Change At The Top: Running Back Edition Part 3
DeMarco Murray (55 percent)
What to like: Name for me all the running backs in the league who carried the ball at least 200 times while ranking ahead of Murray in both Elusive Rating and Breakaway percentage.
That’s the entire list. Murray, when healthy, deserves to be considered a Top 5 back. Over his 542 career carries, the 26-year-old is averaging a very strong 4.9 yards to go along with more than three receptions per game. He hasn’t had a single “red game” since Week 4 of 2012, making him a safe bet to produce when given the opportunity.
What to fear: His health is an obvious concern (37 games played in three professional seasons) and the fact that the Cowboys tend to throw the ball to set up the pass isn’t exactly the formula for an elite RB. No other running back has the potential to be seemingly healthy for a three week stretch and carry the ball just 23 times.
Verdict: Another change in play-calling duties in Big D can’t possibly hurt Murray and is a big reason I’m buying into Murray as a repeat Top 10 RB in 2014. The Cowboys ranked as a strong run-blocking team a season ago (well below average in the pass-blocking department), so I think it is reasonable that Murray records career-highs across the board this year. His injury-plagued past cannot be overlooked, but if he can notch 250-300 touches, Murray could easily give you first round production in the late-second or early-third round this year.
Chris Johnson (25 percent)
What to like: He may not be “CJ2K” any more, but fantasy owners are overreacting to the level of disappointment they feel when owning Johnson. He hasn’t had a season with less than 1,400 yards and has reached the endzone at least ten times in four of his six professional seasons. Over his career, he is averaging more than 20 touches per game, volume of work that is difficult to find in this era of multiple back systems.
What to fear: The move from Tennessee to New York represents a move from the fifth best run-blocking team to the second worst, a major concern for a player that is getting close to the dreaded 30 years of age. The Jets have more running backs on their roster than the Brady Bunch had children, making job security a potential issue as the season progresses.
Verdict: At the end of the day, I like Johnson more than most, but not enough to believe he is going to finish in the RB1 conversation this season. He failed to produce the big play last season (31st in Elusive Rating and 15th in Breakaway Percentage), and while I don’t think he rebounds to his game-breaking ability of 2009, he should improve from last season. If he can win and hold onto the starting job, you’re looking at numbers similar to 2013 Giovani Bernard (1,200 yards and eight touchdowns).
Reggie Bush (15 percent)
What to like: Despite playing in only 14 games last season, Bush touched the ball a career-best 277 times and looked good in doing so (5.46 yards per touch). The explosive Lions offense will keep defenses honest, thus allowing the elite athleticism that Bush possesses to flourish while in space. His numbers spiked when playing at home in a dome last season, so the fact that Detroit plays 10 dome games should provide Bush owners with confidence.
What to fear: Joique Bell.The Lions have an embarrassment of riches on the offensive side, but NFL rules dictate games play with only one football, something that I think is going to cap the upside of Bush. He has played every game just twice in his career, risk that I don’t love when selecting a top back. Remember the game-breaking Bush that set the college football world ablaze while at USC in 2005 (2,218 yards on just 237 touches)? Well, the NFL version has yet to rank higher than 12th in our Elusive Rating.
Verdict: Bush went with the 31st overall selection in our first mock draft and that feels about right. It is very possible that he records his fourth consecutive season with at least 1,200 yards, but with his health concerns and lack of scoring upside (he has never found the endzone more than eight times in a single season), he looks much more the part of an average RB2 that has some upside and not an RB1 with some downside.
Fred Jackson (5 percent)
What to like: With the frail C.J. Spiller still the only player ahead of him on the depth chart, Jackson has the potential to repeat his 253 touches from a year ago. While he has never entered a season being viewed as a fantasy starter, Jackson owns an impressive career average of 5.21 yards per touch and reaches paydirt almost six times per 16 games. Even with a healthy Spiller, Jackson has found a niche in this Bills offense, as he averaged 6.78 yards per touch on third down last season.
What to fear: It is never safe to count on an injury, and given the obvious skill set of Spiller, Jackson’s touch count is not going to be consistent. The Bills brought in Mike Williams and Sammy Watkins, making it reasonable to assume that this offense is going to be more effective through the air than in the first season of the E.J. Manuel era. Jackson was handed the ball on only 31.2 percent of his offensive snaps and asked to block 25.6 percent of the time (Spiller: 51.3 and 10.7 percent respectively).
Verdict: At 33 years old, it is dangerous to bet on Jackson, but I would have said the exact same thing at 32 years of age last season. Buffalo’s offense should be more wide open, and the addition of Bryce Brown can only hurt Jackson’s fantasy potential. Could he step in for an injured Spiller and post strong statistics? Sure. But there is no reason to treat him as anything more than a RB3/FLEX play that has the potential to finish as a RB2 should injuries once again open up a significant need … not Top 10.
Now that we’ve taken a look at the quarterbacks and running backs, come back tomorrow for the first installment of a three part series centered around the elite wide receivers.