Fantasy: Dynasty Running Back Heat Index

| May 16, 2012

The NFL is turning into running back by committee central. There are more relevant running backs leading up to the season than ever before. During the season far more than the 32 “starting” running backs have value to fantasy owners. The running backs that rise to prominence through their play or the injury of a teammate are vital to fantasy success later in the year when the league title is on the line. Here is a breakdown of all 32 teams and how hot the fire is burning underneath the starter’s feet:


 

Team Heat Index Starter Competition
NE 10 Stevan Ridley is thought to be the leader in the clubhouse for the most work at this point. With Bill Belichick, it is always a guessing game how the running game will unfold in a given season. Ridley had just 146 snaps in 2011 with a +2.4 rating, so this one of the most tenuous situations in the NFL. Danny Woodhead and 2011 second round pick Shane Vereen are next in line. While Woodhead is the returning back from 2011 with the most snaps (331), his upside as in fantasy is limited (think Kevin Faulk). Vereen offers the biggest threat to Ridley’s workload as a talented all-around back that played just 24 snaps in 2011-basically an injury-redshirt season to begin his NFL career.
TB 10 Technically LeGarrette Blount is the starter, but that will likely be short-lived. He is limited in passing situations and played just 354 snaps in 2011 as the lead back. Doug Martin was drafted in the first round as one of the few complete backs in the 2012 class. It has been said that new head coach Greg Schiano sees a bellcow like Ray Rice in Doug Martin from his days at Rutgers.
NYJ 9 Shonn Greene is another starter on borrowed time. He was less-than-impressive (+2.0 rating, 2.3 Yco/Att) in 2011 when he was a projected breakout candidate. In addition to not being a PPR threat, Tim Tebow will kill his TD upside. 2011 rookie Bilal Powell could expand on just 24 snaps to a more prominent role. Joe McKnight has put on extra muscle in the offseason in an attempt to push for more work after just 106 snaps in 2011. Both have room to grow with the likely retirement of LaDainian Tomlinson (played 356 snaps last year) and the run-centric system for the Jets.
WAS 9 Tim Hightower was efficient in 2011 in 5 games before injury. His +4.8 rating on 208 snaps was the best among Washington backs last year. His skill as a pass blocker kept Beanie Wells as a reserve in Arizona and the same could happen to Roy Helu with the team’s premium investment in Robert Griffin III to keep him healthy. Roy Helu was yet another surprise fantasy starting RB for Mike Shanahan (see Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, Terrell Davis, and others from his Denver tenure) in 2011. His +0.6 rating leaves a lot to be desired and the Shanahanigans are always a factor for fantasy owners. A Redskins back is likely to be a top-25 fantasy option, but between Hightower, Helu, and Evan Royster, it could be someone different every month of 2012.
DET 8 Jahvid Best is the RB with the most dynasty value in Detriot….when healthy. He is capable of 80 catches, which could project to a Darren Sproles 2011-type impact over the course of a season. Kevin Smith proved in 2011 he can be more than viable in terms of PPG when given a majority of the work. Like Best, he needs health to contribute. Mikel LeShoure is yet another injury risk with upside in the Lions’ dynamic offense.
PIT 8 Isaac Redman is the projected starter with Rashard Mendenhall on the mend. He was efficient (+11.8 rating, 3.0 Yco/Att) on just 285 snaps in 2011. He offers limited upside, but can be a stable producer if given 15+ touches/game. Mendenhall could have seen his last time as a Pittsburgh starter in 2011 depending on how his recovery in 2012 develops. Jonathan Dwyer is still an intriguing prospect if he stays in shape (just 28 snaps in 2011). Chris Rainey and Baron Batch could be PPR plays worth a roster spot in deep leagues.
ARI 7 Beanie Wells had an unimpressive -4.1 overall rating in 2011 and was merely average in terms of FP/S and FP/Opp. He has missed four games in the past two seasons and topped 200 carries just once in his 3-year NFL career. Ryan Williams, just 21 years old,  has the talent to immediately take away passing work from the receiving-challenged Wells. He contribution will be completely dependent on his health in the short-term.
ATL 7 Michael Turner managed +6.6 rating in 2011, but average FP/SN, FP/Opp metrics. He just turned 30 years old and leads the NFL with 1189 carries over the last four seasons. Jacquizz Rodgers was not far behind (+4.7 rating) and nearly matched Turner’s receiving production with about half the total snaps.
DEN 7 Willis McGahee will likely enter camp as the starter, but the drafting of Ronnie Hillman in round 3 was a warning shot for a changing of the guard. McGahee is now 30 years old and coming off 260+ touches for the first time since 2007. The end is near for his fantasy relevance. Knowshon Moreno is already halfway to a roster cut (two years of a high cap hit left on his contract). Ronnie Hillman is the attractive name behind McGahee. Hillman could be effective with the stretch running game seen for years with Peyton Manning in Indianapolis. A 50/50 or better timeshare could be a reality as early as September.
GB 7 Much Like Denver, James Starks is the ho-hum incumbent starter.  He was average at best in terms of FP/SN and FP/Opp and is a placeholder for a more talented difference-maker to come along in the future. Alex Green is the most intriguing young RB on the depth chart. His passing game skills could turn him into a viable fantasy performer with a successful return from a 2011 injury and enough time on the field.
MIA 7 Reggie Bush finally stayed healthy in 2011, playing 575 snaps in 15 games after missing 20 games over the four previous seasons. He was above-average in terms of FP/SN and FP/Opp. 2011 was also the first time in Bush’s career with more than 250 touches in a season. Daniel Thomas showed flashes in 2011 to support his second round draft selection. Lamar Miller was considered a steal in the 2012 draft after falling into day 3 with injury concerns. Between all three backs, this could be a situation where the player that stays healthy the longest has the most value for fantasy owners.
NYG 7 Ahmad Bradshaw is the starter for now. Lingering injuries and the drafting of a running back in the first round are ominous signs for his long-term future. He was very effective (+16.2 rating, 0.54 FP/Opp) on just 433 snaps in 2011. First round pick David Wilson has a chance for a significant role right out of the gate in 2012. Brandon Jacobs’ 270 snaps are up for grabs and Danny Ware played 248 snaps more out of necessity than anything else in 2011. Wilson can finish in the top-40 for fantasy even as the #2 back for the Giants. His potential only rises with any Bradshaw injury concern.
NO 6 Darren Sproles may only get the second or third-most carries on the New Orleans roster, but he is the most valuable fantasy option. His +11.0 rating and insane 0.56 FP/SN on 456 2011 snaps will keep him highly involved in the New Orleans offensive system, even at 29 years old. Pierre Thomas thoroughly outplayed Mark Ingram in 2011, sporting a 0.49 FP/SN, 2.8 Yco/Att, and +16.4 rating.  Ingram will get a bigger opportunity in the future, but Sproles and Thomas’ hyper-efficiency will be a speed bump in the short-term. All three backs have a chance to finish in the top-50 for fantasy.
IND 5 Donald Brown will have his (likely) last full opportunity for a lead role with the Colts in 2012. Andrew Luck and the addition of two tight ends in the draft could signal a Stanford-like offensive scheme based on a strong running game. Delone Carter is the most notable backup, who could have short-term value if Donald Brown fails with his chance as the starter. Carter’s -4.8 rating and limited involvement in the passing game are not positive signs for his long-term potential even with the lead role at some point in 2012.
BUF 4 Fred Jackson was one of the best RBs in the NFL prior to his injury in 2011. (+24.0 rating and 20+ FP/G). His outstanding play kept Spiller off the field and garnered himself a new two-year contract this offseason. C.J. Spiller excelled  when given the chance post-Jackson injury (+11.7, nearly matched Jackson in FP/SN and FP/Opp). He received minimal snaps when Jackson was healthy and will hope for an increase in #2 snaps in 2012
KC 4 Jamaal Charles is the clear #1 back in town, but his return from a torn ACL could prevent him from seeing more than 250 touches in 2012. Peyton Hillis is more than capable of handling 20 touches/game if needed. At a minimum Hillis can get goal line work and enough of the snaps to be a top-50 fantasy back regardless of Charles’ health.
SF 4 Frank Gore retains the starter tag for 2012, but is likely to be managed in terms of workload after 650 snaps and 275 attempts in 2011. His +1.8 rating leaves a lot to be desired, but with three affordable years left on his contract, Gore will get used up with volume attempts. Kendall Hunter was more efficent in terms of FP/SN and FP/Opp than Gore and nearly matched the starter in receiving production with less half of Gore’s total snaps. Hunter will get a share of the attempts. LaMichael James is an intriguing PPR option for an offense desperate for explosive play-makers.
CAR 3 Jonathan Stewart was far more active in the passing game (3.7 TGT/G vs. 1.3 for Williams) with an equal share in the run game. +11.4 rating dwarfs Williams’ +2.4. Deangelo Williams is getting the big money in the Carolina backfield, but Stewart outperformed him across the board in 2011. Williams’ best hope for an increase in workload would be Stewart’s contract ending post-2012.
STL 3 Steven Jackson is still an above-average starting NFL, but the former stud is showing signs of decline. Jackson missed two games in 2011 and was just slightly above the median mark for RBs in terms of FP/SN and FP/Opp. Rookie Isaiah Pead is the fantasy backup of note and likely to immediately contribute in a reserve role. His development could shape Steven Jackson’s snap count over the final two years of Jackson’s contract.
CHI 2 Matt Forte was one of the best RBs in the NFL prior to his injury (+17.8) in 2011. A holdout could open the door for more backup work, but Forte is the clear lead back when healthy and active. Michael Bush had an impressive run as the lead back in Oakland in 2011 when McFadden was out for an extended amount of time (+8.2). He presents the ability to shoulder 20+ touches/game if Forte is out, but not a significant threat outside of 5-10 carries/game and some goal line work.
CIN 2 Benjarvus Green-Ellis (+11.8) was brought in because Cedric Benson (+4.7) was barely better than Brian Leonard in 2011. Green-Ellis offers stability, but lacks any real upside long-term. He is merely a placeholder (RB2/3 fantasy type) until a more talented runner is on the roster. Brian Leonard and Bernard Scott are solid reserves, but offer little incentive to get significant work outside of some passing downs and spread formations. Prior to the signing of Green-Ellis, Scott had a glimmer of hope for an increased role in 2012.
DAL 2 DeMarco Murray had above-average FP/SN and FP/Opp marks in 2011 as well as an impressive 3.0 Yco/Att. The lead role is his while healthy outside of the occasional Felix Jones substitution. Felix Jones (inconsistent, but +7.5 rating in 2011) has been rumored to be on the outs in Dallas as 2012 marks the final year of his contract. He offers PPR value if the oft-injured Murray misses time.
HOU 2 Arian Foster is one of the few gold standard backs in fantasy (+17.1 rating). Between goal line and passing down work, Foster is a difference-maker on a weekly basis. Ben Tate is one of the most talented backup backs in the NFL, capable of 15+ PPG when Foster is inactive. Until his time comes, Tate is a flex play with his potential for 60+ yards and a TD any given week on the run-heavy Texans.
MIN 2 Adrian Peterson is reaffirming his man-among-boys status with an ahead-of-schedule ACL recovery. While the PUP list is still possible, his +15.4 rating and 0.56 FP/Opp from 2011 are signs that the 27 year old back when have a job whenever he returns to form. Toby Gerhart has some short-term value if Peterson misses time to open the season. Other than occasional passing down work, he is not a threat for the lead role in Minnesota.
OAK 2 Darren McFadden is the clear #1 back when healthy. All reports are positive so far this offseason that the PPG machine will be back in action to start 2012. The real question is how many healthy games will he deliver this season. He has missed 19 games in his four years in the NFL. Mike Goodson is one of the most valuable reserve backs in fantasy now. Michael Bush was a savior to Darren McFadden owners in 2011, carrying fantasy teams through the second half of the season. Goodson was acquired from Carolina, where he showed the ability to post 100-yard games when Deangelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart were injured.
BAL 1 Ray Rice is a PPR machine with a full workload and no competition of note. Bernard Pierce is a valuable handcuff only and is relegated to some goal line/garbage time work only when Rice is healthy.
CLE 1 Is it any wonder the Browns drafted Trent Richardson at #3 in the NFL draft? Peyton Hillis was injured and ineffective and the Chris Ogbonnaya/Montario Hardesty combo was among the league’s worst in 2011. Richardson is getting the keys to the Browns offense from the start. Hardesty will be the de facto #2, but in line to get minimal work across the board with Richardson’s skill at the goal line and in the passing game.
JAX 1 Maurice Jones-Drew put the injury concerns on hold in 2011 as one of the most dominant backs in the NFL. His +17.0 rating, 0.40 FP/SN and 0.47 FP/Opp as the only weapon on the Jaguars’ offense was even more impressive. Rashad Jennings returns from injury after an impressive 2010 campaign. With Jones-Drew hitting 27 years old, Jennings could see a few more touches, but is clearly an injury handcuff only at this point.
PHI 1 LeSean McCoy is another gold standard PPR back. 830+ snaps in 2011 and added more goal line work to his dynamic game between the 20s. Dion Lewis is the #2 back on the depth chart, but rookies Bryce Brown and draft day faller Chris Polk are very intriguing dynasty names to stash on deep rosters. All would be in the mix if McCoy were to go down in a RB-friendly scheme in Philadelphia.
SD 1 After a near 50/50 split with Mike Tolbert in 2011, Ryan Mathews will be the unquestioned starter heading into 2012. He has always been efficient (+10.8 rating, 0.47 FP/SN) on a less than full load. The biggest question for the PPG stud is if he can stay healthy. With Jordan Todman and Mike Tolbert out of the picture, Curtis Brinkley (+1.2 rating on 33 snaps last year) is the primary backup. With Mathews’ injury history, he will be a viable fantasy producer if his number is called. Norv Turner’s offense is very RB-friendly for fantasy, making Brinkley more valuable than most reserve backs.
SEA 1 Marshawn Lynch was shown the money after 1100+ yards (671 after contact) as the lead back for Seattle in 2011. The biggest concern for the power back is his motivation level after the big payday. Rookie Robert Turbin is the most likely back to carry the load if Lynch were to get injured.
TEN 1 Chris Johnson had one of the worst ratings (-3.3) of any sure-fire starting back heading into 2012. That said, with five years left on a sizeable contract and still in his prime, Johnson is in line for one of the heaviest workloads in the NFL over the short-term. Javon Ringer has long been talked about as a talented backup. With under 100 touches in 2011, that will likely be about his ceiling in the short-term when Chris Johnson is healthy.


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