Every year players around the NFL climb from the depths of the unknown to the pinnacle of success. It’s often these hidden gems or surprise stars that put a fantasy team on their backs and carry them triumphantly to a league championship. Some recent examples of these rare breakthrough stars include Miles Austin, Laurent Robinson (for at least one season anyway) and Arian Foster. Three names come to mind this season as surprise fantasy assets: Danario Alexander, Brandon Myers and Alfred Morris. They each burst, except for Myers who kind of awkwardly galloped liked a beautiful overweight gazelle, onto the scene to assist their fantasy owners in reaching a higher level of success.
This article is my attempt to locate players who will achieve new levels of production during the 2013 season. I’m not trying to find names you’ve never heard of, because I probably haven’t heard them either, but what I am trying to do is identify players who can be acquired at a price much lower than their potential value. Without further ado, here are the running back nominees for breakout player of the 2013 season.
Bilal Powell, RB NYJ
Coach Rex Ryan and Jets owner Woody Johnson were reportedly ecstatic when they selected Bilal Powell in the fourth round of the 2011 draft. However, the second year back out of Louisville has largely disappointed in his young career. Despite a lackluster performance from starter Shonn Greene, he never carved out a role for himself during his rookie campaign. However, reports out of training camp earlier this season were largely positive and, accordingly, he made quick work of taking over third down duties from an uninspired Joe McKnight.
After an injury impeded him during first half of the season, he came to life in the second half. Working in a near even time share with Greene, he averaged 4.2 yards per carry on 52 tries in December. He also developed a role as the team’s goal line back and scored on half of his attempts inside the opponent’s ten yard line.
The Jets have a salary cap headache on their hands and the odds of them keeping the unrestricted free agent Greene in town are less than even. When he does depart, it will create an opening for Powell to take over the lead back role during the 2013 season.
Assuming the stars align, temper your expectations. Powell has the potential to be a mid range RB2 with upside if he gets the lion’s share of the carries. Even that is probably optimistic as it’s hoping against all likelihood that the Jets sort out their offensive woes. It’s worth noting that both running backs seemed to find success running the ball later in the season. Perhaps the coaches found something to build on heading into 2013.
Kendall Hunter, RB SF
Working as Frank Gore’s caddy and change of pace back, Hunter flashed feature back potential. The fact that Gore is still an effective back is astounding, but he will hit a cliff and it won’t be long before that happens. Head coach Jim Harbaugh is a one quirky guy, but he’s also one heck of a coach who knows what he has on his roster (see the Colin Kaepernick/Alex Smith decision). If Hunter proves to be the best option, don’t be surprised to see him take over the lead back role. I suspect we see a changing of the guard in the next year or two similar to what we saw this year in Atlanta.
He is apt in pass protection and a capable receiver out the backfield. Those skills combined with his 5.2 yards per carry average in 2012 make him an attractive option heading into the 2013 season.
Much like Powell above, he comes with several concerns. First and most importantly, the torn Achilles tendon would historically be considered a career killer. However, the promising returns of players including Mikel LeShoure, Demaryius Thomas, and Terrell Suggs are encouraging. Second, LaMichael James is almost certain to have a role in 49er offense moving forward and running quarterback Colin Kaepernick is here to stay. Even with the red flags, Hunter’s price tag is likely at its low point. Some would advise a “wait and see” approach given the Achilles injury, but your also going to miss the low price point if you do. Kaepernick’s presence may cap Hunter’s ceiling at low end RB1/high end RB2, but this may be the last chance to get him at a bargain price.
Lamar Miller, RB MIA
Reggie Bush is likely to hit the market as a free agent this summer leaving Miller to compete with Daniel Thomas for the starting job in Miami. Prior to Thomas’ season ending knee injury in December, Miller had passed him for second on the depth chart.
He showed explosive talent during his limited work averaging 4.9 yards per carry, while maintaining an element of toughness by gaining over half his yards after contact. In contrast, Thomas averaged only 3.6 yards per carry and fumbled on 3 of his 91 attempts. Thomas has the build of a power back without the power and lacks both elusiveness and explosiveness.
Working under the assumption that Bush rejects a “team-friendly” contract offer, Lamar Miller will be the only running back with exceptional talent left in South Beach. For someone who came into the league with an unexpected fall in the draft, going to a team with a less than ideal offense, and with questions about his health, he has a tremendous opportunity to make a splash early in his career. If you find an owner sleeping on the job, now’s the time to steal him.
The Long Shots
Joique Bell, RB DET
Lions Coach Jim Schwartz recently said the team will be looking for a more explosive running back to add to the mix. What he really needs to do is use Joique Bell. I wanted to put him in his own category labeled “the guy who should already be the starter.” Bell averaged nearly ten yards per catch on 52 catches to pair with his five yards per carry on 82 attempts. He had at least one run or catch of over ten yards in all but two games during the season.
The failure of the coaching staff to recognize the weapons they have shouldn’t come as a shock. Kevin Smith averaged just less than four yards per carry against the Rams and 49ers, two solid run defenses, during the first two weeks of the year. Meanwhile, Mikel LeShoure averaged a sub par 3.7 yards per against everyone else the remainder of the season. Smith went on to get just eight more carries while LeShoure tallied 215.
I’m of the opinion that Jahvid Best’s career is sadly over and Smith’s time in Detroit has expired. It’s certainly possible they bring in competition, but they can’t possibly review the film from this season and continue keeping Bell off the field. LeShoure was highly drafted and will certainly get the chance to be the lead back once again, but I like Bell if they have an open competition and truly want a dynamic option. I wouldn’t pay a fortune, but he has RB2 upside in a potentially electric offense.
Bernard Pierce, RB BAL
Ray Rice owners can stop reading now, but for the rest of us, it’s time to face the facts. Rice is getting older. He’s only 25, but already has over 1,500 total touches. Many people are discussing Arian Foster’s decline and, for comparisons sake, he only has 1,177 total touches. I’ll acknowledge now that Foster has a tremendous amount of touches in the last three years as opposed to Rice’s work being spread out over five years and that certainly plays a factor when evaluating a player’s future performance.
Rice still averaged 4.4 yards per carry during the 2012 season, but in my opinion showed a touch less wiggle and went down just a bit easier than seasons past. Combine the massive work loads and the effectiveness of second stringer Bernard Pierce and there are reasons to suspect a near even time share moving forward. Pierce doesn’t get the goal line work like Willis McGahee used to, but this season the Ravens split carries very similarly to the 2009 season when he acted as Rice’s backfield partner and excruciating goal line vulture.
Pierce won’t be an RB1 for the next one to two years at least, but he’s earned a definite role moving forward. He averaged4.9 yards per carry and doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses in his game. He had 108 carries during the regular season. If he can bump that number up to 150-175 carries while carving out a role in the passing game, he’ll sit clearly on the flex/low-end RB2 radar next year.
He’s an absolute must own handcuff with an exciting future on a team dripping with young offensive talent. Now is the time to take a stab at acquiring him cheap. With more chances next year, his price will only go up from here. For more on Pierce, check out this article by Bob Harris over at 4for4.com.
Other Potential Breakout Running Backs
For the sake of time and space I didn’t delve into every running back with the chance to become a star. Other players I would consider include Vick Ballard and Isaiah Pead. Ballard has a grasp on the starting role moving forward in Indianapolis and finished the year #8 in Pro Football Focus’ elusiveness ratings. Pead is a high risk/high reward type guy and he warrants a longer look if Steven Jackson retires or leaves St. Louis prior to the start of the 2013 season.
Wide receiver and tight end candidates are still in the works. Thanks for reading.