Ask any football fan that is a little more than “casual” but a little less than “knowledgable”, and they will tell you that “running backs are expendable”. The exact opposite is true in Fantasy Football. While it doesn’t guarantee success, having a good quarterback in the NFL pretty much guarantees that your team will not be bad. The same can be said for elite fantasy running backs. If you had Demarco Murray last year, I can pretty safely say, congrats on not finishing last.
With all that said, picking an elite fantasy running back can be as much of a crapshoot as real teams finding a real NFL quarterback. There was a lot of talent in the free agent market for running backs this year, but, as always, there are more questions than answers when it comes to who you can truly count on to produce. Again, I am going to give you an early, mid-round, and late pick that will help you reach the promise land.
Notable Running Backs on the move- Reggie Bush, Frank Gore, Darren McFadden, DeMarco Murray, CJ Spiller, Shane Vereen, Ryan Mathews, Roy Helu, Trent Richardson, Deangelo Williams, Bernard Pierce, Jacquizz Rodgers, Stevan Ridley
Early- Your #1 overall pick in many drafts this year is the easy choice in the “early” category, Demarco Murray. Leaving the Lone Star state as one of the busload of free agents headed to Philly, Murray is the pick of the litter for early round running backs. He will certainly get plenty of opportunities in Chip Kelly’s “fast but not as fast as the mid 90’s Buffalo Bills K-gun”, offense. Kelly does not seem to be concerned with Murray’s injury history (or anyone else’s for that matter), and I think he has a point. Free agents with a track record of injury can be signed for cheaper, but it’s pretty rare that guys have more than one catastrophic injury in a career. Last year was the first time he was able to play a full NFL season, and was hampered a little in college as well, but has avoided anything “major” to this point.
Lets not forget that Murray with be sharing the rock with San Diego transplant, and perennial disappointment, Ryan Mathews, and the ever-explosive yet inexplicably underutilized Darren Sproles as well. Both of those guys have taken their lumps, and earned their stripes. While they will be a great compliment for Murray on the field, it’s a bit of a burden for fantasy owners to consider while they are on the clock. Also, according to ProFootballFocus he left the best run-blocking line in football for a team ranked…wait for it…second. It’s unforeseen how much of an impact this drop may have.
Taking Murray super early may be considered “risky” in terms of injury, being on a new team, and part of a fairly loaded backfield. In this particular case, the potential reward outweighs the risk. Take Murray in the top three overall, and don’t look back until you hoist that trophy.
Mid-round picks generally consist of guys that have had some success in their careers, and are chosen either with the hope that this will be the year they finally break out, or that they have enough left in the tank for one last good campaign. You don’t need to hit home runs in rounds 6-10, just get through it without hurting yourself. This year, the crop is deeper than ever. At this point, you are looking for some consistency, production, and hopefully durability. Frank Gore has embodied those three qualities for the last ten seasons, and falls squarely into the latter of those two aforementioned categories. He has been a “lottery” pick for most of his career, and has helped win many a fantasy football league. I almost had a hard time calling him a “mid-round” pick, but of the four sites I checked, he ranked anywhere between the #20 (still fairly early)-#35 (just fine for “mid”) back. Gore is on the wrong side of 30, and has over 2,400 career totes. He is joining a new team, in a pass-happy system, with a quarterback that is going to be a face of the NFL for the next 10-15 years. While all of those factors hurt his value, they just barely hurt it enough to justify me calling him a “mid-round” selection, and for the sake of this blog, I am thankful for that.
While everything I just said about him is true, he is still going to be one of only a handful of a dying breed. True “feature-backs” are getting harder and harder to come by. The league just got two more this year, in Todd Gurley, and Melvin Gordon, but before that, very few guys have come into the league considered a legitimate RB1. Running backs have been so “devalued” because of their “short shelf-life,” (can you tell I hate those buzzwords?) that teams absolutely have to have two guys they trust to carry the rock, and most teams have three or more. Gore defies that entire way of thinking, but is certainly the exception to the rule. He is currently on a depth chart with Dan Herron, and Vick Ballard. For those reasons, I’m confident that the reward of taking a 31 year old with literal miles and miles of hard-nosed, downhill, NFL yardage to his credit will be worth the risk. He will be an upper-end RB2 at the end of the year, and that’s all you can ask from a mid-round RB, no matter how long in the tooth he may be.
Here is where it gets verrrrry interesting. This is where you separate the perennial top three finishers in your leagues, and the fluke guys that find that four-leaf clover once every five years. Late-round running back steals are probably the biggest factor in determining fantasy football success. I am here to help you be the guy that gets the guy this year. Keep in mind we are less than a week removed from the draft, so don’t come calling for my head if these guys move up or down some draft boards as the season approaches.
With that in mind, here is your home run. Roy Helu Jr. Oakland has finally found the quarterback that they, the Browns, and the Bills have been seeking for about a decade. They are no longer the dysfunctional graveyard out west where careers go to die. Al Davis has finally given up the reigns, and Oakland has done a great job of surrounding their new, young, quarterback with tools to succeed. One of the most underrated of these is Roy Helu Jr. Again, it is hard to say where exactly guys are going to fall in fantasy drafts before they put the pads on, but I suspect Helu will still be found near the end in most leagues. From what I have seen, he has been ranked right around 50th. If you figure on average, there will be four running backs per team in a twelve team league, then he is not projected to be drafted at all!
That is crazy to me. Helu will split time with potential wildcard Latavius Murray, and they will more than likely bury Trent Richardson on the depth chart before long. Helu Jr. spent most of the past three seasons sitting behind workhorse Alfred Morris, and wasn’t a huge threat in his limited opportunities. I think he will shoulder much more of the load in Oakland, and even though he is 26, he doesn’t have the wear and tear that some of his peers have experienced. Although he hasn’t done much in the ground game, Helu Jr. has had 40+ receptions on two occasions, and will be a great security blanket for a developing Derek Carr. I can certainly envision a scenario where Helu Jr. ends the season with 500 on the ground, and 500 more through the air. If he can produce that, and find the end zone once every other week, that’s a hell of a value for a guy that may not be drafted.