Carlos Hyde, San Francisco 49ers (rookie)
The 49ers have already discussed trimming the workload of veteran Frank Gore, who’s going on 32 years of age and logged more than 2,000 carries over a 9-year career.
Hyde fits the mold of the kind of running San Francisco is known for. Well-built at 6’0, 236 lbs, he’s a hard-nosed back who runs downhill and will be a great short yardage commodity (think touchdowns in red zone) for San Fran.
The 49ers’ offensive line hasn’t changed too drastically, however they will in all likelihood have a new center in Daniel Kilgore, whose 26 years old. They also have Adam Snyder replacing Alex Boone at right guard.
Fred Jackson, Buffalo Bills
Fred Jackson rushed for 900 yards last season in a run-based offense. More importantly, he scored nine touchdowns.
They also have Bryce Brown, who was involved in the Eagles offense in spurts from 2012-13 and posted a few 100-yard games during his tenure there.
While C.J. Spiller is the clear No. 1 guy, Jackson and Brown should be looked at as handcuff options because of the Bills’ run heavy offense.
Stepfan Taylor, Arizona Cardinals
Former No. 1 running back Rashard Mendenhall retired last spring, which opened the door for another impact running back in Arizona.
Andre Ellington sits atop the depth chart after a stellar rookie season where he rushed for 652 yards on just 118 carries (5.5 yards per carry). But at 5’9, 199 lbs, it’s uncertain whether he can bear the brunt of a 260-280 carry workload in the NFL. He also only managed three touchdowns, which leaves some doubt on his short yardage capabilities as well.
Taylor isn’t the most talented backup running back in the league, but Cardinals offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin showed a tendency to go committee-style when it comes to running backs, so there may be opportunities there. We’re digging a bit deep on this one and it’s not a sure thing, but it’s something to contemplate if you’re in an especially deep league.
Bernard Pierce, Baltimore Ravens
Ray Rice was suspended for two games a few weeks ago, which gives Pierce the starting nod for the team’s Week 1 and 2 matchups against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
Pierce had less than 500 rushing yards last year on 152 carries, which amounted to a lackluster 2.9 yards per carry average. He’s by no means an explosive back, but since he’ll be thrown into the fire for the first few games of the season, he’s worth keeping on your roster during that time especially if you draft Rice.
The Ravens were below average on the offensive line last season, which contributed to Rice and Pierce’s struggles as well. They got rid of liability Michael Oher and replaced him with 24-yer-old Rich Wagner from Wisconsin. There’s still a lot of uncertainty with the offensive line overall, so this isn’t a fruitful handcuff option, but it’s a necessity due to Rice’s suspension.
Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons (rookie)
A fourth-round draft pick out of Florida St., Freeman finds himself in one of the best possible situations in Atlanta. A solid pass protector, Freeman will be valued in Atlanta’s pass-heavy offense. The Falcons invested a ton in protecting franchise QB Matt Ryan, as they drafted tackle Jake Matthews at No. 6 overall in the 2014 draft.
Freeman only ran a 4.58 40 at the combine, but he makes up for a lack of speed with his decisiveness. He reads blocks very well and is an immediate upgrade over current backup Jacquizz Rodgers.
But the reason for Freeman’s upside is due to the Falcons current No.1 RB Steven Jackson. Jackson is coming off a career-worst 3.5 yards per carry average in 2013 and just turned 31 in July. It’s likely he’ll be delegated to a lesser role in the offense while Atlanta utilizes Freeman’s pass protection abilities to help Atlanta’s fantastic receiving core of Julio Jones and Roddy White tear up the field.
Darren Sproles, Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles are clearly set on keeping LeSean McCoy as their workhorse back and Sproles is well past his prime at 31 years old, but his versatility makes him an interesting No. 2 option.
He returns punts, kicks and can catch the ball out of the backfield. Philadelphia is primarily a run team, so Sproles is expected to see anywhere from 6-8 touches per game. There’s not a ton of upside to drafting Sproles in redraft leagues since his role is just not that substantial, but his catching ability still gives him value in deep PPR leagues.