2014 Fantasy Football: The state of the NFL running game

A few thoughts on the state of the NFL running game with the Draft around the corner.

The sun could be setting on Frank Gore. 

Kyle Terada / USA TODAY Sports

A few thoughts on the state of the NFL running game with the Draft a week away:

The ground game is not dead, but…

For those that have been living under a rock – and Lord knows why you would take residence in such habitat – the NFL offensive landscape has become infatuated with the pass. Quarterbacks are making a mockery of the record books, an outlook cemented by a glance at the all-time single-season yardage totals: 10 of the top-11 harvests have come since 2008.

Because of these air raids, fans have assumed that, as an upshot, the running game has lost prestige. However, the stats prove this correlation does not imply causation:

League Rushing Stats Per Game

Year Team Attemps Yards TD
2013 27.1 112.9 0.8
2010 27.2 114.5 0.8
2007 27.3 110.9 0.8

Yet fantasy owners will attest the production from the RB slot has seen a precipitous drop. This sentiment is true, and can be attributed to the growing reliance of backfield committees. Note: in 2006, 23 rushers crossed the 1,000-yard barrier. That number dropped to 17 in 2010, and last season only 13 players accomplished this feat.

It’s this scarcity that proves catalyst for my belief to select running backs early and often on draft day. Opponents claim the elevated injury threat makes this plan a perilous endeavor, a stance that certainly holds virtue. Conversely, ask owners how using early-round picks on Aaron Rodgers, Rob Gronkowski, Julio Jones, Robert Griffin III and Randall Cobb worked out. Football’s an inherently dangerous affair. Running backs are in harm’s way, but other performers are not immune to this hazard.

Don’t depend on rookie production

Roto owners are salivating over the outlooks of rookie backs like Carlos Hyde, Bishop Sankey, Tre Mason and Jeremy Hill. In spite of their collective dexterity in college, managers might want to pump the brakes on those aspirations, at least in terms of debut performances. If last season taught us anything, it’s that neophyte rushers are one of the biggest gambles on draft day.

The 2013 class was a heralded contingent, one that was envisioned to contribute immediately to their respective clubs. Alas, Eddie Lacy proved to be the lone highly-touted commodity that earned must-start status, with late-round pick Zac Stacy working himself into the conversation in the second half of the season.

Sure, Giovani Bernard was a sound investment in PPR formats, but the Bengals back failed to surmount a 100-yard rushing day and half his scores derived from two outings. Worse, the two greenhorns with the highest average draft position - Le’Veon Bell and Montee Ball – fell short of expectations. Though Bell found the end zone eight times, he missed the first three games of the season and finished with a feeble mark of 3.5 yards per carry. Meanwhile, Ball’s value was curbed by the rejuvenation of Knownshon Moreno. There’s no doubting the bright future of this group, but – at least from a fantasy perspective – they were disappointments in their first seasons.

We often view the running back position as a relatively straightforward role. Nevertheless, the data has shown there is an assimilation process to the job, one that the fantasy community has not accounted for in its projections for young guns. Keep this concept in mind when going for the likes of Hyde, Sankey and others in your draft.

Fading Stars

Players that could be in for rough times in 2014:

Frank Gore - The body can only withstand so much punishment, and Gore’s odometer is racking up the miles. Gore enters the fall with nearly 2,200 rushing attempts in his career, along with over 330 receptions. And while Gore rushed for 1,128 yards and nine touchdowns in 2013, his 4.1 yards per attempt was a career low. Kendall Hunter and Marcus Lattimore are expected to play a bigger role in the San Francisco offense, putting Gore’s week-to-week value in jeopardy.

Maurice Jones-Drew - In MJD’s defense, that Jaguars offensive line was something awful last season. Even with this caveat, Jones-Drew noticeably lacked explosiveness, and those protection woes won’t be rectified with a move to Oakland. Factor in shared time with Darren McFadden and Jones-Drew earns “stay away” status as a mid-round investment.

Ray Rice - The Baltimore back is likely looking at a suspension for his physical altercation against his now-wife in an Atlantic City casino. On the field, the poor state of the Ravens’ front line paints an ominous picture for Rice in 2014.

Knownshon Moreno - The former Georgia Bulldog wasn’t as solid as believed last season. Subtract his 224-yard conquest against the Patriots – a consequence of New England blanketing the secondary versus Peyton Manning – and Moreno’s yards-per-game production drops to a pedestrian figure of 54.3 yards per outing. Now in Miami without Manning to alleviate the opposition’s focus, Moreno could revert to his underperforming ways.

Hot Stocks

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Players not getting much love that could be fantasy forces:

Ben Tate - In 421 career attempts, Tate flaunts an impressive mark of 4.7 yards per carry. Make fun of the Cleveland Browns all you want – and we have – but their offensive line is one of the better units in the league. Throw in his receiving contributions (34 catches in 14 games last year) and Tate could be a top-10 asset.

Giovani Bernard - If the Bengals have any sense of competence – which, judging by the last two decades, is a questionable proposition – Bernard will see amplified touches over the dial-up-modem-slow BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Some question if Bernard’s diminutive frame is capable of such a workload, yet circle the second-year back as a possible breakout.

Andre Ellington - At the moment, Ellington faces little threat from his fellow Cardinals backfield counterparts, and submitted an admirable, under-the-radar performance in 2013 (5.5 yards per carry on 118 attempts). The Arizona line isn’t great, but it will provide enough time for Ellington to be a serviceable fantasy contributor.

Toby Gerhart - Granted, his situation isn’t ideal, but reports out of Jacksonville mention the team wants to give Gerhart close to 300 touches. Like a baseball closer, owning the job is 90 percent of a running back’s value, and Gerhart will definitely have enough opportunities to demonstrate his merit.


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