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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
Vikings' Adrian Peterson to begin probation on Wednesday
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(1/29/2015) Vikings running back Adrian Peterson will begin his probation on Wednesday, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Peterson will begin community service, and will undergo counseling to determine whether he has a drug problem. Peterson will report to a probation officer once a month in order to take a drug test. The strict drug testing stems from an Oct. 8 pre-trail urinalysis. Peterson admitted to "smoking a little weed," though the results from the test were never disclosed. 

Probation officials will also determine whether Peterson needs to attend parenting classes. 

Per his plea agreement, Peterson was fined $4,000 and ordered to perform 80 hours of community service. He's required to perform at least 16 hours per month, which would allow him to complete to program prior to training camp.

Peterson is under contract with the Vikings for next season, and is set to earn $12.75 million. The team is not allowed to communicate with Peterson during his suspension. 


Austin Collie signs with CFL's BC Lions
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(1/29/2015) Free-agent receiver Austin Collie has signed with the BC Lions of the Canadian Football League, the team announced Thursday.

"I’m excited to be joining the Lions and very much look forward to playing in the CFL," said Collie. "The wide-open play of the Canadian game and the passion of fans across the league is going to be a lot of fun to experience."

Collie played four seasons with the Colts and one with the Patriots. In his last NFL action, he caught four passes for 57 yards in the 2014 AFC Championship Game.


Eagles RB LeSean McCoy: 'I don't want to take less money'
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(1/29/2015) Eagles running back LeSean McCoy reiterated Thursday that while he'd be willing to restructure his contract if asked, he would not accept a pay cut, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.

"I know how hard it is to keep a team together and I want to be part of this team. But I don't want to take less money," McCoy said. "I want to figure a way to make it happen [where] we're all together."

McCoy, who is due to count $11.95 million against the cap in 2015, turned in his fourth 1,000-yard season in the last five years in 2014, finishing with 1,319 rushing yards on 312 carries and 155 receiving yards on a career-low 28 receptions. All five of his touchdowns came on the ground.


Bills' Rex Ryan won't commit to EJ Manuel as starting QB
by Sean d'Oliveira | CBSSports.com
(1/29/2015) When asked about who his starting quarterback would be in 2015, Bills coach Rex Ryan said the team would look at every available option, reports The Buffalo News.

"We're going to exhaust every resource we can," Ryan said. "We'll look at free agents. We'll look at the draft. We'll look at anything."

The Bills have former first-round pick EJ Manuel on their roster, but Ryan said he would not commit to Manuel as his starting quarterback at this time.

"To say that he's definitely going to be the guy, it's way too early to say that," Ryan said.


Bills RB Fred Jackson excited to play for new coach Rex Ryan
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(1/29/2015) Bills veteran running back Fred Jackson said he hasn't had the opportunity to meet with new coach Rex Ryan, but that didn't stop him from expressing his excitement about the new coaching regime in Buffalo.

"I can't wait to play for him. I've heard nothing but good things," Jackson said Wednesday of Ryan during an interview on ESPN New York 98.7 FM. "I'm looking forward to that [first] conversation when I sit down and talk to him."

The Bills finished 9-7 in 2014, which was their best record since 2004. While Jackson believes Ryan is going to "be that catalyst that comes in and pushes us over that hump," he didn't have many bad things to say about coach Doug Marrone, who opted out of his contract New Year's Eve.

"I thought he was a tremendous coach," Jackson said. "He showed up, he worked hard, he pushed players to give their best effort. He got us to a 9-7 record -- we hadn't won nine games in 10 years. There's definitely some things about him that made him a great coach. It's just the way he exited. I don't think anybody expected that. 

"Players, the way we found out is we got a generic text from him, saying that he was moving on and he had chosen to opt out of his contract." 


Justin Tuck: Raider Nation would appluad signing Ndamukong Suh
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(1/29/2015) If defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh doesn't sign a long-term deal with the Lions, then he will become a free agent March 10 and there will be plenty of teams interested in the Pro Bowl lineman. 

Raiders defensive end Justin Tuck indicated if Suh wanted to sign with Oakland, then he would be welcomed in Raider Nation.

"(He's) Raider-ish," Tuck said, per the Detroit Free Press. "And that's one of the reasons why I know Raider Nation would applaud that move, beyond the fact that he's an awesome football player. He kind of fits the mold of ... the toughness and the ferocious player that built the Oakland Raiders."

It is speculated Suh will receive a contract worth at least $100 million. Tuck believes the three-time All-Pro deserves such a lucrative deal.

"The thing about him, you know what you're getting every day. Some of the tactics, you could probably do without, but he's a hell of a football player," Tuck said. "I would love to have the opportunity to line up beside of him and let him take all the double teams that I normally take."


Nick Foles: 'I plan on being in Philly' in 2015
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(1/29/2015) There has been a lot of talk about quarterback Nick Foles' future with the Eagles, especially since Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly's former pupil at Oregon -- Marcus Mariota -- will be part of this year's draft class.

On Thursday, Foles addressed the rumors and stated he is expecting to be back on the Eagles' roster in 2015.

"Yeah you hear about it," Foles said in between doing paid appearances at Super Bowl XLIX, per NJ.com. "You are going to hear about it every single year. That's just part of it. The main word is 'rumor.' You can't put too much into it....I plan on being in Philly.

"I only listen to (head coach) Chip Kelly. That's what is most important. He is the one that will make the decision. Right now all I am going to do is work because I plan on being back in Philadelphia and playing with my team. That's all I ever thought. So that is what I plan on doing and I'm not looking at it any other way."

Foles added he hasn't talked with Kelly since the end of the season.

"We haven't talked a lot. He has a lot going on," Foles said. "This time of year you really just get away from everything. He is busy looking at the draft, doing all that. I saw he is more of the decision maker. Haven't really talked to him too much, but I'm sure I'll hear from him soon."


Dwyer pleads guilty in domestic violence case, gets probation
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(1/29/2015) Cardinals running back Jonathan Dwyer pleaded guilty Thursday in Maricopa County (Ariz.) Superior Court to a single count of disorderly conduct pertaining to his domestic violence case, according to The Arizona Republic.

Dwyer was sentenced to 18 months of probation and community service following the plea, according to a court spokesman.

The 25-year-old Dwyer was arrested Sept. 17 for a July 21 incident in which he allegedly head-butted his wife in the face and broke her nose after she refused his sexual advances and bit his lip, according to reports taken at the time.

Dwyer's wife told police she reported the incident in September because she feared for their child's safety after seeing reports of Vikings running back Adrian Peterson's arrest on child-abuse charges.

The Cardinals placed Dwyer on the reserve/non-football injury list after his September arrest. He did not play again during the 2014 season.


Tom Brady on Peyton Manning: 'I certainly hope he comes back'
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(1/29/2015) While the football world anxiously awaits official word from Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning about his playing status for the 2015 season, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady -- and longtime Manning rival -- said Thursday he hopes the five-time NFL MVP will continue his career.

"What a great player he's been for this league," Brady said Thursday, per NFL.com. "He's a great competitor, and I've been fortunate to play against him a bunch of times. I certainly hope he comes back, 'cause the league will miss him if he doesn't. But those decisions are up to him. I'm sure it's up to whether he's mentally and physically -- that's what he wants to do. But I certainly hope he's back."

Archie Manning, Peyton's father, told NFL Network on Thursday that his son hasn't made a decision yet.

"Well, Peyton evaluates things; he's pretty good at that," he said. "I can't tell him what to do, and he hasn't told me what he's going to do. But I do know that he's really giving a lot of things a lot of thought. He's thinking about where he is physically, he wants to see how he can do this some more, trying to get over an injury."

Archie added starting over with new Broncos coach Gary Kubiak will not be an issue for Peyton, if he decides to return next season.

"Yeah, but he loves Gary. He likes Gary," Archie Manning said. "He liked John Fox. He liked Adam Gase. All those things, I think, are considered with. But my deal is he's always made good decisions; he's pretty thorough. He's going to evaluate a lot of things, and I think he'll make a good decision."


RG3: 'I could've sat out the rest of last year' after hurting ankle
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(1/29/2015) During a radio interview Wednesday night, Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III indicated the dislocated ankle he suffered in Week 2 against the Jaguars hindered him the rest of the season. He missed six games due to the injury.

“I had never suffered an ankle injury of that severity before, so I didn’t really know what to expect,” Griffin said, per The Washington Times. “It just became more and more tough the more games that we lost, because you know how hard your guys work, and you want to get out there and help them win games.

“I could’ve sat out the rest of last year, with how bad the ankle was, but I felt like I could play, and I wanted to get out there and play with my guys and help them win games. And that didn’t happen when I got back out there. Then coach made a decision [to bench me]. That was an unfortunate decision, and something we all had to go with because that was coach’s choice.”

Griffin will be entering the final guaranteed year of his contract in 2015. The Redskins have until May 3 to decide if they want to exercise the fifth-year option on his contract for 2016. 

Griffin added his focus this offseason will simply be on getting healthy.

“Last year, I wasn’t healthy, and it sucked,” Griffin told ESPN 980. “There’s no other way to say it other than that. When you dislocate your ankle in the second week of the season, when you and your team had big things in mind. So I guess it’s just getting healthy, getting a mental break, getting a chance to spend time with family, and then formulate my plan going forward from this year so we can go out there and win games.”


 
 
 
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