-the-tackles grinder and the Bengals have been linked to free agent Darren McFadden, so Bernard’s upside will be capped if the team continues to limit him to 15-17 touches per game.
C.J. Spiller’s 2013 season has been well-documented. He dealt with a bad ankle sprain for most of the season and, other than a few electrifying moments, he just didn’t seem like himself. Throw in a RB1-type season from the seemingly ageless Fred Jackson and Spiller finished #27 at his position, a huge disappointment to those owners who drafted him in the first round. A healthy Spiller should fare much better in 2014, though Jackson is still under contract, so there are still workload concerns.
From Week 6 on, Ryan Mathews was the #10 RB in fantasy. He averaged 21.5 touches for 104 yards and 0.55 TD over the remainder of the regular season, but petered out in the playoffs after suffering a high ankle sprain. Heading into 2014 fantasy drafts, his stock will be interesting to watch given how many owners he has burned in the past, and Danny Woodhead’s presence doesn’t help matters, as he will continue to limit Mathews’ involvement in the passing game.
Shane Vereen was a 4for4 favorite heading into the 2013 season, but a Week 1 wrist injury derailed a promising start. Over the course of eight regular season games and two playoff games, Vereen averaged 10.7 touches (including 5.4 catches) for 76 yards and 0.40 TD, though his usage in the running game was limited once the Patriots decided to (only) lean on LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley between the tackles. If Blount leaves in free agency, Vereen’s role should increase.
THE STARTERS, PT. 2
18. Ray Rice, Ravens
19. Steven Jackson, Falcons
20. Frank Gore, 49ers
21. Danny Woodhead, Chargers
22. Stevan Ridley, Patriots
23. Andre Ellington, Cardinals
24. Fred Jackson, Bills
25. DeAngelo Williams, Panthers
Now we’re getting to the point where the rankings will be heavily impacted by free agency. Every player in this tier has at least one major concern, whether it be health/age (Ray Rice, Steven Jackson, Frank Gore and Fred Jackson) or dependability of workload (Danny Woodhead, Stevan Ridley, Andre Ellington and DeAngelo Williams).
If the Patriots show faith in Ridley by letting LeGarrette Blount walk, he’ll move up these rankings. Ellington could also see a bump if the Cardinals don’t re-sign Rashard Mendenhall or bring in another established RB via free agency. (I love his game, but Ellington is probably in the same boat as Giovani Bernard — considered “too small” to be an every-down workhorse.)
Williams was the #21 RB in 2013, but we can’t count on another Jonathan Stewart injury. (Or can we?) Meanwhile, Gore has outproduced his draft position in each of the last three seasons, but he didn’t do much down the stretch and has Kendall Hunter and the highly touted Marcus Lattimore nipping at his heels.
THE DEPTH (RB3 TYPES)
26. Shonn Greene, Titans
27. Montee Ball, Broncos
28. Joique Bell, Lions
29. Pierre Thomas, Saints
30. Darren Sproles, Saints
31. Lamar Miller, Dolphins
32. Trent Richardson, Colts
33. Chris Ivory, Jets
34. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Bengals
35. Mark Ingram, Saints
There are some interesting names in this tier depending on what happens this spring/summer in the draft and in free agency. Shonn Greene could find himself as the Titans’ workhorse assuming they cut Chris Johnson, as expected. Lamar Miller outperformed Daniel Thomas on a per carry basis, but the coaching staff has been reluctant to give him a big workload. Will that change under new OC Bill Lazor?
In Indianapolis, Trent Richardson may be handed the RB1 job if the team lets Donald Brown walk, but would anyone be surprised if Vick Ballard (coming off of an ACL injury) is eating into Richardson’s touches by midseason?
Chris Ivory had some big games for the Jets, but his workload was all over the place. Still, his 4.6 YPC was a good bit better than Bilal Powell’s 4.0 YPC average. Ivory is not involved in the passing game, however, so he is not a safe bet if the running game is not rolling.
Montee Ball will get a big bump in these rankings if the Broncos do indeed let the very productive Knowshon Moreno walk in free agency. Ball actually outperformed Moreno on a per carry basis (4.7 to 4.3 YPC) but Moreno was significantly better in the passing game. The big question mark with Ball is his habit of putting the ball on the ground, though he cleaned that up down the stretch and in the postseason. If Moreno walks, look for Ball in the second or third tier.
YOUNG PLAYERS TO WATCH
Marcus Lattimore, 49ers
He was considered the most talented RB in the Class of ’13 prior to the dislocated knee he suffered in October of 2012. He’ll be nearly two years removed from the injury at the start of the 2014 season and is expected to push Kendall Hunter (and perhaps a declining Frank Gore) for playing time.
Jordan Todman, Jaguars
Todman is a restricted free agent this summer. If the Jaguars let Maurice Jones-Drew walk, they could turn to Todman as their RB1. His YPC (3.4) wasn’t impressive, but it was the same as MJD’s indicating that the offensive line was as big of a problem as either of the running backs. As a starter, he did have a nice game against the Bills in Week 15 (29 touches, 153 yards), showing that he can carry the load if necessary.
1. Chris Johnson (not a free agent, but not expected to return)
2. Knowshon Moreno
3. Rashad Jennings
4. Ben Tate
5. Maurice Jones-Drew
6. Darren McFadden
7. Donald Brown
8. Andre Brown
9. LeGarrette Blount
10. Toby Gerhart
11. Rashad Mendenhall
12. Ahmad Bradshaw
13. James Starks
14. Anthony Dixon
This is a pretty deep (and difficult to rank) group of free agent running backs, which is indicative of how the league has been treating the position in recent years. Teams are spending less on RBs and that’s resulting in shorter contracts which means there will be more talent available each summer. I’ve ranked the free agents in order of (my take on) their ability in a neutral environment.
If Knowshon Moreno returns to the Broncos, he’ll likely be ranked in the low teens (12-14) heading into next season, though a likely greater role for Montee Ball is a concern. Rashad Jennings was the #6 RB from Week 9 to Week 15 (when he was playing starter’s snaps for the Raiders) and that included a missed game against the Jets in Week 14. If Oakland re-signs Jennings and lets Darren McFadden walk (as expected), Jennings will definitely be in the RB2 conversation.
I’m particularly interested to see where Donald Brown, LeGarrette Blount and Toby Gerhart land. Brown and Blount made the most of their opportunities as part-timers this season, while Gerhart is still waiting for a chance to carry the load for more than a game or two. Gerhart has touched the ball 15+ times in seven career games and has averaged low-end RB1 numbers (12.6 FP) with that type of workload. If the former Heisman candidate (and the owner of a 4.7 YPC) lands in a good situation, a breakout season could be on the horizon. Even if he ends up in a muddled RBBC, he’ll have a good chance of winning the job and becoming a major fantasy factor in 2014.
The position doesn’t look terribly deep at the moment, but that might change once the draft and free agency are complete. There are at least 10 running backs who could emerge as potential fantasy RB2s if they land in the right situation. Throw in a rookie or three and the position could be relatively deep by the time fantasy drafts really get going.