Ellington and Ball are second-year backs set to take over as their respective team’s lead back in 2014. Ellington was extremely impressive on 118 rookie-season carries, averaging 5.5 yards per carry. Ball played second fiddle to Knowshon Moreno during his rookie season, but strong play earned him an expanded role in the second half. Ellington gets a slight edge here, as he’s shown signs of having a higher ceiling, but note that he’s already 25 years old. Ball will be 23 when Week 1 rolls around and is working in Denver’s high-scoring offense.
The Chargers moved more towards a run-heavy attack during the second half of 2013, which allowed Ryan Mathews a massive workload down the stretch. Strong play has earned him a firm grasp on San Diego’s lead back role. Only 26, he has a few years of RB2 production in the tank…Stevan Ridley is a bit tricky to evaluate. He’s only 25 and a talented back, but he lost a significant portion of his workload to LeGarrette Blount last season due to fumbling issues. If Blount is re-signed, Ridley’s short-term stock will take a plunge. That’s a good time for savvy owners to snatch him up on the cheap.
Ben Tate, Bernard Pierce, and Michael represent some of the most talented reserve backs in the league. Tate actually has a shot at a starting gig going forward, as he’s the first unrestricted free agent in our rankings. Only 25 and with loads of talent, his value will see a nice boost if he lands a gig that allows him 15-plus carries per game. Pierce remains behind Rice in Baltimore, but that could change quickly if Rice doesn’t improve on a dismal 2013 campaign or misses time due to off-the-field issues. Pierce is only 22, which will allow him a lengthy shelf life. Michael – a second-round pick one year ago – remains stuck behind Lynch in Seattle. If the veteran goes down with an injury or shows signs of his age, expect Michael to surge past Robert Turbin and into a major role in the league’s run-heaviest offense. He’s an elite handcuff option in every type of league.
Trent Richardson and David Wilson were among the top busts in fantasy football last season. Richardson managed a wretched 3.0 yards per carry, which was even lower than his poor 3.6 rookie-season mark. An early-season trade to Indianapolis ended up dramatically hurting his 2013 fantasy value. On the bright side, Richardson is only 22 and will enter 2014 as the lead back in the Colts’ improving offense. Wilson appeared in only five games before a serious neck injury cut his season short. Also 22, Wilson has a ton of talent, but there are plenty of question marks, including his health and struggles with fumbling and pass protection. Both players own massive upside, but have disappointed thus far in their short careers.
Bush was fantasy’s No. 10 running back this past season, but failed to appear in all 16 of his team’s games for the sixth time over the last seven seasons. He’ll remain heavily involved in the Lions’ high-scoring offense this season, but he’s now 29 years old and will share the workload with emerging Joique Bell…Moreno is a free agent, which means his ranking will move a bit once he finds a landing spot. The 26 year old was outstanding for Denver in 2013, busting out for nearly 1,600 total yards and 13 touchdowns. He was No. 5 among running backs in fantasy points.
Marcus Lattimore destroyed his knee while still at South Carolina back in 2012, but is expected to be fully healthy for the 2014 season. He remains buried behind Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter in San Francisco, but was considered a first-round talent prior to his injury. Lattimore is expected to eventually replace Gore as the team’s franchise back. Gore had another strong season in 2013, but his fantasy value is limited by a lack of involvement in the passing game. Set to enter Week 1 at age 31, his days as a lead back are surely numbered.
Bryce Brown and Knile Davis are both young, talented backs stuck in a reserve role on their respective teams. Brown is competing with Chris Polk for work behind McCoy, while Davis is backing up Charles. Brown and Davis would find themselves on the RB1 radar if either starter went down with an injury. Both set to turn 23 this year, these future stars should be stashed on dynasty benches.
Lamar Miller and Mark Ingram are similar in that they’ve both underwhelmed when given a chance to lead their respective team’s backfield. Miller is only 23 and is entering a make-or-break seasons as Miami’s ace. The team’s hiring of Bill Lazor as offensive coordinator will only improve Miller’s effectiveness and likely raise his involvement. Durability remains an issue for Ingram, as he’s now missed 11 games during his first three seasons in the NFL. He’s only 24, however, and averaged an impressive 4.9 yards per carry in 2013. With Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles on the decline, Ingram is a logical post-hype breakout candidate in 2014.
Chris Johnson is expected to be cut by Tennessee this offseason, which leaves us without any clue as to where he’ll be or what sort of role he’ll play in 2014 and beyond. On the plus side, Johnson was fantasy’ No. 9 back of 2013 and hasn’t missed a single game over the last five seasons. On the other hand, he turns 29 this year and is unlikely to land a clear feature back role wherever he lands…We discussed Blount’s impeding free agency earlier. Although he played a situational role for most of the 2013 season, Blount emerged as a force down the stretch, racking up eight touchdowns during one three-game stretch. Blount is 27 and wouldn’t be anything more than a committee back if he re-signs with New England. His lack of involvement as a receiver lowers his fantasy ceiling even further.
Bell and Jonathan Stewart are both closing in on age 28 and stuck in a committee on their respective teams. Bell will see plenty of work behind and/or next to Bush during the 2014 season. Stewart simply can’t stay healthy, having missed 17 games over the last two seasons. He’ll continue to share reps with DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert in Carolina. Both backs have talent, but age and depth chart status are not on their side.
Latavius Murray is as speculative a player as they come, but the 23-year-old has a ton on his side. A sixth-round pick in 2013, Murray is massive at 6’3, 223 pounds and has 4.38 speed. His 2013 season never got off the ground due to an ankle injury, but with Darren McFadden long gone and Rashad Jennings a free agent, Murray has a serious shot to explode onto the fantasy scene in 2014…Steven Jackson will enter 2014 as Atlanta’s lead back, but he’s nearing age 31 and struggled to a career-low 3.5 yards per carry last season. If the Atlanta offense bounces back, Jackson has a shot at RB2 production this upcoming season, but his days as a feature back are coming to an end.
McFadden, Jennings, and Maurice Jones-Drew are headed for free agency. Each could end up starting a lot of games in 2014, but McFadden continues to struggle with his durability, while Jones-Drew and Jennings are 29 years old. None of these backs have much value after the next season or two…The Jets backfield is well represented here as we see both Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell. Ivory is 26 and is the favorite to lead the team in carries over the short term. Powell is 25 and handles passing down work. Both are pedestrian talents stuck in a poor offense.
Hunter is only 25 and a very talented, productive player when called upon. Unfortunately, he seems destined for a situational role in San Francisco. Gore is on his last leg, but Lattimore is the team’s feature back of the future…Johnathan Franklin has clearly lost out to Lacy for Green Bay’s lead back gig, but he’s only 24 and is the heavy favorite for the team’s primary backup job…Stepfan Taylor is expected to team up with Ellington as a one-two punch in the Arizona backfield over the next few years. With Ellington taking on more of a scat back role, look for Taylor to handle some of the between-the-tackles grind, including some goal line work…Ronnie Hillman is only 22, but he couldn’t even hang on to the No. 3 job in Denver last season. He’ll enter 2014 in a competition with C.J. Anderson for the primary backup job behind Ball.
Vick Ballard, Jacquizz Rodgers, Danny Woodhead, and Roy Helu enter 2014 in clear reserve roles. Ballard tore his ACL last season, which helped pave the way for the Colts to acquire Trent Richardson. Rodgers hasn’t made for a reliable fantasy option even when in the starting lineup. Woodhead is a situational, passing-down back in San Diego. With a new coaching staff in Washington, Helu’s role is unclear, but he’s the current favorite for passing-down work.
Andre Brown, Shonn Greene, and DeAngelo Williams are currently slotted in as their team’s lead back, but all three will struggle to maintain fantasy relevance in the coming years. Brown is 27 and will need to fend off emerging Wilson in New York. Greene will be atop the Titans depth chart when Johnson is cut, but the team will surely add competition, if not a replacement, via the draft or free agency. Williams is closing in on age 31 and shares carries with Cam Newton, Stewart, and Tolbert.
Our sixth tier includes a trio of Saints’ running backs. Khiry Robinson, Thomas, and Sproles will compete with aforementioned Ingram for snaps in the merry-go-round that is the New Orleans backfield. Only 24, Robinson has youth on his side, but is expected to begin 2014 fourth on the depth chart. Sproles is unique in that he doesn’t carry the ball very often, so he figures to be a PPR factor for a few more seasons. Thomas is an excellent all-around performer, but is now 29.
Robert Turbin, Brandon Bolden, Chris Polk, Bobby Rainey, Daryl Richardson, Mike James, and Mike Gillislee are young backs buried on their respective team’s depth chart. Most have a shot at a short-term No. 2 gig, but a situational long-term role is likely in the cards on all fronts…Veterans Donald Brown, James Starks, Toby Gerhart, and Rashard Mendenhall are headed to free agency. There’s a shot a few of these guys end up earning some starts in 2014, but none will be asked to take on a feature back role.
Jordan Todman currently sits atop the Jaguars’ depth chart, but it won’t be long before he’s replaced…Edwin Baker and Dion Lewis are currently in position to lead the Cleveland backfield, but it’s more likely that they’ll be competing for situational snaps. Lewis is a name to watch in PPR…Journeyman Daniel Thomas is expected to back up Miller in Miami this season…Fred Jackson still has some redraft appeal, but is now 33 years old and has Spiller on his heels…Denard Robinson remains intriguing as a long-term project in Jacksonville.