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More than ever, the zero running back philosophy is catching on as a viable strategy in Fantasy Football circles.  The theory essentially suggests the running back position is the Gary Busey of the football world, volatile and unpredictable, even for the top analysts (or psychologists) in the industry.  Free agent running back analysis is vastly more important than in year’s past.

Instead of using early round picks on players who could just as easily break your team as make it, target someone safer and more reliable, such as Chris Pratt, Jonah Hill or a wide receiver. As the draft moves into the mid rounds, this is where you can stock up on running backs with consecutive picks, hoping one or more find themselves in a significant role as the season progresses. These are your Seann William Scotts (Stifler) your Michael Ceras and Zach Galifianakis’.

Last season is yet another example of how this strategy can help win you a Fantasy Football championship as Devonta Freeman, David Johnson, DeAngelo Williams and Darren McFadden all found themselves among the Fantasy Football running back points leaders by season’s end.

As the NFL draft quickly approaches, the free agent market is beginning to dry up at the running back position. Let’s take a look at how this year’s free agent class has impacted our outlook for 2016.

We’ll take a look at who has seen their stock increase and who has had their stock take a hit thus far.

Free Agent Running Backs

Stock Up

Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers


Historically, running backs switching teams after a standout contract year are almost guaranteed to disappoint. There was plenty of chatter suggesting the Bucs and Martin were far apart in contract talks early on, leading to rumors of Martin potentially signing with San Francisco or Oakland.

Martin receives a Stock Up grade due to the fact he’s staying put; signing a five year, $35.75 million contract with Tampa Bay. With only the first two years of his contract guaranteed and Charles Sims waiting in the wings, Martin has plenty of incentive with the work habits that enabled him to finish second in the NFL in rushing yards last season.

Lamar Miller, Houston Texans

Houston Texans Head Coach Bill O’Brien loves running the ball almost as much as LeBron James loves trolling people on Twitter. Last year’s backfield cast of clunkers included four games of Arian Foster and the combination of Alfred Blue, Chris Polk, Jonathan Grimes and Akeem Hunt.

What if I told you this group of RBs finished fifth in the NFL in rushing attempts and 15th in the league in rushing yards? Hard to believe but it’s accurate. After signing a four year, $26 million contract, insert Lamar Miller into the same work load and let your imagination run wild. Miller is a sure fire first round pick in redraft leagues next year.

C.J. Anderson, Denver Broncos

 

While Anderson might have been on the 2015 bust list for Fantasy Football owners, his stock is moving in the right direction as the Denver Broncos matched Miami’s four year, $18 million offer. Anderson was clearly the team’s lead back down the stretch and now remains in a system he knows well and is comfortable with.

Running back by committee partner Ronnie Hillman is an unrestricted free agent himself and may not be back with the club, opening the door for Anderson to be the clear cut option moving forward.

Keep an eye on the NFL draft to see if Denver brings in another back to compete with Anderson, but the Broncos matching the Miami contract offer suggests they plan on Anderson playing a large part in the offense.

Alfred Morris, Dallas Cowboys

 

There aren’t many teams Morris could have signed with to earn a Stock Up grade but the Dallas Cowboys were one of the few. Morris signed a team friendly two year, $3.5 million deal with Dallas and now has the luxury of playing behind one of the best offensive lines in the NFL.

Morris’ yards per carry has steadily declined over his four seasons, averaging just 3.72 in 2015, but he may be the style of runner who can succeed in this offensive system.

With an aging Tony Romo and Jason Witten, the Cowboys would be best served reverting back to what made 2014 their best season in decades, relying on a run heavy scheme to set up the play action passing game. Darren McFadden is still the lead back in Dallas, make no mistake, so it’s certainly possible Morris is simply a handcuff to begin 2016.

McFadden will be entering his age 29 season in addition to coming off the largest workload of his career. This has the makings of a running back by committee until the injury prone McFadden goes down, at which point Morris could see his productivity soar.

James Starks, Green Bay Packers

It may surprise you to see him on this list but Starks was very much Fantasy relevant last season as he finished with almost 993 total yards, five touchdowns and 43 receptions. While a change of scenery could have boosted Starks’ value, he still receives a Stock Up grade by resigning with Green Bay.

Starks has now played in 16 games in back-to-back seasons and at the very least displayed he is a legitimate threat in the passing game, averaging over nine yards per catch in 2015.

The Packers are clearly not happy with Eddie Lacy’s conditioning, or lack thereof, and unless he realizes being the Bartolo Colon of running backs is not a compliment, Starks should once again find a place in this offense.

Robert Turbin, Indianapolis Colts

Turbin hasn’t carved a consistent roll for himself in the NFL as some predicted when he first joined the league, but he enters his fifth season with a career 4.0 yards per carry average and has shown flashes in both the running and passing game. By signing with the Colts he lands in an intriguing spot for Fantasy Football owners.

Frank Gore will be 33 this season and with Andrew Luck and his glorious neck beard back under center, the Indianapolis Colts should have one of the higher scoring offenses in the NFL.

If the Colts have any plans on using Gore down the stretch in 2016, they will need to manage his work load, ideally opening up an opportunity for the number two RB on the depth chart, which as of now is Turbin.

Donald Brown, New England Patriots

At first glace, it may seem as if the Brown signing is nothing more than the Patriots taking a flyer on underachieving veteran. However, the details of Brown’s one year contract suggests the team expects Brown to make the final roster. Almost one third of his 2016 salary is guaranteed, meaning Bill Belichick may have a specific role in store for Brown.

James White proved to be nothing more than inconsistent last season after injuries to Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount thrust him into a prominent work load. Blount himself is a free agent and may not return, opening the door for someone like Brown to come in and find consistent work.

At the very least, Brown has demonstrated he can be a capable receiving back, which Belichick has historically utilized. Brown may find himself in the Shane Vereen role this season, and while not incredibly productive, it certainly has a place in deeper PPR formats.

Stock Down

Arian Foster, Free Agent

 

Foster remains unsigned as of March 24 and his opportunity to land in a prominent role seems to be fading. Turning 30, rehabbing a torn Achilles tendon and missing 23 games over the past three seasons suggest his days as a viable starter in Fantasy Football are most likely over. The best case scenario for Foster at this point would be to land somewhere such as Denver, with his former head coach, or Miami, as neither team has significant competition for the No. 2 RB.

Chris Ivory, Jacksonville Jaguars

 

Ivory owners were pleased to have him on their roster in 2015 as he finally put together the season many believed he was capable of. Topping 1,000 rushing yards and scoring eight touchdowns, Ivory was a viable No. 2 RB in Fantasy. After signing with Jacksonville this off-season, he may find himself as the No. 2 RB on his own team before the season is over.

The Jaguars utilized the run game only 33-percent of the time inside the red zone last season and while second year RB T.J. Yeldon doesn’t appear to be a threat to Ivory for red zone work, he’s certainly going to get his share of carries between the 20s.

Yeldon may not recognize what the end zone looks like, scoring only three times last season, but he managed to average over four yards per carry and almost eight yards per reception with over 200 touches. This situation is a nightmare for Fantasy Football owners already and the games haven’t even started yet. Gross!

Matt Forte, Bilal Powell, Khiry Robinson, New York Jets

 

This isn’t so much about the destination as it is about the player. Had Forte resigned with the Chicago Bears he would have Jeremy Langford to compete with just as he now has Powell and Robinson.

Outside of the fact that Forte is 30 years old, there’s little reason to think he can’t repeat his roughly 900 yards rushing and four touchdowns on the ground from last season. Where the potential downside exists is in the passing game where Forte amassed a hefty percentage of his value by recording 44 receptions, almost 400 yards and three touchdowns.

The Jets finally found a place for Bilal Powell last season as he carved himself a niche in said passing game, catching almost 50 passes in his role behind Chris Ivory. The Jets signed Powell for three years, $11.25 million so either the Jets intend on him being a significant contributor or they have an inept front office. Frankly, either could be true, maybe both.

Chris Johnson, Arizona Cardinals

Watch David Johnson highlights.

 

Other Running Backs Impacted

DeMarco Murray, Tennessee Titans

 

It would be a mistake to write a RB article without mentioning the potential significance of the DeMarco Murray trade. Murray finds himself in a Stock Up situation landing in Tennessee where he’ll have plenty of opportunities.

Fantasy Football owners will find out if Murray indeed has anything left in the tank as Head Coach Mike Mularkey has publicly stated he intends to use Murray as a downfield runner in formations with Marcus Mariota under center in order to best utilize Murray’s skill set.

If Murray’s historic 2014 season didn’t completely destroy his legs, he could see a significant boost in value.

Charles Sims, Tampa Bay Buccaneers


Sims had an incredibly efficient 2015 season, averaging more Fantasy points per touch than starter Doug Martin. Dynasty and redraft owners were hoping to see Sims with an opportunity for a larger workload this season. Unfortunately, that doesn’t appear likely as new Head Coach Dirk Koetter recently stated he envisions the roles for both Martin and Sims in 2016 to look similar to last season.

The duo combined for almost 2,800 yards in 2015, so in the event you draft Martin, Sims is almost a must draft handcuff. Sims receives a Stock Down grade but could be this year’s breakout if Martin goes down.

Latavius Murray, Oakland Raiders

 

This makes two consecutive off-seasons where it appears as if Oakland has actively pursued the RB position in free agency. Last season, rumors swirled around DeMarco Murray and this season Doug Martin’s name was floated as an option for Oakland.

This strongly suggests the Raiders aren’t in love with Murray as their primary back and with few big names left on the market, they may find someone to pair with Murray in the NFL draft. For now, Murray receives a Stock Up grade but that could change quickly.

T.J. Yeldon, Jacksonville Jaguars

Stock Down. See Chris Ivory.

 

Jay Ajayi, Miami Dolphins

 

The Dolphins failed to sign C.J. Anderson, although they made a significant attempt. As of March 26, Ajayi receives a Stock Up grade as he is the leading candidate to see the majority of touches at RB in 2016.

Even if the Dolphins sign one of the remaining free agents or use a mid round pick on a RB, Ajayi showed enough at the end of last season to look poised for a potential breakout campaign if he can stay healthy.

 

Notable Free Agent Running Backs Yet to Sign

  • Joique Bell
  • LeGarrette Blount
  • Reggie Bush
  • Tim Hightower
  • Ronnie Hillman
  • Ahmad Bradshaw
  • Shaun Draughn

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