At this point, running back by committees (RBBCs) are the norm in the NFL, not the exception. So how do you decide which running back, or running backs, to target on team this year? If you checked out Rotoviz’s Free-For-All from August 1 looking at league-winning strategies for the upcoming season, you know that different RotoVizers advocate different strategies when it comes to handcuffing or avoiding specific backfields. Both strategies are perfectly valid, but which strategy is best depends on the composition of a specific team’s RB corps. Let’s take a look at how each NFL team’s backfield is shaping up so far this season, and how RB opportunities might be divvied up. In part 1, we’ll start with the NFC North.
I’m going to use the depth chart information from rotoworld.com and NFL.com, and information on carries and targets primarily from espn.com, and average draft position (ADP) information from fantasypros.com; rookies are denoted with (R), full-time fullbacks with (FB).
RBs: Matt Forte, Ka’Deem Carey (R), Michael Ford, Shaun Draughn, Jordan Lynch (R)
In 2013, Matt Forte received 74% of Bears attempts rushing, and the only other RB to get a carry, Michael Bush (16% of total attempts) is no longer on the roster. Based on last year, it looks like Marc Trestman likes to utilize a single workhorse RB, which doesn’t bode well for any of the other RBs on the Bears’ depth chart.
If Forte goes down, however, popular opinion seems to put Ka’Deem Carey as the next man up: Carey has an ADP of 190 (RB64), whereas none of the other RBs on the Bears roster are being drafted at all. However, I’m inclined to believe the Chicago Sun Times report that the Bears RB2 job is still wide open, and would likely go to either Carey, Michael Ford, and Shaun Draughn, depending on who has the better week in practice. Jordan Lynch is a converted quarterback, and doesn’t appear to be a lock to make the roster.
Strategy: Draft Forte early, and avoid everyone else. There isn’t a true handcuff on this roster, and the Bears will likely go with whoever has the hot hand in the event of a Forte injury.
RBs: Reggie Bush, Joique Bell, Theo Riddick, Mikel LeShoure, Steven Miller (R)
The Lions had a pair of startable fantasy RBs in 2013 in Bush and Bell, and both return for the 2014 season. Last year, Bush had 50% of Lions rushing attempts, and Bell had 37%. Bush saw 12 more targets than Bell in the passing game as well (80 for Bush to 68 for Bell). Both of these guys were very productive.
There’s a new regime in Detroit this season, and it looks like new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi will be installing an offense resembling the 2013 Saints system, which is the epitome of a RBBC: the Saints leading rusher, Pierre Thomas, only had 37% of the total rushing attempts, followed by 20% for Mark Ingram, and 14% apiece for Khiry Robinson and Darren Sproles. It was like peewee football – everyone gets a chance to play! This could signal that some of Detroit’s lesser-used RBs, like Theo Riddick and Mikel LeShoure, will see more opportunities moving forward. Steven Miller isn’t a lock to make the roster, and would likely only see work on special teams.
Strategy: There’s a lot of uncertainty here, but also a lot of talent. I’m personally avoiding Bush and Bell in all of my drafts, unless one of them goes down before the season, in which case I’ll be drafting the other as high as the third round. If you do end up drafting Bush or Bell, however, make sure to grab the other with your next pick (Bush’s ADP is 34.2, Bell’s is 72.8), for two reasons: first, you’ll have already nabbed a viable handcuff, and second, you won’t have to risk the chance of facing an opponent with the other back and watching that other back blow up while your player has a down game. And, keep an eye on Riddick in case of injury to either of the top two backs; the Lions won’t use a single RB approach if Bush or Bell goes down, and Riddick can provide a more reliable change of pace than LeShoure or Miller.
Green Bay Packers
RBs: Eddie Lacy, James Starks, DuJuan Harris, Raijon Neal (R), Michael Hill, John Kuhn (FB)
Eddie Lacy broke out as a rookie in 2013, amassing 1178 yards rushing on 284 attempts in 15 games (62% of team total rushing attempts), good for 4.1 yards per attempt rushing. This was eye-opening, but even more surprising was the resurgence of James Starks in Lacy’s absence, who averaged a whopping 5.5 yards per attempt rushing on 89 carries. With Jonathan Franklin gone for good, DuJuan Harris is the third RB in Green Bay, which should terrify owners: Harris ruptured his patellar tendon last season, which is the same kind of injury that ruined the careers of Cadillac Williams and Ryan Williams. Neal was signed as an undrafted rookie free agent this season for depth, and Hill was claimed off waivers from the Bucs.
The Packers are one of the few teams with a fantasy-relevant fullback in John Kuhn, who served as a short yardage back and in goal line situations last year. Kuhn won’t ever be a volume guy (10 carries and 13 catches in 2013), but with the shallow backfield depth in Green Bay heading into this season, he may see a very slight uptick in usage.
Strategy: Eddie Lacy could be a top 10 RB this season, but you absolutely need to grab James Starks to go along with him, as Starks is the clear-cut next man up when Lacy goes down. Starks has an ADP of 167, so you can certainly pick him up at the end of your draft. Avoid Harris, Neal, Hill, and Kuhn like the plague, unless you happen to be in some weird FB premium league, in which case, nab him.
RBs: Adrian Peterson, Matt Asiata, Jerick McKinnon (R), Dominique Williams
There’s not much I can write about Adrian Peterson that you don’t already know. He carries a tremendous workload (279 carries in less than 14 full games), is productive against stacked defensive fronts (4.63 yards per attempt rushing against 4 and 5 man defensive line fronts), and has recovered quickly from major injuries. You don’t need an expert’s advice to tell you to draft Peterson with a top 5 pick.
With Toby Gerhart out of the picture, though, the rest of the Vikings backfield is a bit murkier. Matt Asiata proved to be an average RB last year (3.8 yards per attempt rushing), but is getting most of the second team carries in training camp. Jerick McKinnon is generating a lot of buzz – Adrian Peterson himself has touted the rookie as “impressive” – but may see most of his work in goal line and 3rd down situations. Dominique Willliams isn’t a lock to make the team, and should see most of his work on special teams.
Strategy: No handcuffs to be found here. Draft Peterson as you normally would in any format, but if he goes down, you’re probably better off combing the waiver wire than starting either Asiata or McKinnon; but, keep an eye on McKinnon, as he has gotten a lot of recent praise from teammates and the press alike.
NFC North Summary
If you draft Matt Forte (and you should), don’t draft any of the other Bears RBs. If you draft Reggie Bush (which I wouldn’t), make sure to take Joique Bell in the round or two following, unless one of them gets hurt in the preseason, in which case I suggest you take the healthy RB and handcuff him with Theo Riddick. If you draft Eddie Lacy (which you should), take James Starks late in your draft; you may be able to find Starks on waivers, but he’s a solid enough commodity that he’s worth a draft spot, depending on how deep your bench is. And if you draft Adrian Peterson (which you definitely should), pray that he doesn’t get hurt, since there won’t be any help in the Vikings backfield.
That wraps up the NFC North. Next up: the NFC South.