Every year we look for a running back that can emerge from nowhere and be a Top-12 option at year’s end. One of the major issues I encounter when talking with fantasy owners is the tendency to be fairly myopic when evaluating this specific position. The idea that a player is/isn’t good seems to be the main factor when owners chase running back talent. However—especially at this position—this couldn’t be further from the truth. I generally discuss the idea of looking at each factor as a variable in an equation that we hope equals fantasy success. You can draw a fairly straight line between outstanding situations and backups that have come in and found success with a regular work load. This isn’t a fluke. This is largely because talent, while incredibly important, is only one factor that owners should look at when trying to land that ever-elusive late-round lottery ticket running back.
Running back, perhaps more than any other relevant fantasy position, is as dependent on situation as anything else. Situation often leads to opportunity, and in fantasy football, opportunity is the most valuable commodity. Fantasy owners need to ask themselves a whole host of questions before throwing those later round darts in an effort to mitigate as much risk as possible:
1) What is the depth chart ahead of a player like? Is there an abundance of talented runners ahead of a player, and what skills do those players possess? Does your player have any traits that might make him a strong bet to play on 3rd downs or in short yardage?
2) What kind of offense is the player going to be involved in? If the team is regularly in the top of rushing attempts, you can probably bet that a variance of any significant degree is unlikely.
3) What kind of tie does the running back have to the team as it is currently constructed? Did the current coaching staff hand pick this player or is he a hold-over. If you think that last piece is unimportant, simply fire up some of the Indianapolis Colts recent game tape where Trent Richardson was given every opportunity to continue running up the backs of his offensive lineman. While a tie to a coaching staff may seem trivial—it isn’t. That little bit of extra work is opportunity, and opportunity is often the difference between success and failure in the NFL.
4) What is the current state of the team’s offensive line? We saw Darren McFadden have a career year behind that mauling Dallas Cowboy line. Conversely, we saw DeMarco Murray lay an absolute egg when he headed to the Philadelphia Eagles and their far inferior offensive line. As a Seahawks fan I remember vividly what happened after Shaun Alexander received his massive pay day, and his offensive line pieces subsequently began being sniped by other teams. He was truly awful. If you buy into this offensive line theory, then you likely have Ezekiel Elliot as a top overall player in re-draft leagues–as I do. Look around the league at the terrible offensive line units and try to find three running backs that are appealing when running behind them. It’s not easy to do.
5) Who is the quarterback? While the position that effectively can take opportunity away from a running back may seem like a weird one to evaluate when looking for the lottery running back, it’s imperative for several reasons—not the least of which is that if the quarterback stinks the defense doesn’t really have to account for them. A healthy dose of stacked boxes is almost impossible for a running back to overcome (outside of the most elite runners a la Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles types). You want the quarterback to be a competent player that forces defenses to respect him and the threat of a passing game.
6) Can he catch? Will he be given the opportunity to catch? A running back who leaves the field when a team “may” be passing sees a massive drop in value. As such, running backs with decent hands become much more valuable in both PPR and standard leagues. Receptions are simply another form of opportunity, and if your running back is strong running routes out of the backfield, it’s more likely than not that he will be matched up with an athletically inferior linebacker. The result is often a chunk play that often rewards owners with the same amount of points that they would have gotten with multiple rushes on a single play.
7) What’s he cost? It’s easy to get caught up in the “real” NFL portion when we are putting together our lists. Skills, situation, and surroundings are imperative. That said, none of these matter if the players price, or Average Draft Position (ADP) is far too rich. Every player has a line that they reach where they are both a value and a risk. Investing significant draft capital in players that at the very best may be a recipe for disaster. Don’t let your love of a significant player cause you to overpay. I try and enter every draft with tiers or a tailored pricing guide so that I have a ceiling on values for every player I may consider drafting. Overpaying for a running back is the quickest way to create deficiencies at other positions. And if last season taught us anything, it’s that the beating the running backs take lead to injuries, and others will step up and fill the position.
These are a few of the factors I consider when looking at taking running backs that aren’t “sure things” (as much any runner can be a sure thing). Below are a few names of running backs I am monitoring this offseason, along with a short description about why.
C.J. Prosise | Seattle Seahawks
Prosise was a 3rd round pick for the Seahawks in this year’s draft, and was among three running backs they selected during the 2016 NFL draft. If a team tells you what they really think with their draft strategy, then fantasy owners couldn’t have received a clearer message from the team about Thomas Rawls and his recovery. While Rawls was outstanding in limited work last year, it was just that, limited work. Add that to his ankle injury, of which the severity has been very poorly reported, and you have a player just learning the position that has the build of an every down back in Prosise. At worst he’s going to dominate the pass catching role in Seattle’s backfield. At his ceiling, he will eventually prove he is the heir apparent to Marshawn Lynch and go on to lead one of the most productive backfields in the league in touches.
Wendell Smallwood | Philadelphia Eagles
A slight runner out of West Virginia, Smallwood landed in a great situation. The Eagles took him in the first draft of the new coaching regime and the team looks set up to be throw a ton this season. If you squint your eyes when looking at Smallwood, you can see a situation where he leads this team in carries. Ryan Mathews has struggled to stay healthy, and the idea that Philadelphia is going to willingly give Mathews 250+ touches would seem like a recipe for collar-bone disaster. Smallwood doesn’t have a history of flashy or jaw-dropping plays, but he is an incredibly productive running back. If he can add a little weight in the offseason it wouldn’t be a surprise to seem him start the year as a legit change of pace runner in that offense. And should Mathews suffer an injury, it’s absolutely possible that Smallwood takes that job and runs with it.
Keith Marshall | Washington
It wasn’t that long ago that Marshall was a higher rated prospect than Todd Gurley. A knee injury and a mediocre college season later, Marshall found himself a 7th round pick of Washington in the 2016 draft. The two things that Marshall has going for him are the fact that he is still an incredibly electric athlete (his combine metrics were among the best in the class), and the fact that Washington has hitched it’s wagon to a second-year player in Matt Jones that had some real issues with ball security and overall effectiveness last season. Bottom line, Jones was not a very good player for large stretches last season. When he did seem to make a “splash play,” he often punctuated it by coughing up the football. While a late round or UDFA player leading a team in carries seems like a stretch to some, we need only look at the recent NFL data to see it happens much more often than we realize. In fact, his team did it only 3 seasons ago with the recently jettisoned Alfred Morris. Don’t forget that in his freshman season, Marshall had 850 yards and 9 TDs from scrimmage on only 128 total touches. The talent is absolutely there.
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