Trending Up: Running Backs
Fantasy football often comes down to matching opportunity with talent and situation. When all three factors click, you are left with a productive contributor. In many situations, opportunity can be a crutch. We see this happen more often at the running back position where timeshares, splits, and passing downs play a role in specializing different players’ roles.
The five backs listed below were highly effective in 2014, but their production didn’t match up with the opportunity needed to take that next step forward. With free agency and the draft yet to happen, there will be a lot of player movement. Some of these backs will see their role increase and others will see it decrease. Some of these backs may see improvements in their supporting cast also. However, it is fair to predict that if they can lock in the right situation, they can become consistent fantasy contributors.
In this piece I’ll take a look at what made these players stand out in 2014 and offer an early outlook on what to expect from them in 2015.
It would be fair to argue that Helu was the most productive Washington running back in 2014. At one point during the season, Jay Gruden had turned the backfield into an even timeshare from purely a snaps standpoint, and Helu responded with some of his best games. Curiously, Gruden decided to lean back on Alfred Morris for the final stretch of the 2014 season.
Despite receiving just 40 total rushing attempts on the season, Helu racked up 216 rushing yards (5.4 ypc). Helu also forced 17 missed tackles on rushing attempts and another nine missed tackles on his 42 receptions. He also racked up 3.43 Yco/Att (yards after contact per attempt).
These numbers helped Helu to finish with Pro Football Focus’ fourth-best elusive rating. Only Theo Riddick finished with a higher YPRR (yards per route run). Helu turned 217 snaps in route into 477 yards receiving and averaged 2.20 YPRR.
2015 Way-Too-Early Outlook: While Helu was out making defenders miss in the open field, Morris was quite pedestrian from that standpoint. Despite seeing over six times as many carries as Helu (265), Morris forced just 36 missed tackles all season. Helu might be the more talented running back, but the Redskins also might not see it that way.
Helu is set to hit unrestricted free agency and the Redskins are strapped against the cap with more glaring roster needs elsewhere. Helu’s free agency will be an interesting one to track, and he could end up in a great spot for fantasy football in 2015.
I wrote about Stewart in the 2014 preseason as a back who you need to put on your radar. I wasn’t rewarded for drafting him until the final few games of the regular season thanks to issues with Stewart’s health and role in the offense. Despite battling through an injury, Stewart was nearly as elusive and dynamic as he was during the 2009 season.
Between running backs who received at least 25 percent of their team’s rushing attempts, Stewart finished with PFF’s second-best elusive rating behind Marshawn Lynch only. Stewart forced 40 missed tackles on 175 rushing attempts and he was even more elusive in the passing game where he forced 16 missed tackles on just 25 receptions. Stewart also put together 11 runs of 15 yards or more. He did all of this in spite of a Panthers offensive line that finished as just the 22nd-best in run PFF’s run blocking grade.
2015 Way-Too-Early Outlook: Deangelo Williams is an aging back who carries a steep 2015 salary cap number. Most expect that Williams will be released this offseason. This will pave the way for Stewart to see a similar share of snaps and touches that he saw down the stretch and in the postseason.
Don’t expect Stewart to all of the sudden see Matt Forte-esque workloads, because quite frankly, his body wouldn’t hold up for that. He’s a dynamic runner, however, and he doesn’t need that many touches to put up fantasy stats.
In the 2014 offseason, many speculated that it would be Robinson who seized the Saints lead back job. After training camp, it became quite clear that Mark Ingram had taken hold of this role. Robinson wasn’t a completely forgotten piece, and he made his mark on limited touches before a midseason injury derailed his progress.
Robinson racked up 362 rushing yards on 76 attempts (4.8 ypc). Despite the small sample size, Robinson forced 21 missed tackles and put together a 2.71 Yco/Att average. He was elusive with the ball in his hands and tough to bring down.
2015 Way-Too-Early Outlook: Back in January, Mike Triplett passed along a claim from sources that Robinson’s role was about to greatly expand before he fractured his arm in Week 7. With Ingram set to hit unrestricted free agency, you can expect that the Saints will let Ingram walk.
Even if they feel like Ingram is difficult to replace, they simply don’t have a choice. The Saints are over the salary cap by more than $20 million. Robinson has proven to be a force on the field, and it seems likely that he will have an opportunity to seize Ingram’s role from the 2014 season.
Tracking the Jets’ backfield distribution all season long for my “Ticking Timeshare” column was a painful process. Week after week I would watch as Ivory received less than 50 percent of his team’s snaps. Even when he paced the team in snaps and touches, he would still only receive a slight majority of snaps and between 10-15 touches.
In spite of a nonexistent passing game and an offensive line that only featured one plus starter, Ivory was impressive more than not. Looking at his 4.1 ypc average can be deceiving, because you have to keep in mind how bad his surroundings were.
The Jets finished in the bottom half of all teams in PFF’s run blocking grade overall, and they were one of the league’s worst passing teams. Ivory still managed to force 52 missed tackles on 198 rushing attempts. Only Marshawn Lynch, DeMarco Murray, and Le’Veon Bell forced more missed tackles and they all had at least 88 more carries than Ivory.
2015 Way-Too-Early Outlook: With Chris Johnson on his way out of town, Ivory could resume a much greater role. There are concerns about his body holding up with an increased role, and therefore Ivory is not likely to ever see a Matt Forte-esque role.
However, seeing 15-18 touches per game will be enough to make him a consistent RB2. If you don’t believe me, just throw on the NFL Game Rewind and watch him eat up defenders.
Last offseason we heard some buzz about Riddick, but I personally decided to shrug it off. After all, Reggie Bush was still on the roster and he can do similar things that Riddick was being touted for. That was my mistake. It didn’t take long for Bush to go down with an injury, and Riddick stepped in admirably.
Riddick was a plus player as a runner and passer in 2014. In the passing game, he finished with the best YPRR at 2.45 among all backs who saw at least 25 percent of their team’s targets. Riddick turned just 129 snaps in route into 46 receptions and 316 yards receiving.
In the running game, Riddick finished with a very impressive elusive rating with a limited sample size. On just 20 carries, he forced eight missed tackles and racked up 2.30 Yco/Att. Some might say he’s a younger and healthier version of Bush.
2015 Way-Too-Early Outlook: Reports have surfaced that the Lions might move on from Bush this offseason. With Ndamukong Suh’s mega-contract hanging over them and Bush’s bloated $5.3 million 2015 cap number, the dots connect. If this plays out, Riddick will assume a major role in the Lions backfield with Joique Bell. He will immediately make for a target of mine in PPR leagues and he is someone that I would like to roster in non-PPR leagues as well.
Dan Schneier is a staff writer at PFF Fantasy but also writes about real football for FOX Sports. If you have any lineup, trade, or free agents questions you can find him on Twitter @DanSchneierNFL. You can also add him to your network on Google+ to find all of his past material.