RUNNING BACK TARGETS AND TRAPS
You can win a fantasy league without an elite quarterback. You can even win a fantasy league without an elite wide receiver. Try and win a fantasy league without stability at the running back position and you’re going to participate in an exercise in futility. Since the dawn of time, running backs have been the heart and soul of fantasy teams everywhere. Why? First off, if they’re in your lineup, you expect them to touch the ball anywhere from 20 to 25 times a game, whether on the ground or through the air. These guys don’t grow on trees, and it is much easier to find a wide receiver or a tight end that comes out of nowhere than it is a running back. For example, if you were lucky to have Adrian Peterson on your team last year, you probably did pretty well. Nobody expected anywhere close to that performance off of his horrific injury, but don’t get me wrong – I am not going to sit here and wax poetic on why you should draft Adrian Peterson. You can figure that out on your own. The purpose of this article is to identify five under the radar targets and five traps at the running back position, and this year more than ever you need to pay close attention to how several situations have changed around the league.
If you were paying attention, in last week’s article about quarterbacks I teased the fact that I had a guy who was a top 10 borderline consensus running back across the board in my top three. Spiller will finally get his chance to be the featured back in an offense that doesn’t have a answer right now at quarterback. Furthermore, according to all reports this will be a run heavy offense, brought in by new head coach Doug Marrone who ran it at Syracuse. Last year, he averaged six yards a carry, combined for over 1700 yards rushing and receiving and had eight TD to boot. With Fred Jackson reduced to a backup role, expect Spiller to shine for the Bills, especially out of the backfield. He caught 43 balls last year, and you can expect that number to rise whether it’s Kevin Kolb or EJ Manuel at QB. They’ll be looking to checkdown to the most explosive player on the field, a guy that can break free for a touchdown from any point on the field. Did you know other than Adrian Peterson, Spiller was the only running back to average more than five and a half yards per carry in 2012? The Bills only face one team, Pittsburgh, that finished last season ranked in the top five against running backs. I’m drafting Spiller with a top three to five selection, and I’m thrilled about it. You should be too, if you’re lucky enough to get your hands on him.
I listed Matthew Stafford in my quarterback “targets”, and I am bullish on another Lion in 2013. This is a guy who is a multi-dimensional back and now will be featured in the most pass happy offense in the league. Reggie Bush last year playing with a rookie QB still rushed for almost 1000 yards in Miami, caught 35 balls and accumulated eight TD’s along the way. All those numbers are going to go up as he now gets to play in an offense that has several weapons including the unstoppable Calvin Johnson. The Lions have not had a 1000 yard rusher in almost a decade, but I expect that to change this year. Teams won’t load up the box knowing how the Lions love to go downfield, giving Bush more room to roam, especially catching balls out of the backfield. He caught a career high 52 balls in 2008 with the Saints, and I expect him to eclipse that mark in 2013. The Lions threw 116 targeted balls to their running backs in 2012. Not a misprint. 116. With Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell taking a backseat to the former Saint and Dolphin, expect a career year at age 28 for Bush and don’t hesitate to draft him as soon as the second round, especially in Point Per Reception (PPR) leagues.
The Broncos cut Willis McGahee and with good reason. It was time to get younger at running back, and taking the keys is a very talented rookie from Wisconsin, a guy who holds the NCAA Division I record with 83 touchdowns. This is not Ron Dayne part two, folks. You can’t teach having that nose for the end zone, and that’s exactly what Montee Ball possesses. At 5-foot-10, 217 pounds, he is built like a truck and runs like one too. Rumors are that he won’t open training camp as the starter, but with Ronnie Hillman and the former Georgia Bulldog Knowshon Moreno as his only competition, it won’t be long before Ball is the bellcow back in the Broncos offense. Everyone thinks because the Broncos have Peyton Manning and now Wes Welker, it will be more of a pass heavy offense than last year. It still may be pass happy, but head coach John Fox has always loved to run the ball, totaling the 11th most rushes in the league last season. Even if he doesn’t get to 1000 yards this season, expect double digit touchdowns and a performance worthy of your number two running back slot in your lineup. Draft him as early as round five.
A forgotten man amongst most fantasy owners, and with good reason, is Darren McFadden. After showing so much promise in 2010 combining for over 1600 yards and 10 touchdowns, he has played in just 19 games the past two seasons combining for 1700 yards and eight touchdowns over that span. I’m a believer this year, for several reasons. First off, Carson Palmer and his 45-50 pass attempts per game are gone, and in comes Matt Flynn and a revamped West Coast offense installed by Greg Olson, the new offensive coordinator. Olson has repeatedly said during the offseason that McFadden will be the focal point of the offense, catching balls out of the backfield in addition to receiving a healthy dose of carries per game. In fact, McFadden in 12 games last year caught 42 balls. Extrapolate that to a 16 game season and you have 56 catches for the Raiders tailback, good enough for top five in the league in that category, hypothetically. Funny I mention that word. Hypothetically. Look that word up in the dictionary and you see Darren McFadden’s picture. Injuries have really crippled his once promising young career, but he is only 25 and still has time in his prime to become the back we all thought he would be when he was drafted with a top 10 selection five years ago. I predict big things in 2013 for the former Arkansas Razorback, even with his history of injuries. Arguably the biggest early round risk in fantasy at the running back position, I’m giving the green light to take him as your number two back in the early rounds, and there’s a high probability of him performing like a top 10 back this season.
MAURICE JONES DREW
When guys disappear from the fantasy scene for a year like MJD did in 2012, they tend to fall the next year in drafts. That’s exactly what is happening to the Jaguars featured back this offseason. People seem to have lost faith in him, but not me. After combining for almost 2000 yards on the ground and through the air in 2011, a Lisfranc foot injury sidelined him from week seven on last season resulting in zero contributions for a guy who was a projected top five back going into the year. All reports are he’s fully healthy, and entering the final year of a five-year, $31 million contract, he’ll be more motivated than ever to get that one last big payday at the age of 28. Three home games during your league’s playoffs doesn’t hurt either, as the conditions in Jacksonville will in all likelihood be ideal. With arguably the most unstable quarterback situation in the NFL, people are down on the Jaguars as a whole. Not me. They drafted Luke Joeckel from Texas A&M with their first round pick to help in pass protection and more importantly for MJD, the run game. I think this all sets up for for MJD to vault himself into the conversation as one of the best backs in the league yet again. Grab him as early as round two.
I’m not going to sit here and tell you to pass on Arian Foster, because I didn’t fall down with the last drop of rain. I am going to sit here and tell you there are several running backs I like more than Foster in 2013. The Texans tailback ran the ball 351 times last season, a career high, and a heavy workload is going to start wearing on him at some point. I get the fact he carries the ball in the red zone a ton, but his 4.06 YPC average was a career worst, and I am not a big believer in the Texans as a whole this season. Matt Schaub was listed in my quarterbacks “traps” category last week, and this week it’s another Texan featured in Foster. Their offensive line has two guys, LG Wade Smith and RT Derek Newton, coming off of offseason knee surgery. In the fantasy playoffs last year? Weeks 13 and 15 he combined for 61 yards on 25 carries, had six receptions for 53 yards and just ONE touchdown. Sandwiched in there was a nice 27 carry, 165 yard performance but he failed to find the end zone in that game as well. Foster is still deserving of a top 10 pick, but not a top five one for me.
Alfred Morris was a revelation out of Florida Atlantic in 2012, rushing for 75 or more yards in all but two games, totaling 13 touchdowns and amassing over 1600 yards in a spectactular rookie season. You can’t expect him to duplicate that this season, and there are a couple of good reasons why. First off, and most importantly, the Redskins will now play a first place schedule which includes the likes of Denver, San Francisco and Chicago, all ranked in the top five against the run last season. He doesn’t catch any passes, hauling in only 11 balls last season, and despite what you hear from head coach Mike Shanahan about him being more involved in the passing game this year, it’s all subterfuge. He wasn’t good out of the backfield in college, he wasn’t good last season catching passes and they know it. His strength is running within that zone blocking scheme, an inside runner who gets the tough yards when called upon. I’m not saying Morris won’t be productive, but he won’t be my first round pick..Unless you’re drafting at the tail end of round one, he shouldn’t be under consideration to be yours either.
Reliable as they come, the past five years Frank Gore has rushed for an average of around 1100 yards and 7 or 8 touchdowns a season. Look deeper into the numbers of last season and you’ll realize this is a guy not only being phased out of the offense but could be approaching the late stages of his prime at the age of 30. Not a big guy at 5’9, he has carried the ball a ton the past few seasons and you could see towards the end of 2012 it started taking a toll. When Colin Kaepernick was inserted as the starter, Gore’s production fell off considerably, failing to register a 100 yard game on the ground and averaging a pedestrian 4.0 yards per carry the second half of the season. As a big fan of what LaMichael James can do as a change of pace back, I am not high on Gore’s chances to be even a capable second running back on my fantasy team this season. Steer clear and let someone else take him.
With Ahmad Bradshaw gone, the diminutive dynamo from Virginia Tech enters his second year in the league now the unquestioned starter in New York. We as fantasy owners love hearing the words “unquestioned starter”, especially at running back. Buyer beware on Wilson though, and the red flags are everywhere. He was in head coach Tom Coughlin’s doghouse for fumbling issues last season and was more effective on kick returns than anything else. He will certainly lose carries not only on third downs but inside the red zone as well to Andre Brown, who totaled eight touchdowns last season in a limited role before a season ending injury. Can he break a 70 or 80 yard touchdown on any given carry? Sure, but those will be few and very far between. In your fantasy playoffs this year? The Giants are on the road for two and the home game in between is against Seattle, one of the best teams against the run last season. Let someone else overdraft him and struggle to comprehend why at season’s end he only wound up with four or five touchdowns. He won’t be on my team, that’s for certain.
BENJARVUS GREEN ELLIS
Totaling over 1000 yards last season on 278 carries is unlikely to happen again for the Bengals running back, who only found the end zone six times despite over 300 touches if you factor in his reception total. This is simply a two down back, a guy who failed to average four yards a carry last season and a guy who is in an offense that absolutely loves to throw the ball in the red zone. Andy Dalton last season threw for 27 TD last year, and the bulk of them were fades to AJ Green or short passes to Jermaine Gresham. With only one touchdown during the last quarter of the season for Green Ellis, the Bengals coaching staff decided in April to draft a guy who can spell him and can play on third downs. Giovani Bernard, the rookie from North Carolina, excelled at catching balls out of the backfield and was a above average pass protector in college. Drafting Bernard and also tight end Tyler Eifert from Notre Dame tells me that the Bengals offense will be more balanced this year with a lot more distribution not only in the running game but the passing game as well. This is another guy who owners will target as their number two back, but he’s a third back at best for me, maybe even as low as a fourth. Another guy you want nowhere near your team.
Next week we’ll dive into “targets” and “traps” for the deepest position in the draft, wide receiver, and I’ll tell you why I don’t have Calvin Johnson ranked number one going into 2013.
Till next time,