With running backs rapidly becoming the red-headed stepchildren of the NFL, it’s no surprise that big names popped up all over the waiver wire this offseason. More and more committee backfields litter the NFL landscape, but there are a few feature-back opportunities to be had as well. Here’s a look at the old faces in new places who have a shot at generating fantasy value with their new club.
BEN TATE, BROWNS
The Browns were the only NFL team whose running backs failed to rush for 1,000 yards last season, so they captured the plum free-agent RB of the offseason in Ben Tate. The former Texans backup is a relatively low-mileage young (he’ll be 26 when the 2014 season kicks off) veteran who flashed fantasy potential in Houston, averaging 100 yards and a touchdown in the four games he saw 20 or more carries.
Tate looked to be a lock for fantasy greatness at the time of the signing, but Cleveland added a pair of rookies—third-round pick Terrance West and UDFA Isaiah Crowell—whose presence takes a bit of the luster off of him. Still, Tate projects to be the lead back in a system he’s familiar with. Even though Kyle Shanahan was in Washington by the time Tate arrived in Houston, the system is largely the same. And if Tate projects to play the Alfred Morris role in a Cleveland offense that is losing its top pass-catcher to a season-long suspension and will likely be forced to run the ball… well, the luster is back for Tate.
CHRIS JOHNSON, JETS
Chris Johnson hasn’t come anywhere close to the magic of CJ2K in four subsequent seasons, culminating with a career-low 3.9 yards per carry last year. He’s 28, coming off of January knee surgery, and has 1,742 carries of wear and tear on his resume. And approximately 1,700 of those carries went for zero or negative yardage, right?
But it’s the tangy upside of those other 42 home-run carries that intrigues—that and Johnson’s underappreciated pass-catching skills in the Jets’ West Coast offense. Johnson has averaged 45 catches per season over the course of his career and caught four touchdowns last season, third among running backs. CJ will unquestionably see a reduced workload, as the plan is for him to share carries with Chris Ivory in the Jets’ run-heavy offense. But he brings plenty of PPR potential to the table, and if he’s able to take advantage of the lightened workload by hitting more home runs in fewer at-bats he’ll be a fantasy RB1 for the sixth time in seven seasons—and a dramatically undervalued one at that.
KNOWSHON MORENO, DOLPHINS
Knowshon Moreno can thank Peyton Manning for his career 2013 and whatever the Dolphins are paying him going forward. Entering last season Moreno was an afterthought, but his pass-blocking ability and the fumblitis that plagued other Denver backs gave him a larger share of the workload—and to his credit, Moreno produced.
Don’t, however, extrapolate what he did in Denver and think he’ll replicate those numbers in Miami. For starters, Dolphins RBs averaged 11 fewer touches per game than Broncos running backs, plus Moreno is expected to share those lesser touches with Lamar Miller. On the bright side, Moreno’s pass blocking—and pass catching—skills will serve him well in Miami’s new offense, which has a Philly feel thanks to new OC Bill Lazor. So if Moreno takes over a portion of LeSean McCoy’s production from that scheme, maybe his dropoff won’t be quite as pronounced as everyone thinks. If you’re bullish on Ryan Tannehill and the new-look Dolphins, don’t forget about Moreno’s potential role in the attack.
RASHAD JENNINGS, GIANTS
At worst, Rashad Jennings will serve as the thunder to David Wilson’s lightning in New York—assuming Wilson can get healthy, stay on the field, and avoid the fumbles that have cost him playing time throughout his NFL career. And at best, Jennings gets to step out of the shadow of backs he’s backed up before (Maurice Jones-Drew, Darren McFadden) and serve as the single back in new Giants’ OC Ben McAdoo’s one-back West Coast offense.
Even though McAdoo will shake things up in New York, Tom Coughlin has stressed that the Giants will still pound teams on the ground. They’re not going to do that with Wilson, leaving Jennings as the beneficiary. And when you consider that under Coughlin Giants running backs have never failed to reach double-digit touchdowns, there’s more than a little bit of upside to Jennings’ fantasy prospects—especially in TD-heavy scoring systems. Because when the only threats to your touches are the fragile, fumble-prone Wilson, a fourth-round draft pick, and the likes of Da’Rel Scott and Peyton Hillis, things are definitely looking up.
TOBY GERHART, JAGUARS
It’s easy to be forgotten when you’re Adrian Peterson’s understudy, but Toby Gerhart was once an all-purpose Heisman finalist with a solid skill set in his own right. And when given double-digit carries in Minnesota, Gerhart produced, averaging 16-80 and scoring twice in the half-dozen games over the past three seasons in which he’s seen that extended workload. You’ll note that he averaged a robust 5.0 yards per carry in those games as well.
The Jaguars have no one on their roster to threaten Gerhart for touches, and with Chad Henne under center, Blake Bortles sporting training wheels and Justin Blackmon suspended indefinitely Jacksonville will be a run-heavy offense this season. Think of Gerhart as a potential breakout candidate in the realm of Michael Turner, who went from LaDainian Tomlinson backup to featured back in Atlanta. And while he’s bound to be overlooked in Jacksonville, he won’t be nearly the sleeper candidate you think; in a recent mock draft for USA Today, Gerhart went off the board midway through Round 3—ahead of Ben Tate, Arian Foster, and Chris Johnson.
MAURICE JONES-DREW, RAIDERS
In addition to his return to Oakland being a homecoming of sorts, Maurice Jones-Drew picked the Raiders because they were the only team to offer him a chance to compete for the starting gig. He’ll do so with Darren McFadden, who’s explosive when healthy but who has had more than his share of difficulty staying on the field and out of the whirlpool.
In a perfect Raiders world both backs would stay healthy and they’d serve as a complimentary one-two punch, exploiting McFadden’s breakaway speed and Jones-Drew’s abilities between the tackles. In a perfect fantasy world, one back would go down with an injury while the other—preferably the one on your roster—would flash back to days of past glory for one more season. In reality, the Raiders will mix and match the duo depending on which one is healthy at the time, with neither bankable as a fantasy starter until the inevitable injury clears the murky waters.
OTHERS TO CONSIDER
In one of the more curious offseason signings, the Chargers gave Donald Brown $10.4 million over three years to squeeze into a backfield that already includes Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead. If Mathews falls victim to injury (again), Brown might have fantasy value; otherwise he’ll be an extremely expensive change-of-pace guy—and a fantasy afterthought… After a couple solid fantasy seasons, especially in PPR formats, Darren Sproles fell out of favor in New Orleans. If there’s another NFL offense that can maximize his pass-catching skills and ability to create mismatches in space, it’s Chip Kelly’s Eagles… The Texans are no longer a zone-system rushing factory, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t fantasy value to be found in their ground game. And if Arian Foster struggles with injuries or the new system, Andre Brown is now the guy to pick up the slack… LeGarrette Blount was a postseason stud for the Patriots, but his fantasy value takes a hit as he moves to Pittsburgh, where he’ll back up Le’Veon Bell. At best he’s looking at a job share and maybe some goal line duty, but that’s not much of a recipe for fantasy success… The Bills’ already-deep backfield got even deeper when they acquired Bryce Brown from the Eagles. He has potential, but it will take injuries to either Fred Jackson or C.J. Spiller—probably both, which when you think about it isn’t exactly implausible—for Brown to see enough touches to make a fantasy impact… Dexter McCluster may wind up making a full-on transition to wide receiver in Tennessee, but they didn’t sign him by mistake so maybe they have a plan to use him. He bears watching in the preseason if you’re looking for a PPR sleeper, especially if he retains RB eligibility.