Every year, it seems there are fewer and fewer top-notch running backs available in fantasy. Whether because of age or insane workload in previous years, more running backs have asterisks next to their names than usual. There are only really five true stud running backs you know you can count on this year: LeSean McCoy, Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, Matt Forte, and Eddie Lacy. Those five guys compromise the top tier, the cream of the crop in fantasy this year. Sure, injuries can derail any one of these guys. After all, AP and Jamaal Charles have suffered a torn ACL in the past. But for the most part, these guys seem untouchable. They’re established, versatile, and coming off of hugely productive seasons.
But after that top tier, the drop off is considerable. It’s not that the talent isn’t there. There are very talented running backs who have been at the top of the league in the past, and even last year, but coming into this season, many of them have at least one glaring red flag. Some guys are in great situations, but haven’t proven themselves yet, like Montee Ball. Others were studs in the past and aren’t that old, but have major injury concerns, like Arian Foster, who’s coming off of back surgery. And others will be playing under a new offensive coordinator and may have a diminished role. That might be the case for Reggie Bush, who will be playing under Mike Lombardi, better known as the Saints offensive coordinator the past few years. Bush could be utilized much like Darren Sproles, and that could open the door for Joique Bell to get more carries this year. This article gives a good run down of the questions that most draftable running backs face this year. I’ll focus more on the highest rated running backs who have red flags.
You can read numbers 40-47 here for the clearest reason why many people are wary of taking Lynch in the first round. In short, he’s taken an absolute beating the past few years. It’s worked for his team–the Seahawks did win the Super Bowl last year. But Seattle’s coaches may have run him into the ground, and this could be the year he finally feels it. Lynch might be the toughest runner in the league, but even Lynch can wear down after three straight years of 250+ carries. Lynch wasn’t even that good last year. Seattle fans will laugh at that notion and bash me, but hear me out. I’m not saying that he wasn’t a very good player. He was the go-to-guy on Seattle’s offense, and they won the Super Bowl, so he has to be good. But fantasy-wise, he wasn’t that good. He didn’t crack 1300 yards, but he (and Jamaal Charles) led running backs in touchdowns. Touchdowns are not as stable as yards. Touchdowns fluctuate a lot from year to year. If Lynch regresses back to the mean and only scores six or seven times, all of a sudden, he’s barely a top 10 running back.
I’m not as low on Foster as I am on Lynch because at least when Foster got hurt last year, he didn’t play. He didn’t play the second half of the season, and that rest could help him this year. The two years before that, he had taken a beating in terms of the amount of carries he received, but last year he broke down. Even with that forced rest though, I would do my best not to draft Foster. He had back surgery and a back is one of the toughest injuries to return from in any sport. Foster claims he even contemplated retirement in the offseason. If Foster can stay completely healthy, he has the talent to be very good. He was the top running back in fantasy a few years ago. But the Texans’ offense is a giant question mark this year. Andre Johnson is getting old and Ryan Fitzpatrick is in his first year as the starter of the Texans. I’d do my best to avoid Foster.
Martin was horrendous last year in the six games he played before tearing the Labrum in his left shoulder. He was selected in the first round of most fantasy drafts last year based on a very good rookie year, where a significant portion of his production came from a few game stretch. This year, under a new offensive coordinator, the Bucs may institute more of a timeshare to preserve Martin more. Even with rookie Charles Sims out considerable time after his recent injury, Martin is still a risky pick. He’s only 25 years old, but Martin has the feel of a veteran back with plenty of mileage already. The guys being drafted around Martin are Demaryius Thomas, A.J. Green, and Dez Bryant. I’d rather have any of those guys before Martin.
There are several other backs who have red flags this year…
Le’Veon Bell only had a 3.5 YPC last year, despite what many considered to be a pretty successful rookie year. Bell excelled in fantasy because of the quantity of touches he got, not because he was particularly efficient with them. Reggie Bush and Alfred Morris will have diminished roles this year under new coaching staffs. In Morris’ case, Washington will be more passing oriented under Jay Gruden. In Bush’s case, it will be the opposite. Matt Stafford threw roughly 40 passes per game last year. Under Joe Lombardi this year, the Lions will try to run the ball more, and use Joique Bell. That should hurt Bush, who will be relegated to a Darren Sproles type of role in the offense. DeMarco Murray played 14 games last year, the most games he has managed to stay healthy for in a season in his career. But it’s still hard to trust him, given that he’s going in the teens. If he stays completely healthy, something he’s never done, then he’s doing what you expect him to do, given his draft position. If he doesn’t stay healthy, then you wasted a second round pick on a guy who will be questionable for the majority of the year.
This year, running back is extremely thin. After the first tier of studs, there is a huge drop off. Most owners will be faced with choosing between second tier running back with red flags, or a top tier wide receiver that is a sure thing for 1100 yards at least. Would you rather draft Doug Martin, or Dez Bryant? Marshawn Lynch or Calvin Johnson? Demarco Murray or Brandon Marshall? Don’t be afraid to load up on wide receivers this year. Wide receiver is the most loaded position in the draft, and running back is painfully thin.