Running Backs incur the most depth chart changes both from year-to-year and within the season than any other skill position. Case in point – last year for week one there were 14 teams that featured a different running back than they used in week 16 of 2013. Better yet, consider that from week one to week six of 2014 there were 13 teams that went with a new primary back. And between week one and week 16 of last season there were 16 teams that gave the most touches to someone else. That’s half the league.
There are always around a dozen of elite backs. They remain their team’s primary rusher all season. But much of the change that happens every year is witnessed each preseason when teams seek to replace departed starters or better yet try to find someone better than they had in 2014. Getting the winner of a backfield competition can offer a highly productive player for a very cheap price. At times getting both contenders for the primary role comes inexpensively and covers all your bases.
Consider the top tandems that fantasy drafters need to understand:
Andre Ellington vs. David Johnson vs. Chris Johnson (Cardinals) – Andre Ellington remains the starter but comes off a 3.3 yard rushing average last year. He also has not been durable with a heavier workload. David Johnson is a 6-1, 224 lb. rookie who has missed time with a hamstring strain. Newly signed Chris Johnson is an outward sign that the Cardinals are not happy with their backfield and will muddle the situation there the rest of the year. Ellington remains the starter but there is no clear back-up to get. This all smacks of a committee that waters down any individual performance.
Devonta Freeman vs. Tevin Coleman (Falcons) – Freeman is the heir-apparent to the primary role since Steven Jackson left. But he only managed 248 yards on 65 carries as a rookie and never had a fantasy relevant game. Coleman was drafted by the new coaching staff and brings more pedigree and past success than Freeman had. The Falcons will go with Freeman to start the year but Coleman is expected to overtake him as the primary sooner than later. Both players had hamstring strains that slowed them this summer which benefits the veteran Freeman for now.
Isaiah Crowell vs. Duke Johnson (Browns) – In fairness this backfield also includes Terrance West who posted a few good games in 2014. Crowell is the most likely primary back since the rookie Johnson fell behind because of a hamstring strain. Optimists are banking on grabbing Johnson later in the draft on the premise he’ll end up as the best back here. Realists know none have distinguished themselves so far and both West and Johnson have already been injured. A good offensive line helps but unreliable running backs mean the roles could constantly change all year.
Joseph Randle vs. The World (Cowboys) – The offensive line in Dallas is one of the elite units in the NFL. Randle gets the primary nod if only from being a leftover from DeMarco Murray’s big season. Bringing in Darren McFadden has only busied the medical staff so far and no one else has stepped up. Since the Cowboys have already spoken to adding more free agents, Randle’s place is not safe unless he remains the clear #1 going into the season. Whether it is an aging free agent or an as-of-yet unknown rookie, few believe Randle will hold onto the primary role all season. Any new back in this offense will deserve fantasy attention and a deep speculative draft pick.
Ameer Abdullah vs. Joique Bell (Lions) – The Nebraska rookie gains more steam with every week in a backfield that at least purports to be a committee. Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi says Abdullah replaces Reggie Bush but expectations are that Abdullah will take over. Bell had surgery on his knee and Achilles in the off season and is only now returning to health. He’s been stuck at 3.9 yards per carry these last two seasons and is 29 years old. The problem is that Abdullah is receiving so much hype that his draft stock continues to soar. Bell is still the big back in this offense but Lombardi’s offense is better suited to the talents of Abdullah.
Rashad Jennings vs. Shane Vereen (Giants) – For the last two years, the Giants backfield averaged only around 3.5 yards per carry. Rashad Jennings parlayed one good season in Oakland into a starting role for the Giants but only produced 865 total yards and four scores while missing four games with ankle and knee injuries. Andre Williams’s rookie season only averaged 3.3 yards per carry and he’s dropped to third with the addition of Vereen. There may be no right answer here since Vereen’s strength has been as a receiver which will be new for a Giants team that only ranked 25th in running back receptions last year. A greater focus on passing this year would benefit Vereen the most.
Todd Gurley vs. Tre Mason (Rams) – The 1.10 pick in the draft would normally be handed a week one starting job but Gurley is different since he’s still recovering from a torn ACL last year. He’s not certain to be ready by week one which throws doubt over his entire rookie season. Tre Mason was supposed to be the handcuff but will be the primary until Gurley is ready. If you draft one, get the other and hope the transition to Gurley doesn’t cause a committee approach for too long.
Bishop Sankey vs. David Cobb (Titans) – The Titans tried to solve their rushing woes last year by making Sankey the first back taken. But his first season was a bust with only 569 rushing yards and two touchdowns. The Titans selected Cobb in the fifth round this year and the bigger back is expected to challenge for the starting job. But he still needs to clearly beat out Antonio Andrews for just the back-up role and Sankey has been more impressive this summer according to coaches. Throw in one of the weakest offensive lines in the NFL and there won’t be a fantasy difference maker here regardless who starts.
Backfields will continue to evolve throughout the season and injury is not the only reason for the depth chart to change. C.J. Anderson blew up in the second half of the 2014 season as did Jeremy Hill. If you load up on wideouts in the early rounds, taking a risky running back in later rounds is fine. But evaluate how important it is to grab the seemingly lesser half of a contested backfield. The better the offense is, the more reason to consider getting both running backs.