Historically once the most valuable position in all of fantasy football, running backs have not been as valuable to fantasy owners in recent years, with more and more franchises opting for a running back by committee approach in the ground game.
This trend of situational starters, coupled with the increase in passing league wide, has resulted in the waning prominence of the “stud RB1.” The dearth of workhorse running backs makes it difficult to evaluate and determine the fantasy football impact of each starter.
In order to help fantasy owners judge the game’s toughest position, I present part 1 of the fantasy running back rankings.
30.) Lamar Miller, Miami Dolphins
Pegged as a potential top-10 fantasy running back last season, Miller was a disappointment, scoring only two touchdowns and failing to hit 1,000 total yards. While he struggled in 2013, Miller likely will fare better in 2014 with a capable supporting cast, stronger offensive line and locker room all around him.
While Knowshon Moreno’s health still unknown, Miller (who averaged 4.0 yards per carry last year) is currently the top guy in Miami’s backfield, and, at the very least, that alone is worth a spot on the list.
29.) Trent Richardson, Indianapolis Colts
To put it politely, Richardson was bad last season. Averaging 2.9 yards per carry, the University of Alabama product hardly resembled an NFL starter, let alone a former top-five draft pick. With a ceiling of a top-15 running back, I think Richardson can provide very solid value in the draft since he will likely be one of the last bona fide starters to come off the board.
Another year of development in the offense and the departure of Donald Brown will grant Richardson the best opportunity of his career to produce, as a part of one of the best offenses in the AFC; however, I am skeptical if Richardson is talented enough to do so.
28.) Pierre Thomas, New Orleans Saints
Believe it or not, Thomas actually led all Saints’ running backs in receptions last year (77; Darren Sproles finished with 71) and finished second in targets (84; Sproles led the backfield with 89). Now that Sproles is in Philly, I think it’s safe to assume Thomas will play a larger role in the offense this year.
27.) Chris Johnson, New York Jets
Johnson’s ceiling is nowhere near as high as in previous years; age (29) and a competing Bilal Powell are certainly not doing him any favors. Best case, Johnson is capable of totaling 1,000 yards and a few scores, but pedestrian production is not worth an early-to-middle round selection.
26.) Shane Veeren, New England Patriots
With a history of missing time during the regular season, Veeren is certainly an injury risk, but he also has the upside to become a very productive RB2. Finishing last year with 47 receptions for 427 yards (in only 8 games), Veeren is New England’s most dynamic playmaker out of the backfield.
With LaGarrette Blount’s departure in the offseason, Veeren will have the opportunity to play a larger role in the rushing game, seeing more snaps on first and second down; however, this is all assuming he can stay healthy.
25.) Joique Bell, Detroit Lions
Bell is too talented to be ranked this low. There are not many backups who have the potential to become a solid RB2. However, he will never reach that ceiling without Reggie Bush playing poorly (a possibility) or missing time due to injury (a safe bet). At this point in the year, he’s not worth an early pick in the draft just to hope he somehow gains the starting role.
24.) Bishop Sankey, Tennessee Titans
While he has not been named the starter, it is hard to imagine any scenario in which Shonn Greene realistically wins the job over the more talented Sankey. The rookie is a receiving threat out of the backfield, totaling 38 yards and a touchdown on three receptions in his first preseason game. This skill will help get him on the field early in the season since it is one of Greene’s biggest weaknesses.
While I believe Sankey will ultimately become the unquestioned starter, I think it is not going to happen until the regular season is underway. For better or worse, Tennessee remains committed to using Shonn Greene as one of their primary ball carriers. Greene will be the goal line back in the offense and pilfer carries away from Sankey throughout the year. Sankey has a high ceiling, and because the remaining preseasons games will play a large role in determining his value, I do not think he is worth an early draft pick quite yet.
23.) Frank Gore, San Francisco 49ers
Despite concerns of his age (31) and the presence of rookie Carlos Hyde, I still think Gore is one of the safer picks in this running back tier. His upside is limited, compared to previous years, but his durability, offensive line, and the 49ers’ run-first approach make him a virtual lock for a productive year.
However, from what I have seen this preseason, Hyde looks like the real deal. He will steal carries from the nine-year veteran, and if Gore misses time due to injury, Hyde is talented enough that he may take the starting job, even after Gore returns. Hyde is a must-own handcuff for anyone who drafts Gore, but as long as he can stay on the field, I expect a fourth consecutive 1,000-yead season for Gore.
22.) Reggie Bush, Detroit Lions
Entering his ninth year in the league, Bush arguably had his best season as a pro in 2013. However, at age 29 and with Joique Bell in the backfield, many think Bush’s top years are behind him. Best-case scenario, Bush is able to replicate last year’s success, finishing in the neighborhood of 1,400 total yards.
Bush has been working out with the receivers and tight ends in training camp, so I expect him to be even more involved in the passing game. However, this may come at the cost of losing carries to Bell. The result is a dynamic offense in Detroit, playing two running backs on the field in more situations, but complicates the backfield for fantasy owners.
21.) Rashad Jennings, New York Giants
After David Wilson’s retirement, Jennings owns the Giants’ backfield. Peyton Hillis is too inconsistent and injury prone to warrant serious consideration as a starter, and Andre Williams will have to earn his playing time by performing in the preseason and early regular season before he is viable option. But, Williams looks like a potential goal line and short yardage specialist in the short term, and has shown potential of becoming an every-down back.
Right now, Jennings is the most-talented back on the roster and is an additional threat as a receiver out of the backfield. Conversely, I am legitimately concerned about the Giants’ offensive line, and preseason play has not alleviated these apprehensions. Jennings will produce weekly, but I am afraid 18-carry, 67-yard outputs will become too common.
20.) Ben Tate, Cleveland Browns
With a ceiling of an RB1, Tate has the most upside out of any player listed so far. Likely to go between rounds 4-5, he also comes with the most risk.
Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan employees a zone-blocking scheme, similar to the one former-coach Gary Kubiak’s, and Tate is a runner who excels in this system, finishing with 942 yards rushing and a 5.4 yards per carry in 2011 (as a backup, mind you). Since then, injuries and inconsistent quarterback play have defined Tate’s tenure in Houston, but a fresh start in Cleveland could prescribe the running back his first 1,000-yard season.
Terrence West will be a threat to steal carries, and if Tate catches the injury bug again, he could run away with the job. However, Tate is in line to start on an improved Cleveland team and will be given many opportunities to succeed. If you can draft him as your RB2/Flex, he should provide excellent value, but in the event of injury, drafting West as a handcuff would be a wise move.
19.) Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens
Maybe I’m a homer (you can read my extended thoughts on Rice’s fantasy value), but I really do believe that he is poised for a comeback season. Despite the two-game suspension, Rice is not in a position to lose his starting job for no other reason than his contract (5 years, $35 million) being too much of an investment for the Ravens.
Bernard Pierce has looked strong in training camp, and should be targeted as a fill-in for Rice in the first two games. At this ranking, Rice has the upside of reclaiming his status as an RB1, and will not disappoint if he produces at a similar level to last year.
18.) Ryan Mathews, San Diego Chargers
In a crowded backfield consisting of Donald Brown and Danny Woodhead, Mathews’ numbers may decline this season, but he still remains the top pick of the three, firmly entrenched as San Diego’s early-down back, Mathews also is the go-to guy in short yardage and at the goal line, giving him double digit touchdown potential. I think the starting job is Mathews’ to lose, and if he can avoid injuries and limit his fumbling issues, he should be produce consistently this season.
17.) CJ Spiller, Buffalo Bills
After a disappointing 2013, Spiller is now quite undervalued in 2014. I think Spiller potentially ends the year as top-5 fantasy running back. While it isn’t hard to imagine him totaling something like 1,800 total yards and 10 touchdowns, it is much more risky to expect that type of output.
Spiller appears to be fully healthy for the first time in a while, and Buffalo seems intent on using him more effectively this year. However, barring an injury to the 33-year-old Fred Jackson, Spiller will have to split carries every single week. As a threat receiving threat out of the backfield, he adds an extra dimension to Buffalo’s offense, and is the most established playmaker on the roster. If you are willing to roll the dice on his health and the play calling, Spiller is excellent value as an RB2 with a much higher ceiling.
16.) Arian Foster, Houston Texans
Coming off a season ending back injury, Foster is one of the most enigmatic fantasy prospects in this year’s draft. Once a consensus top-5 running back, it is easy to forget that Foster was effective in his eight games last year, averaging 4.5 yards per carry while on pace for over 1,000 yards rushing. However, questions surrounding his health, workload, and the status of the rebuilding Texans have been detracting from his fantasy value.
If healthy, I think Foster is one of the best running backs in the league, as a prototypical one-cut workhorse. But this offseason, Foster contemplated retirement because of his injury concerns, which was a telling sign of his readiness for the upcoming season. With uncertain quarterback play and weapons around him, Foster will be the only bright spot in the Texans’ offense. His track record suggests he is capable of another year as the focal point, but I am worried this is the beginning of the end for the former Tennessee Volunteer.