2014 Ultimate Running Back By Committee Report

John Tuvey, @jtuvey

The lack of a running back going off the board in the first round in back-to-back drafts underscores what has become of the position. Workhorse backs are largely a thing of the past; teams split the load to ease the burden and preserve the career of their stud, or to suit the nuances of their offensive scheme, or because there simply is no known "best" runner for the team. In many cases, the lack of that dominant runner is due to injury or the team has a new set of runners. No coach yanks a hot player from a game just to satisfy a game plan; they will use what works and what wins. For some teams, that means more than one runner. Unfortunately for us in the fantasy world, this is a fundamental change within the NFL with so many teams opting to use multiple running backs in each game..

The statistics you will see show who the primary ball carrier was for each team for each game during the last two years. The stats are computed by each game played and which running back had the most plays in that game. Sum it up and you get how many games each player was the primary ball carrier for his team and the averages of all runs and catches of all team rushers in those games. Reviewing this from a per game perspective is much more accurate than merely doing math on total season numbers. For our purposes, I am defining a team to be RBBC if the lead carrier does not receive at least 75% of the rushing plays considering all runners used in a game, including fullbacks.

Let's take a look at what we are likely to see with how running backs are used this season:

Team By Team Review of 2012 and 2013 Primary Carrier Stats and How they Apply to 2014

Arizona Cardinals % of All RBs in Gm Avg. Rushing Receiving
Gms Plays Runs Rcvs Plays Att Yards TD Catches Yards TDs
2012 Beanie Wells 5 57% 64% 5% 14 14 40 1 0 5 0
LaRod Stephens-Howling 5 78% 84% 65% 18 15 61 0.6 2 18 0
Ryan Williams 4 61% 68% 54% 13 12 38 0 1 9 0
William Powell 2 74% 74% 75% 15 14 61 0 1 2 0
2013 Rashard Mendenhall 5 57% 64% 5% 14 14 40 1 0 5 0
Andre Ellington 5 57% 64% 5% 14 14 40 1 0 5 0

RBBC: Yes New OC or Scheme: No New Primary Running Back: Yes

Rashard Mendenhall is, mercifully, gone, and the plan according to Bruce Arians is to give Andre Ellington “25 to 30” touches per game. That’s optimistic on several counts: Ellington has yet to top 15 carries or 17 touches in an NFL game, averaged around 18 touches per game in his collegiate heyday, and at 5-9, 199 pounds isn’t exactly built for feature-back duty. Assuming the workload doesn’t compromise his effectiveness, Ellington has plenty of explosiveness (5.5 yards per carry, eight runs of 20-plus yards in limited work last year) and, though being overdrafted, should be the lead dog in the Arizona backfield. Stepfan Taylor is the likely compliment as the Cardinals are expected to use more two-back sets, though former Steeler Jonathan Dwyer lurks as the potential thunder to Ellington’s lightning.

Atlanta Falcons   % of All RBs in Gm Avg. Rushing Receiving
Gms Plays Runs Rcvs Plays Att Yards TD Catches Yards TDs
2012 Michael Turner 16 55% 67% 20% 15 14 50 0.6 1 8 0.1
2013 Steven Jackson 11 63% 75% 37% 17 14 49 1 3 17 0
  Jacquizz Rodgers 5 60% 59% 60% 16 12 39 0 5 30 0

RBBC: No New OC or Scheme: No New Primary Running Back: No

Atlanta’s running game ranked dead-dog last in 2013, as Steven Jackson showed his age and his mileage with a career-low 3.5 yards per carry. Jackson says he’s healthier now, but he’s also 31 and burdened by almost 3,000 career touches. Jaquizz Rodgers hasn’t proven to be the solution, and with just seven games of double-digit carries in his three NFL seasons it’s apparent the Falcons don’t think so either. The intriguing play here is fourth-round pick Devonta Freeman; if he can learn to pass protect in the air-oriented Atlanta attack, he could take over as the Falcons’ three-down back sooner rather than later.

Baltimore Ravens   % of All RBs in Gm Avg. Rushing Receiving
Gms Plays Runs Rcvs Plays Att Yards TD Catches Yards TDs
2012 Ray Rice 15 72% 73% 68% 21 17 76 0.6 4 32 0.1
  Bernard Pierce 1 61% 63% 33% 23 22 89 0 1 4 0
2013 Ray Rice 14 62% 61% 68% 18 14 45 0 4 22 0
  Bernard Pierce 2 64% 68% 35% 23 22 61 1 2 3 0

RBBC: No New OC or Scheme: No* New Primary Running Back: No

As bad as Ray Rice’s 2013 season was—including a career-low 3.1 yards per carry average—his offseason has been worse. In addition to his declining skills and hip issue Rice is now potentially facing a suspension. Bernard Pierce was adequate in relief of Rice last season, but even the prospect of him getting feature-back carries in Baltimore in Rice’s absence isn’t setting the fantasy world on fire as he’s had injury issues of his own. New OC Gary Kubiak brings the Texans’ zone scheme to Baltimore, which also means a learning curve for the offensive line. Ultimately, rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro—a big, one-cut back who fits the new system well—could benefit from any injuries and/or suspensions that take the Ravens’ first options off the table.

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