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2014 Draft Prep: Scouting the second-year RBs

Senior Fantasy Writer
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By nature, Fantasy owners see a player have a good season and immediately assume they'll have another one just like it. Look, optimism is great but the reality is that players go from boom to bust more often than not. Think of all the one-year wonders that have fizzled out over the years -- even if you're relatively new to Fantasy Football you've probably drafted a player who had big expectations but didn't come close to sniffing them.

There's a growing sense that second-year running backs are becoming dangerous Fantasy options. Many have given owners hope for another big season and then underwhelmed and/or got hurt. Doug Martin and Trent Richardson are among those from 2013 and there are countless others who have disappointed. Some of them were overworked as rookies and couldn't keep up the pace the following season, others suffered career-changing injuries. Some had both.

However, it's crazy to simply slap a label on every rookie running back who had a big first year and assume they'll get dragged into the Fantasy ditches the next season. Running backs, and really all football players, should be evaluated on their talent, their roles in the offense as determined by their coaches, their red flags and that's it. Correlations between what second-year backs will do in 2014 and what completely different players on completely different teams did in completely different years creates myth.

Let's make better use of your time. Here are the basics on every second-year running back this season along with the red flags that relate to each individual.

Eddie Lacy, Packers
Talent: Physical, violent rusher with better-than-advertised hands. Way more of a grinder than a speedster but did rip off three runs of 35-plus yards last year (everything else was 19 yards or fewer, but did contribute three catches of 20-plus yards).
Expected role in the offense: Primary back for the Packers, which is wonderful since he should rarely see more than seven defenders in the box given the potent Green Bay passing game.
Red flags: Lacy has a major injury history including issues with his knees, hamstring and big toe. He was concussed last year, missing a game, and played through some other minor injuries. This is the biggest, and the only, strike against Lacy.
Latest projection: 14 games, 269 carries for 1,148 yards, 34 catches for 231 yards, 10 total touchdowns

Montee Ball, Broncos
Talent: Good, not great, prototypical running back. Ball doesn't have speed but is nimble in tight space and has enough physicality to his game to be effective between the tackles and cash in at the goal line. His pass protection needs improvement but his hands are solid.
Expected role in the offense: Primary back for the Broncos, which is pretty much the golden ticket to the Fantasy kingdom. Playing alongside Peyton Manning has turned mediocre running backs into very productive ones (the latest example being Knowshon Moreno) so as long as Ball is in that spot, he's going to exploit pass-fearing defenses. The Broncos' backup running backs aren't considered major threats to his playing time.
Red flags: We just don't know how much pull he's got with the coaching staff. Keep in mind that this is the same group of men who barely mentioned positives about Knowshon Moreno last summer and wound up giving him the big-time opportunity. If Ball fumbles or struggles in any way he could lose a lot of work, particularly since an early August appendectomy opened the door for Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson to show off what they can do.
Latest projection: 16 games, 247 carries for 1,075 yards, 33 catches for 306 yards, 10 total touchdowns

Giovani Bernard, Bengals
Talent: Quick, shifty runner with great hands and a nice second-gear. Though he lacks in size he is fully capable of running between the tackles as well as working at the goal line.
Expected role in the offense: Marvin Lewis admitted this offseason that he held Bernard back from taking on too much work. He also said he anticipates a Ray Rice-like arc in terms of touches and production. That suggests Gio picks up a heavy dose of the rushing workload and gets the chance to exceed the 1,209 total yards he had as a rookie.
Red flags: The biggest problem might be the rookie the Bengals drafted this year, Jeremy Hill. Considered a physical inside rusher, Hill could easily take 10 touches per week away from Bernard and also bowl over defenders for short touchdowns. ACL injury from 2010 a very small issue.
Latest projection: 16 games, 252 carries for 1,038 yards, 50 catches for 406 yards, eight total touchdowns

Le'Veon Bell, Steelers
Talent: Very good physical runner with good size but not with a lot of speed. Averaged 3.5 yards per carry last season. He was money from the goal line. Proved to be a very good receiver (45 catches) and was especially adept at picking up the Steelers' no-huddle offense.
Expected role in the offense: Bell should work as Pittsburgh's primary back through the season. Not only is he a fully capable rushing threat but he can also work in any other down and distance, keeping the Steelers offense unpredictable.
Red flags: The Steelers brought in LeGarrette Blount to help Bell out. Many assume Blount will pick up less than 10 touches per game but if he gets hot like he did last season in New England then that number could tick up a little bit. Hand in hand with that is Bell's workload over the last two years: 382 carries and 32 catches in his last year at Michigan State and 244 carries and 45 catches last year. Might the Steelers aim to keep his workload lighter than it was last year?
Latest projection: 15 games, 257 carries for 1,096 yards, 41 catches for 319 yards, eight total touchdowns

Zac Stacy, Rams
Talent: Think Maurice Jones-Drew: Short, thick runner with good speed and very nice hands. Had six plays of 20-plus runs in effectively 12 games. Mangled several defenses without the benefit of a threatening passing attack for nine of those 12 games.
Expected role in the offense: Stacy should end up as the Rams' primary running back to begin the season. He averaged 20.8 carries per game in his 12 starts, partially because the team had no one else it trusted to carry the mail. That changed following the 2014 NFL Draft but Stacy should still figure to be a candidate for well over 15 carries per game and about 20 total touches per contest, save for the ones in which the Rams fall behind.
Red flags: The biggest one of all is the NFC West. Poor Stacy is the only back in the NFL that has to run against the Seahawks, 49ers and Cardinals defenses twice each! Stacy had eight or fewer Fantasy points in three of four divisional games in 2013 (he did torch the Seahawks at home for 134 rush yards). Stacy also has to fend off rookie Tre Mason from taking work away from him -- Mason was among college football's most prolific running backs at Auburn last season but isn't considered as complete a back as Stacy. There are minor injuries in the past (one major concussion in 2010) but that's about it.
Latest projection: 16 games, 270 carries for 1,164 yards, 27 catches for 153 yards, nine total touchdowns

Andre Ellington, Cardinals
Talent: Ellington has very good wheels but not a ton of size to go with it. Part of the reason why he went in the sixth round of last year's draft was because of his 5-foot-9 frame but he's since added about 10 pounds of good weight, according to general manager Steve Keim. Another positive is Ellington's hands -- he can decimate defenses when put in space (39 catches last season including three for 20-plus yards).
Expected role in the offense: The Cardinals have talked a good game, describing Ellington as a "bell cow." Analysts have considered him a big-touch running back even though he didn't have 20 touches once last season. Certain rushing downs roles including (and especially) short-yardage and goal-line work could go to someone else. But when the team is hustling in the no-huddle or in obvious passing situations, Ellington will be in there.
Red flags: Playing in the rough-and-tumble NFC West is a biggie, though he could make a bigger impact as a receiver against the 49ers, Seahawks and Rams. He also had two games with 10-plus points against division rivals in 2013. The reality that he won't be an every-down back is another issue. The Cardinals have Stepfan Taylor ready to go as a physical inside rusher when they need a couple of yards for a first down or a touchdown. Ellington had one touchdown from 6 yards out, his other three came from 15 or more yards out. Ellington does have a track record of minor injuries but as we wrote back in March it's not a big deal.
Latest projection: 14 games, 216 carries for 978 yards, 46 catches for 402 yards, six total touchdowns

Christine Michael, Seahawks
Talent: He's similar to Marshawn Lynch in many ways -- a physical grinder with size, though with slightly better quickness and long speed. He runs just as well inside as he does outside. Michael's blocking and hands have been issues -- it'll fall on the Seahawks coaches to really make strides with him on that.
Expected role in the offense: So long as Lynch is participating for the Seahawks, Michael will be wedged into a small-time role. Maybe six or seven touches per week. But if Lynch were to miss some playing time then Michael could evolve into the Seahawks' primary running back where he'd work with Robert Turbin.
Red flags: Well the fact he's not the starter is kind of a bummer. Michael also dealt with significant injuries in college (broken leg in 2010, torn ACL in 2011) as well as off-field concerns about work habits. Also, playing in the NFC West isn't a picnic.
Latest projection: 16 games (three starts), 138 carries for 595 yards, 14 catches for 98 yards, five total touchdowns

Stepfan Taylor, Cardinals
Talent: Taylor's a big-bodied bruiser with little speed. He runs hard and can block well and even catch without issue, but he won't make many people miss.
Expected role in the offense: Taylor is all but locked into being Andre Ellington's running mate, albeit in a limited capacity. He could get close to 10 touches per game including goal-line work, but it would take an extended break from Ellington for Taylor to see a sizable increase in touches.
Red flags: Won't begin the year as the Cardinals' top back or even in a 50-50 timeshare. Might struggle to maintain a 4.0 yard average if given extensive snaps. He also had 787 carries in his last three years of college so he really needed a break from the heavy lifting last season. And, like Ellington, playing in the NFC West is a curse.
Latest projection: 16 games (two starts), 151 carries for 592 yards, 11 catches for 80 yards, four total touchdowns

More running backs to know

Knile Davis, Chiefs: Not just the insta-handcuff to Jamaal Charles but also a candidate for six or seven touches per game.

Marcus Lattimore, 49ers: Once a heralded sleeper, Lattimore has to earn his keep behind two running backs this summer.

Joseph Randle, Cowboys: Had some opportunities last season but struggled. Wouldn't be more than a part-time back even if DeMarco Murray got banged up.

Theo Riddick, Lions: A lot of buzz around Riddick, particularly when Joique Bell was down. A strong preseason could put him into Detroit's run game mix.

C.J. Anderson, Broncos: Battling to back up Montee Ball this summer. Lost weight and is fighting for his job.

Latavius Murray, Raiders: Is he in the coaches' good graces? Even if he is, he's stuck behind Maurice Jones-Drew and Darren McFadden

Mike James, Buccaneers: Could louse up the Bucs run game with a solid preseason. Chances are his reps will be minimal.

Michael Ford, Bears: Battling for a spot on the depth chart in camp.

Chris Thompson, Redskins: Came back from a shoulder injury to compete for a roster spot in camp.

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