I have to be honest, after last year’s historic running back collapse, I find it hard to trust running backs at all this year.The top 4 backs in our running back rankings are no brainers (or as much of a no brainer as RB’s can be these days) but after that tier I don’t love this year’s crop of RB’s much at all. Instead I’ve been tinkering with a wide receiver heavy draft strategy for most of the off-season and I’m really liking what I see so far.
With that said, you still need to draft a running back and there are still some good value backs that can be had in the second round or later if you’re not lucky enough to get a top 4 pick in your fantasy draft. Some of these backs are their team’s clear starter (or close to it) while others need a break or two to get full time carries. Regardless of their outlook these are running backs that I’m looking to have on my team in almost every draft I have, and I think you should too. So without further ado, let’s get right in to this year’s set of running backs to target for 2014.
Who Are The Quarterbacks To Target In 2014?
Montee Ball, Denver Broncos – Simply put, if you’re on the same field as Peyton Manning you’re almost guaranteed to produce. Nobody exemplifies that more than last year’s Broncos starter, Knowshon Moreno who was virtually left for dead – inactive most of 2012 – before he turned in to a top 4 fantasy running back. Well in 2014 Moreno is gone and it should be Ball’s turn to take over the starter’s job in Denver’s league leading offense.
The second round pick got off to a rough start last year fumbling in two of the team’s first three games and saw his playing time cut down to almost nothing for a few weeks. Down the stretch Ball earned back the teams trust and responded by averaging 5.4 yards per carry from week 12 through the Super Bowl.
I do want to warn that Ball isn’t without risk coming in to the season. He hasn’t officially been handed the starting job and he’ll need to beat out CJ Anderson and Ronnie Hillman in the pre-season, but I’m confident that he will. He will also need to continue to improve with both ball control and pass protection because nothing would get him on the bench faster than getting Peyton Manning killed by a blind side pass rusher.
Right now Ball is being selected as the 11th back off the board with an ADP of 24 (although I expect that to rise to late first/early second round range). If you miss out on one of the top 5 backs because you have a late draft slot, Ball is definitely a player you should look to target in your draft.
DeMarco Murray, Dallas Cowboys – As much as I hate to say it as a Giants fan, Murray is one of the league’s more under-appreciated running backs, especially in fantasy.
No back in the league runs harder than Murray (occasionally to his own detriment) and in 2014, Murray led all starting running backs in yards per carry at 5.2 yards per pop and racked up almost 1,500 total yards in just 14 games.
With all of the weapons in Dallas like Dez Bryant, Jason Witten and Terrance Williams, teams need to gear up to stop the pass on every play which leaves Murray a lot of room to work with. Murray is also an underrated pass catcher hauling in 53 passes last year, and I anticipate this number rising now that Scott Linehan is calling the plays in Big D.
There is some risk with Murray in that he runs so hard on every play – often looking for contact – that he gets himself hurt and usually misses at least a game or two. Obviously if he misses more than a couple games it’s a big blow to your fantasy team, so only draft him if you’re willing to take on a little risk. On a game per game basis however, there are few better.
Murray is currently being drafted as the 8th back off the board in the middle to end of round 2, but I have him 6 among running backs and would be happy to have him as my lead back, especially if he falls. The injury risk is there, but as long as you have good depth behind him you should be fine if he only misses a week or two.
Bishop Sankey, Tennessee Titans – I’m not much of a college football guy, but when I was scouting this year’s rookies Sankey’s tape jumped out at me, even before he posted an impressive combine. He’s not a huge back, but he’s big enough in today’s NFL and he is an elusive runner who shows the ability to run hard inside as well as make big plays in the open field.
Under new coach Ken Whisenhunt, and with a less than desirable passing game, the Titans should be a run first offense and Sankey should be the primary beneficiary. The Titans also have a very solid offensive line with a slew of first round talent including this year’s first round pick Taylor Lewan and free agent signee Michael “Blind Side” Oher. That O-Line should open up a lot of holes and make Sankey’s job much easier.
There’s always some risk with rookies, but I’ve been drafting rookie running backs as my RB2 for years and it’s a strategy that usually pays off. Right now Sankey has a great price, drafted 22nd among running backs, right around players like Trent Richardson, Ben Tate and Ray Rice. I would be stunned… stunned I say, if Sankey didn’t outperform all of them this season.
Toby Gerhart, Jacksonville Jaguars – For running backs, it’s all about opportunity and outside of the top 5-6 backs, nobody should have a bigger workload in 2014 than Toby Gerhart.
Stuck behind one of the best backs in the history of the league, Gerhart got his chance to show what he can do when the Jaguars signed Gerhart to a three year contract in the off-season. The coaching staff immediately expressed the desire for him to be the team’s workhorse, and be on the field for all three downs, which is great news for fantasy owners. The Jags backfield is nothing special behind Gerhart with Jordan Toddman and rookie Storm Johnson behind him, so Gerhart should get a ton of work and could be looking at 250-300 carries this season in an improving offense.
Gerhart gets compared to Mike Alstott quite a bit, but that’s a lazy comparison due more to his skin color than his playing ability. While Gerhart is not outstanding in any one particular area, he’s a complete back who can run people over as well as away from them. He can be a contributor in the passing game, and can keep Chad Henne or Blake Bortles upright with his pass protection.
Right now Gerhart has an ADP of 78 which puts him in the mid 6th round and if the coaching staff is true to their word he’s an ideal #2 running back based on workload alone.
Christine Michael, Seattle Seahawks – You didn’t think I could go a whole article without mentioning Christine did you?
Michael is a physical freak who turned in one of the best combine workouts ever recorded by a running back. At the 2012 combine Michael was a top performer in bench press, vertical jump, broad jump, three cone, and 20 yard shuttle, in addition to a 4.54 40 (NFL.com has a great video of Michael’s combine workout). If not for some off the field indiscretions (and sleeping through an interview at the combine) he might have broken in to the first round last year.
The Seahawks have a crowded backfield with both Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin, but as I mentioned in the RB rankings article, Lynch has a lot of mileage on the tires and has had over 1,000 carries over the past three seasons and running backs fall off quickly… remember Shaun Alexander? Turbin is a nice backup, but he’s not the talent that Michael is and should be the third fiddle this season.
The Seahawks coaching staff has been glowing all off-season about Michael and have repeatedly mentioned their desire to at least work Michael in to a rotation in 2014. Assuming they stick to that plan Michael would have a Joique Bell 2013 floor, and upside for a lot more
Michael is being drafted in the 8th round, 30th among running backs and although his production is not a lock like some of the backs mentioned earlier, he’s got top 5 upside in that offense if something happens to Lynch.
Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons – Sankey, Carlos Hyde and Tre Mason are getting a lot of love this pre-season, but there’s a good chance that this year’s top rookie running back to own is Devonta Freeman in Atlanta.
The Falcons offense is loaded, everyone is healthy and they should feature one of the league’s better offensive lines with Sam Baker back on the field and rookie Jake Matthews added to the mix. With defenses gearing up to stop the pass, whichever Atlanta running back is on the field is going to have a lot of room to run, and a lot of chances to score touchdowns.
While I do like Steven Jackson this season, he’s 31 years old and nagging leg injuries have been creeping up on him for the last three seasons. In 2011 he dealt with quad issues, in 2012 he played through a groin injury and last season a hamstring injury cost him four games and a whole lot of production. At a minimum I expect Freeman to mix in to keep S-Jax fresh, but he could be so much more, even with Jackson on the field.
The knock on Freeman is size, but he’s bigger than backs like Gio Bernard and Andre Ellington who are both going in the third round or earlier. He’s a tough runner, and can handle goal line work if asked to, and although he doesn’t have track star speed, he’s explosive enough to break big runs to the outside.
Right now Freeman is being drafted as the 40th running back off the board in the 10th round, but I wouldn’t be afraid to pull the trigger a round or two before that. Outside of Sankey he has the best opportunity of any rookie back to produce right away, and should anything happen to Jackson, could move in to the top half of our running back rankings for 2015.