While the fantasy landscape has certainly changed over the years, the idea that a team cannot make a serious run for a championship without a solid stable of backs remains one of the truest statements we can make. What can be debated is what strategy yields the best season long team.
One of the oldest fantasy strategy stems from a time when securing two bell cow running backs was the key to a championship team. Fast forward a decade or two, and there’s even fewer elite backs than there were in the heyday making RB/RB strategies a little less necessary but no less effective when done right.
The idea is that, with a relatively shallow pool of top tier backs, securing two of them gives you a notable advantage over every team you play as 99.9% of formats force two backs to start every week. Drafting early gives you an advantage by securing one of the elite backs at the top of the position, but drafting late secures you two RB1’s with this strategy.
A few possible pairings would be as follows:
- Early Pick: Elliott/Gurley/Bell with Mixon/McCaffrey/McKinnon
- The simple fact that your three highest ranked players are the ones we’ve named further emphasizes the need for a 2nd high end back.
- Middle Pick: Barkley/Kamara/Fournette with Cook/Howard/Freeman
- This is where you see the strategy work the best, in my opinion, as you’ve secured two RB2’s and only have a handful of picks before you can fill your top receiver position.
- Late Pick: A combination of Fournette, Hunt, Gordon, and Cook
- We’d argue that drafting near the turn in the first is the position least shackled to rankings. With a long wait before round 3, we suggest taking the two backs who you feel have the best chance at being a top back. If you like Mixon better than Hunt or Gordon, by all means grab him.
The strategy is a sound one, and one that has produced numerous fantasy winners, but it does present it’s own difficulties. By skipping the receiver position, you do weaken yourself against teams that diversify. There’s something to be said about “owning” a position, but with players likely to elevate beyond their draft price, it’s a risk that’s easy to swallow.
One of the more difficult draft strategies, the ZeroRB strategy (and it’s many hybrids) argue that the middle and late tiers at the RB position feature the highest value. Building up elite talent at WR early and often adding a TE and QB first, a true ZeroRB team would select it’s first back in the 6th round or later. Here’s a list of the types of backs you’d be targeting in those middle rounds to fill out your roster.
- 6th: Rashaad Penny, Royce Freeman, Ronald Jones
- 7th: Marshawn Lynch, Dion Lewis, Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead
- 8th: Kerryon Johnson, Marlon Mack, Tevin Coleman, Carlos Hyde
- 9th: Jamaal Williams, Isaiah Crowell, Tarik Cohen, Duke Johnson
It may be terrifying to go into week one with a RB group of Royce Freeman, Rex Burkhead, Kerryon Johnson, and Jamaal Williams, but you’d also have 4 likely starters despite having waited until those middle rounds that no one wants to draft in.
The idea that pairing those 4 backs (and 2 more later round backs like Chris Carson, Peyton Barber, Chris Thompson, or Doug Martin) with three top 15 WRs is why the ZeroRB strategy has taken on so many band-wagoners in the past few years. If you’re comfortable identifying talent in those late rounds, this is a very viable strategy… if not, skip it all together.
Alternating; RB/WR or WR/RB
Depending on where you’re drafting, this is a strategy that both makes sense, but also sets you up with a weaker roster as you’re conceding both the WR and the RB position to teams who drafted strong at either position. That’s not to say it’s not a viable way to build your roster, but it would require a sound understanding of ADP data and how your league drafts.
Before I make it sound all doom and gloom, this is closer to how I draft than either of the back to back strategies. My personal preference is to draft my highest ranked player in the first four rounds, either RB or WR… and there’s a reason for that. Much like Bill Belichik drafts the best available vs to fill a need, there’s value in grabbing both positions if you can get a player who may have fallen to your 2nd pick.
Players who may fall into this category are guys like Julio Jones or Odell Beckham for wide outs, or Melvin Gordon or Leonard Fournette. If those guys are shunned by your fellow owners, don’t skip them just to stick to your WR/WR
For years it seemed that the elite fantasy running back was going the way of the dodo thanks to backfield committees and an increased reliance on the passing game. That seems to be shifting back slightly with NFL teams hitting on several early round running backs in recent seasons, and using their top guys in the passing game an increasing amount. Still, the offseason presents a handful of roster shakeups that need to be reviewed to understand their impact.
San Fransico 49ers Sign Jerrck McKinnon
The noise from the Jimmy G show drowned out the success that San Fransisco had with their backfield last year, and it’s likely to be the case again this year. With Jerick McKinnon taking over for the departed Carlos Hyde, the question is how much of a workload can we expect the new starter?
Last year he showed flashes of being a well rounded back, capable of running on first down, but in a Kyle Shanahan offense, it could be his pass catching ability that seperates him from the field. While it’s unlikely he challenge for a spot in the top 5, it’s well within reason to expect a top 10 finish with some monster weeks sprinkled in.
Cleveland Browns Sign Carlos Hyde
This signing is a little harder to guage, as Hyde leaves San Fransisco as a workhorse and arrives in a backfield with an established pass catcher in Duke Johnson. You may be surprised to know that Duke Johnson finished 4th in both targets and receptions by a back, so to expect Hyde to step in and syphon large amounts of passing down targets may be a bit of a reach.
It’s more likely that he’ll see early down work and a major roll back on targets, with usage mirroring more closely what Isaiah Crowell experienced. Will he do more with the touches than the mercurial Crowell did? That remains to be seen, but it’s likely that he’ll be drafted off the strength of his 2017 numbers rather than the expectation that he’ll fall out of the top 10 and finish with a good 50 fewer points in 2018.
Tennesse Titans Sign Dion Lewis
I’d forgive you if you thought this signing wasn’t nearly as important as others I could have cited here, but you’d be wrong. This is a match made in heaven as Lewis is one of the NFL’s premier 3rd down backs, and he’s being paired with a two down bruiser that should keep him fresh and on the field.
A high efficiency pass catcher, Lewis has hauled in 80% of targets sent his way in his career, and while New England’s backfield has never been a sure thing, Tennessee is likely to use him in a more consistent and predictable manner. His floor looks something like 45 catches for 400 yards and 4 touch downs, and whatever else he gets on the ground (it won’t be much) but the potential is there in an evolving offense for a 75 target year. Don’t target him in the early rounds, but if you can snag him in the mid to late rounds, he could be a valuable PPR asset.
New England Patriots Sign Jeremy Hill
Sure, we’ve heard this story before, as recently as last season when the Patriots threw a bunch of money into the backfield in the form of Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee. Burkhead turned into a fine Patriot, and is likely to split third downs with James White, but no one seemed to capture that early down roll that was left when LeGarrette Blount went to Philly.
In comes a former early round fantasy stud, Jeremy Hill. After averaging 5 yards per carry as a 22 year old rookie, his contributions seemed to wane more each year, culminating in a 2017 that saw him as the third option in the backfield for a team that seemed to miss use it’s backs all year long. Still only 25 years old, Hill has the chance to take over lead back duties in a Patriots backfield that doesn’t feature any other game breakers. Sure, he could just as likely find himself cut before the season starts, but I’d bet he catches on in New England.
Oakland Raiders Sign Doug Martin
Okay, so what if I seem to think the Muscle Hampster is going to have a bounce back year every year. The truth is he’s still an incredibly gifted runner between the tackles, and he’s leaving Tampa Bay where success has been difficult to come by with any consistency from any of that teams star players.
Instead, he finds himself in a backfield competing for early down touches against two uninspiring backs. While Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington both had their moments, neither one has the pedigree that Martin has. He’s shown the ability to bounce back before, and I expect a solid season out of him this year.
Honorable Mentions: Last year I was all in on the Jets as a sneaky source of fantasy contributions.This year, I’ve tempered my expectations, but the signings of Thomas Rawls and Isaiah Crowell mean there will be an open competition for the first two downs. Also in New York, the Giants have added Jonathan Stewart to it’s backfield, likely in an attempt to gain some kind if spark. It’s crowded with Gallman, Perkins, and Darkwa in the wings, but when Stewart is healthy, he’s a fantastic early back.
As futile as the exercise may seem this early, identifying sleeper candidates is one of the most important pieces of research you can embark upon. Below we’ll identify three leading candidates for you to keep an eye on before the preaseaon starts.
Danny Woodhead – Baltimore Ravens | ADP 75 – RB28 | The running back situation in Baltimore has been in flux since the release of Ray Rice, and Woodhead looks to fill a void. While he can’t be relied upon for 250 rushes, the likelihood of 100 rushes and 75 receptions makes him an intriguing option, especially in PPR leagues. Prediction: 350 Rushing Yards, 750 Receiving yards, 6 total TDs
Doug Martin – Tampa Bay Buccaneers | ADP 105 – RB 36 | Reports out of Tampa regarding Martin are encouraging as he’s been seen in better shape and exhibiting better burst and speed in OTAs. While most take these reports with a grain of salt, Martin tends to be on the wrong side of the pre-season buzz, and he’s still the breadwinner in that backfield. Prediction: 1,000 Rushing Yards, 250 Receiving Yards, 8 Total TDs
Jamaal Williams – Green Bay Packers | ADP N/A – RB59 | This is a deep cut considering Williams isn’t being drafted enough in ESPN mock’s to show up in their ADP data, but Green Bay’s converted RB Ty Montgomery occupies a very specific slice of the offense leaving plenty of room for rookie RB Jamaal Williams to exist. While he’s unlikely to make a major impact early in the season, for dynasty and keeper leagues he’s worth a late round look. Prediction: 700 Total Yards, 6 Total TDs
Honorable Mention: Jamaal Charles, Den (ADP 116), Latavius Murray, Min (ADP 122), Chris Thompson, Was (ADP 170+)
After looking at the middle round gems for QB’s, we turn our attention to the muddled mess that is the middle to late round “committee” backs. While studs like David Johnson and Ezekiel Elliot will dominate the backfield touches for their respective teams, there are plenty of potential stars slogging through the expanded depth charts of “RB by Committee” coaches.
New England Patriots: There’s little doubt to the risk one assumes when drafting a NE running back. Gillislee projects to man the bulk of the running downs, but White is my early pick for passing downs (Lewis and Burkhead will likely battle for the last roster spot). Back to draft: Mike Gillislee
Cincinatti Bengals: Despite the addition of Joe Mixon at the draft, the Bengals have bucked conventional wisdom and rolled with a mostly effective committee over the last two years. With Bernard and Hill still on the roster, none of the three can be counted on to have an early fantasy impact. Back to Draft: Joe Mixon
Cleveland Browns: While the jury was out prior to last season on whether Duke Johnson could steam meaningful touches from the Crow, the biggest question mark this year is do they remain in a nearly 50/50 split? Crowell is likely to man the bulk of the rushes but Johnson is more than effective with the rock (4.9 ypc and 55 receptions for 500 yards). Your leagues format should dictate who you draft – Standard Scoring, Crowell – PPR, Johnson Jr.
Philadelphia Eagles: If the waters were muddled enough last year with both RBs often on the sidelines with injuries, the Eagles have added short yardage specialist LeGarrett Blount to the fold. Don’t expect 300 carries from the plodding back either, but he should syphon the bulk of the goal line carries effectively ending Ryan Mathews as a fringe RB1/RB2. Sproles will still garner some attention in PPR leagues, but even then he’ll cede some 3rd down touches to Dalton Pumphrey. Back to Draft: LeGarrett Blount
Seattle Seahawks: While things look a bit more stable with the addition of former stud Eddie Lacy, the talent of Rawls and Prosise behind him on the depth chart mean that Seattle will offer a short leash on Lacy’s tenure as the lead back. If he struggles early, Prosise will likely get the first shot at the lead role but his health could impact as well. Back to Draft: Eddie Lacy
Jacksonville Jaguars: The Jags drafted Yeldon and added Ivory in an attempt to add both a dynamic between the 20’s RB and a head down goal line back. The addition of Fournette could make both obsolete as the massive rookie has both the speed and size to play three downs. Still, if the rookie finds a lack of footing in the NFL, Yeldon could still steal a chunk of carries.
Denver Broncos: The Broncos seem to make things interesting every year. First it was Montee Ball and whatever other bum he was fighting for time with, then it was he and Anderson, then Anderson and Booker. To make matters worse, the Broncos took a flier on the ultra talented (and oft-injured) Jamaal Charles. By all reports he’ll be ready for the start of the season, but it’ll take a rough patch early for Anderson to really lose out on touches.
Detroit Lions: Abdullah missed all of last season to injury but the Lions front office is saying they expect the young back to return at the top of the depth chart. He has the goods, but with Riddick eating away at the passing downs, there is a risk of a true two headed committee in Detroit.
Minnesota Vikings: When AP finally left town, the Vikings shelled out 15 million to land the athletically gifted Latavius Murray out of Oakland. Then, to make us all wonder aloud what the heck is going on, they trade up to select potential superstar RB Dalvin Cook in the draft. I would expect that the supremely talented Cook shows up atop the depth chart early, but with Murray waiting in the wings it could be a while before he really sees meaningful fantasy touches.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Any committee list isn’t complete until you discuss whether or not the Muscle Hamster can retain his tenuous hold on the starts role in Tampa Bay. Charles Sims (like Theo Riddick) is an obvious bet to see a lot of third down work, so Martin will have to have a monster year again to remain relevant as a RB1/RB2.
- Adrian Peterson – Peterson is still the king and will be until the numbers say otherwise. 1700 total yars and 11 TD’s and enough in the passing game to plant him at the top even in PPR leagues, he’s the most likely of the top 10 to finish the season atop the most volitile position in Fantasy Football.
- Todd Gurley – He average more per touch than anyone not named Doug Martin (that carried the ball a significant amount). With a new QB in rookie Jared Goff, it will be interesting to see what he’ll do with more informed defensive schemes. I expect he’ll be just fine, but don’t be surprised if he has stretches where he disappears.
- Jamaal Charles – Every year he could be number one, but his injury history isn’t promising. If there was ever a handcuff candidate, it’s the ultra talented Jamaal Charles.
- Lamar Miller – I’m firmly on the hype bandwagon surrounding Millers move to Houston. A team that knows how to run the football will use him as their bellcow… a rarity in the NFL these days. It’s not a stretch to see him approach the league lead in combined yards by the end of the year.
- David Johnson – Carson Palmer was healthy all last year, and Johnson emerged as the Cardinals lead back. Now he has to prove it as the starter that it wasn’t just flash and smoke. If healthy, he’ll be a top 5 back.
- Le’Veon Bell – The only back in the Gurly/Peterson level of fantasy production, Bell did his owners a disservice by being suspended to start the year a second season in a row. Even missing 4 games, he’s nearly a top 5 RB.
- Mark Ingram – Will he be 100% to start the season? Who knows, but the New Orleans offense will put up points, and Ingram has proven that he can do what the coaches ask of him in both the run and the pass game.
- LeSean McCoy – Is Reggie bush an insurance policy or motivation? There’s some question marks with McCoy, and adding Bush to the backfield added just one more to consider when making that late 2nd round RB pick.
- Doug Martin – I feel like I’m being a bit harsh with the “Muscle Hamster” – after all he put up a top 3 season last year. But he’s always been mercurial and he’s just as likely to return to earth as he is to continue at the top of the position.
- Eddie Lacy – I haven’t seen a lot of lists that have Lacy in their top ten, and I can say honestly that I’m excited about getting him later in drafts than he should be going. Lacy clearly heard the chatter surrounding his awful season last year, and he’s put the work in over the offseaon to come into camp ready to go. If it’s one thing Mike McCarthy is, he’s loyal to the players who do what the team asks. Green Bay is still a top 5 offense, and Lacy is likely to get the bulk of the work early on to see if he’s indeed the same player they thought he was when they drafted him.
Missed the cut
Ezekial Elliott (I don’t care that Dallas has the best O-line in football, he’s done nothing at the NFL level to justify a top 10 pick), Devonta Freeman (Whether or not he’ll put it together for 16 strong games remain to be seen. Freeman is gifted and could be a steal if he gets it together), Latavius Murray (A monster, Murray touched the football more than all but a handful of NFL backs. He’s likely to get even better as the youthful offense in Oakland gels) Thomas Rawls (This is a player I’m intrigued by. He’s quietly accepted the mantel from the departing Beast Mode, and we all know how stubborn Pete Carroll is. They’ll run the ball a ton and he’ll have a chance to put up huge numbers if he can run the offense beside Russell Wilson).
Two years ago, the “Muscle Hamster” as Doug Martin is affectionately refered to due to his hulking physique took the NFL by storm. His final stat line of 1454 rushing yards, 11 TDs and a 4.7 YPC made Martin the ultimate in fantasy value as a 4th – 5th round selection in most leagues. Fantasy owners were giddy going into the 2013 draft, spending a high first round pick to own the 24 year old stud they expected to win them fantasy championships.
Instead he rewarded that confidence with a statline of 456 yards and a 3.6 YPC before an injury in week 6 ended his season. If you were one of the few who though Martin may bounce back in 2014, his 494 yards and 3.7 YPC proved otherwise.
The major question going into the 2015 fantasy season is “can Doug Martin bounce back?” With 2nd year pro Charles Sims having a poor showing in limited time last year, the backfield situation in Tampa Bay looks murky for owners bold enough to draft either. If you draft from the Bucs backfield you’re either betting that Martin’s past two seasons were an aberration born of injuries and awful QB play, or you’re betting that Sim’s 2.8 YPC was a result of an ankle injury that slowed him down over the final 6 weeks.
With current ADP of 126 for Martin and 145 for Sims, both players are low risk options. A quick examination of week to week performances for both runners are revealing. Between 2013 and 2014 Martin’s total numbers were poor, but much of that can be attributed to injuries in 2013 and poor QB play in 2014. He turned in some duds but in weeks he averaged over 4 YPC he had such low volume he was unable to contribute to fantasy teams. Sims on the other hand looks even worse on paper. in 3 of his 8 games he averaged 1.2 yards or less, and only had one week over 4 yards and only one TD. Sure, he was involved heavily in the passing game, but Koetters’ offenses haven’t been shy with their RB’s, with both Jones Drew and either Fred Taylor or Rashad Jennings being involved at the same time.
Comparing the two players leads to the most important question, does Charles Sims’ ceiling match Martin’s? in the 12th – 15th round you’re risk is mitigated, but Martin is the player with the highest ceiling. We’ve seen it already in 2012 and with a competent offense and head coach, Martin in the 12th round is a no brainer.
The frustration is real as fantasy owner when a player you invest heavily in doesn’t return that investment. We see it every year, and subsiquently that players value drops, leaving him falling on draft day. Are you an owner who likes to grab a previously touted player in hopes that he’ll bounce back and pay off in spades in the later rounds? If you are, and I’d gamble most of us are, then keep reading for a list of bounce back candidates.
QB – Robert Griffin III : Injuries that derailed his electric rookie seaon can be pointed to as the cause for the mental issues that have since plauged the outlandishly athletic Griffin in seasons since. It’s gotten so bad that at the conclusion of this last season, Jay Gruden alluded to the fact that he no longer believed in his QB and speculation that he’d be dealt or demoted ran rampant. Fast forward to the post-draft news and we see that RG3 is back again in the drivers seat for the QB job in Washington, and I’m confident that a new Griffin will be taking the field this year. Time to adjust to the game and to his injury history should allow Griffin to return to a semblance of the player we saw his rookie year: a rocket arm, good decision making, and the ability to make something out of nothing. Although he won’t finish as a top 10 QB, I expect him to bounce back as a solid QB2 worth a late round pick if you’re in need.
QB – Sam Bradford : Another highly touted prospect coming out of college, Bradford has shown glimses in his brief career, but a hefty injury history has left him on the scrap heap come draft day as owners have grown weary of the letdown. Shifting from St. Louis to Philadelphia should work wonders for Bradford on the field. He finally has weapons around him and a running game to keep defenses honest. He may be an in vogue pick come draft day, but if he starts the year healthy (and this is always an if with Bradford) I expect a much better year than he’s given in the past.
RB – Doug Martin : A lot of owners watched their ships go down in flames when they invested a top 5 pick in Martin a few years ago. Last year, Tampa Bay was the worst team in the league, securing the #1 overall pick and finally shoring up a QB position that features Mike Glennon as the top guy. I’d argue it’s tough to find running room when your team can’t complete more than 10 passes in a game. Still the top option in Tampa Bay, Martin should find more success after finding himself under 100 fantasy points last year. He could likely be had as a 4th RB, and should far outperform this ranking.
RB – LeSean McCoy : McCoy had 175-180 points in PPR formats last year, but was disappointing in terms of consistency. He touched the ball more than 300 times but struggled to return the top 3 pick spent on him. He’ll likely still be drafted early but has the pedigree and the situation to replicate the 1500-2000 total yard years that we’d become accostumed to out of McCoy.
WR – Larry Fitzgerald : For some, this was just the writing on the wall as Fitzgerald found himself scoring at or under 10 points per week for the first time in his career. The problem was that after Carson Palmer went down, John Skelton and company couldn’t keep the offense clicking, and Fitzgerald suffered. A Healthy Palmer creates more opportunities for Fitzy and inside the 20’s he’s the go to guy, and I expect him to crack to finish inside the top 25 WR’s this year.
WR – Dwayne Bowe : A supremely talented wideout, Bowe has never had a great QB throwing him the football, and that won’t change this coming year. But being a number 1 on an offense that managed to coax good to great seasons out of Josh Gordon, Jordan Cameron and Andrew Hawkins will help Bowe regain some of that swagger he had before Alex Smith got to KC. He won’t challenge for the top spot, but Bowe is an afterthought in leagues but should provide some scoring punch from the bench, for byes and in case of injuries.
TE – Vernon Davis : A freak of nature, Davis has the skills at the TE position to dominate his competition. This wasn’t the case this year as Kaepernick struggled to find consistency. If offseason reports of improved pocket pressence and throwing motion are true, Kaep could bounce back and this would impact Davis the most. Expect the consistency to continue to frustrate, but he’ll jump back in to the top 15 TE’s.
TE – Kyle Rudolph : He may have all the tools to be the best TE in football, but he’s rarely put it all together. Another year of Teddy Bridgewater and the return of AP makes this Minnesotta offense formidible for the first time in a long time. Without a proven #1 wide receiver, a healthy Rudolph could be asked to do more than he has. I think this is the year we finally see Rudolph ascend to an elite TE.