The NFL off-season provides coaching staffs and general managers with multiple opportunities to improve their team. While a player may enter the off-season as his team’s presumed starter, there are many landmines that must be avoided to retain that title. The most dangerous of those include free agency, the NFL Draft and training camp. These times can be especially worrisome for running backs given the changing mindset of the NFL, which seems to prefer a committee attack over an every down back. While this shared responsibility should extend the relevant playing time of running backs, their “life span” as a fantasy factor seems to be shrinking by the season.
Maybe more than ever before, there is a large group of “danger” backs, those running backs who are penciled in as their team’s starter, but are far from a safe bet to be the go-to player once the pads go on in the fall. Some of those backs suffered a hit to their value during the free agency period when their team pursued another back. Others were able to breathe a sigh of relief, but another land mine is on the horizon with the upcoming NFL Draft. If you own these players, you must be prepared for this potential change in value.
I took a look at each team’s current starting running back, according to the depth chart at FootballGuys.com, and ranked them all based on how dangerous they are to own. Obviously, these players have a variety of risks, including injury or off-field issues, but I have ranked them solely with the NFL Draft in mind. A team unlikely to draft a running back means their current starter would rank low on this “danger scale,” while a team almost certain to draft a running back means their current back is very dangerous to own right now.
We’ll go in reverse order, meaning these are some of the “safer” backs to own in dynasty leagues. Remember, this is not a ranking of the value of these backs, but only their danger level.
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- Devonta Freeman, ATL
The breakout performance of Freeman in 2015, along with the relatively early pick spent on backup Tevin Coleman in last year’s draft means the Falcons are likely bypassing all running backs in draft weekend.
- TJ Yeldon, JAX
Oddly enough, the signing of Chris Ivory actually helps push Yeldon up this list. While I don’t consider his job safe in the big picture, it would be shocking to see the Jags add yet another running back early in the draft. If Ivory doesn’t scare you, investing in Yeldon is a smart move.
- Doug Martin, TB
With the newly signed Martin, who got a five-year deal worth over $35 million, alongside versatile backup Charles Sims, the Bucs can look at filling some other needs through the draft.
- Todd Gurley, STL
On his own, Gurley is a very safe bet considering no one is overtaking him as the Rams’ starting back. The reason St. Louis could consider adding a rookie back is clear when perusing the depth chart. Benny Cunningham is a solid back, but if Gurley were to suffer another injury, he could not be counted on to carry the load. Meanwhile, Tre Mason seems to be coming unhinged with some serious off-field issues. I wouldn’t be surprised if he is not with the team by Week One of the regular season.
- Le’Veon Bell, PIT
Like Gurley, no back is a threat to Bell’s job in Pittsburgh, and while back DeAngelo Williams performed better than anyone expected, the Steelers have to consider adding a younger backup. Both Bell and Williams are set to be free agents following the 2016 season.
- Melvin Gordon, SD
In his own words, Gordon was terrible during his rookie season. Luckily for the Chargers, Danny Woodhead was there to pick up the slack. Both backs return this season and the team has to expect Gordon to improve and live up to his lofty draft position. I don’t see the team spending much draft capital this year, but if Gordon disappoints again, they’ll be in the market for one of those superstar backs in the class of 2017.
- Jamaal Charles, KC
After Charles went down with an injury in 2015, he was admirably backed up by both Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware and its those two keeping Charles at this spot. The Chiefs signed back reserve backs to new deals and already seem to have their post-Charles plan in place.
- LeSean McCoy, BUF
Since his arrival in Buffalo, things have not been smooth for McCoy, but the team did hit on rookie Karlos Williams in last season’s draft. The pair of talented runners is likely to keep the Bills from adding an early round rookie this season. If I’m wrong on that point, it tells us the Bills are (and we should be) worried about McCoy’s tenure with the team.
- Adrian Peterson, MIN
Here is another veteran whose job is safe as Peterson continues to impress despite his year away from football and “advanced” age of 31. The Vikes also have Jerick McKinnon, but I have my doubts about him playing the feature back role. If Minnesota shares those concerns, they could be aggressive in adding a rookie as early as this draft.
- Jeremy Hill, CIN
With both Hill and Giovani Bernard on the roster, it seems unlikely the Bengals would grab a rookie this season, but stranger things have happened. Hill was a huge disappointment during his sophomore season despite a high touchdown total and Bernard will be a free agent following the season. This could be a sleeper spot for a talented rookie back to land.
- Eddie Lacy, GB
Along with basically the entire Packer offense, Lacy struggled in 2015. He was outplayed by his backup James Starks and both backs return in 2016. Lacy is entering his contract year and there have been multiple reports that the team is ready to move on from the former Crimson Tide back. While Starks is a solid veteran, he won’t be counted on the be the lead back if they can help it. That means the Packers could get one step ahead and add a rookie back now who could be their 2017 starter.
- Mark Ingram, NO
No matter how things play out, the Saints always seem to get strong production from their running back position. Even with Ingram missing time with an injury last season and CJ Spiller struggling, the Saints found Tim Hightower on the scrap heap and he became a factor down the stretch. That mindset leads me to believe the team won’t be adding a back, but that depth chart beyond Ingram is pretty frightening.
- David Johnson, ARZ
During his rookie season, Johnson burst onto the scene and took the dynasty world by storm. He quickly elevated to a top five back according to most and he really has no competition on his team. Veteran Chris Johnson is obviously past his prime and Andre Ellington just isn’t that good. The status of those backups makes me think the Cardinals could indulge themselves and add another back through the draft. I’m relatively certain that rookie would not be a serious threat to Johnson’s starting role, but not quite as certain as I am about some of the players already listed.
- Lamar Miller, HOU
After signing Miller to a four-year deal with $26 million, the Texans clearly won’t be shopping for a new starter come draft weekend. They should be looking to add a backup or two though as they were reminded that they can not count on any production from the likes of Alfred Blue and others.
- Matt Forte, NYJ
The Jets signed not one, not two, but three running backs during free agency, adding Forte and Khiry Robinson and re-signing Bilal Powell. This would seem to take them out of the running for a rookie, but I don’t see any of those as the long-term answer for Gang Green.
- CJ Anderson, DEN
While the Broncos did commit to Anderson when matching his contract offer from the Dolphins, they seemed to lack confidence in him throughout the 2015 season, often using Ronnie Hillman, whom they just re-signed, in key situations. Hillman is back, but only for one year. With the Broncos somewhat unsatisfied with this duo, I could see them adding a rookie on day three of the draft.
I’ll be back with Part Two of the RB Danger Rankings tomorrow!
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