With one more week of playoff NFL football to go until we see which two teams will be representing in this year’s Super Bowl, it’s never too early to get a kick start on the 2014 Fantasy Football season. We’ve already seen which quarterbacks Phil thinks will rise to the occasion next season. Now lets take a look at 5 running backs I think can easily outproduce their 2013 numbers.
1. Montee Ball – Broncos
Coming off a 10 carry/52 yard performance against the Chargers Sunday, Ball is my top running back who should have a shot at a breakout year in 2014. Ball didn’t do as well as many dynasty and redraft owners had hoped because it turns out Knowshon Moreno can actually play football. Who would have thought after all those disappointing seasons. But with free agency looming for Moreno this offseason, the Broncos could opt to let him walk and hand the starting reigns to Ball next season. Ball averaged a very solid 4.7 yards per carry average and was the favorite near the goal line. He also proved a capable receiver, catching 20 passes and averaging a little over 7 yards per catch. Ball does come with some downside. He still has to work on his pass protection, although he has gotten better. He also has to keep his fumbling issues to a minimum after losing 3 this year. I’ll admit that Ball’s status is still up-in-the-air due to Moreno’s team status. However, there is enough upside that Ball should top his 34.9 rushing yards per game average.
2. Giovani Bernard – Bengals
It’s pretty close between Bernard and Ball in regards to who deserve the No. 1 spot as a breakout candidate next season, but Bernard’s size is a factor. At 5/8, 202 pounds, do the Bengals view Bernard as an every-down back? He never topped more than 15 carries in more than one game, but his pass-catching abilities set him apart from Benjarvus Green-Ellis. The good news is former OC Jay Gruden is heading to Washington as the Redskins’ next head coach. New OC Hue Jackson could take a shot and easily give Bernard a better chance at supplanting BGE for the starting job. At the very least, Bernard will have a much bigger role in 2014. One also has to take into account that Law Firm is due $2.3 million, which is a lot for a player who is in a part time role. And for a player who loses snaps once the team falls behind due to his inability in the passing game. Could the Bengals cut bait and let Green-Ellis go? That’s a possibility. Bernard is a rare talent and is around the same size as players like Ray Rice and Maurice Jones-Drew. Bernard could turn heads if he can pack on more muscle this spring. While his 4.1 ypc average wasn’t outstanding, it wasn’t bad for a kid his size. Bernard’s receiving abilities speak for itself. Adding more muscle will only make him stronger between the tackles. While his status, like Ball’s, is questionable, there is simply too much upside not to list Bernard as another possible breakout star.
3. Shane Vereen – Patriots
Even though Vereen already has a big role in the New England offense, he has yet to have that one solid year due to Stevan Ridley sharing the ball. Now that Ridley is coming off the bench behind, of all players, LeGarrette Blount, the Patriots could and should lean on Vereen more in the running game next year. He’s already one of the team’s best receivers. He’s also increased his yards-per-carry average from 3.8 in 2011 to 4.7 in 2013. The downside to Vereen is Bill Belichick, who has yet to show a willingness to give one running back the ball and roll with him for an entire season. Blount is a free agent and it’s hard to see the Pats bringing him back despite his rebirth in the playoffs. He could leave and hope another team gives him one more shot as a possible starter. Ridley will stay as he’s only due a little over $700,000 in the last year of his contract. He won’t be signing a new deal anytime soon and there was talk he won’t be handed back the starting job next year either. Not after his doghouse season. This leaves Vereen as the only true running back left with any real value. Will that translate to the starting job in 2014? Probably not, but it should. Vereen has done enough that he deserves at least 15 carries a game, if not more. Figure that in with his receptions and Vereen should be on the RB2 radar in PPR leagues.
4. Zac Stacy – Rams
After letting Steven Jackson go after the 2012 season, the Rams had a mish mash of undersized guys on their roster like Daryl Richardson, Isaiah Pead and Benny Cunningham. It wasn’t until Jeff Fisher decided to roll the dice and go with the rookie Stacy before he realized he finally had his starting running back of the future. Once named the starter in Week 5, Stacy ran 250 times, totaled 973 rushing yards and 7 rushing scores. His 4 100+ yard games was also an eye opener. Stacy could have easily been a bigger force in the backfield hadn’t it been for a passing game that was simply woeful, thus allowing defenses to stack the box. Even the addition of TE Jared Cook did nothing. Stacy won’t be a stud in PPR leagues after amassing a mere 26 catches, but he will be on the radar as an RB2 in all league formats in 2014 because of the Adrian-Peterson type carries he will get every week. If the Rams can make upgrades to their offensive line and passing game (They ranked 27th in the league, averaging 195.3 yards a game through the air), Stacy will surpass his first 1000-yard rushing season in 2014.
5. Andre Ellington – Cardinals
Who knows just how well Ellington could have done this past year if it wasn’t for Bruce Arians’ loyalty to retread Rashard Mendenhall. The Cardinals still fielded one of the worst offensive line in the league, which made Ellington’s 5.5 ypc average even more baffling. He also did major damage through the air, catching 36 passes and averaging 24.7 receiving yards a game. In total, Ellington averaged close to 70 all-purpose yards per game WHILE in a timeshare, adding 4 all-purpose touchdowns. The good news for Ellington is Mendenhall is set to be a free agent. I’d be shocked if he was welcomed back. Not after averaging a paltry 3.2 yards per carry. This output was his lowest since his 2008 rookie year. Ellington plans to “put on a little more weight” this offseason in hopes of a larger 2014 role. That larger role should turn into the starting job, unless the team drafts a running back high or makes a splash in free agency. Ellington doesn’t have the upside as his predecessors, but a quiet offseason could change that by the summer time.