Fantasy Football: Which running backs will break out?

As I work on creating tiers on my draft board, one of the things I like to do at the top of Tier 2 is to list young players with big upside. As part of the process, I analyze which young players – especially at running back – are most likely to break out. In this post, we’ll share that analysis of potential breakout running backs, both among veterans and among the top rookies.

(For analysis of who fits on Tier 1, check out our RB, WR, and QB Tier 1 posts. And though it isn’t our work, this fantasy football depth chart site is invaluable.)

Worth the Tier 2 gamble

Ryan Mathews, Chargers – Mathews wasn’t the first running back taken in the April draft, but he certainly has the best opportunity to make a big fantasy impact among rookie runners. Mathews is a big, burly back who can handle 20 carries a game, and he moves into a San Diego offense that helped make LaDainian Tomlinson a fantasy record-setter. With Darren Sproles still in town, Mathews won’t put up LDT numbers, but Mathews should come in with a terrific season – 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns is well within reach. That makes Mathews a great rookie to take a shot on atop Tier 2.

Knowshon Moreno, Broncos – As a rookie, Moreno piled up 1,150 yards from scrimmage and nine total touchdowns, even though he had 10 carries or fewer in five of his 16 games. Moreno still faces a carries challenge from Correll Buckhalter, and Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels is from the Bill Belichick school of rotating running backs, but it’s fair to assume that, in his second year, Moreno will break through the 1,000-yard barrier on the ground. He should finish with upward of 1,300 total yards, and if he gets the 8-10 touchdowns that usually accompany that kind of yardage, Moreno will find himself securely in Tier 2. We predict a modest increase in his numbers, and that makes him a solid fantasy starter.

Jonathan Stewart, Panthers – The Daily Show had another fine fantasy season last year, running for 1,133 yards and averaging 5.1 yards per carry. He also grabbed 139 receiving yards, and, more importantly for fantasy owners, scored double-digit touchdowns for the second straight season. Even in a 60-40 carry split behind DeAngelo Williams, Stewart has proven he’s a legitimate fantasy starter. And when you consider that the Panthers won’t have Jake Delhomme turning the ball over constantly in ’10, both Williams and Stewart could actually see their numbers increase in the upcoming season. Because of his role, his week-to-week production can fluctuate, but the end-of-season results make it impossible to omit Stewart from Tier 2. He’s easily a top-20 fantasy back, and he’s knocking on the door of an even more elite group. And if Williams were to get hurt, Stewart’s stock would shoot up even more. He’s the real deal for fantasy owners.

Jamaal Charles, Chiefs – Charles had shown flashes of great ability in his rookie season and into his second year, but it wasn’t until Larry Johnson was sent packing that Charles exploded. He had at least 17 touches in each of the final eight games, and the results were six days with 100 yards from scrimmage and eight total touchdowns. So if the late-season status was the same, Charles would be a no-brainer for Tier 2 and a contender for Tier 1. But the Chiefs’ addition of Thomas Jones in the offseason will limit Charles’ opportunities enough to make him a borderline Tier 2 player. Charles (who had an impressive 40 catches last season) will still pile up 1,200 total yards, but Jones could steal a few touchdown chances and hold down Charles’ upside. So entering the season, we’ll include Charles at the bottom of Tier 2, with the proviso that if Jones gets hurt Charles could easily become a top-10 fantasy back.

Shonn Greene, Jets – Greene emerged as a running threat in the playoffs last year, and the Jets were sold to the point that they cut Thomas Jones and traded Leon Washington in the offseason. Now Greene and Tomlinson, who came over from San Diego, are the runners in an offense that depends on the ground game. Greene averaged five yards a carry in the regular season last year, and he had two 100-yard games in the postseason. Greene hasn’t proven he’ll be an end-zone specialist, and he hasn’t been much of a receiver out of the backfield, which limits his upside for fantasy owners. But if you’re looking for a No. 2 running back who will pile up 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns without making you sweat while still giving you the potential for much more, Greene’s a good option.

Beanie Wells, Cardinals – As a rookie last year, Wells started slowly, but he ended up with 793 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. More importantly, he established himself as at least an equal partner with Tim Hightower in the backfield by about Week 6, and from that point on Wells was a solid option. With Hightower around, Wells is unlikely to get more than about 18 touches a game, especially since Hightower trumps him in the receiving department. But with Kurt Warner gone, there should be more carries in Arizona, and that bodes well for Wells. And if Hightower were to get hurt, Wells’ upside jumps considerably. We think a 1,000-yard season is in the offing for Wells, and it should come with 8-10 touchdowns. That makes him a guy we’ll sneak onto Tier 2 as an upside play.

Wait to roll the dice

Felix Jones, Cowboys – As the season dawns, it looks as though Jones has a leg up on Marion Barber and Tashard Choice in the Cowboys’ crowded backfield. That’s important, because while Barber and Choice are more physical runners, Jones is the Cowboy with the most breakaway ability. After playing just six games as a rookie, Jones stayed healthy enough for 14 last year, and the results included 800 total yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns. With a few more touches (and good health, which isn’t a given), Jones could knock those numbers up to 1,200 yards from scrimmage and eight touchdowns. But while that upside is there, Dallas’ stacked depth chart and Jones’ injury history make it unlikely. So we’ll leave Jones off Tier 2 and consider him an exciting No. 3 fantasy back instead of a dependable No. 2.

LeSean McCoy, Eagles – With Brian Westbrook gone, McCoy looks primed to take over as the Eagles’ No. 1 back. But don’t read too much into that role. FB Leonard Weaver proved last year that he needs to get a few carry chances in each game, and free-agent signee Mike Bell is going to find a role too. Given that situation, it appears that McCoy’s best games will be 80-yard, single-touchdown affairs, and he could finish under 1,000 yards for the season despite being the starter in Philly. McCoy is only a borderline fantasy starter, and that leaves him on Tier 3 instead of with the starters-with-upside group in Tier 2.

Jahvid Best, Lions – Best is one of three running backs who was selected in the first round of the NFL draft, and like Mathews he seems to have a clear shot at starting, at least until Kevin Smith returns from a major knee injury at midseason. But Best proved to be a bit brittle in college, and he looks like a back who can succeed more in 15 touches a game than a carry-the-load, 25-carry guy. Best will make his share of big plays, but he’s more of a matchup play and a bye-week fill-in for fantasy owners than a guy they will want to depend on each and every week. Others may be enamored with Best’s skills, but our feel for his role causes us to leave him on Tier 3.

C.J. Spiller, Bills – Spiller may be the most skilled of the rookie running backs, and he proved in college that he could break a big play on a run, catch, or a return. But Spiller doesn’t have a clear shot to carries in Buffalo, where even with Marshawn Lynch apparently out of favor, Fred Jackson still merits touches. Spiller is small enough that a carry split is wise, at least early in his career, but Buffalo’s below-par offensive line is another strike against Spiller’s fantasy value. As long as Jackson is around, Spiller isn’t more than a No. 3 fantasy running back in most leagues. On Tier 3, he’ll provide enough big plays to be an exciting option for fantasy owners. On Tier 2, though, Spiller’s numbers will be sporadic enough to make him a disappointment. So drafters should hold off on picking Spiller until the Tier 3 level.

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “Fantasy Football: Which running backs will break out?

  1. A dallas coach said that Barber is just as fast again as ever been in his career. His quad has healed except for a hole. Barber and Tomlinson will go later in drafts then Felix Jones and Greene, but they could be better fantasy players. McCoy never got enough touches last season, but Mike Bell is underated and has good potential for goal line touches like when he replaced Pierre Thomas. Brandon Jacobs is supposed to be totally healthy, but splitting with Bradshaw who like Jones had serious injury issues. Bradshaw is not healthy, and I like the sleeper Brandon Jacobs.

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