Change At The Top: Running Back Edition, Part 2
Matt Forte (85 percent)
What to like: The versatile back touched the ball 363 times and averaged 5.33 yards per touch in his first season under the direction of offensive guru Marc Trestman, production that fantasy owners had been chasing since a similarly explosive rookie campaign in 2008. His production was consistent (12 games with at least 100 total yards) and his involvement unquestioned (12 games with at least 20 touches). His 4.9 targets per game for his career make him the premier dual threat RB when it comes to weekly production. The Bears ranked as the third best run blocking defense in all of football last season, a trend that should allow Forte to build on the best rushing season of his career.
What to fear: With two games against Aaron Rodgers, two against Matthew Stafford, and one against Drew Brees, there is the potential that the Bears occasionally abandon the run game in an effort to keep up with opposing high-powered offenses. A tough early season schedule (four road games, three of which come against top shelf defenses) could result in underwhelming September numbers.
Verdict: Having a gunslinger playing quarterback and a trio of physically gifted pass-catchers may not seem like the ideal team to roster a stud running back, but he might be the least likely Top 10 back to face eight-man fronts, and with his improved ability to breakaway once given a bit of daylight (four consecutive Top 10 finishes in Breakaway Percentage), Forte possesses the type of slump-proof skill set that it takes to finish among the elite at the position once again.
Marshawn Lynch (85 percent)
What to like: Lynch and the Seahawks are not about exotic formations or deception; they prefer to tell you what is coming and see if you can stop them. While I tend to gravitate toward dual threat running backs, there is no denying that NFL defenses have yet to find a way to control Beast Mode (1,626 total yards and over 13 touchdowns per 16 games since 2011) and considering they won the Super Bowl last season, it is hard to imagine their game plan changing at all. Over the past three seasons, Lynch has seen an increase in “green games,” games in which his PFF rating was north of +1.0, and a decrease in “red games,” games in which his PFF rating was south of -1.0.
What to fear: He struggled to produce elite numbers (84 total yards per game and a lackluster 3.8 yards per carry) within his division, a serious concern considering those three teams account for 37.5 percent of his schedule. The subtraction of Golden Tate this offseason will allow defenses to be even more aggressive when it comes to crowding the line of scrimmage, something that could cap his upside if Russell Wilson doesn’t develop as a pocket passer. The Week 4 bye is less than ideal, especially when you consider that Seattle plays five divisional opponents over the final six weeks of the regular season (a stretch that includes a game in San Francisco on a short week of preparation).
Verdict: His year-end numbers should be there, as Lynch is simply the toughest tackle in the league. That being said, I wouldn’t advise against selling high midway through the season, as I expect the first half of his season to be superior to the second half.
Knowshon Moreno (10 percent chance)
What to like: The change of environment could be good for Moreno, as he moves to a team in Miami that ranked ahead of Denver in all blocking metrics last season. While I like Ryan Tannehill, he’s no Peyton Manning, meaning that the Dolphins are likely to rely on the run game more than the Broncos did last season. Moreno has been around the league for five years now, but with only 60 games played, the soon-to-be 27-year-old’s body hasn’t been worn down to the extent of most workhorse backs. He nearly doubled his reception total from the previous two seasons combined, and while I don’t expect him to repeat that performance, the fact that he flashed that ability is encouraging.
What to fear: That he was the product of Manning’s ability to spread the field and only call run plays when the defense dictated he do so. Even in a career year in an elite offense, Moreno finished outside of the Top 15 RBs in Breakaway Percentage and outside the Top 25 in Elusive Rating. While he is currently atop the Dolphins depth chart, Miami has two backs in Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas that are younger and are more familiar with the offensive system.
Verdict: I like the talent of Moreno, but this is a crowded backfield that isn’t loaded with upside. Could he approach 1,000 yards OR double digit touchdowns this season? Maybe, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Even if he reaches those plateaus, finishing as a Top 10 RB is a long shot (Danny Woodhead was a fringe RB2 in 2013 and totaled 1,038 yards and eight scores).
Eddie Lacy (70 percent)
What to like: The Packers found their starting running back and he has no real competition for the position. While Green Bay is going to continue to rely heavily on the right arm of Aaron Rodgers, the balance and versatility that Lacy displayed in his first professional season make him a favorite to maintain Top 5 RB status as early as this season and for the foreseeable future. He is built like Lynch (5’11” 230 pounds as compared to Lynch’s 5’11″ 215 pound frame) and runs with a similar tenacity while possessing pillow soft hands that make him a perfect fit for this wide open Packers offense. His rookie numbers actually bettered those of Lynch, and with the NFC North seemingly abiding by the mindset that “the best defense is a great offense,” I’ve got Lacy projected for the better season. His Elusive Rating was greater than that of Jamaal Charles, a skill that should result in a spike in Breakaway Percentage sooner rather than later.
What to fear: His most productive fantasy days came when Rodgers was sidelined with a broken collarbone. The Packers pass game is as lethal as any in the league, and while he is capable of catching passes, there is the potential that there are weeks that he isn’t as involved as you’d expect an elite RB to be.
Verdict: His rookie season was nothing short of phenomenal for fantasy owners, and with a season of experience under his belt, it is hard to imagine anything but a valuable 2014 campaign. The combination of a violent running style and the ability to threaten defenses out of the backfield is rare, but one that Lacy clearly possesses. He had a few poor performances last season, but those came in blowout losses with a backup quarterback at the helm: a combination I’m not overly concerned about repeating itself in 2014.
Are the fringe RB1’s from 2013 poised to climb the rankings? Come back tomorrow to see how 2013’s last set of RB1’s project moving forward.