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The 7 Breakout Running Backs to Buy in 2014


The No. 1 question about Zero RB is a simple one. Where do you find running backs?

Before you embark on a Zero RB season, you want to be sure to understand the numbers. If you don’t select runners early, you could very easily go without. Regardless of whether you’re using Zero RB, a best player available mentality, or even Zero WR, you can never have too many strong runners in fantasy.

We’ve already covered rookie RBs at some length, so here’s a closer look at some recent second- and third-year breakout RBs you could have landed by combining the above philosophy with the RotoViz projections.

Year Player RotoViz Score Experience  ADP Finish
2009 Ray Rice 89 Year 2 RB29 RB3
2009 Rashard Mendenhall 94 Year 2 RB42 RB16
2009 Jamaal Charles 71 Year 2 RB53 RB11
2010 LeSean McCoy 78 Year 2 RB16 RB3
2010 Darren McFadden 98 Year 3 RB39 RB8
2011 Ryan Matthews 78 Year 2 RB46 RB7
2012 C.J. Spiller 65 Year 3 RB31 RB6
2012 Stevan Ridley 51 Year 2 RB28 RB15
2012 Mikel Leshoure 77 Year 2 RB46 RB18

Even though we would have also missed numerous times, our rosters would still have been antifragile at best or robust at worst.

We know the types of RBs we want to land, and Fantasy Gumshoe has demonstrated that runners often break out in Year 3 at just the moment we tend to give up. Here are your 2014 breakout candidates with the data to used to generate their original RotoViz projections.1

The 2014 Breakout Candidates

1. Trent Richardson

20.52 228 4.48 21.77 129.15 1.62 1.92 90

I would expect this to draw some eye rolls. Richardson was probably the highest profile RotoViz miss a year ago, and there’s already been some justifiable pushback when we’ve recommended him this season. Richardson had a very poor 2013, averaging a woeful 3.4 yards per carry with Cleveland before posting an almost impossibly low 2.9 ypc after being traded to Indianapolis. He’s now carried 455 times at the NFL level and notched 3.3 yards per. Even when running behind two of the worst lines in the NFL, those are awful numbers.

Two separate organizations may have badly misjudged his reality draft value, but few backs have come out of college with a better fantasy projection. Even at the NFL level, Richardson may not have been as bad as it seems. As Max Mulitz pointed out earlier this offseason, he’s actually one of the best runners in the league at breaking tackles. He’s just been miraculously bad at turning those broken tackles into yards.

Richardson’s potential receiving value also helps explain why we’ve remained on the bandwagon through an apocalyptic season. He has the chance to emerge as a ppr dynamo if he does break out this season.2

How to Play It: While the Richardson skepticism seems ubiquitous, I’d prefer to see it reflected in his ADP. Darren McFadden and C.J. Spiller were far cheaper after similar slow starts. As commenter mjclarkmj pointed out yesterday, you have some other solid options in the same range. Don’t hesitate to mix Richardson onto your rosters at his Round 5 price, but be careful not to overpay if his ADP rises.

2. Latavius Murray

21.54 223 4.38 6.81 18 100.55 1.36 2.45 87

As Davis Mattek has pointed out in Latavius Murry, Skill Erosion, and Zero RB Drafting, Murray’s physical ability is almost unparalleled. It would be easier to explain away the current fantasy disinterest if he hadn’t also played well in his final season at Central Florida.

In looking at the list of previous breakout RBs, we see ADPs artificially deflated by competition from “name” veterans on their last legs. Maurice Jones-Drew fits this category. McFadden is more of an enigma. It doesn’t help to have two players ostensibly blocking your path. I wouldn’t be surprised if Murray ends up as more of a 2015 breakout player, but I always prefer to be a year too early than a year too late. If he emerges as the type of player suggested by his projection, the opportunity portion of the equation should work itself out.

How to Play It: With an ADP in the late round/watch list range, you can buy Murray’s breakout potential for free.

3. Bernard Pierce

21.62 218 4.45 7.07 22.75 123.42 2.25 0.25 77

When healthy, Pierce is a big back with above average speed. Those attributes made him a bell cow with serious touchdown production at Temple and led to flashes of greatness as a rookie. He averaged 4.9 yards per carry in 2012 and looked ready to force a timeshare with Ray Rice. Running injured in a rudderless offense, his production cratered last season. With Rice facing a suspension and rotoViz favorite Lorenzo Taliaferro waiting in the wings, Pierce now finds himself in an indecipherable committee.

I’ve been solidly on board the Taliaferro bandwagon. The Coastal Carolina product seems a better fit for the S2K offense according to excellent research by Dwain McFarland. Re-examining Pierce’s resume has forced me to at least question that position. The third-year back could run away with this job before Rice returns or the rookie gets his bearings.

How To Play It: The current MFL ADP numbers put Pierce in Round 10 at RB41. Considering his Top 10 potential, Pierce would be almost impossible to pass up at that level. Taliaferro can be added as a hedge with your final pick.

4. Knile Davis

21.15 227 4.35 6.96 11.2 37.7 0.2 1.1 71

Even with injuries marring his Arkansas tenure, Davis earned a tremendous projection with his overwhelming physical talent. Matthew Freedman has previously explained why the scouting-based concerns leading up to last year’s draft can be discounted. Davis himself made that argument on the field in 2013. One of my 10 Most Undervalued Dynasty Players, Davis appears blocked by Jamaal Charles in 2014. On the other hand, the Chiefs project to use their runners so heavily that he probably has standalone value. A slightly superior physical specimen playing in a much more fantasy-friendly offense, he easily tops Christine Michael as the league’s most important handcuff. A Charles injury would put him in position to finish among the top five backs.

How to Play It: The Davis situation is tricky. Charles owners may be forced to reach when real drafts roll around, but he’s a great bargain at his current ADP in Round 13.

5. Lamar Miller

20.6 212 4.34 6.94 18.92 106 0.75 1.42 81

Miller’s RotoViz projection put him as the second best back in the 2012 Draft, well ahead of Doug Martin and David Wilson and miles ahead of the now forgotten Isaiah Pead. His combination of size, speed, agility, and production suggested a borderline first-round pick.

Miller has failed to impress at the NFL level. Last year his broken tackle rate threatened Chris Johnson levels, and he hasn’t shown the explosiveness he put on display as a Hurricane. Davis Mattek fears his recent ADP jump has been merely the result of a perceived increase in opportunity.

How To Play It: The key is to avoid paying a Bill Lazor Premium. Mike Pouncey’s injury also costs them a crucial blocker. Although rising in MFL10s and “expert” mocks, Miller’s more general ADP still sits in the Round 7-9 range. There’s plenty of value at that point, but make sure to read the Fantasy Douche’s 15 Players for the Middle Rounds series so you don’t end up reaching in Round 5 or 6.

6. Stepfan Taylor

21.58 214 4.7 7.13 23 109.29 0.93 2.93 51

Taylor’s profile points in two completely different directions. He tested so poorly at last year’s Combine that he managed to finish dead last on both the Agility Index and the Explosion Index. But on the field he was tremendous. While a score of only 51 is a concern, he was so good at Stanford that it elevated his numbers back to an intriguing level. Taylor was a true workhorse at the college level, posting more than 200 carries, 25 receptions, and 10 TDs for each of his final three seasons.

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of Taylor’s college resume comes in the form of his receiving production. At nearly three receptions per game, his receiving numbers are elite. While there aren’t any positive comps for Taylor in my combine-oriented database, you don’t have to squint very hard at Taylor to see a little Arian Foster.

Kevin Cole recently penned a tremendous article demonstrating why we shouldn’t discount Andre Elllington as an all-around back. I’ve moved Ellington up my board as a result, but secondary touches will probably still be available in the Arizona backfield. Taylor isn’t a lock to earn them. Jonathan Dwyer’s presence complicates matters. UDFA Tim Cornett is my favorite back on the roster, even if he’s a dark horse to make noise in 2014. [Edit: Cornett has been released by the Cardinals. They really needed that roster spot for Jalen Parmele.] Keeping those caveats in mind, Taylor projects to carve out a meaningful role.

How To Play It: MFL claims Taylor is going after Dri Archer and Theo Riddick. So you can basically play it any way you want.

7. David Wilson

20.57 206 4.38 7.09 20.71 122.07 0.64 1.57 75

The World Turtle is back. Edit: The World Turtle is not back. The World Turtle is done. Fortunately, I included a Wild Card runner in the original article, and that Wild Card now looks much better than he did a couple of weeks ago. Again, a reason to consider evidence-based player evaluation. So this article still has 7 Breakout RBs. David Wilson simply isn’t one of them.

Any Wilson-related thesis is contingent upon his health. Expected to be cleared after the next round of tests, he slots back into a crowded backfield with purported bellcow Rashad Jennings and potential star Andre Williams. The aforementioned duo may pose more of a threat to each other than a real barrier to Wilson earning touches. It’s not difficult to see him as the satellite back in this offense.

How To Play It: Slightly overrated as the No. 32 pick in the 2012 Draft, his injury and lack of track record combine to make him very affordable. It’s not clear where Wilson’s ADP will settle once we’re a couple weeks into camp. If everything checks out, he’s a good value in the double digit rounds.

Wild Card

Ronnie Hillman

20.27 200 4.42 23.92 131.62 1.46 1.85 79

While Hillman has little chance to wrest the starting role from Ball, I’m a little confused by the enthusiasm surrounding C.J. Anderson. It’s easy to scoff now at Hillman’s gaudy projection, but the Broncos agreed with it. They made him the No. 67 pick of the 2012 Draft and clearly wanted him to be the starter last year.

I’ve made the case for Hillman in Top 20 Deep Sleepers.3 Like many of the players on the breakout/bounceback list from the 2012 class, he’s younger than Christine Michael and Charles Sims. Hillman went for 1981 scrimmage yards and 20 TDs in his last year at San Diego State. At only six days older than Carlos Hyde, it’s not hard to imagine what kind of season he would have posted against college players last year.

Going RB early and need breakout receivers instead? Try the 8 Breakout WRs You Must Own in 2014.

  1. Since his breakout is already priced in, this list doesn’t include impending star Montee Ball.  (back)
  2. You shouldn’t ignore Richardson’s NFL performance, but it can be a mistake to get too caught up in efficiency levels. Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk averaged 3.8 yards per carry over five years playing with the Colts before fully becoming the player we remember in St. Louis.  (back)
  3. The Top 20 Deep Sleepers article, originally penned in April, has been updated to reflect the current value of those players. It also links to new work by Davis Mattek, James Todd, Jon Moore, Max Mulitz, and Dwain McFarland.  (back)

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