By John Zaktansky
The Daily Item
That was the extent of the Seattle Seahawks’ offseason. Immediately after winning Super Bowl XLVIII in convincing fashion, Pete Carroll relayed the road to a repeat championship would begin two days later in a Tuesday team meeting.
Those who participate in dynasty fantasy football leagues can relate. The NFL offseason can fly by quickly. Free agency, the rookie draft, combines, preseason games. There always seems to be some big NFL news around every corner.
Which is why so many are already looking for 2014 rankings. It is an early litmus test to gauge if certain players will bounce back from disappointing 2013 seasons or if other athletes will see a decrease in value.
Of course, projecting rankings this far out without knowledge of how free agency and the NFL draft will shake down can be very tricky, but for the savviest of owners, this is the best time of year to identify value trends and to act before the market crashes or goes through the roof.
With that in mind, here are my top 20 running backs for the 2014 season. Again, remember that these are extremely preliminary and that much will change.
1. LeSean McCoy, PHI. The prime example of what happens when you pair an uber-talented young running back with a coach who knows how to use him. Only 25, there is plenty of tread left on his tires and no reason to expect him to slow down.
2. Jamaal Charles, KC. Could make a case for him at No. 1 after Andy Reid was able to get the most out of Charles. He’s two years older than McCoy and has a few more injury concerns.
3. Adrian Peterson, MIN. Too many times I “predicted” the eventual downfall of Peterson, and every time he rose to the occasion. He’s bounced back from major medical issues for record-breaking performances and continues to shred defenses despite massive workloads and extreme punishment to his body.
4. Eddie Lacy, GB. The Packers’ potent aerial attack made Cedric Benson look like a Pro Bowler two seasons ago, so it was only fair to expect a much more talented rookie to excel against defenses that have to focus so much attention on Aaron Rodgers. Lacy will be a solid option for years to come.
5. Matt Forte, CHI. Forte has always had the ability to put up numbers in bunches. In 2013, he took his game to the next level under new coach Marc Trestman. Forte is currently 28 and his expanded usage could be a concern for long-term durability, but his dual-threat quality is hard to ignore heading into Trestman’s second year.
6. Marshawn Lynch, SEA. Interchangeable with Forte in these rankings, Lynch has literally been a beast in fantasy circles, blasting through defenses and giving fantasy owners some consistently solid numbers. One point to ponder, though, is that he’s accumulated more than 1,000 carries now in the past three seasons.
7. Alfred Morris, WAS. Some point to Morris’ yardage dip as the sign of a sophomore slump, but his yards per carry tally was nearly identical. In fact, his yards per carry in 2013 was better than Peterson. The coaching change to Jay Gruden shouldn’t affect the running philosophy too much and Morris is young enough to keep fresh legs throughout another season-long campaign.
8. Arian Foster, HOU. Yes, Foster is coming off a disappointing season where injuries and poor QB play chipped away at his previously gaudy numbers. However, all reports suggest his November back surgery should not affect his 2014 output and talented backup option Ben Tate will likely be playing for another team later this year. Also, the Texans will likely be breaking in a new rookie QB, and while that should mean an increase in overall passing game production (which should keep defenses from stacking the box as much), it means the team will likely lean on its running game to keep pressure off the young QB. Here’s predicting that Foster has at least one more big season.
9. DeMarco Murray, DAL. Who led all running backs (with at least 200 carries) in yards per carry in 2013? Murray. He’s always a ticking time bomb from an injury standpoint, but he’s also entering what will likely be a contract season and benefits from defenses focusing their attention on Dez Bryant, Jason Witten and Tony Romo.
10. Doug Martin, TB. A hard back to rank due to a disappointing 2013 campaign, a season-ending shoulder injury and a coaching change in Tampa Bay. Still, he’s young enough to bounce back, and the new regime in Buccaneers-land should be run-first oriented.
11. Knowshon Moreno, DEN. Moreno had a truly impressive breakout season in 2013, and a lot of that is thanks to playing in Peyton Manning’s pass-centric offense. Lanes were big enough to drive a Hummer through. Concern though is whether or not Moreno returns to Denver. If he does, he could easily be a top-5 back if he stays healthy. If he doesn’t, it will all depend on where he winds up. Places like Cleveland, with an emerging young offense, could be a sneaky-good fit for his value. We’ll see what happens this offseason.
12. Giovani Bernard, CIN. Why do so many people have Zac Stacy ranked above Bernard for 2014 and beyond? Bernard may have had less touches and less yards, but he averaged more yards per carry and had 30 more receptions than Stacy. As the Bengals offense continues to improve playmakers in the passing attack, more holes will open for Bernard. Other smaller backs have enjoyed long careers depite the physical demands of the position.
13. Zac Stacy, STL. A fifth-round rookie typically doesn’t have the breakout campaign that Stacy did, as he capitalized on a few big breaks to entrench himself as the Rams’ top back for the foreseeable future. If St. Louis can groom its passing game and keep defenses more honest, than Stacy could find more running room.
14. Reggie Bush, DET. Injuries are always a concern for Bush, and there were times he struggled to produce even when healthy in 2013. However, his PPR allure makes him versatile enough to be worth the risk, especially if Jim Caldwell and Joe Lombardi can rejuvenate Matthew Stafford and the whole passing game.
15. Le’Veon Bell, PIT. While the rookie had a few growing pains in 2013, Bell should continue to entrench himself as the top dog in a run-first scheme. An emphasis on O-line blocking this offseason via new O-line coach Mike Munchak will only enhance Bell’s value moving forward.
16. Trent Richardson, IND. The mid-season trade where Richardson went to Indianapolis was more exciting than his actual production the rest of the season. Donald Brown leapfrogged him in terms of usage and it was a lost season. However, with a full offseason to get up to speed and the fact that Indy invested heavily in the young and very talented Richardson, he is a candidate for bounceback.
17. C.J. Spiller, BUF. He’s as talented as anyone on this list, and can rip off a 200-yard-plus game with the best of them. But his potential never lives up to the hype regardless of how old Fred Jackson is. In a game where one or two points can decide your fantasy outcome any given week, Spiller can cause massive anxiety bouts on a week to week basis. Unless you can get him at a cheap price, it is hard to fully endorse Spiller.
18. Ryan Mathews, SD. Philip Rivers wasn’t the only Charger who had a comeback-of-the-year caliber 2013. Mathews finally showed some promise down the stretch, proving to be more reliable at the goal line than Danny Woodhead and should continue his momentum into the 2014 season. He averaged 118 yards per game over the final four weeks of the regular season. Injuries are always a concern for Mathews, though.
19. Chris Johnson, TEN. The TEN after Johnson’s name is merely a formality. He will not be playing in Tennessee this year, and the uncertainty of where he’ll go and what role he’ll hold down causes some concern about his value. Some people question Johnson’s dedication and resolve. I think that won’t be as big an issue this season as he tries to prove to Tennessee and the rest of the NFL that he still has game.
20. Ray Rice, BAL. Like so many other talented backs later in their careers, Rice showed signs of slowing down last season. Some of that was due to a hip injury that should be a non-factor in 2014, but the writing is on the wall. With that being said, Rice could provide some decent value if he falls far enough in drafts this year.