By Patrick Daugherty
The rules are the same as they were last week, with a few minor tweaks. The 1-32 designations are based on Rotoworld’s running back rankings, with the caveat that each team must be represented. That’s why Rashard Mendenhall is No. 32 instead of Shane Vereen (spoiler). So don’t consider this a projection of “starters,” as much as “the most likely to lead their team’s running back corps in fantasy value.”
Also — more than any other position — we’re aware that the true “Worst Case Scenario” for any running back is “shatters leg in three places as knee is getting blown out.” Think this or this. But what would be the fun in predicting that? This is a thought exercise. What’s a player’s highest ceiling? Lowest floor? Thank you for reading. The real thing is finally almost here.
1. Adrian Peterson
Best Case: AD doesn’t reach his desired 2,500 yards, but still sets the new benchmark, exploding past 2.2K in Week 17. An already Hall-of-Fame career becomes era defining.
Worst Case: After outrunning Christian Ponder’s ineptness as he reset the record book last season, not even Peterson can withstand all the league-leading eight-man fronts he’s forced to deal with because of Ponder’s inability to challenge beyond the first level of the defense. AD’s 1,325 rushing yards are the second fewest of his career, while his 4.4 yards per carry is more than a yard and a half off his 2012 mark.
2. Doug Martin
Best Case: The centerpiece of the Bucs offense not only solidifies himself as the league’s top dual-threat back, but makes a serious run at Chris Johnson’s 2009 record of 2,509 yards from scrimmage record.
Worst Case: With Josh Freeman making a Flacco-esque run at the multi-millions, Martin’s touches actually go down. It results in “just” 1,500 yards from scrimmage, only 1,100 of which come on the ground. Martin is a lower-end RB1.
3. Arian Foster
Best Case: Foster reminds everybody that he’s still only 27, exploding for a career-high 1,800 yards while averaging 4.8 yards per carry behind a refreshed offensive line. His 15 rushing touchdowns lead the league for the second consecutive season.
Worst Case: With disappointing RT Derek Newton leading the way, Foster’s line play deteriorates instead of improves. Gaining mileage faster than a Dead Head’s van, Foster misses four games with various leg ailments, and fails to eclipse 1,000 yards for the first time since 2009. Foster becomes the latest, greatest example of a running back’s frighteningly short shelf life.
4. C.J. Spiller
Best Case: The coronation is complete. Spiller leads the league in rushing yards (1,727), yards from scrimmage (2,289), yards per carry (5.6) and total touchdowns (23), calling to mind Priest Holmes in his prime.
Worst Case: New coach Doug Marrone does what Chan Gailey never did — make Spiller the centerpiece of the offense. Spiller responds by falling back on one of his worst tendencies, trying to bounce every run outside. Spiller’s home-run swinging puts undue pressure on the quarterback duo Kevin Kolb and E.J. Manuel, resulting in a vicious cycle that makes us wonder, “maybe Gailey knew how to use this guy after all.”
5. Jamaal Charles
Best Case: Andy Reid comes to Jesus, curbing his pass-obsessed tendencies to make Charles the true quarterback of his offense. It results in the greatest season of Charles’ career, who makes like Larry Johnson on the ground (1,700 yards) and Brian Westbrook through the air (600 receiving yards).
Worst Case: Reid’s square peg (Alex Smith) doesn’t fit in the round hole (his pass-happy West Coast offense), hamstringing the offense, and Charles in particular. Charles still eclipses 1,500 yards from scrimmage and 5.0 yards per carry, but as is usually the case with Reid’s running backs, people are left wondering what might have been.
6. Ray Rice
Best Case: Bernard who? Rice’s workload is not dramatically reduced, and he responds by flirting with the league lead in yards from scrimmage, a category he led in 2011. His 10 rushing scores make him a hit in standard leagues, while his 70 catches goose his PPR stock.
Worst Case: Rice finds himself on the sideline far more often than he’d like, watching as Bernard Pierce’s touches spike from 7-8 to 12-14 per game. He barely clears 1,100 yards on the ground for the second consecutive season, while he catches fewer than 60 balls for the first time since his rookie year. He’s still an RB1, but a severe overdraft in the No. 3-5 overall range.
7. LeSean McCoy
Best Case: The beast is unleashed in year five. With coach Andy Reid no longer around to waste touches on Jason Avant and Clay Harbor, “Shady” pilots the most run-heavy offense in the league, making 2013 the heir apparent to his elite 2011. McCoy’s injury-marred, ineffective 2012 is but a distant memory as he leads the league in both yards from scrimmage and total touchdowns.
Worst Case: McCoy’s touches per game actually go down as coach Chip Kelly, intent on utilizing the powerful and explosive Bryce Brown, employs a two-back attack. Shady barely squeezes by 1,000 yards on the ground, and is actually out-scored by Brown. He’s a waste of a first-round pick.
8. Marshawn Lynch
Best Case: Lynch’s mid-career renaissance batters its way to another top-five fantasy finish, as he keeps on truckin’ to the tune of 1,500 yards and 12 touchdowns. “Beast Mode” is impervious to the improvements and evolution of Seattle’s offense.
Worst Case: It all hits at once. The mileage catches up with Lynch as Percy Harvin, Robert Turbin and Christine Michael run him down. Despite coach Pete Carroll’s preseason claims to the contrary, Russell Wilson becomes the straw that stirs the drink by the Puget Sound. Lynch barely reaches 800 yards, and scores only seven touchdowns.
9. Alfred Morris
Best Case: The ghost of Terrell Davis lives on, as Morris flirts with 2,000 yards rushing in the Redskins’ lethal zone-blocking attack. He even manages to snag a few passes, doubling his reception total from 11 to 22. It’s a top-three season for the former sixth-round pick.
Worst Case: There are no Sha-nanigans — not even Mike Shanahan is crazy enough to bench Morris after his stellar rookie campaign — but the Redskins offense treads water as Robert Griffin III struggles to find his footing as he plays on a bum knee. Morris’ 1,200 rushing yards are still good for 10th in the league, but scoring just eight touchdowns and offering nothing as a pass catcher, he’s a thoroughly uninspiring RB1.
10. Trent Richardson
Best Case: So that’s why he was the No. 3 pick last season. Richardson puts his lost rookie year behind him, piling up yards and catches for an offensive coordinator who was there as Emmitt Smith and LaDainian Tomlinson rewrote the record book. Although he finishes just outside the top three in running back points, Richardson makes a case to be the No. 1 overall pick in 2014 fantasy drafts.
Worst Case: Like a host of Alabama prospects before him, Richardson looks like a player whose best days came for the Crimson Tide. Unable to stay healthy, Richardson barely improves on his woeful 2012 3.6 yards per carry, and forces Norval Turner to follow the “Mathews Plan,” rotating in used-up veterans behind a supposedly ready-to-explode elite young back. T-Rich sets himself up for a “do-or-die” 2014.
11. Steven Jackson
Best Case: Deliverance. Already ageless, Jackson is like a kid in a candy store in Atlanta’s wide-open offense, making up for lost time as he scores a career-high — and NFL-leading — 18 rushing touchdowns. S-Jax kills the memory of Michael Turner’s sad final days, and wins legions of leagues as a late-second/early-third round pick.
Worst Case: S-Jax is stopped by the same invisible force that claimed Turner: Age and usage. After escaping the cruel hand of time longer than 90 percent of NFL running backs, Jackson looks like he’s stuck in mud as he plods to 3.8 yards per carry. His 10 rushing scores are still the second most of his career, but he’s a missing piece instead of the missing piece for the Falcons offense.
12. Matt Forte
Best Case: Healthy and happy in an offense coordinated by someone who actually understands offense, Forte wrings one last top-ten campaign out of his soon-to-be 28-year-old legs, rushing for a career-high 1,250 yards while snagging his most passes since 2009 (57). He’s a strong value as a second-round pick.
Worst Case: The injury bug becomes an avalanche for the rapidly wearing down back, as Forte wheezes to 4.1 yards per carry while missing a career-worst five games. His sporadic health leads to a drop in the 2.9 catches per game he averaged in 2012, despite assurances from both GM Phil Emery and coach Marc Trestman that he’d be more involved in the passing game.
13. Chris Johnson
Best Case: Johnson stops the buck here instead of passing it. After years of complaining about his supporting cast, CJ?K is reinvigorated by his improved offensive line and new run-based attack. He’s still not the same back he was in 2009, but his 1,300 yards appear far less arduous than they did in 2010-12.
Worst Case: With new LG Andy Levitre (knees) banged up and Jake Locker ineffective, Johnson’s sad, baffling decline continues. His 983 yards are a career low, while he accomplishes the impossible: Making Titans fans wish Shonn Greene would get the ball more.
14. Stevan Ridley
Best Case: Ridley runs his way to an unassuming 1,454 yards, adding 14 touchdowns for a restyled offense. His hands are still made of stone, but he manages to double his previous career total for catches (nine).
Worst Case: Shane Vereen’s momentum doesn’t just carry him into fantasy owners’ hearts, but the Patriots’ backfield, where he proves to be more than a third-round back. Stealing away carries with his big-play ability, Vereen puts a major dent in Ridley’s fantasy value, turning him from a shaky RB1 to even shakier RB2.
15. Frank Gore
Best Case: Gore finds himself on the wrong side of 30, but right side of San Francisco’s offense, easily marching to his third-straight 1,200-yard campaign under coach Jim Harbaugh. Thanks to smart early-season usage, Gore doesn’t even slow down the stretch this time, saving his best games for San Francisco’s pivotal St. Louis/Seattle/Tampa Bay/Atlanta December grind.
Worst Case: Although the 49ers offense is even more run-based in the absence of Michael Crabtree, Harbs decides to do all he can to keep Gore fresh, limiting him to 13-17 carries per game for the season’s first half as LaMichael James and Kendall Hunter both establish roles. Gore’s usage picks up as the games increase in importance, but the damage has already been done for fantasy owners who rolled the second-round dice.
16. David Wilson
Best Case: Making the necessary strides with ball security and pass protection, Wilson turns the G-Men’s backfield into a one-man committee, piling up 1,600 yards from scrimmage while splitting goal-line duties with Andre Brown. A new perennial first-round pick is born.
Worst Case: Brown decides 2013 is the year he’s going to stay healthy, while Wilson’s mental mistakes continue to trouble the coaching staff. What was supposed to be a 66-33 split in Wilson’s favor is far closer to 50-50, even tilting towards Brown. Wilson is an inconsistent flex option, which doesn’t cut it for fantasy owners who used a third-round pick.
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