On Monday's edition of Treatment, the Helpers discuss the zero running back theory and why it's a big risk in fantasy leagues. They also talk about the importance of quality running backs in fantasy football. Plus Pennywise 'Bro Hym Tribute' and some other things.
The Helpers kick off the discussion talking about the value of picking in the middle of the fantasy draft. According to NFL.com, more than 12 percent of fantasy owners who drafted at the sixth spot in 2014 won their league. Also, a stunning 70 percent of fantasy owners who drafted a running back in the first round also won their league.
The Helpers try to under why running backs are so important. For one, starters typically see anywhere between 10-20 carries per game, sometimes even more depending on the offensive philosophy of the coach. A chief example being DeMarco Murray's mere 400 attempts last year. For those who want to draft WR-WR if you're picking late in the draft, it's important to consider that a wide receiver rarely sees 10-20 attempts at catching the ball in any particular game. So if you decide to draft two stud wide receivers, you'll still be dealing with some inconsistency at times due in large part to the fact that there's only so much ball to go around.
Another take is that fantasy owners typically view feature backs as so rare that if you don't end up getting one in the first round, they consider the rest of the running back class to be of similar value and wind up drafting a handful of RBs in the later portion of the draft. While this strategy can work, we don't advise it because it usually involves some luck to end up having a late-round fantasy running back do well. While it's great if you already have a stud running back and you also get lucky and draft the next Jeremy Hill, avoiding running backs all together in the early rounds is a recipe for disaster.
The Helpers also discuss OTA's and what to think about regarding player speak and how it often deceives fantasy owners into thinking somebody is primed for a breakout season. Case in point being Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy, a running back who slimmed down last season and reportedly looked even more explosive than before (if that was possible). Still, McCoy ended up having one of the worst seasons of his career from a scoring standpoint, as he only found the end zone five times and his receiving numbers took a dive due to the emergence of Darren Sproles.
It's not to say a running back losing weight can't be beneficial for him from a fantasy point of view, but other factors such as vision, instincts, decisiveness and mental processing play a big, if not bigger, factor than physical attributes. Just something to take into account before you get too hyped up on one particular player because he looks like he can bench press more or run a slightly faster 40 time.
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Catching the ball has become one of the biggest assets a running back can have both in the NFL and fantasy football. It's no surprise you see RBs like Jamaal Charles, Le'Veon Bell, DeMarco Murray and other receiving competent backs rise above the rest in fantasy points by the end of the 2014 season. But, what if the running back isn't the best receiver on the planet? What if he's just a tough, physical runner who values running over defenders for those extra yards rather than joysticking past defenders? Oh, and what if he doesn't have Adrian Peterson like breakaway speed? Is it still worth drafting the downhill running back?
The answer to that is a resounding yes, however, certain criteria should be met. First, you need to know which round to take him in. Second, you need to know what scheme he plays in and if his running style is a good fit. Third, you need to look at the talent along the offensive line. Lastly, you need to evaluate his health and current physical state of his career.
Where Morris thrives
Redskins' running back Alfred Morris is a textbook example of a downhill runner. If you watched Morris as a rookie in 2012, you saw how effective he was at moving the pile and you almost cringed at the thought of some smaller defensive back having to tackle him. Here's a clip of Morris from 2012 where his drive to will his way past the first down marker is on full display.
Notice how his feet keep moving which allows him to maintain his balance through contact and scamper for more yards. He diagnosed where the hole is going to be quickly enough so that he can burst through it before the Cincinnati defender penetrates the line of scrimmage. He keeps his pad level low, which allows him to stay moving forward and gain positive yardage. His competitive toughness is also apparent on this play, as he looks to initiate contact with the defenders rather than avoid it. It's worth noting that Morris thrived in the read option alongside Robert Griffin III and there's no doubt the threat of a rushing quarterback helped Morris out immensely.
How he changed as a runner
Watching Morris in 2014, you saw a running back that seemed a little more indecisive at times. He often waited patiently to set up his blocks, but never fully committed to the hole even when it was there at times. You factor that in with his subtle decrease in burst, agility and all-around speed and it's no surprise his numbers last year were a career worst.
The Redskins instability at quarterback certainly didn't help Morris either. The team went through all three quarterbacks like kleenex last season and Morris had a different chemistry with each of them. With Robert Griffin III, he had more freedom as a runner because of the QB-run threat. With backup Kirk Cousins, he became more of a 3-4 yard per carry guy in addition to a play action guy which helped open up the passing game for the more pocket-oriented Cousins.
The current version of Morris runs to the edge and patiently waits for his blocks to set up, a trait many consider to be a positive one among running backs. The only difference — he never fully commits and cuts hard up the field like he did in his rookie year.
This isn't to say Morris was indecisive on every play in 2014. You still saw many glimpses of what he's capable of when he decides to commit to his blocks and burst through the hole. That was very evident in the game against Tampa, where Morris rushed for 96 yards on 20 carries. That performance against the Bucs was good for the second-most rushing yards Morris had in a game all season.
Also against Tampa, Morris displayed the kind of competitive toughness that has made him one of the most consistent fantasy backs over the last 3 seasons. Click the vine video below.
Where he still wins in the NFL and on your fantasy team
One of Morris' best traits is his durability. Through three seasons, Morris has started every game. He has shown to be the rare example of a running back who can withstand the harsh punishment of hit after hit that often lead to so many injuries at the position. In fantasy football, a guy who shows up and punches the clock is a valuable commodity in terms of consistency.
You could argue Morris has achieved that durability because of his more recent choices when running the ball. In 2014, there were times when Morris could've plowed over a defender but instead chose to use lateral jukes instead. Now, Morris' agility has never been his strongest suit, and his burst and explosiveness have decreased very slightly but also noticeably over the last three seasons. While you rarely see him make defenders miss like say, LeSean McCoy, his ability to juke rather than try and run defenders over has helped him avoid the violent hits that take their toll on a running back over the years has served as key preserver to the running backs productive career early on.
A typical Alfred Morris run in 2012: Line up in read option, burst through the hole after making one lateral cut, run downhill three of four yards, initiate contact with defender while still running forward behind pads and keeping legs churning, fall forward for another two or three yards.
A typical Alfred Morris run in 2014: Line up behind the quarterback in a half-pistol formation (typically what he ran with Kirk Cousins at quarterback), burst through the hole just a tad bit slower, shuffle feet more to make cutback instead of planting foot in the ground and cutting decisively, wait for blockers to set up before running 2-3 yards before laterally sliding around defender and falling forward for an extra yard.
While that analysis may indicate Morris has regressed a little bit, the bigger culprit isn't so much in his athleticism since he remains pretty well-off in that category. It's more so his lack of decisiveness in the hole that has hurt his production the most
That, combined with the injury woes to the Redskins at the quarterback position in addition to a young offensive line that had to play a backup tight end at times during the season plus a new coach in Jay Gruden and loss of running back guru Mike Shanahan and you got a few more ingredients to complement the slight dropoff recipe as well.
His benign role in the receiving game
Perhaps the biggest threat against Morris as a potential solid fantasy running back is his struggles in the receiving game. Morris had one of the worst drop rates in the league last season, as he failed to reel in 6 of his 26 targets. This led to the Redskins not trust him much as a receiver, and it hurt Morris' fantasy value on third down. Per Football Outsiders, Morris was only on the field for 58 percent of the snaps in 2014, which ranked him 18th among starting RBs. It hurt him the most on long passing downs, as Washington preferred the services of Roy Helu Jr.
Helu's tendency to stay on the field when the team was running their no huddle offense in hopes of trying to comeback from a deficit in the fourth quarter. It was a fate the Redskins found themselves in very often last season after winning just four games, and Morris' value suffered as he frequently came out during third downs and Roy Helu Jr. saw plenty of work in the passing game via the screen and on choice routes.
Overall, Morris compiled just 37 catches for 310 receiving yards and zero receiving touchdowns in three seasons as a starting running back. It's not the kind of numbers you want to see in a current NFL landscape that almost requires a running back be a good receiver out of the backfield. You have the feeling at any moment, a more talented receiving back like newly-acquired Matt Jones might overtake Morris at some point in 2015.
What 2015 has in store
There is optimism for Morris' fantasy owners in 2015, however. The Redskins are retooling their offensive line and spent a first-round pick on top right tackle Brandon Scherff. Scherff will likely be inserted into the starting lineup immediately and with pro bowler Trent Williams anchoring the other side, this could be a formidable unit as the season goes along. Williams is also in the final year of his rookie contract and will be looking for a pay day. Former third-round pick Spencer Long could also play a big role this season, as he's expected to play at right guard.
New offensive line coach Bill Callahan wants to make the Redskins more of a power run team like he did with the Cowboys a season ago. This plays to Morris' strengths as a downhill runner. However, he'll have to become better at reading his blocks and more decisive in cutting up field if he wants to post another 1,000-yard season.
Morris is still an RB2, but he's an upper-tier RB2 with an offense that will try to rebuild its line and play more to Morris' strengths as a runner.
The instant impact rookie running back. Seemingly every year, one or two rookies are gifted with an opportunity to see a significant workload at a certain point in the season. Some are scheduled to be their team's starter form the get go (think Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch in 2007) while others benefit from a stroke of luck due to an injury to the starting guy or the starting guy is struggling (Branden Oliver, Jeremy Hill in 2014).
As the NFL Draft nears, it's important to look at these situations so you can identify them and play them to your advantage. It's also important to look at past examples so you can hopefully spot a similar situation in the future.
What can the draft tell us about fantasy?
When it comes to identifying what round a player is more likely to have a higher probability of immediately producing at, it can vary by position. One obvious trend is that quarterbacks taken in Rounds 1-3 typically do better. Current top fantasy quarterbacks such as Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Andrew Luck, Ben Reothlisberger and Aaron Rodgers were all drafted in the first two rounds in their respective drafts.
When you look at the wide receiver position, DeMaryius Thomas was a first-rounder as was Odell Beckham Jr. and Dez Bryant. Jordy Nelson was a second-round pick in 2008. Top 2014 fantasy wideout Antonio Brown was one exception to the rule. Brown was selected in the sixth round of the 2010 draft.
Running backs are a different story
Even though there's been some late-round gems at the quarterback and wide receiver position, the running back position is place where you'll find perhaps the highest probability quality fantasy players. More frequently than you'd think, you'll find top fantasy running backs who were drafted in the later rounds or even went undrafted.
There's a lot of variables that play into running backs not getting drafted as high as they used to be, and we could list 1,000 more words telling you why that is, but for the sake of this argument lets just say the NFL is a copy cat league and selecting a running back later on is just the trend right now. Even the 2015 running back class, which is being hyped as the best in years, will still likely only draw two first rounders (Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon). So with a running back class as good as this one, which has many draftniks claiming it could be as good as 14 quality starters deep, it's important to look at how late-round running backs have come to the forefront in the past and made an impact on fantasy teams. Let's take a look at last year's impact fantasy running backs who were rookies.
Case study #1 — Branden Oliver, San Diego Chargers (undrafted)
Oliver was ranked in the Top 40 among fantasy backs in fantasy points in 2014, which wasn't bad for a 5'8 undrafted rookie out of SUNY Buffalo. Oliver got his chance when starter Ryan Mathews went down with an MCL sprain. Of course, nobody saw Oliver's start coming after Mathews was scheduled to sit out the following week. Everybody had Danny Woodhead and Donald Brown pegged as the backups most likely to benefit, myself included. It goes to show you — always look all the way down on the depth chart before picking somebody up off the waiver wire. You never know what can happen.
Well, a stroke of luck happened and Oliver took off against the New York Jets. After Brown went out with a concussion early on and with Mathews already sidelined, Oliver feasted on the weak Jets passing defense and caught four balls for 68 yards and 1 touchdown. He also rushed for over 100 yards and finished with 29 fantasy points.
Watching that game, Oliver's ability in the passing game no doubt helped keep the defense and honest and led to him being more effective on the ground. Oliver also benefitted from Brown leaving the first half of that game with a concussion, which opened up the doors for him within the offense.
He didn't slow down afterward that game either. The Chargers leaned heavily on him the following week and Oliver made a nice second impression with a 101-yard effort against the Oakland Raiders and one touchdown. While those numbers were impressive, it's worth noting Oliver averaged just 3.9 yards a clip on 26 carries against one of the worst rushing defenses in the league, so it was no surprise that Oliver's production eventually dropped off.
While he turned out to be a nice addition off the waiver wire for a brief stretch, Oliver's fantasy value hit a snag after he ran into some tough defenses that started with a 36-yard performance against Denver on Thursday night. He tossed in six more equally ineffective games before finishing with 582 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns for the year, with half of his fantasy points coming in those two games against Oakland and New York.
Oliver proved (at least in his rookie season) to be more of a scat, receiving type back. He's not a guy that can beat you with 20 carries per game. He's more of a Darren Sproles type player who will beat you out of the backfield. But in the right matchup against a weak passing defense, he proved he could produce for at least a few weeks.
One of the takeaways you can use from Oliver is to considers drafting backup running backs where the starter has an injury history. Now, this doesn't always work out. DeMarco Murray was injured almost every season but managed to finish 2014 without any major injuries to speak of. He did suffer a hand injury at one point, but it didn't slow him up much to create a ton of value for the backup running back on Dallas.
In the case of Oliver, starting RB Ryan Mathews also had a long injury history. So keep an eye out for running backs (especially the rookies in this draft) who get drafted to a team with a No. 1 back who is prone to sitting out games.
Next, always be keen on matchups. Oliver benefited from two easy defenses (New York Jets weak passing defense and Oakland's weak rushing defense) when he put up his best numbers.
Lastly, always make sure to scope out the entire depth chart of a team. Danny Woodhead and Donald Brown were the top backups but Oliver was also on the depth chart as well.
Gopher it Gopher it.
That's what you should be saying to yourself when you peer into your dynasty draftboard during the later rounds and realize Minnesota product David Cobb is still available.
His journey up until this point
Aside from Melvin Gordon and Jay Ajayi, no running back had more carries (314) than Cobb did in 2014. He averaged 5.2 yards per carry in a run heavy offense that allowed him to maximize his stats and finish 11th overall in rushing yards.
One of the biggest knocks on David Cobb throughout the draft process has been his speed. He ran a 4.81 40-yard dash at the combine, which ranked 4th worst among more than 30 running backs who participated. He injured his quad during the run, which likely played a role in the slow time. Since then, Cobb recently clocked in at 4.65 and 4.70 at his pro day earlier this week. Slightly better than last, but don't let the slow 40 times fool you, there are reasons to believe this won't hinder him too much from being a relevant fantasy back in the future.
Even going back to the history of running backs and 40 times, a 4.4 40 hasn't always been the best indicator of fantasy success. Le'Veon Bell, who ranked second overall among running backs in fantasy points last season, ran a 4.6 40. C.J. Anderson, one of the hottest fantasy running backs of the year down the stretch in Denver, ran a 4.6 as well. At 5'8, 224 lbs, Anderson is similar to Cobb in size but oddly enough his college stats were very similar to Bell's senior season.
Back when he was at Michigan State as a senior in 2012, Bell ran for 1763 yards and 13 touchdowns on 382 attempts (4.7 yards per carry). Cobb ran for 13 touchdowns and 1626 yards on 314 carries (5.2 yards per carry). Both running backs were a huge part of their team's offense, and both displayed similar tendencies in yardage, yards per carry and touchdowns. Both running backs have also shown the ability to catch the football, as Bell ranked No. 1 among PPR running backs in 2014. Cobb, who obviously hasn't shown this ability at the pro level yet, is a capable receiver and we'll talk about his catching ability later in this article. But first...
His running style
A few things to take note of when you watch Cobb run. For one, he makes up for his lack of explosiveness with a decisive running style that allows him to create 4 or 5 yards of positive yardage quickly. He uses his size to his advantage, running through small gaps without slowing his feet for a millisecond. And that's perhaps the best trait Cobb possesses — he's a very fluid runner. He doesn't stop on a dime to
After that, it's just a matter of the offensive line giving him enough room down field and/or Cobb making one guy miss. Cobb doesn't rely on violent jukes to shake defenders, instead preferring quick lateral cuts that are effective at breaking tackles without slowing his feet down.
Now, Cobb is not the kind of running back that's going to break enough tackles to run for long touchdowns especially at the NFL level. But he possesses the kind of vision and purposeful north-and-south running style that allows him a certain reliability. He
A 5'11 senior, Cobb runs compact and can get slippery in tight spaces, a skill most running backs of bigger size can't replicate. He also keeps his feet moving after contact which allows him fall forward for a few extra yards more often than not. You rarely see Cobb get jacked backwards due to his low center of gravity.
Because of his compact size and aggressive running ability, you rarely see Cobb get pushed backward, get off balance or look indecisive, three traits that can often make a difference between a short gain and a big loss at the NFL level. Below you'll see a clip on how Cobb against Mizzou during the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl. Notice how quickly he gets up the field and how his compact frame allows him to stay upright after contact before falling forward for an extra few yards.
His other positive traits
Much like Le'Veon Bell, Cobb has an ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. Watch this play where Cobb lays out for a pass. Even though the catch didn't count since he was out of bounds, it was still a good example of his athleticism and hand-eye coordination.
Where he works best
Cobb would be very valuable in a pass-oriented offense that employs a committee-style running approach. It's unlikely he's ever a feature back (very few running backs these days are anyway) but he can definitely provide value as a PPR running back in offenses that have an elite quarterback. He's also proven to be durable which is a valuable trait at an injury-prone position. Cobb should be taken in dynasty drafts in the mid rounds which is the spot where he will offer the most value.
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You guys remember Ryan Mathews back in 2010? He was actually considered a Top 10 fantasy running back before he even saw a single snap in the NFL. Fresh out of Fresno State, Mathews (who was in his early 20s at the time) stepped into a situation where Hall of Fame running back Ladainian Tomlinson went ring chasing with the New York Jets. Fellow Chargers backup running back Darren Sproles remained with the team, but was still relegated to the role of receiving back and was never considered to be a real replacement for Mathews. So everything looked lined up for fantasy production right off the bat for the rookie.
Flashback to 2010
Due to his situation, Mathews had a rare opportunity to start off his NFL career as an RB1. It seems silly now considering Mathews was outrushed by the likes of Mike Tolbert during his rookie season. Tolbert finished 2010 with a team-high 735 yards and a team-high 11 touchdowns. Mathews was much less impressive but still managed to rush for seven touchdowns and 678 yards (4.3 yards per carry).
One of the reasons Mathews ended up being a bust in his rookie season was his light workload. Even though then coach Norv Turner indicated he planned to run Mathews 20-25 times per game, that proved to not be the case in the early stages of 2010. Turner once again fell in love with Philip Rivers and the vertical passing offense, as the Chargers ranked second in the league in passing yards. This style of offense curbed Mathews' upside. Though he did rush 20 times for 79 yards in his first career game, he didn't carry the ball more than 9 times in the next three games. The coaching staff never fully trusted him to carry the offense and it resulted in passive numbers on a week to week basis.
Mathews average draft position in fantasy leagues for his rookie season was 14th overall in 2010. He was drafted ahead of players like Peyton Manning, Jamaal Charles, Brandon Marshall, Larry Fitzgerald and Tom Brady. Sure, most of those players are quarterbacks and wide receivers and we all know running backs are the most valuable but Mathews was still highly regarded considering he never took a snap in the NFL before that season.
The situation in San Diego served as the main reason Mathews was drafted as high as he was. But ultimately, the Turner style of offense just didn't fit him.
What we have in 2015
With Mathews now departed for Philadelphia, the Chargers now have a backfield very similar to what they had when Tomlinson left in 2010. They have a scat back in Branden Oliver, who led the team in rushing yards with 562 but averaged a very benign 3.6 yards per carry and was largely shutdown by almost every good run defense down the stretch last year and was even held in check by below average defenses like Oakland and Jacksonville as well. I think it's fair to say it's unlikely Oliver morphs into a starting running back over the offseason and will likely remain a change of pace back going forward.
They also have Donald Brown, a running back who the Chargers insist will be back in 2015. Brown struggled mightily in 2014, rushing for just 223 yards on 85 carries (2.62 yards per carry) through 13 games. Brown's best season was in 2010 with the Colts when he rushed for 537 yards and six touchdowns. He hasn't had more than 134 carries in a single season and isn't likely to take over as the top back either.
The last guy San Diego has is Danny Woodhead, a back who suffered a nasty injury last season where he fractured his fibula and ankle early in 2014 but will likely return this season. Woodhead played in just three games and finished with just 38 yards rushing.
However, Woodhead probably has the most fantasy value due to his 2013 season. Woodhead compiled a very solid 76 catches on 86 targets for 605 yards and six touchdowns.
Offensive line improvements
The Chargers were one of the worst run offenses in the league last year, ranking among the bottom in teams according to Pro Football focus. They went out and tried to remedy this problem during free agency, signing Orlando Franklin for five years and $36.5 million with $20 million of that guaranteed. Franklin helped running backs like Knowshon Moreno, Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson compile very good fantasy numbers during his four-year stint with Denver.
In the upcoming draft, the Chargers are picking at No. 17 overall, a spot that would perfect to grab one of the top running backs in this draft. If they opt to go for a guy like Todd Gurley or Melvin Gordon, there's no way you can't immediately put them on the same level as Mathews was in 2010.
Overall, the Chargers present possibly one of the best fantasy situations for running backs in 2015 and are a team you must monitor in the offseason if you need a running back either on your dynasty team or if you're drafting one in a redraft league. If you want more information on Todd Gurley, check out Josh Mensch's prospect piece.
Breathe a sigh of relief. Go out and enjoy some of the incoming spring weather for a second. The biggest wave of free agency has likely passed us. With most of the big time players like Ndamukong Suh, DeMarco Murray and Brandon Marshall now signed with new teams, it's time to let the dust clear and really look at how some of the players might be used and what their fantasy value could be in 2015. For this article, we will focus on the newest running back tandem in the league, Ryan Mathews and DeMarco Murray in Philadelphia.
How they got there
The Eagles first hinted they were looking for a new running back when they traded away LeSean McCoy last week to the Buffalo Bills in exchange for linebacker Kiko Alonso. The move shaved $11 million off the salary cap for Philly, but left some wondering what the Eagles were thinking. After all, McCoy won the rushing title just two seasons ago in 2013, plus there wasn't exactly a huge free agency market for running backs. The immediate thought was the Eagles planned to grab a running back through the draft which features a talented crop of RBs this season.
But of course, that wasn't the case. They signed DeMarco Murray to a five-year, $42 million with $12 million guaranteed just a week later. At the same time Murray entered the picture, the Eagles were also in the midst of signing former Chargers running back Ryan Mathews, who they eventually inked for three years and $11 million. Financially, it makes sense. McCoy was due more than $9 million in 2015 and would've saddled the Eagles with a $10 million cap hit roughly. Now, the Eagles have both Murray and Mathews for just a $7.5 million cap hit. Overall, it's two running backs, Alonso and cornerback Walter Thurmond for the price of what McCoy would've cost. Not a bad tradeoff. Another nice thing about the trade — both running backs are in the prime of their careers and have rushed for over 1,000 yards in multiple seasons. On paper, it's a worthwhile endeavor, but who knows if it'll translate to more wins on the field.
The Mathews deal looked more like Chip simply getting a potentially good running back at a bargain price, while the Murray deal cemented the former Cowboy as the newest franchise running back of the Philadelphia Eagles. But how will it all translate from a fantasy perspective.
The carry breakdown
The Eagles have become a more run-oriented team since Chip arrived in 2013. In the past two seasons, the Eagles ranked in the top 5 in total rushing attempts and have seen one of their guys win a rushing title (LeSean McCoy in 2013.) While McCoy was a true feature back, seeing the majority of carries compared to then-backups Bryce Brown and Chris Polk, it's looking like there could be more of a committee style attack in 2015 with Murray still assuming the majority of the carries.
Last season, there were 415 rushing attempts by running backs in the Philadelphia offense. Murray ran the ball a league-leading 392 times in 2013, a workload that dwarfed any other running back by 100 carries. Even though Murray ended up winning the rushing title with more than 1,800 yards, it's safe to say Philadelphia likely won't run him as hard as Dallas did. Murray slowed down as the season went along, averaging just 2.6 yards per carry in two of the Cowboys' last four games.
Assuming both Murray and Mathews are healthy, Murray is the obvious choice for the majority of the carries. While some may be wondering whether or not Mathews will still have fantasy appeal, the answer is a little cloudy but still important to know in case you plan on drafting him in redraft leagues. Mathews will have RB2/flex appeal in 2015. He might have hot and cold weeks, but some weeks he'll rush for 60 yards and a touchdown and that's still worth 12 fantasy points in most leagues. Other weeks, Murray will take over. But the track record for running backs coming off a season where they carried the ball as much as Murray did hasn't favored the running back. Going back to guys like Larry Johnson, who carried the ball over 400 times in one season, it's safe to say you're not going to get the same kind of fantasy production from Murray that you did last season.
One thing you have to remember with running backs is matchups also play a huge role. Take last year for example. Darren Sproles got off to a hot start in 2014. He rushed for 71 yards and a touchdown in Week 1 against a lowly Jacksonville team. LeSean McCoy, on the other hand, ran for 74 yards on 21 carries. McCoy had more carries, but Sproles ended up having a slightly better fantasy day. This gave him confidence to slay the Colts in Week 2 on Monday Night. In that game, Sproles caught seven passes for 152 yards, giving those who started him in fantasy plenty of production.
You will want to keep an eye on who the Eagles play in Week 1. If they play a run defense that looks like it could be below average, Mathews is an obvious flex start in the offense. Now, he could fall flat on his face in Week 1 and not produce at all, at least then you'll know what kind of player you're dealing with this season, and can remain hesitant to start him in the coming weeks.
But overall, Mathews is a player that has to be drafted in 12-to-14 team leagues this season. He's still a talented running back in a run oriented offense. Plus, Murray always comes with a 'handle with care' sticker and could find himself on the injured reserve list at some point during the season. But even if Murray stays healthy, Mathews will likely see touches on the field and if he has the hot hand, then he'll be the one getting you 10-12 fantasy points that particular week.
A bishop can't ever morph into a king, right?
Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell certainly didn't enter the 2014 NFL season surrounded by the kind of hype typically reserved for the Adrian Peterson's, LeSean McCoy's and Jamaal Charles's. Despite that, Bell defied his ADP and crystallized his talent with profound rushing numbers and even sprinkled in some Jamaal Charles-esuqe performances few people knew he could pull off.
Bell finished with a career-best 1.361 rushing yards to go along with eight rushing touchdowns in 2014. Even more impressive was his evolution as a receiver. He caught 83 passes for 854 yards and three touchdowns. In total, he had 11 touchdowns and 2,215 yards from scrimmage, trailing only DeMarco Murray who finished with 2,261.
One consistent season
Bell began 2014 with a 100-yard game against the Cleveland Browns, a game the Steelers had to eke out 30-27 after starting off with a gigantic lead early in the game. Bell ended up with 109 yards on 21 rushes (5.2 yards per carry) and one touchdown. He also added six catches for 88 yards, a feat that would become more and more consistent as the season went along.
In the following game against Baltimore on one of those ever-so-weird Thursday night games, Bell's fantasy value suffered from game flow as the Baltimore Ravens out-possessed Pittsburgh 35:08 to 24:52, which limited Bell to only 11 carries. He still averaged 5.9 yards per carry and five catches for 48 yards though, which is probably the best indicator that you have a stud fantasy running back on your hands.
Bell never had a fantasy performance lower than six points, and finished with at least 10 points in 14-of-16 games. He peaked in Week 14 against Cincinnati where he totaled 41 fantasy points in standard leagues on 21 carries for 185 yards and two touchdowns to go along with six catches for 50 yards and one touchdown.
What he does
When you watch Bell on tape, he doesn't really do anything mind boggling. He's exceptional at keeping his feet moving laterally while he waits for the offensive line to develop their blocks, then he explodes through the hole with the kind of purpose that often makes the difference between a 3.5 yards per carry back and a 4.0 guy.
Although he rattled off runs of 81 and 53 yards in 2014, Bell's breakaway speed isn't exactly his calling as a runner. Instead, it's his ability to break tackles and eat up extra yardage by falling forward that makes him such a valuable asset to the offense and fantasy teams. He has a relentless style and the Steelers really committed to him especially down the stretch against below average run defenses. This was evident as the Pittsburgh Steelers ranked No. 1 in stuffed rate in 2014 according to Football Outsiders, meaning they had the fewer rushing plays go for negative yardage than any other team in the league.
After former teammate LaGarrette Blount was cut in Week 11, Pittsburgh started to lean on Bell even more heavily than they had all season. In four of the last five games, Bell rushed for carry totals of 21, 26, 20 and 20. His 290 carries ranked third in the league behind only LeSean McCoy and DeMarco Murray. Just a year earlier, Bell carried the ball just 244 times during his rookie season. Obviously, his high volume of carries in 2014 had a lot to do with his success throughout the season and the Steelers coaching staff's continued decisions to give him the ball as much as possible, but the offensive line of the Steelers also played a big role.
Pittsburgh's offensive line was among the best in 2014. They ranked sixth overall in run blocking and rarely allowed a play of negative yardage. Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey led the charge.
Editor's note: Our bullet point articles are written to better explain our weekly rankings, which you can find here.
The playoffs, we know they're here. We know what you need. So here are our bullet points for RBs this week.
Starts of this week
Jamaal Charles vs. Oakland, Matt Forte vs. New Orleans, Le'Veon Bell at Atlanta — #1, #2, and #3 in weekly rankings
It was really difficult to pick any of these guys for the top start, so we figured just go with all three. If you're lucky enough to have snagged two of them in your draft, you're sitting on a gold mine in Week 15. The only thing you have to worry about is Charles, who is a bit banged up with an ankle injury he suffered last week. Still, Andy Reid expects Charles to be a full go for Week 15.
When it comes to Forte, the New Orleans Saints have allowed 15 rushing touchdowns this season, which is tied for second worst in the league behind Atlanta. They allow a third-worst 21.5 points to fantasy running backs and are also in the bottom 10 against receivers, which is good for Forte as well considering he's a PPR dreamboat. Sorry....got a little carried away there.
Forte has dropped off a bit over the last two games so you may be a little concerned heading into Week 15. He averaged just 2.0 yards per carry against a suspect Dallas defense and understandably struggled against the best run defense in Detroit on Thanksgiving. Still, when he isn't feeding you the steak in the run game, he's supplementing it with some mean potatoes in the passing game. With 25 receptions over his last four games, you can count on Forte to continue to catch at least five passes per game and add 40-80 receiving yards on top of it. Even better, a 10-12 catch games is the ceiling for this guy, which is a skill sket you just can't get out of any fantasy running back.
As for Bell, you already know he's morphed into a superstar this season. He's coming off his best fantasy performance of the year against Cincinnati, where he totaled over 230 yards and three touchdowns combined rushing and receiving. His soft schedule has helped him out there's no question, not unlike LeSean McCoy's schedule down the stretch helped him win the rushing title last season. Bell will be going against an Atlanta defense that gives up the most fantasy points in the league to running backs (22.3 per game). The Falcons also allow the most rushing touchdowns in the NFL (17) and also allow 122 yards per game.
Mark Ingram at Chicago — #11 in weekly rankings
Da......Bears da Bears da Bears da Bears...have struggled on defense this season. They allowed Lions running back Joique Bell to rattle off a season-high 91 yards on Thanksgiving. They also allowed 196 yards and two touchdowns to Dallas over a week before. Ingram is coming off a dud game against Carolina and the Saints offense has been inconsistent throughout the year, but the trend with Ingram has consisted of one bad game followed by one good game. There's no reason he can't produce well in the flex spot this week. Roll with him.
Isaiah Crowell at Cincinnati — #17 in weekly rankings
Crowell is among our favorite waiver pickups and also among are favorite most frustrating start or sit options for 2014 (aside from maybe Kenny Stills). Crowell rewarded those who started him with 11 fantasy points last week and while Terrance West may see more carries than he did a week before, Crowell remains the most talented of the bunch with his 4.4 yards per carry average to go along with eight touchdowns. The Bengals are fourth worst against running backs, allowing 21.2 points per game.
Le'Veon Bell just gashed them for nearly 200 yards rushing and you have to figure with rookie Johnny Manziel starting today, the Browns may go run heavy if he struggles. Expect Crowell to see anywhere between 15-17 carries and come close to 100 yards and a touchdown today. Start him with confidence.
If you were lucky enough to make the fantasy playoffs in your league this season, chances are your lineup is already set. It's easy to know which guys to start for Week 14 right? You simply go with the guys that got you there. Your QB1, RB1, RB2, WR1, WR2, TE, DEF are all ready to go.
This idea of sticking with your studs is a philosophy we will endorse to the death. Advanced fantasy football people don't think twice about it, while beginners may get too cute and bench somebody because of a bad matchup or just a bad gut feeling. Word to the wise, your best players are matchup proof, so start them.
But even though your studs are set in stone, there are last-second tweaks that you can make to your flex spot that can often make the difference between a good week and a great one. Since flex players often aren't the most electric guys, their chances of success boil down to favorable matchups and a good situation. If you can find the right guy in the right matchup who's peaking at the right time, you can really give yourself an edge over an opponent that's probably just a good as you are because he's in the playoffs as well.
Here are five running backs who we would trust as flex options for your first playoff matchup in Week 14.
Carlos Hyde (owned in 36% of leagues) @ Oakland
Hyde has been one of the top fantasy handcuffs all season. He doesn't get a whole lot of opportunities but when he does, he runs hard and usually sees touches around the goal line. The 49ers have a good matchup against a Raiders team that's given up the most fantasy points to running backs (22 points per game) this season. It's likely the 49ers utilize Hyde and Frank Gore as a one-two punch and Hyde sees some production as a result.
Over the past three games, Hyde has recorded carry averages of 9, 7, and 5, respectively. He hasn't rushed for many yards in those games, but he has scored a touchdown against the New Orleans Saints, a bottom-five team in fantasy points allowed to running backs (20.4 points per game) on average. It's likely the Raiders could allow a similar result.
If you really don't know who to start in the flex spot and don't want to leave things up to a boom-or-bust receiver, Hyde is a good bet to give you some kind of production because of the matchup. San Francisco also ranks 8th in the league in rushing attempts (347), so the opportunities should be there for Hyde.
Jonathan Stewart (owned in 27% of leagues) @ New Orleans Saints
For the same reasons as we just mentioned for Hyde, Stewart could also benefit from a good matchup against the New Orleans Saints. With DeAngelo Williams likely out with a hand injury, Stewart steps in as the best running back option on a Panthers team in desperate need of offensive firepower.
Last week against Minnesota, Stewart averaged 7.1 yards per carry on his way to 85 yards on 12 attempts. It was Stewart's best game in over a month.
When it comes to the New Orleans Saints' defense, they've allowed 95 yards from Le'Veon Bell, 182 yards from Justin Forsett and 152 yards from Jeremy Hill over the last three weeks. Their defense hasn't shown any signs of improvement so expect the Panthers to go at them with the run game.
Isaiah Crowell (owned in 67% of leagues) vs. Indianapolis
Ok, so it's unlikely you'll snag the Crow off the waiver wire this week as he's owned in the majority of leagues. This advice is more for the people who already have him and are wondering if they should start him in this week. Well, we didn't like Crowell last week against Buffalo and we were vindicated, as he ended up rushing for just 29 yards on 17 carries (1.9 yards per carry) against a tough Buffalo run defense that swarmed him on nearly every play. It was like watching a guy repeatedly run into a brick wall at times.
But the key number in Crowell's stats is '17.' Crowell's 17 carries are a good indicator that the Browns will continue to run the ball even if the end result isn't positive yardage. They still used him around the goal line plenty as well, so a touchdown could be play. The Browns were also trailing in that game throughout and still committed to the run game, which is a good sign gameflow won't affect Crowell's numbers. Also, fellow rookie Terrance West gave up a costly fumble which could limit his workload going forward.
As for the matchup, the Colts rank in the bottom five against running backs (19.9 points per game) and their offense hasn't taken good care of the ball all season long. Newly starting running back Dan 'Boom' Herron's has had issues with fumbles early on and quarterback Andrew Luck has thrown at least one interception in eight games this season. Add in the fact that the Browns have at least one takeaway in 8 straight games and this could be a game where we see Cleveland get a chance to turn mistakes into points.
Andre Williams (owned in 40% of leagues) @ Tennessee
Starter Rashad Jennings injured his ankle last week against Jacksonville but the injury is not considered to be serious. Even if Jennings is healthy, Williams is likely going to see some carries against a Titans team that ranks second worst in the league against running backs (21.8 fantasy points allowed per game).
Williams has not been very effective in his rookie year, as he's averaging just 2.9 yards per carry this season. Still, he's received a respectable 134 carries in 12 games. The Giants like to mix it up in the run game and Williams has the right matchup to at least snipe a touchdown and rush for 40-60 yards, making him a candidate for a solid 12-15 point game which is a great number for a flex spot.
LeGarrette Blount (owned in 63% of leagues) @ San Diego
Blount received the bulk of the workload against Green Bay with 10 carries and should be the Patriots No. 1 running back with Jonas Gray in the doghouse. San Diego has been OK against the run (15th overall) but they still surrendered over 100 yards to Justin Forsett last week and also gave up over 100 total rushing yards to both Miami and St. Louis.
It's likely Blount sees around 12-15 carries, rushes for 70 yards and scores a touchdown. You just have to take the risk that Shane Vereen or Brandon Bolden won't snipe one here or there. Even if they do, there's no reason to expect Blount to not see the majority of the carries in Week 14.