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Are you Trying to win or not look like a loser?
Harsh? Maybe, but I'm done with leading off this annual article about a proven, winning approach as if it's some mutant strategy that I need to sell. The fact is that I don't.
If you're playing fantasy football for the fun of hanging out with your friends first and competing second that's ok, but go read something else if your worries about "looking bad" on draft day override your desire to shoot for huge success. I'm not writing this for people in leagues with participation trophies.
However, don't think I'm selling a magic pill, either. Even if two high-stakes champions have credited this strategy in the past five years, you should never expect your team to be a finished product in the preseason. There are at least another eight weeks of roster building and maintenance during the regular season to create the ultimate winner.
If you understand that the draft is one leg of a winning fantasy table that has other three legs--executing quality trades, effective use of the waiver wire, and efficient lineup decisions--then the Upside Down Strategy offers two huge benefits to fantasy owners:
- It's a strong counterpunch for a league filled with competition that leads off with a conventional approach in the opening half of drafts.
- It yields a roster with enough talent to shore up its weaknesses (if any) without diminishing its strengths.
Most leagues are filled with fantasy owners that try to acquire two running backs during the first four rounds of the draft. This is the conventional approach. However, once a process becomes conventional it's often the safest path to mediocrity.
Let's set some things straight. I didn't invent this approach--I gave it a name, I have studied its value, and I have experimented with variations of it so I can offer you options as a reader. I don't use UDD in every fantasy league, but I have found it a worthwhile method for building a team. Not only does it put my rosters in position to becoming winner, but a big one: records, points, and in position to compete well in the playoffs.
If you consult this article every year, skip to the section "Upside Down Running Back Candidates." If you want to learn about the strategy and why the method has merit, keep reading.
THE CLIFF'S NOTES TO UPSIDE DOWN DRAFTING
I have written about Upside Down Drafting every year at Footballguys for three reasons:
- It's successful.
- No one I knew was writing about this prevalent approach to counterpunch the conventional openings in fantasy drafts.
- There are variations to this strategy worth exploring.
When the majority of your competition is taking the same path, their picks are diluting your opportunity to land the best players at the same positions. If you follow the herd, you prevent yourself from capitalizing on the available top-talent sitting untouched in the early rounds.
It's a compelling idea that not taking a risk is actually the riskiest strategy of all. I have received "thank you" emails from countless fantasy owners for introducing them to this method. One of them is counter-terrorism specialist in New York who uses the same philosophy to formulate successful strategies in his job (and now his fantasy leagues). Another is Ronald Eltanal, winner of the 2011 Footballguys Players Championship.
Long-time reader Henry Muto, who won the 2013 NFFC Online championship is also a proponent. They understand that the draft is a foundation-setter and if they're in a position where 80 percent of the league is bent on drafting the same old way then perhaps it's time to turn things upside down.
UDD Is Using ADP as Intended: A Compass
One of the primary drivers for conventional thinking is average draft position. The intent of ADP data was to provide a compass for the fantasy owner, not a detailed list of driving directions. As much as people want to market otherwise, the draft is more like navigating in the wilderness than a paved road.
A big reason is that the data is weighted heavily on last year's production. The past only sets the backdrop for the future; it does not predict the future. Over the years I have been using this strategy, between 40-70 percent of the runners drafted as RB1s and RB2s did not meet ADP expectations by season's end. It means that 40-70 percent of the backs that do earn starter production by year's end have exceeded expectations as middle and late-round picks.
If that's the case, there's greater potential for reward to zig when everyone else is zagging. The dynamics of quarterback, running back, and wide receiver rankings turnover indicates going "Upside Down" can set as strong of foundation for your squad as the RB-heavy route, but without waiting in line with everyone else to fish for an early-round runner when you can be taking top players at other positions.
Because you get the pick of the litter at either QB, WR, and/or TE when most are considering that second back, this approach gives the owner a chance to build a dominant team. Running back is a punishing position and the turnover due to age and wear and tear is high enough that placing an early-round investment in any back other than the position's elite is riskier than it appears. The NFL has backed away from selecting players at the position at the top of the NFL Draft in recent years, perhaps it's worth following its lead.
If past history remains true to form in 2014 then at least 1-2 fantasy RB1s will emerge from the mid-to-late rounds of summer drafts. In fact, don't be surprised if 10-15 backs with either RB1 or RB2 production aren't taken during the first four rounds of fantasy drafts.
Last August, 50 percent of the running backs that finished as top-24 fantasy producers at the position were available in the fifth round!
|RB||August ADP||End of Season Ranking|
|Zach Stacy||11.03 in spring, but waiver wire material in August||RB18|
|Rashad Jennings||16.07 in spring, but waiver wire material in August||RB22|
|54% of Top-24 RBs||Available 4.06 or later. 50% Available 5.01 or later. And 29% available 8.12 or later||25% RB1s/75% RB2s|
*If you count Giovani Bernard among this list--a fast riser in August whose ADP was 7.01 in June--then 54 percent of the top-24 running backs were not drafted before the fifth round last year. Including Eddie Lacy, whose ADP was 6.04 before August, then 58 percent of the top-24 and 33 percent of the RB1s were available after the 5th round in a lot of fantasy drafts.
Since the majority of fantasy owners target a RB2--and sometimes a RB3--between the second and fourth rounds, this knowledge presents fantasy owners the opportunity to pick high-end contributors at other positions. It's a compelling reason not to be a slave to ADP, especially when waiting until at least round five to pick a RB could have earned you these players between rounds 2-5 last year:
|Player||August ADP||End of Season Ranking|
If you had an early-third draft spot in a 12-team league (picks 1-4) then you had a good shot of getting two of Jimmy Graham, Demaryius Thomas, and Brandon Marshall at the turn of the second and third rounds and two of Pierre Garcon, Jordy Nelson, and Vernon Davis at the turn of rounds four and five.
If you had a pick in the range of spots 5-8 of a 12-team league then you had a good shot at two of A.J. Green, Drew Brees, Andre Johnson, Peyton Manning, Jimmy Graham, and Brandon Marshall with your second and third round picks. In rounds 4-5, Garcon, Nelson, Davis, Antonio Brown, Desean Jackson, and Tony Gonzalez were all in play.
And if you had the late-spots near the turn, you could conceivably dictate any combination of players from the first two groups if you're not too ADP-attached and focused on your rankings and feel for talent. I don't know about you, but the opportunity to pick (at worst) two top-15 receivers, a top-5 quarterback, and a top-5 tight end in rounds 2-5 beats hunting for running backs this early. This is especially true when my chances of landing top-5 studs at WR1, WR2, QB1, and TE1 are good--that's nearly 50 percent of a starting lineup in many leagues right there.
ANSWERS TO COMMON QUESTIONS
What type of leagues does UDD work best?
I used to tell readers that PPR leagues or non-PPR leagues without a third RB option worked best for this approach, but I've had success with UDD in a variety of leagues with flex-heavy options and so have high stakes winners. If you're thinking about emailing me to ask if I think the approach will work in your league, don't waste your time--odds are likely you're not ready to veer from the conventional. It's ok, but I can't coach you into trying something new.
Will I be writing a UDD article for PPR, Flex-RB, 14-team, 16-team, 10-team, or 8-team leagues?
No. While I think the sweet spot for this approach is leagues with 10-14 teams, this article should supply you enough formation that you can figure out a good strategy with contingencies if you do a little work with your rankings, an updated ADP list, this article, a mock draft site, and/or an Excel spreadsheet.
Will you do some mock drafts and profile these teams and choices this summer?
Absolutely. Last year I wrote about using UDD in three different spots. I'll do the same this year. It's a great exercise.
"Am I still using UDD if I pick a RB or two in the first five rounds?"
Last year, I examined what one of my drafts might look like if I picked from the middle and opted for two running backs in rounds four and five and the results generated a set of excellent teams to build on. The first three picks netted the No.2, No.3, and No.12 fantasy receivers; the No.15 and No.17 RBs--and in two cases, the No.7 RB; and in two cases, the No.9 QB.
Even the team from the first column that didn't draft two backs in the first five rounds or pick Eddie Lacy, it still earned Deangelo Williams--the No.21 RB. On incarnation of the team also got the No.2 or No.4 TE. There's enough depth at RB coupled with the WRs and QB to make a strong run.
|Rnd||PPR||PPR Flex||PPR Flex Option 2|
|1||Calvin Johnson||Calvin Johnson||Calvin Johnson|
|2||Demaryius Thomas||Demaryius Thomas||Demaryius Thomas|
|3||Andre Johnson||Andre Johnson||Andre Johnson|
|4||LeVeon Bell||LeVeon Bell||LeVeon Bell|
|5||Tony Gonzalez/Vernon Davis||Eddie Lacy||Eddie Lacy|
|6||Russell Wilson||Russell Wilson||Shane Vereen|
|7||Shane Vereen/Cecil Shorts/T.Y. Hilton||Shane Vereen/Cecil Shorts/T.Y. Hilton||Cecil Shorts/T.Y. Hilton|
|8||DeAngelo Williams||Jared Cook||Jared Cook|
|9||Ronnie Hillman||Ronnie Hillman||Jay Cutler|
|10||Golden Tate||Golden Tate||Golden Tate|
|11||Vincent Brown||Vincent Brown||Vincent Brown|
|12||Jay Cutler/Carson Palmer/Alex Smith||LaMichael James||LaMichael James|
|13||Shonn Greene||Alex Smith||Alex Smith|
|14||Andre Roberts||Andre Roberts||Andre Roberts|
|15||Robert Woods||Robert Woods||Robert Woods|
|16||Joique Bell||Joique Bell||Joique Bell|
|17||Christine Michael||Christine Michael||Christine Michael|
|18||Jeremy Kerley||Jeremy Kerley||Jeremy Kerley|
|19||Browns Def||Browns Def||Browns Def|
|20||Randy Bullock||Randy Bullock||Randy Bullock
You don't need to ask me for permission to opt for one running back in the early rounds and still follow the spirit of going upside down. The spirit of the approach is to take a path that maximizes the wealth of each position pool at times the competition is focused elsewhere. You may choose to vary the approach to the point that I wouldn't call it Upside Down Drafting, but if this article was the jumping off point for you to take a calculated risk then you're welcome.
This leads to the next topic . . .
FIRST ROUND EXCEPTION
Because UDD is rooted in the idea of fishing in talent pools at the right time, it's worth taking a RB in the first round if it's one of the top 3-5 picks. The stats below might say it's unlikely a fantasy owner can count on picking a RB that delivers back-to-back elite fantasy performances, but one of the major reasons behind it is injury and I don't like using injury as a variable to pass on talent. If you think the player isn't healthy enough for you to pick then he shouldn't even be on your draft board.
Last year I encouraged owners with a top-five pick to consider a running back and three of the "top five" backs from 2012 heading into 2013 did repeat as RB1s. If you have a shot at Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy, Marshawn Lynch, or Matt Forte this year, the smart play is to take them and hope they stay healthy enough to earn top-12 RB production. Health is the only reasonable question for these players and Forte is the only one where I have some concerns. However, all five are still young enough and have a strong track record of production.
Earlier I showed the quality of non-RBs that a fantasy owner could have picked in rounds 2-5 last year. Add one of these top-five backs, Calvin Johnson, or Jimmy Graham as the first round pick and it's the makings of a strong starting lineup.
THE DATA THAT TURNS DRAFTS UPSIDE DOWN
Every year I write this column I keep a running tab of data that covers 5-6 seasons of rankings turnover at each position. I look at the turnover of players from one year to the next in the top-12, top-24, and top-36 at each position. Then I compare the volatility of each within the scope of a 12-team league with a starting lineup of 1 QB, 2 RBs, 3 WRs, and 1 TE.
Last year I added ADP and fantasy point averages to the mix and examined turnover inside the top-12 at each position. The goal is to pinpoint optimal places to draft various positions.
I am not updating the 2007-2012 data to include 2013. I think it's fine to wait a couple of years to update the averages, but as I mentioned earlier 50-54 percent of the running backs in the top-24 were players outside the ADP for those spots in 2013 re-draft leagues. However I will supply the rankings turnover for 2013.
2013 Turnover for Startable Skill Position Spots.
|Position||Turnover||Retention Pct. from ADP to Year-End Ranking|
|QB||4 of top 12 (33%)||67% (and 67% of the top-3 QBs)|
|RB||12 of top 24 (50%)||50% (and 50% of the top-12 RBs)|
|WR||13 of top 36 (36%)||64% (and 50% of the top-12 WRs)|
|TE||4 of top 12 (33%)||67% (and 67% of the top-3 TEs)|
Last year continues to follow the trend that there are safe fishing holes in the early rounds:
- RB1 if you have a top-five pick
- WR1 and WR2--and often two WR1s--within the opening three rounds
- TE1--and often a top-three producer--within the opening five rounds
- QB1--and often a top-three producer--within the opening three rounds
If you don't have a top-five pick then there's a good chance at landing three receivers with at least WR2-caliber production--if not two WR1s out of three of these picks.
Although last year's data was most favorable for UDD, there are some years where the turnover at the RB and WR positions are roughly the same. Sometimes RB has a lower rate of turnover than WR. However, the QB and TE positions are significantly lower.
Until recent years, most leagues had starting lineup formats where there are five non-RB positions to two RB positions. Now flex leagues where the option to start 3 RBs, 4-5 WRs, or 1-2 TEs is common. Even with flex leagues, WR and TE options can help maintain an advantage to teams that start 3-4 RBs.
Once again it begs the question: Why invest top picks in RB when the turnover is this high at the top of the position and most owners base a high percentage of rankings on the previous year's production?
Average Turnover in Rankings By Position 2007-2013
The horitzontal axis is tier points in rankings (top 3, top 6, top 9, top 12, etc). The data is the percentage of players within that tier that finished the previous year in that tier, but did not repeat the following season. The higher the number the bigger the change from year to year.
Although three of those five non-RB positions are WRs and it's a position with even greater turnover within the top 3-24 than RBs, this traditional starting lineup format also means that the there's power in volume and a team with strength at the five starting sports will have an easier time to make up for any deficiencies at two RB spots than the other way around.
Because the RB position has a lot of turnover, I have found it is reliable to at least find one valuable starter at the position after the fourth round. If the weakest position is a team's second back, the roster is generally in great shape.
Average Fantasy Points Per Tier Spot 2007-2012
I also decided to break down the tiers because I think fantasy owners seek finer gradations within the QB1 and TE1 tier than they do the RB and WR tiers. The differential in fantasy points between these tiers is a good illustration why this is the case.
This table shows the average fantasy points scored between 2007-2012 for the No.3, No.6, No.9, etc. player at each position. I did not include the No.1 and No.2 players at each position because I think that's a bull's eye shot that you hope to hit, but I'd rather rely on lower standard of expectation and let the achievement of picking the top player at his position be a bonus.
Call it a reverse-optimist fudge factor.
What stands out is the difference in fantasy points between the No.3 and No.9 QB, RB, and TE is greater than the separation at WR. One may look at this information and use VBD principles to determine that running back has the greatest value because it not only has a higher drop-off among the top players and the rest of the pack, but it also scores the most points of any position where a fantasy owner can start more than one of its type.
In other words, get two top-notch RBs and you'll rule your dynasty league. However, VBD doesn't tell you who those top RBs are. This data at least shows you that 75 percent of the top-6 RBs from previous years won't meet that standard the following season.
It means that up to 75 percent of the backs selected among the first six runners off the board have a strong likelihood (up to 63 percent) of not meeting expectation as RB1 and nearly a 50 percent chance (44%) of not even providing RB3 production. Unless you're at the very top of the draft order (which I'll address later), why fish from this pool and feel compelled to take what has a strong likelihood of being the wrong fish?
Like all other fantasy football strategies the ball bounces too funny to call it anything more tangible than a theory. However, if you're looking for optimal moments to select quality players it's a good idea to consider focusing on non-RB prospects early if you know you're drafting with fantasy owners who are hot and heavy on ball carriers during the opening three rounds.
Viewing the average turnover rates, average ADP, and average fantasy points by various tiers of selection reveals some clear opportunities to go Upside Down and build a successful fantasy team.
Average Turnover, ADP, and Fantasy Points By Position 2007-2012 For Top 3, 6, 9, and 12
|Turnover (3)||ADP||Fpts||Turnover (6)||ADP||Fpts||Turnover (9)||ADP||Fpts||Turnover (12)||ADP||Fpts|
Right away, it's clear that you have a close to even chance of landing an elite QB and tight end if you draft one before rounds 3 and 5, respectively. In contrast, you have only a 22 percent chance of acquiring a top-three running back even when you select him at 1.03. To be fair, if you look at the Turnover Top 12 column, there's a 37 percent chance that any back you select who was a top-12 talent the previous year will repeat as a top-12 talent and at worst, his 193.2 fantasy point value will be better than many top-six wide receivers and all but possibly one tight end.
In other words, if you're picking a running back early and hoping the best-case scenario is that he repeats as a top-12 back - or the back you picked wasn't in the top-12 last year but has the talent and opportunity to join the ranks of fantasy RB1s then the odds are decent enough to take the chance. That said, taking a quarterback and/or tight end early who was a top-12 talent last year, gives you closer to a 60 percent chance that you'll land two top-12 talents this year.
While aiming high for an elite WR1 based on the previous year of production is even riskier than targeting one of last year's RB1s, the likelihood he remains a top-12 talent is close to even. Throw in the fact that in non-flex leagues there are usually more receivers in a starting lineup, and it becomes clear that placing a higher priority on receivers early can yield strong team if your competition is bent on taking running backs early.
Remember none of this data includes 2013's production that heavily favored WRs over RBs and if factored in would tip the percentages in favor of UDD.
Average Turnover, ADP, and Fantasy Points By Position 2007-2012 For Top 3, 12, 24, and 36
|Turnover (3)||ADP||Fpts||Turnover (12)||ADP||Fpts||Turnover (24)||ADP||Fpts||Turnover (36)||ADP||Fpts|
I created numerous examples of theoretical team builds in the first seven rounds that show how an UDD-built lineup can be competitive with an RB-heavy lineup according to the turnover rates, ADP, and fantasy point data from the past five years. The point isn't whether the UDD team scores higher - and there are numerous examples where it does - but that it's within the realm of providing fantasy owners a competitive foundation to build a contender with help from trades and free agency. Based on the examples below, I think there's a clear case that it can.
This initial comparison above has the UDD team outscoring the RB-Heavy team even if its first-round receiver fails to nab at worst the WR3 and the traditional draft style picks a top-3 runner. At the same time, I'm also presuming that the UDD team acquires a top-12 and top-24 based on the percentages working in his favor according to the theory of the approach.
What if the RB-Heavy team also hits on RB12 rather than RB24 and the UDD team fails to hit on anything different than? It's still very close and favoring the UDD lineup:
Once again, the assumption is that the Upside Down team can land the RB12 and RB24 after round four. Knowhson Moreno, Fred Jackson, Ryan Mathews, and arguably, Eddie Lacy fit the bill last year as four top-12 options. There are numerous examples from previous years indicating a similar dynamic at play.
Hopefully you're beginning to see how UDD provides a safe foundation to build on. The reason why so many fantasy owners continue to draft RBs early is they're squeamish. I can show them the data, but once they see the names of the running backs they'll have to take with confidence in the mid-to-late rounds and rely on them early, it's the moment their resolve weakens.
You'll see soon enough.
Here's a scenario where the UDD team snags the RB12, but fails to capture anything better than RB36 in a start-two RB league. In contrast, the RB-Heavy team gets RB3 and RB24 and WR12 and WR24.
The real difference here is with the caliber of quarterback that the UDD squad acquires in the second round as opposed to the RB-Heavy team's sixth-round selection. This is based on the five-year average turnover. Certainly the RB-Heavy team can hit on two stud RBs and a top-three QB and whoop the UDD team, but the percentages once again show the UDD team isn't as risky as it appears--and none of this information accounts for waiver wire transactions, trades, and good lineup management.
What if the UDD team picks two, top-6 receivers, but fails to acquire a starting RB? Here's one scenario:
The difference is a 54-point swing in favor of the RB-Heavy team. However, if the UDD squad acquired the RB24 and RB36, that gap is only 20 points over the course of the season. Picking a strong defense and kicker can even the things. Again, the point isn't that Upside Down is the better strategy across the board; just capable of giving a fantasy owner a good foundation with similar upside to build a winning team.
Building Depth with UDD
The appeal of UDD is that it often has a built-in contingency plan if the result of the draft yields a fantasy owner an unbalanced team. It can happen, but what most people presume is that a UDD squad lacks talent at running back and has a surplus at wide receiver. Often, it can be the opposite problem.
Here's a set of three potential teams from last year's UDD mock where I used the first-round RB Exception and picked Adrian Peterson first overall. The PPR team had bad choices and bad luck at receiver: Larry Fitzgerald (WR16), Golden Tate (WR 29), Reggie Wayne (ACL tear), Cecil Shorts (WR46) and no other option within the top-50 at the position.
However, Peyton Manning was the best fantasy player by a significant margin, which alone could have merited at least a QB1 and a WR1 in a trade. But with Adrian Peterson the RB6, Joique Bell the RB17, and Deangelo Williams the RB21, you could have also sold Peterson high any time before most trade deadlines, earned top-dollar, and got top-10 RB play from Bell and top-20 play from Williams during the final five weeks of the fantasy season.
|Rnd||PPR||PPR Flex||PPR Flex Option 2|
|1||Adrian Peterson||Adrian Peterson||Adrian Peterson|
|2||Peyton Manning||Peyton Manning||Peyton Manning|
|3||Larry Fitzgerald||Larry Fitzgerald||Larry Fitzgerald|
|4||Jason Witten||Jason Witten||Jason Witten|
|5||Reggie Wayne||Eddie Lacy||Shane Vereen|
|6||Shane Vereen||Shane Vereen||Giovani Bernard|
|7||Cecil Shorts||Cecil Shorts||Cecil Shorts|
|8||DeAngelo Williams||DeAngelo Williams/Daryl Richardson||DeAngelo Williams/Daryl Richardson|
|9||Daryl Richardson||Daryl Richardson/Johnathan Franklin||Daryl Richardson/Johnathan Franklin|
|10||Golden Tate||Golden Tate/Chris Givens||Golden Tate/Chris Givens|
|11||Vincent Brown||Vincent Brown||Vincent Brown|
|12||LaMichael James||LaMichael James||LaMichael James|
|13||Alex Smith||Alex Smith||Alex Smith|
|14||Andre Roberts||Andre Roberts||Andre Roberts|
|15||Robert Woods||Robert Woods||Robert Woods|
|16||Joique Bell||Joique Bell||Joique Bell|
|17||Christine Michael||Christine Michael||Christine Michael|
|18||Jeremy Kerley||Jeremy Kerley||Jeremy Kerley|
|19||Browns Def||Browns Def||Browns Def|
|20||Randy Bullock||Randy Bullock||Randy Bullock
Contingency planning is one of the finest things about UDD, because it's probably that a fantasy owner will draft an elite fantasy option with at least one pick during the first five rounds and often two or three. These players can often carry you to decent start in terms of victories--or at least points to keep you in contention for any playoff eligibility tiebreakers as you build your team--and if you choose, you can sell one of them for consistent talent at multiple positions.
UPSIDE DOWN RUNNING BACK CANDIDATES
The scariest part of the strategy for most fantasy owners new to going Upside Down is removing hindsight from the running back equation. It's easy to look at all the running backs listed above and feel positive about them because everyone knows how they performed. The nervous emails I got about waiting to take the likes of Le'Veon Bell, Zac Stacy, and Joique Bell outweighed the excited ones in July and August.
Forsaking name brand backs with clear starting roles in lieu of murkier talents and/or situations presents a level of risk that seems higher even if the data says otherwise. Let's look at the backs with ADPs in the range of rounds 5-10. If you opt for the Upside Down strategy, you're likely to pick 4-5 backs between rounds 5-10. You'll also consider a third receiver in this range or take a chance on a quarterback that is likely to produce in the lower third of the QB1 tier in a 12-team league.
Here is the available pool of backs based on the ADP sorter at Footballguys.I'll give you my take of each back with an ADP between rounds 5-12. A runner with a "(+)" before his name is a back that I like. Last year, some of my "+ backs" were Le'Veon Bell, Eddie Lacy, Fred Jackson, Deangelo Williams, Rashad Jennings, Zac Stacy, and Joique Bell.
POSSIBLE SLIDERS INTO RANGE
Be it quality competition on the depth chart, concerns with injury, a new team or offense, or an off-field issue, these eight RBs have ADPs hovering near the fifth around. It wouldn't take much to precipitate a slide that makes them available to a fantasy owner using UDD. All eight possess the talent to perform as fantasy RB1s and there's a good shot that at least half of them do quality RB2 work this year. I can even see the value in taking some of these RBs in the fourth round and picking a quality receiver in the fifth if the depth at receiver is still strong.
(+) Ryan Mathews, Chargers (ADP 41): Who says fantasy owners don't hold grudges? Mathews was the No.12 RB in 2013, but his fourth-round ADP indicates that he doesn't inspire much trust. Last year, Mathews entered camp in shape and with the right mindset--something hasn't been consistent at doing in the past--and Philip Rivers noted the difference early in practice. During the season, Mathews had 13 games with at least 14 carries and 7 with at least 19 attempts. In the final weeks (14-17) Matthews carried the offense with no fewer than 24 touches during that stretch.
The 27-year-old enters his contract year and based on the Chargers' moves, it's unlikely that the team plans to re-sign its former first-round pick. San Diego acquired Donald Brown and drafted Marion Grice. However, there's still a chance Mathews can change the team's mind if he puts together a second strong season and continues to show the maturity that he lacked early in his career.
A complete runner and receiver, Matthews entered the league lacking the caliber of discipline, work ethic, and self-confidence to capitalize on his immense talent. He squandered early opportunities to become a terrific feature back because of conditioning issues, careless mistakes, and losing the confidence in the coaching staff.
Even with Danny Woodhead as a big part of the offense and Brown added to the depth chart, Mathews should get first consideration to earn 15-18 carries per game, if not more. The question is which Mathews shows up this year: the one capable of playing well even when hurt or the one who finds his way to the bench by the second quarter? If Mathews' internal struggles are over but fantasy owner's confidence still lags I'll invest--stay tuned.
Shane Vereen, Patriots (ADP 42): When healthy, Vereen has displayed the all-around skill to light up box scores. He's one of the finer receivers at the position and he can carry the mail between the tackles. However, the broken wrist that Vereen suffered after his Week 1, 21-touch, 159-yard performance against the Bills has not fully healed. The cast he wore late last year was a huge issue for him as a receiver.
This is Vereen's contract year and the Patriots added a few runners to the mix this spring in addition to the fact that the talent, but fumble-prone Stevan Ridley could finally get it together and re-earn the trust of the coaches. Ridley is also in a contract year and none of these spring additions are early-round picks. Financially speaking, Vereen could still earn a reasonable second contract, but he'll need a healthy, productive season to do it. He's one of the riskiest mid-round picks in the second round, but the reward could be great if the worries about his health are overblown.
Ray Rice, Ravens (ADP 45): This is the first year since 2009 that Ray Rice has been a starter and regarded as a mid-round selection. His disappointing 2013 season--a 15-game, 214-carry, 660-yard, 4-touchdown disaster--has only been trumped by criminal charges of assaulting his wife, Janay. Rice enrolled in the pre-trial diversion program, which will likely spare him jail time. A suspension of some form will occur, pending the outcome of the trial, and it's this disciplinary action coupled with Rice's performance last season that has the runner leaving draft boards at the end of the fourth round.
As bad as Rice's season was, Bernard Pierce's was worse. The offensive line is complicit in the decline of the Ravens' ground game and the team traded for center Jeremy Zuttah this winter to replace the struggling Gino Gradkowski. Quality center play is a huge factor in developing a coordinated offensive line, so expect improvement this year.
Despite Rice and Pierce's poor performances, the Ravens still see Rice as its ground game meal ticket at some point in 2014. Draft pick Lorenzo Taliaferro has talent that's similar to Rashad Jennings, but he's a small school back that will need to acclimate to the pace of the game. Cierre Wood and Justin Forsett can help if called upon, but neither are dynamic talents.
Rice could become a hot fantasy commodity down the stretch, but it would be wise to pass on the Raven until Roger Goodell imposes a suspension. Once fantasy owners know the length of the suspension, Rice's ADP will have a truer value. Even so, I'd rather use that pick on a player that has a chance to contribute all year and if I want Rice down the stretch, I can trade for him.
Ben Tate, Browns (ADP 46): The former Texans' understudy to Arian Foster has been a fantasy RB3 for two of his first fou rseasons in the NFL--not bad. As tough as Tate is--playing with broken ribs last year--he hasn't played an entire season in the NFL and he had a screw and plate removed from his ankle against doctors' recommendations. He'll earn a chance to play the role of Alfred Morris in Kyle Shanahan's system in Cleveland and the Browns have a good enough offensive line that Tate could be a strong fantasy play this year. It's a perfect fit for a back like Tate, but if you take him it's worth monitoring the Browns' depth chart, which could be a wide-open competition this summer for the backup role.
Chris Johnson, Jets (ADP 53): Any time a team invests in offensive speed, the possibilities appear bright on paper. But in practice, Chris Johnson's efforts have been mercurial. If everything works out Johnson could be a top-five back. The problem is defining what "everything" is: beating out a healthy Chris Ivory; the Jets not instituting some odd rationing of carries that includes some combination of Johnson, Ivory, Daryl Richardson, and Bilal Powell; if the offensive line plays well; and who will win the starting role at quarterback. If the Jets roll with Vick, the combination of Johnson and Vick in a read-option system could be exciting--if the Jets go there. If Geno Smith is the man then it's a different story. I see the possibilities, but Johnson isn't a player I want to consider until August.
(+) Joique Bell, Lions (ADP 57): I recommended Bell last year and nothing has changed. He's a smart, rugged, versatile running back who can take over for Reggie Bush at any point and provide fantasy RB1 production. If Bush stays healthy, Bell still offers Pierre Thomas-like fantasy upside as an RB2/RB3. Bell was a steal last year; this year, fantasy owners are valuing him appropriately.
(+) Trent Richardson, Colts (ADP 58): I'm a sucker for some redemption stories and the fact that the Colts parted company with Donald Brown and didn't do anything significant to upgrade the depth chart tells me that GM Ryan Grigson is riding or dying with Richardson. The former first-round pick took responsibility for his subpar performance last year, stating that he needed more time to get a feel for the plays that he was running. He talked about studying his tape and noting where he was tentative. Because of Andrew Luck and the quality of the surrounding skill talent, I have no problem taking a chance on Richardson this late as my first back. The dividends far outweigh the demerits.
(+) Rashad Jennings, Giants (ADP 59): I like this acquisition for the Giants. Jennings is a find for a west coast offense. During Jack Del Rio's tenure in Jacksonville--the last time the Jaguars had a playoff-quality squad--it was said that Jennings had some of the best hands on the team. Not bad for a big back capable of running through defenders as well as gaining the corner with his speed. David Wilson is the wild card for the Giants at this point. If the former first-round pick is healthy, he could become the lead back. However, I think the Giants hope to lead with Jennings and use Wilson as the change of pace.
FIRST TIER (ROUNDS 5-7)
(+) Frank Gore, 49ers (ADP 61): Gore's age and the promise of Carlos Hyde and/or Marcus Lattimore have depressed the veteran runner's ADP despite a 2013 season as the No.13 runner in fantasy football. If Gore's physical skills have declined over the past four years, the grade of the hill he's going over is awfully flat. Unless that grade gets much steeper, it will take Hyde or Lattimore looking like studs for them to displace Gore. At this point Lattimore's burst hasn't returned from his second significant knee surgery and Hyde has to prove he can pass protect at the NFL level. Gore may see fewer carries than the 270-280 that he had in two of the past three seasons, but I doubt the veteran falls below 240. The 49ers were a game away from the Super Bowl last year and this is Gore's final year of his contract. The team will probably stick to the winning game plan and ride the veteran for all that he's worth behind the best run blocking unit in football. If you're ageist about running backs, avoid. Then again, you've probably avoided him for the past three years that he's been the No.12, No.11, and No.13 RB.
Knowshon Moreno (ADP 62): The ulimate vote of no-confidence from fantasy owners, Moreno was the No.5 RB last year. The reason for the slide is that he'll be running the ball in Miami with Ryan Tannehill at the helm and not Peyton Manning. Lamar Miller is a more talented athlete, but based on Miller's performance he's not playing to his potential. The Moreno signing is a one-year contract that gives the former Broncos' runner a well-funded, extended tryout with the Dolphins while giving the Dolphins a chance to wake up Miller. The bigger question might be the Dolphins' offensive line. Moreno has mid-range RB2 upside if the line plays well, but without a quarterback of Manning's caliber don't count on Moreno having nearly as much room to run.
(+) Toby Gerhart, Jaguars (ADP 65): The former Stanford star has little wear and tear as Adrian Peterson's backup. Now he gets his chance as the starring attraction in the Jaguars' offense--a unit where Maurice Jones-Drew was the No.20 fantasy RB last year with 234 carries, 803 yards, and 5 touchdowns on the ground. Gerhart has more burst and lateral agility than some give him credit and he's also a quality receiver. His four-year career in Minnesota amounts to 276 carries, 1305 yards (4.7 ypc), 5 touchdowns, 77 catches, 600 receiving yards, and 3 touchdown catches. Keep the carries and rushing touchdowns, drop the rushing yards to 1000-1100, and cut the reception totals in half, and it's probably the 2014 upside for Gerhart behind an offensive line that's still evolving and a green receiving corps to complement him. Noting about that production is exciting, but Gerhart should offer RB2/RB3 production that's steady in case a later pick doesn't give fantasy owners more.
(+) Steven Jackson, Falcons (ADP 73): 2013 was the worst year of Jackson's career, but he still managed six touchdowns Atlanta as a part-time back who wasn't healthy all year. Age will scare off many fantasy owners, but if you're willing to take a chance on Frank Gore don't balk at Jackson a round later. With a healthy Roddy White and Julio Jones and no Tony Gonzalez, expect to Jackson to get a shot at double-digit touchdowns as the Falcon's red zone option. Atlanta drafted Devonta Freeman in May--a talented back that the team believes offers similar skills as Ahmad Bradshaw, but with feature back potential. Jacquizz Rodgers is in a contract year and Jackson's deal expires at the conclusion of the 2015 season. Look for Freeman to compete with Rodgers for the change of pace duties now while Jackson does the heavy lifting. Atlanta has revamped its offensive line, which was a huge problem last year. If Jackson has one more year of burst left in those legs, he could offer a swan song of top-15 fantasy production among RBs.
SECOND TIER (ROUNDS 7-9)
This is the "role player with potential" tier. Each option has the talent and/or fit with offense to transcend his committee label and produce like a fantasy starter.
Stevan Ridley (ADP 74): Are the Patriots capable of trusting Ridley its lead back after multiple times he has burned them with fumbles? It's the fourth-year runner's contract year--two years removed from a top-10 fantasy season--and the number of rookies New England has brought to camp indicates that it's willing to consider Ridley as reliable contributor in 2014, but once again with a short leash. For the most part there are two types of backs in camp--the Kevin Faulkl/Danny Woodhead (Vereen, James White, and Roy Finch) and the Antowain Smith/BenJarvus Green-Ellis (Ridley, Brandon Bolden, Stephen Houston, and Jonas Gray). Ridley is a tough player to trust, because of the fact that New England has shown no compunction about pulling him after a mistake and exiling him to the bench. If you're planning to pick a block or RBs in this range I can see taking a chance on him, but you better make sure you've picked actual 1-2 actual starters like Moreno, Gerhart, or Jackson--or one from Ryan Mathews' tier--so you're not left empty-handed.
(+) Maurice Jones-Drew, Raiders (ADP 85): The Raiders' new runner has the talent to return to his RB1 prominence. The primary obstacle might not be Darren McFadden or the Raiders offense, but Jones-Drew's physical condition. The former Jaguar appeared to be playing at a notably higher weight than what the team listed for him. If Jones-Drew is back at his pre-injury (Lis Franc) playing weight then he has the all-around game to serve as Oakland's lead back--especially if Darren McFadden continues his streak of never finishing an NFL season. Jones-Drew is a player to monitor this preseason. Note any reports about his physical appearance and watch him during the preseason. If he looks good, don't hesitate to add him to your roster even if his ADP rises.
(+) Pierre Thomas, Saints (ADP 88): One of the safest mid-round picks in recent fantasy history, Thomas has delievered borderline RB2/RB3 production in five of seven seasons and his PPR production could remain in the range of 60-70 catches with Darren Sproles moving to Philadelphia. If you've targeted upside picks earlier and later and want some safety, Thomas is your man.
(+)Darren Sproles, Eagles (ADP 89): Sproles has two starter-worthy seasons in start-two RB leagues and barely two more in start-three leagues. A terrific weapon for an offense, but a little over-hyped for fantasy owners in some formats. Sproles will be 31 this summer and his stint with the Eagles should earn him great opportunities for big plays in Chip Kelly's offense, but it's doubtful he usurps significant production from a healthy Lesean McCoy. But if McCoy gets hurt, Sproles could earn enough touches to repeat his career-best 1313 total yards and 9 touchdowns that made him a top-10 RB for the Saints in 2011. At this ADP, Sproles is a worthwhile value...
Danny Woodhead, Chargers (ADP 94): On the other hand, I'm a little skeptical of Woodhead this year. He started hot during his first season with the Chargers, scoring five of his eight touchdowns during the first 10 games, but tailing off as the team leaned hard on Ryan Mathews. Woodhead and Mathews are in contract years and the recently acquired Donald Brown and Marion Grice have enough talent to supplant either player if called upon. If you're seeking steady PPR production as a RB2/RB3 flex with some TD upside, Woodhead is a west coast Pierre Thomas in fantasy football. The upside is minimal, but he offers safety.
Fred Jackson, Bills (ADP 96): Can he do it again? That's the question about a 33-year-old running back that took over for C.J. Spiller and quietly posted RB1 production. The fact that head coach Doug Marrone traded for Bryce Brown suggests it's unlikely. However, Brown's presence could be an indictment of Spiller generating trust in the organization as its future on the ground. It's Spiller's contract year and while Jackson may be the exception to the rule as a productive AARB (Association of Aging Running Backs), he wouldn't be the first to provide fantasy starter totals in his advanced age. I won't be betting on him, but I woudn't bet against him, either. As long as Brown can hold onto the ball, Jackson's upside will be limited to RB3 if Spiller fizzles again.
Darren McFadden, Raiders (ADP 102): What I am about to share with you about Darren McFadden doesn't matter. He hits the hole like a truck without brakes carrying crates filled with anvils down a steep hill. He has soft hands and he can make plays down field as a receiver when he concentrates on the ball. He's not stop-on-a-dime agile, but if he makes the first man miss with his motorcycle-like handling around corners he has the top-end speed to score from anywhere on the field. As a football fan, I want to see him dominate. As a fantasy owner, I don't care unless he's facing my team. McFadden doesn't perform well in zone-blocking schemes and he can't stay healthy. The last part is why none of the above matters.
Bishop Sankey, Titans (ADP 103): Speaking of players who perform much better with a blocking scheme, the Titans rookie has all the physical athleticism to excel but he doesn't conceptually put it all together in a zone-blocking scheme. Fortunately the Titans have personnel at the line of scrimmage that's more gap-friendly. Former Chargers' offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt brought Dexter McCluster to the fold as a free agent to play the Danny Woodhead role. If Sankey can show something as a pass protector, he'll play the Ryan Mathews role. The Titans are young at quarterback and with Jake Locker in a contract year, this team could be on the eve of a transition. Sankey is worth the risk at this point of the draft, but I'm not sold on him possessing RB1 upside. With Shonn Greene recovering from offseason surgery, RB2 upside is attainable, depending McCluster's use.
THIRD TIER (ROUNDS 9-12)
I'm a fan of this tier, because there are 11 players capable of borderline RB1 production based on their talent. If I were you, I'd examine WR, QB, TE, and DEF ADPs and determine if you can skip the Second Tier backs once you've take a few RBs between rounds 4-7. Of course, ADPs will change enough that I might revisit this thought by the time I do present mocks later this summer. But for now, I see reasonably good value.
(+) Khiry Robinson, Saints (ADP 110): Mark Ingram played well last year, but he's in a contract year. Darren Sproles is gone and his replacement Brandin Cooks is less of a runner than Sproles was. And Pierre Thomas is getting mailers from the AARB. Robinson is a second-year UDFA who impressed as both a runner and receiver last year. I like Robinson's feature back size and agility. I believe the Saints do too. If Robinson shows enough this year, Ingram will be expendable next. If injuries strike early, Robinson could figure prominently in the New Orleans offense and fantasy rosters everywhere. However, the fact that fantasy owners are selecting Robinson ahead of Ingram is either misguided or prescient.
(+) Bernard Pierce, Ravens (ADP 112): Pierce did not enter the league as a versatile player, but he has always been a tackle breaker and capable load carrier. If Ray Rice serves more than a four-game suspension after allegedly knocking his wife cold in an elevator Pierce will have good value as a late-round pick. The Ravens line should get better and there are enough weapons in the passing offense to afford Baltimore runners some decent lanes.
Deangelo Williams, Panthers (ADP 114): I get angry every time I write about Williams. He's had a good NFL career, but the Panthers prevented it from being better. Now Williams is 31, the Panthers' offensive line and wide receiver corps appears weaker, and it's another year with a committee split. If Jonathan Stewart gets hurt or appears to be having issues that could keep him from beginning the season, I'd draft Williams. However, I don't want to pick him if there are too many committee variables between him, Stewart, Mike Tolbert, and Newton to predict quality production.
(+) Chris Ivory, Jets (ADP 119): Ivory was among fantasy owners' favorite potential values last year, but he didn't stay healthy and the fickle Jets added Chris Johnson and Daryl Richardson to its depth chart. Ivory has the most talent between the tackles. If he can stay healthy, he could surprise--especially if Chris Johnson doesn't run tough enough for Rex Ryan.
Carlos Hyde, 49ers (ADP 120): The best fit-to-talent of any back in the 2014 rookie class, Hyde can help the 49ers immediately if Frank Gore gets hurt. However, as long as Gore remains healthy, Hyde is little more than a role player. Plus, people still forget about Kendall Hunter amid the talk about Hyde and Marcus Lattimore. Hyde is very "next year," but I can see how he'll be very little "this year."
Christine Michael, Seahawks (ADP 122): Marshawn Lynch is 27 and has accumulated a healthy workload over the past 3-4 years. Even so, Seattle's running back coach stated there's a drop-off on the depth chart after Lynch. It's not about running ability, but versatility and proven in-game smarts and production. The Seahawks are good enough to repeat, don't expect them to mess with its personnel formula at running back unless injury forces their hand. If so, it's not automatic that Michael will be the man. Robert Turbin is also a decent option.
David Wilson, Giants (ADP 124): The neck injury that Wilson suffered is the back's greatest hurdle at this point. If he returns to form--and there's optimism that he will--Wilson can thrive. However, a bigger obstacle might be Tom Couglin's trust. The old coach was patient with Tiki Barber, so it's possible Wilson could see the light at the end of the tunnel. With Rashad Jennings signed as the likely starter, Wilson's upside to begin the year is likely as the change of pace as No.2 RB on the depth chart. Just remember, that Wilson is good enough that if he gets on the field and plays to his capability, an injured Jennings could get lose his job without a battle.
Lamar Miller, Dolphins (ADP 125): Knowshon Moreno will make the Dolphins' ground game a committee as long as he's healthy. It will take Miller looking like a superstar to change this scenario. He's capable, but thus far the talented young runner has done little. The Miami offensive line has undergone some changes, too. There are better values behind Miller even if they are less talented.
Shonn Greene, Titans (ADP 128): The Titans' runner had offseason knee surgery, he has a new head coach, and the team has added two young running backs to the fold in Bishop Sankey and Dexter McCluster. Greene is the type of back that can the Titans and fantasy owners in a pinch, but don't expect much more than low RB2 production.
(+) Mark Ingram, Saints (ADP 130): I must be missing something when it comes to Ingram getting drafted after Khiry Robinson. Sure, I like Robinsons talent and I think he has enough skill to out-produce Ingram one day. However, I don't know if that day is now. Ingram looked close to his Alabama form last year. He had several runs multiple games where he was one step away from big-play runs. He was fresh, strong, and playing with excited intensity. I thought the Saints hurt themselves in the playoffs last year because they didn't stick with Ingram, Robinson, and the ground game. It's a contract year for Ingram and he's had little wear and tear for a fourth-year back. Don't be surprised if he has a quality year while auditioning for a new team.
Marcus Lattimore, 49ers (ADP 132): This is the optimism pick of fantasy drafts. Fantasy owners have seen or heard about Lattimore's exploits at South Carolina and they're hoping he'll recapture that ability two years removed from a massive knee injury. Thus far, Lattimore has not regained his burst. It doesn't mean he won't, but at this point it's far from a guarantee that he will. The fact that the 49ers drafted Carlos Hyde is healthy bet against it. I'm more apt to take a chance on Lattimore in dynasty leagues than a 2014 re-draft.
(+) Tre Mason, Rams (ADP 135): There are football writers that I know who are split on Mason's potential. I like him. Strictly as a runner, he reminds me of Ray Rice in style. Not as talent, but not far enough away to downgrade Mason's potential to do quality work between the tackles. Where he needs work is his passing down skills. He'll compete for the No.2 role and if he can beat Benny Cunningham--not a guarantee this year--he'll serve as Zac Stacy's understudy. Considering what Stacy did last year--and the help he'll get from Mason's teammate Greg Robinson at the line of scrimmage--investing late in Mason isn't a bad idea.
(+) LeGarrette Blount, Steelers (ADP 141): How do you not take this guy? I've watched him every year since he's been at Oregon and it confounds me that there are still writers who label him as anything related to "plodding." Blount may not have the big-man short area agility of Jerome Bettis, but the fluid athleticism is better and he can often make the first man miss. I see exactly why the Steelers signed him to work behind LeVeon Bell. This is a terrific 1-2 punch and it if you like to handcuff your backs, Blount is a shining reason to do so.
FOURTH TIER (ROUNDS 12 AND LATER)
Jeremy Hill, Bengals (ADP 146): Hill has power, but it's somewhat overstated. He's more of a pile carrier than a tackle breaker. Sure, he'll bounce off a glancing blow, but he's not a true punisher. He's more like an in-shape Lendale White. He's worth taking because he's Hue Jackson's draft day gift, but I'm not sold on him yet. If you can get him this late then no problem.
(+) Devonta Freeman (ADP 152): Steven Jackson is trying to tell AARB that he's not interested in their training room discounts this year and Jacquizz Rodgers was productive for fantasy owners, but not impressive enough for the Falcons to call him a future feature back the way they tabbed Freeman before the rookie set foot on a practice field. I can't say I'm in total agreement with the Falcons brass when they classified Freeman as a player with similarities to Ahmad Bradshaw, but I do like the rookie's burst, hands, and intensity. If Jackson is forced to clip coupons from the AARB benefits to use the cold tub more often than fans might like, there could be an opening for Freeman to earn time this year. As long as Freeman's ADP doesn't find itself inside the 10th round without a major injury, I'm game for drafting the rookie this late.
Andre Brown, Texans (ADP 153): I like Brown, but he can't stay healthy. At this point, it's not a major waste of a pick if it proves to be the case yet again, but there are fourth tier backs I like more.
Ahmad Bradshaw, Colts (ADP 163): Freeman doesn't break as many tackles or show the vision that Bradshaw has. If healthy, I'd rather have the real thing. Unfortunately, I don't think healthy will ever be a word associated with Bradshaw in the NFL ever again. If he demonstrates otherwise in the preseason--which I doubt--I'll give him a plus. Don't hold your breath.
Terrance West, Browns (ADP 167): The runner from Towson looked good against James Madison, but not so impressive against the upper echelon of college football. It didn't have to do with line play, either. West has to show better decision-making, urgency, and pad level against athletes of his grade or better. If Isaiah Crowell can stay on the straight and professional, I think West will be bringing up the rear of the Browns' depth chart.
(+) Donald Brown, Chargers (ADP 170): You have to admit, Brown looked pretty good behind a lackluster Colts offensive line in recent seasons. I'm not sure Brown will ever become a feature back like the Colts hoped, but he can earn quality RB2 fantasy production if Ryan Mathews gets hurt or doesn't mentally/emotionally show up in 2014.
Jacquizz Rodgers, Falcons (ADP 174): Rodgers has never had 100 touches as a runner and the Falcons prefer to use him as a change of pace receiving back. Now that Devonta Freeman is in the fold, I think Rodgers will see more time as a return specialist. It's a contract year for Rodgers, but don't expect enough opportunities for him to thrive unless Freeman struggles.
Roy Helu, Washington (ADP 175): I'm not sure what to expect in Jay Gruden's offense. Helu has the skills to deliver fantasy production, but he's little more than a swing for the fences. It's possible that Washington gives Chris Thompson or Lache Seastrunk a shot for significant time. Stay tuned.
(+) Jonathan Stewart, Panthers (ADP 181): When Jene Bramel said on the Thursday Night Audible that he's inclined to take a chance on Stewart being healthy this year, I was shocked. I don't like the Panthers' offensive situation that much, but if it forces them to lean on the ground game and the line can do it's job, Stewart represents good value here. If he's healthy (finally), he has stud ability. I know, you know his song by heart. I'll try my best not to make it an ear worm.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Bengals (ADP 182): Everyone is predicting the demise of Green-Ellis now that Jeremy Hill is in town. They're probably correct, but I'm not turning my back on Green-Ellis at least until the preseason. He's steady and it counts for something this late.
Kile Davis, Chiefs (ADP 184): Davis was an impressive kick return specialist as a rookie. I thought it was a perfect fit for him. But a future starter at running back? He had some bright spots, but I'm still not seeing much different from him than I did at Arkansas. And running against the Colts' defense in the wild card game wasn't much different than playing an SEC defense last year. If Davis recovers sufficiently from his broken leg, he's worth stashing behind Jamaal Charles and can deliver starter production. I'd be surprised if he's anything more than a solid RB2 though.
(+) Ka'Deem Carey, Bears (ADP 185): The rookie isn't fast, but he's smart, rugged, and versatile. He's also the only runner with starter talent behind Matt Forte. He reminds me a little of Ray Rice but with more pop at the point of contact. Carey is capable of doing heavy lifting behind a good Bears offensive line. He's one of the better young backups to acquire due to talent and situation.
(+) C.J. Anderson, Broncos (ADP 190): I like this guy. He's agile, plays with balance, and his vision is good. I wouldn't be shocked if he wins the backup role and I can see him carving out a niche in the offense with starter Montee Ball if he can demonstrate third down skills that satisfy Peyton Manning's eye test. In the Broncos offense where Manning is a running back's best friend, Anderson is a great pick this late.
(+) Bryce Brown, Bills (ADP 195): I'm willing to bet Brown wore out his welcome in Philadelphia because he wasn't disciplined with his decisions or his ball security. His athleticism and raw talent as a runner rivals some of the best backs in the NFL. However, he had limited playing time in college football and acted like a prima donna. Brown has a golden opportunity to become the Bills' starter next year with this extended audition in Buffalo. If Spiller gets nicked--and despite a good record for playing 15-16 games in recent years, it has happened--Brown could have some big fantasy moments in 2014.
Lache Seastrunk, Washington (ADP 196): Like Brown, Seastrunk has great talent. However, Seastrunk has to prove that he can be a disciplined, interior runner and third-down presence. I can see Seastrunk having huge moments that gets people excited, but the rookie wasn't known for being a great student of the game. See Bryce Brown's trajectory if you wonder how it makes a difference for a position as "instinctive" as running back.
THE GRAVEYARD SHIFT (SUPER LATE, SUPER DEEP)
(+) Kendall Hunter, 49ers (ADP 201): In most league, Hunter will be a free agent. But if it's a deep league, it's worth taking the only other proven NFL back on the 49ers roster after Frank Gore. Even if Carlos Hyde and Marcus Lattimore have more talent, Hunter knows the system and has the coach's trust.
(+) Charles Sims, Buccaneers (ADP 209): The rookie has the best shot to back up Doug Martin because Mike James is returning from injury and Bobby Rainey is probably regarded as a fringe player despite some quality flashes last year in relief of Martin and James. Sims is a good pass receiver and has feature back size. He's not as dynamic as Martin, but if called upon he can become a fantasy asset.
(+) Isaiah Crowell, Browns (ADP 212): The most talented runner in the 2014 draft, period--but not end of story. Crowell is a blend of pre-injury Edgerrin James and Marshawn Lynch. Not as talented as either of them, but not far off. If he approaches football like he did during his first year on the field at Georgia, he could challenge Ben Tate for the starting job--yes, he's that talented. He has done a good job keeping his off-field habits clean since leaving Georgia, but there were a number of teams unwilling to take a chance on him. If he has learned his lesson, Terrance West will not be the backup in Cleveland. However, there's enough past history to have concerns that Crowell is the running back version of Josh Gordon. He's worth picking to find out when the ADP is this low.
Latavius Murray, Raiders (ADP 215): A decent-sized runner with an unusual gait, Murray didn't inspire enough confidence in the Raiders staff during his rookie year for them to give him a real opportunity in 2014. Otherwise, Maurice Jones-Drew would not be in town and Darren McFadden wouldn't have been re-signed for another year. It is possible that they see potential in Murray, but they want to give him another year to develop. Either way, Murray is a fantasy free agent at this point.
Travaris Cadet, Saints (ADP 218): Multiple fumbles in a preseason game opened the door for Khiry Robinson. Cadet is a change of pace option that could see a challenge from UDFA Tim Flanders from Sam Houston State.
Andre Williams, Giants (ADP 224): I don't see the fit the way the Giants do. Williams isn't a natural pass catcher and his pass blocking needs a lot of work for a runner acquired for a west coast scheme. Williams looks good in shorts, but he doesn't play to his athleticism on the field. Some have said it was due to the tight line splits of the Boston College offense. However, Toby Gerhart and Stepfan Taylor played in a similar offense with tighter line splits and appeared more athletic than Williams.
(+) James Starks, Packers (ADP 228): Johnathan Franklin is still recovering from a neck injury and Dujuan Harris' knee is still on the mend, which is why I'm somewhat shocked that Starks is essentially at the bottom of the rung. Starks looked strong in relief of Eddie Lacy last year. I would gladly take him in rounds 10-12, but the fact he's available 10 rounds later makes him a must-pick.
Mike Tolbert, Panthers (ADP 229): It all depends how the Panthers use him. He's capable of starter production in fantasy leagues, but he's at least third in the pecking order. A better waiver wire pick unless in a really deep league.
(+) Stepfan Taylor, Cardinals (ADP 236): Taylor is slated to earn time in a complementary role to Andre Ellington. He's not fast, but he has quickness, balance, and vision. If the Cardinals line improves--and I expect the return of Jonathan Cooper to help a lot--Taylor could surprise as quality depth. If Ellington gets hurt, think Vick Ballard's rookie production.
Vick Ballard, Colts (ADP 237): Speaking of Ballard, the Colts' reserve will likely earn the backup role to Richardson at some point because few expect Ahmad Bradshaw to stay healthy. Ballard is a tough runner, but not dynamic. He's a good waiver wire option or late-round backup.
Bilal Powell, Jets (ADP 238): Powell played well to begin 2013, but the Jets wanted Chris Ivory on the field and after an opening month as a fantasy starter Powell was relegated to the bench. He's worth monitoring if the Jets' backfield suffers a series of injuries.
Ronnie Hillman, Broncos (ADP 241): The talent is there for Hillman to offer a dynamic presence in the Broncos' backfield, but he's essentially starting from the bottom of the depth chart this summer. Monitor his training camp before taking serious stab at him.
James Wilder, Jr. Bengals (ADP 247): The FSU runner has excellent physical talent and receiving skills. He runs with a recklessness that reminds me of Adrian Peterson in this respect. However, he lacks that top-end speed and burst. I wouldn't be surprised if he sticks to the Bengals roster if he's healthy enough. That's the big if with Wilder.
(+) Jordan Todman, Jaguars (ADP 253): There wasn't a great deal of production from Todman during the regular season, but if he can beat out Storm Johnson--a true "if"--he's worth taking this late as Toby Gerhart's backup.
James White, Patriots (ADP 257): A lot of people are keen on White because the rookie is a smart runner with receiving skills. He's a Shane Vereen-lite in terms of talent. It means he's a capable contributor, but I wouldn't be surprised if the combination of Stephen Houston and Roy Finch offer more as a tandem than White alone. Still, White could beat Finch because he's a bigger presence between the tackles.
(+) Lance Dunbar, Cowboys (ADP 258): If Ryan Williams has anything left like he claims he'll beat Joseph Randle for the final spot on the Dallas depth chart. Dunbar has burst and vision and it will be tougher for Williams to overtake the third-year runner from North Texas State if Williams truly isn't back to form. With Demarco Murray's injury history, Dunbar is worth grabbing.
(+) Benny Cunningham, Rams (ADP 260): Balance, vision, and just enough burst to move the chains, Cunningham can provide yeoman work in the Rams' offense when called upon. If Tre Mason struggles on third down Cunningham will have value this year.
Matt will update his views on the middle and late-round running backs within the scope of his strategy during training camp and provide a few mock draft examples of this strategy in action during 2014.