Running backs caused many headaches for Fantasy owners this past season. It started off bad in the off-season with the Ray Rice news. He was only suspended two games originally, so plenty of leagues still drafted him in mid-August, only to have that completely backfire. Then after just the first week of the season, the Adrian Peterson news struck and owners who drafted him as a top-four pick were stuck with a running back for weeks they weren’t sure whether they should drop or hold, hoping he would eventually play this season.
We also had, what felt like, a record number of injuries to the running back position this season. Mark Ingram, Rashad Jennings, Giovani Bernard, Montee Ball (along with teammate Ronnie Hillman later), among many others, caused what can only be described as running back roulette. Probably the biggest culprit to the headaches, though, is the increased number of running-back-by-committee approaches we saw teams use. The “Zero Running Back” strategy was a popular one entering 2014 and I think we will see it be even more popular in 2015.
This is the second article in the “Why We Were Wrong” three-part series. You can read my quarterbacks article here, with the wide receivers coming next.
Running Backs Worse Than We Thought
LeSean McCoy did not have a horrible season, still finishing as the 12th-ranked running back in standard and PPR leagues, but he was a top pick in most leagues and was ranked by the experts that way, including by yours truly.
So what happened? Well, to start, the Eagles signed Darren Sproles and he took a lot of the third-down work away from McCoy, which led to a reduced workload in the passing game (he finished with a career-low 28 receptions). They also used Sproles more near the goal-line, along with Chris Polk, which led to fewer touchdowns for McCoy. Now to blame this all on the Sproles signing would be wrong.
Ultimately, McCoy did not run as well this season, averaging almost a full yard less per carry in 2014 than in 2013, despite getting only two less carries. This led to McCoy finishing with single-digit Fantasy points in half of his games, and never hitting the 20-point mark in standard leagues. Going into 2015, it will be really hard to draft McCoy in the first round.
I think we all had concerns about Zac Stacy entering 2014. He had a great run in 2013, taking over the starting job around Week 6. The biggest concern was he relied on a heavy workload, with 20-plus touches in almost every game. He only averaged 3.9 yards per carry in 2013, so if he didn’t have that huge workload, he would not have had quite as much success.
Despite those concerns, experts were not swayed too much, and thought the lack of other good running backs on the Rams — along with Stacy’s upside — was good enough to rank him 13th. Well, after an underwhelming start to the season, 223 yards in the first four games, the Rams finally decided enough was enough and we saw rookie Tre Mason introduced into the Rams backfield in Week 6 (Week 5 was a bye week). From Week 6 on, Stacy received just 23 carries, making him absolutely worthless in all leagues. He finished with just 46.5 points in standard leagues, good enough to be ranked 72nd.
After looking back, I was absolutely shocked to see that Doug Martin was ranked as the eighth running back in the consensus expert preseason rankings. I had him ranked 23rd and even that was too high. To be fair he battled injuries during the season, but the Bucs running game was not good this season no matter who carried the ball, rankings 29th in total rushing yards and near the bottom with a 3.9 yard per carry average. All of this led to Martin finishing the season 48th in the running back rankings, scoring a measly 67.8 points in standard leagues.
Running Backs Better Than We Thought
With Rice out of the picture in Baltimore, all the experts agreed that Bernard Pierce was the running back to draft, but even that was not a popular pick with him being ranked 31st in the preseason. All the way down at 103 in the preseason rankings — basically meaning he was not draft-able — was Justin Forsett.
Pierce battled injury early on and that gave Forsett the chance he needed to take the starting job. He finally completely did it in Week 8, when Pierce was a healthy scratch. Forsett proceeded to blow up, finishing the season with 1,266 yards rushing yards, 263 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. This was good enough for Forsett to finish the season ranked as the eight-best running back.
Lamar Miller, as underwhelming/boring as he was, was healthy all season, which helped him finish the season as the ninth-ranked running back. I for one ranked him lower to start the season because of the Knowshon Moreno signing, but the former Broncos RB only really played one game, due to injury. This basically left Miller as the only running back in the Dolphins backfield, and he out-carried the next player on the Dolphins — Ryan Tannehill — 216 to 56. Miller’s ranking was also helped a lot by Miller having his two best games of the season during Weeks 16 and 17, when he scored 20 and 23 standard Fantasy points. Still, I was really surprised to see him finish this high. Miller’s success just proves what being healthy and playing the entire season will do for a running back when there are so many other running backs getting injured and/or in season-long timeshares.
Another running back that took advantage of an injured teammate was Jeremy Hill. He was firmly behind Giovani Bernard on the depth chart and in the preseason rankings, ninth and 32nd respectively. Hill was playing well through the first eight weeks, but was not start-able in most leagues, with Gio still around, and both out-touching and out-playing Hill. Then the injury to Bernard happened in Week 9, and Hill immediately had success, putting up a 27-point game. Gio was out for three weeks and in that time, Hill did enough to warrant keeping the starting job, and even though coaches said it would be a split workload; Hill got the majority of carries. Hill finished the season as the 10th-ranked running back overall in standard leagues (11th in PPR), but from Week 9 on, he was the fifth-ranked running back in standard Fantasy leagues (eighth in PPR).
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