2015 Running Back Rankings – Pre-Draft

Mike Clay delivers rankings, tiers and analysis on his pre-draft Top 100 fantasy running backs for 2015.

| 2 years ago
leveon bell

2015 Running Back Rankings – Pre-Draft

Washington Redskins v San Francisco 49ersNext up in our early, thorough look at 2015 fantasy football rankings is the running back position.

Be sure to also check out the quarterback, wide receiver and tight end positions.

Note that these rankings assume non-PPR scoring.

Be sure to check out each player’s 2015 projection and customize them to your league’s scoring system.

Tier 1

1. Le’Veon Bell – PIT
2. Adrian Peterson – MIN
3. Jamaal Charles – KC
4. Matt Forte – CHI
5. Marshawn Lynch – SEA
6. Eddie Lacy – GB
7. Arian Foster – HST
8. Jeremy Hill – CIN
9. LeSean McCoy – BUF
10. C.J. Anderson – DEN
11. DeMarco Murray – PHI

Most years, finding a few top running backs to place in an elite tier is a relatively easy process. In 2015, it won’t be. A case could be made that Bell belongs in his own tier, but a three-game suspension ends that discussion. Charles, Peterson, Forte, Lynch, Lacy and even oft-injured Foster are strong RB1 options when healthy. The Bengals run heavy offense makes Hill a candidate to lead the league in rushing yardage and touchdowns. Anderson has tremendous upside with Gary Kubiak in control in Denver. McCoy will be busy in Rex Ryan’s offense. Our reigning No. 1 fantasy running back, Murray, will see a dip in workload, but is in a strong, run-first offense. It’s looking like a great year to pick late in the first round in order to snag a running back value (or two) and an elite wide receiver or Rob Gronkowski. With my much-needed defense for a huge top tier out of the way, here are some additional notes on each player:

Following an underwhelming rookie season in which he averaged just 3.5 yards per carry and struggled in pass protection, Bell had the looks of a pedestrian back. Everything changed in 2014. Bell eclipsed 2,000 scrimmage yards, scored 11 offensive touchdowns, averaged nearly five yards per carry, caught 83 passes and was much better as a blocker. Only DeMarco Murray scored more fantasy points. Bell is facing a three-game suspension to start the 2015 season, but like Josh Gordon in 2013 and Odell Beckham in 2014, he’s still well worth the investment despite the missed games. Still a candidate for 300 touches, Bell should be the first player off the board in all drafts.

Peterson will enter 2015 fresh after sitting out the majority of last season due to suspension. Although he’s now 30 years old, this should allow one of the most heavily-utilized backs of the last decade to continue performing at an elite level for another year or two. Adding to Peterson’s appeal is emerging quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and the presence of offensive coordinator Norv Turner, which figures to allow Peterson to hit a career-high in the reception department. The Vikings workhorse is well worth an early first-round pick.

Although Charles scored nearly 100 fewer fantasy points in 2014 than he did the year before, he still finished seventh among running backs in fantasy points. He actually was better on a per carry basis but saw 55 fewer carries and suffered a severe dip in scoring opportunities. Charles ran a route on 58 percent of the Chiefs pass plays in 2014, which was actually up from 57 percent in 2013, but his targets fell from 95 to 52. Now 28, age and volume are becoming a concern, but Charles remains a feature back and is an elite talent. He’s a no-brainer top-five pick.

Forte turns 30 this season and is coming off his second consecutive season with more than 360 touches. He averaged an ugly 3.9 yards per carry last season, which is easily his lowest mark since 2009. Forte was on the field for 92 percent of the Bears snaps, handled 80 percent of the designed runs, ran 76 percent of all possible pass routes and was responsible for 21 percent of the targets. All were career-highs. Forte will be atop Chicago’s depth chart in 2015, but he’s an obvious candidate for a breakdown and is likely to see a dip in receptions with offense coordinator Marc Trestman now in Baltimore. Forte remains a top-five fantasy running back, but his ceiling isn’t as high as it was in 2014.

A top-five fantasy running back each of the past four seasons, Lynch signed a contract extension with Seattle during the offseason, which locks him in as run-heavy Seattle’s workhorse back. Despite touching the ball 20 fewer times in 2014 than he did in 2013, Lynch racked up 99 more yards and scored three more touchdowns. The 2013 rushing OTD champ, Lynch scored on only one of five carries from the opponent’s 1 yard line in 2014, but racked up eight additional touchdowns within 6 yards of the goal line. Lynch’s age (29) and underutilization as a receiver limit him slightly, but Lynch does enough on the ground to make him a top-five fantasy running back.

Despite concerning his owners with a bit of a slow start, Lacy rebounded to finish as fantasy’s No. 6 scoring running back for the second consecutive season. Lacy actually played two fewer snaps and carried the ball 39 fewer times than he did as a rookie, but he was more effective on a per-play basis, averaging 4.7 yards per carry and a dominant 10.2 yards per reception. An extremely effective runner, receiver and blocker in one of the league’s best offenses, 24-year-old Lacy is as safe as they come in the first round.

Foster is one of the league’s top running back talents, but consistent injury issues have made him a risky fantasy investment. Foster turns 29 in August and has missed at least three games in three of the past four seasons. Of course, Foster is extremely productive when active. He went over 1,500 scrimmage yards and scored 13 times in 13 games last season. Durability and age are obviously a concern, but especially with Andre Johnson out of the mix, Houston will need to rely heavily on Foster again this season. He’s worth a look at the end of the first round.

At a position rich with stars nearing the end of the line, Hill is one of the young studs. Despite playing a situational role early on, he finished 10th among running backs in fantasy points. Only DeMarco Murray and LeSean McCoy had more carries after Week 8 and Hill was fifth at the position in fantasy points during that span. Hill averaged an extremely impressive 5.1 yards per carry and scored nine touchdowns thanks to 14 carries within 5 yards of the opponent’s end zone (tied for fifth most in the league). The lead back in Hue Jackson’s run-heavy offense is a candidate to lead the NFL in carries and well worth first-round consideration.

Following a highly productive 2013 season in which he totaled 2,147 yards and scored 11 touchdowns en route to finishing second at the position fantasy points, McCoy was the consensus first overall pick in 2014 fantasy drafts. He didn’t quite live up to expectations, failing to eclipse 1,500 scrimmage yards and scoring only five touchdowns. McCoy did finished as an RB1, but scored over 100 fewer fantasy points than in 2013. Set to turn 27 this summer, McCoy heads to Buffalo where he takes over as the feature back in Rex Ryan and Greg Roman’s run heavy offense. McCoy won’t see a huge uptick in receptions, but will remain among the league leaders in carries. He’s worth a look in the second round.

Undrafted back in 2013, Anderson spent a season and a half buried on Denver’s depth chart before breaking out in a big way during the 2014 campaign. Anderson nearly eclipsed 1,200 scrimmage yards and scored 10 times on 213 touches. He was fantasy’s top scoring running back from Week 9 on. Anderson will face competition from Ronnie Hillman and Montee Ball, but he’s a strong bet to pace the Denver backfield this season. As long as Peyton Manning is under center, the Denver offense will score a lot of points, and with Gary Kubiak now running the offense, there will be a heavy reliance on the run. Anderson has a massive ceiling and makes for a strong second round pick.

Fantasy’s top-scoring running back last season, Murray put up 2,200 yards and 13 touchdowns on a whopping 450 regular-season touches. Absurdly efficient at the goal line during the regular season, he scored on all nine of his carries within 3 yards of the end zone. If we include the playoffs, Murray touched the ball 498 times in 18 games. Now 27 years old, having missed 11 games due to injury during his four-year career and coming off a season in which he was extremely over-utilized, there are obvious durability concerns here. On the other hand, Murray has been extremely productive when active and heads to Philadelphia where he takes over as lead back in an offense that runs a lot of plays, wants the run the ball and scores a lot of points. Murray is sure to see a dip in targets and won’t be quite the workhorse he was Dallas, but he’s talented enough and in an environment that will allow backend RB1 production.

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Tier 2

12. Lamar Miller – MIA
13. Mark Ingram – NO
14. Alfred Morris – WAS
15. Carlos Hyde – SF
16. Tre Mason – SL
17. Frank Gore – IND
18. Justin Forsett – BLT
19. Joique Bell – DET

Our second tier of backs is a bit smaller and includes a bulk of your RB2 options in standard-sized leagues. Many of these backs will come off the board in the third round.

Miller flew under the radar last season, but was extremely impressive. He averaged 5.1 yards per carry and scored nine offensive touchdowns on 254 touches. Miller finish ninth among running backs in fantasy points. Heavily involved at the goal line, Miller tied for fifth in the league with 14 carries within 5 yards of the opponent’s end zone. Only 24 years old and the feature back in an improving offense, Miller’s arrow is pointing up. He’s not an elite option, but will again flirt with RB1 numbers.

Despite missing a trio of games, Ingram went over 1,100 scrimmage yards and scored nine touchdowns en route to finishing as fantasy’s No. 15 scoring running back. Ingram (10.6) paced the NFL in rushing OTD during the regular season. He scored nine touchdowns on the ground thanks to an NFL-high eight carries from the opponent’s 1 yard line and 20 within 5 yards. Having handled just under 70 percent of the teams designed runs when active last season, Ingram was already New Orleans’ workhorse back, but an offseason contract renewal and the signing of complementary C.J. Spiller only confirms that status. Spiller is sure to steal passing down work, but Ingram will do most of his damage on early downs and at the goal line regardless. Durability remains an issue, but Ingram is only 25 and a very effective runner in an offense that scores a lot of points and wants to run the ball more often. Ingram is a strong RB2 option.

One of the most underappreciated backs in the league, Morris has yet to miss a game in his three-year career and has averaged 4.5 yards per carry over 876 carries. He wasn’t quite as efficient last season, but still scored eight touchdowns and ran for over 1,000 yards for the third consecutive season. He’s now finished as a top 15 fantasy running back each of his three seasons. Limited by his struggles as a receiver, Morris has 37 career receptions and has dropped eight (or 15 percent) of 52 career targets. Not playing on passing downs hurts Morris’ fantasy appeal quite a bit, but he does enough on the ground to allow strong RB2 production.

A second-round pick last season, Hyde impressed on 95 touches behind Frank Gore. He forced just three fewer missed tackles than Gore on 173 fewer carries. With Gore now in Indianapolis, Hyde takes over as the 49ers feature back. San Francisco may not run quite as often with Greg Roman out as offense coordinator, but that shouldn’t stop Hyde from eclipsing 15 carries most weeks. Reggie Bush will steal passing down work, but Hyde was going to do most of his damage on early downs and at the goal line regardless. A candidate for 10 touchdowns and with serious breakout potential, Hyde is well worth a look as your No. 2 back.

Despite not playing a significant offensive role until Week 7 of his rookie season, Mason racked up over 900 scrimmage yards and scored five touchdowns. Only 14 backs scored more fantasy points after Week 6. Jeff Fisher’s run-heavy offensive philosophy has been masked by the Rams’ struggles, but Mason will be a very high volume back if the Rams are more competitive in 2015. Although he impressed as a rookie, it’s important to note that Mason doesn’t turn 22 until August, which suggests there’s still plenty of room for improvement. He must improve as a blocker and may struggle to find the end zone in St. Louis’ uninspiring offense, but Mason is certainly a breakout candidate and fine RB2 option.

After spending his first 10 NFL seasons with San Francisco, the ageless Gore heads to Indianapolis where he’ll take over as the high-scoring Colts’ feature back. Although he performed well in 2014 and hasn’t missed a game since 2010, Gore turned 32 during the offseason, which makes durability a concern. Of course, when active, Gore has Top 10 upside. The Colts run a ton of plays, score a lot of touchdowns and, although they are extremely pass heavy, a slight dips in carries will be offset by additional scoring opportunities and a boost in targets. Gore is an intriguing RB2 option.

Considering that he averaged just under five yards per carry during his first five NFL seasons, we really shouldn’t be too surprised that Forsett performed so well when finally given an opportunity to be a feature back. Replacing Ray Rice as Baltimore’s lead back last season, Forsett went over 1,500 scrimmage yards and scored eight touchdowns on 270 touches. All were easily career highs. Set to turn 30 in October and with Gary Kubiak no longer calling the shots, it’s fair to expect Forsett to take at least a small step back in 2015. Of course, without much competition for snaps, Forsett is a candidate for 250 touches. He’s best viewed as a mid-pack RB2 option.

Although he’s been overshadowed by Reggie Bush, Bell has been Detroit’s best running back over the past two seasons. He eclipsed 1,000 scrimmage yards and scored exactly eight touchdowns in both 2013 and 2014. He was a top 17 fantasy running back both seasons. With Bush now out of the mix, Bell takes over as Detroit’s clear lead back, but struggles in pass protection and the presence of Theo Riddick will mean limited target opportunities. Still, Bell will be a candidate for 250 carries and 10 touchdowns. Nearing age 29 and a pedestrian talent relative to other top fantasy backs, Bell is somewhat risky, but will provide RB2 production in his current role.

Tier 3

20. Jonathan Stewart – CAR
21. Latavius Murray – OAK
22. Isaiah Crowell – CLV
23. Andre Ellington – ARZ
24. Chris Ivory – NYJ
25. C.J. Spiller – NO
26. LeGarrette Blount – NE

Our next tier rounds out your RB2 options and includes players with big-time ability in uninspiring offenses and a few committee backs in a great position to produce at a high level. The likes of Stewart and Murray will cost you a fourth-round pick, but there will be a value to be had late in the sixth round, if not the seventh.

Stewart turned 28 in March, but has barely eclipsed 1,000 carries in his career. Plagued by injuries and the timeshare in Carolina, Stewart went from 408 carries, 1,984 yards and 21 touchdowns during the 2008-09 seasons to 673 carries, 3,054 yards and 11 scores from 2010-14. The good news is that he held up down the stretch in 2014 and was easily one of the league’s most-effective runners. He averaged a healthy 4.7 yards per carry and was fantasy’s No. 10 running back during the final five weeks of the season. With DeAngelo Williams out of the mix, Stewart is in line for 16-to-18 touches per game in a run-first offense. He’s a mid-pack RB2 option.

Finally handed the keys to the Oakland backfield late last season, Murray averaged 5.2 yards per carry on 82 carries. That 5.2 YPC ranked second best to Justin Forsett among backs who carried the ball at least 60 times. Murray was 13th in fantasy points among running backs during his five starts. He has a rare combination of size (6’3”, 225 pounds) and speed (4.38 40-yard dash) and is only 25 years old. Oakland’s coaching change should help add volume to the running game. The Raiders called pass an NFL-high 67 percent of the time and scored a league-high 85 percent of offensive touchdowns through the air. Jake Del Rio and Bill Musgrave average 57 and 53 percent, respectively, during their pro coaching careers. Assuming he holds off Trent Richardson and Roy Helu, Murray will provide RB2 production and has RB1 upside.

Although he went undrafted due to off the field concerns, Crowell was both among the top rookie performers of 2014 and the Browns most effective runner. Crowell’s effective play allowed him to move past fellow rookie Terrance West on the depth chart and made Ben Tate expendable. Crowell went on to score eight touchdowns on 148 carries, but Cleveland’s offensive dysfunction allowed him zero carries from the opponent’s 1 yard line. Crowell was unsustainably effective in the touchdown department on his additional carries. He scored on all three of his carries within 5 yards of the end zone. His five other touchdowns came from distances of the nine, 11, 14, 15 and 26 yards. Although we should expect touchdown regression and a continued timeshare with West, Crowell is only 22 and has significant upside. He’s a borderline RB2 option.

Despite missing four games, Ellington finished the 2014 season 20th among running backs in fantasy points. Of course, most of Ellington’s production came thanks to plenty of volume as both a rusher and receiver. He averaged an ugly 3.3 yards per carry, which was ahead of only Andre Williams for worst among backs with at least 170 carries. Older than you probably realized (26), Ellington seems best served a situational, passing-down role. He’ll catch a lot of passes in 2015, but expect a sharp dip in carries.

Quietly one of the better rushers in the league, Ivory turns 27 in March and is averaging a healthy 4.6 yards per carry on 658 career carries. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Ivory adds very little as a receiver (37 career targets, 24 of which came in 2014) and, without Rex Ryan in charge, the Jets are sure to call a more balanced offense under Chan Gailey. The team will inevitably bring in another running back, which will eat into Ivory’s snaps, but he’s a good bet to carry the torch on early downs and at the goal line. He tied for fifth in the league with 14 carries within 5 yards of the opponent’s end zone in 2014. Ivory should be targeted as a borderline RB2 in non-PPR leagues.

The ninth overall pick back in 2010, Spiller never really lived up to expectations in Buffalo. He certainly showed flashes of brilliance, which were highlighted by a 2012 campaign that saw him total 1,703 yards and eight touchdowns on 250 touches. He averaged an absurd 6.0 yards per carry that season. Spiller hit rock bottom in 2014, however, missing seven games and underwhelming on 98 touches. Now in New Orleans, Spiller gets a fresh start as a complement to Mark Ingram. He may struggle to eclipse 100 carries, but is a candidate to lead the position in receptions. Considering his playmaking ability, Ingram’s poor durability and New Orleans’ high-scoring offense, Spiller is an appealing RB2 target in PPR leagues.

In 26 career games with the Patriots (including the playoffs), Blount has accrued 289 carries, 1,411 yards and 17 touchdowns. Including a brief stint in Pittsburgh, Blount is averaging almost five yards per carry over the past two seasons. Not used much as a receiver, Blount has managed only seven targets during his time with New England. The Patriots will again utilize a committee at running back this season, but with Stevan Ridley out of the mix, Blount is the favorite for early down and goal line work. He’s worth flex consideration in standard leagues.

Tier 4

27. Giovani Bernard – CIN
28. Devonta Freeman – ATL
29. Rashad Jennings – NYG
30. Branden Oliver – SD
31. Bishop Sankey – TEN
32. Shane Vereen – NYG
33. Doug Martin – TB
34. Charles Sims – TB
35. Roy Helu – OAK
36. Terrance West – CLV

Our fourth tier covers running backs who will be under consideration for your flex slot this season. Many of these backs will operate in a committee. Others will enter Week 1 as a clear lead back, but will most certainly be on the hot seat. Most of these players will be available just past the midway point of your draft.

Bernard has had his share of explosive plays since entering the league in 2013, but he has yet to consistently produce at a high level. This led to a demotion behind Jeremy Hill on the depth chart last season. Also poor as a blocker, Bernard is now a complementary and passing down back. Think Pierre Thomas in New Orleans or Shane Vereen in New England. Only 23, Bernard still has time to improve his game and will benefit from Cincinnati’s extremely run heavy offense. It’s enough to allow the young playmaker borderline RB2 numbers. Give him a boost in PPR leagues.

With Steven Jackson out of the mix in Atlanta, Freeman is in line for a much larger role in his second season in the league. As a rookie, Freeman averaged 4.0 yards per carry and caught all but four of his 34 targets. At 5’8”, 206 pounds, Freeman doesn’t project as an every-down workhorse, but he should be busy, especially on passing downs. He’s a RB2 sleeper, especially in PPR formats, but monitor his place on the depth chart after the NFL draft.

Having now missed 32 games due to injury, including at least one each season, during his six-year career, durability is a major concern for Jennings. Turning 30 in March only brightened the red flag. Jennings was a workhorse in his first year at the Giants, especially at the goal line, but enters 2015 with Andre Williams on his heels for early down work and Vereen heavily involved as a complementary and passing-down back. The Giants operate a balanced offense and score enough touchdowns to keep Jennings in the flex conversation, but his playing time, durability and effectiveness are all concerns.

Because they share a number (43), frame (5’8”/208) and original squad (San Diego), Oliver has often been compared to Darren Sproles. Unlike Sproles, however, Oliver has, at times, already been asked to handle a feature back role. As a rookie, he racked up 852 yards on 195 touches, but scored only four touchdowns. He currently sits atop San Diego’s depth chart, but the team is sure to add a major contributor via the draft. Oliver figures to settle into a complementary role.

Sankey was the first running back selected in the 2014 NFL draft, but he wasn’t particularly good as a rookie. He averaged 3.8 yards per carry on 152 totes and struggled mightily as a blocker. Tennessee’s offensive woes allowed him only two touchdowns. Highly regarded because of his speed, Sankey managed only one play over 20 yards – a 22 yard carry against Jacksonville. Sankey is only 22 and remains atop the Titans depth chart, but he’ll need to be much better in order to be considered for fantasy starting lineups. For now, he’s only worth a late-round flier.

After spending the first four seasons of his career with the Patriots, Vereen heads to New York where he’ll again be a part of a committee attack. Finally healthy for a full season, Vereen racked up a career-high 838 scrimmage yards and five touchdowns on 149 touches. Vereen’s role figures to expand with the Giants, but considering he’s a bit undersized at 5’10/205, he’s likely to remain a situational, passing-down specialist. Vereen will flirt with RB2 numbers in PPR, but shouldn’t be in starting lineups in standard leagues.

Since busting out as a rookie to the tune of 1,926 yards and 12 touchdowns on 368 touches, Martin has been one of the league’s most ineffective backs. He averaged 4.6 yards per carry as a rookie, but sits at 3.7 over the past two years, has been significantly worse after contact and has struggled to avoid tackles. He’s also been dramatically worse as a receiver and blocker. The Tampa Bay offense will improve with Jameis Winston under center, but Martin is no longer a feature back. He’ll share duties with Charles Sims. Martin makes for an underwhelming flex option.

Expected to have a significant passing-down role right out of the gate, Sims missed the first eight games of his NFL career due to injury. The third-round pick returned in Week 10 and played just under half of the team’s offense snaps down the stretch. Sims hardly impressed as a rusher, averaging 2.8 yards per carry, but did averaged 10 yards per reception. Sims will compete with Martin for Tampa Bay’s lead back job this season, and the offense can only improve with Winston under center. A candidate to take over as the Buccaneers lead back, Sims is worth a late-round flier, especially in PPR formats.

Following a strong rookie season in which he racked up just over 1,000 scrimmage yards on 200 touches, Helu fell behind Alfred Morris on Washington’s depth chart and had been buried there ever since. He’s managed 104 carries and 80 receptions over the past three seasons. Albeit on a small sample of work, Helu is fresh off a highly productive 2014 campaign in which he averaged 5.4 yards per carry and 11.4 yards per reception. He now heads to Oakland where he’ll compete for touches with Latavius Murray and Trent Richardson. The likely scenario is that Murray handles early down and goal line work, with Helu operating as a change of pace and passing down back. Of course, if Murray stumbles, Helu will have a shot at a much larger role. Helu is a nice handcuff for Murray owners and not the worst late-round flier.

A third-round pick last season, West spent his rookie season rotating with Isaiah Crowell and, early on, Ben Tate. Although overshadowed by Crowell, West was nearly as effective. His 3.9 yards per carry underwhelmed, but he averaged more than 2 yards after contact and avoided significantly more tackles than Crowell. Crowell figures to enter the season atop the depth chart, but this will be a committee backfield. Target West in the later rounds.

Tier 5

37. Danny Woodhead – SD
38. Darren McFadden – DAL
39. Lorenzo Taliaferro – BLT
40. Joseph Randle – DAL
41. Ryan Mathews – PHI
42. Theo Riddick – DET
43. Denard Robinson – JAX
44. Fred Jackson – BUF
45. James White – NE
46. Reggie Bush – SF
47. Antone Smith – ATL

Our fifth tier of backs includes players likely to be on the short end of a committee or scheduled for a complementary role. A few of these backs make for intriguing handcuff holds, while others will have a hint of standalone value. Most will be available in the final few rounds of your draft.

Woodhead missed all but three games of the 2014 season due to a fractured fibula and ankle. This came one season after he scored eight offensive touchdowns and caught 76 passes en route to finishing 19th in fantasy points among running backs. Now 30, Woodhead’s best days are behind him, but he’ll return as Philip Rivers’ primary target out of the backfield. Woodhead is not worth starting lineup consideration in most formats, but could flirt with flex production in PPR leagues.

Since averaging 5.2 yards per carry while scoring 15 touchdowns during the 2010-11 seasons, McFadden has missed 10 games, is averaging 3.3 yards per carry and has scored a total of 10 touchdowns over the past three seasons. Plain and simple, McFadden hasn’t lived up to expectations since being selected fourth overall in the 2008 draft. His situation certainly got a lot better when he signed with Dallas during the offseason, but McFadden simply is not as good as outgoing DeMarco Murray and won’t see near the touch volume. Of course, if McFadden ends up seeing 12 to 15 touches behind Dallas’ behemoth offense line, he’ll flirt with RB2 numbers. Not unlike Brandon LaFell last season, McFadden is a to-date underwhelming performer who could benefit significantly from a much-improved supporting cast. He’s not the worst late-round flier.

Taliaferro ended his rookie campaign on injured reserve, but not before he scored four times and averaged 4.3 yards per carry on 68 attempts. During the 12 weeks he was active, he matched Forsett with five carries inside the opponent’s 3 yard line. Taliaferro’s breakout potential took a hit when the team re-signed Justin Forsett, but Forsett turns 30 this year and is nearly 30 pounds lighter than Taliaferro. The impressive fourth-round pick has plenty of size (6’0”, 226 pounds) and three-down upside. At the very least, an underrated source of touchdowns, Taliaferro is worth a look in the later rounds.

We know what Dallas’ dominant offensive line did for DeMarco Murray last season, but Randle reaped the benefits as well. Of all players who had at least 10 carries last season, none exceeded Randle’s 6.7 yards per carry. Randle has five touchdowns on 105 career carries. With Murray now in Philadelphia, Randle, a fifth-round pick in 2013, will compete with Darren McFadden for the coveted lead back gig in Dallas. If Randle can earn the starting job, he’ll surely be on the RB1 radar. It’s more likely that he’ll be a backup, but with the situation currently wide open, Randle is well worth a flier.

After spending the first five seasons of his career with San Diego, ex-12th overall pick Mathews heads to Philadelphia where he’ll join DeMarco Murray and Darren Sproles in arguably the league’s top backfield committee. Although injuries have derailed Mathews’ career, he’s been terrific as a rusher, averaging 4.4 yards per carry. Mathews’ won’t be starting lineup material in Philadelphia as long as Murray is healthy, but Mathews is probably best served for a complementary role after missing 20 of a possible 80 games due to injury while in San Diego. A top 15 back in the event of a Murray injury, Mathews is one of the better handcuffs at the position.

Although Reggie Bush’s playing time dwindled in 2014, he still managed to handle the same percentage of Detroit’s targets (14 percent) when active. That’s good news for Riddick, who is the favorite to step in as Detroit’s primary passing-down back. Detroit called pass on a whopping 84 percent of Riddick’s snaps in 2014. In the five games Bush missed, Riddick racked up 33 targets (6.6 per game) and averaged seven yards per target. He ranked 13th at the position in PPR fantasy points. Not much of a rusher, however, Riddick has 29 career carries and has averaged an abysmal 2.6 yards per carry. Riddick is a flex sleeper in PPR leagues.

A quarterback at Michigan, Robinson spent the first year and a half of his NFL career learning the running back position. He finally turned the corner in Week 7 last season, putting together a four-game stretch in which he was fantasy’s No. 4 running back. He racked up 389 yards and four touchdowns on 72 carries, but was barely involved as a receiver, catching five passes. He faded a bit down the stretch and eventually landed on injured reserve with a torn foot ligament. Only 24 and having shown flashes, Robinson still has breakout potential, but Jacksonville is extremely likely to add a back early in the draft after making a lucrative offer to DeMarco Murray.

Jackson has been terrific since joining Buffalo in 2007, but his offensive role will decrease in a big way in 2015. The veteran racked up 207 touches last season, but won’t come anywhere close to that with LeSean McCoy now entrenched as the teams near every-down back. Now 34, Jackson will settle in as a change-of-pace back and will remain busy on passing downs. Jackson caught a career-high 66 balls last season, but missed two games and averaged a career low 3.7 yards per carry. He’s unlikely to have much standalone value in 2015, but is a strong handcuff for McCoy owners.

White all but redshirted during his rookie season. A fourth-round pick last May, he played 30 snaps during the course of three regular-season games. White is a good pass-blocker and projects as a player who will carve out a role similar to that of ex-teammate Shane Vereen. That, of course, is relevant now that Vereen is with the Giants. It’s hard to put a lot of week-to-week faith in one of Bill Belichick’s running backs, but White is a candidate for an expanded role in 2015 and is thus a worthwhile late-round flier, especially in PPR.

In two seasons with the Lions, Bush missed seven of the team’s 33 games and saw his role drop off dramatically last season. When active in 2013, he was on the field for 61 percent of the offensive snaps, handled 60 percent of the designed runs and ran a route on 50 percent of the team’s pass plays. In 2014, those marks fell to 37 percent, 29 percent and 38 percent, respectively. Bush’s 3.9 yards per carry was the lowest we’ve seen from him since 2008. More importantly, his 4.9 yards per target mark was worst since his rookie season. Bush turned 30 in March and heads to San Francisco where he’ll take over as the club’s passing-down back. He’ll flirt with flex numbers in PPR leagues.

I ask this with tongue-in-cheek, but is Smith the best running back in NFL history? Smith turns 30 this year and has only 44 career touches to his name, but he’s been absurdly effective when called upon. Smith has four touchdowns and is averaging 9.9 yards per carry on 29 career carries. He has three scores and is averaging 17.1 yards per reception on 15 career catches. Back with Atlanta, Smith will play a complementary role to Devonta Freeman season. Smith is obviously a lock for regression, but has been consistently effective enough to warrant a late-round flier, especially in Atlanta where there is a real opportunity to play a significant offensive role.

Tier 6

48. Dan Herron – IND
49. Jerick McKinnon – MIN
50. Andre Williams – NYG
51. Darren Sproles – PHI
52. DeAngelo Williams – PIT
53. Jonas Gray – NE
54. Knile Davis – KC
55. Bilal Powell – NYJ
56. Ronnie Hillman – DEN
57. Alfred Blue – HST
58. James Starks – GB
59. Benny Cunningham – SL
60. Christine Michael – SEA
61. Montee Ball – DEN
62. Khiry Robinson – NO
63. Stevan Ridley – FA
64. Ka’Deem Carey – CHI

Our sixth tier includes a lengthy list of handcuff options. Many of these backs have close to zero standalone value, but would see a significant boost in value in the event of an injury above them on the depth chart. These players are worth a look when you’re adding depth during the final few rounds of your draft.

Promoted into a significant offensive role due to an Ahmad Bradshaw injury and Trent Richardson’s poor play, Herron’s 65 touches were exceeded by only Marshawn Lynch during the 2014 NFL playoffs. Herron was competent as a rusher, but did most of his damage as a receiver and struggled with fumbles and pass protection. The Colts signed Frank Gore during the offseason, which leaves Herron to compete with Vick Ballard for the primary backup job. Considering the Colts high-scoring offense, Herron figures to be on the flex radar in PPR formats but there’s not a ton of upside here.

A third-round pick last May, McKinnon’s rookie season role figured to be that of a handcuff to Adrian Peterson. Peterson, of course, missed all but one game due to suspension, which allowed McKinnon to share the Minnesota backfield with Matt Asiata. McKinnon was handling half of the team’s offensive snaps before a Week 12 back injury ended his season. McKinnon was impressive on 113 carries, averaging 4.8 yards per carry. He did, however, struggle as a receiver and blocker. A physical freak with 4.4 wheels, McKinnon has an extremely high ceiling, but will again enter a season stuck behind Peterson. He’s an outstanding handcuff, but won’t have stand-alone value.

He didn’t play much early on in his rookie season, but Williams ended 2014 21st among running backs in fantasy points. Filling in for oft-injured Rashad Jennings, Williams racked up 234 touches on just under 500 snaps. A big, downhill runner, Williams was busy near the goal line, scoring seven touchdowns. He struggled with effectiveness, however, averaging 3.3 yards per carry. That was dead last among the 17 running backs who carried the ball at least 200 times. The fourth-round pick was considered a major liability on passing downs, but he only dropped two of 28 targets and was decent as a blocker. Only 22, Williams has plenty of from for growth, but will need to beat out Jennings for the team’s primary early down gig. Otherwise, he’ll barely see the field, especially with Shane Vereen now in the mix.

After catching at least 70 passes in each of his three seasons with the Saints, Sproles’ hauled in only 40 passes in his first season with the Eagles. Sproles did bail out his fantasy owners with a career-high six rushing touchdowns, but his 1.7 OTD and 11 career rushing touchdowns entering the season suggest that was a fluke. Now 32 and competing with both DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews for snaps, Sproles’ fantasy upside is as low as ever. He’ll remain very busy on passing downs, but may not eclipse 50 carries. He’s only worth a late-round flier in PPR leagues.

Williams turned 32 in April and is coming off a season in which he managed 63 carries over six games and averaged a career-low 3.5 yards per carry. Cut by Carolina, Williams heads to Pittsburgh where he takes over as the primary backup to snap hog Le’Veon Bell. Most weeks, Williams will be way off the fantasy radar, but Bell’s impending early-season suspension puts Williams on the RB2 radar right out of the gate. For that reason, he’s worth a late-round flier, but he’ll be nothing more than a handcuff once Bell returns.

It’s not often that a player will rack up 201 yards and four touchdowns on 37 carries in one game and barely see the field the rest of the season, but that’s exactly what happened to Gray last season. After bullying the Colts in Week 11, Gray managed only 80 yards on 20 carries the rest of the regular season. Gray is only 24 and has been impressive when called upon, but will remain a risky play as long as he’s a part of Bill Belichick’s backfield committee. Consider that, including the playoffs, four Patriots had 93 or more carries in 2014, but none had more than 107. Stevan Ridley is gone, but Gray remains behind LeGarrette Blount for early-down and goal line work.

A big boy at 5’10”/227 and working behind Jamaal Charles in Andy Reid’s tailback-friendly offense, Davis has been an intriguing hold since being drafted in the third round back in 2013. Although Davis has shown flashes of his upside, he’s averaged 3.5 yards per carry during both of his professional seasons. He hasn’t jumped off the tape as a receiver and has struggled as a blocker. Davis is only 23 and remains an elite handcuff, but he’ll need to be more efficient if he hopes to eventually nail down a lead back gig.

Buried behind Chris Ivory and Chris Johnson, Powell accrued only 36 touches in 15 games last season. Johnson was sent packing and Powell was re-signed, however, which puts Powell in position to re-stake his claim as the Jets primary passing-down back. Of course, with Chris Ivory dominating early down and goal line touches, Powell has very little upside. A pedestrian talent, he’s only worth a look in deep PPR leagues.

C.J. Anderson and Montee Ball get the headlines, but Hillman was fairly impressive when called upon during the 2014 season. Promoted into a larger role in Week 5, Hillman racked up 491 scrimmage yards on 100 touches over the next five games. He sat fifth in fantasy points among running backs during the span. The Denver offense certainly provides plenty of scoring opportunities, but Hillman also averaged a career-high 4.2 yards per carry. Undersized at 5’10”/195, however, Hillman has been terrible after contact throughout his career and struggles as a blocker. He averaged 1.7 yards after contact per attempt last season, which was dead last among qualified backs. Hillman appears ticketed for a career as a change-of-pace back, but the 23 year old gets a slight boost in value thanks to the presence of Peyton Manning.

A sixth-round pick last season, Blue quickly vaulted ahead of veteran Jonathan Grimes on Houston’s tailback depth chart. Thanks to Arian Foster’s injury troubles, Blue racked up 168 carries and caught 14 passes. He struggled to a miserable 3.1 yards per carry, which was worst in the NFL among backs who carried the ball at least 120 times. Blue has decent wheels and a massive frame, but projects as a long-term backup. Foster owners in deeper leagues should have him stashed.

One of the league’s top backups, Starks was significantly involved in Green Bay’s offense at times last season. He ended up barely eclipsing 100 touches, but is now averaging 4.8 yards per carry since settling in behind Eddie Lacy during the 2013 season. Starks has very little standalone value, but would vault into the RB2 discussion in the event of a Lacy injury.

Cunningham was on the field for 41 percent of the Rams pass plays in 2014. He caught an impressive 92 percent of 48 targets and has yet to drop a pass in his two-year career. He was awful as a blocker last season, however, and averaged 3.7 yards per carry. Ticketed for change-of-pace and passing down duties behind Tre Mason, Cunningham is only worth a look in deep PPR leagues.

Seattle’s second-round pick in 2013, Michael is one of the most intriguing running back prospects in the NFL. Of course, the presence of Marshawn Lynch hasn’t really allowed Michael a breakout opportunity. The 24 year old was limited to 34 carries last season, which was nearly double the 18 he had as a rookie. Unsurprisingly, Michael was impressive, averaging 5.1 yards per carry, while forcing eight missed tackles. For perspective, Doug Martin and Denard Robinson each carried the ball 135 times last season and forced eight a piece. Considering Seattle’s successful, run-heavy scheme, Michael is an ideal bench stash, but as long as Lynch is healthy, he will be stuck competing with Robert Turbin for change of pace snaps.

Drafted in the first round of most fantasy leagues, Ball was a popular 2014 breakout player. He was a huge bust, struggling right out of the gate and eventually losing his job to C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman. Ball managed only 64 touches on the season and averaged 3.1 yards per carry. Ball will compete for touches this offseason and Denver’s top-notch offense, coupled with Gary Kubiak, keeps him in the fantasy conversation. Still, he’s no longer a candidate to start and simply wasn’t very good last season. He’s not worth your attention on draft day.

Early in the offseason, Robinson had the looks of a potential 2015 breakout player. Instead, the Saints signed Mark Ingram to a contract extension and brought C.J. Spiller to town. That leaves Robinson in position to handle only a few carries per game. An effective rusher thus far in his career, Robinson is averaging 4.6 yards per carry on 130 totes. Ingram and Spiller have had their share of injuries, which certainly makes Robinson an intriguing handcuff. You could do worse when choosing a late-round flier.

After six weeks as New England’s lead back, a torn ACL and MCL ended Ridley’s 2014 season. Even prior to the injury, Ridley had been struggling. He was averaging a career worst 3.6 yards per carry and was at his worst both avoiding tackles and after contact. In fact, he has seen a progressive dip in both categories during each of his NFL seasons. Ridley has met with a few teams and figures to latch on as a committee back. He’ll be worth monitoring until we see where he lands.

Chicago’s fourth-round back last May, Carey was impressive on a small sample of work, racking up 158 yards on 36 carries (4.4 yards per carry). For the second consecutive season, he will settle in as Matt Forte’s primary backup. That won’t allow any standalone value, but the 22 year old would certainly be on the RB2 radar in the event of Forte injury. Carey is a strong, inexpensive handcuff, which actually makes Forte a more attractive first-round pick.

Tier 7

65. Pierre Thomas – FA
66. Lance Dunbar – DAL
67. Dexter McCluster – TEN
68. Steven Jackson – FA
69. Ahmad Bradshaw – FA
70. Damien Williams – MIA
71. Toby Gerhart – JAX
72. Robert Turbin – SEA
73. Mike Tolbert – CAR
74. Donald Brown – SD
75. Marcel Reece – OAK
76. De’Anthony Thomas – KC
77. Storm Johnson – JAX
78. Zac Stacy – SL
79. Silas Redd – WAS
80. Chris Thompson – WAS
81. Kerwynn Williams – ARZ
82. Stepfan Taylor – ARZ
83. Tyler Gaffney – NE

Our seventh tier includes late-round fliers in deeper leagues. These players are either ticketed for a complementary role or are less inspiring handcuffs than the players mentioned in previous tiers.

Thomas, Jackson and Bradshaw have been on the fantasy radar for years, but the trio is currently without a team. Monitor them over the next few months to see where they land…Dunbar will push for passing-down snaps in Dallas…Leon Washington is gone, which opens up a significantly workload on passing downs for McCluster. He’ll be undervalued in deep PPR leagues…Williams may be replaced, but he currently sits No. 2 on Miami’s depth chart…Gerhart and Johnson will compete with Denard Robinson for snaps in Jacksonville…Turbin would stick as a complementary back (to Christine Michael) even if Lynch went down.

Reece and Tolbert are better real-life contributors than they are fantasy assets…Brown’s rough 2014 seasons leaves him behind both Oliver and Woodhead in San Diego…Thomas figures to see more targets than carries in Kansas City…Stacy is behind both Mason and Cunningham in St. Louis, but would become an interesting add if Mason were to go down…Redd and Thompson are competing for the Washington passing-down gig vacated by Helu…Williams and Taylor currently sit behind Ellington in Arizona, but their already-miniscule value will plummet when the team adds a back in the draft…Gaffney is another dart throw in the New England backfield.

Tier 8

84. Shonn Greene – TEN
85. Dri Archer – PIT
86. Matt Asiata – MIN
87. Jacquizz Rodgers – CHI
88. Bobby Rainey – TB
89. Kendall Hunter – SF
90. Vick Ballard – IND
91. Ryan Williams – DAL
92. Trent Richardson – OAK
93. Chris Polk – PHI
94. Bryce Brown – BUF
95. Travaris Cadet – NE
96. Chris D. Johnson – FA
97. Anthony Dixon – BUF
98. Ben Tate – FA
99. Knowshon Moreno – FA
100. Fozzy Whittaker – CAR

Note: Updated versions of these player capsules will be available in the 2015 PFF Fantasy Draft Guide, which will be for sale in late May and updated monthly through late August.

Follow Mike Clay on Twitter: @MikeClayNFL

  • Patrick Henson Shaw

    Not to nitpick, but we need to stop calling Le’Veon Bells rookie year underwhelming because of a less than desirable YPC — the tape said otherwise, especially how he navigated behind a brutal and battered oline in 2013. Also, he was very good at pass protection his rookie season as well.

    …. that said, this article was a terrific read! Great work, as usual.

    • Mike Clay

      Thanks, Patrick. I disagree, however. I think most who watched Bell both seasons noticed a drastic improvement. He had zero long scores as a rookie and, although he put a few nice plays out there, he wasn’t near as explosive. Regardless, he’s turned the corner and is an absolute stud.

      • Patrick Henson Shaw

        Absolutely he improved, and he certainly had even quicker cuts (attributed to the weight loss), but so did his situation / scenario, with Maurkice Pouncey being healthy and the Steelers offensive line playing very well through out the year – which was a problem for him his rookie year; there certainly weren’t many creases created by them, but he made the most of it with solid decision making, balance, and making defenders miss in the hole.

        His vision, instinct and incredible pass receiving abilty remained intact, but on an accelerated level.

        He just didn’t have the explosiveness to separate himself from that 2nd tier – or wave, of defenders like he did last year (as you pointed out with his explosiveness being more prevalent last year).

        Agreed though; yes, absolute stud — just as this RB breakdown article is. Thanks again!

  • David Stinnett

    Hard to say how much work David Johnson will get in AZ, but I think it’s safe bet he belongs here. There are guys here without teams, and guys deeper in the depth charts who won’t see near the work he will.