6) Marshawn Lynch, SEATTLE, previous rank – 6: “Beast Mode” holds steady at the same position where I had him placed in March. There was much internal debate (OK…I talk to myself a lot) about possibly swapping Matt Forte and moving Lynch up, but ultimately I still like Marshawn here. It may be a bit low as Lynch has been a top-five finisher in standard scoring and top six in PPR formats every season since joining Seattle in 2011. In those four years, he has also averaged 295 carries and 14 total touchdowns per season. As has been the case often surrounding Lynch, there are the murmurs that all the wear and tear on his body will catch up with him. Well, considering he just posted the second highest yards-per-carry average (4.7) and the most single season touchdowns (17) of his career, that just isn’t the case. Lynch has shown no signs of slowing down and actually has seen his usage in the passing game increase as the 48 targets he saw last season were the highest total since becoming a Seahawk. My main thought process in not having Lynch higher is that the addition of TE Jimmy Graham is going to represent a heretofore-unavailable red zone option that may cut into his touchdown total. Another concern is that quarterback Russell Wilson also put up a career high six rushing touchdowns and could also eat into Lynch’s touchdown numbers. While I do not fear a physical let down is on the horizon for “Beast Mode,” there are worries that subtle scheme changes may cap his fantasy value as just outside the top five.
7) LeSean McCoy, BUFFALO, previous rank – 5: No running back has carried the ball more than McCoy over the past two seasons as he racked up back-to-back 314-rush campaigns. The big difference is that at some point last season McCoy began to fall out of favor as a goal line option for the Eagles finishing with only five rushing touchdowns compared to nine in 2013. The fall from grace would continue in the offseason as McCoy was dealt to the Buffalo Bills for LB Kiko Alonso. McCoy did seem to struggle at times last season with bouncing runs to the outside which is not what head coach Chip Kelly wants from his running backs and thus the parting of the ways (although McCoy has since added some other reasons he believes he was traded). There were plenty worse places that LeSean could have landed rather than Buffalo and new head coach Rex Ryan who has a penchant for running the football. In his six years coaching the New York Jets, Ryan’s offenses finished in the top-six teams for rush attempts five times. It looks as though there will be no rest for the weary and McCoy is likely to top 300 carries for the third consecutive year. McCoy has averaged a healthy 4.6 yards per carry over his career while also hauling in an average of 50 passes per season. As the bell cow back for Buffalo, McCoy will have every opportunity to put up big numbers, as there has been talk of reducing Fred Jackson’s role. My main concern regarding McCoy is that the shaky quarterback situation for the Bills (yes, I am looking at you Matt Cassel and E.J. Manuel) could mean a lot of stacked fronts to run into.
8) DeMarco Murray, PHILADELPHIA, previous rank – 8: After a myriad of injuries stalled the early years of his career (he missed nine games in his first two seasons) Murray has managed to play 30-of-32 possible games in the 2013-2014 campaigns. After surpassing 1,000 yards rushing for the first time in 2013, Murray exploded for 1,845 rushing yards last season leading all NFL running backs. He added another 416 yards receiving and found the end zone 13 times. The wait had finally paid off for the Dallas Cowboys and they had the stud running back to line up behind one of the leagues best offensive lines. And then they allowed him to walk out of town via free agency leaving a lot of folks (including yours truly) scratching their heads. Worse yet, is that Murray didn’t even leave the division signing with the Philadelphia Eagles and their high-octane offense. Chip Kelly now has the one-cut back that he never felt LeSean McCoy was and Murray gets to face his old team twice a year. Surely Murray is primed and ready to blow up the fantasy football world again in 2015 with offensive guru Kelly calling the shots. Not so fast. Former San Diego starting running back Ryan Mathews was also brought on board by Philly and Darren Sproles is still kicking around the City of Brotherly Love. Yes, the same Darren Sproles that scored six RUSHING touchdowns last season while carrying the ball only 57 times. The reason I have Murray in the back end of my top 10 is simple, Chip Kelly knows he has a back coming off a season in which he had 449 total touches and a bit of an injury history. He has brought in another back that is not only capable of spelling Murray from time-to-time but is capable of carrying the entire load himself (if healthy) in Mathews. Between Sproles and Mathews being utilized in the offense, I can see Murray’s touches dip by at least 140-150 and that will lead to a much lower fantasy output. Also, let’s face it folks, neither Mathews nor Murray have been the picture of health to date and the Eagles are hedging their bets here by signing both.
9) Arian Foster, HOUSTON, previous rank – 7: First off, let me be the one millionth (I figure that number is roughly correct) fantasy football pundit to state that with Foster it’s all about his health. Well, it is. Come on. One million people can’t be wrong, right? Foster is one of the harder running backs to rank because the man is such a fantasy force and focal point of the offense when healthy (that word again!). Unfortunately, he has missed 11 regular season games over the past two seasons and shouldered a heavy load in general over the past five years. Of course, even when he missed three games last season, Foster still finished as a top-five RB in both standard and PPR scoring formats. Despite the wear and tear on Foster’s body, the Texans did not address the position via the draft leaving him as the undisputed main running back heading into 2015. Head coach Bill O’Brien was actually asked by a reporter whether or not fantasy football owners could rely on Foster being utilized as he had been in the past. “Well, we have a very good running back,” O’Brien stated, “So you can rest assured that as long as he’s healthy and he’s out there, we will run the ball. I can tell you that.” That is all well and good but doesn’t quell the fears of possible continued breakdowns for a RB that has amassed over 1,550 total touches in the last five years. A stud in both the run, as well as passing game, there is the potential for another top-five fantasy finish for Foster, but I am not betting on it. With either the inexperienced Ryan Mallett or underwhelming Bobby Hoyer under center, you don’t have to be Buddy Ryan to scheme a defense to stop Houston. Teams are going to load the box and force the Texans to throw the ball making life very difficult for Foster. Toss in those injury red flags (I mentioned those right?) and number nine feels about right.
10) C.J. Anderson, DENVER, previous rank – 9: This kid heard opportunity knock at the door late last season and ran with it. Literally. Injuries to both Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman allowed Anderson to get on the field to strut his stuff. Over the final six weeks of the season he led the league in rushing, putting up 648 yards with eight touchdowns. As Peyton Manning struggled down the stretch Anderson averaged 23 carries and three receptions per game from weeks 12-17. Holding down the number one running back position for the Broncos offers excellent fantasy potential as Ronnie Hillman put a pair of 100-yard games as the first replacement for Ball last season. Anderson is the lead dog in the race to be number one and figures to have a big year in new head coach Gary Kubiak’s zone-blocking one-cut offense. Anderson has soft hands in the passing game and is also solid in pass protection, which any RB lining up with Peyton Manning must be. While some reports are that Montee Ball has been pushing Anderson in OTAs and minicamp, Anderson will enter training camp as the number one RB for Denver and that means fantasy gold. C.J. could easily outperform this ranking if he holds down the starting gig all season. Just keep in mind that if any injury befalls Anderson then we want to jump on Ball and Hillman immediately.
Trust me folks, these rankings are far from set in stone and I mentioned that there were a few slots that I am still wavering on.
Training camps and preseason action will continue to shape and mold exactly where these running backs end up in my final rankings but for now, we have a decent jumping off point.
Let the debates begin!
Wally Spurlin is a Fantasy Football Staff Writer at Fantasy Sharks and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writer Association. Spurlin is also a weekly contributor at Fantasy Insights. Spurlin’s work has appeared in print publications, including the FSWA award winning 2014 USA Today Fantasy Football magazine. Follow him on Twitter @WaltonSpurlin