Forever and a day, the cornerstone of fantasy football teams has been the running game, workhorse backs racking up yardage and touchdowns, but the game is changing. There's more passing, and that means fewer backs taking a primary role in the offence, but that doesn't mean there isn't value to be found.
Last season, there were 13 running backs to gain more than 1,000 yards on the ground. In 2012, there were 16; the years before, going back to 2004: 15, 17, 15, 16, 17, 22, 16 and 18. So maybe there aren't quite as many runners around which to anchor your fantasy squad, but that decline in depth makes those that are still standing all the more valuable in relative terms.
Start with Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, who was over 1,200 rushing yards again last season, for the sixth time in seven seasons and, as always, it was buttressed by double-digit touchdowns. For a team with question marks about its passing game, Peterson will continue to be the No. 1 option and that safety makes him appealing.
LeSean McCoy busted out last year, gaining 2,146 yards from scrimmage, and he may well be the best runner on the board, but a player's value isn't his career-best season and McCoy figures to at least lose some targets in the Philadelphia passing game to incoming veteran Darren Sproles.
Ranking second in yards from scrimmage last season, Kansas City's Jamaal Charles also tacked on 19 touchdowns last year. Much like McCoy, it was a career-year for Charles, but largely because of the touchdowns. He has gained more than 1,700 yards from scrimmage in three of the past four seasons.
There are a number of ways to go beyond the top three, but if you're prepared to live with risk, Arian Foster gained 4,702 yards from scrimmage and scored 47 touchdowns from 2010 through 2012. He only played eight games last season, and while he still accumulated 725 yards in that time, he managed just a couple of touchdowns. A healthy Foster is still a premier threat but, after last year, his value may be depressed somewhat.
Moving to Seattle has worked well for Marshawn Lynch, who has 4,775 yards from scrimmage, along with 39 touchdowns, in the past three seasons. He may not have the high ceiling of the guys at the top, but he's a workhorse back on a powerhouse team.
After a slow start in the first couple weeks of his NFL career, Green Bay's Eddie Lacy still ended up gaining 1,435 yards from scrimmage and scoring 11 touchdowns as a rookie. As a play for upside, Lacy can be worthy of a first-round fantasy pick.
One of three backs to gain more than 1,600 yards from scrimmage last season, Matt Forte gained 1,933 yards and scored a dozen touchdowns. He's had some years with low touchdown totals, but has gained at least 1,400 yards from scrimmage in every one of his six NFL seasons.
Beyond that group, we begin looking at fringe first-rounders. Still valuable, productive players, but maybe not quite worthy of being your best option.
Tampa Bay's Doug Martin was limited to six games last season, but he's averaged more than 111 yards from scrimmage per game in his career. With the Bucs upgrading their offensive line, adding Logan Mankins from New England, Martin is even more appealing.
DeMarco Murray has had trouble staying healthy for Dallas, but delivered a career-best 1,471 yards and 10 touchdowns in 14 games last season. With a strong offensive line leading the way, Murray could put up serious numbers over a full season.
Looking at a full-time starting gig with his move to Cleveland, Ben Tate averaged 4.7 yards per carry in three seasons as a second-stringer in Houston and while the Browns may not offer much of a supporting cast, Tate can take advantage of a full-time role.
After an underwhelming rookie season, during which he gained 704 yards from scrimmage with four touchdowns, Montee Ball looks at a bigger opportunity now that Knowshon Moreno is in Miami. It would be more encouraging if Ball had played so well that he just took the job, but opportunity is opportunity and that Broncos offence offers a great chance to put up points.
With more than 3,000 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns in his first two seasons, Alfred Morris seems like a safe option, but there will be some questions concerning the Redskins' offence and Morris' drop in production from his rookie year to his sophomore season.
There isn't much buzz around Buffalo's C.J. Spiller after he managed 1,118 yards from scrimmage and only two touchdowns last season, with a high ankle sprain posing problems, but he's averaging 5.1 yards per carry for his career. If the ankle isn't a problem this year, maybe Spiller lives up to the hype that he had pre-2013.
After four seasons spent as Adrian Peterson's caddie in Minnesota, Toby Gerhart gets his shot to be The Man in Jacksonville. He's a powerful runner who can also catch the ball coming out of the backfield. For a Jaguars team lacking weapons, Gerhart ought to get a lot of touches.
Detroit's Reggie Bush maybe be facing a challenge for playing time from Joique Bell, but Bush has also accumulated 4,172 yards from scrimmage the past three seasons, including a career-high 1,512 last year. That's still too good to leave on the sidelines for your fantasy squad this year.
Gone are the days of Chris Johnson, the 2,000-yard rushing threat, but even in his current state of declining production, he has put up more than 1,400 yards from scrimmage in each of the past three years and scored 10 touchdowns last year. It's possible that expectations may have even over-corrected on Johnson, who does get something of a new lease on life with the Jets this year.
Last year's 1,269 yards from scrimmage counted as Frank Gore's lowest since his rookie season (2005) and he's always facing challenges for playing time, with second-round pick Carlos Hyde the latest leading contender but, since 2006, no one has more yards from scrimmage than Gore's 12,000, so a little respect is due, even if his time as the Niners' number one back is nearing an end.
Though he started only one game as a rookie, Andre Ellington still picked up 1,023 yards from scrimmage, on just 157 touches, for the Cardinals. In his second season, as the featured back in Arizona's offence, there are expectations that Ellington will take a leap forward, even is his production isn't going to keep that efficiency.
Zac Stacy took control of the Rams' starting running back job last year and accumulated 1,114 yards from scrimmage. Naturally, there are expectations that he can improve in his second season, but the Rams had a shaky attack even before Sam Bradford was injured and Stacy is still facing challenges for playing time from Benny Cunningham. There's upside here, but some downside if expectations start running too high.
Mostly a spare part early in his career in Jacksonville, Rashad Jennings burst through when injuries opened the door for him with the Raiders last season, gaining 1,025 yards from scrimmage. As the number one back for the Giants this year, there is a good chance that 29-year-old Jennings could have a career-best season.
Last season was supposed to be so different for Steven Jackson, who moved to Atlanta after years of productivity in St. Louis. He played only a dozen games and managed a career-low 734 yards from scrimmage as the Falcons' season fell apart. Nevertheless, Jackson is Atlanta's best backfield option this year and while 31-year-old running backs aren't exactly in the primes of their career, Jackson's depressed value after last season does mean he could provide value this time around.
The third overall pick in 2012, Trent Richardson saw his production dip dramatically last year from a rookie season that was already disappointing. The Colts can hope that Richardson rebounds and can make it as a power runner capable of handling a heavy workload, but the risk that Richardson just isn't suited to be a big-time runner in the NFL ought to make for cautious draft day decisions.
When seeking value in later rounds, consider strong second-stringers, like Bell, Fred Jackson
or Ahmad Bradshaw
, but there will also be veterans in time-shares (Shonn Greene
, Maurice Jones-Drew
, LeGarrette Blount
) that should be interesting as well.
Among rookies, Tennessee's Bishop Sankey will have a chance to see lots of action, provided he can hold the ball. Otherwise, the likes of Hyde, Jeremy Hill (Cincinnati) and Tre Mason (St. Louis) all seem to need an injury to become valuable fantasy contributors.
It's important to get quality runners in your draft, but it's not the end of the world if you don't. There will, invariably, be players that don't start in Week One, that end up gaining 1,000 yards from scrimmage, so it's vital to monitor the waiver wire in order to keep your backfield up to speed with the competition.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.
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