FANTASY FORECAST – RUNNING BACKS

Bringing you the second part of a five part series where we review positions for the upcoming fantasy football season. This segment focuses on running backs, a position with more consistent upheaval than Taylor Swift’s love life.

A reminder of the SCHEDULE OF EXPECTED RELEASES:

Quarterbacks: July 20th

Running Backs: July 23rd

Wide Receivers: July 26th

Tight End: July 29th

Team Defense: August 1st

Kickers: ….. I’ll give you  sneak preview of the top rated kickers right now

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So lets get right into this. This will catalog 68 of the top running backs in the NFL for this upcoming season. A little acknowledgement of history to the old Top 68 by #68 that became popular, okay infamous, back in high school, a long, long, long, long time ago.

As with the Quarterback breakdown, you won’t find a list ranking players 1-68 here. This isn’t meant to spoon feed you your picks, this is meant to lend perspective and convey information for you to use and draft your team. Its your team, not mine, take it and make it your own. As such, they’re put together into groupings, and each grouping is provided an explanation. Within the groups, the names are found alphabetically, so don’t read anything into their order.

GROUP ONE: (These are guys you can feel good about. Barring injury they’re in line for a lions share of the carries, and can produce. As a fantasy owner, you’d rather have a guy that gets you 80 yards a game, every game than a guy that’ll go for 170 one day, and 10 the next game. These guys will give you consistent production)

Jay Ajayi: A shade under 1300 yards and 8 touchdowns for the Dolphins last year, should see similar production this year

Le’Veon Bell: Its been widely reported that he is not overly happy about playing out the year in Pittsburgh on the franchise tag. The question is, will he come out pissed and focused, or protective to avoid injury. Either way he’s too good to pass on. A tentative Bell is still a top fantasy talent.

Ezekiel Elliott: A strong candidate to be a top 3 fantasy pick this year, will his off the field issues (because he couldn’t be a Cowboy if he didn’t have off the field issues) result in a suspension? Whenever he is available, he’s a stud fantasy commodity.

Melvin Gordon: After a very disappointing rookie campaign Gordon came up just 3 yards shy of the century mark rushing, while adding another 419 receiving in his encore performance. His 12 total touchdowns for the Chargers aren’t anything to sneeze at either.

Todd Gurley: The photo negative to Gordon, Gurley was a fantasy darling during last year’s draft season as he was coming off a brilliant rookie season. He came crashing back to earth in his second year. His talent is still there though. A big bounce back is predicted here, as the Rams still have nothing else.

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Jordan Howard: It took a little for Jordan Howard to claim the Bears full time Running Back gig, but once he did, he didn’t look back. Chicago is accustomed to receiving production from its Jordans. With the air attack as iffy as ever, expect Howard to be a major cog in the Bears offense.

David Johnson: 2,100+ yards from scrimmage, 20 touchdowns, and no end in sight. David Johnson has to be a strong candidate to go #1 in most drafts. A former 3rd round steal for the Cardinals, he makes Northern Iowa proud.

Marshawn Lynch: Beastmode is back, but this time he’s taking his bag of skittles back home to the bay area. With Cooper and Crabtree spreading the field, Lynch will see less guys in the box than he ever did in Seattle. The only question, after a year away, are his legs fresher, or just older?

Doug Martin: The biggest risk-reward guy in this group. Martin will miss the Buccaneers’ first 3 games to complete a 4 game suspension he started at the end of last season. When he comes back though, he should be one of the best all around backs in the game once again. Charles Sims is a good handcuff if Martin is chosen.

LeSean McCoy: In spite of his tendency towards being hurt (which to be fair, is pretty much every single NFL running back), Slim Shady continues to post big numbers. With the Bills offense in shambles, expect more of the same.

LaMar Miller: The Texans made two big splashes in the spring of 2016 with their free agent signings. After a year, Miller is the only man standing. With barely over 1,000 rushing yards, he didn’t take the world by storm, but he’s still the best the Texans have.

GROUP TWO: (These guys are a notch below the group one guys. Maybe there are just  few more questions, maybe some lingering questions about carry splits, or maybe they’re coming off a bad season, and the certainty of a bounce back simply isn’t there.)

Ameer Abdullah: Honestly, there isn’t a running back option the Lions can toss out there that is remotely close to as good as Abdullah, but so far in his two seasons there is no evidence to support Abdullah being physically capable of being a bell cow back.

C.J. Anderson: After announcing his presence with authority in 2015, Anderson was hampered by injuries and came plummeting back to earth for the Broncos in 2016. The question is, with Jamaal Charles and Devontae Booker in the fold, how long is the leash for Anderson?

Isaiah Crowell: Crowell is simply a case of, how good is he really? The Browns actually have a decent line. No passing game to speak of, and need to control the clock to have a chance in games. Crowell is very mediocre, but worth a fantasy look due to his usage.

Leonard Fournette: The Jaguars had 2 capable backs on the roster and still decided to use a top 10 pick on Fournette. You don’t do that if you don’t intend to use him, and use him often. He could have an impact in 2017 like Gurley had in 2015.

Devonta Freeman: The return to health of Tevin Colman cut into Freeman’s usage. Yet he still produced about 1,500 net yards, and 13 touchdowns. Were it not for the split in carries with Coleman, he’d be a clear cut Group one guy. Even with the split, he maybe should be.

Joe Mixon: Going out on a limb a bit here, but then again, so didn’t the Bengals in selecting him. The last two running backs Cincy selected in the 2nd round came in and made immediate impacts. I expect no less from Mixon, a first round talent with an undraftable character.

Ty Montgomery: A converted wide receiver, Montgomery stepped in for the Packers last year when a rash of injuries hit the running back room. Probably ideally suited to be a 3rd down back, Montgomery will enter the season with the job being his to lose.

DeMarco Murray: An ever improving offense surrounds Murray in Tennessee. The only knock on him is that he’ll share duties with Derrick Henry. The unknown of how the carries will be split is why Murray is in group two, and not one.

Paul Perkins

Paul Perkins: The Giants have themselves a versatile 3 down back. With no other viable starting back on the roster, Perkins is well positioned to capitalize upon the opportunity. Full disclaimer, I expected Perkins to be a sleeper last year, but no one ever woke him up.

Bilal Powell: Powell over Forte? Yes, Powell over Forte. The Jets are clearly punting on the present. Powell has a lot less miles on him, and was distinctly more productive than Forte last year.

C.J. Prosise: In limited action Prosise flashed a lot of ability. With a full and talented group of running backs, it’ll be tough to distinguish who will consistently be the lead back for the Seahawks. Prosise seems the most promising of the bunch, and if not, we know Pete Carroll will pass.

GROUP THREE: (These guys are players whom I have strong reservations about their ability to either consistently see the field, or whom I believe will lose their starting gig, if you select one of these guys, don’t count on consistent week to week production, with likely declining results):

Jamaal Charles: Multiple injuries, a new team, and a crowded backfield. Charles is the marquee name for the Broncos, but the half life of an NFL back’s career is small. Not sure he wrestles many carries from Anderson and Booker.

Mike Gilislee: One of the new additions to the Patriots backfield. He’ll replace Blount as the ground n pound back for New England. Which means his value will increase as the weather turns colder, which in Foxborough is late August.

Frank Gore: One of the more underrated backs in the history of the NFL. One of these years Gore will start to fade away. He still eclipsed the 1000 yard mark last season, but would best be served by limited carries.

Jeremy Hill: Hill seemingly peaked as a rookie. And based upon the Bengals using a second round pick on Mixon, they seem to agree. Likely an insurance policy for this year, before being released or traded next off season.

Carlos Hyde: A lot of smoke coming out of San Francisco that the new regime is not enthralled with Hyde. The addition of Tim Hightower indicates they at least don’t want to trust him exclusively.

Rob Kelley: Emerging star, or one hit wonder? My belief, is one hit wonder. A large cast of characters will compete for snaps in the Redskins camp, Kelley may start the season as RB1, but likely doesn’t finish that way.

Eddie Lacy: Maybe a change of scenery is exactly what Lacy needs. At the worst, the fish in Seattle will be better for him than all the cheese in Green Bay. This is Lacy’s last chance. He’ll either bounce back in a big way, or fade away after this season. Nothing in between seems likely.

Ryan Matthews

Ryan Matthews: Between his injury history, and backfield mates, Matthews hold on the Eagles starting job can at best be described as tentative. Even when healthy you now have to worry about Blount swooping in for those goal line carries.

Jonathan Stewart: After spending many years splitting carries with DeAngelo Williams, Stewart now finds himself in position to split carries again, now with a much younger, more versatile back. Stewart could be regulated to goal line back status for the Panthers.

Spencer Ware: Ware got the job last year for the Chiefs as a result of an injury to Jamaal Charles. While competent, he wasn’t outstanding. With the Chiefs using a 3rd round pick on a running back, they could look for a return on their investment sooner rather than later.

Terrance West: The Ravens boast a backfield full of mediocrity. And with Kenneth Dixon suspended to start the season, it seems likely West will get first crack at carries.

GROUP FOUR: (These guys will receive consistent work, as 3rd down backs. There may be chances for them to expand their roles on occasion, but at worst, they’ll provide consistent fantasy value, especially in leagues that award points per receptions.)

Gio Bernard: With two backs in place in Cincy, the addition of Mixon will cut into the usage for one of them. Based upon skill sets, it seems most likely that Bernard will remain safe

Rex Burkhead: Burkhead will have a large role with the Patriots. The question as always with New England, will be who plays from game to game. He could emerge as a better version of Danny Woodhead for Bill Belichick, or he could be a stud special teams player. Its too tough to tell.

Andre Ellington: Word out of Arizona is that Ellington may be deployed fairly often as a wide receiver, which will only increase his value, as David Johnson doesn’t seem likely to cede carries.

Duke Johnson: A 3rd down receiving back for a team that will be passing a lot. Johnson is certainly capable of taking carries from Crowell, but seems likely to be a poor man’s Gio Bernard in Hue Jackson’s offense.

Dion Lewis: Interesting tidbit, the Patriots have not lost a game that Lewis has played in. The two questions impacting Lewis and his fantasy value are one, can he remain healthy. And two, does anyone emerge consistently from the pack of James White, Rex Burkhead, and Dion Lewis?

Jalen Richard: He could be the recipient of playing time from the biggest boom or bust stud out there, Marshawn Lynch. Worst case Richard will be used to spell Lynch and catch some balls from Carr out of the backfield.

Theo Riddick

Theo Riddick: Out of the ashes of the Lions 2016 backfield emerged Theo Riddick as a fantasy stud. Capable of a spot start, Riddick will be a consistent weapon out of the backfield for the Lions in conjuncture with the fragile Abdullah.

Charles Sims: While it’ll likely be Rodgers who carries the load while Martin is suspended, the Bucs will likely keep Sims in his consistent role as the pass catching back for Winston regardless of who is the RB1

Darren Sproles: The quintessential scat back, Sproles’ biggest impact will remain in the kicking game, he is still one of the best receiving backs in the NFL, and the Eagles will be looking for ways to get him in the open field.

Shane Vereen: While its certainly possible that Vereen could acquire a larger role in the Giants offense, at worst he’ll be a valuable member of the rotation for Coach McAdoo. Given the chance, he can be electric.

James White: The hero of the superbowl, White was the recipient of a brand new contract in the off season, an indication that he could emerge from the pack as the Patriots go to receiving back. Always a valuable cog with Tom Brady running the offense.

Danny Woodhead: Speaking of receiving backs for the Patriots, Danny Woodhead arrives in Baltimore following  stop in San Diego, which I believe means whales vagina in german. With a group of running back infected by mediocrity, Woodhead should have no trouble finding a niche, even coming off an injury.

GROUP FIVE: (This is the inverse of group 3. These are guys who are splitting carries, and expected to be receiving the smaller slice of the pie, but should an injury occur, would be very capable of being productive backs)

Devontae Booker: The youngster in the Broncos group of backs, Booker seems very capable, but has Anderson and Charles in front of him

LaGarrete Blount: Capable of being an everydown back, at worst, he’ll likely be the goal line guy in Philly.

Tevin Coleman: As I’m sure his agent will argue in contract negotiations, Coleman is more than able to be a go to guy, with only the presence of Devonta Freeman in Atlanta holding him back.

Matt Forte: Rapidly approaching the end of his career, in a short stint may be okay. He may not be as good as he once was, but he’s as good once as he ever was.

Derrick Henry

Derrick Henry: A young back entering his second year, it wouldn’t be a complete shock if he were to surpass Murray on the Titans’ depth chart. Worst case, he is a more than capable sidekick.

Tim Hightower: After resurrecting a once dead career, Hightower has left New Orleans for a new home in San Francisco. Having once been coached by his father, he may be the veteran back Kyle Shanahan is looking for

Mark Ingram: A steady, though unspectacular back for New Orleans, he’ll now lose carries to future hall of famer Adrien Peterson. The questions surrounding him are not about talent, but usage.

Chris Ivory: He’s most likely the open up as the 3rd string running back in Jacksonville. He would have value if Fournette and or Yeldon went down, or if he was released in a camp cost cutting move.

Latavius Murray: After a few seasons of trying to make due with Asiata and McKinnon when Peterson was inevitably out, Murray was brought in (along with rookie Cook) to stabilize the Vikings running game. The question is, which wins out, Murray’s experience or Cook’s talent.

Adrien Peterson: A future hall of famer, coming off yet another injury, joins a backfield with an established starter, and an affinity for the passing game. I’d be hard pressed take more than a late round flyer on AP.

Thomas Rawls: The apple of fantasy drafters’ eyes last off season, he couldn’t manage to hold off Christine Michael in Seattle. With Lacy in the fold, and Prosise emerging, I don’t see Rawls being much more than an insurance policy.

Chicandrick West: Likely the third horse in a three horse race for snaps in the Chiefs backfield, he is still a name to keep an eye on when drafting as a possible handcuff.

TJ Yeldon: Likely the back up to open the year to Fournette in Jacksonville, he’ll still have some value, especially if Ivory is let go freeing up competition for scraps.

GROUP SIX: (While Fournette  is a near mortal lock to establish a prominent role in the Jags offensive schemes early, there are some other rookie runners whose path isn’t quite so well laid out. But they very well could be making a name for themselves sooner, rather than later.)

Dalvin Cook: Cook will get a slice of the Vikings backfield pie for sure, the only question is, how large a slice.

Kareem Hunt: Kansas City is very found of Hunts. Kareem is not likely to be an exception. He could wrestle the starting job from Ware quickly.

Marlon Mack: Eventually father time is going to catch Frank Gore. Will Mack be the lucky runner around for the Colts when he does.

Christian McCaffrey

Christian McCaffrey: Its a good thing the Panthers found someone so dynamic to help Cam Newton out of the backfield, because his receivers are useless. McCaffrey could very well get snaps as a slot receiver.

Samaje Perine: If I were a betting man, I would put my money on Perine emerging from the pack in the race to be the go to guy for the Redskins.

Jamaal Williams: Not sold on the ability of Ty Montgomery to hold up as an every down back over a full 16 game slate, the 3rd round pick of the Packers seems to be next in line.

Joe Williams: If Carlos Hyde is not Kyle Shanahan’s idea of a dream running back, and Tim Hightower has been around the block a few times, Joe Williams could end up being the 49ers lead runner.

GROUP SEVEN (A small list of guys to keep your eye on as camps open up):

Kenneth Dixon: He’ll open the season suspended for the Ravens. So whats the difference between him in group seven and Martin in group one? Martin’s role is secure, with a higher upside. (UPDATE: Requires surgery and has been ruled out for the season)

Rashad Jennings: Formerly of the Giants, and allegedly working out, intent on playing somewhere in 2017, he’s either biding his time to re-sign with the Giants and save on the wear of training camp, or he’s waiting for the inevitable training camp injury to occur.

DeAngelo Williams: See above for Jennings. Wouldn’t be a shock to see Williams wind up back with the Steelers after saving his body from training camp. But as of right now, he’s free to go where he pleases.

So there’s a pre-camp rundown of the running backs to keep an eye on. As always with the NFL, its better to be lucky than good, and health is a skill that not all these guys will be blessed with this year.

Come back in a few days for a breakdown on the league’s top wide receivers.

 

– Jason Sullivan

Find me on Twitter @TopDucker

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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