Round 1 (1-12)
- Le'Veon Bell
- Adrian Peterson
- Eddie Lacy
- Jamaal Charles
- Marshawn Lynch
- Antonio Brown
- C.J. Anderson
- Matt Forte
- DeMarco Murray
- Demaryius Thomas
- LeSean McCoy
- Rob Gronkowski
Le'Veon Bell (1), Adrian Peterson (2), Eddie Lacy (3), Jamaal Charles (4), Marshawn Lynch (5)
Kind of silly to pick the top 5 ranked players for best value but I wanted to point out that these guys are a tier above the rest in round 1. If I could pick where I drafted in the first round, I'd definitely try to get one of the first five picks overall. Provided that they stay healthy (and none of them are considered significant injury risks), each of these running backs has a legitimate shot to lead the league in fantasy points, top 5 is likely, and top 10 is basically guaranteed. I'd be happy with any of them but if I had to rank them, I'd go with (1) Adrian Peterson, (2) Jamaal Charles, (3) Eddie Lacy, (4) Le'Veon Bell, (5) Marshawn Lynch.
I don't like Peterson as a person but I think people are forgetting just how dominant of a player he is. Peterson is in a league of his own. In 2012, coming off of an ACL tear, he ran 2,097 yards and 12 touchdowns. Even more impressively, Peterson did all of this with Christian Ponder as the QB. Because defenses didn't have to respect the pass attack, they sold out against the run, constantly stacking the box and focusing on shutting Peterson down. And AP beat them anyway.
He's the only RB in the league who can put the entire offense on his back. The QB doesn't matter. The offensive line doesn't matter. The defense he's facing doesn't matter. Peterson will produce. Other than last year (he missed 15 games due to suspension), Peterson has never had less than 10 rushing touchdowns in a season. 10 touchdowns is a down year for him. And I know I said QB, O-line, and matchup don't matter but those are looking up for him too.QB Teddy Bridgewater was the most impressive rookie quarterback last year and the weapons he has to work with this year are significantly better as well: the Vikings acquired WR Mike Wallace in a trade, WR Charles Johnson showed flashes at the end of last year and has had an extra year and an off-season under his belt, Cordarrelle Patterson is settling into the WR3 role, and TE Kyle Rudolph is returning from injury. The pass offense will be legitimate enough to make defenses respect it, taking some of the pressure off Peterson. Plus, Peterson's schedule is more friendly this year than it was in 2013. He has just a handful of tough matchups: Detroit twice, Denver, St. Louis, and Seattle.
Another reason to like Peterson is that we finally get to see what he can do with Norv Turner as the offensive coordinator. Turner's offenses always seem to have strong production from the running back. In his one year as the Browns' offensive coordinator in 2012, he made Trent Richardson look good enough to be a first round fantasy pick in 2013. Even more encouraging is that Turner likes to pass the ball to running backs (Richardson had 53 receptions in 2012). Peterson's two best years, 2009 and 2012, were the only seasons that he had 40 or more receptions. Matt Asiata and Jerrick McKinnon combined for 77 receptions and 199 fantasy points in 15 games last year (which would have been 7th among running backs). Talent-wise they're not even comparable to Peterson. Getting the ball in Peterson's hands as often as possible in a larger variety of ways is going to pay dividends both for the Vikings offense and for Peterson's fantasy owners. Finally, if you're worried about Peterson being rusty after a season of rest, don't be. Peterson may be morally questionable as a person but his work ethic has never been in doubt. He had his best season in his career coming off of a torn ACL. It's not like Peterson has spent the last year sitting on the couch eating Cheetos. No one is that good at something without being passionate and dedicated to it. Peterson is itching to play. He's hungry, he's motivated, and he's going to make it hell for anyone who's job it is to stop him.
Last year, Charles had the toughest schedule for running backs and still finished 7th among running backs in fantasy despite basically missing the first 3 games. Taking out those games, Charles averaged 15 points per game and would have finished with 240 total, placing him 4th among running backs. Now, while the schedule is still tough compared to the rest of the league, it's significantly better than last year's. In addition, the offensive line seems significantly improved. But more importantly, I just believe that Charles is ahead of Bell and Lacy from a talent perspective. Charles has a career average of 5.5 yards per carry and has never had a season of less than 5 yards per carry. 2014 was a down year for Charles in terms of touches (246 compared to 329 in 2013 and 320 in 2012) and yet he still managed 14 total touchdowns. Finally, Charles comes with a clear-cut handcuff in Knile Davis. If something should happen to Charles, Davis is good enough that I'm reasonably confident that he'd perform like a top-10 running back in fantasy considering how well he's filled in for Charles in the past. The same cannot be said for the handcuffs for Peterson (carries would be split between Asiata and McKinnon), Lacy (Starks), Bell (Williams), and Lynch (Turbin and Michaels).
Lacy is just so safe. Defenses must focus on stopping Rodgers or they'll get picked apart, giving Lacy favorable matchups. With Aaron Rodgers leading the offense, Lacy will get plenty of scoring opportunities- he's basically a lock for double digit touchdowns. Finally, Lacy developed into a viable receiving threat last season, finishing 6th among running backs in receiving yards. Lacy may not be as talented as the other running backs in this tier, but his situation is better and he's as safe as they come.
In 2014, Bell finished 2nd among running backs in fantasy with 272 points, 56 points more than Lacy. He's a better player overall (Bell lead the league in receiving yards by a running back with 854) compared to Lacy and he runs behind one of the best offensive lines in the league. The only reasons I have Lacy ahead of him is the 2-game suspension to start the season and because Bell's schedule this year is quite a bit tougher than it was in 2014 including two unfavorable matchups against Denver and Baltimore in the fantasy playoffs.
He's "Beast Mode". He is objectively the hardest running back in the league to tackle (led the league the past two years in broken tackles including 88 broken tackles in 2014; the next highest had 59). He's not even that old (he turned 29 in April). Lynch definitely deserves his spot in the top tier of running backs. The reason I have him ranked 5th is because his offensive line is a bit weaker this year after losing C Max Unger and LG James Carpenter. Plus, given his workload (1,181 carries in the last 4 seasons, most in the league) and physical running style it's not unreasonable to think that he might start wearing down a bit eventually. For these reasons, it's hard to see him exceeding last year's production (253 points, 3rd among running backs) even though he's still elite.
Worst Value: C.J. Anderson (7)
C.J. Anderson has a lot going for him:
- Since earning the starting job at running back in week 10, no running back scored more points than Anderson in that time frame.
- If we extrapolate his points per game over that 8-game stretch to an entire season, Anderson ends up with 316 points, 34 points more than the #1 running back in fantasy, DeMarco Murray.
- The Denver Broncos' schedule is one of the most improved compared to last season (the schedule is much more favorable).
- Defenses have to focus on stopping Peyton Manning. For this reason, Manning's running backs are always incredibly productive. For example, in 2013 Denver's Knowshon Moreno came out of nowhere and scored 236 fantasy points, 5th best among running backs.
- New head coach Gary Kubiak has had great success with his zone-blocking scheme in his time with the Houston Texans and the Baltimore Ravens, during which RB Arian Foster became a star in Houston and RB Justin Forsett had a breakout season in Baltimore. This leads me to believe that the run game will be a focal point of the offense.
But for a first-round pick, Anderson also has a lot of red flags:
- A half-season sample size, no matter how brilliant, is still quite small. Even though those that have watched his game-tape assure us that it wasn't a fluke, that Anderson did actually play as well as his stats indicate, performance can vary greatly from season to season. For example, in 2012 C.J. Spiller looked every bit as good as his stats but followed up in 2013 and 2014 looking like a shell of himself.
- Although the schedule was tougher last year, CJ Anderson wasn't the starting running back when the Denver played its toughest opponents: SEA, ARI, NYJ, and SF.
- The offensive line has been devastated this off-season. RT Ryan Clady tore his ACL during OTA's, LG Orlando Franklin signed with San Diego, C Will Montgomery signed with Chicago, and RG Manuel Ramirez was traded to Detroit. With 4 of last year's 5 starters gone, it's hard not to expect a precipitous drop in performance by the offensive line.
- Are we absolutely sure that we know who the starter is this time? We know that whoever starts for Denver will be productive but are we so sure we know which it will be? Two years in a row we thought we knew, and two years in a row we were wrong. Is the third time the charm? Or is the third time the charm for Montee Ball? I just don't think there is a big enough gap in skill level between the three backs that one of them 100% has the job. If Anderson struggles to start the season or gets hurt for a few games, and either Ball or Hillman come in and play well, are we so sure that Anderson gets his job back? Head coach Kubiak is new in town and has no loyalty to Anderson. What if he feels that Hillman or Ball is a better fit for his offense?
- Everybody says Coach Kubiak coming in means more running in Denver but I'm not so sure. The Baltimore Ravens, the team Kubiak just left, had 448 rushing attempts last season, 11th in the league. Denver was 12th with 443 attempts. You see, John Fox is also "known" for his dedication to the run game.
Let's look into that last point a little further. I compared the total number of rushing attempts for the Carolina Panthers from 2002-2010 to that of the Houston Texans from 2006-2013. The reason I chose those teams and those years is that I believe this to be the fairest comparison of the two. John Fox became the head coach of the Carolina Panthers in 2002 and held the position for 9 seasons. Gary Kubiak became the head coach of the Houston Texans in 2006 and held the position for 8 seasons. In 2002, the Panthers were an 7 year-old expansion team. In 2006, the Texans were a 4 year-old expansion team. So both Fox and Kubiak got their first head coaching jobs with relatively new teams. They got to start mostly from scratch and build the team they wanted and run it the way they liked. And Fox and Kubiak coached their teams for almost the same amount of time.
Looking at the data for both coaches, it's actually quite similar. In fact, it looks like John Fox actually had his team run the ball a bit more. Both coaches started to ramp up the attempts after year 5. Kubiak doesn't seem the run the ball more than Fox so it doesn't seem that reasonable to expect an increase in volume for Anderson. But are Kubiak's teams more effective at running the ball?
Kubiak's Texans don't seem to have run the ball more effectively than Fox's Panthers. After several years in, both coaches achieved considerable success in the run game but none more than the other.
There's no doubt that Kubiak's zone blocking scheme can be effective. It worked when he was the OC for the Broncos from 1995-2005, it eventually worked when he was the HC for the Texans from 2006-2013, and it worked last year with the Ravens. But scheme can only do so much. The offensive line that Kubiak has to work with this year is far inferior to the ones he had in Baltimore and at the end of his time with the Texans. It took 5 years before he was able to elevate the rushing attack in Houston to above average.
All this is to say that Kubiak replacing Fox does not guarantee a greater emphasis on the run game or a greater workload for CJ Anderson. In addition, Kubiak's zone-blocking scheme, while proven, is unlikely to overcome the off-season woes of the Denver offensive line.
Risky Pick: DeMarco Murray (9) and Rob Gronkowski (12)
DeMarco Murray (9)
If you took a risk on Murray last year, you were rewarded with 2014's fantasy MVP. Yet, last year I recommended staying away from Murray and I'm sticking to that now. I don't draft guys who are so prone to injury, especially not in the first round. Losing a first round pick for whatever reason cripples your chances at winning the league. But is Murray even still a high risk for injury? I'd say so. 2014 was the first time in his 4-year career that he managed to play all 16 games of the regular season. Prior to that, he's dealt with knee, leg, foot, and ankle injuries dating all the way back to college that have caused him to miss any where from 1 to 6 games. Even in 2014 he managed to get nicked up, fracturing his hand and requiring surgery to repair it. Too add to that, Murray is coming off an alarmingly high workload with 392 carries and 449 total touches. There have been many popular articles about the "curse of 370". And, while the sample size isn't large enough to conclude anything definitively, there are some clear warning signs. Consider this chart provided by Bleacher Report:
"GM NY" = "Games Missed Next Year". I'll do the math for you. Out of the 28 running backs that tallied 370+ carries in a season, only 1, Eric Dickerson in 1984, gained more yardage the following year. 27 out of 28 failed saw a decline in production. Only 9 out of 28 managed to make it through the next year without missing a game and 11 out of 27 missed a quarter or more of the season. Based on this data alone, Murray has a 67.9% chance of missing at least a game in 2015, a 40.7% chance to miss 4+ games, and just a 3.6% chance of increasing production. Then consider that Murray carried the ball 392 times in the regular season and tacked on another 44 carries in the post season. He had another 61 touches from receptions. 497 touches total. Running backs that get that many touches tend to get hurt the following year and, with Murray's injury history, I'm awfully nervous as an Eagles fan.
But there are 2 more factors working against Murray.
1. Even if Murray somehow manages to play all 16 games for the second straight year, I guarantee that his workload will be cut dramatically. There's no way that coach Chip Kelly is that reckless with a guy he just signed to a 5 year, $40 million contract just as there's no way backup RB Ryan Mathews was signed to a 3 year, $11 million contract to just sit on the bench. Chip Kelly is serious about his players' health, and there's just not reason to overwork Murray with such viable alternatives. And let's not forget RB Sproles is still on the roster who is more than capable and who logged nearly 100 touches for the Eagles last season. True, Chip Kelly does like to run; since becoming coach in 2013, only the Seahawks, the 49ers, and the Jets have more rushing attempts that the Eagles. But assuming the Eagles run 500 times in 2015 (which would put the in the top 5), I expect that Murray gets 70% of that, max (LeSean McCoy got 65.8% of the carries in 2014). Personally, I think 60% is more realistic with Ryan Mathews on the roster. 60% of 500 puts Murray at 300 carries which is still a lot (in 2014, only DeMarco Murray himself and LeSean McCoy exceeded 300 carries) but far less than 2014. In addition, I expect his reception total to go down due to the presence of Sproles. Last year, LeSean McCoy saw his reception total nearly halved (52 receptions in 2013, just 28 in 2014) while Darren Sproles had 40 catches. All in all, I can easily see Murray's workload slashed by at least 100 touches. Less touches = less fantasy points. It's just math.
2. A nearly 25% reduction in volume still puts him at around 215-220 points which would have been 6th among running backs last year. That's still worth the #9 overall pick. But, while we know that Murray's quantity is certain to decrease, what about quality? There is evidence that his rushing efficiency will decrease as well. Murray leaves Dallas' #1 ranked offensive line for Philadelphia's, a unit that just lost two key members: LG Evan Mathis and RG Todd Herremans. While I expect Philadelphia's line to at least remain above average, it will be considerably worse than Dallas'.
Look, if it was just the decreased volume and worse offensive line, I'd probably still take him. I believe in Chip Kelly's offense and I think Murray is a good fit for it. But I can't ignore Murray's propensity for injury. He's high risk and reduced reward and he won't be on my team unless he falls considerably in the draft.
Interesting thought. If you draft late in the first round, the top 5 RBs and Matt Forte will most likely have been drafted. What if you don't want to take an elite receiver (because you could get one with your early 2nd round pick anyway) or Gronk, and you don't feel comfortable drafting Anderson or McCoy (due to his recent hamstring injury). I could see you taking DeMarco Murray in this situation. His first two matchups are very favorable: Atlanta (a bottom 5 run defense in 2014) and Dallas (bottom 10 run defense in 2014 and Murray's old team). People tend to over react to the first two games of the season. I could see Murray absolutely tearing it up in those two games. In addition, the beginning of the season is the time when he's fresh and least likely to be injured. If he has two huge games, people will forget all about the injury history and the heavy workload, making him extremely valuable as trade bait. You might even be able to trade him for one of those top 5 running backs. If you can't deal him after the first two weeks, don't fret, the trade window extends to week 10. Murray has 6 favorable matchups and 2 unfavorable matchups in the first 8 games. In the second half of the season, his schedule includes 0 favorable matchups and 5 unfavorable matchups. Obviously, this strategy is a bit risky. It depends on Murray starting hot and you being able to find a willing trade partner. Obviously, we can't assume things will work out exactly as we want them to, but the conditions are just likely enough that you could win big by drafting Murray and dealing him at a profit before he gets hurt or slows down.
Rob Gronkowski (12)
In terms of dominance at his position, Gronk is rivaled by only guys like J.J. Watt, Earl Thomas III, and Aaron Rodgers. That is some very impressive company. However, I just can't bring myself to draft a tight end in the first round when starting tight ends can be had in round 10 and beyond.
I get the logic. Gronk is supposedly so far ahead of every one at his position that it makes him valuable enough to draft in the first round. But last year, Jimmy Graham was the round-1, must-have tight end and how did that turn out?
Graham finished the season with just 137 fantasy points, 3rd among tight ends. For comparison, the 8th and 9th tight ends, Travis Kelce and Delanie Walker, weren't even drafted in most leagues and they scored 108 and 105 fantasy points respectively. The gap in fantasy isn't as large as the gap in real life. So many things have to go right for Gronk or any tight end to be worth that kind of price, including staying healthy which Gronk has had trouble doing in the past. And the 4-game suspension for Tom Brady doesn't help.
If you find yourself drafting at the end of round 1, take an elite receiver or take a second tier running back like Murray, McCoy, or Hill. Don't hamstring yourself with a position that just isn't that valuable in fantasy, even for a player as good as Gronkowski.
Safe Pick: Antonio Brown (6)
I don't think Antonio Brown is a great value because I don't think there's that much separation between him and the other tier 1 receivers, the last of which are Calvin Johnson and A.J. Green who are ranked 18th and 19th overall. But if I had to nitpick and decide which of the 8 receivers is least likely to finish outside the top 10 in 2015, it would be Antonio Brown.
- Demaryius Thomas - Peyton Manning is declining and no guarantee to stay healthy; the offensive line is much worse than last year
- Dez Bryant - 16 touchdowns last year, he's due for regression; just 1320 yards last year, 378 less than Brown
- Odell Beckham Jr. - just 1 season sample size; the hype may be unrealistic
- Jordy Nelson - he's as safe as Brown but Brown scored 30 more points last year
- Julio Jones - foot injuries in the past, has never finished better than 8th in fantasy points
- Calvin Johnson - injury concerns, wearing down
- A.J. Green - worst quarterback of the elite wide receivers caps his upside
The guy is matchup proof and consistent like no other. In 2014, he had just TWO games below double-digit fantasy points. The first was a 5-catch, 84 yard game in week 5 (not bad) and the other was an 8-catch, 74 yard game in week 10 (he fumbled twice). In his worst game, Antonio Brown had 8 catches and 74 yards. That is insane.
So yeah, if you miss out on taking a tier 1 running back and you don't feel like settling for C.J. Anderson, Matt Forte, or DeMarco Murray, it might be best to play it safe and draft Brown as a pretty much guaranteed top 5 receiver. Then, you can take a tier 2 running back in the second round (or double down on elite wide receivers, if that's your thing).