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Super Sophomores: Second-Year Running Backs Poised for Fantasy Stardom

I refused to watch the Pro Bowl.

There, I said it.

I am not some hoity-toity “I respect the purity if the game and won’t watch this abomination because it is not real football” or dead set against this new “captains pick their team” snob.

Nope, I’m just a man who lives in Michigan and could not bring myself to look at all of those beautiful shots from Hawaii while living through “Polar Vortex II, The Revenge.”

Snow continues to fall as rapidly as the temperature here and Cris Collinsworth was wearing a short-sleeved shirt? No, I cannot take that. Every person has a breaking point and that was mine.

So what is a man to do under such duress?

Look to the future, of course. Examine happier things such as a handful of running backs that are in for very productive 2014 fantasy seasons. Or, perhaps peruse the internet for flights out of Detroit to warmer climates.

I decided on the former and here they are …

Eddie Lacy, Green Bay:
Lacy edges out the competition and is my top-ranked second-year running back following an excellent rookie campaign. He finished the 2013 season as the No. 8 fantasy running back in points per reception leagues and seventh in standard scoring formats. His 11 rushing touchdowns were second only to the 12 that
Marshawn Lynch

and
Jamaal Charles

put up and he averaged 4.1 yards per carry. One could also argue that those numbers would have been better if quarterback
Aaron Rodgers

had not missed significant time. With the mess that was
Matt Flynn

,
Seneca Wallace

and
Scott Tolzien

under center, defenses turned their attention to containing the rookie.

Lacy performed surprisingly well as a receiver out of the backfield, hauling in 35 receptions for 257 yards on 44 targets. He has solidified himself as the three down running back of the future for the Packers and is in line to produce excellent fantasy totals. The Green Bay offense is easily capable of supporting a top 10 fantasy running back despite the reputation that they are primarily a passing team. With
Aaron Rodgers

under center, running back
Ryan Grant

twice surpassed 1,200 yards rushing and punched in a combined 15 rushing touchdowns in the 2008 and 2009 seasons.

I’m not exactly climbing out on a skinny branch when I say
Eddie Lacy

is a more talented running back than
Ryan Grant

and will benefit from some of the huge running lanes that the Packers spread offense creates. Lacy also displayed the toughness we love to see from young players by returning from a concussion as well as battling through an ankle sprain suffered in Week 14. Despite being hampered by the ankle issue he racked up 520 total yards from scrimmage and five touchdowns in the season’s final five games (including the playoffs). He is a top 5 running back for 2014 fantasy drafts and a top 10 pick overall.

Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh:
Bell suffered a foot injury in the second preseason game, which delayed his professional debut until Week 4 against Minnesota. He stepped right in as the three down running back that he was drafted to be and scored a pair of touchdowns in his first game action.

Bell would prove adept in the passing game, averaging 8.9 yards per catch while hauling in 45 receptions on 66 targets. It would take until Week 16 for Bell to surpass the 100-yard rushing threshold in a game, but he would finish the season tied for second on the Steelers in touchdowns scored (eight).

Bell’s 3.5 yards per carry was a bit disappointing, but his acumen in the passing game allowed him to accumulate more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage as a rookie on 289 touches. It is also very encouraging that Bell did average more than 4.0 yards per carry in four of the Steelers’ final five games in 2013. He finished the season as the 15th-highest scoring running back in standard scoring formats and No. 14 in points per reception scoring.

Bell has a very bright fantasy future, as he will be only 22 years old in August. He is the bell cow running back on a team that has handed the ball off to the position an average of 382 times a season over the last four years. He is a top 10 selection in fantasy drafts for 2014. Yes, top 10.

Zac Stacy, St. Louis:
Remember when we couldn’t decide who St. Louis’ running back to draft would be for the 2013 season?
Isaiah Pead

and
Daryl Richardson

were the prominent names under consideration heading into training camp. There were some folks (including my esteemed colleague Gary Davenport) that were banging the drum for little-known rookie
Zac Stacy

out of Vanderbilt. Drafted in the fifth round, Stacy had a non-descript training camp and preseason leaving him buried on the depth chart behind Richardson and Pead (who would begin the season serving a one-game suspension).

It took until Week 5 for Stacy to see extended action after Richardson and Pead proved futile both separately and as a tandem. Stacy responded with a 78-yard rushing performance on 14 carries. The rest, as they say, is history.

From Week 6 through the end of the season, Stacy would amass 891 yards on the ground, rushing for seven touchdowns. He would also add 26 receptions for 141 yards and a score. From third on the depth chart to 1,114 total yards and eight touchdowns Stacy had a very nice rookie season. By comparison, Richardson, Pead and rookie Benny Cunningham c
ombined for 755 yards and a single touchdown last season.

Whether or not head coach Jeff Fisher decides to publicly announce it or not, the No. 1 running back for St. Louis is Stacy heading into 2014. He is a no nonsense hit-the-hole running back that can also make tacklers miss. Stacy runs with a low center of gravity, increasing the difficulty for defenders to bring him down.

Stacy is a top 10 running back and can safely be drafted late in the first round (depending on league size) or very early in the second round of 2014 fantasy drafts.

Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati:
The argument could be made (let’s face it, we’re fantasy folk and love a good argument) that Bernard is actually the most talented and explosive of the second-year running backs. He’s versatile and a threat in the rushing as well as passing game. Bernard led all rookie running backs in receptions last season, racking up 56 receptions on 71 targets while scoring three touchdowns (also the top rookie in that statistic).

Bernard was the first running back selected in the 2013 draft and after starting the season a bit slowly, seeing single-digit touches in Weeks 1 and 2, he hit his stride in Week 3 with a 99-yard performance (rushing and receiving combined) with a touchdown on 14 touches. He would finish his rookie campaign with 695 yards rushing and 514 yards receiving with eight touchdowns.

That would be good enough for the 16th spot among running backs in standard scoring and 13th in points per reception formats. Very impressive numbers for a player stuck in a full-fledged time-share with BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Therein lies the reason that Bernard is ranked behind Lacy, Bell and Stacy. In 2013, Bernard amassed 226 touches out of the backfield to 276, 289 and 319 for Stacy, Bell and Lacy, respectively. By comparison, Green-Ellis had 224 touches, creating the dreaded RBBC (running back by committee).

Green-Ellis is signed through 2014 and Bernard’s fantasy value will continue to be capped by Green-Ellis’ presence. New offensive coordinator Hue Jackson may unleash Bernard more in 2014 (he averaged 14 touches per game last year) but we can’t be sure of that at this time. Unless Cincinnati turns the No. 1 role over to Bernard prior to the season, he will sit at 11th in my standard format running back rankings and 10th in points per reception leagues.

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