Predicting how a running back will do from week to week? Some are tougher than others. Predicting the workload for multiple backs on the same team in a given game? Again, some tandems are tougher than others -- especially since the flow of a game is usually the deciding factor.
Predicting which running backs will start where in 2015? Yep -- some are tougher than others, particularly if you try doing so right after the Super Bowl.
After setting up my initial early running back tiers and realizing a complete lack of depth, I talked myself into a small project: figuring out the starting running back on every team in 2015. Naturally, some teams have obvious choices while others probably don't have their starter on staff at this moment. But the NFL draft should fill some holes and free agency will also be an option.
The end result should be about half of the league with a bona fide starter and the other half with a multi-back approach.
Note: All salary cap figures are provided by OverTheCap.com as of Feb. 1, 2015
Follow the money
The first step in this process was to go through the salaries of every running back. Who's a free agent? Who's entering a contract year? Who's getting paid too much and will get cut?
Scheduled to be a free agent:
Bobby Rainey (restricted)
Matt Asiata (restricted)
Travaris Cadet (restricted)
Scheduled to enter a contract year:
Cut candidates (with cap space saved)
Adrian Peterson ($13M)
Marshawn Lynch ($7M)
Rashad Jennings ($2.25M post June 1)
Reggie Bush ($3.5M post June 1)
Steven Jackson ($3.75M)
LeGarrette Blount ($1M)
Fred Jackson ($2.6M)
Chris Johnson ($3.5M)
Shonn Greene ($3.4M)
Toby Gerhart ($3M)
DeAngelo Williams ($2M post June 1)
Pierre Thomas ($2.1M post June 1)
Mike Tolbert ($2.4M)
Follow the rookies
The 2015 draft isn't anything like the 2014 draft in terms of running back talent. That's a good thing. This year the position is well-stocked with very good players. Here's a glance at the backs who could work their way onto your Fantasy rosters.
Todd Gurley, Georgia: Gurley is the kind of home-run hitter that Chris Johnson used to be but in a bigger body with very good hands and quickness. You might think that whoever takes him is taking a chance because he tore his ACL in November, but when's the last time a torn ACL torpedoed a running back's career?
Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: It's a little bit by default but he's the most NFL-ready back in the draft. Gordon has excellent size and speed. He had some help from a very good offensive line in college but he does a lot of the little things that makes a running back great.
Tevin Coleman, Indiana: Big, physical, fast. He's not always a patient runner (bumps into his O-line and gets tackled in the backfield) and he runs tall but he has workhorse potential if he can scrape past a tandem situation sort of like Jeremy Hill did in 2014.
Duke Johnson, Miami (Fla.): Maybe a little undersized, Johnson is a very good fit as a back in a zone blocking offense, particularly one with West Coast principles because he can catch the ball. His burst is great but sometimes his vision isn't. Ultimately he's a tough, compact runner who can make defenders miss. He'll likely begin working in a tandem.
Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: Abdullah has good burst and could be a dynamo in a zone blocking scheme thanks to his terrific cutting ability. He's a little small and isn't the best blocker, so he might not ascend to an every-down role right away.
T.J. Yeldon, Alabama: The dude is a beast but it felt like he used his size to bully over college defenses, something that won't work as often in the pros. He has good speed, especially for his size, but isn't a burner like the rest of the guys in his rookie class.
Here are the running backs seemingly locked into their jobs for 2015:
Le'Veon Bell, Steelers: Pittsburgh will add another back to the mix -- it might need one to replace Bell if he starts the year on the suspended list. But he's not going anywhere.
Eddie Lacy, Packers: He's due roughly $2 million over the next two seasons. One of the best bargains out there.
Jamaal Charles, Chiefs: A manageable cap number ($8 million) keeps Charles in his situation with Kansas City.
Matt Forte, Bears: I'd expect a new deal for Forte as he counts for $9.2 million against the cap and is in a contract year. Then again, the Bears could move on from the 29-year-old Forte after this season by doing nothing and just giving him what's owed.
LeSean McCoy, Eagles: There's talk already of a restructuring since McCoy counts nearly $12 million against the cap. If they cut him they'd open up over $7.5 million in cap space but also create a hole in their offense. He'll be back, but there might be some financial finagling.
Arian Foster, Texans: People will be scared by the 11 games he missed over the last two seasons but when he's played, he's been awesome. The Texans can manage his nearly $9 million cap number, especially with Alfred Blue entrenched as his backup.
Jeremy Hill, Bengals: Sure, he'll share with Giovani Bernard, but Hill finished off last season as the de facto starter, getting 20-plus carries and 100-plus rush yards in three straight regular season games.
Andre Ellington, Cardinals: Good, cheap talent for a team that is in some trouble finding cap space (at least until they restructure Larry Fitzgerald). He'll get a hand from someone else but Ellington should still be the main running back.
Lamar Miller, Dolphins: Miller is entering a contract year and the Dolphins are snug against the salary cap. Figure he stays as Miami's starter.
Joique Bell, Lions: His strong finish to the year should clinch him at least the same role he had in 2014. He'll end up splitting with somebody but his job -- and scoring opportunities -- shouldn't shift.
Alfred Morris, Redskins: He's too inexpensive to throw off the roster and nobody will give up a ton in trade for him. His yardage has declined every season but beginning next season squeezing as much out of Morris as possible is a good play for Washington.
The should-be locks
Here are the running backs who should be locked into starting jobs in 2015, but sometimes weird things happen:
C.J. Anderson, Broncos: The Odell Beckham of running backs, Anderson finished last year with exceptional work. There's nary a reason to think he won't be given the same chance, but Ronnie Hillman and Montee Ball will still be on the roster. You never know with Gary Kubiak.
Carlos Hyde, 49ers: Frank Gore might end up staying with the 49ers when it's all said and done, but Hyde's time is coming. The former Buckeye had just 83 carries and 12 catches last year and should be in for a major up-tick of work in 2015.
Jonathan Stewart, Panthers: Carolina can balance its books by refreshing the running back corps and dumping Mike Tolbert ($3.4 million cap number) and DeAngelo Williams ($6.3 million). Stewart's cap number is more than both ($8.3 million) but he provided the spark the team needed to push into two playoff games.
Latavius Murray, Raiders: New Raiders offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave has already talked up Murray as the back who can fit into his offense. It wouldn't be a surprise to see him in a training camp competition, but as of now there's nobody in Oakland who should start ahead of Murray.
Tre Mason, Rams: St. Louis hasn't had a steady starter in the backfield since Steven Jackson left. Last year's penciled-in starter, Zac Stacy, fizzled pretty fast, and there's worry that Mason could end up fading similarly. But the Rams are in a cap pinch and probably won't make a splash for another back.
Doug Martin, Buccaneers: True, he did nothing to suggest he can rebound in 2015, and the team reportedly tried to trade him, but he has a cap number at $2.1 million and is entering a contract year. He should be the odds-on favorite to start when camp opens.
Here are the running backs currently on rosters that should be headed for Splitsville in 2015:
Andre Williams, Rashad Jennings, Giants: Jennings could be shed as a post-June 1 cut, saving the Giants $2.25 million of cap space, but the Giants seem fairly happy with his contributions last season. Doesn't mean they won't replace him, though -- the draft might bring someone to replace Jennings, which is why Williams is the preferred Fantasy back at this point.
Isaiah Crowell, Terrance West, Browns: It wouldn't be a surprise to see the Browns dangle West in a trade this offseason since there seemed to be a lot of interest in him last May. But both are inexpensive talents who could work as a duo once again.
LeGarrette Blount, Jonas Gray, James White, Patriots: The Patriots have long figured out that they don't have to spend a lot of cap space on running backs. With Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen coming off the books this spring, they'll have even less.
The free agents
We've covered 20 teams worth of running backs. That means there are still 12 jobs open. Some of those jobs will be taken by free agents who are just too good to be not in the mix at running back. Here's my best guess (and strictly guesses) where they'll end up.
DeMarco Murray to the Cowboys: No one's going to offer more
money to Murray than the Cowboys, who already offered him a
four-year, $16 million deal before his smash campaign.
Dallas' salary cap situation isn't great, especially since they'll have
to franchise Dez Bryant, but they'll
re-do Tony Romo's $27 million cap number
for 2015 and dump Henry Melton to save
nearly $8.5 million to get Bryant and Murray in the fold.
Predicted deal: Four years, $25 million with $17 million guaranteed
Mark Ingram to the Saints: Can anyone see a huge market
opening up for Ingram? He was great last season but was it because he
matured or because he was motivated to keep working in the NFL? Plus
there were still red flags -- he got hurt and missed three games, his
rushing average declined, and even though he had a career-high in
20-plus-yard plays, it was only five. He might likely return on a short,
team-friendly deal and be in a split situation with Khiry Robinson and a pass-catching back.
Predicted deal: One year, $3.25 million guaranteed
Ryan Mathews to the Titans: Last year's Tennessee team was
awful running the ball. Bishop Sankey
didn't do much with the limited chances he had and the rest of their
crew was mostly underwhelming. Enter Mathews, who had his most
successful season with Ken Whisenhunt as his offensive coordinator in
San Diego. While other coaches might remember Mathews for the wrong
reasons, Whis may remember Mathews for the right ones. Perhaps Mathews
will push Sankey for the starting job and ultimately contribute to the
Titans run game.
Predicted deal: Two years, $6.5 million with $4 million guaranteed
Justin Forsett to the Ravens: Gary Kubiak might be gone to
Denver but Forsett proved his worth to Baltimore last year. This isn't
to suggest he'll be back in a spot where he'll get 235 carries and 44
catches, but merely help contribute to a tandem. Forsett turns 30 in
October but has just 630 career carries, so it wouldn't be surprising to
see him work in a part-time role.
Predicted deal: One year, $2.5 million guaranteed
Shane Vereen to the Chargers: The hunch is that Ryan Mathews isn't re-signed and Danny Woodhead becomes a contender for a release since he's due $2.5
million, $1.5 million of which can be reclaimed in cap space as a
post-June 1 cut. Vereen was the replacement for Woodhead in New England
and could fill in just as easily with the Chargers as a part-time
player, bringing him back to Southern California, where he grew up.
Predicted deal: Three years, $12 million with $8.5 million guaranteed
C.J. Spiller to the Jets: Gang Green has cap space and an
offensive coordinator who originally reached for Spiller with the ninth
overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft (only one running back has been taken
higher since then). Chris Johnson is a
mistake they can correct while saving over $3 million against the cap.
They might get Spiller for less and let him work with Chris Ivory in their backfield.
Predicted deal: Two years, $8 million with $5.5 million guaranteed
Stevan Ridley to the Jaguars: You might not expect a lot of
suitors for Ridley, but chances are several teams will take a chance on
him at a very cheap price. One team that might pay a little bit more for
his services is Jacksonville, who can seemingly upgrade from Toby Gerhart and save a little cash in the process. In Jacksonville,
Ridley wouldn't come close to being an every-down back -- more like a
Predicted deal: One year, $1.5 million guaranteed with bonuses for games played
Roy Helu to the Falcons: Kyle Shanahan is taking over the
Atlanta offense, which means a lot of zone blocking scheme runs.
Shanahan was with Washington when they drafted Helu in 2011 and he knows
he can work in that system. But the real story here is that Helu is
going to work in a split situation no matter where he goes, and if he
were to reunite with Shanny in Atlanta, he'd do so working behind
projected starter Devonta Freeman, who
is a terrific fit for Shanahan's run plan.
Predicted deal: Two years, $4 million
It's considered taboo to take a running back in the first round, but there are two worthy of being potential first-round picks, along with others who will get taken within the first 100 picks. Here are some fun thoughts on where rookies might end up.
Todd Gurley to the Jaguars (36th overall): Denard Robinson did a nice job in a pinch last season, but faded fast. Toby Gerhart was an expensive whiff. This pick should lock up the Jacksonville backfield for a long time, not to mention giving the team a reliable option to help offset the learning curve of Blake Bortles -- once he's cleared for action.
Melvin Gordon to the Vikings (45th overall): With their early second-round pick the Vikings can make an investment for the future. Gordon could immediately find himself starting, but splitting work with the likes of Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata.
Tevin Coleman to the Bills (81st overall): He's big, strong, tough and has some speed. He's the perfect kind of back for Rex Ryan to grind into the dirt game after game, starting right away with Fred Jackson still having a role.
Duke Johnson to the Redskins (103rd overall): I'm thinking Jay Gruden might see some similar qualities in Johnson that he might have seen in Giovani Bernard back in the day. Johnson would provide immediate depth for Washington and could be groomed to replace Morris after the season.
What about Adrian Peterson?!
The Vikings can't be serious about holding on to Peterson since the team can salvage $13 million of cap space by letting him go. And Peterson has already said that he's not interested in reducing his salary. The argument is even easier when you consider the track record of older running backs with lots of touches already behind them (Peterson turns 30 in March and has 2,147 carries and 212 catches).
I'm not sure if the Vikings will kick him to the proverbial curb or tell him to shop around. If they tell him to shop around then my guess is that he returns to Minnesota on a cheaper deal. If they don't, he'll still draw attention from other teams, even if it's as a short-term fix. All of those teams would take Peterson at a bargain rate, but it's the teams with a lot of cap space who might splurge a little bit.
The one team that has a ton of cap room -- which is needed to lure Peterson -- and has a legitimate shot at the playoffs, which could be a requirement, is Indianapolis.
We saw the Colts once try and make a splash at running back by dropping a first-round pick on Trent Richardson. That went about as well as a Herman's Hermits cover band at a junior high school dance. But signing Peterson doesn't involve trades or mortgaging the future, and it probably wouldn't hinder the Colts from giving Andrew Luck a contract extension that will make him the highest paid player in football. Figure $6 million to $7 million per year for Peterson.
It also gives Peterson a small-market environment to rehab his image, not to mention a contending team that should open up lanes for him because defenses won't stack the box against Luck week after week.
So while a team with a familiar offensive coordinator like the Raiders might also bid for Peterson's services, chances are the allure for playing with a contender will win out. It's a guess -- but a fun one to think about.
What about Marshawn Lynch?!
The Seahawks are in an interesting situation. Marshawn Lynch counts $8.5 million against the cap. He turns 29 in late April and has 2,220 career carries and 249 career catches (including 709 carries and 79 catches over the last two seasons). Much has been made about Lynch's future -- everything from the Seahawks cutting him in an effort to reclaim cap space to Lynch being unhappy with the team to the point where he's reportedly considering retirement.
The hunch is that Lynch won't retire because several teams would probably be interested in paying him some pretty good cash ($6 million per year?). Why would he leave that on the table?
But Lynch shouldn't want to play for a losing team like his hometown Raiders, or ex-Seahawks coach Gus Bradley's Jaguars. The team most likely to fit Lynch is the one that's been a fit for him for years. Even if the price tag is steep for an older back, Lynch should continue to play at a high level for a while. Figure the Seahawks will keep him happy, letting him play out his contract at $7 million this season at the very least. He's been worth it and, believe it or not, could continue to pay dividends in 2015.