Pre-free agency running back landscape

Pat Thorman surveys the fantasy running back landscape before the free agency opens.

| 8 months ago
(AP Photo/Brad Penner)

(AP Photo/Brad Penner)

Pre-free agency running back landscape

The running back position has been devalued. Whether we agree that it should be, or think the idea is overstated and under-thought, it is impossible to deny the truth in it. From financial, to playing time, to draft capital commitments, the trends are heading south.

Rather than dig into the “whys” and “shoulds” of the issue, a more relevant question is what will be the effect on Fantasyland? If we concede the demand side of the equation is lower than in the past, and the supply of viable running backs is high, it leaves us knee-deep in crowded backfields.

A sizeable portion of this is by design, and increased backfield specialization can both absorb the supply glut and offer us some projectable clarity. Yet, at this point of the offseason, a sneakily significant chunk of our depth chart assumptions will soon get nuked by free agent signings and draft picks. Many dynasty owners and early-MFL10 degenerates will be left holding the bag — also known as “the Tre Mason.”

Who is “secure” and which backfields are most at risk of upheaval? Let’s take a quick survey of the running back landscape to identify both safe havens and situations where we might want to reduce our exposure.


Safe Havens

It is more likely than not that these backfields won’t see meaningful additions this offseason.

Atlanta Falcons — Devonta Freeman has, if nothing else, the pass-catching role. His rushing grade over the last two months ranked 56th of 59 running backs, and Tevin Coleman was hand-picked by the current coaches. Gus Johnson is also on board. This is the rare position where the Falcons are fine.

Baltimore Ravens — The depth chart runs four-deep with varying skillsets, they have little cap space, and roster holes exist elsewhere. Whether Justin Forsett, Buck Allen, or Lorenzo Taliaferro handles the lion’s share of touches is the only drama, aside from a potential Trent Richardson cameo for training camp comic relief.

Buffalo Bills — LeSean McCoy’s offeseason adventures notwithstanding, the Bills are set. Karlos Williams averaged 5.6 yards per carry with seven touchdowns, and even Mike Gillislee flashed at times. With the fourth-fewest cap dollars available and needs at other positions, running back is low-priority.

Cleveland Browns — Hue Jackson appears fine with Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson in a Jeremy Hill/Gio Bernard-esque split for 2015. Both are under team control at least through 2017. Crowell improved (+1.8 rushing grade) from his rookie year (-4.7), while Raheem Mostert and Terrell Watson provide quality depth.

Kansas City Chiefs — After Jamaal Charles’ Week 5 ACL tear, the Chiefs discovered someone capable of leading their backfield. Spencer Ware — who on a per-attempt basis led all 50-plus-carry backs in yards after contact and ranked fourth in PFF rushing grade — stands above Kansas City’s West-Knile combo.

Los Angeles Rams — Assuming their backfield is set runs the risk of having your mustache singed, but even for the Rams, it’s unlikely the current pecking order will be disrupted unless passing-target-syphoner Benny Cunningham escapes via restricted free agency. Todd Gurley owners can only hope.


Cosmetic Changes

While the following teams will add depth, for the most part, what we see is what we’ll get.

Arizona Cardinals — David Johnson for President? If not the leader of the free world, he can certainly lead running backs in fantasy scoring. His backfield cabinet is less exciting, however. The 27-year-old Andre Ellington enters a contract season on shaky ground, and the Stepfan Taylor-Kerwynn Williams duo excites no one. Expect a veteran (Ahmad Bradshaw?) to be added to the mix, but nothing significant.

Detroit Lions — The Lions backfield is full and they fill unique roles. Ameer Abdullah disappointed as a rookie, but has the most complete skillset. Draft Twitter favorite Zack Zenner covers the between-the-tackles role, and Theo Riddick — who forced the third-most missed tackles per touch of 81 qualifying backs — earned a running-back-high +15.5 passing game grade.

Jacksonville Jaguars – When teams are flush with cap dollars — and the Jaguars have a truckload — they do squirrelly things. But T.J. Yeldon, the only running back there we care about, is secure. His draft pedigree (second round), age (22) and rookie-year performance (+8.3 rushing grade; ninth-best) all check out. Jacksonville has more pressing holes — especially on defense — to fill with wads of cash.

Minnesota Vikings — Adrian Peterson turns 31 in less than a month, but Vikings’ coaches — perhaps unwisely — expect he can maintain a heavy workload. They have also expressed confidence — definitely wisely — in 2014 third-rounder Jerick McKinnon. Matt Asiata likely resigns in Minnesota and further depth will be added, but the main question is how soon will McKinnon take the torch.

New York Giants — The backfield feels in need of an overhaul, but with New York essentially needing a new defense, help at offensive line, and pass-catching upgrades, even their abundance of cap space (third-most) can’t cover everything. They just tendered Orleans Darkwa, Shane Vereen and Rashad Jennings are signed through 2017, and new head coach Ben McAdoo isn’t ready to give up on Andrew Williams.

Pittsburgh Steelers — With backup DeAngelo Williams turning 33 and Le’Veon Bell coming off of a torn knee (and entering a contract season), the Steelers will address the back-end of their backfield. Little cap room and needs at offensive line and in the secondary make adding a veteran who would get more than a sniff of a legitimate workload doubtful. A mid-to-late-round draft pick is likeliest.

San Diego Chargers — Despite a disappointing rookie season, the Chargers aren’t about to give up on 2015 first-round pick Melvin Gordon. Addressing offensive line needs will help him, and their other main focus is on defense. Danny Woodhead is 31 and enters his contract year, as will Branden Oliver. Backfield depth will be addressed, but in a non-disruptive manner for the main pieces.


Sneaky Shifting

The following teams feature backfields that may appear more set than they are, either from a short- or longer-term viewpoint.

Cincinnati Bengals — Jeremy Hill is affordably-signed through 2017, but underwhelmed last year. Gio Bernard is a free agent after next season and wore down after a hot start to 2014. Additionally, Bengals coaches appear reluctant to give him a heavy workload. More so for dynasty than MFL10s, the post-draft outlook here may be surprisingly different than it is now.

Denver Broncos — It is assumed restricted free agent C.J. Anderson will be back, as the cap-strapped Broncos focus on quarterback, offensive line, and the defensive front seven. Yet the depth behind Anderson is shaky and there may be a mercurial running back who’s happy to inexpensively reunite with a former coach and familiar blocking scheme. Arian Foster’s landing spot is a fantasy-value-landmine for Anderson owners.

Green Bay Packers — Eddie Lacy is entering the last year of his contract. Trimmed-down photos are great, but after last season, Green Bay’s brass probably trusts him about as far as they could throw him before the weight loss. With second-year UDFA John Crockett the only backfield depth, they will add running backs. Matt Forte’s versatility would fit as he hunts for a ring — and cause sleepless nights for Lacy owners still having James Starks nightmares.

New Orleans Saints — Mark Ingram, never the most durable back, is signed through 2018. But he can be cut for badly-needed cap relief after next season. The depth chart behind him is longer on name value than stability. Khiry Robinson is a restricted free agent who should walk, and C.J. Spiller is year-to-year, at best. Expect reinforcements to arrive cheaply via the draft. Ingram’s MFL10 stock is secure, but his dynasty value is shakier.


Good Luck Guessing

The many unknowns make classifying these teams a challenge. They could essentially stand pat and contribute to the glut of available running backs, or absorb a portion of the runoff.

San Francisco 49ers — Chip Kelly is always a wildcard, but the backfield — relative to the rest of the Swiss-cheese-roster — looks healthy. The underrated Carlos Hyde forced the third-most missed tackles per touch of 81 qualifying running backs while facing base defenses at the league’s second highest rate (83 percent of carries). Re-signing Shaun Draughn adds short-term roster stability.

Tennessee Titans — The old adage “when you have multiple quarterbacks you really have none” applies to the Titans’ running backs. Their depth chart is full — of something. Tennessee has plenty of cap space and an “exotic smashmouth” mandate. They re-signed uninspiring plodder Antonio Andrews, but they shouldn’t stop there. This situation is tougher to project than it should be, and a new GM with a Patriots pedigree further complicates things.

Philadelphia Eagles — DeMarco Murray may or may not want out. Less likely is finding a team that will trade for an expensive, high-mileage running back who has looked the part since late in 2014. The oft-injured Ryan Mathews is the only viable early-downs back behind Murray, so if the Eagles move their “starter,” they’ll have work to do. Darren Sproles will reportedly be kept for the last year of his contract.

Washington Redskins — Reviews of Matt Jones’ rookie year were mixed, as he broke a few big plays and ran hard, while also fumbling every 28.6 carries (second-most of 71 backs with 100-plus carries) and earning a -3.0 rushing grade (61st of 68 qualifiers). But Washington has little cap room and more pressing needs elsewhere, while Chris Thompson has the third-down role locked up. The depth chart says they have a need, but how much they can invest is in question.


Not So Fast

These teams are commonly painted as major players in the running back market. Yet, while they will address backfield needs, one or all of them may absorb less of the flood of running backs than assumed.

Dallas Cowboys — Always creative when creating cap room, the Cowboys will need to be again. But with every cut and suspension, more holes need filling. They were able to average 4.6 rushing yards (sixth-best) behind league-best run blocking (+49.0) with an undistinguished backfield group. Darren McFadden will be back and get some help, but indications are it could again come via a cheap signing. Hopefully they spend a legitimate draft pick this time.

Houston Texans — After cutting of Arian Foster, the Texans’ backfield looks bare. While Alfred Blue leaves much to be desired, Jonathan Grimes is a nifty receiver who averaged 5.0 yards per carry in limited work. Akeem Hunt also flashed in a small sample (+3.4 passing game grade). Bill O’Brien’s time in New England may color his views on running backs, so there’s a non-zero chance Houston opts for role players over a bellcow.

New England Patriots — Expect them to add a between-the-tackles banger to pass-catching types Dion Lewis and James White — who quietly had a +9.6 passing game grade (third-best of 68 qualifying backs). Add core special teamer Brandon Bolden, scant cap room, and young defensive studs to sign, and — as I explain in more detail here — Alfred Morris makes more sense than Matt Forte. A LeGarrette Blount reunion also makes some sense.


Danger Zone

The following backfields house players who are on shaky ground to varying degrees. Even if a starting running back is not a priority, there are vacancies toward the front of the depth chart and opportunity to gain touch share.

Carolina Panthers — While they invested a fifth round pick on Cameron Artis-Payne last year, he didn’t impress and was inactive for the last two playoff games after earning a -2.7 rushing grade in the prior two. Jonathan Stewart is signed through 2018, but the soon-to-be 28-year-old is far from a bastion of dependability. The Panthers don’t have the cap room to add a big-time veteran, but we can bet they’ll at least add talent in the draft.

Chicago Bears — The Jeremy Langford bellcow coronation feels premature. He forced the fewest missed tackles per touch (0.06) of 68 running backs with 50+ touches and came in last of 52 qualifying backs in our Elusive Rating. Ka’Deem Carey flashed in limited work last year, but the depth chart thins out from there. The Bears enjoy a healthy cap situation (eighth-most room), and while they have no shortage of needs elsewhere, the irrational exuberance surrounding Langford may be short-lived.

Miami Dolphins — The cap-strapped Dolphins would like to bring Lamar Miller back, but they have other roster priorities and he can command a top-of-market deal for a running back. Many would enjoy seeing Jay Ajayi and Damien Williams get the lion’s share of work, but it’s more likely they sign a cheap veteran and/or draft another back. If they do manage to keep Miller in the fold, it would prevent a major domino from crashing another team’s backfield.

Indianapolis Colts — The Colts need to focus resources on defense and offensive line – which helped afford Frank Gore only 1.47 yards before initial contact per attempt (51st-most of 68 qualifiers). And while he flashed at times — nine positively-graded games out of 16 — his missed-tackles-per-attempt ranked 37th (0.14). Nobody on a thin depth chart currently threatens the workload of the well-worn Gore, but competition is coming.

Oakland Raiders — Latavius Murray wasn’t bad last season, but he was far from consistent. He had as many games graded in the red (five) as in the green, and as many under four yards per carry (seven) as above it. The former sixth-rounder is entering a contract year and, other than the underused Taiwan Jones, Oakland has little depth. They do have the second-most cap room and fewer roster holes than many think.

Seattle Seahawks — Thomas Rawls is the presumptive horse and folks are understandably fired up for him. He averaged 23.3 carries, 140 yards, and a touchdown per game in the four weeks he had the backfield to “himself.” But, aside from restricted free agent Christine Michael, Seattle’s backfield cupboard is bare. The Seahawks will invest at running back, and a veteran makes sense. Rawls is enticing, but he won’t be without competition.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers — It appears the Buccaneers’ imminent re-signing of Doug Martin will not occur before free agency opens. Yet, he could still upend the every-down-role dream for Charles Sims, who ranked seventh in both rushing-grade-per-attempt and forced-missed-tackles-per-touch (0.23) among 68 backs with 50-plus touches. Much like with Miami, their stud returning would eat into the upper-tier running back supply – but Tampa Bay has far more cap room to make it happen.


Flying Solo

As has often been the case, this organization defies classification.

New York Jets — The only truly wide-open backfield on the list, the Jets can use both a lead back and pass-catcher. The problem is they have the fifth-fewest available cap dollars and need to sign big-ticket players at quarterback and on defense. The flooded running back market helps them more than any other team, and a short/long-term approach (Matt Forte and C.J. Prosise?) could work well.


Significant Supply

There are no fewer than eight running backs who will appreciably impact touch distribution whatever they land. Lamar Miller and Doug Martin are headliners. Matt Forte and Arian Foster have plenty of miles on their tires, but will take on significant roles. Chris Ivory and Alfred Morris should see significant roles. Ezekiel Elliott, Derrick Henry, and perhaps C.J. Prosise will make noise immediately after being drafted. Plus, the additional available depth behind them is impressive.

Several of the above backfield projections for free agency and the draft will wind up incorrect – it isn’t called the “silly season” for nothing. But the threat to established roles posed by a flooded running back market is real, even if the specific backfields remain a clouded projection. Hopefully we can navigate away from exposure to at-risk backfields before the transaction tornado hits.


Pat Thorman is a Lead Writer for PFF Fantasy. You can follow him on Twitter at @Pat_Thorman

Pat Thorman is a lead writer for PFF Fantasy and a Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner.

  • crosseyedlemon

    “If we concede the demand side of the equation is lower than in the past…”

    Without a graphic showing that fantasy scoring from the RB position has steadily declined each season there is really no way to make that concession, ergo no “projectable clarity”.