Unlike every other position I have written about thus far, the running back position seems to get shallower and shallower each year. It is simply a factor of the NFL in this day and age, teams do not like to just use one work horse and certainly feel that throwing the ball all over the field is more beneficial than grinding out a win. Therefore, the running back position is less featured than ever before. One telling fact is how long it now takes teams to draft running backs. Bishop Sankey went 54th overall in the 2014 NFL draft, which is the latest the first running back off the board has ever gone.
Teams feel they can plug any running back into their scheme, and they find it more important to surround that player with talent than to use a high draft pick on a running back. Regardless of how the NFL is changing in terms of fantasy production, it doesn’t change the fact that you need to pay attention to running backs in your fantasy draft. There are three main factors to look at when drafting a running back: their talent, their opportunity (mainly in terms of touches), and the scoring potential of their offense. Since most teams split carries between two, if not three, running backs, having a ball carrier that will get the majority of the touches is as important as it has ever been when deciding on who to draft.
Draft Day Outlook
There are only six elite running backs and all should be going in the first round of any draft no matter the format. Jamaal Charles, Matt Forte, LeSean McCoy, Adrian Peterson, Montee Ball, and Eddie Lacy all have a great combination of talent and high volume touches, making them first round worthy. Due to only having one year of experience, we have Ball and Lacy slightly behind the other four but the offenses they play on could yield the most opportunities for touchdowns, so they must be considered in the first round as well.
After the top six at the position are gone, there are real question marks for every other back left on the board. Due to that fact, I recommend targeting non-first round backs based on your settings. A prime example of this is looking at Marshawn Lynch and Giovani Bernard. Lynch has been a beast for the past few seasons and now that his holdout is over I still expect solid numbers out of him. However, in a point per reception league one must seriously consider Giovani Bernard and his 56 catches from a season ago over Lynch. That is 20 more catches than Lynch and all signs point to Bernard far surpassing that number in 2014. There are also nice volume plays after the first round in Le’Veon Bell and DeMarco Murray. Bell did not average a huge amount of yards per carry but the Steelers leaned on him quite a bit and will do so again this year. DeMarco Murray is always an injury concern but when he was healthy the second half of the year he was a monster. During that time he averaged 110 total yards a game and scored 7 times in eight games. Those are solid numbers, but the reason he is not a first rounder are the injury concerns.
Due to the lack of running back depth this season, the average draft position of the higher upside running backs is at an all-time high, but the potential of Andre Ellington, Zac Stacy, C.J. Spiller, Doug Martin, or the volume play of Alfred Morris are intriguing. You will have to spend a pick between the 25-35 mark to grab any of these players but most likely you are looking at your RB2. Last season this was the Eddie Lacy area and we all know how that turned out.
If you have read my other draft day articles you know I believe there is a ton of depth at the wide receiver position and you can wait on a tight end as well. That means, you do not have to fill up all of your starter slots before drafting a player that would be on your bench. You are allowed to take a bench running back before you select your WR2 or TE1. Players like Bishop Sankey, Frank Gore, Ben Tate, Ryan Mathews, and Toby Gerhart all have the chance to far exceed their draft day average draft position. The reason they are not listed as high as the other running back discussed is due to the downside. There is a ton of risk from this point on in the draft so grabbing a few running backs in the middle rounds makes sense.
Once you get past the top 20 at the position there is no shame in grabbing the remaining starting running backs just to have a little bit of depth at the position. All too often the injury bug hits the running back position, so having some depth can certainly mitigate your risk. Also due to injury concerns, handcuffing your studs or injury prone backs is a great idea. For those that do not know, handcuffing a running back means if you draft a top running back early then you grab their backup in the later rounds of a draft. As an example, if you draft Frank Gore in the third round be sure to grab Carlos Hyde later in your draft.
Even if you do not own the incumbent starter, it is fine to draft a player like Hyde, Christine Michael, Devonta Freeman, Charles Sims, or Terrance West late in a draft. Not only do they all have a ton of upside if the starter goes down but all could gain more and more carries during the season due to their talent. Would it be shocking to see Doug Martin fail again and Charles Sims to sneak into a starting role? Absolutely not. Even if you did not draft Doug Martin you can always steal someone else’s handcuff, there are no friends in fantasy football, only championships.
Draft Day Advice
Draft running backs early and often. There is no way to come out of a draft with too many running backs. During the season the good ones can be traded for such a premium price, so even if you have a bounty of riches at the position, that is not a terrible thing. When deciding on whom to pick up later in a draft, the settings are key. In a point per reception league you can find much more value later (just look at Danny Woodhead from a season ago). Undrafted in many leagues, Woodhead ended the year as a top 15 player in point per reception leagues. Again, do not be too concerned with filling up your roster before drafting a bench running back. Anytime a running back slips in the draft it is a good idea to pick them up, as there is so much depth at every other position this fantasy football season.
Running Back Notables
Top Rookie: Bishop Sankey – Sankey is slowly climbing up draft boards and for good reason. He is penciled in as the every down running back for the Titans. Furthermore, the Titans have boosted their offensive line and expect to be one of the teams that run the ball the most in the NFL. Not a bad situation for the rookie and his upside is as high as anyone that is being drafted after pick 35.
Guy That Will Slip But Shouldn’t: Trent Richardson – I know he was terrible before the trade and then even worse when he joined the Colts, but he is a starting running back on a solid offense. Sure, he might have a short leash but I have to expect he has a ton of motivation this year after all the hate he got last season. There is a reason you do not see many mid-season big trades in the NFL and I think Richardson is a prime example of that. I expect a big year for Richardson and he will probably find his way onto many of my teams simply because the second running back of many committees are going ahead of him, which I feel is crazy.
Best Handcuff: Devonta Freeman – I can be pretty blunt here, the gang at FantasySmackTalk are not the biggest Steven Jackson fans. We had a thought that he was going to get hurt last year due to the crazy volume of touches he has had during his career and sure enough he did. Coming into this season we have the same feelings and I will not be drafting Jackson in any of my leagues and targeting Freeman in all of them.
PPR Sleeper: Pierre Thomas – Pierre Thomas had 77 catches catches last season. That certainly came as a shock to everyone a season ago but with Darren Sproles now in Philadelphia there has to be an above average chance that happens again this season. With a current average draft position above 85 that is an absolute steal in point per reception leagues.