Now that Free Agency Frenzy has settled down these past several weeks, all fantasy football owners are eyeing the NFL Draft which will be held April 27-29 as the last true roster shakeup before OTA’s begin shortly thereafter. Of course, the total unknown for us fantasy owners is where will the well-known and most celebrated skill position players land when those 3 days are over. And this is where yours truly, the resident arm-chair GM comes in, to guide you through these series of articles that will try to surmise where the best fantasy football fit will be for those players for the upcoming season.
Leonard Fournette | RB
New York Jets- Drafting in the 6th spot, they can go a myriad of directions, but there’s a chance Fournette could be on their radar as part of their rebuilding plan. Matt Forte, who is 30 years old, and Bilal Powell are both essentially finesse running backs and the Jets need a power back to control the clock and be the foundation of their offense since the quarterback position is in flux going into the 2017 season.
Carolina Panthers- With the recent news of Cam Newton’s surgery to repair a partially torn right rotator cuff, it would seem to make logical sense for GM Dave Gettleman to strengthen the running game and draft Fournette with the 8th pick. Although Jonathan Stewart did receive a 1-year contract extension, he is 30 years old, has a well-known injury history, and the primary backups are Fozzy Whittaker and Cameron Artis-Payne. Fournette would bolster the ground game by being the short-yardage and goal line back instead of Newton.
Jacksonville Jaguars- On the surface it wouldn’t seem that the Jags would have any interest in Fournette since they did add Chris Ivory as a free agent last season, but new Director of Football Operations, Tom Coughlin, wants this offense to be more physical, bruising, and smash-mouth and they could believe that Fournette fits the profile more than Ivory. TJ Yeldon will remain the 3rd down, change-of-pace back for Jacksonville. Now, where does this leave Ivory in this possible scenario? A trade or outright release are two options the Jaguars may be open to.
Dalvin Cook | RB
Green Bay Packers- The Packers has startlingly little depth at the RB position and perhaps this is the year GM Ted Thompson decides to draft a multi-faceted running back with the 29th pick which will compliment Aaron Rodgers’ potent offense. Ty Montgomery, who spent the last half of the season in the backfield, will go into 2017 as a full-time running back but no one expects him to handle a full load and the recently re-signed Christine Michael, who always teases his ability, but rarely does it show up in a consistent manner. They are the only running backs under contract for Green Bay, therefore, adding Cook’s ability to play all 3-downs would be an invaluable asset to their offense in the long run. But first, he needs to master pass blocking or he’ll never get on the field.
Washington Redskins- At the 17th drafting slot, it may see a little bit of a reach for them to take Cook, but he has a chance to get opportunities immediately since the team hasn’t been given incumbent Robert Kelley the stamp of approval and named him the starting running back. Matt Jones, the other running back who did start the season, may be released or traded to make room for a rookie running back (like Cook perhaps). There will be a new look at the wide receiver position since both Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson left via free agency but replaced them with Terrelle Pryor and Brian Quick but they may need a consistent running game early in the season before the new targets get acclimated to Kirk Cousins and the Washington offense and that’s where Dalvin Cook can be very useful in controlling the clock or being an outlet in the passing game. Washington could use some playmaking/explosiveness in the backfield and Cook fits the bill nicely.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers- With the 4-game suspension of Doug Martin to begin the season, Tampa might be in the market for another younger, cheaper running back and Cook may be the answer. Yes, yes, I know that they re-signed Jacquizz Rodgers and Charles Sims is still on the roster, but Dalvin Cook has the versatility to be on the field for all 3 downs and perhaps he can be Tampa’s consistent running game to go along with Jameis Winston, Mike Evans, Cameron Brate, and newly acquired DeSean Jackson and be a more diverse and explosive offense.
Christian McCaffrey | RB
Philadelphia Eagles- Let’s make no mistake about it: The Eagles running game needs an infusion of talent, toughness, and quickness to help the development of their second-year quarterback, Carson Wentz. Since the Eagles did upgrade the wide receiver corps with the signings of Alshon Jeffrey and Torrey Smith, it would make logical sense for them to add a running back and they might use the 14th pick in the draft for the sole purpose to target McCaffrey because of his talent, versatility, and underrated toughness. He can be used as a receiver, punt/kickoff returner, or as a running back. The running back depth chart will not be as crowded as you would believe; Ryan Mathews might be released, Darren Sproles is 34 years old and is more dangerous as a punt returner and receiver out of the backfield, and Wendell Smallwood is the second year back trying to prove himself in the league. So if McCaffrey can make a mark for the Eagles during OTA’s, training camp, and the pre-season, he’s a weapon that could make the Eagles a more potent team in the NFC East.
Indianapolis Colts- Frank Gore is 34 years old and can’t continue being the starting running back forever; so the Colts new GM Chris Ballard should be looking for his heir apparent and if he should choose, selecting Andrew Luck’s fellow Stanford alum in McCaffrey would be a prudent choice. He would be an asset in the passing game since the Colts do like to use their running backs as outlets for Luck; his return game skills may take some unnecessary pounding off of TY Hilton, and he could make the Colts running game a viable option if the passing game were to struggle during the season.
Green Bay Packers- If the Packers decide to pass on Cook, drafting McCaffrey instead may even be a better fit with this rather potent passing offense. The virtual “swiss army knife” can be positioned anywhere on the field (backfield, slot, outside the numbers) and create mismatches for head coach Mike McCarthy to take advantage of and be a valuable weapon for Aaron Rodgers. His dynamic return skills can not only give the Packers offense great field position, it can allow Randall Cobb to focus 100 percent on becoming the best wide receiver he can be. As for the running game, it could be a dynamic 1-2 punch with Ty Montgomery in the beginning, but that may cap both of their fantasy ceilings, but he has the potential to be fantasy relevant.
Corey Davis | WR
Tennessee Titans- At first glance, it may seem odd that I have the Titans here as a possible landing spot for Davis, but let me explain my reasoning. Although their offensive profile is “exotic-smashmouth”, using one of the two first-round picks (likely the 18th pick), Tennessee drafting Davis would be a plus expected value move because he’s an additional weapon at the wide receiver position to go along with Rishard Matthews and he helps the franchise quarterback Marcus Mariota. The sooner Davis becomes the starter and becomes a tangible threat, the sooner defenses account for him and then the running game featuring DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry can REALLY go to town on opposing teams.
Arizona Cardinals- Eventually the Cardinals will need a replacement for the future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald who will turn 34 August 31st. Drafting 13th, Arizona may want to look at Davis as Fitzgerald’s possible heir apparent and another weapon to go along with John Brown, David Johnson, J.J. Nelson, and Jermaine Gresham for Carson Palmer to play with. It may be hard for Davis to crack the starting lineup when the season opens, but his performance during OTA’s and training camp may determine his snap count and target shares early in the season.
The possibility exists that he will come on in the second half of the year once he has a better grasp of the Cardinals’ offensive scheme. Keep him on your fantasy radar if for some reason an injury occurs in the wide receiver corps; he will get a definite snap count and target share increase.
Mike Williams | WR
Buffalo Bills- There’s a gaping hole at the wide receiver position and the Bills desperately need to fill it since they decided to re-sign Tyrod Taylor and make him their quarterback for the foreseeable future. Both Marquise Goodwin and Robert Woods, who spent their entire careers with the Bills, left via free agency. Their departure leaves a substantial number of targets to be filled and the depth chart behind incumbent Sammy Watkins leaves little to be desired so it’s extremely plausible that Williams could be the starter beside with Sammy for Week 1 of the regular season. Therefore his fantasy value would be as a solid WR2 since both of them will soak up all of the snaps and targets at the receiver position.
Baltimore Ravens- This is another team with a target vacuum at the wide receiver position with the retirement of Steve Smith, Sr. and the departure of Kamar Aiken. The presumed starters are the veteran speedster Mike Wallace and their 2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman so there’s some chance for a drafted receiver (like Mike Williams) to get some snaps, targets, and receptions if they grasp the offense rather quickly. Under offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, the Ravens have become a much more passing team and Mike Williams should fit right in and become a fantasy relevant wide receiver in the range of a WR3 with WR2 upside.
Now let me leave you with one small bit of advice: When watching the coverage of the NFL Draft during the 3-day period, don’t overlook the Day 2 or Day 3 draft picks; they may wind up being fantasy football hidden gems that may help you to the elusive championship in the fall. Better yet, I’ll do the service of listing some of those players in Part 2 of my Rookie Symposium series.
Your fantasy football arm-chair GM,
FORTUNE FAVORS THE BOLD
Name: James Conner School: Pittsburgh
Height: 6'2 Weight: 240 lbs
Class: Junior Accolades: ACC Player of the Year (2014), led ACC in touchdowns
Notable injuries: Sprained MCL (expected to miss entire 2015 season)
Biggest strengths: Power, yards after contact, pass blocking, vision, balance
Biggest weaknesses: Speed to the edge, high pad level runner
Biggest questions: Can he catch the ball consistently? Is he too tall a runner for the NFL?
You remember 'Mortal Kombat?' A fighting video game back in the mid 1990s? You'd be beating up on your opponent to the point where you'd win the fight and the announcer would shout 'finish him!' then you'd launch into a sequence of button mashing on your controller in hopes of landing an array of punches and kicks to embarrass the person you're playing with. I know, it's definitely a guilty pleasure kind of video game.
But finishing is an important part of playing running back at the NFL level too, and Pittsburgh Panthers running back James Conner finishes runs with a physicality that could make Shang Tsung say 'flawless victory.' Come on, let me have my fun with this.
What he's done up until this point
While an unfortunate injury derailed what was a promising junior season in the Panthers 2015 season opener, Conner compiled plenty of highlights from a season ago that we'll look at and analyze how his game might translate to the NFL level.
Conner stands at an above average height for an RB at 6-foot-2 and weighs in at a lean 240 lbs. He shows decent burst when getting up field and has the agility to cut off blocks without losing speed.
He shows very good mental processing to diagnose his blocks before decisively hitting the hole. Though he lacks a third gear, his straight-line speed is adequate to get to the edge on a majority of college defenses. Once he's in the open field, he prefers to take contact from defenders before using his strength and churning feet to plow ahead for positive yards. Though he's a good one-cut runner, his above-average size makes it hard for him to juke defenders with his upper and lower body.
But it's in his strength and balance you'll see Conner succeed most. One defender is almost never good enough to knock Conner off his frame. Often times, you'll see him carry one, two and sometimes even three defenders on his shoulders while keeping his feet moving downfield. He's a grittier runner after contact than he is before it, often preferring to let the defender hit him first and slow him up rather than maintaining his speed and plowing through him. But because Conner is so big, he's able to make up for his lost momentum with his size and balance, often carrying defenders simply by maintaining his equilibrium.
This strength is exemplified in the clip below. it's an inside run play against UNC back from 2014. The fullback misses a block which allows two defenders to funnel into the gap and meet Conner up the middle. Conner stiff arms one to slow his momentum, but he's able to use his strength to turn away from the defenders. Notice how his feet keep moving after the play which allows him to gain extra yards and also slip past a few more defenders before he falls down. While this is a good example of toughness, there are a few concerns with Conner's style of running and how it will translate to the NFL.
For one, Conner gets hit high which shows he doesn't run with a low enough pad level to leverage defenders. Being able to drive defenders back is what creates positive yardage, and Conner doesn't show that here.
Conner also drops his head after spinning out of contact which causes him to lose his balance and fall down. Had he kept his head up, he might've been able to maintain his balance and stay on his feet.
Also, the three players converging on him might have had something to do with his desire to get down and turn away, but this is something you'll see a lot with Conner's runs that causes some concern. Conner prefers to initiate contact and then spin out of it before getting extra yards rather than using his size to push a defender back. He can get away with it in college and still churn out positive yards because his size and strength are above average at the NCAA level, but you have to worry about him leaving himself vulnerable to hits from bigger, faster NFL defenders. The fact that Conner's tall for a running back only exacerbates those fears, as his pad level might be too high and leave himself vulnerable to big hits. Speaking of height, tall running backs are at a bit of a disadvantage in the pros. Very few running backs over 6-foot-2 have had productive NFL careers. To see more information on how height correlates with running back success, check out this piece by Jonathan Bales on Rotoworld.com.
Below you'll see another example of Conner running with a high pad level.
Again, you'll notice right at the last minute he stands upright which stops his forward momentum. He tries to spin out again before the ref blows the whistle after his forward progress is stopped.
But even though his height might put him at a disadvantage int he NFL, Conner's desire to finish runs is very impressive. He's not a punishing runner, but he doesn't go down with just one or two arm tackles and chooses to be the aggressor on a vast majority of his rushing attempts. His second effort after contact stands out and will help him score touchdowns around the goal line and gain tough yardage inside on crucial 3rd/4th and short plays at the NFL level.
Another positive trait Conner has is the ability to process information quickly. He diagnoses his blocks well and runs to the correct lane more often than not. His burst is good, not great. But where he lacks in straight-line speed he makes up for with quickness. For those who don't understand the difference between quickness and speed, quickness is measured in an athlete's ability to react to external stimuli on the field, so think of it like when you're playing 'Whack a mole' and when one pops up you have to make the split second decision on how to attack it, then hope your hand-eye coordination cooperates and you lay a hammer on some poor, unsuspecting rodent.
Here we see Conner's mental quickness on display during a run against Houston, which ranked in the Top 20 in total defense last season. Watch how Conner reacts to the Houston defensive tackle getting penetration in the backfield. Conner plants his foot, changes direction and uses his burst through an opening in the right side to score. Good instincts are a trait that's hard to teach.
One of the more impressive traits Conner possesses is a willingness to pass block. He also displays good technique by keeping a strong base and using his size to deliver a strong punch.
Can he catch?
Connor hasn't been asked to do much receiving at Pittsburgh and we don't know if he can consistently catch or not due to lack of examples of him doing such.
Conner has the instincts, size and good enough speed to be an adequate inside runner in the NFL. He could be an effective short yardage back but his height and lack of straight-line speed will keep him from being an elite runner.
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Duke Ellington famously said 'it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.' For fans of Arizona Cardinals running back Andre Ellington, drafting the Clemson product doesn't mean a thing if it's just a fling.
That's right. Ellington has long teased fantasy football owners who've drafted him expecting a feature back who can deliver consistent production throughout an entire season. While Ellington is no doubt a talented receiver and runner to the outside, his lack of size and durability throughout his early career leaves questions regarding his status as a true RB1 in fantasy football.
The biggest knock on Ellington isn't so much his talent, but his struggle to remain on the field and at 100 percent. Ellington's name frequented the injury reports last season after pulling a muscle in his lower leg known as the peroneous longus, which is a muscle that controls movement in the foot. The injury was enough to keep Ellington operating at less than 100 percent for the entire 2014 season until a hip pointer in Week 13 finally sealed his fate and landed him on the I.R. for the rest of the year.
When it comes to predicting injuries, it's always important to notice the trends rather than a few chance occurrences. Anybody can get hurt on any play in a contact sport, but noticing players with a consistent injury history can be a good indicator of future issues, and Ellington's injury history is definitely cause for concern.
Since college, Ellington suffered a torn ligament in his foot which required surgery in 2010 to go along with a sprained ankle that required surgery in 2011. Since entering the NFL, he's dealt with a concussion and a pulled hamstring in 2013 which kept him out of one game during the regular season and also caused him to miss the 2013 Combine. When you factor this was a player drafted as an RB1 in 2014, you're officially taking a big risk.
How he was used in 2014
A true feature back, Ellington saw his snap count go from 51 percent in Week 1 to 86 percent by Week 5. Only Matt Forte and DeMarco Murray were on the field more in Week 5. Ellington saw 74 percent of the snaps the following week, which ranked among the Top 10, 64 percent in Week 7, 76 percent in Week 8, 67 percent in Week 9, 80 percent in Week 10, 74 percent in Week 11, and 72 percent in Week 12, which was the last week he was able to play before suffering a hip pointer in Week 13 against Atlanta. He had been struggling in the Atlanta game prior to injury as well, as he also racked up 12 yards on five rushing attempts against arguably the worst run defense in the league.
Ellington totaled 201 rushing attempts in 2014, nearly double his 118 during his rookie year. But despite his high usage at times, Ellington's snap count didn't translate to great fantasy production. He finished with 122 points in standard rule leagues, which ranked him 20th overall. Even if you extrapolate his 7.4 point average over the last four weeks of the season to make up for his injury, he still only finishes with 150 points which would put him at 16th overall. Not the best sign for a running back used so much in an offense.
The team around him
Ellington's value could've been helped by a better quarterback situation. The Cardinals lost Carson Palmer to an ACL tear last season. Keep in mind, Palmer's injury occurred in Week 10, which wasn't too far off from Ellington's Week 13 injury that ended his season. So for those who think the loss of Palmer was a huge detriment to Ellington's value are probably exaggerating just a little bit.
Still, in Ellington's numbers were abysmal in his last three games without Palmer under center. He averaged 2.3 yards per carry in that span, but two of his three opponents featured the Detroit Lions, a team that ranked in the top 5 in rushing yards allowed, and the Seattle Seahawks, a defense that struggled early but found their groove late.
With Palmer back, expect Ellington's value to increase slightly but not overly so. Palmer is an accurate passer who's deep ball has slowly become less effective as his career enters its twilight stage.
In terms of other offseason additions, guard Mike Iupati revamps the offensive line and gives it more of a run-edge. There's a lot to like about the move, but Ellington struggled as an inside runner last season, even though his line last season wasn't so bad either.
What to watch for when you want to see Ellington do well
if you invest in Ellington as a fantasy option this season, you should know his core traits and which of those traits are the good ones. Ellington played a big role in the Arizona offense last season. The Cardinals used him in a variety of ways, including on inside runs, stretch plays to the edge, passes over the middle, passes down the sideline via the wheel route and occasionally split him out wide. He excelled the most after the catch, as he's one of the best in the league at catching the ball in traffic and turning upfield as you'll see here.
Ellington also excelled at runs to the edge of the field. He's one of the better straight-line rushers in the league and his speed toward the sideline causes defenders to take shorter angles which leads to a lot of missed tackles. His ability to run the outside is what makes him an effective running back, as you'll see in the video below.
Where he struggles
Ellington's 3.3 yards per carry average last season was the result of a lot of stuffed inside runs. He struggles to break tackles due to lack of size and he hasn't figured out how to consistently gain positive yardage after contact. He also struggles to cut up field on inside runs, often taking too many skip steps before he makes his transition.
His pass blocking remains one of the biggest weaknesses in his game, as he often lacks the mental processing to diagnose where the blitz is coming from and hasn't shown enough desire to engage bigger defenders. His lack of size hurts him in this area as well, as he often gets knocked back by bigger defenders rushing at him. These are all causes for concern if you're considering Ellington be an RB1 in redraft leagues this season.
David Johnson stand up
Another potential problem for Ellington's value is the addition of running back Dustin Johnson. Drafted out of Northern Iowa in the third round, Johnson is a big (6'1, 224 lbs) running back who shows just as impressive a pass catcher as Ellington. He also has the same inside running problems as Ellington does due to lack of breakaway speed and an inability to create yards after contact. In short, he's projecting to be a bigger version of Ellington.
But unlike Ellington, Johnson hasn't had any significant injuries while in college. So, if I had to put my money on one guy, I'd go with Johnson primarily because of his size and the greater potential he's not a huge injury risk. Johnson will likely see a third-down role early on, so it's best to not draft him in redraft leagues but keep an eye on him throughout the season and get ready to snag him a week or two early in Ellington hits the injury report list again.
It's funny how players come out of the woodwork. One day an NFL running back is playing behind two running backs and chances are slim he'll see a lick of playing time. Most people only know him as a blip on the depth chart, a player who might come on in the event of a catastrophic turn of events for the starters and even if you do get his shot, he'll likely only end up posting mediocre numbers before the starters return from whatever caused them to come off the field.
We always have that notion when we watch the NFL, but time and time again a backup will come onto the scene and show us skills that we never thought a backup would have. We ask ourselves questions like 'how did this guy slip through the cracks?' 'Does he do this in practice?' 'Why does that one guy in our league always get to the waiver wire before me? He must have no life.'
The guy we asked those questions about last year was Broncos' C.J. Anderson, as we enjoyed the roller coaster ride that took us down another surprising turn into the 'who we consider an elite fantasy running back' category. Anderson dazzled those who only heard of the other famous C.J. (2K) before him. Anderson showed quick feet in getting up to the line, a decisive explosion when cutting upfield (perhaps his best trait) and added a eye-opening desire to break tackles through his elite balance and lack of fear when engaging defenders in the open field. It was because of these traits (and several more that we'll mention later in this piece) that led Anderson to become the hottest running back down the stretch of 2014. Considering he only started seven games, it was quite an impression.
Disclaimer: When identifying a very good fantasy running back, you can simplify everything down to two basic traits before you get into specifics. These are the two basic idea of what a fantasy running back should have.
2. Potential for high volume of carries
Of course, there are many more details to extrapolate from those scenarios, but those are the two overarching traits you must understand while drafting a quality fantasy running back.
On paper, Anderson doesn't exactly rattle nerves of defenders. He stands at a fun-sized 5'8, 224lbs. His 4.60 speed won't blow the lid of defenses. His one calling card was the 20-yard shuttle, which he posted a combine-high 4.12 seconds for that particular year.
He doesn't have a breathtaking open field running style like the LeSean McCoy's or Adrian Peterson's of the world. He doesn't even have a nickname yet, as CJ2K has already been taken. Maybe CJ1.5K plus 500 yards receiving would be a reasonable expectation at this point.
But he offers so much in so many other areas that the idea of him not being a burner almost seems like an afterthought when you watch him play.
Anderson possesses several highly valuable traits at the NFL level, one of which is elite balance while running through the hole. As Anderson takes a handoff, he shows the kind of burst needed to get to the line of scrimmage quickly enough before the defenders diagnose what hole he's running to. It's not an elite burst, but it's still very good.
Once at the line of scrimmage, he changes his footwork from long strides into short, choppy steps in order to change direction quickly. This is just before he shows us why he's an elite running back at the NFL level.
Right before he hits the hole, he shows a very impressive cut upfield which allows him to accelerate through the hole. He lacks a third gear which prevents him from maybe splitting the two deeper defenders, but he still gets a very positive gain on the play.
Notice how he ramps up his acceleration after putting his foot in the ground and cutting upfield. His balance allows that shift to be a smooth, seamless transition, which is a valuable quality when it comes to gaining a speed advantage on the defense.
In this second clip, you'll see how his balance and running style allows him to slip past defenders.
Notice how his pad level stays low which forces defenders to tackle him at the waist or risk being too high which would give the smaller Anderson a momentum advantage. Anderson stays on an even plane for the entire length of the run aside from when he breaks out of a tackle. His feet are always moving, which allows him to break through arm tackles. His toughness is also on display as he avoids running out of bounds and instead cuts it back and looks to take on more defenders. That's the sign of a true workhorse back.
In this third clip, you'll see his running style directly translate to points on the field. Watch for the same characteristics I noted above.
Another trait Anderson possesses is a high level of mental toughness. He processes a play very quickly which allows him to be one step ahead of the defense mentally at times. Here we see an example of it after the catch.
One of the backs who I've noticed execute a similar type of elusiveness is Eagles' RB Darren Sproles. Though Sproles is more of a burner and and an explosive back, his low pad level and small frame creates a similar effect on the defender as you'll see below.
Vision is another key quality to look for. Pay attention to the clip at the bottom of the article and notice how the offensive line is moving to the right, and watch how Anderson has to quickly make the decision to squeeze through a moving hole. Think of it like trying to jump through a hula hoop that's moving to the right and is about 2 inches off the ground. You have to time it just right and keep your feet high enough so you don't trip. Anderson executes it as well as you possibly could. Once Anderson breaks through the first level, his elite acceleration that we mentioned earlier allows him to change gears quickly and get to the outside.
Whether or not Anderson will get the correct situation is still a mystery. Montee Ball will likely get another shot at some point due the Broncos being so invested in the Wisconsin product. So if Anderson slips up at all, expect there to be a cosmic change in the Broncos' lineup. But as of now, he's the guy. And his talent is second to few in the NFL. He's worth a first-round pick in 2015 due to talent alone.
On Friday's episode of diagnosis, the Helpers discuss Jonas Gray and have mixed reactions regarding whether or not he's startable this week against Detroit. They give you four players who nobody is talking about who could help you in the playoffs. Plus, they talk about sleepers for this week, Brandin Cooks' injury and the Ben Tate signing
There have been a lot of changes to the Cleveland Browns since last season. A pass-happy team in 2013, there's reason to believe the running game may be creeping its way back into the team's philosophy this season. But with no convincing No. 1 running back on its roster just yet, it leaves room for speculation regarding who the best fantasy running back could be in Cleveland for 2014.
It all started with a shift in management. Vertical passing enthusiast Norv Turner took his talents to Minnesota and was replaced by former Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, a guy who's often been jokingly referred to as an 'anti-fantasy football' coordinator. Alfred Morris owner's from 2013 can attest to that. You could play a sad violin for Morris owners last season, as they saw their touchdown points gobbled up when Shanhan opted to dial up several doses of Roy Helu on the goal line last season. Morris still went on to have a solid season in 2013 with 1,275 rushing yards, but his touchdown total nearly halved after he finished with 7 compared to the 13 he had during his rookie season.
Unlike Turner, Shanahan's offensive philosophy centers around a balance of run and pass. He has proven effective at managing quarterbacks with vastly different styles as well. He helped Texans' Matt Schaub throw for a lot of yards in Houston and also ushered in the zone-read in Washington under the athletic Robert Griffin III. With Shanahan's equally favored approach to both the ground and aerial game, it creates some fantasy intrigue for owner's who may be looking at some stat potential out of the Browns backfield. It can't get much worse for Cleveland in the running category from 2013, as the Browns ranked 30th in rushing attempts with 348.
A good fantasy running back is made in the trenches
A good running game starts with the guys up front, and the Cleveland Browns have one of the better offensive lines in the NFL. Center Alex Mack is a two-time pro bowler and has been a fixture on the Browns' offensive line since Cleveland drafted him in 2009. Mack provided the blocking for several highlight games early in his career, including Jerome Harrison's 286-yard rushing effort which ranked third-most all time for one game.
Left tackle Joe Thomas remains one of the best pass protectors in the league, though the Browns one weakness could be at right tackle with Mitchell Schwartz. Schwartz was a liability in pass protection last year, and while Shanahan believes he's a good fit for his zone-blocking scheme, one has to wonder if the 6'5, 320 lb Schwartz will be able to hack a run offense usually designed for more athletic lineman.
Schwartz was such a liability in fact that the Browns used plenty of resources to cover up for him. According to pro football focus, the Browns led the league in chip blocks for both the running back and tight end positions last season to help alleviate some of their protection problems. However, that may be a tougher task this season due to their inexperienced backfield.
The current crop of running backs may not be best suited for providing quality pass protection. According to pro football focus, current starting running back Ben Tate ranked 39th in pass blocking efficiency in a pool of 46 running backs who saw at least 40 pass blocking snaps last year. Behind Tate, you have two rookies in Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell who both of which weren't known as pass blockers in college.
We mentioned his name finally, and the undrafted rookie out of Alabama State has some upside for stashing on your roster right now.
Crowell's college career started off very promising. He landed a starting spot with the Georgia Bulldogs when he was just a freshman. Playing against several vaunted defenses in the SEC, Crowell went on to have several big games including a 30-carry, 147-yard performance against Ole Miss. He finished his freshman year with 856 rushing yards and 5 touchdowns, but it was disciplinary problems that kept him from continuing what looked like a future successful collegiate career with the Bulldogs.
The following season, Crowell was dismissed from Georgia after he was arrested on a drug charge. He ended up enrolling at Alabama State and finished as the leading rusher at Alabama State and led the Hornets to a 7-4 record.
Some of his highlights can be seen in the video below. His run at the :37 second mark of this video is especially impressive.
Why he's worth a roster stash on your fantasy team
Current starter Ben Tate is expected to be an every-down back for Cleveland starting out, which isn't surprising considering the fifth-year RB has proven reliable with a respectable 4.7 ypc average while playing behind Arian Foster in Houston for three seasons. Still, it's Tate's first go in the workhorse role, which is a job only a handful of running backs have proven able to hack at a consistent level. Tate played in only 11 games in 2012 and was eventually placed on injury reserve with cracked ribs in 2013, so durability may also be an issue.
Current No. 2 running back West struggled during preseason, averaging just 2.9 yards per carry and zero touchdowns. Crowell, on the other hand, notched 105 yards on 15 carries (7 YPC) and a touchdown. If Crowell can keep his previous run ins with the law a thing of the past, he's got real potential to be a starter on the Browns at some point if the chips fall the right way.
Editors's note: Photo for this article was courtesy of Tom Russo on Flickr. You can find his photo page here.
When it comes to drafting fantasy running backs, you look for several key things to indicate a players’ potential value.