Change At The Top: Running Back Edition, Part 1
This is where the fantasy game and the real game differ: You can’t win without a strong ground game. But with a shelf life that seems to shorten with each passing season, what can you realistically expect from 2013’s “elite” backs?
As we did with the quarterbacks, we will subtract a player that defies the position and has our trust until proven otherwise: Adrian Peterson. Other than the Vikings stud, there have been 17 different Top 5 finishers and 37 new Top 10 RBs since the beginning of 2008.
That would imply that 23 players have recorded multiple Top 10 finishes over the last six seasons, but when you consider that a quintet of players (Marshawn Lynch, Matt Forte, Chris Johnson, Ray Rice, and Michael Turner) have accounted for 20 of those seasons, it becomes clear that repeat performances are the exception, not the rule.
If recent history holds, that means we are looking at 3-5 of the following players finishing among the Top 10 at their position in 2014: Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy, Matt Forte, Lynch, Knowshon Moreno, Eddie Lacy, DeMarco Murray, Johnson, Reggie Bush, and Fred Jackson. Who can you count on? We’ll analyze each player in a series of articles. The first two players are below.
Charles (75 percent chance of repeat Top 10 performance)
What to like: With Andy Reid calling the shots, Charles saw a career-high 329 touches without seeing any drop in his historic per touch production (6.02 yards per touch in 2013). The increased involvement was nice, but his fantasy value skyrocketed thanks to his ability to find the endzone. In 2013, he scored 12 rushing and seven receiving touchdowns. From 2008-2012 he scored 17 rushing and seven receiving touchdowns. He was targeted 104 times in the Chiefs conservative pass game, a number that not only nearly surpassed his total since 2009 (120), but outpaced Julius Thomas and Darren Sproles by 15. He’s as explosive a back as this generation has seen, and Reid’s ability to get him the ball in space was, and should continue to be, the focus of the Kansas City attack.
What to fear: Could back-to-back seasons with 300-plus touches wear him down a bit? His 2013 season was made special by a five-week stretch to close the season in which he tallied 794 yards (8.45 yards per touch) and 10 touchdowns, a run that isn’t exactly something you can count on happening again. If he continued producing at the rate he had through his first 10 games (118.6 yards and 0.9 touchdowns per game) for the final five, Charles would have finished with numbers very similar to Knowshon Moreno – strong statistics, but a fringe Top 5 back as opposed to the runaway leader in fantasy points.
Verdict: Regression to the mean will likely take place in 2013, as defenses have a full offseason to study the tape and realize that Charles is far and away the Chiefs primary target. Can Alex Smith make the opponent respect the passing game enough to free up Charles? My guess is yes, but not nearly to the extent of last season. Target him as a Top 5 back, with the understanding that 19 touchdowns probably isn’t happening again.
McCoy (80 percent)
What to like: Chip Kelly promised an up-tempo offense that would take the NFL by storm … and he delivered just that. McCoy was on the field for at least 60 snaps five times (for comparison, the Cowboys as a team averaged 59.8 offensive snaps per game last year) and recorded a career-high 947 plays (he was asked to block a mere 16.1 percent of the time). Nick Foles should have an even better command of this offense with a full offseason, and that should only result in more plays, thus more opportunities for a player who believes he is the best back in the NFL. McCoy has averaged at least 100 total yards per game in four consecutive seasons, and with Kelly calling the shots, it is difficult to imagine that trend stopping any time in the near future.
What to fear: The Eagles became a much more lethal quick-hitting attack with the additions of a healthy Jeremy Maclin/Sproles and the subtraction of DeSean Jackson. While this roster might prove to be a more effective one than last season, it leaves Foles with plenty of athletes that excel when getting the ball quickly and in space. An amazing 96.1 percent of Shady’s receptions came within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, a total that figures to be his absolute ceiling when this Philadelphia team is at full strength. It should also be noted that 2013 was McCoy’s first 16-game season in four years, yet it was his lowest in terms of targets. At 25 years of age, you’d assume that health wouldn’t be a major issue, but being on the field for 947 plays last season and the addition of Sproles could result in the Eagles attempting to save McCoy’s legs for the stretch run. Last but not least, Philadelphia will have to deal with four games against the stingy NFC West, a division that believes in a methodical approach and could limit the upside of this entire Eagles offense.
Verdict: As many reasons as there seem to be to fear the Eagles premier back, I’m not worried about his overall production. His age and track record make him one of the more appealing choices, and he should be considered nothing less than a Top 3 overall player heading into drafts. The addition of Sproles could limit his upside, but the downside is minimal, and that is the name of the game when selecting in the first round.
Come back tomorrow to see how the running backs 3-7 project for the 2014 season.