Fantasy Football Draft Prep: Breaking down the backfields
There aren't too many three-down backs these days, so just knowing the starter isn't going to cut it on Draft Day. Jamey Eisenberg breaks down the potential snap breakdown for all 32 backfields.
If Fantasy Football were played in an ideal world, we'd have every team use a three-down running back like the Vikings, Buccaneers and Browns. But unfortunately for every team that has a featured runner there are two more with a tandem or committee.
It makes for a frustrating experience at times, and it's why we preach drafting running backs early. The more three-down running backs you have the better off you'll be during the season.
The problem is that not every owner in a 12-team league can lock up even two running backs who do it all. You have to deal with specialists -- guys who play on passing downs or work at the goal line.
Figuring out how to dissect each backfield can be tough, so we're here to help. This is a look at all 32 backfields with a breakdown of how each prominent running back will be used during the year.
We'll break down the workload for each team and hopefully give you an understanding of some of the running backs to target late on Draft Day based on what role they will play.
C.J. Spiller / Fred Jackson
This is a role reversal from the past three seasons when Jackson was the starter and Spiller was the backup. We know how it's going to work now with Spiller getting the ball "until he throws up," according to offensive coordinator Nathanial Hackett. That doesn't sound like much work will be left for Jackson. But as we saw in the third preseason game against Washington, all it takes is one injury for Spiller (he hurt his knee against the Redskins) and Jackson could be right back in there. Make sure you handcuff Jackson to Spiller with a pick in Round 10.
Rushing downs split: 80/20 Spiller
Passing downs split: 80/20 Spiller
Goal-line split: 60/40 Spiller
Lamar Miller / Daniel Thomas
The Dolphins want Miller to be their workhorse running back, but his struggles in pass protection have kept Thomas in the mix for the starting job. But don't be mistaken, Miller will dominate carries -- he just might come off the field in passing situations. That was the case in the third preseason game against Tampa Bay. Miller had eight carries for 35 yards, while Thomas ran more south than north with seven carries for 3 yards. Thomas played more on passing plays, but Miller remains worthy of a third or fourth-round pick in all leagues. Thomas is just a late-round flier.
Rushing downs split: 70/30 Miller
Passing downs split: 60/40 Thomas
Goal-line split: 55/45 Miller
Stevan Ridley / Shane Vereen
This might be the best Fantasy backfield in the league. It was in 2012 with Ridley and Danny Woodhead , and they can easily repeat. Ridley and Woodhead were each Top 24 Fantasy running backs last year in standard leagues, but Vereen has more upside than Woodhead. Their roles are defined with Ridley handling the rushing duties, and Vereen will work in passing situations. The good thing for Vereen, however, is he will also get plenty of attempts since New England was second to Seattle in carries last year and should again be run dominant. Ridley will likely be drafted in Round 2, and Vereen is someone to target in Round 5. LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden would only become relevant with an injury.
Rushing downs split: 70/30 Ridley
Passing downs split: 90/10 Vereen
Goal-line split: 70/30 Ridley
Chris Ivory / Bilal Powell
Maybe I'm stubborn, but I'd rather have Ivory than Powell even though Powell may open the season as the starter. While Powell has sleeper appeal based on Ivory's injury concerns, he doesn't have Ivory's upside. Ivory has the potential to be a Top 20 Fantasy running back when he's on the field if he gets the majority of carries. If Powell is put in that role he would only be a flex option at best. We'll see how it shakes out during the season, but I'd rather gamble on Ivory if I had to choose. No matter what, Powell will be on the field for passing downs since Ivory has just 18 career catches dating back to college. I wouldn't worry too much about Mike Goodson this year.
Rushing downs split: 55/45 Ivory
Passing downs split: 80/20 Powell
Goal-line split: 70/30 Ivory
Ray Rice / Bernard Pierce
The Ravens want to get Pierce involved this season based on how he played in 2012. He will play a significant role, but Rice is still going to be the bell cow of this backfield. He remains a first-round pick, and will likely be great value toward the bottom of the first round. Rice has at least 250 carries and 60 catches in each of the past four years, and he's scored 21 touchdowns the past two seasons. Pierce is a great handcuff and could end up as a flex option. With Dennis Pitta (hip) going down and Anquan Boldin gone, the Ravens need Rice and Pierce to be successful and will use both in tandem at times. This is one of the best backfields in the NFL this year.
Rushing downs split: 70/30 Rice
Passing downs split: 70/30 Rice
Goal-line split: 70/30 Rice
Giovani Bernard / BenJarvus Green-Ellis
I'm giving Green-Ellis the edge in every category except passing downs because I expect him to still get more work in those areas, at least early in the year. But no one wants to draft Green-Ellis. We all want Bernard, and rightfully so. He has more upside than Green-Ellis, and we'd love a role reversal where Bernard was the starter. He's someone to target in Round 4 or 5 in all leagues, and Green-Ellis is only worth a mid-round pick at best. In PPR leagues, Bernard could be a star.
Rushing downs split: 55/45 Green-Ellis
Passing downs split: 80/20 Bernard
Goal-line split: 55/45 Green-Ellis
Trent Richardson / Brandon Jackson
The Browns have already lost two backup running backs with Dion Lewis and Montario Hardesty going on injured reserve. That doesn't bode well should Richardson get hurt, but no one wants to think about that. This is going to be the Richardson show. He has the chance to be a Top 3 Fantasy running back this year if he can avoid the minor aches and pains that plagued him as a rookie. Draft Richardson with confidence as early as No. 5 overall, and Jackson has now become the handcuff.
Rushing downs split: 90/10 Richardson
Passing downs split: 90/10 Richardson
Goal-line split: 90/10 Richardson
Le'Veon Bell / Isaac Redman / Felix Jones / LaRod Stephens-Howling
It sounds like Bell (foot) isn't going to be out very long, and he could even return before Pittsburgh's bye in Week 5. That would be a best-case scenario, but we're optimistic Bell avoided a long-term injury. He should be considered the best Pittsburgh running back this year. Redman has the chance to step in for Bell until he returns, and he's worth a late-round flier. We'd ignore Jones and Stephens-Howling since they have limited upside, but the key is getting Bell back on the field. When he's there -- and healthy -- he should dominate touches.
Rushing downs split: 60/20/10/10 Bell/Redman/Jones/Stephens/Howling
Passing downs split: 50/20/20/10 Bell/Redman/Stephens-Howling/Jones
Goal-line split: 60/20/10/10 Bell/Redman/Jones/Stephens-Howling
Arian Foster / Ben Tate
This used to be such a simple backfield to break down. Foster was the man, Tate would get some occasional work as a handcuff and Fantasy owners would be thrilled. That might not be the case this season. Foster is coming off a season with too much work (460 total touches including the playoffs) and could be in line for a breakdown or a scale back in touches. That opens the door for Tate to be a potential flex option, and he had over 1,000 total yards and four touchdowns in 2011. Foster remains a first-round pick, but he's no longer a Top 5 overall selection. And Tate is worth drafting in Round 6 in all formats. Should Foster get hurt and miss an extended amount of time then Tate could be this year's Spiller as a backup who elevates to Top 10 status.
Rushing downs split: 70/30 Foster
Passing downs split: 80/20 Foster
Goal-line split: 70/30 Foster
Ahmad Bradshaw / Vick Ballard
All of these percentages for Bradshaw are based on him being healthy, and he's expected to miss the entire preseason with a foot injury. If he plays 16 games, Bradshaw could be a solid No. 2 Fantasy running back or flex option. But it's hard to count on him for a full year given his history of foot problems. If Bradshaw is out, Ballard would be the featured back, but he's now getting pushed by Donald Brown . We still consider Ballard the No. 2 option, and he's worth a late-round flier. The Colts want Bradshaw to be the man here, but he needs to get on the field and prove he can stay healthy.
Rushing downs split: 80/20 Bradshaw
Passing downs split: 80/20 Bradshaw
Goal-line split: 80/20 Bradshaw
Maurice Jones-Drew / Jordan Todman / Denard Robinson
It's good to have Jones-Drew back from last year's foot injury, and hopefully he won't have a setback this season. When healthy, Jones-Drew is a workhorse, and the Jaguars don't have anyone to keep him off the field. Todman has done well this preseason, and he earns No. 2 status ahead of Justin Forsett . Robinson is not a handcuff option, but he will get some work. If Jones-Drew goes down this backfield could be a mess, so hopefully that doesn't happen. Draft Jones-Drew in the third round, and leave everyone else on waivers.
Rushing downs split: 70/20/10 Jones-Drew/Todman/Robinson
Passing downs split: 70/20/10 Jones-Drew/Robinson/Todman
Goal-line split: 85/10/5 Jones-Drew/Todman/Robinson
Chris Johnson / Shonn Greene
This is another backfield that could be special based on what the Titans did to improve their offensive line. Johnson is going to have a bounce-back season, and he's worth drafting early in Round 2. The yards will be there for Johnson, but we'll see how many touchdowns he scores with Greene now on the roster. Don't overlook Greene with a late-round pick (he could score eight touchdowns), and Johnson will hopefully restore your faith in him after two down years. I'm excited for the Titans running game this season.
Rushing downs split: 70/30 Johnson
Passing downs split: 80/20 Johnson
Goal-line split: 60/40 Greene
Montee Ball / Ronnie Hillman / Knowshon Moreno
Ball has always been the Broncos running back to target on Draft Day, but he wasn't given the chance to prove it in the preseason with Hillman as the starter. The Broncos appear to be turning the job over to Ball sooner rather than later with Hillman having fumble issues. Moreno is also expected to play a role since he's the best option in pass protection. Heading into the final preseason game, we'd rank the Broncos backfield Ball, Moreno and Hillman. All three are worth drafting, but Ball is the only one with starter potential.
Rushing downs split: 50/30/20 Ball/Hillman/Moreno
Passing downs split: 50/30/20 Moreno/Hillman/Ball
Goal-line split: 60/20/20 Ball/Hillman/Moreno
Ryan Mathews / Danny Woodhead
I hate to say it, but Mathews has been impressive in the preseason. He looks like the running back we expected to see last year before collarbone issues and a poor offensive line ruined him. He's now in the conversation as a potential starter, and he's a definite flex option with a pick in Round 5. Woodhead will play on passing downs, and either Ronnie Brown or Fozzy Whittaker will also play a role. Besides Mathews, Woodhead is the only other running back worth drafting in San Diego with a late-round pick.
Rushing downs split: 70/30 Mathews
Passing downs split: 70/30 Woodhead
Goal-line split: 70/30 Mathews
Jamaal Charles / Knile Davis
This backfield should be one-sided with Charles about to become a star for coach Andy Reid. We got a scare from Charles with a foot injury in practice, but he's fine now, putting Davis back in a secondary role. Charles should have a career season in 2013, and Davis is worth a pick in Round 10 as a handcuff. Look for Charles to do it all, and we'd draft him as early as No. 3 overall.
Rushing downs split: 80/20 Charles
Passing downs split: 80/20 Charles
Goal-line split: 80/20 Charles
Darren McFadden / Rashad Jennings / Marcel Reece
We all know the drill by now with McFadden. If he can stay healthy he'd be a star, but every year he finds a way to miss games for one injury or another. Jennings or Reece don't inspire much confidence should McFadden go down, so let's hope McFadden has a career season in a contract year. Reece was great in place of McFadden last year, but he remains a fullback. McFadden is the only Oakland running back to draft, and if (when?) he gets hurt just see who fills in to add off the waiver wire.
Rushing downs split: 80/10/10 McFadden/Jennings/Reece
Passing downs split: 60/30/10 McFadden/Reece/Jennings
Goal-line split: 70/20/10 McFadden/Jennings/Reece
DeMarco Murray / Lance Dunbar / Joseph Randle / Phillip Tanner
The only reason for listing three guys behind Murray is the uncertainty surrounding the handcuff option, which is important given Murray's injury history. He's missed nine games over two seasons and has proven to be fragile to start his career. If he were to miss time, the initial thought was the Cowboys drafted Randle for that role, but Dunbar showed he was the early favorite in training camp. Then he sprained his foot, which has re-opened the door for Randle and Tanner. The only guy worth drafting here is Murray, and he should be great if healthy. That's a big if, however, given his track record.
Rushing downs split: 70/10/10/10 Murray
Passing downs split: 70/10/10/10 Murray
Goal-line split: 70/10/10/10 Murray
David Wilson / Michael Cox / Da'Rel Scott
The Giants must now find a backup running back behind Wilson after Andre Brown broke his leg in the final preseason game against the Patriots. Brown is likely out until at least Week 10, meaning Wilson will be a star. Behind him, at least to start the season, is a combination of Cox and Scott, and it's not very encouraging. We wouldn't draft Cox or Scott in any leagues, and the Giants will likely add another running back for depth. Wilson is the only one worth drafting, and he should be considered a high-end No. 2 Fantasy running back early in Round 3. He will handle every-down work, and we expect Wilson to have a breakout campaign.
Rushing downs split: 80/10/10 Wilson/Cox/Scott
Passing downs split: 80/10/10 Wilson/Cox/Scott
Goal-line split: 80/10/10 Wilson/Cox/Scott
LeSean McCoy / Bryce Brown
You've probably heard a lot about Chip Kelly's offense and how much they're going to run the ball. That's true. But this isn't Oregon, and the Eagles aren't going to be sitting on a lead late in games most weeks. McCoy is going to dominate touches, and he's undervalued in some regard going at No. 11 overall in Average Draft Position. I consider him a Top 5 running back. Brown is a good backup and a tremendous handcuff, but he's not going to keep McCoy on the sideline often. Chris Polk could also be in the mix, but he's not worth drafting.
Rushing downs split: 70/30 McCoy
Passing downs split: 70/30 McCoy
Goal-line split: 70/30 McCoy
Alfred Morris / Roy Helu
Morris was awesome last season and should continue to be a star. He's going to work on all rushing downs and be featured at the goal line. But in passing situations, Helu will be a factor this year after missing most of 2012 with a toe injury. He had 49 catches in 2011, and he could be around 40-plus receptions this year. He's the handcuff to Morris and worth a late-round flier in all leagues, especially PPR formats. You can forget about Evan Royster this season barring an injury.
Rushing downs split: 80/20 Morris
Passing downs split: 70/30 Helu
Goal-line split: 80/20 Morris
Matt Forte / Michael Bush
The addition of coach Marc Trestman is going to help Forte regain superstar status. He's worth drafting early in Round 2 in standard leagues, and he should be a first-round pick in PPR formats. The Bears might even keep Forte in near the goal line, which would only enhance his value. Bush is a good handcuff and also worth drafting in touchdown-only leagues. But barring an injury to Forte we're not expected to see Bush doing much heavy lifting this season.
Rushing downs split: 70/30 Forte
Passing downs split: 80/20 Forte
Goal-line split: 55/45 Bush
Reggie Bush / Joique Bell / Mikel Leshoure
We're giving Leshoure a token mention here based on name only, but he's fallen to third on the depth chart, which is disappointing. Bush could have a career year with the Lions if he runs like he did with the Dolphins the past two seasons and is used as a receiver like he was with the Saints to start his career. The latter is almost guaranteed since the Lions attempted 116 passes to Bell (68 targets) and Leshoure (48) last season, and they combined for 86 receptions. Bush is a better receiving threat than both. Bell is now the handcuff for Bush, and he's worth drafting with a late-round pick, especially in PPR formats.
Rushing downs split: 70/20/10 Bush/Bell/Leshoure
Passing downs split: 70/20/10 Bush/Bell/Leshoure
Goal-line split: 60/30/10 Bush/Bell/Leshoure
Adrian Peterson / Toby Gerhart
The only way Peterson is coming off the field is because of an injury. Otherwise he will dominate touches like he did last season compared to Gerhart with 388 (348 carries) to 70 (50 carries). Gerhart is only worth a late-round pick as a handcuff option.
Rushing downs split: 90/10 Peterson
Passing downs split: 90/10 Peterson
Goal-line split: 90/10 Peterson
Eddie Lacy / Johnathan Franklin / Alex Green
Lacy is trending up with DuJuan Harris (knee) out for the season and Franklin struggling. He has moved into No. 2 running back territory based on his opportunity, and he could dominate carries for an explosive offense. We'd take Lacy as early as Round 3. Franklin and Green are only worth late-round fliers, and Harris' injury also allows James Starks to remain relevant. And, of course, don't forget about John Kuhn , who could ruin a Fantasy week for a Packers running back when he steals an occasional touchdown.
Rushing downs split: 70/20/10 Lacy/Franklin/Green
Passing downs split: 40/30/30 Lacy/Green/Franklin
Goal-line split: 70/20/10 Lacy/Franklin/Green
Steven Jackson / Jacquizz Rodgers
The Falcons brought in Jackson to replace Michael Turner, and he gives Atlanta an every-down back, which relegates Rodgers to just a handcuff option. He will likely see action on some passing downs and to give Jackson a breather, but Jackson can do it all and has the chance for a big year. We consider Jackson a high-end No. 2 running back worth drafting in Round 2, and Rodgers is just a late-round flier.
Rushing downs split: 80/20 Jackson
Passing downs split: 70/30 Jackson
Goal-line split: 90/10 Jackson
DeAngelo Williams / Jonathan Stewart / Mike Tolbert
We're keeping Stewart second on the list because if he can return from the physically unable to perform list at 100 percent with his injured ankles he could play a prominent role. This backfield without Stewart is uninspiring, but Williams still has flex potential. Tolbert will also play a role, especially near the goal line, and the Panthers should try to involve speedy rookie Kenjon Barner as much as possible. Williams would be the only one worth drafting, but Tolbert did lead the Panthers in rushing touchdowns (seven) and catches (27) last year.
Rushing downs split: 50/40/10 Williams/Stewart/Tolbert
Passing downs split: 40/30/30 Tolbert/Stewart/Williams
Goal-line split: 40/30/30 Tolbert/Williams/Stewart
Darren Sproles / Mark Ingram / Pierre Thomas
This backfield is pretty cut and dry despite being a three-headed monster. Sproles plays on passing downs, which gives him an edge since the Saints are a pass-heavy team. He led the backfield with eight touchdowns last season (seven receiving) despite being fourth in carries behind Ingram, Thomas and Ivory. Ingram and Thomas have the chance for solid years this season and look like flex options. Ingram will handle rushing duties and should work at the goal line, and Thomas is the hybrid of the other two. We'd draft Sproles first (Round 4 in standard leagues, Round 3 in PPR), and Ingram and Thomas are worth mid-round picks.
Rushing downs split: 50/30/20 Ingram/Thomas/Sproles
Passing downs split: 60/30/10 Sproles/Thomas/Ingram
Goal-line split: 50/30/20 Ingram/Thomas/Sproles
Doug Martin / Mike James / Brian Leonard
Like Cleveland with Richardson, Tampa Bay would be in trouble if Martin went down. James and Leonard would likely share touches, but the Bucs are going to give Martin plenty of work in his sophomore campaign. He's a Top 5 overall pick in all leagues, but you don't have to draft his backup in most re-draft leagues. Should Martin go down, you can add either James or Leonard off the waiver wire depending on who is slated for more work.
Rushing downs split: 80/10/10 Martin/James/Leonard
Passing downs split: 70/20/10 Martin/Leonard/James
Goal-line split: 80/10/10 Martin/Leonard/James
Frank Gore / Kendall Hunter / LaMichael James
Gore, 30, is getting older and coming off consecutive seasons with a heavy workload after going to the NFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl in back to back years. It's troublesome, but there's one saving grace -- the 49ers have the best offensive line in the NFL. So even though the 49ers do a good job of limiting his carries (he only had five games with more than 20 carries and didn't have consecutive games with 20 carries until the playoffs) he's still effective in limited doses (11 games with double digits in Fantasy points in 2012). Hunter will take some carries from Gore, and James will work some on passing downs. But unless Gore gets hurt he's still a Top 20 Fantasy rusher.
Rushing downs split: 70/20/10 Gore/Hunter/James
Passing downs split: 50/30/20 Gore/James/Hunter
Goal-line split: 60/30/10 Gore/Hunter/James
Marshawn Lynch / Christine Michael / Robert Turbin
Lynch remains the featured option in this backfield, and he should be considered a Top 10 overall pick in standard leagues. In two years as the starter for Seattle he has scored 25 total touchdowns with more than 1,400 total yards in each season, and he could easily get 1,500 total yards and 10 touchdowns this year. Michael is the handcuff option, and he's worth a late-round flier. We'd only consider Turbin in deep PPR leagues, but you probably don't need to draft him, especially with Michael having a stellar preseason.
Rushing downs split: 70/20/10 Lynch/Michael/Turbin
Passing downs split: 50/30/20 Lynch/Turbin/Michael
Goal-line split: 80/10/10 Lynch/Michael/Turbin
Rashard Mendenhall / Ryan Williams / Stepfan Taylor
The only Cardinals running back worth drafting is Mendenhall. Coach Bruce Arians said he only likes one guy in the backfield, and based on his options in Arizona, we don't blame him. Williams can't stay healthy, and Taylor isn't ready. He could use Andre Ellington or Alfonso Smith , but Mendenhall will get plenty of work as long as he can stay healthy, which could also be a problem given his knee troubles. Mendenhall is a flex option in all leagues, and he's the only Cardinals running back to draft.
Rushing downs split: 80/10/10 Mendenhall/WilliamsTaylor
Passing downs split: 80/10/10 Mendenhall/Williams/Taylor
Goal-line split: 80/10/10 Mendenhall/Williams/Taylor
Daryl Richardson / Isaiah Pead / Zac Stacy
When training camp started this was a jumbled backfield with all three running backs having the chance to start, but Richardson has run away with the job. He's looked good, but the other two have looked equally as bad. Pead and Stacy will still play a role during the season, but Richardson is really the only one to target on Draft Day. He should be considered a flex option worth a pick beginning in Round 6 or 7.
Rushing downs split: 60/30/10 Richardson/Pead/Stacy
Passing downs split: 70/20/10 Richardson/Pead/Stacy
Goal-line split: 50/30/20 Richardson/Stacy/Pead
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