Every season, there are early-round running backs who flame out by mid-year, get injured, or fall victim to the media/coaching staff hype machine, failing to live up to those expectations based on where they were drafted. Sometimes, it’s because the expectations were simply outsized based on the previous season’s results. Just last year, these scenarios played out for the likes of LeSean McCoy (outsized expectations; Chip Kelly), Adrian Peterson (legal issues), Montee Ball (injury) and Giovani Bernard (hype/injury) to varying degrees for each. And as such, every season, there are backup running backs who fly under the radar, or who are waiting in the wings for their chance, and seize it once it reveals itself. Often times, those opportunities are a direct result of the faltering of their battery mates. C.J. Anderson was a forgotten man last August. This August, he’s being talked about as a Top 10 back. Jeremy Hill was a rookie back stuck behind the electric, multi-skilled Bernard in Cincy a year ago and was figuring to be a change-of-pace back given time to develop. He’s also a consensus Top 10 RB this year after totaling 1,124 rushing yards and nine touchdowns. Funny how that works, no?
Who will it be this season? Which back or backs who are parked behind a starter this month will be the key to a deep playoff run like Justin Forsett a year ago? Let’s dive in to see which current second-teamers (or lower) have the greatest chance at outpacing their current draft position, and delivering major value.
Alfred Blue, Houston [ADP 86]– Yeah, this is a cheap and obvious one given the injury news pertaining to noted free-thinker, Arian Foster. But while Foster is healing, the Texans will employ a committee approach with Blue, Jonathan Grimes, and Chris Polk. Either Grimes or Polk could be jettisoned for a veteran to come in as insurance and to help keep Brian Hoyer or Ryan Mallett whole. I’d love to see Ahmad Bradshaw get a chance as a veteran leader on a transitioning team, but I digress. Blue averaged 3.1 YPC last season on 169 attempts, so there is some room for improvement here. But the opportunity to take the reins is there for the LSU product.
C.J. Spiller, New Orleans [ADP 47]– Spiller defected from Buffalo and gets a fresh start in the same system that made names of Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles Fantasy worthy. Both of those players were excellent pass-catching options out of the backfield and served as no worse than the fourth option for Drew Brees. Spiller will be stuck behind the freshly re-signed Mark Ingram, who will likely earn all early-down work and goal line duty, but Spiller is a no-brainer RB2 (maybe borderline RB1) in PPR leagues, and could add a lot of value in standard leagues as well. He’s not a sleeper at this stage, but there is no question he has all of the potential (both his own, and that of his situation) to far outpace his ADP to the tune of being worth 20 slots earlier.
Joique Bell, Detroit [ADP 72]– As the hype train starts to pick up even more steam and run off the rails on Ameer Abdullah (and possibly rightfully so based on all camp reports about how awesome the rookie looks), it’s our job to look elsewhere for value. Rookie backs have a tendency to need some time to develop in the pass blocking schemes, and that should be enough to give the veteran Bell a slight advantage to maintain some of his carries and opportunities. Bell is a multi-faceted player who is equally adept in running and passing situations. Even if Bell only garners 60-65 percent of the touches, his draft position offers some major upside for at least the first half of the season before Abdullah moves the needle closer to a 50/50 split. However, in dynasty formats, Abdullah could be a Top 3 pick.
David Johnson, Arizona [ADP 109]– He’s firmly in the buzz zone, so the rookie’s ADP will likely rise over the next few weeks even has he nurses a hamstring injury. With Andre Ellington coming off a disappointing, injury-filled 2014, the Cardinals selected the Northern Iowa product in the third round with designs of having a 1-2 punch with the elusive Ellington and the powerful 6’1″ 225 lbs. Johnson. It is worth noting that Johnson’s most prominent strength is his pass-catching ability, which is the same that can be said about Ellington, so there is some duplication of skills there. Coach Bruce Arians’ frustration with David Johnson prompted the Cardinals to sign veteran RB Chris Johnson. Right now CJ2K is primarily an insurance policy in case David Johnson is unable to progress for whatever reason. We’ll know more as preseason games begin to reveal more about Bruce Arians’ plan, but at this point you shouldn’t expect David Johnson to be handed starter’s reps anytime soon. Carson Palmer should be healthy, people are calling for the Michael Floyd breakout season (again?), so this could be a big year for a team that I think earns a Wild Card spot in the NFC. It could be a 50/50 touches split by the Fantasy Football playoffs, so stashing Johnson could be a smart move for savvy players.
Lorenzo Taliaferro [Currently Undrafted] – Call me crazy, but I just don’t think Justin Forsett 2015 is going to be Justin Forsett 2014 in his Age 30 season. I think 1,500-plus total yards and eight touchdowns will go down as a complete outlier on Forsett’s resume, and it would seem that the second-year Taliaferro – who has assumed the clear backup role with the departure of Bernard Pierce – could reap the benefits of an aging, smaller RB taking a step back. He averaged 4.3 YPC, and did score four times last year, plus he’s a very capable receiver. Taliaferro is currently going undrafted in most leagues, but could be worth a flier after the 13th if you have a bench spot for someone with tremendous upside in a very friendly system. Forsett is going in the middle of the second-round in most formats if not sooner, so there is great value even if L.T. (no one calls him that) receives only 30 percent of the touches early in the season. You can always cut bait after Week 4 if it’s clearly not working without much collateral damage, but Taliaferro is a lottery ticket that could be very worth a late, late-round gamble.