Bargain Running Backs to Target
This year’s running back group is interesting on a number of levels. There are the usual strong names at the top and intriguing newcomers such as Andre Ellington and LeVeon Bell who have feature back potential in the second and third rounds. The meat of the class seems to be in the fourth to sixth rounds. Players like Toby Gerhart, Rashad Jennings and Stevan Ridley could all outperform their ADPs easily. The intrigue starts after that point of your draft. The seventh and eighth rounds feature plenty of uninspiring veterans I hardly ever invest in. Fantasy owners have seen enough from guys like Darren McFadden to know its time to look elsewhere.
I’ve already professed my love for Khiry Robinson and Terrance West in previous Gridiron Experts’ posts. Both of those running backs currently carry eighth round ADPs. Now its time to examine five more runners who could return significantly higher value than their ninth round or later ADPs suggest.
Bernard Pierce (ADP: 9.07)
History has shown us that Mike Shanahan and his disciple Gary Kubiak always churn out productive rushing attacks. The trouble is guessing who the primary benefactor will be. The Ravens do not have a clear situation in their backfield either. Ray Rice is coming of a dreadful season and is in the midst of a myriad of off the field issues. There’s a strong chance the former Pro Bowler will serve a multi-game suspension. Lorenzo Taliaferro is there, but he’s just a rookie who was recently arrested as well. There’s no true consensus on just how good he can be in the NFL. If there is one Ravens’ running back to invest in this fantasy season, it’s Bernard Pierce. He’s coming off the board in the ninth round and there is no significant buzz around him. Then again, there is reason for that. Ray Rice’s 2013 season was a disappointment and Pierce still may have come out worse. His 2.9 yards per carry average was even more dreadful than Rice’s 3.1. Pierce failed to seize the opportunity when a struggling veteran left the door open for him. Yet, the fact that both Pierce and Rice struggled should lend some hope that other factors were to blame.
The Ravens offensive line was quite poor last season. It’s more than fair to let that unit shoulder most of the blame for Pierce’s struggles. During the Ravens’ Super Bowl run, Pierce provided a strong boost to the offense. The then rookie brought speed, power and aggression as a change of pace to Ray Rice. During that 2012’s season playoff run, the Ravens’ offensive line was at its peak. The line fell apart in 2013, but should be much improved for the upcoming season. Kelechi Osemele looked like a future All-Pro as a rookie, but missed much of last season with an injury. Provided he’s healthy, Osemele will team with Marshal Yanda to form one of the best guard tandems in the league. Eugene Monroe and Jeremy Zuttah should stabilize the left tackle and center position. With Kubiak in town and things looking much brighter for the Ravens’ offense, fantasy owners should want a piece of this backfield. Weighing the circumstances and their ADPs, Bernard Pierce looks like the best bet. If Rice is unavailable for the first few weeks, Pierce could render him irrelevant and keep the starting job for himself.
Lamar Miller (ADP: 11.08)
Fantasy owners are an unforgiving bunch. Few will be eager to even consider having Lamar Miller on their team after he burned them in 2013. When you examine all the factors in a vacuum, it’s clear that its time to go back to the well. Last year, Miller fell way short of the expectations that came with his status as top-25 running back selection. Here in 2014, Miller carries the ADP of a eleventh round selection, barely a top-50 back. While you may have been hurt by Miller before, you need not let the scars hold you back. You don’t have to make the same sort of investment in the Dolphins’ back that you did previously. Miami was a disorganized mess on offense. He hardly stood a chance to thrive. Offensive coordinator Mike Sherman never found a way to make all the parts flow. This led to an uneven season from Ryan Tannehill and ultimately Sherman’s dismissal as offensive coordinator. The offensive line was always poor, and only got worse with the absences of Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito.
Things are looking much better in Miami this season. The Dolphins invested heavily in remaking their offensive line. Pro Bowler Branden Albert and solid veteran Shelley Smith joined the team in free agency. Rookies Ja’Wuan James and Billy Turner could grow into solid starters at right tackle and left guard. Bill Lazor came from Philadelphia to assume the role of offensive coordinator. No doubt he learned the value of a run heavy approach under Chip Kelly.
The Dolphins did bring in Knowshon Moreno during free agency. While the assumption was he’d be the starter after a breakout year, an out of shape Moreno has been working behind Miller in OTAs. Moreno’s stats inflated the public’s opinion of him. While Moreno’s value was inflated by playing with Manning, Miller could be the better player in Miami. The stars may be aligning for Miller to hold the starting job and relegate Moreno to third down duties. Lamar Miller is still a very talented player and only 23 years old. He may just be learning the ropes in his third offseason. Sometimes fantasy owners are just a year too early to jump on the bandwagon.
C.J. Anderson (ADP: 13.10)
Speaking of Knowshon Moreno, let’s not forget what an average talent can do in this Broncos’ offense. Say what you want about Montee Ball, but his college film and his professional career haven’t indicted he’s a world-beater just yet. He’s a sought after player in fantasy, but no slam-dunk either. The other Broncos’ running backs deserve your attention too. C.J. Anderson isn’t an overwhelming talent either, nor is he a known commodity. Yet, he seems to be a reliable player and the Denver brain trust likes him. Those qualities go a long way when you’re in a Peyton Manning offense. Whether Anderson reaches maximum value will be determined by the fate of those ahead of him. Should Ball stumble or get injured, Anderson becomes a very attractive player. He’ll be ahead of Ronnie Hillman on the depth chart and undrafted rookies are the only other competition. If Anderson inherits Ball’s roll, or even splits work with him, he’ll far outperform his ADP. This late in fantasy drafts you’re looking for big booms with little risk. Anderson presents a perfect and reasonable gamble.
Knile Davis (ADP: 13.12)
The final few round of fantasy drafts are a perfect spot to snag backup running backs with big upside. While Christine Michael is an obvious target, don’t discount what Knile Davis can do for you. The Chiefs employ a conservative, run heavy offense. Jamaal Charles is the focal point of the attack, both as a runner and receiver. While Davis is no Charles, he looked good in limited reps last year. Davis’ combine numbers say he always had the physical abilities to thrive. It looks like some time in the NFL has done him good. We’ve already seen a preview of Knile Davis as the full-time back. When Charles left the Chiefs’ playoff game early with an injury, Davis thrived. He sustained the rushing offense and even chipped in with seven receptions. The young runner showed the ability to carry the load. Should Charles ever go down, Davis becomes a huge buy in fantasy leagues. You’d be wise to stash him late in drafts, before the rush. Even if Charles never gets hurt, Davis might be too good to keep off the field.
Jonathan Stewart (ADP: Undrafted)
Is this a logical assessment, or a case of “I just don’t know how to quit you”? Let’s examine why drafting perennial disappointment Jonathan Stewart, is a logical move… The former first round pick was always a very gifted player. Stewart was a dominant collegiate player at Oregon and looked as if he possessed a very translatable skill set. Not many running backs own his combination of size, agility and balance. His physical profile alone is that of a star NFL running back. The trouble for Stewart is, and always has been, health. A myriad of lower body injures have held him back throughout his career. If there is a light at the end of the tunnel, at least Panthers’ beat writers say Stewart is finally healthy. Should he stay that way, there’s a chance Stewart is fantasy relevant this year. Carolina ravished their receiving corps this year and by default figures to be a run heavy team. DeAngelo Williams looks like the favorite to see the most carries at the moment, yet Stewart is younger and the team is more financially committed to him. There’s an outside chance that if it all breaks right, Stewart assumes the top role in a crowded backfield. Again, everything with Stewart is a toss-up. He’s the very definition of a flier. The good news is, he’s almost always being drafted in the 15th round, or not at all. The investment you’ll have to make in him is minor. His owners won’t feel any pain at all if he gives them no return. Stewart might be the same old player we’ve grown to become exasperated with. He might tweak an ankle in week two and hobble through the duration of the season. Still, what if he doesn’t? It’s the hope of all hopes, but you might get a three down running back on high volume rushing offense here. The finals rounds were made for risks and prayers like Jonathan Stewart.
All the ADP numbers taken from the Fantasy Football Calculator
Matt is an NFL writer and analyst. A lover of all things music, sociology, and television shows, and love to talk about those in addition to football. I also own a number of stupid theories about life you probably will not be interested in, but I will trick you into listening to.