This is where things start to get interesting.
Parts one and two of my rankings consisted of handcuff and high-upside running backs that you would target late in the draft, stash on your bench, and hope they pan out. Part three features some running backs that will be relevant as soon as week one. Guys that will more than likely make their way into the flex position of your lineup will appear on this portion of the list.
Now, there are still some handcuffs and passing-down backs to appear on this list, but these guys are the cream of the crop when dealing with bench pieces. Passing-down running backs that have fantasy value, even with limited snaps, and handcuffs to the top two running backs in the game. Except, these handcuff would be very solid fantasy options (RB2 territory) if the roadblocks ahead of them weren’t so spectacular.
48) Terrance West, Cleveland Browns.
West didn’t get an overwhelming amount of snaps in 2014, but he made the most of his opportunity. While competing with Isaiah Crowell and Ben Tate for playing time, West compiled a final line of 171/673/4. Again, he’s competing with Crowell and rookie Duke Johnson for the right to carry the rock.
Despite not being as physically gifted as the rookie Johnson, West has been given first-team reps along side Crowell. Even though there were times last season where both West and Crowell underwhelmed Browns fans and fantasy owners alike, Head Coach Mike Pettine says that West “has been great” during OTAs.
ESPN Cleveland also reported that the Browns’ coaching staff will “ride the hot hand” when choosing a starter at running back. West’s solid OTA showing is encouraging, but anything can happen come training camp. Who knows? Maybe Crowell or Johnson will show up and impress the coaching staff further? All we know for sure is that West is the incumbent starter, despite not being as physically gifted as Duke Johnson and having less of a nose for the end-zone as Isaiah Crowell (Crowell had seven red-zone touchdowns on 15 carries to West’s four on 26 attempts).
From a pure talent standpoint, he might be an underdog in this fight for playing time. This might not bother him, as he is one for rising to the occasion. Just check out the line he produced in three divisional road games and the Browns’ home opener against the Saints, a game in which they won despite being 6.5 point home dogs.
16/100/0 @ Pittsburgh Week 1
19/68/1 vs. New Orleans Week 2
26/94/1 @ Cincinnati on Thursday Night Football
18/94/1 @ Baltimore Week 17 (A game with major playoff implications for the Ravens.)
West managed to show up in big games, let’s see if that type of determination will translate into him seizing this starting job.
47) Bishop Sankey, Tennessee Titans
There weren’t many bigger 2014 disappointments in fantasy football than Bishop Sankey.
I feel for those who drafted Sankey to be anything more than a bench/flex option last season. My god, was he awful.
For those who depended on Sankey to provide the goods, he came up short in spectacular fashion. He finished with a 152/569/2 line. In fact, he rushed for over 60 yards just ONCE! (he had 61 on ten carries week three at Cincy).
And, it’s not like he had any sort of competition on the depth chart to fend off. His main playing time predators were Shonn Greene and Dexter McCluster.
Much of his struggles can be attributed to him struggling to grasp the basic footwork and fundamentals that coincide with pass protection, struggling to learn a professional playbook and read opposing defenses. Maybe, the quarterback situation –and offense as a whole- didn’t provide Sankey with any sort of advantage, but this is the NFL; Not For Long. If you can’t hack it as a professional, the higher-ups will find someone who will. Enter David Cobb (more on him later).
Hey, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe an offseason of hard work and studying will pay off for Sankey, and he can be the back many of us thought he would be when he was the first running back taken in the 2014 NFL Entry Draft. However, I’ll believe it when I see it.
46) Jay Ajayi, Miami Dolphins
Ever since I wrote about this kid in my second rookie preview back in June, I have been completely enamored with his ability. The only FBS running back to eclipse 1,800 yards rushing and 500 yards receiving slipped down in the 2015 draft due to a mysterious “injury concern” that was, according to Ajayi’s agent, fabricated. If you haven’t heard about the story, or just need a refresher, check out this article about a medical re-check at the combine that Ajayi reportedly never attended, but still happened to have some X-rays of his knee. The infamous X-rays caused his draft stock to plummet to the fifth round.
Ajayi reminds me a lot of Frank Gore when he came out of Miami. Gore had some huge
question marks regarding his knee coming out of college, but still turned out a durable and lengthy career. Ajayi is a power back that can handle himself in the passing game (see his 500+ receiving yards at Boise St. in 2014). At the very least, he will be in a time-share with Lamar Miller, who has underwhelmed as a pass catcher, dropping six of his 48 targets in 2014. He also very well could be the goal-line back. I get the feeling that in 2016, I will be talking about what Lamar Miller’s impact will be as the change-of-pace back to Ajayi.
Bottom line, he will get carries out of the gate. Miller has carried the ball more than 15 times only eight times in his career, and has only had 19 or more carries three times. Ajayi has that bellcow potential, and at his current ADP, I am more than willing to take the gamble. He’s one of my favorite “sleepers”, for sure.
45) Jerick McKinnon, Minnesota Vikings
Yes, Adrian Peterson’s reinstatement kills any immediate fantasy impact that McKinnon would have, limiting him to handcuff duties.
Yes, all he is right now is a handcuff. But, *spoiler alert*, he’s the handcuff to the number one running back in fantasy. Yes, if it’s me with the first overall pick in a draft, I’m taking Adrian Peterson, and I’m making sure I reach for McKinnon at some point later on in the draft.
In limited playing time in Norv Turner’s offense last season, McKinnon produced 113/538/0. A line that works out to 4.76 YPC. He also caught 27 passes on 41 targets.
Again, if it weren’t for the relegation to handcuff duties, he would be a very interesting running back to pay attention to. He would be coming into his second year and the clear-cut favorite for carries in an up-and-coming offense (yes, I am a Bridgewater believer). Alas, this isn’t the case. He’s a premium handcuff that all Adrian Peterson owners need to snatch.
44) Knile Davis, Kansas City Chiefs
Yes, another handcuff.
In just about any other situation, he would be a low-end RB1. Knile Davis is somebody you either reach for when rostering Jamaal Charles, or you blow your FAAB budget to grab if/when Charles goes down. If he ever went to a situation where he was the top dog, he would be ranked right up there with Melvin Gordon, Jeremy Hill, and Alfred Morris. I really believe in his abilities.
Here are the two slash lines from his only two starts:
2013: Week 17 @ San Diego: 27/81/2
2014: Week 3 @ Miami: 32/132/1 (Alex Smith’s line from that game, for comparison’s sake, was 19-25/186/3-0)
He also did the following in relief in 2014:
22/79/2 @ Denver Week 2
16/107/0 versus New England at home in a blowout win.
16/49/1 versus St. Louis at home in another blowout win.
My point being, whenever Charles isn’t playing, this guy is tearing the league a new one. Please, for the love of football, draft this guy if you draft Charles.
43) Andre Williams, New York Giants
Williams did actually end-up having a decent year after his pre-season hype got pretty high, following a strong showing in the Hall of Fame Game. 217/721/7 is very respectable from a rookie back who was behind Rashad Jennings, and Peyton Hillis at one point, on the depth chart. He lead the Giants in rushing and became their bellcow down the stretch.
He’s a downhill runner with good vision, but lacks true breakaway speed. With the addition of Shane Vereen, a quicker, pass-catching runner, Williams might be relegated to change-of-pace duties and goal-line work. He will again, have to compete with veteran Rashad Jennings for those carries during running downs.
Given the nature of Ben McAdoo’s fast-paced, quick-throw, West Coast Offense, Vereen might be the better fit, and therefore, will more likely see more action than the other two. In 2014, the Giants threw 58% of the time and 57% of red-zone snaps resulted in a passing play. Again, this would make Williams the short-yardage, goal-line back in this offense, which, has value. He probably won’t put up the yardage numbers he produced in his rookie campaign.
44) Danny Woodhead, San Diego Chargers
Danny Woodhead is a PPR monster at the RB position. In 2013, his last full season, he caught 76/605/6 on 88 targets, in addition to running for 106/429/2.
So, lemme get this straight, 1,000+ all-purpose yards and eight touchdowns on under 200 touches? Yes. He was that good in 2013. And, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune, he looked healthy at OTAs after suffering from a gruesome leg injury early in 2014.
Now, with rookie Melvin Gordon in the fold, he may not see that volume of playing time again. He will more than likely be used for passing downs, two-minute drills, and according to ESPN.com, the primary check-down option in the red zone. Gordon didn’t show too much in the way of pass-catching in college (only caught 22 total passes during his Wisconsin tenure).
No matter where Woodhead has gone, he has found his way into a significant role. The pride of Chadron St. simply does not take “no” for an answer. He will find his way onto the field, one way or another. He’s a threat in the running game, passing game, and he even racked up 262 kick return yards in 2013. Until his body tells him he can’t, he will. He will be a sneaky source of fantasy points in 2015.
43) Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons
Devonta Freeman is the reason why I’m not jumping on the Tevin Coleman bandwagon just yet.
Freeman showed some blazing speed in his rookie campaign. He’s young, quick, and showed some promise in limited time last season. Now, he may never be a feature back, bellcow-type, but I believe in his talent enough to think that the Atlanta running game will begin the year as a 50/50 time-share between Coleman and Freeman; a little thunder-lightening if you will.
Freeman finished with 65/248/1 and 30/225/1 receiving on 37 targets. He didn’t get the snaps that I thought he would last preseason, but he managed to make something out of nothing sitting behind Steven Jackson last season.
Really though, owning any running back in a Kyle Shanahan offense could prove to be lucrative. In 2014, the Shanahan-led Browns ran 48.7% of the the time. In the red-zone, those numbers ballooned to 63.2%, and 67.2% in goal-to-go situations.
Freeman appears to be handling the passing-down half of this time-share according to Head Coach Dan Quinn. Quinn had this to say about Freeman:
“He’s tough,” said Quinn. “He’s got great quickness. He’s a factor for sure.”
He also mentioned that Freeman is “to be featured in a lot of different ways,” including receiving.
(Quotes gathered by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.)
Either way, Freeman has too much talent not to see playing time in 2015. Grab him while the Coleman hype-train is in full-throttle.
42) Darren Sproles, Philadelphia Eagles
Sproles is Danny Woodhead, but with much more raw ability.
Even at age 32, Sproles has the speed to make defenders look like pylons. And yes, he may not get the carries a traditional productive NFL running back normally gets with the additions of DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews, but the Eagles will find a way to get him the ball regardless of his standing on the depth chart.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that Sproles spent the majority of OTAs taking reps as the slot receiver in Chip Kelly’s offense. This is an interesting proposition given the receiving talent of Jordan Matthews and Nelson Agholor, (Miles Austin doesn’t really inspire much confidence in anybody).
Between 2005-2011, Sproles had at least 1,000 kick return yards. Given the depth at running back in Philadelphia, it’s possible that Sproles could return to his roots and return kicks again.
So, Sproles doesn’t have to carry the ball much to be fantasy-relevant. He could run a little, catch a few passes, and return kicks to earn his keep on your roster. Many will look at his depth chart ranking, and pass. Think outside the box, and draft Sproles for his raw ability and the coaching staff’s commitment to a crafty veteran and his freakish quickness.
41) Tre Mason, St. Louis Rams
While I am a huge Todd Gurley fan/believer, I do think that Tre Mason will be worthy of a draft pick in 2015.
Mason had a very soild rookie campaign, 179/765/4, despite missing the first four games as a healthy scratch. If Gurley wasn’t a Ram, Mason would be a solid RB2, no question. The second-year back, who ran a 4.50 forty in 2014, would be the feature back in Jeff Fisher’s run-first offense.
Mason had an incredible second-half of 2014. He averaged 70.7 yds/game over his final seven games. Check out his best games of 2014, two of which came from the two teams that played in the Super Bowl the year before:
18/85/1 versus Seattle at home.
29/113/0 versus Denver at home.
14/117/2 versus Oakland in St. Louis. (This included an 89-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.)
13/76/1 versus the Giants at home.
He showed more than a few flashes of brilliance in 2014, and with Todd Gurley starting camp on the non-football injury list to start camp, he will probably get first-team reps early in camp. If this is the case, then Gurley will more than likely start the season on the PUP list. With the Rams taking a patient approach to their future franchise back, Mason could see some playing time early on. When everyone else is drafting handcuffs to their RB1 and other bench filler-types, why not grab a guy who can give you RB2-level production for the first month or so (provided Gurley’s health)?
40) David Cobb, Tennessee Titans
If I were running the Tennessee Titans, David Cobb would be my starter.
Essentially, he is Bishop Sankey, except he has actual talent. If you missed my evaluation of Cobb in my rookie preview, read it here.
Despite missing most of OTAs with a hamsting injury, Cobb>Sankey. Draft accordingly.
39) Charles Sims, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Sims probably would have started 2014 as the starter if he didn’t fracture his ankle in the preseason. Lovie Smith and company loved this guy last training camp. He is a pass-catching running back that isn’t afraid to take it up the middle, similar to another running back Lovie Smith had in Chicago. He is currently jockeying for the starting job with Doug Martin, being the favorite going into OTAs; Martin has since closed the gap, but here’s why Sims will more than likely be a viable fantasy option.
New Bucs’ Offensive Coordinator Dirk Koetter ran the Falcons’ offense from 2012-2014. In
2014, the Falcons passed the ball 63% of the time. Jacquizz Rodgers and Devonta Freeman combined for 77 targets. Jameis Winston drew many comparisons to Matt Ryan coming out of the draft and the Buccaneers have two very good receivers, much like the Falcons do. This offense will be very trigger-happy in 2015. Why not gamble on a back with a pass-catching pedigree in an offense that’s primed to throw a ton?
Sims was the running back that was hand-picked by this coaching staff a year ago, they will give him every opportunity to shine.
This concludes this week’s rankings segment. Tune in next Monday (yes, my publish date has been moved to Mondays now, take note) for my next installment of my running back rankings.
Until then, cheers!
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