Fantasy Football Tiers Of Joy: RB Edition
We covered your QB ranks last week, but for my money, the ranking of RB’s is the most crucial when it comes to drafting a winning team in 2013. While the QB pool is deep — considering you only start one — this year’s RB class tends to run dry quickly. Use these tiers as a guide when creating your rankings, and make sure to grab at least one strong RB in the first two rounds to avoid being left out in the cold with question marks starting on a weekly basis.
Tier 1: “Stop thinking and draft me”
My opinion on these two has been covered here. Regardless of the order in which you rank these two; they are the two most valuable fantasy commodities in standard leagues. Both have injuries that are worth monitoring, but given the historic upside, there are far more reasons to trust these two than not to. The Vikings lack of a pass game is a minor concern, as is the loss of Percy Harvin and his ability to spread defenses.
Tier 2: “Have the talent, but would need everything to go right to join the top tier”
Marshawn Lynch – I actually have him closer to that top tier than you might think — the decision came down to the extra 20-30 touches in the passing game for Foster and Peterson. The Seahawks grinder averaged a whopping 123.3 total yards against divisional foes last year and scored once per game. When you think of any Seattle player, the tendency is to assume that they perform much better at home, but Lynch actually averaged more yards per carry and caught more passes on the road last season. Lynch played his first 16-game season for one team last year, making it clear that there is an injury risk if he continues to carry the ball 20+ times per game. Odd but true stat: for his career (six instances), Lynch has followed up an off week (whether it be caused by injury or bye) with 88 carries for 225 yards (2.56 ypc) and only three touchdowns.
LeSean McCoy – An injury and the emergence of Bryce Brown last season could result in Shady being an undervalued commodity this fantasy season. His total yards and touchdowns scored increased in each of his first three seasons in the league, and while they obviously didn’t do so in 2012, he has likely yet to peak as he’ll turn 25-years-old next month. While we were blinded by Brown’s back-to-back 180+ yard multiple score performances, McCoy was on pace for 1,617 total yards, just seven shy of his breakout 2011 campaign. He is a dual threat back who should thrive in Chip Kelly’s up tempo offense, and the fact that he has killed the division (92.7 rush yards per game and 122.2 total yards over his last 10) only strengthens the argument that McCoy is a top five RB once again this season.
Ray Rice – Rice’s ability to catch the ball out of the backfield is second to only Darren Sproles among top 25 RB’s, giving him a touch count that makes fantasy owners both drool and worry at the same time. He has touched the ball at least 318 times in each of the past four seasons, but that number has been on the decline since recording 370 touches in 2010. Could the 5’8” back be wearing down a bit? Could the Ravens be shifting some of the workload to second year man Bernard Pierce (115 touches last season)? The loss of Anquan Boldin may result in the Ravens depending on the run game more, but Boldin was also an elite blocking WR, so holes down field may be hard to come by this season. I’m not crazy about the near certain departure of Vonta Leach, an elite blocking full back who has been opening dorrs for fantasy studs his entire career. Rice found a great deal of success last season against the NFC East (averaging 55.1% more total yards and scoring 2.5x as often against them than the rest of the NFL), a division Baltimore does not play this season. On a positive note, during the Ravens playoff run Rice average 21 carries per game, a 31.3% increase over his regular season average. He is similar to McCoy in a lot of respects, but something tells me the Ravens are going to lean more heavily on their $120 million dollar man behind center, which could cost Rice owners some production.
Jamaal Charles – Let me be clear: this is where I expect Charles’ year-end numbers to land him. As any JC owner will tell you, this is a love-hate relationship that requires patience. The explosive Chiefs back had just as many games last season with 18-plus carries and 9.2-plus yards per carry and an 80-plus yard touchdown run as he did game with single digit rushing yards. He rushed for 53 or fewer yards in 31.3% of games last season, but totaled at least 163 yards on the ground 18.8% of the time. So yes, it is going to be a roller coaster ride from week to week, but there are a few reasons to like him more this year than last. The Chiefs hired Andy Reid, a coach who has made the most of dual threat backs (see Westbrook, Brian) in the past. Charles caught a career high 72.9% of the passes thrown his way last season, a very positive sign when you consider that he is likely to see a career high in targets this year. Kansas City also brought in Alex Smith, a quarterback thought of as a game manager who doesn’t push the ball down the field. Personally, I find it difficult to count on Charles as a RB1 for my team due to the lack of consistency, but I am a believer in the skill and think his numbers when all is said and done will rank among the top handful of RB’s.
Doug Martin – If you’re starting a long term keeper league, this is the man you want. At 24-years-old, The Muscle Hamster would be my number one ranked RB if asked to rank total RB production for the next 5-6 years, and a strong 2013 season is to be expected. He runs remarkably hard and was a consistent threat in the pass game (at least four targets in 11 games and at least three catches in 11 games, including 10 of his final 11); making him an RB you can count on to find a way to produce. Those who want to say Martin’s total numbers were skewed by two massive performances (61 touches for 486 yards and six touchdowns) must remember that he also had two games in which he was absent (22 touches for 77 yards and 0 touchdowns). While he may not repeat the huge games, it is also unlikely that he struggles to that level. One note of concern: Martin saw his average yards per carry (+46.3%), yards per game (+34.9%), and touchdown rate (+33.3%) increase in a big way against the AFC West, a division the Bucs will not see this season.
Tier 3: “The end of backs I want leading my backfield”
Trent Richardson – Other than Peterson, there may not be a more violent back in the NFL, a big reason why I believe Richardson’s 1,317 yard 12 TD rookie season was no fluke. That being said, that running style also makes it hard to stay healthy, a theory that has already been proven this offseason as Richardson is battling a shin injury. While I do not buy this injury as something that is going to directly result in lost time or less carries (his running program starts in a few weeks and he is expected to participate in day one of training camp), the point remains that his style of play lends itself to injuries throughout a grueling four month season. On a positive note, if Richardson is healthy, I expect him to record more big plays in his second professional season. He registered a mere 14 carries (5.2% of his season total) that resulted in 10-plus yards. For a little perspective, Aaron Rodgers had nine such carries and is considerably easier to tackle. Richardson’s upside is slightly dampened by the Browns lack of offensive weapons and potential health concerns, but when health, TRich is a top-10 back who is going to score more often than not.
C.J. Spiller – With a new coach in charge, Fred Jackson another year older, and still no proven QB to stretch defenses, Spiller is expected to finally see the touches that many believe he should have had years ago. While I’ve got some durability concerns and still believe Jackson has some gas left in the tank, there is no doubt that Spiller is an advantageous spot. On the downside, if you subtract a huge game against the Jets, Spiller couldn’t find a groove against his divisional opponents. In his other five AFC East games, Spiller failed to score and averaged 4.6 yards per carry (a 52% drop off from his other 11 games). Also a bit concerning is the fact that Spiller was less effective once he passed the 16-carry mark in a given game.
The skill is there for Spiller to succedd, and based on last year’s split stats, you can expect the Bills burner to help you the most down the stretch. He tallied 113.5 rushing yards per game (on only 14.5 carries) in “warm weather” situations and Buffalo plays in Florida on weeks 14 and 15.
Alfred Morris – Remember the good ole Michael Turner days? The days where you could lock in 300-plus carries for 1,300-plus yards and double digit scores are back and better than ever in the form of Morris. A healthy Robert Griffin III gives defenses a lot to think about, giving Morris plenty of room to operate between the tackles. He managed at least 100 total yards in his last four divisional games and it is hard to imagine any NFC East defense slowing him down this year or in years to come. Instead of hitting the rookie wall when the college season would be slowing down, Morris improved season progressed, averaging 112 rush yards and a TD in the second half of the season. One handed catches or long touchdown jaunts (didn’t have a single run over 39 yards) aren’t his style, but I’ll take consistent touches/production that you can take to the bank any day, especially if you drafted a high risk RB with your first pick.
Tier 4: “You know the names, but the upside is lower than the youth movement at RB”
Matt Forte – The Bears need to establish a run game or find another WR threat to take some of the pressure off of the Jay Cutler/Brandon Marshall tandem. While Chicago has some nice young pieces in the pass game, Forte is the proven option who the Bears figure to rely on for balance. It is easy to fall in love with Forte’s versatility (4.7 targets per game during his five year career), but I caution you to not reach on him due to a low TD rate. The options in the first three tiers either have great upside or have the potential to reach double digit scores, but with only 23 TD’s in his last 59 games, Forte doesn’t fit the bill. That being said, 1,000 rushing yards and 50 catches is nothing to sneeze at and Forte should be looked at as a safer option. I’ve got him as a fringe RB1, and in a year where RB depth runs thin quickly, Forte’s consistency has second round value.
Steven Jackson – The Falcons, unlike the Bears, will not lack balance at all, as they have arguably the most dangerous receiving duo in all of football. I like the fact that the aging Jackson will be kept fresh, thanks to both the explosive pass game and the emergence of Jacquizz Rodgers. He started his career as an injury prone workhorse (only played all 16 games once in his first six seasons), but he’s been more durable of late (has appeared in 47 of 48 games over the last three seasons). I’m not reaching on Jackson in a keeper format, but he’s got at least one strong season left in the tank and should benefit greatly from changing uniforms.
Chris Johnson – Only Jamaal Charles put owners through the heartache/heart throb that CJ2K did last year, souring me on him from a fantasy perspective.
33 carries for 45 yards and 0 TDs
18 carries for 195 yards and 2 TDs
Those two stat lines may not seem like the same player, but ask any 2012 Johnson owner and they will assure you. The first line is for his first three starts of last season while the second is a week seven explosion against the Bills. He is once again promising 2,000 rushing yards, and while I wouldn’t project it, the upside is there given the fact that he has done it once. If you draft a safe RB in the first round, I have no problem taking Johnson, but he is a risky way to start your RB core should you begin with an elite QB or WR.
Frank Gore – I imagine quite a few teams drafting Charles with their first pick and targeting Gore at the end of round two or the beginning of round three. The 49ers ball carrier has six straight seasons with 73.5-80 rush yards per game, making him among the most consistent options on a week to week basis. He is unlikely to single handedly win you a week, but an RB2 with a track record is hard to come by these days. The Michael Crabtree should increase the value of Gore, potentially returning him to double digit trips to paydirt.
Maurice Jones-Drew – The left foot injury, and the delayed nature of the rehab/surgery, has dropped MJD down most draft boards. The Jags workhorse has averaged 21 carries from 2009-2011, so the wear and tear is a legitimate concern entering 2013. The absence of Justin Blackmon (drug suspension) is going to result in a ton of eight man fronts against Jones-Drew, something that figures to limit his upside. I think the high end skill is still there, which keeps him in this tier, but his weak team and heavy workload both scare me from selecting MJD in the first few rounds.
Tier 5: “Given the right price, players I’d draft a little later as a starter”
Tier 6: “Hard to trust backs who have talent”
Vick Ballard/Ahmad Bradshaw
Tier 7: “Upside picks who could emerge due to an expanding role or an injury”