The 2014 Fantasy Football season won’t feature nearly as many three-down running backs like we are accustomed to. As the NFL continues to grow into a more pass-heavy league, the need for a team to have a true workhorse in the backfield isn’t as high a priority as it used to. We’ve seen this in free agency and also in the NFL Draft.
While last year’s draft saw three receivers taken in the first round (Tavon Austin, DeAndre Hopkins and Cordarrelle Patterson) of last year’s draft, a running back wasn’t chosen until the first several picks of the second (Giovani Bernard). And even Bernard wasn’t considered anything more than a part-time player behind BenJarvus Green-Ellis during his first year in Cincinnati. This is a far cry from, say, the 2005 draft where Ronnie Brown, Cedric Benson and Cadillac Williams were all taken within the top 5 picks.
So when you look at these rankings, bear in mind only a handful of these guys will be worth drafting in the first round. If your league offers PPR and 6 points for all touchdowns, quarterbacks and wide receivers (even tight ends) will dominate the top of the food chain.
1. Jamaal Charles – Chiefs
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Charles WAS the Chiefs’ offense in 2013. With Alex Smith taking on more of a game-managing role in his first year, Charles was a beast after reeling in close to 2,000 total yards from scrimmage, 70 catches and 19 total touchdowns. Another good thing about Charles is 2013 was really his first year as a true ball carrier thanks to Todd Haley’s lovefest for Thomas Jones a few years ago. So the fact that Charles doesn’t have as many carries under his belt compared to others on this list means he should be in for another big year. Upgrading the passing game with a solid No. 2 wideout across from Dwayne Bowe can only make Charles that much more effective. Knile Davis is currently slated as Charles’ handcuff, but that could change if Andy Reid feels Davis’ fumbling issues will be an ongoing problem.
2. LeSean McCoy – Eagles
The top three running backs, in my opinion, are the same three players. But there will be a strong argument as to which one deserves the top spot. I list McCoy at No. 2 not only because he topped a career year in rushing yards with 1,607, but his use in the passing game makes him more effective than Adrian Peterson. Having played just one year in Chip Kelly’s fast-paced offense, McCoy could be even better in 2014. Taking him No. 1 is hard to argue.
3. Adrian Peterson – Vikings
The only thing that keeps Peterson from being the No. 1 ranked running back is his injury history and his lack of catches. Peterson has only played one full season in 1 out of the last 4 years. While he still continues to put up strong rushing numbers, a full year of health would do wonders for his fantasy stock. Peterson might actually be a bigger fantasy threat in regards to catches now that OC Norv Turner is in the mix. I’ll forget Turner’s stint in Cleveland since that backfield had disaster written all over it once Trent Richardson was gone. If the Vikings can improve their passing game, which has to be a priority, and Turner can get Peterson more involved as a pass catcher, AD could have one of his best statistical years yet. Peterson is being ranked No. 1 in many early fantasy rankings, which I really can’t dispute. But for now, he is locked in as my No. 3.
4. Matt Forte – Bears
Forte got a big injection of fantasy value in Marc Trestman’s offense. Putting up career highs in rushing yards (1,339), rushing touchdowns (9) and receptions (74), the only thing that should worry owners is durability. At 28, Forte touched the ball more times in 2013 than he has since his rookie year. 2013 was also the first time Forte played a full season since 2010. Still, there is simply too much value in Forte to not take a chance and hope he holds up. He should easily match his numbers from last season. I’d also try and nab whichever running back winds up being Forte’s backup as the team is said to want to upgrade from Michael Bush.
5. Marshawn Lynch – Seahawks
I’ll wipe out the memory of Lynch’s 39-yard debacle against the Broncos in the Super Bowl. But owners should still take heed in regards to Lynch and the 2014 season. Playing in his 8th year, Lynch could start showing some wear after putting up two-straight seasons of 300+ carries. While he’s maintained a relatively healthy yards-per-carry average, it wouldn’t hurt owners one bit to keep an eye on the backup battle between Christine Michael and Robert Turbin. Lynch could see his value drop somewhat, but he won’t slip out of the top 7.
6. Doug Martin – Buccaneers
This is where it starts getting tricky. Once you get past the top 5 running backs, anyone is fair game and could be held in high regard. Martin’s 2013 season flat out sucked. There’s no 2 ways about it. Greg Schiano was a terrible hire from the start, the quarterback situation was at it’s low point and Martin was finally put out of his misery by a shoulder injury. Things look up for Martin in 2014. Newly-hired Lovie Smith likes a smash-mouth type playing style. Martin is also coming off an injury that shouldn’t keep him out of training camp. The big question is if Martin will be the guy, or if the team will want to see more Mike James and Bobby Rainey along the way. OC Jeff Tedford has already hinted some form of a committee.
7. Eddie Lacy – Packers
Lacy pushed aside all the offseason hooplah about him being out of shape and wound up finally giving the Packers offense what they needed: a consistent running game. James Starks is gone (for now anyway), leaving pint-sized DuJuan Harris and Johnathan Franklin to battle for the backup spot. Neither will push Lacy for carries, which means he should easily hit 1200-1300 yards in his sophomore year.
8. DeMarco Murray – Cowboys
If Murray was playing on a team other than the Cowboys, I might be more excited. But even Cowboys fans should realize how much of a screw up Jerry Jones has made his coaching staff. Jason Garrett is one more losing season from getting fired. Bill Callahan is staying on as offensive coordinator, but the team also hired former Lions OC Scott Linehan. Linehan’s hiring is said to have upset Callahan. It sounds to me like Callahan is being forced to stay so he can take over head coaching duties once Garrett is canned, which could happen before the end of the season is even over. Linehan would then be promoted from “passing game coordinator” to offensive coordinator. Only Jerrah would make hires that rock waves on the coaching staff. Hopefully the drama doesn’t filter down onto the playing field as Murray is coming off his best year to date. Aside from the coaching drama, Murray’s health is also an issue. But we now see what he can do on a full schedule. Playing in a contract year also doesn’t hurt. Murray could play over his head in order to secure a new long-term deal. Murray is a shaky pick, but one that comes with benefits. Lets just hope the coaching staff uses him properly.
9. Le’veon Bell – Steelers
Bell turned out to be a steal if you waited out his foot injury and his three-game absence to start the year. He was nothing more than an RB2 then, but the addition of Mike Munchak as the new offensive line coach will benefit Bell as he is expected to implement a zone-blocking scheme. Obviously Bell comes with some red flags since he is so fresh (like Lacy) and has already dealt with injury, but his upside is through the roof.
10. Arian Foster – Texans
Foster is the one player whose value will take a tumble this year. Revered as a top 2-3 running back for the past 3 years prior to 2013, Foster has many things stacked against him. Overuse, the loss of Gary Kubiak and recent back surgery could and should push Foster down even further in the rankings. I had considered guys like Reggie Bush and Zac Stacy at this spot. One of them could overtake Foster at No. 10 as we head closer to summer. But for now, I will give Foster the benefit of the doubt that he can come back to his pre-2013 form. How Foster looks in training camp will go along way in where owners draft him. If I had to pick now in an early league, I’d put Foster off my radar completely.