2013 Fantasy Football Outlook: Running Backs

Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson is the #1 running back in Fantasy Football for the upcoming season.An NFL running back is the workhorse of a team’s offense. The stumbler, rumbler, and hopefully not fumbler, is the key component to a successful fantasy team as well. On average, the elite running backs will score more points than their counterparts with lesser skill sets. The best way to win your league in a given year is to draft the best value players at a given position, and the numbers show that taking a running back early is the best path to the  fantasy promised land. But the masters of the ground game are a dime a dozen once you get past the perennial studs like Adrian Peterson and Arian Foster. For the 2013 season, there are numerous diamonds in the rough, but you have to know where to look (hint: It’s not New Orleans). Below is a list of running backs scaled based on value determined draft position. Tier’s A, B, and C  are groups destined to help you reach your wildest fantasy (get it?). After that, sleepers and busts to help guide your later rounds.

Tier A

There is no need to go into a long winded explanation as to why Adrian Peterson, Arian Foster, Ray Rice, and Marshawn Lynch belong here. If you are lucky enough to grasp at a top pick, chances are one of these gentlemen of the ground game will have a permanent starting spot in your fantasy lineup. After these workhorses, there are but a few game changers left at the running back position. First among these is Buccaneers’ RB Doug Martin. As a rookie, Martin rushed for nearly 1,500 yards and 11 TD’s. Martin also caught 49 passes for 472 yards and a TD.  If you have a shot at a rookie who gained nearly 2,000 yards from scrimmage in his first year, take the gamble on a generous learning curve heading into his second season. Furthermore, Martin has been nicknamed, muscle hamster, by his teammates. What’s not to like? Another running back with massive potential this year is Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles. The Chiefs have a new look offense after the installation of the pass-heavy (pun intended) Andy Reid as head coach. Kansas City also received Alex Smith  in a trade with the San Francisco 49ers, giving their offense the kind of versatility necessary to succeed in the NFL. Expect Charles to catch more passes than ever before, and face less crowded defensive fronts along the line of scrimmage, a formula destined for success in the fantasy spectrum.

Tier B

A lot of boom or bust potential resides here, as well as a large group of guys who would be in Tier A, if not for one small shortcoming. Leading this group of good but not great, is Bills running back C.J. Spiller. Spiller has been confirmed as a lead back by head coach Doug Marrone, and is only in this group because of the handcuff provided by veteran stumbler Fred Jackson. I highly condone the selection of Spiller in the first round as his versatility and blazing speed makes him a must have as a fantasy option, but keep in mind his injury history. If Spiller is your guy in round one, keep an eye on Fred Jackson in later rounds. Browns rookie Trent Richardson won’t join fellow sophomore rusher Doug Martin in tier A due to his injury history. The Crimson Tide alum battled knee, rib, and ankle injuries in 2012 in addition to being on a team with a lackluster offensive line, and a quarterback who would be better off in AA baseball.  Nonetheless, Richardson is an excellent pass catcher, goal line runner, and has a motor that won’t quit. Injury is a major risk but Richardson could pay dividends should he fall into the late first or early second round.  The trifecta of spectacular rookie rushers from a year ago was completed by Redskins’ tailback Alfred Morris. Morris became part of the best rushing attack in college football alongside fellow rookie Robert Griffin III in 2012, and will look to continue that success heading into 2013. While drafting running backs on teams coached by Mike Shanahan is like kissing your sister, Morris will look to build on a year in which he rushed for over 1,600 yards and 13 touchdowns. Furthermore he loses some value in PPR leagues due to his lack of pass catching skills and injuries to the aforementioned RGIII; Morris will be the bell of the draft value ball should he fall into the second round. One of the biggest question marks going into the 2013 season surrounds the offense in Philadelphia. No one other than Chip Kelly knows the gameplan to be for the Eagles, though LeSean McCoy will play a large part in it. A top five pick a season ago, McCoy will be utilized early and often by the Eagles’ and will play many different roles on the offense, including slot receiver. McCoy could be a make or break type pick this year, as his explosiveness and pass catching ability make him a can’t miss player in the right spot. I put Shady’s value at late first to mid second rounds, grab him if he is there.

Tier C

Miss out on the top flight of running backs? Never fear, Matt Forte is here! When healthy, Forte is a fantasy boon and is used in a variety of ways across the Bears’ offense. Even with his frequent ankle and knee injuries, Forte still managed to hit the 1,000 yard rushing mark in 2012. Though Michael Bush will take most of the goal line carries for Chicago, Forte Is an excellent mid-round pick, and is extra valuable in PPR formats. With the Patriots’ plans for their tight ends in shambles, Stevan Ridley could play a larger role in New England than his rookie season,  in which he rushed for over 1,200 yards and 12 TD’s. Though the presence of Shane Vereen will, and rightly so, scare away many perspective owners, Ridley could pay dividends if drafted in the right spot While he is not a first round selection, many owners would be very happy to have him as a low end RB1 or high end RB2 option.  Chris Johnson has been a boom or bust style player since his 2,000 yard season just a few years ago.  CJ2K is in his prime at 28, and has managed to rush for over a thousand yards in each of the past two season. Johnson will also play behind the best offensive line he has ever had, matched by one of the better offenses in Tennesse since the Eddie George glory days. As a second RB option, you can’t wish for better than Chris Johnson. The same could be said for 49ers running back Frank Gore. The ageless veteran has finally reached the fall off point for running backs, the dreaded age of 30. While Gore ranked 12th in total carries a season ago, he certainly benefits from playing behind what is considered the best offensive line in football. Gore will also compete for touches with the versatile Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James, and rookie Marcus Lattimore, though the latter is unlikely to see the field in 2013. Gore would be great as a RB2, but the days of his fantasy dominance are likely over.

Denver took a gamble in the offseason by releasing their leading rusher of a year ago, Willis McGahee and drafting Wisconsin’s Montee Ball. Presuming that Ball will take over the leading rush duties in Denver, he could prove valuable as a mid -round draft option. Ball looks to be an excellent goal line option, and could also be quite the touchdown vulture to Ronnie Hillman or Knowshon Moreno should either of those two beat him out for the starting job. Three letters have resonated in the minds of fantasy players for almost a decade: MJD. Maurice Jones-Drew is at the precipice of fantasy relevance, after he missed most of 2012 with a foot fracture. At 28, MJD is in the twilight of his playing career, but could still make an impact on your fantasy roster come fall. Though the Jaguars will be irrelevant, don’t consider MJD to fall into the same category.  Another player on the injury bandwagon is Oakland’s Darren McFadden who also missed much of 2012, and has never played more than 13 games in a season. Run-DMC is an excellent option at RB when healthy, but do not reach for him, if you are dead set on drafting him at all. Also consider Marcel Reece when drafting McFadden, as the later will see playing time whether the former is healthy or not. While many Cowboys fans focus on the hilarity that has been Tony Romo’s professional career, there is another fantasy relevant player in big D. DeMarco Murray is a force to be reckoned with, when healthy. Having played in only 9 of his possible 32 NFL games, Murray could be a risk not worth taking; But if he falls late in the draft, he is most certainly worth a bench slot. Rashard Mendenhall found solace in a new place with the Arizona Cardinals, and will likely be the starter on opening weekend. If Mendenhall can return to his form in Pittsburgh, he will make a major impact on a team working on a new identity.  The last member of tier C resides in sunny San Diego. The Chargers’s rusher Ryan Mathews has disappointed thus far as the replacement to LaDainian Tomlinson. Matthews rushed for over a thousand yards in 2011, but tallied only 700 yards due to a broken collarbone in 2012. The Chargers seem to be a team on the decline, and this could be Matthew’s last shot at fantasy relevance.

Platoons

The running back position has evolved since the days of Jim Brown and Walter Payton, as many NFL teams now use multiple running backs, which is a direct correlation to the stress level of fantasy owners. Starting with the New York Giants, they will use a tandem of the explosive David Wilson, and the bruising rusher Andre Brown, making both players much less valuable in all fantasy formats. The versatile Wilson will see a lot of touches both through the air and on the ground, but look for Brown to play Mike Tolbert in this year’s version of the ultimate touchdown vulture.  Carolina’s backfield is the epitome of fantasy frustration as the Panthers support a trio of rushing options who will all see the field. Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams, and the aforementioned Tolbert are nothing more than flex options in 2013, and should be treated as such. The Pittsburgh Steelers are also going with a platoon attack this year which will likely feature Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, and rookie Le’Veon Bell out of Michigan State. Of the three, Bell has the most potential as he is an untapped talent, who showed sings of greatness in college. The Steelers could opt to hand the reins to Bell should he impress in training camp, but for now consider all three Steelers’ backs to be stuck in flex territory. The Colts’ sophomore rusher Vick Ballard would have been ranked much higher before the signing of Ahmad Bradshaw to Indianapolis. Both men should see time in the backfield, and until a true starter is determined, the Colts’ situation will mirror that of the Giants. Additional platoon situations to watch will be in Detroit, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and the New York Jets, but all pale in comparison to the perennial problem in New Orleans. The trio of Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas, and Mark Ingram has made drafting  Saints’ running back a virtual quagmire. Sproles provides excellent receiving skills and is an asset on any team, especially in PPR formats, yet Thomas and Ingram are significantly lesser options. For Ingram specifically, this could be a make or break year for the former member of the Crimson Tide. While he is in a tough situation, Ingram could be the odd man out in New Orleans after the 2013 season if he cannot produce. I would avoid both Thomas and Ingram in most formats as anything but a late round flex option.

Sleepers

First and foremost on this list is Lions RB Reggie Bush. As part of a platoon with Mikel Leshoure Bush will be used similarly to the way the Saints use Darren Sproles, making Bush an excellent value in PPR leagues. While Bush will fall in the draft due to injury questions and his status within a platoon, I expect Bush to be a bigger boom than bust in 2013. Another rusher to keep your eyes on in later rounds is Jet running back Chris Ivory. Ivory shined in New Orleans as part of a platoon a year ago, and could outlast Bilal Powell for the top spot in the Jets backfield. Ivory is a big, physical runner with good explosiveness making him a viable draft option should he fall to later rounds. The Green Bay Packers drafted a dynamic duo of rushers in this year’s draft, and both Eddie Lacy and Jonathan Franklin could make an impact this year. By the time training camp ends, one of these men will be deemed the starter, and will become a flex option goldmine in the Packers system. For years fantasy experts have been wise to avoid anyone wearing a Miami Dolphins uniform. But those days are over, as Lamar Miller will make a name for himself this year, after taking his talents to South Beach. Miller is explosively quick with amazing breakaway speed, and has the ability to take it to the house every time he touches the ball, an excellent quality to have on your fantasy team. Miller has some concerns regarding his durability, but is worth a significant look later in fantasy drafts. The Cincinnati Bengals have a legitimate shot at contention this year, and their success isn’t solely dependent on the emergence of Andy Dalton. Giovani Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis will handle the ball carrying duties in Cincinnati this season, but only one of them belongs in this category. Bernard is a shifty runner that is a nightmare to tackle in the open field, in addition to being an excellent pass catcher and return man. While the law firm will handle the majority of the inside rushing duties, expect Bernard to play a large role in the Bengals success this year.

Busts

Players who could single handedly destroy your fantasy hopes and dreams fall into this category, and the first name here will catch me a lot of criticism. Steven Jackson completed his move to the Atlanta Falcons, and is being deemed the “missing piece” in Atlanta. Jackson is 30 years old, with over 2,400 carries in his professional career, and this guy is supposed to be a savior at the running back position? Not only have his stats declined in each of the past 3 seasons, the man isn’t getting any younger. I don’t believe this is much of an improvement from Michael Turner a year ago, as both aging veterans managed to rush for over a thousand yards. Honestly, I would be surprised if Jackson plays anywhere close to a full slate of games, so if he is your guy, think about handcuffing his backup in Jacquizz Rodgers. The law firm belongs in this category as well. Fantasy owners were disappointed last year due to BJGE’s high draft position, and though he did ecliplse 1,000 yards, it wasn’t what fantasy owners expect from a feature back. Now with Giovani Bernard in the mix, consider Green-Ellis’s days as a lead back to be numbered. The last two men in this section play for the same team, and that is bad news for Rams fans. With the departure of Steven Jackson, Isaiah Pead and Daryl Richardson will take over the rushing duties in St. Louis, but this is not beneficial news for fantasy owners. Richardson possesses good hands and will likely play on the majority of passing downs, but Pead will handle the short yardage situations and lead the general rushing attack. Both men will impede on each other’s fantasy value, landing them in the bust category.  As the Rams’ offense is expected to continue their seemingly decade long struggle, gambling on two unproven talents on a mediocre team is not how fantasy titles are won.

Like it, love it, or loathe it, fantasy football has become a major focal point on the NFL spectrum, and the running backs are its backbone. Whether 2013 will be your first year as an owner, or 20th, this list is a fantasy doctrine to live by.

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Benjamin Haley

Ben Haley is the Sports Director for 91.3 FM WVUD. Ben also serves as a sports broadcaster for the University of Delaware. . He is the main Philadelphia Eagles contributor for HighPhive.com! You can follow him on Twitter @BenHaley11.