The New Breed
In the wake of free agent moves and draft selections this offseason, a number of running backs find themselves atop an NFL depth chart for the first time. Whether these are familiar faces in new places, players getting expanded work with last year’s team, or rookies just entering the league, the opportunity to be a lead back in the NFL almost always translates to heightened fantasy interest. But how many of these runners have the ability to be the workhorse that fantasy owners want them to be?
While we can’t really know the answer to that question until they get a chance on the field this season, a look at a player’s usage history as a professional and in college can at least shed some light on whether or not they have ever had success carrying the load.
|RB Breakdown||NFL Carries||College Carries|
Knowshon Moreno’s move to South Beach frees up the starting job in Denver for the second-year man out of Wisconsin. During his rookie campaign with the Broncos, Ball had just 120 carries, but recorded a solid 4.7 yards per attempt over the small sample size. While he’s never had more than 15 carries in an NFL game, Ball had back-to-back seasons of 300+ carries over his last two years in college, including 356 rushing attempts as a senior. Given his 5’10”, 215-pound frame and the demonstrated ability to hold up to a rigorous workload in the Big 10, fantasy owners shouldn’t worry about whether Ball can physically handle an expanded role in 2014. It’s an entirely different question as to whether his combination of opportunity and potential justifies an early-round price tag in fantasy drafts.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis seems to be on his way out in Cincinnati, moving Bernard to top of the depth chart at running back. The added touches and shift to a more run-focused offense under Hugh Jackson certainly has Bernard’s value on the rise, but fantasy owners envisioning 15-20 carries per game might be disappointed. As a rookie last year, Bernard had just 170 rushing attempts and he never had more than 239 carries in a single season at North Carolina. It’s encouraging that Bernard was very productive in the ten collegiate games that he received 20 or more carries, but we don’t have much data on his ability to hold up to a sustained workload. And it’s noteworthy that the Bengals used a second-round draft pick this year on bruising running back Jeremy Hill, who will likely serve as a compliment to the 5’9”, 208-pound Bernard. As one of the top pass-catching running backs in the league, Bernard doesn’t need 300 carries to justify his current draft stock, but fantasy owners should make sure they aren’t counting on him being a bell cow in Cincinnati.
Ellington is another smaller back that is expected to move into a featured role in 2014. But this is another case in which a player’s size and usage history doesn’t seem to support 15-20 carries per game at the NFL level. During his rookie season last year, Ellington had just 118 rushing attempts and never had more than 15 carries in one game. Additionally, he failed to eclipse 223 carries in any of his four seasons at Clemson. Despite recent comments from Cardinals coach Bruce Arians suggesting that Ellington can expect to see 25-30 touches per game, it seems unlikely that the 5’9”, 199-pound back will be asked to carry such a heavy load in his first season as the team’s primary ball carrier.
After backing up Adrian Peterson in Minnesota over the last four years, Gerhart signed a 3-year, $10.5-million deal with the Jaguars this offseason. While his career high for carries in an NFL season is a mere 109 attempts, Gerhart was given the opportunity on several occasions to handle a full workload when Peterson missed games due to injury. As a rookie in 2010, Gerhart replaced Peterson in the first half of a November game against Washington and proceeded to rack up 76 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries. The following season, Gerhart started three consecutive games at one point, accumulating 225 yards on 57 carries over that stretch with a touchdown on the ground and via the pass. Additionally, he was a work horse during his final season at Stanford, when he carried the ball 343 times for 1,871 yards and 27 touchdowns. His rushing yards and touchdowns that season led all collegiate running backs. While Gerhart doesn’t have the flashy yards-per-carry average of some of the others backs on this list, he is one of the biggest at 6’0”, 231 pounds, and he’s certainly the most battle tested. Fantasy owners should have little concern about Gerhart holding up as the primary back in Jacksonville.
Other rookie running backs will have fantasy value in 2014, but Sankey is the only first-year rusher with a clear path to starter’s reps this season. Obviously, we don’t have any NFL experience to draw on in evaluating Sankey’s ability to carry the load, but he did get extensive run as the starter for the University of Washington over the last two years. Sankey averaged better than 25 carries per game last season with the Huskies and more than 22 rushes per game as a sophomore in 2012. His 616 carries over a two-year period in college is second only to Ball on this list, and Sankey had several games with 30 or more attempts, including a 40-carry game last September. As with any rookie runner, you can never be sure how a player will transition from college to the pro game. But the 5’10”, 203-pound Sankey has demonstrated an ability to handle a heavy workload, and with Shonn Greene as his biggest competition for carries in Tennessee, he’s likely going to a get a chance to prove himself as a high-volume back this season.
New York Giants
After a breakthrough season with the Raiders in 2013 as a fill-in for Darren McFadden, Jennings signed a 4-year, $10-million contract with the Giants in March, and New York GM Jerry Reese recently referred to Jennings as a “bell cow type” following minicamp. However, there are a lot of red flag when it comes to Jennings’ body being able to hold up to a prolonged workload. He took over as Oakland’s primary back near mid-season and his 163 carries on the year were a career high. But Jennings missed a Week 14 game with a concussion and he struggled with head injuries at the end of his tenure with Jacksonville in 2012, missing the team’s final six games. Jennings also missed the entire 2011 season with a knee injury and he’s yet to appear in 16 games during any of his five years in the NFL. In college, the 6’1”, 231-pound Jennings carried the ball 634 times over three seasons at D-II Liberty and he’s always flashed an impressive combination of size and athleticism. But he has been plagued by injuries as a pro, and there has to be a level of concern about his durability as he enters an NFL season at the top of the depth chart for the first time.
Continuing with the theme of first-time starters with a checked injury history, Tate is looking to prove himself as a workhorse running back after an offseason move from Houston to Cleveland. After missing all of his rookie season in 2010 with an ankle injury, Tate flashed moments of greatness during his second year with the Texans, averaging 5.4 yards per attempt on 175 carries. However, Tate continued to battle injuries over the last two years in Houston and he’s missed 24 games over his first four NFL seasons, while playing at less than 100% in many other contests. Tate’s production also slipped toward the end of his time with the Texans, as he averaged less than four yards per attempt in the eight games in which he received double-digit carries in 2013. If Tate manages to stay healthy and averages 15-20 carries over sixteen games, it would represent more attempts (280) than he has experienced in any one season over eight combined years between Auburn and the NFL. Fantasy owners should be wary of Tate’s ability to carry the load in Cleveland.