Fantasy Football: The ‘What If’ Running Back Candidates

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Christine Michael

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

St. Louis Rams running back Zac Stacy‘s rise to his team’s starting gig in 2013 was a case study in why, exactly, fantasy footballers should familiarize themselves with backup runners — and sometimes, backups of backups.

It was Stacy who had exactly one carry for four yards in the season’s first two weeks as the Rams stubbornly rolled with the horrid backfield tandem of Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead. It was also Stacy who, once he was given the reigns to the St. Louis backfield, scored the 14th most fantasy points among running backs from Week 3-17.

Stacy, from Week 6-17, was a top-10 fantasy option.

Those who familiarized themselves with the rookie who has surprisingly good peripheral stats as a college workhorse back would’ve plucked him from the local waiver wire as soon as it became clear that the Rams’ backfield would be in serious flux. And your research would’ve paid off handsomely; the payoff was a RB1 for free.

The same — to a much lesser extent — goes for Jacksonville backup runner Jordan Todman, who, after Maurice Jones-Drew succumbed to injury late last season, piled up 153 yards on 29 touches in Week 15 against the Bills.

Below are three guys with whom we should all become familiar as the season approaches. Whether they’re shining in OTAs or temporarily trapped behind aging starters who are probably more likely than not to miss time in 2014, getting an idea of what these “what if” running back all-stars could be the most important thing you do all off-season.

I used the RotoViz Running Back Sim Score Lab app to generate a list of comparable players for each “what if” candidate, based on the player’s weight, age, carries, yardage, and receptions per game. I think it’s both important and instructive to see how similar players have performed in similar situations, and that’s precisely what this app allows.

Andre Williams, RB, New York Giants

The 21-year-old out of Boston College, who was last seen with “arms and elbows flying around” at Giants’ offseason practices, currently sits behind 29-year-old Rashad Jennings and David Wilson, who still hasn’t been cleared for contact and has no clear role in New York’s new offense.

Jennings admittedly fits the definition of what it means to be a running back on Tom Coughlin’s team, but his 2014 comps have serious and consistent injury issues and Jennings missed the entire 2011 season and almost half of 2012 before eventually inheriting the Raiders’ starting gig in 2013. I’m not sure if Jennings is any more fraught with injury potential than any other running back in the NFL, but 29-year-old runners have something less than a great injury track record.

Giants coaches have spoken glowingly of the rookie runner who, in 2013, posted 2,177 total yards at Boston College — the fifth most in NCAA history. The Giants gave Williams a second-round draft grade and snagged him in the fourth. For whatever it’s worth, Williams considers himself a “perfect fit” in new Big Blue offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo’s system.

“He’s got a lot of carries under his belt and the thing about it, he comes through the line of scrimmage and 22 eyes are looking at him and he still rushes for 2,000 yards,” New York general manager Jerry Reese said of Williams. “We’re very impressed with that and, again, this is the kind of guy that if you want to pound the rock, this is the kind of guy you can pound the rock with. If you get up in a game and you’re trying to run the clock out in that four-minute drill at the end, this is the kind of guy that you can get the ball to over and over and over and he’ll get first downs for you.”

Williams could be one Jennings injury away from taking the majority of carries in an offense that, as Coughlin said in May, will be as committed to the running game as it’s ever been.

Below is an average of Williams’ comparable players, as generated by the RotoViz Running Back Sim Lab. The average fantasy points would put Williams at a RB12 pace.

Player Carries Yards/YPC Avg TDs per game Receptions/yards Fantasy points per game
Andre Williams 16 63.8/4.0 .5 2.4/20.1 14.5

 

Christine Michael, RB, Seattle Seahawks

Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, who has (almost) never deployed a timeshare backfield, triggered an apocalyptic earthquake on fantasy football Twitter this week when he said that he was fully committed to splitting carries between Marshawn Lynch and second-year runner Michael — the twinkle in the eye of metrics and film analysts alike.

Bevell’s proclamation, of course, will send Michael’s average draft position (ADP) into the outer reaches of space while depressing Lynch’s ADP. We’d be smart to cut against this grain in re-draft leagues since Michael’s upside will now be priced into his draft spot. So maybe this exercise is fruitless as Michael disciples will draft him in the middle rounds as a guy who will certainly, definitely, absolutely, get half the carries in the Seahawks’ offense.

Michael, in his rookie year, played in four regular season games, posting a healthy 4.4 yards per carry (YPC) while playing not second, but third fiddle to Lynch and Robert Turbin. He has all the tools to be an elite runner, by all accounts, so I suppose it’s only a matter of how much burn he’ll get in Seattle’s run-heavy attack.

If — just if — the ultra-durable Lynch would miss time in 2014, or perhaps lose the starting role as Seattle coaches pledge their undying love to Michael, here’s what Michael’s average comps look like. That fantasy points per game mark would put him around RB8 for the season.

Player Carries Yards/YPC Avg TDs per game Receptions/yards Fantasy points per game
Christine Michael 16.6 68.9/4.2 .5 2.2/18 15.3

 

Latavius Murray, RB, Oakland Raiders

Murray, a workout freak who wowed onlookers at the 2013 NFL Combine, has two impediments to a starting job. Their names are Maurice Jones-Drew and Darren McFadden, and together, they’ve missed 30 games over the past two seasons. It doesn’t really matter which of the DMC/MJD pairing gets the starting role in the Raiders’ offense. One or both will miss time in 2014, and even if by some miracle they don’t, their diminishing play will open a window for Murray.

RotoViz writer Davis Mattek penned the definitive piece on why Murray could morph into a fantasy championship-winning puzzle piece in 2014. I highly suggest you read it. Murray will likely be on every waiver wire in America come September, though fantasy players in leagues with deep benches would do well to scoop him up before his services are in demand.

The 6-foot-2, 230-pound hulk of a runner from the University of Central Florida was apparently horrific in rookie practices last season — battling an ankle injury — and Oakland head coach Dennis Allen has mentioned Murray as an afterthought in the team’s running back depth chart. Murray was “red shirted” in 2013 — not playing a single snap after the team placed him on injured reserve in late August.

Aren’t you excited for such a prospect? Well, aren’t you?!

It wasn’t too long ago that Oakland beat writers tabbed Murray as a likely starting candidate for the Raiders. That was before the team went out and splurged on the ghost of Jones-Drew.

Here’s what the Running Back Sim Lab has to say about Murray’s potential production. His fantasy points per game would put him on a RB15 pace.

Player Carries Yards/YPC Avg TDs per game Receptions/yards Fantasy points per game
Latavius Murray 15.3 60/3.9 .4 2.2/16.9 14.1

 

C.D. Carter is a reporter, author of zombie stories, writer for The Fake Football and XN Sports. Fantasy Sports Writers Association member. His work  has been featured in the New York Times.