Offseason Extra: Early 2015 RB Tiers & Strategies

Looking to 2015: QB tiers & strategies | Richard Top 12 | Eisenberg Top 12

In case you needed confirmation about how thin the running back position has become, Andre Williams, Chris Ivory, Tre Mason and Fred Jackson all finished as Top 24 Fantasy running backs.

Those names. Top 24.

Yep.

They all finished with less than 125 Fantasy points on the season, too. That means they averaged less than 10 Fantasy points per game with three of them averaging less than eight Fantasy points per game (Mason averaged 9.25 since he didn't play at the beginning of the year).

NFL coaches don't care about Fantasy Football. They aren't interested in making things easier for us. Instead of just using one running back as much as possible, their focus is on sharing responsibilities and letting game flow dictate how many touches their backs get from game to game. It's become a guessing game of not just who will get the ball, but who will get the ball in a given situation.

And it could get worse. More teams will shy away from paying big money to running backs and leave themselves in a situation where multiple people pitch in to get a job done. More tandems and groupthinks at running back -- more headaches for Fantasy owners.

11,736

The total number of running back carries in 2014, representing 35.8 percent of all plays from the just-finished season. It's the fewest amount since 2001, when the league had 31 teams.

48,425

The total rushing yardage by running backs in 2014, the fewest amount since that same 2001 season.

324

The total number of rushing touchdowns by running backs in 2014, tied for the lowest amount since, you guessed it, 2001. The high? 418 in 2008.

13

The total number of 1,000-yard rushers in 2014. Same number as 2013, and 10 fewer than what we saw in 2006.

19

The total number of running backs with over 1,000 yards from scrimmage in 2014. That number was 25 in 2013.

13.2

The average number of Fantasy points per game scored by the Top 12 running backs in 2014 (standard scoring), about the exact same as 2013.

16

The number of running backs that averaged 10-plus Fantasy points per game regardless of games played. Eight averaged less than 12.0 points per game and included players like Ahmad Bradshaw, Andre Ellington and Giovani Bernard. This number was 19 in 2013.

13

That's the number of running backs with at least 250 touches in 2014. That number was 18 in 2013.

Conclusion

The position is dwindling, a problem for us Fantasy sickos. We need to feel good about the running backs we start each week and there just aren't enough to go around. It adds a premium to the position we always knew existed but are just now confronting frantically. It's not to say that you'll get into your drafts and not find running backs to pick. They'll be there. It'll just be guys you'd rather see on other teams, but a lack of depth will draw you to them.

If there's a silver lining, it's that the 2015 NFL Draft class is full of promising running backs, just as the 2014 draft class was loaded at receiver.

Kicking it into another tier

It's never pretty to see 12 names spread across three tiers. Even worse, we don't get to the 20th running back until the sixth tier. But these are the names we're given and the running backs to evaluate. The good news is that when the time comes to really start building these tiers (once everyone is drafted), we'll have more meat in the first three and four tiers. At least, that's the hope.

2015 running back tiers
Round 1 Rounds 1, 2 Round 3 Round 4
Le'Veon Bell LeSean McCoy Andre Ellington Joique Bell
Jamaal Charles Arian Foster Adrian Peterson Alfred Morris
Eddie Lacy C.J. Anderson Lamar Miller Carlos Hyde
DeMarco Murray Marshawn Lynch    
Matt Forte Jeremy Hill    
Rounds 5, 6 Rounds 6, 7 Rounds 7, 8 Round 9/backups
Jonathan Stewart Isaiah Crowell Bishop Sankey Stevan Ridley
Latavius Murray Devonta Freeman Frank Gore Robert Turbin
Mark Ingram Jonas Gray Lorenzo Taliaferro Knile Davis
Andre Williams Jerick McKinnon C.J. Spiller Rashad Jennings
Tre Mason Denard Robinson Christine Michael Reggie Bush
Doug Martin Justin Forsett Terrance West Alfred Blue
  Dan Herron Ryan Mathews Joseph Randle
  Giovani Bernard   Ronnie Hillman

Tier Q&A

Jamaal Charles ahead of Eddie Lacy, eh? I don't blame you for asking, and frankly I'm kind of on your side. Lacy, it seems, is good for 15 games per year and has proven to be a reliable every-down back. He's also nice and young. Charles is getting older, took on some injuries this season and might lose work to Knile Davis next year. I just can't shake Lacy's injury track record and I fully expect the Chiefs offensive line to get better next year. Plus it's not like Charles won't be effective when he's actually on the field -- he was good for a quality Fantasy game in eight of 11 games with at least 14 touches.

I will never draft LeSean McCoy again. That's not a question, but more of a frustrated statement. You're wondering why he's still a Top 12 running back? Simple: it's based on the premise that the Eagles will at least stabilize their offense, mainly by adding depth to the offensive line, another speedy receiver on the outside and a quarterback who will scare defenses a little bit more. The Eagles never shied away from using McCoy -- the 340 touches he had in 2014 were just 26 off of what was ordered of him in 2013. What really stung was seeing Darren Sproles and Chris Polk combine for 10 touchdowns. McCoy should still be a big part of the Eagles offense and has typically rebounded from less-than-ideal seasons in the past.

I got burned drafting Montee Ball last year, why should I draft another Broncos running back with a Top 10-20 pick this year? How about because C.J. Anderson is good? Last year we made a lot of projections with Ball based on his rookie-year stats (which weren't bad), role next to Peyton Manning and situation. He was given an opportunity but stunk and then got hurt early on. Anderson has since replaced him and has proven to be the better back. The concern is that Anderson won't quite average the 21.3 carries and 3.7 catches per start he had this season. Backing him up with Ronnie Hillman (for now) makes him easier to trust.

Adrian Peterson is worth only a third-round pick? OR Wow, Adrian Peterson is worth a third-round pick?! I think there will be a market for Peterson, presuming the Vikings release him and that he's reinstated in April. He'll be 30 when training camp opens and has 2,147 career carries and 212 career catches -- numbers that suggest he's ripe for a breakdown. But a year off of playing football could have saved him from a certain decline in 2015, plus he's always been a unique physical talent. So long as he's in a place where he'll average 20 touches per game, Peterson is worth taking a chance on after the 25th pick in a Fantasy draft.

Why is DeMarco Murray considered a first-round pick? He's about to land a new contract and is coming off an 18- game, 436-carry, 61-catch campaign? Yep, seems like Murray is a definite candidate to decline, if not bust completely. But let's not confuse him with Darren McFadden or Ryan Mathews or every other running back who misses tons of games year after year. Murray has missed 11 games over his first three seasons but still managed to put up some good-to-great numbers (He had over 1,400 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2013, for instance). And if he stays in Dallas he'll still run behind what has become the very best offensive line in the league. So long as the Cowboys stay committed to him, the best plan is to land Murray's real-life backup in the middle of the draft and keep a grip on the Dallas run game.

When do running backs start to go from "reliable" to "risky"? I'd say the sixth tier, which should equate to running backs getting picked between Rounds 7 and 8. These are basically the backs who have all kinds of potential but could just as easily be out of a job by August, much less October. Guys with light grips on starting jobs like Jerick McKinnon, Doug Martin, Andre Williams, Tre Mason and Isaiah Crowell.

I hate what I am reading. Could I get away with not drafting running backs early on? A lot of people swore by the "Zero RB" strategy last season and probably only benefitted from it with mid-round choices like Lamar Miller, Jeremy Hill and Mark Ingram along with quality waiver pickups of Justin Forsett, C.J. Anderson, Ahmad Bradshaw and others filling in along the way. Here's the deal: I fully expect a number of rookie rushers and maybe two or three veterans to work their way up the tiers between now and August, adding depth that would make waiting for a running back worthwhile. But if there isn't as much movement as I think there will be, you're looking at some really nerve-racking names by the time you're up in Round 4 or 5. I still would draft one back within my first two picks, then spend a lot of the middle of my draft on running backs with early-season potential. Basically the young running backs who seem to have a shot at getting some good work on a weekly basis. It's the half-pregnant approach to "Zero RB" ... maybe call it "One RB." Original name, huh? Whatever, I like that strategy better than ignoring the position early on, especially with receivers being so deep.

Touching a sensitive subject

As mentioned before, not a lot of running backs are getting the touches necessary to be reliable Fantasy backs. That's too bad because there's a pretty obvious correlation -- the more touches a back gets, the more Fantasy points he typically delivers.

Touches lead to trophies
2014 RB workload Finished Success rate
300+ touches (5) Top 12: 4 Top 24: 1 100 pct.
275-299 touches (4) Top 12: 4 Top 24: 0 100 pct.
250-274 touches (4) Top 12: 1 Top 24: 3 100 pct.
225-249 touches (4) Top 12: 2 Top 24: 2 100 pct.
200-224 touches (7) Top 12: 1 Top 24: 6 100 pct.
175-199 touches (8) Top 12: 0 Top 24: 1 12.5 pct.
150-174 touches (4) Top 12: 0 Top 24: 0 0 pct.

A trend has continued from last year. In 2013, 21 of 24 running backs with 200 or more touches finished in the Top 24. This year the only back to finish in the Top 24 and not get 200 touches is Tre Mason, who had 195. Also, you'll note that there are actually 25 running backs accounted for in the Top 24. How could that be? Well, Fred Jackson and Jonathan Stewart tied for the 24th-most Fantasy points among running backs.

This is your annual reminder to draft touches. You will obviously go after running backs with huge potential for stats first. Once those guys are gone, which will be soon in drafts, your focus should squarely be on backs with 200 -touch potential through the season.

Turnover talk

The general rule of thumb is that half of the Top 12 running backs picked in a given year underperform, and half of the running backs that finish as Top 12 options peeter out the following year. Did that happen this year?

Top 12 running backs from 2013 and how they did in 2014:

Jamaal Charles -- delivered
LeSean McCoy -- underperformed
Matt Forte -- delivered
Marshawn Lynch -- delivered
Knowshon Moreno -- underperformed
Eddie Lacy -- delivered
Adrian Peterson -- underperformed
DeMarco Murray -- delivered
Chris Johnson -- underperformed
Ryan Mathews -- underperformed
Fred Jackson -- underperformed
Reggie Bush -- underperformed

Lots of turnover from 2013 to 2014, of course. A lot of these guys were predictably disappointing, specifically Moreno, Johnson and Jackson. Peterson underperformed for off-the-field reasons, not on. Something to keep in mind when evaluating him in 2015.

Top 12 highest-drafted running backs in the summer of 2014 and how they did in 2014: LeSean McCoy - underperformed
Jamaal Charles -- delivered
Adrian Peterson -- underperformed
Matt Forte -- delivered
Eddie Lacy -- delivered
DeMarco Murray -- delivered
Montee Ball -- underperformed
Marshawn Lynch -- delivered
Giovani Bernard -- underperformed
Doug Martin -- underperformed
Alfred Morris -- technically delivered
Arian Foster -- delivered

So six backs delivered numbers that Fantasy owners were happy with. One back technically delivered though Morris was considered a disappointment even though he was a Top 12 rusher. Everyone else made us sad.

Here's the list of the Top 12 running backs from 2014. Which ones are locks to be great again in 2015 and which ones will fade? That's what the next few months are all about.

DeMarco Murray
Le'Veon Bell
Marshawn Lynch
Matt Forte
Arian Foster
Eddie Lacy
Jamaal Charles
Justin Forsett
Lamar Miller
Jeremy Hill
C.J. Anderson
Alfred Morris

Senior Fantasy Writer

Dave Richard has spent nearly his entire career covering the National Football League. Beginning with NFL.com at the boom of the Internet, Richard was that site's first Fantasy Football writer before transitioning... Full Bio

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