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2014 Fantasy Football Preview: Running Back Rankings

Posted Aug 11, 2014

SportingNews.com's Matt Lutovsky provides his expert analysis on the top fantasy football running backs heading into the 2014 NFL season.

For more fantasy football analysis, follow Matt Lutovsky on Twitter (@MLutovsky) and listen to the Sporting News Fantasy Football Podcast.

We're going on about Year 4 of the “Running-Backs-Are-Tougher-To-Draft-Because-Of-Committees” Era in fantasy football. It's truly a dark time.

But, yes, running backs are tougher to draft because of increased use of committees and specialists in the NFL. You either adapt and survive or you go the way of the Dodo...my Aunt Dodo, that is, who passed away when she was struck in the head by a large statue of a dodo at a natural history museum. The irony got us through our grief.

NOTE: In case you missed it, read Matt's 2014 fantasy football quarterbacks preview and rankings here.

Anywho, running backs – at least, good, reliable running backs – might be the rarest of all creatures in the fantasy football universe. With that in mind, let's break down how to sift through the carnage and come out a survivor after your draft.

Best of the best: Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy, Adrian Peterson, Matt Forte

You'll need a top-four or five pick to get one of these gentlemen. I favor Charles because he's a bigger part of the Chiefs offense than McCoy is part of the Eagles' offense. (Charles had 36.7 percent of KC's total yards last year; McCoy had 32.1 percent of Philly's.) McCoy isn't far behind, but Darren Sproles could steal some catches.

Peterson is still a stud, but the tread on those tires is wearing a bit thin, especially after he had his second-lowest yards-per-carry last year. I might actually talk myself into Forte over him by the time draft day rolls around, simply because Chicago's offense is better than Minnesota's.

NOTE: Want to host your fantasy draft in the Rams war room? Click here for details.

Great, good … and Arian Foster: Eddie Lacy, Doug Martin, Marshawn Lynch, Montee Ball, DeMarco Murray, Alfred Morris, Arian Foster

All these guys have “lead back” duties locked down, with Lacy looking the most “bellcowish.” Martin is right on his heels, though, so all you jilted lovers who “swore off” Martin after last year, cue up some Barry White and take him back. The guy got hurt -- it happens. He's still ultra-talented and ticketed for a lot of touches.

Like Peterson, Lynch has a lot of wear and could see fewer carries, but he'll still be the focal point of the run-heavy Seahawks' offense (second highest percentage of run plays in the league). Ball should also see a lot of carries for a team that runs (and scores) a lot, but his recent appendectomy and concerns about his role in the receiving game are enough to knock him to the second round. Injury concerns keep Murray and Foster out of the first round (though they'll be productive when on the field), and a new coaching regime in Washington is the only thing holding back Morris, who's averaged 4.7 yards per carry his first two years.

Boom or bust: Gio Bernard, Zac Stacy, Le'Veon Bell, Andre Ellington, C.J. Spiller, Chris Johnson, Ryan Mathews

These (mostly) young bucks are more likely to boom than bust, but ...

Bernard still has touchdown concerns, but he's a special playmaker and should be a PPR monster. If anyone in this group could be a top-three pick next year, it's him. Ellington actually isn't far behind, as he's also explosive and a great receiver. If he gets chances around the goal line, he could be a first-rounder next year, too.

Stacy and Bell are similar in that both averaged under 4.0 yards per carry last year, but both were very productive. Both also have some competition for carries (Tre Mason in St. Louis, LeGarrette Blount in Pittsburgh). Bell is the better receiver, but I'd still take Stacy, mainly because it's less likely a rookie steals playing time as opposed to a veteran, at least early on.

We all know the risks and potential rewards with Spiller, Johnson and Mathews. Spiller is currently the most explosive, so I'd take him first, but Johnson is probably in the best situation. Mathews has to compete with Danny Woodhead (who finished 19th in standard league fantasy points last year!) and Donald Brown; Spiller has Fred Jackson (No. 10 RB last year!) and Bryce Brown to compete with. Johnson is gonna be a boring RB2, but he should at least be steady.

MORE FANTASY FROM MATT: Twitter | Sporting News archive | RB Preview podcast

Should-be solid: Reggie Bush, Rashad Jennings, Frank Gore, Trent Richardson, Bishop Sankey, Toby Gerhart, Knowshon Moreno, Ben Tate

You can live with one of these fellas as your RB2 … probably.

I'm higher on Jennings than most, but he's talented and will be heavily involved in the Giants' receiving game. Sure, rookie Andre Williams will steal some goal-line carries, but considering Jennings is actually bigger than Williams, it shouldn't be all the goal-line carries.

I'm also probably lower on Sankey than most, but I have a hard time trusting a rookie who isn't expected to get short-yardage carries – even if Shonn Greene is the one standing in his way.

Bush is solid, but he might not be any better than Joique Bell. Gore is 31 (read: old), but he's had three-straight 16-game, 1,100-yard seasons. He's no longer used in the passing game and his carries could continue to regress, but he's the guy the 49ers trust. Richardson deserves one more chance just in case last year was a fluke. Moreno deserves a chance just in case last year wasn't a fluke, though reporting to Dolphins camp overweight after knee surgery wasn't a good start.

Tate deserves a chance just in case Cleveland is decent and he can stay healthy. Gerhart deserves a chance because he's finally getting a chance. I want to like him more than I do (he's flashed big potential in the past), but Jacksonville isn't a great place to flourish since the Jags don't run much or well. Gerhart will be more valuable in PPR leagues.

Committee City: Ray Rice, Stevan Ridley, Joique Bell, Shane Vereen, Bernard Pierce, Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas, Fred Jackson, DeAngelo Williams, Steven Jackson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Darren McFadden

Good luck counting on any of these hombres as a starter.

Rice could be once he gets back in Week 3, but his 3.1 yards per carry last year doesn't inspire confidence. At least it was better than Pierce's 2.9.

Ridley has the talent, Vereen has the PPR chops, but there's no use trying to figure out the Patriots. Rookie James White might lead that team in rushing for all we know.

Sproles should be used all over the field with the Eagles, but at 31 coming off a down year, he'll likely be inconsistent. Same goes for Thomas in New Orleans and maybe even the 33-year-old Jackson in Buffalo.

The 31-year-old Williams could get yards, but he's at least third on the totem pole for goal-line carries behind Mike Tolbert and Cam Newton in Carolina. Steven Jackson (31) is already dealing with a hamstring injury and could be supplanted by Devonta Freeman in Atlanta. Jackson is falling so far in drafts that he might actually be a value, though. The Raiders are a crapshoot. McFadden probably has more upside, but Jones-Drew is first on the depth chart right now. Pick one at your own risk.

Handcuffs-plus: Lamar Miller (Dolphins), Shonn Greene (Titans), LeGarrette Blount (Steelers), Devonta Freeman (Falcons), Terrance West (Browns), Ronnie Hillman (Broncos), Danny Woodhead (Chargers), Mark Ingram (Saints), Christine Michael (Seahawks), Andre Williams (Giants), Khiry Robinson (Saints), Carlos Hyde (49ers), Tre Mason (Rams), Chris Ivory (Jets), Jeremy Hill (Bengals), James White (Patriots), Jonathan Stewart (Panthers)

Some of these dudes are worth drafting even if you don't own the guy in front of them. (And, yes, we realize Ingram is first on the Saints depth chart, but...well...whatever.) The rookies, namely Freeman, West and Williams, have the best odds for a Stacy-like star turn around the middle of the season.

Strictly Handcuffs: Knile Davis (Chiefs),Chris Polk (Eagles), Matt Asiata (Vikings), Ka'Deem Carey (Bears), James Starks (Packers), Roy Helu (Redskins), Joseph Randle/Lance Dunbar (Cowboys), Charles Sims (Bucs), Andre Brown (Texans), Stepfan Taylor (Cardinals)

There's no need to draft any of these bros if you don't own the starter(s) in front of them. If they don't get drafted, they'll cause a waiver-wire stampede once said starter(s) gets hurt, though.

That, unfortunately, is the fantasy football world we live in now. Don't fight it; just embrace it. Survive and advance.