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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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