2014 is an odd year for running back draftees in a fantasy football context. Some of the most talented runners, like Carlos Hyde and Tre Mason, were selected by teams with solid incumbent starters. You can read my pre-draft rankings for an idea of how I feel about them from a scouting perspective, but here I’ll look purely at their fantasy keeper value — where talent meets scheme and opportunity.
1. Bishop Sankey, Tennessee Titans
Sankey gets the top spot by default. He was only my No. 8 running back going into the draft, but he’s one of the few guys who has a starting gig out of the gate and the Titans have a promising young offensive line to run behind. I don’t expect huge numbers from Sankey and Shonn Greene is looming to vulture touchdowns, but the rookie will get a lot of touches and has receiving skills that should help in PPR leagues. Giovani Bernard’s rookie 2013 season is a good comp for Sankey due to their athletic dual-threat skillset, with Greene playing the Benjarvis Green-Ellis role in Tennessee. I still worry about Sankey’s power running ability and vision between the tackles. Long-term, the Titans may always pair him with a bigger back.
2. Terrence West, Cleveland Browns
West didn’t get a chance to play at a big college in a big conference, but he did dominate the competition he faced, which is what you look for in a small school prospect. Now, the stout kid from Towson has to prove he can make the jump to the highest level. I think he can. West is already creating buzz out of Browns camp. There might not be a better situation for West to find carries than a Cleveland offense run by a fantasy-RB-maker in OC Kyle Shanahan, featuring oft-injured competition like Ben Tate and a passing game minus Josh Gordon. West (5-10, 225,4.54) has more talent than Alfred Morris did for Shanny in Washington and should eventually become the main guy in Cleveland.
3. Carlos Hyde, San Francisco 49ers
Hyde is a tough player to slot. On one hand, he was the best running back in the draft. On the other hand, the 49ers have the deepest stable of runners in the league. Hyde will compete with Kendall Hunter, Marcus Lattimore and LaMichael James for whatever touches Frank Gore leaves behind. While that doesn’t bode well for the 230 pound rookie, it might not be as bad as it seems. It’s pretty obvious the 49ers are preparing for life after Gore, who is in the last year of his contract. Hunter is also entering the final year of a contract, but is RB2 on the depth chart heading into camp. James will likely be a return specialist, if he even makes the final roster. Lattimore is still not 100 percent after a gruesome knee injury ended his college career almost 20 months ago. Looking ahead, Hyde’s size, strength and hands are perfect for a third down and short yardage role in year one. By year two, he could be the feature back, with Lattimore working on a pitch count and Hunter continuing as change-of-pace guy if he is re-signed. That would be an ideal situation for Hyde on a team built around the power run game, while getting spelled enough to keep his legs fresh week to week. If that’s the case, there’s a good chance Hyde tops the list of sophomore running backs in 2015. However, carries may be spread very thin in the San Francisco backfield in 2014.
4. Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons
Freeman (5-8, 206) gets overlooked due to his height, but he’s built like a rock and is a better inside runner than fellow rookie Bishop Sankey. Freeman’s role in 2014 will likely be situational behind Falcons starter Steven Jackson. However, I like Freeman’s chances at being at least Jackson’s handcuff over Jacquizz Rodgers by the end of the year. The diminutive rookie has surprising strength and toughness, making him a solid pass protector to go along with natural hands as a receiver. When you put all of his skills together with the age of Jackson and the mediocrity of Rodgers, its only a matter of time before Freeman gets a shot at more touches in Atlanta. A starter by 2015.
5. Andre Williams, New York Giants
Sleeper alert. Andre Williams gets amazingly little respect for being a Heisman Trophy finalist and the nation’s leading rusher in 2013. He also happens to fit the physical, downhill style coach Tom Coughlin covets. Rashad Jennings will likely get first crack as lead runner for the Giants, but he has an injury history and is being paid like a backup. David Wilson’s career is in danger due to a neck injury. Peyton Hillis is a role player at this point in his career. None of them have the early down upside of Williams. One aspect that Williams will have to improve is passing down skills. He may never be a great receiver (zero catches at Boston College in 2013), but has the size and strength to be a good pass blocker and that’s probably the only thing that could keep him from getting a bulk of the carries in New York by the end of his rookie year.
6. Tre Mason, St. Louis Rams
Talk about a bad landing spot. The Rams thought enough of Mason to draft him in the third round despite the presence of Zac Stacy, who established himself as the lead back for St. Louis in 2013. The best Mason can hope for is a legitimate competition for carries in a committee. Couple that with the tough run defenses of the NFC West and a timeshare really hurts the value of both players. Mason has the instincts, quicks and burst to be a feature back, but may need an injury to Stacy to get that opportunity.
7. Storm Johnson, Jacksonville Jaguars
Johnson is a big time sleeper. In most leagues he will be available very late, making him a huge bargain at the running back position. What not to like: Toby Gerhart is the clear bellcow back entering the season and the Jaguars’ league-worst run blocking O-line in 2013. What to like: Johnson is a complete player who can run between the tackles, has some wiggle in space and catch the ball out of the backfield. Gerhart hasn’t handled the load since his days at Stanford, so who knows how he will produce. Johnson is a more talented pure running back than his competition (Jordan Todman and Denard Robinson). It may take a little time, but don’t be surprised when he becomes Gerhart’s handcuff or more.
8. Jeremy Hill, Cincinnati Bengals
I didn’t rank Hill as high as some people coming into the NFL Draft, then he gets drafted by the Bengals, who already have a feature back in Giovani Bernard. That leaves Hill to battle with Benjarvis Green-Ellis for carries behind Bernard. Even if he does win that backup competition, I don’t see Hill ever being more than the “two” in a Cincinnati one-two punch. The upside is that the Bengals coaching staff seems intent on keeping Bernard’s carries limited, so the backup will get his touches and probably some goal line work.
9. Ka’Deem Carey, Chicago Bears
Carey is an instictive runner who should earn a backup role to Matt Forte in Chicago. With Forte’s every down ability, Carey isn’t likely to be more than a backup for the foreseeable future.
10. Charles Sims, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Sims finds himself in a crowded Bucs backfield. The problem is that starter Doug Martin and fellow backup Mike James are both good receivers, which is Sims’ biggest strength as well. Monitor how touches are distributed in the preseason. If Sims has a steady role, he could be valuable in PPR leagues.
11. Jerick McKinnon, Minnesota Vikings
The super athletic ex-quarterback (5-9, 209, 4.37, 32 bench reps, 40” vert) is a player to stash. McKinnon won’t see the field much if Adrian Peterson is healthy, but he could carve out a change of pace role. Some potential for work in return game as well. McKinnon is still a raw athlete, though, so he may take some time to get worked into the offense. For reference, Peterson’s old backup Toby Gerhart toted the rock only 36 times last year.
12. Dri Archer, Pittsburgh Steelers
Archer will be as much a WR as RB in the NFL. There’s a chance he will be eligible as both in your league, ala Dexter McCluster. If your league counts return yards, then the diminutive speedster (5-8, 173, 4.26!) might come in very handy.
13. James White, New England Patriots
New England is a great landing spot for White, who has no standout traits, but does everything pretty well. You never know how the Patriots will utilize their running backs, but White should settle in as a rotational back behind Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and probably Brandon Bolden on the depth chart.
14. Isaiah Crowell, Cleveland Browns
Crowell is a prototype runner who has the talent to be an NFL starter. Legal troubles bounced the five-star recruit from Georgia to Alabama State to undrafted free agent. Crowell should push Ben Tate and fellow rookie Terrence West during training camp. Cleveland’s backfield competition is one to watch during the preseason.
15. Lorenzo Taliaferro, Baltimore Ravens
Taliaferro is a guy who will be more valuable to his real world team than the fantasy variety. He’s a big, almost fullback hybrid (6-0, 230), who runs with power, can pass protect and has natural hands. He will slot behind Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce, but has potential to see action on third downs, short yardage situations and special teams.
16. D’Anthony Thomas, Kansas City Chiefs
Thomas is a similar player to Dri Archer, just not quite as electric. It’s easy to see where he fits in KC with Dexter McCluster leaving as a free agent. He will contribute in the return game, with some catches and carries peppered in.
17. Lache Seastrunk, Washington Redskins
Seastrunk is a speedy straight-line runner who excelled in space in Baylor’s spread attack. The sixth round pick will have to prove he can run between the tackles in a pro style offense. Potential as kick returner. Seastrunk is competing with Evan Royster and Chris Thompson for RB3 duties behind Alfred Morris and Roy Helu.