By Dustin Pritchard, 5.28.2013
Generally undrafted last season (ADP 144.8), Washington Redskins RB Alfred Morris blew our minds as a 6th round rookie out of Florida Atlantic University, starting every game and ending with the second most rush yards in the NFL (1613). Leading up to the beginning of the season, the fantasy community was still weary of Skins HC Mike Shanahan and his past personnel Shanahanigans and generally puzzled about what to do with this backfield. With RBs Evan Royster, a 6th round pick the year before, and Roy Helu, who’d posted three consecutive 100 yard games in 2011, in the mix to start nobody was absolutely sure what ole’ Shanny would do. Multiple fantasy pundits recommended to avoid the Redskins running backs altogether. We find value going against the grain of the mainstream fantasy community, and naturally were involved in several murky RB situations (GB, DEN, NE, WAS). Naturally we were able to hit on a few (Shane Vereen, Willis McGahee/Knowshon Moreno, and of course Mr. Morris) and turn a nice profit. Those backs are perfect examples of why you need to follow these types of situations closely.
Here are the most ambiguous backfields in the NFL in May. If you can navigate these competitions effectively, which we will help you do here, you will consistently find late round value while the other managers have already loaded up on the “secure” early round backs. The order the backs are listed in is our preference and also prediction of where they will be on the depth chart beginning 2013 (current position rank in parentheses).
This is without a doubt the most wide open competition. 2nd year back Isaiah Pead, a 2nd round pick in 2012, struggled in his rookie season, and fell behind 6th round pick Daryl Richardson on the depth chart. Pead is unhappy with his rookie performance and will play with a chip on his shoulder this season. The Rams drafted Pead in the 2nd round for a reason, and the dynamic talent will likely prevail over Richardson, who’s more of a grinder. Not totally confident with who they had on the roster, the Rams used a draft pick (they actually traded up), a 5th rounder, on Zac Stacy, a second team All SEC selection from Vanderbilt. This is the real darkhorse for this job. He is a good scheme fit for this offense and many fantasy thinkers are already jumping on board the Stacy train. Ganaway isn’t a serious threat to start. Nonetheless, he is in the competition and needs to be accounted for.
Going into the NFL Draft, the Packers backfield looked shaky with the inexperienced Dujuan Harris, overhyped Alex Green, and brittle James Starks in tow. After drafting Alabama’s Eddie Lacy in the 2nd round and UCLA’s Johnathan Franklin in the 4th, a pair some thought to be the best two RB in the entire draft, the Packers have totally revamped their rushing attack. Lacy looks like the starter right now with Franklin backing him up, spelling him on passing downs and a drive here and there, but make no mistake this is an open competition. HC Mike McCarthy actually talked up Harris before the
draft as one half of their rushing attack, so don’t count him out of siphoning rushes from Lacy or Franklin either. You can count out Alex Green and James Starks though, one of which will likely be cut and the other simply provid ing depth. We’re bullish Franklin’s talent. Some teams still believe Lacy will face injury issues with his toe in the future long term too, but we’re not that worried in his rookie year, just acutely aware. Sometimes you have to trust that the Packers know more than you think you do. If Lacy goes down though, Franklin becomes a nice RB2/3.
New HC Bruce Arians favors a single rusher attack, as opposed to a running back by committee (RBBC), so it’s likely that whoever wins this competition will get most of the carries, making the losers purely handcuff material. In picking Stanford RB Stepfan Taylor in the 5th round and Clemson speedster Andre Ellington in the 6th round, the Cardinals signaled that they were not confident in RBs Rashard Mendenhall and Ryan Williams. Williams is coming off a shoulder injury that followed an ACL tear in 2o11, while Mendenhall, coming off an ACL tear of his own suffered late in the 2011 season, was suspended by the Steelers in 2012 for being a jerk and later deactivated due to poor play. It’s really hard to be confident in any of these guys. We do believe that Arians will bring the points with him to Arizona, so whoever wins this job will be very deserving of a roster spot based on opportunity alone. Mendy is the favorite to start right now, but any of these 4 as the week 1 starter would not surprise us. With Vick Ballard in Indy last season, Arians showed that he’s not afraid to roll with a rookie running back, so don’t count out Stepfan Taylor, who lacks straight line speed, but is a very complete back, or Andre Ellington, who is all about straight line speed and agility, and likely fell in the draft due to his size (5’9, 199 lb.), not his talent.
Pittsburgh Steelers – Le’Veon Bell (25), Jonathan Dwyer (48), Isaac Redman (70)
Pretty much everybody is giving this one to the Steelers’ 2nd round pick out of Michigan State, Le’Veon Bell. People around the team are very excited about the this back. With a unique combination of size (235 lbs.), quick feet, and soft hands, he certainly looks the part. But we need to temper our excitement at least a tiny bit. The last time the Steelers drafted a RB in the first two rounds was when they used a first rounder on Rashard Mendenhall in 2008 and he could not pass aging Willie Parker on the depth chart, later fracturing his shoulder in game 4, ending his season (oddly in hindsight this looks very predictable. This time around there’s no aging, yet effective veteran preventing Bell from starting. Bell’s only threats come from underwhelming Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman. It should be noted that Dwyer, not Bell, opened OTAs running with the first team, for whatever that’s worth. We think Bell will win the job.
Denver Broncos – Montee Ball (23), Willis McGahee, Knowshon Moreno (Ronnie Hillman’s role as 3rd down RB is set)
With 2nd year back Ronnie Hillman likely entrenched as the team’s 3rd down back, the very fantasy friendly Broncos’ early down/ goal line work is up for grabs. With veterans Willis McGahee and Knowshon Moreno already on the roster, the Broncos drafted Wisconsin RB Montee Ball with their 2nd round pick. The Broncos are in win now mode, so the fact that they spent such a high pick on what was generally viewed as a weak position means to us that they aren’t just going to let the 58th pick in the draft sit on the bench, he will be contributing immediately. McGahee and Moreno produced well in 2011, but that can be more attributed to the opportunity than the talent. If the Broncos felt good with those two, then they would not have used a 2nd round pick on Ball, already a very polished product. The Broncos will probably cut the more expensive of the two, McGahee, leaving Moreno as a backup with starting experience that can play all three downs. If they end up keeping McGahee and cutting Moreno, we would still lean to Ball, but wouldn’t be as confident because Elway and co. aren’t likely to pay a 32 year old RB $2.5 million to be a backup. Until then, we will monitor this one and cross that bridge when we get there.
Cincinnati Bengals – Benjarvus Green-Ellis (34), Giovani Bernard (35)
This one isn’t on the radar yet, probably because this is more of an RBBC right now than a full fledged competition, but the talent of Bengals 2nd round pick Giovani Bernard is undeniable. Therefore, we see the versatile Bernard’s play forcing the Bengals to make him the starter a few games into the 2013 season. There’s no doubt BJGE has a nose for the goal line (30 rushing TDs in past three seasons is evidence of that), but the lack of receiving skills and lateral ability, make him an early down/ goal line back at best, complete backup at worst. With a pedestrian 3.9 YPC in 2012, actually up a bit from his 3.7 YPC in 2011, we don’t like the Law Firm’s long term prospects. Plus, as you saw with Denver, Pittsburgh, and Green Bay’s selections of RBs in the 2nd round, teams in win now mode (all mentioned are) probably aren’t spending high picks on running backs they don’t plan to play. Basically, it’s not a competition right now, but we believe Bernard’s play will force it to be sooner rather than later.
Follow these competitions closely this off season. You might just find this year’s Alfred Morris.
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