A breakdown of the top 20 fantasy running backs heading into the 2014 NFL season.
20. SHANE VEREEN
New England Patriots
Vereen looked to be in for a breakout year after rushing for 101 yards and catching seven passes for 58 yards in Week 1 against the Bills, but a wrist injury left him out until November. Vereen didn’t get enough carries down the stretch to do much as a ball carrier, but he did have 47 catches for 427 yards in just eight games. Though Stevan Ridley’s ahead of him on the depth chart, Vereen has the potential to be a 100-catch, 1,000-yard player if he stays on the field, making him extremely appealing in PPR leagues.
19. BEN TATE
For the first three years of his career, Tate was stuck behind Arian Foster. Now, the 25-year-old finally has a starting role. With Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel battling to be the No. 1 quarterback, the Browns are sure to rely on the running game, at least early in the season. Tate has battled a number of injuries throughout his short career, but if he’s healthy he can be a solid RB2.
18. FRANK GORE
San Francisco 49ers
Mr. Reliable yet again racked up a 1,000-yard rushing season for his seventh in nine seasons. The 49ers haven’t shied from giving the ball to Gore, either. It was his third consecutive season with at least 250 attempts. Time is really the only thing working against the 31-year-old.
17. REGGIE BUSH
In the pass-heavy Lions’ offense, Bush eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards in the same season for the first time in his career. The Lions also relied strongly on Joique Bell, who they signed to a three-year deal in March, which could mean Bush will lose carries this year with Bell being a more prototypical ball carrier. Either way, Bush is still a fantasy starter.
16. ANDRE ELLINGTON
Ellington was just one of many rookies who had a veteran ahead of him stealing carries last year, but the youngster proved he has big-game potential. Rashard Mendenhall got nearly 100 more carries than Ellington (217 to 118), but Mendenhall only outrushed Ellington by 35 yards (687 to 652). Ellington’s 5.5 yards per carry were the best in the league among RBs who got at least 100 carries. With Mendenhall out of the picture, Ellington should see a major increase in carries.
15. C.J. SPILLER
The two-headed monster of Spiller and Fred Jackson is great for the Bills, but not so great for either as a fantasy player. They split carries almost exactly in 2013, with Spiller getting 202 and Jackson getting 206. With inexperience at quarterback in second-year starter E.J. Manuel, the Bills likely will continue to favor the run in a nearly 50-50 attack. Even with a nagging ankle injury, Spiller rushed for 933 yards but had just two TDs. Jackson got the majority of the red-zone carries, but at 33, his production and playing time could start to dwindle.
14. GIOVANI BERNARD
With BenJarvus Green-Ellis leading the way in carries for the Bengals last season, Bernard never had a game with more than 15 carries. Now that he’s taking over the starting role, Bernard should be in for a true breakout year. With a limited 170 carries, Bernard had 695 rushing yards and five TDs. He was also among the better receiving running backs in the league with 56 receptions, 514 yards and three TDs. Green-Ellis is still on the roster and the Bengals added RB Jeremy Hill in the draft, so Bernard could still lose out on goal-line touches.
13. MONTEE BALL
Ball didn’t come close to living up to expectations in his rookie year as Knowshon Moreno came in and stole the starting job, but with Peyton Manning fooling defenses and Moreno off to Miami, he’ll have another chance to burst on the scene. Ball rushed for just 559 yards and four TDs but averaged a solid 4.7 yards per carry. Manning surely will involve Ball in the passing game, so Ball could emerge as a great PPR option.
12. ALFRED MORRIS
After a dominant year that was overshadowed only by Adrian Peterson’s 2,097 yards in 2012, Morris saw a significant drop in carries in 2013. The Redskins’ offense moved from a run-heavy attack in 2012 (54-46 run-pass ratio) to just about the opposite in 2013 (43-57). That didn’t hurt Morris much — he was still the NFL’s fourth-leading rusher with 1,275 yards. Morris has clear RB1 abilities, and should have no trouble picking up another 1,000-yard season. Morris’ one downside is he’s nonexistent from a PPR perspective. In two years in the league, Morris has just 20 catches for 155 yards combined.
11. ZAC STACY
St. Louis Rams
From Week 8 on last season, Stacy was a different player. Before emerging as the starter, Stacy rushed for just 214 yards and no touchdowns in his first five games. The rest of the way, he rushed for 759 yards and seven TDs. In that final nine-week stretch, Stacy had four 100-yard rushing games, including one against a stout Seattle defense. The Rams did draft running back Tre Mason in the third round, which could mean fewer carries for Stacy. Either way, if he plays like he did the second half of his rookie season, he’s a no-doubt No. 1 RB.
10. LE'VEON BELL
With his weight down, Bell is on the rise. Bell reminded Steelers fans of Jerome Bettis in 2013, coming in at 244 pounds, but according to an interview Bell had with Mark Kaboly of TribLive Radio, he is down to 225, which fits his style of play much better. Bell, 22, rushed for 860 yards and eight TDs in his rookie season, and with at least one catch per game last year (45 total), he is a solid PPR option.
9. DEMARCO MURRAY
Injuries continue to be a concern for the Cowboys’ fourth-year back — he’s yet to play more than 14 games. When he’s on the field, though, he’s about as good as they get. Murray rushed for 1,121 yards and nine TDs last season, both career highs. Murray ranked third in the league among eligible backs with 5.2 yards per carry and is also a weapon in the passing game as he picked up 350 receiving yards on 53 catches last season. Injuries always will be something to worry about with Murray until he can play a full season unharmed, but the risk is well worth the reward.
8. MARSHAWN LYNCH
Lynch has lived up to the Beast Mode name with three consecutive 1,200-yard seasons, but there are some concerns with him. In running back years, Lynch is getting old at 28. Add that to the fact that he’s holding out and there could be injury concerns, even with a durable back. If it weren’t for the holdout, Lynch would be in the top, but with no end in sight, he’s a bit of a risk.
7. DOUG MARTIN
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Martin was limited to just six games in 2013 after suffering a torn labrum in his left shoulder in a Week 7 game against the Atlanta Falcons. Even before the injury, Martin struggled. He ended his shortened-season with just 456 rushing yards and one TD after going off for 1,454 yards and 11 TDs in his rookie 2012 season. Martin, 25, has had ample time to recover from the injury and will have fresh legs in 2014 under new coach Lovie Smith.
6. EDDIE LACY
Green Bay Packers
Coming off his Offensive Rookie of the Year season, Lacy is primed to be a solid No. 1 running back. With Aaron Rodgers out the better half of the year, Lacy stepped up, rushing for 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns in 15 games. Lacy certainly has the speed to be an every-down back, but it’s his physicality that makes him the fantasy player he is. Lacy had just 25 attempts inside the 10-yard line but 10 of his 11 TDs came in that range.
5. ARIAN FOSTER
Foster is coming off a serious back injury, but based on his previous production it’s hard to discount him. Though Foster appeared in eight games last season, he was really healthy only in the first six, in which he rushed for 536 yards (89 per game). The biggest dropoff for Foster was in scoring. Foster led all running backs in touchdowns two of the previous three seasons before reaching the end zone just once in 2013. Aside from the injury, the dip comes from lack of carries inside the 10. Foster has averaged 2.6 carries per game inside the 10-yard line but last season he had only about one per game. With Ben Tate now in Cleveland, Foster’s overall carries should increase with another injury prone back in Andre Brown behind him on the depth chart. Even with the injury, it’s hard not to think about taking Foster in the first round.
4. MATT FORTE
A healty Forte put up career numbers in 2013 with highs in rushing yards (1,339), rushing touchdowns (9), receptions (74) and receiving yards (594) in his first 16-game season since 2010. In the past, Forte had been limited in the red zone, with Michael Bush and Marion Barber taking goal-line touches away, but in 2013, nine of Forte’s 12 total touchdowns came inside 6 yards. Bush, who is a free agent, was the only other Bears running back to get any carries and rushed the ball just 63 times in 2013. With rookie Ka’Deem Carey and Michael Ford, who didn’t get any offensive touches last year, behind Forte, he should get close to 300 carries again.
3. JAMAAL CHARLES
Kansas City Chiefs
Charles proved he can make do with a subpar offensive line, and he’ll have to do the same again this season. The Chiefs still have a depleted offensive line after free agency, and 2013 No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher is making a move from right tackle to left tackle and recovering from shoulder surgery. That said, Charles has one-man show capabilities. He rushed for 1,287 yards and 12 touchdowns, but it was his receiving that was most impressive. He had career- and team-highs across the board with 70 receptions for 693 yards and seven TDs. Charles also led all running backs with 104 targets, which was just one fewer look than the Chiefs’ top receiver Dwayne Bowe got.
2. LESEAN MCCOY
The Chip Kelly offense worked wonders for McCoy, who had his best season in 2013. McCoy led the league with 1,607 rushing yards and 314 attempts, and the Eagles should rely heavily on him again in 2014. McCoy was especially valuable in PPR leagues as he had 52 catches for 539 yards and another 2 TDs out of the backfield. With the Eagles’ acquisition of Darren Sproles, that role likely will lessen, but it’s his running game that’s the difference-maker anyway.
1. ADRIAN PETERSON
Not that this really needs an explanation, but Peterson continues to be the best running back in the league, from a fantasy perspective or otherwise. Peterson didn’t put up quite the numbers he did in 2012 after surgery to repair his torn ACL, but with 69 fewer carries in 2013, he was still beyond respectable. For the sixth time in seven seasons, Peterson rushed for more than 1,200 yards and extended his double-digit touchdowns streak with exactly 10. Peterson came back to earth in yards per carry, dropping from a ridiculous 6.0 to a solid 4.5. Whether Teddy Bridgewater wins the starting quarterback job or not, the Vikings will face questions under center with Matt Cassel and Christian Ponder as the other options, giving Peterson a good chance of getting 300 attempts.