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2014 Draft Prep: Running back tiers and strategies

Senior Fantasy Writer
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Quarterback tiers | Wide receiver tiers | Tight end tiers

If this season's quarterback talent pool is the Pacific Ocean, the running back talent pool is a kiddie pool on a cruise ship. And trust me, you don't want to be caught at the bottom of the kiddie pool.

This whole "committee" approach teams are taking is starting to become a pain in the butt. What happened to our 20-touch-per-week running backs? Our bell cows? Yeah, some teams still have them -- but not every team. And if you play Fantasy you want as many of those big-workload backs as you can.

There were nine backs with at least 300 touches last year, all of whom finished among the Top 12 in Fantasy. Another six backs had between 275 and 299 carries -- one made it to the Top 12 while the other five finished among the Top 20. This shouldn't strike you as some kooky coincidence. More touches equals more opportunities to put up numbers.

And now you can see why backs with that seemingly crystal clear path to 275-plus touches are in such high demand. So long as they keep their jobs, they'll have a very good shot at being Fantasy gold. As such, they get picked early, especially since teams are passing up the idea of one back doing most of the work and rotating grinders on and off the field.

So, yeah, getting a couple of those 275-plus-touch backs is a pretty good idea. Certainly makes lineup setting easier. Nothing is stopping you from taking two backs with your first two picks except this: You're leaving difference-makers at other positions on the table. Now if you're the kind of owner who likes to wait for bargains then this isn't a big problem because quarterbacks with 20-point potential and tight ends with sleeper appeal will be around later. But a lot of Fantasy owners win leagues with elite quarterbacks and a lot of other people swear by stud receivers. You're passing them up if you go rusher-rusher to begin your draft.

Here's another little nugget of painful information: Recent history says owners who take a running back in Round 1 have a 50-50 shot of landing big numbers from him. In the last five years there's only been one occasion when more than half of the backs taken in Round 1 on average (a Top 12 Average Draft Position) ended up finishing in the Top 12. Scary. Equally alarming is that in the last seven seasons no fewer than four and no more than six rushers repeated as Top 12 finishers. So spending a top pick on a back coming off a big year isn't the no-brainer it might have been several years ago. But many Fantasy owners will still do it.

Let's get strategic. Before your draft, make two lists of running backs -- those you would take before Peyton Manning, Calvin Johnson and Jimmy Graham and those you would take after them but before Drew Brees and the next five-best receivers. If you can't get a running back off your pre-Peyton/Calvin/Graham list then go for the ultra-reliable production from those three non-rushers. Then grab a running back in Rounds 2 and 3, presuming ones to your liking are still there. Starting your draft with two backs with your first three picks is recommended but not mandatory, especially if you pick late in the odd-numbered rounds since you can probably swipe a decent back in Round 4.

Looking for 200s in the early/middle rounds

If you can't find backs with 275-carry potential, your next targets are ball carriers with 200-touch potential. Those backs have a good shot of making the Top 24 -- last year 21 of 29 backs with 200-plus touches made the Top 24. And asking for a running back to average 12.5 touches per week isn't much. Better yet, there are a lot of backs that should get to that average. So, that's good news. Aim for the backs with goal-line duties before the guys who might play passing downs -- the ones pegged into third-down roles might not get elevated to a starter's role.

The better part about the backs with 200-touch potential is that any one of them can fall into a situation where they'll be relied upon more than what the coaches intended. Between injuries and bad play, backs get their workloads lightened all the time. How else do you explain Fred Jackson's Top 12 finish last season? Or Danny Woodhead and DeAngelo Williams in the Top 24?

I like the idea of picking up as many of these 200-touch backs between Rounds 5 and 10 as possible. You'll mix in a quarterback and a tight end and a receiver too, so don't expect to take any more than three or four, but make it happen. One, the backs will provide depth, which is necessary since running backs get hurt all the time. You'll need them. Two, any one of them could break out and become a starter for your team (or be a part of a trade to help another spot on your roster). It's a slippery slope if you leave your draft with four or fewer running backs on your roster. Owners who drafted Eddie Lacy, Giovani Bernard, Ryan Mathews, Le'Veon Bell and Fred Jackson -- all taken on average between 60th and 122nd overall last year -- appreciate this philosophy.

Rookies rock in the later rounds?

Fantasy owners were thrilled with how the rookie running backs performed last season. Eddie Lacy finished in the Top 12, Le'Veon Bell, Giovani Bernard and Zac Stacy finished in the Top 24 and Andre Ellington and Montee Ball contributed to their Fantasy owners' bottom lines. Thing is, only two of these players were for-sure starters heading into the season with only one actually being on the field for Week 1. So if last year's rookie crop taught us anything, it's that patience is required.

Ditto that sentiment for 2014. As of now it looks like only one rookie back will be gifted a starting spot -- Tennessee's Bishop Sankey, who we happen to be big fans of. Everyone else in the rookie class will end up splitting reps or waiting on the bench to begin the year. But that definitely doesn't mean you shouldn't take them.

Part-timers
Terrance West, Browns: The most likely on this list to jump into a starter's role, West is coming off of a big workload at Towson but should fit into Cleveland's run scheme. Ben Tate is only competition. Worth a shot in Round 7 or 8.
Jeremy Hill, Bengals: Could end up bullying his way for a handful of touchdowns and as many as 10 touches per week as a running-down presence. That Gio guy is going to limit his snaps, though. He'll go a full round or two after West.
Charles Sims, Buccaneers: Expected to work passing downs with Doug Martin. Capable of being an every-down back but probably would need multiple backs on the Bucs to miss playing time for that to happen. If Martin goes down he'll see a bump but would still share. Late-round pick.

Waiting for an opportunity
Devonta Freeman, Falcons: When Steven Jackson gets banged up, Freeman will play a lot. Small size but strong legs draw big comparisons and his production at Florida State was solid. Definitely worth a pick after West.
Tre Mason, Rams: Talented, versatile runner (23 rush TDs last year). Concerns over his playing time keep him grounded. Those who draft Zac Stacy have to insure him with Mason by Round 10 because other owners will chase him in Round 11.
Carlos Hyde, 49ers: Hyde decimated defenses last year at Ohio State and compares favorably to the running back he'll spell this season, Frank Gore. He's the necessary handcuff to Gore -- Round 10 if you own Gore, Round 11 if you don't.
James White, Patriots: The talk is White will be slotted into a passing downs apprenticeship behind Shane Vereen, but with 221 carries in the Big Ten last year and at least 6.1 yards per carry in three of four years at Wisconsin he could work his way into backing up Stevan Ridley, too. Hey, doesn't Ridley have a fumbling problem? White's a good late-round flier.
Andre Williams, Giants: Led college football with 2,177 yards on 355 carries last year but caught 10 passes in four years at Boston College. Rashad Jennings might lose some touchdowns to the bruising Williams but that's it unless Jennings misses time. Late-round pick.
Jerick McKinnon, Vikings: A tremendous runner, McKinnon could take some third-down work, but the biggest strike against him is that he's playing behind Adrian Peterson. Tough to figure him to be a factor this year unless Peterson gets ... nope, don't even want to type it. Potential late-round pick.
Ka'Deem Carey, Bears: A potential clone of Matt Forte, Carey's probably going to have to bide his time to get meaningful touches this season. Only those who draft Forte will consider Carey with a final-round pick.
Lorenzo Taliaferro, Ravens: Physical inside runner who might only play a lot if pressed into action. Could happen early on if Ray Rice is suspended and Bernard Pierce is still favoring his shoulder. Or, it might not happen at all.

Like a good neighbor, Fantasy backups are there

Everyone's going to have a running back they consider their "No. 1." Nobody's going to want to have to hit waivers to find a replacement for him in case he misses significant playing time. The idea of adding the real-life backup to your Fantasy starter is called handcuffing and the importance of whether or not you should grab a second rusher from the team of your top Fantasy guy varies from player to player.

Ask the owners who drafted C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson how it worked out last year. Or those who took Darren McFadden and Rashad Jennings or Montee Ball and Knowshon Moreno (that one worked out a little differently but the results didn't bother anyone).

The handcuff concept is for those who are either risk averse or lazy. If you want to protect against injury it's worth doing, and if you don't want to bother with jockeying for must-adds on waivers it's worth doing. Dedicating two roster spots to one specific part of a team's offense is counter-intuitive but it's good protection against Fantasy disaster.

Here's a look at all the projected handcuffs for every starting running back along with the round you can find them in, listed in order of importance.

Handcuff Playing behind When to do it? Handcuff Playing behind When to do it?
Fred Jackson C.J. Spiller 7th Knile Davis Jamaal Charles 12th
Terrance West Ben Tate 7th James White Stevan Ridley 12th
Lamar Miller Knowshon Moreno 8th David Wilson Rashad Jennings 12th
Khiry Robinson Pierre Thomas 8th Andre Brown Arian Foster 12th
Darren Sproles LeSean McCoy 9th Jonathan Stewart DeAngelo Williams Late pick
Devonta Freeman Steven Jackson 9th Shonn Greene Bishop Sankey Late pick
Stepfan Taylor Andre Ellington 10th C.J. Anderson Montee Ball Late pick
Tre Mason Zac Stacy 10th Roy Helu Alfred Morris Late pick
Jeremy Hill Giovani Bernard 10th Ahmad Bradshaw Trent Richardson Late pick
Charles Sims Doug Martin 11th James Starks Eddie Lacy Late pick
LeGarrette Blount Le'Veon Bell 11th Jerick McKinnon Adrian Peterson Late pick
Chris Ivory Chris Johnson 11th Lance Dunbar DeMarco Murray Late pick
Bernard Pierce Ray Rice 11th Donald Brown Ryan Mathews Late pick
Christine Michael Marshawn Lynch 11th Ka'Deem Carey Matt Forte Late pick
Darren McFadden Maurice Jones-Drew 11th Denard Robinson Toby Gerhart Late pick
Carlos Hyde Frank Gore 11th Theo Riddick R. Bush/ J. Bell Late pick

Finally ... Tiers!

The time has come to group running backs by the stat expectations we have for them, thus creating tiers. Take our list and tweak it to your own preferences so you'll have an instant look at how quickly the talent pool dries up and how soon you'll have to take a running back. For instance, if there's only one name left in a tier before the next group of rushers, you might grab that final name given the projections he'll have.

Expect an update to the tiers in late August, hopefully right around the time you're drafting.

2014 running back tiers
1,600+ total yards, 11+ TDs 1,400+ total yards, 9+ TDs 1,250+ total yards, 8+ TDs 1,100+ total yards, 7+ TDs
Jamaal Charles Eddie Lacy Alfred Morris Ryan Mathews
Matt Forte Arian Foster Giovani Bernard Bishop Sankey
LeSean McCoy Montee Ball DeMarco Murray Andre Ellington
Adrian Peterson Marshawn Lynch Le'Veon Bell Toby Gerhart
    Zac Stacy Reggie Bush
    Doug Martin C.J. Spiller
      Ray Rice
1,000+ total yards, 6+ TDs 900+ total yards, 5+ TDs High-end backups Low-end backups
Joique Bell Knowshon Moreno Terrance West Jeremy Hill
Shane Vereen Maurice Jones-Drew Khiry Robinson LeGarrette Blount
Frank Gore Pierre Thomas Darren Sproles Charles Sims
Chris Johnson Danny Woodhead Devonta Freeman Bernard Pierce
Stevan Ridley Fred Jackson Lamar Miller Darren McFadden
Rashad Jennings Steven Jackson Stepfan Taylor Christine Michael
Trent Richardson DeAngelo Williams Tre Mason Carlos Hyde
Ben Tate   Chris Ivory Dexter McCluster

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Player News
Texans' Louis Nix 'trying to move forward' in sophomore season
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(5/28/2015) Texans nose tackle Louis Nix spoke about his lost rookie season this week in OTAs, the Houston Chronicle reports.

"A lot went on my first year here. It was a lot to deal with," said Nix, who underwent arthroscopic knee surgery during the preseason and eventually was placed on season-ending injured reserve. "It was difficult to maintain it with all the issues. But I'm happy about now, and that's what I'm worried about. I'm just trying to move forward and do the best I can."

Coach Bill O'Brien expressed frustration with Nix earlier this offseason.

"Bill is Bill. He challenges everybody," Nix said. "Sometimes you guys make it more than what it is. … He wants guys to be better. I take no offense to it. I know he just wants me to be the best player that I can be. He sees potential, and I see it in myself. I'm starting to get back in a groove of things. I'm just going to keep trying to do the best I can."

Nix is finally healthy and working his way into game shape.

"Make it through a practice, man," Nix said. "That's my goal."


Eagles' Earl Wolff, Marcus Smith limited in OTAs with injuries
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(5/28/2015) Eagles safety Earl Wolff and linebacker Marcus Smith were limited in OTAs with injuries, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.

Wolff is recovering from knee surgery. Coach Chip Kelly said the safety has been cleared to return, and the team is waiting for him to reach full participation in OTAs. Smith has been dealing with a pulled leg muscle.


Packers' Casey Hayward dealing with foot injury
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(5/28/2015) Packers cornerback Casey Hayward is dealing with a foot injury and doesn't expect to return to action until training camp, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports.

"I’ll probably take it easy into camp right now," Hayward said. "I have a minor foot thing right now. We’ll probably take it easy into camp."

Hayward said the foot "flared up" on him earlier in the offseason. He finished with 42 tackles and three interceptions last season.


Ravens' Terrence Brooks running, 'doing really well'
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(5/28/2015) Ravens free safety Terrence Brooks is running after suffering ACL and MCL tears in his right knee in December, the Baltimore Sun reports.

"Terrence Brooks is doing really well," coach Jim Harbaugh said. "No predictions right now, but he looks good. He has worked hard."

Brooks is expected to open the season on the PUP list and could make his return this season.

"We're just hoping for the best, trying to get back as soon as possible," Brooks said. "We're taking precautious. We definitely don't want to rush back too fast. If you do get cleared, playing this year is definitely a goal. You don't want to rush it. For the most part, you have to be cautious and take it easy. After we get off of the PUP list, we'll see where we're at. I definitely want to get back into it, but we're taking our time. I have high hopes of being ready."


Report: OT Jake Long visits Giants Thursday
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(5/28/2015) Free-agent offensive tackle Jake Long visited the Giants on Thursday, ESPN reports.

The Giants are having to shuffle their offensive line with Will Beatty expected to miss the first part of the season with a pec injury. Long was scheduled to make $9.25 million in 2015 but was released by the Rams in March.


Saints CB Brandon Browner impressing teammates, coach
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(5/28/2015) New Saints cornerback Brandon Browner is having a positive impact on not just the secondary, but the entire defense. At least that's the view of defensive backfield mate Kenny Vaccaro.

"Browner's a good dude, leads by example, talks when he needs to talk," Vaccaro told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "He's real serious, kind of keeps everybody level headed and knows what we've got to work for. He's won two Super Bowls, so he knows what to do."

Sean Payton echoed those sentiments.

"He's competitive," he said. "He's driven and certainly one of the things we talked about this offseason through the draft, through the acquisition of players is the makeup and making sure that this is something we felt like was a plus and certainly with him we feel that that is a strength of his."

The Saints are Browner's fourth team in six seasons in the NFL.


Eagles LB DeMeco Ryans working way back from injury
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(5/28/2015) There was a bit of a discrepancy Thursday in regard to the practice participation of Eagles inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans.

Chip Kelly said before the session that Ryans would be a full-go despite him being just seven months removed from rupturing his Achilles tendon. Ryans did practice, but he told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he was not a full participant.

Ryans missed half of the 2014 season with the injury, but contributed to 45 tackles in eight games before going down.


Eagles QB Mark Sanchez optimistic as offseason rolls on
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(5/28/2015) A stronger arm, greater familiarity with the offense and more confidence has Eagles quarterback Mark Sanchez feeling quite good these days.

Sanchez underwent shoulder surgery two years ago that affected him early last season. He expects to be better in 2015, especially if given an opportunity to play over newcomer Sam Bradford.

"First thing, physically, I feel so much better," he told the team website. "The farther it gets away from surgery and all the reps I've had, all the rehab on through, it can only get better and stronger. So this is definitely the best I've ever felt. And then as far as the scheme, every rep, every time we sit down and watch film, every meeting, that can only help with my growth as well."

The chance to play is one reason why Sanchez chose to return this offseason to the Eagles.

"Were there other opportunitites? Absolutely," he said. "Did they look potentially good, better, similar, maybe worse? Potentially, yeah, there was some stuff out there. But when I factored it all in, I just felt this was the best spot for me. I enjoy playing for coach Kelly, I love this system, I love the tempo, I love the pace."

Sanchez also expressed a desire to remain on the team for which he threw his highest completition percentage of his career in 2014. He hit on 64.1 percent, by far a personal best.

Chip Kelly has seen a difference in Sanchez.

"I think you can see it in how he's performing out there now," he said. "He's also not learning an offense again. ... He is really comfortable in terms of the scheme."


Ravens waive/injured Julian Wilson
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(5/28/2015) The Ravens waived/injured cornerback Julian Wilson on Thursday, the Baltimore Sun reports. Wilson suffered a broken leg on the first day of rookie camp and will miss the season.

Saints' Anthony Spencer works ahead of Junior Galette Thursday
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(5/28/2015) Saints linebacker Anthony Spencer worked ahead of Junior Galette in the team's base 4-3 defense, a run-heavy look that featured just three linebackers, ESPN.com reports.

"However it came out, we’re not worried about depth chart now," defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said. "We’re putting in a defense, we’re all working hard together and getting to know each other, our teammates and what we got. But I know both those guys can play, so we’re excited about 'em."

Spencer had a career-high 11 sacks in 2012 but has managed just 24 total tackles and a half-sack in 14 games over the last two years while dealing with a major knee injury.

"I think sometimes there are tougher positions to evaluate at this time of year," coach Sean Payton said, when asked to give his early thoughts on Spencer. "But I think, No. 1, he can affect the passer. ... He’s an edge player, I think he’s very good at fitting the run, and I think he can affect the passer."


 
 
 
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