17. Maurice Jones-Drew
Best Case: Jones-Drew beats back age and injury one final time, rebounding from his disastrous 2012 to finish in the top eight in both rushing yards and fantasy points.
Worst Case: With the Jags offense an unseemly mess thanks to Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne, MJD has only the odd big game. He slumps to 4.1 yards per carry while averaging just 75 yards per game.
18. Chris Ivory
Best Case: A new “Beast Mode” is born. Angry from years of being mothballed in pass-happy New Orleans, Ivory puts the Jets on his back as explodes for 1,500 yards and 12 touchdowns. He keeps Gang Green surprisingly competitive, and is one of the common denominators of fantasy champions thanks to his low ADP (55.9 as of this writing).
Worst Case: Ivory is angry alright, but on the sideline, not the field. That’s because true to his Saints reputation, he can’t stay healthy, picking up a litany of leg injuries. He produces when he does get the rock (4.7 yards per carry), but it’s too few and far between for fantasy owners who took the fourth-round plunge.
19. Darren McFadden
Best Case: The phoenix rises. DMC is no longer synonymous with disappointment, but triumph, saving his best — and healthiest — football for his contract year. He averages an even five yards per carry behind the Raiders’ power-blocking wall, totaling a career best 1,400 rushing yards and 12 total touchdowns in the process. Years of “moth to the flame” fantasy owners are finally rewarded.
Worst Case: McFadden paints his masterpiece...of failure, and this time there’s no one to blame but himself. It’s not the scheme, it’s not the line, it’s not the quarterback, it’s not the coaching. McFadden just plain stinks in a year where he misses “only” two games, averaging 3.8 yards per carry, and killing the dream of a “DMC breakout” once and for all.
20. Reggie Bush
Best Case: The unholy matrimony of his Saints and Dolphins days, Bush rushes for a career-high 1,200 yards while leading running backs in catches with 83. Taking advantage of the Lions’ wide-open offense, Bush is a top-ten back in every format, and a downright elite one in PPR leagues.
Worst Case: After two years of good health in South Beach, the Ford Field turf proves unforgiving to Bush’s knees, costing him four games and slowing his momentum in an offense built for his strengths. He’s still a perfectly fine flex option when he does take the field, but that’s not what gambling fantasy owners had in mind when they selected him ahead of the likes of Frank Gore and Chris Johnson.
21. DeMarco Murray
Best Case: Murray splits the difference between his rookie and sophomore campaigns with one important alteration — he stays healthy. He rushes for 1,250 yards while averaging 4.5 yards per carry, “tacking on” a solid 55 catches.
Worst Case: It simply isn’t meant to be. Felled by leg and foot injuries his first two years in the league, Murray tears his MCL, missing another six games as he erases what few good feelings remained from his rookie campaign. “Never again” is the fantasy mantra heading into 2014.
22. Montee Ball
Best Case: It wasn’t Wisconsin’s “system” after all. After running circles around Ronnie Hillman in camp, Ball runs wild over the soft fronts Peyton Manning invites, leading all rookies with 1,300 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns.
Worst Case: Ball plays to his sluggish 4.66 Combine 40 in camp while struggling in pass protection. The Broncos adopt a full-blown committee at running back, and Ball starts out third on the totem pole behind Hillman and Knowshon Moreno. Aside from erratic flex value as a goal-line specialist, Ball is off the redraft radar.
23. Lamar Miller
Best Case: The Dolphins’ (blind?) faith is rewarded, as Miller proves the most successful of the NFL’s myriad sophomore backs. Working in tandem with Ryan Tannehill, Miller rides a wave of big plays to 1,400 yards and 5.2 yards per carry. Just as Frank Gore predicted, the next great “U” running back is born.
Worst Case: Still lacking in physicality, Miller isn’t ready for his star turn, spending more time running into piles than the end zone. Miller is given a long rope thanks to the lack of talent behind him, but he never gets in gear. One of GM Jeff Ireland’s numerous aggressive gambles goes by the wayside.
24. Le’Veon Bell
Best Case: Bell does what he was drafted to do, restoring order to a Steelers rushing attack that’s been directionless for the vast majority of the Ben Roethlisberger era. An upright, slow-ish runner, Bell doesn’t hit many home runs, but legs out plenty of doubles on his way to 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns.
Worst Case: Bell is washed away behind one of the league’s worst run-blocking lines while the Steelers break their latest promise to return to classic “Steelers football.” An afterthought to Roethlisberger by Week 4, Bell is part of a three-man committee by Week 8. He struggles for flex value.
25. Darren Sproles
Best Case: Behind only Drew Brees, Sproles is the centerpiece of Sean Payton’s post-suspension offense, taking his career-high 110 carries for 560 yards. That’s on top of his customary 80 receptions, of course. Sproles’ nine total touchdowns match his 2011 total.
Worst Case: Payton still emphasizes Sproles through the air, but opts for a more traditional “pound” on the ground with Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas, handing the ball off to his shifty scatback just 55 times. Sproles is still a PPR dynamo, but a frustrating flex option for standard purposes.
26. Ryan Mathews
Best Case: Miracles do happen. Mathews sheds all his disappointing 2012 stats — 3.8 yards per carry, one rush of 20 yards or longer, five third-down touches all season — and looks much more like the player he was in 2011 (1,546 yards from scrimmage, 4.9 yards per carry, six TDs) despite playing behind the league’s worst offensive line.
Worst Case: The disintegration continues. A strict two-down back, Mathews remains allergic to big plays and finds the end zone only three more times than he did in 2012 (once). Backup Danny Woodhead outpoints Mathews in PPR leagues, and comes close in standard formats.
27. Eddie Lacy
Best Case: Lacy easily wins early-down duties in camp and steals a surprising number of passing-down snaps away from fellow rookie Johnathan Franklin. Quickly establishing himself as a member of this season’s “All Overanalyzed Team,” Lacy not only becomes the Packers’ first 700-yard rusher since 2010, but first 1,000-yard rusher since 2009.
Worst Case: After looking like a 5-foot-10, 231-pound ball of fury against a sluggish Notre Dame defense in the national title game, Lacy is decidedly less explosive in the pros, thanks in part to ongoing conditioning issues. Despite being given every opportunity to seize early-down duties, Lacy can’t take advantage, and is thrust into a timeshare with DuJuan Harris. Like Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson before him, Lacy isn’t ready for the big leagues as a rookie.
28. Ahmad Bradshaw
Best Case: Despite his ever-increasing injury history, Bradshaw does what he always does: Misses a ton of practice time but produces on Sundays. A vastly superior talent to Vick Ballard, Bradshaw leads Colts running backs in both rushing yards and catches. He rumbles for over 1,000 yards on the ground for the third time in four years.
Worst Case: Bradshaw can no longer outrun his past. After missing most of training camp, Bradshaw is sluggish early on before his foot woes pop back up in Week 3. Ineffective as he plays hurt over the next month, Bradshaw is sent to injured reserve for the first time in his seven-year career.
29. Jonathan Stewart
Best Case: Forget the fact that Stewart couldn’t even play golf this summer. He returns fully healed from his twin high-ankle sprains to finally live up to his promise in the Panthers’ new power-run game, breaching the 1,000-yard barrier for the first time since 2009. He even manages to steal away eight goal-to-go carries from world-renowned vulture Mike Tolbert, turning them into five touchdowns.
Worst Case: 2012 was the beginning of the end for a back who is still only 26. Stewart simply can’t stay healthy, forcing the Panthers to return to DeAngelo Williams, who promptly goes down, as well. It’s Tolbert Time in Carolina, leading to headaches for otherwise ascendant QB Cam Newton. The Panthers are in the market for a new feature runner barely two years after locking up Williams, and one year after extending Stewart.
30. Isaiah Pead
Best Case: The favorite of coach Jeff Fisher all along, Pead soundly wins the Rams’ running back competition. Fresh off his one-game suspension in Week 2, Pead stings the Falcons’ soft defense for 180 yards from scrimmage as former teammate Steven Jackson can barely muster 75. Pead quickly emerges as one of the league’s top dual-threat backs en route to 1,500 yards from scrimmage.
Worst Case: Pead shows his rookie form in camp. Meandering and error prone, he departs the exhibition season a shaky second on the depth chart. Suspended for Week 1, all he can do is watch from his hotel room as Daryl Richardson looks like anything but a “space” player against the Cardinals, grinding out 130 tough yards. Pead is once again limited to reserve and special-teams duties.
31. Giovani Bernard
Best Case: Like Doug Martin re: LeGarrette Blount in 2012, Bernard runs circles around BenJarvus Green-Ellis in camp, establishing within the first 10 days that he’s not going to be limited to “change-of-pace” duties as a rookie. Drafted as a flex option, he produces as a borderline RB1 in an offense that gets necessarily more run heavy.
Worst Case: It doesn’t matter how Bernard shows in camp: Conservative OC Jay Gruden has already made up his mind that he’ll be pure COP as a rookie. It’s not a valuable role in a Bengals offense that ends up running the most two tight-end sets in the league with Tyler Eifert in the fold. Aside from sporadic FLEX production, Bernard is a fantasy afterthought in Year 1.
32. Rashard Mendenhall
Best Case: Simply handed the starting job by former OC Bruce Arians, Mendenhall is given a long leash as the Cardinals’ feature back. Arians has always favored a “lead dog” approach when possible. Mendenhall responds by averaging a surprisingly acceptable 4.3 yards per carry behind Arizona’s pitiful offensive line. He matches his nine touchdowns from 2011, and reaches 1,000 yards for the first time since 2010.
Worst Case: Mendenhall “wins” the No. 1 job in camp, but goes nowhere behind the Cardinals’ spaghetti-strainer of a line. Just like he was in Indianapolis, Arians is forced to go with a committee approach as he searches for something, anything to spark the league’s worst rushing attack. Mendenhall looks shockingly done for a back who is still only 26.