By: Russell Shaffer
The 2012 season was a banner year for rookie running backs, with first-year workhorses Doug Martin, Alfred Morris and Trent Richardson all piling up impressive stat lines that saw them finish in or near the top 10 for fantasy RB depending upon scoring structure. Another batch of upstarts – including Daryl Richardson, David Wilson and Vick Ballard – did enough in complimentary roles or late-season feature turns to register a ping on the fantasy radar as well.
So which 2013 rookie runner has the best chance to be this year’s Martin?
I suppose the first question that needs answering is why I chose Martin as the benchmark instead of T. Richardson or Morris. The answer is simple. Richardson was taken #3 overall in the NFL Draft and as a result, fantasy expectations for him were unduly high right out of the gate. I saw Richardson going in the 2nd or 3rd round of many drafts a year ago. Even with the loftiest of expectations, I’m not seeing anyone valuing one of this season’s rookies that high.
Morris is on the other end of the spectrum. Despite finishing 2nd in the NFL with 1,606 rushing yards and 13 TD, Morris was an unheralded 6th round pick who wasn’t really considered the man in a crowded (and always committee-oriented) Washington backfield until he seized the job following a breakout Week 1 performance that he just kept repeating. As a result, Morris probably wasn’t on most fantasy draft boards a year ago.
So that leaves Martin as the most reasonable comp. He was a late 1st round pick in last April’s NFL Draft – a fact that puts him in similar company to this season’s slew of 2nd round picks. He was also much more reasonably ranked and drafted in 2012 fantasy leagues (unlike the overrated Richardson) and went around the 4th to 6th round in most drafts (I believe I got him in the 5th). That’s a similar range in which I’ve seen this year’s crop of rookies coming off the board.
So with our bar set as Martin, let’s see if any of this year’s rookie RBs has what it takes to measure up to the Muscle Hamster.
Le’Veon Bell (Pittsburgh Steelers): The thing that made Martin (and T. Richardson and Morris for that matter) so potent last year was opportunity, and despite missing the Steelers’ first preseason game with an knee injury Bell appears to have the best opportunity to be a Week 1 starter of any rookie RB. The bruising 6-foot-1, 244-pound Michigan State product is exactly the kind of between-the-tackles ground and pound back Pittsburgh loves, and the first of his kind to show up in the Steel City since Jerome Bettis took the wheels off The Bus.
Like most BCS conference RBs, Bell did not begin to start regularly until last season which marked his junior year with Sparty. He certainly made the most of the chance – piling up a gaudy 1,793 rushing yards with 13 total TD. During the course of his college career Bell also proved a competent pass catcher, hauling in 78 receptions over three years though to a dismal 6.8 YPC. That low YPC number really speaks to what is likely the biggest knock on Bell from a fantasy perspective and that’s his relative lack of big play ability. His longest carry the last two seasons at Michigan State was just 40 yards, and the long runs stand to be even harder to break against infinitely faster NFL defenses.
A closer look at Bell’s 1,793 yards from a year ago uncovers the fact it took him a troubling 382 carries to get there. The 382 carries were more than most NFL feature backs amass despite playing three additional games, and you have to wonder if Bell’s sore knee is in any way related to a heavy collegiate workload and an early red flag for premature breakdown. The 4.7 YPC is also rather low for a premium college RB and further speaks to Bell’s lack of game breaking ability.
I write all this to illustrate Bell is a talented back who is not without flaws. Despite the sore knee, Bell is getting most of the reps with the first team offense and should be the top choice to start in Pittsburgh Week 1. Provided he stays healthy and productive, I don’t see him losing many carries to the likes of Isaac Redman or Jonathan Dwyer. But even though Bell is a decent receiver, I do see him yielding to the diminutive yet dynamic LaRod Stephens-Howling on passing downs (at least early in the season). It would’ve been nice to see how Bell performs in preseason before filing this (we’ll need to wait until Monday against Washington), but for now he’s the clear #1 rookie RB.
He won’t provide the big plays or receiving totals of Martin, but with comparable touches he could be a similar yardage and TD contributor to T. Richardson. He’s my highest ranked rookie, and my colleagues at TopTeamFantasy agree as he’s currently tied for #22 in our preseason staff rankings.
Montee Ball (Denver Broncos): Ball has a lot more in common with Bell than simply a near identical last name. The former Wisconsin battering ram tormented Big Ten defenses for years before also becoming a 2nd round pick for a perennial AFC playoff contender looking to upgrade a suspect running game.
Shorter and lighter than Bell at 5-foot-10 and 215 lbs., Ball compensates for his smaller stature with a determined downhill running style. A rare four-year contributor in Madison, Ball came up 4 yards shy of 1,000 as a sophomore which would have given him an even rarer three collegiate 1,000-yard rushing seasons. As a junior he was absolutely dominant – amassing 1,923 yards on the ground with a ridiculous 33 TD. For good measure he even caught 24 passes for 306 yards and 6 scores. His production tailed off a bit as a senior as he dropped to 1,830 yards (I know, a real big dip) and 22 TD. The thing to note, however, is that it took him 49 more carries to amass 93 fewer yards. The decreased effectiveness saw his YPC slip from a strong 6.3 in 2011 to a good not great (by collegiate standards) 5.1 a year ago. Ball also caught just 10 passes for a paltry 72 yards and 0 TD as a senior, so his polish as a viable receiving option is still in some doubt.
Like Bell, you have to be concerned that Ball’s 924 career carries for the Badgers has him entering the NFL as a high mileage RB before the new car smell wears off. Ball’s ineptitude in pass protection is also worrisome. This is Peyton Manning’s team, and if an RB can’t pick up a blitz read to protect the statuesque franchise QB’s blindside he’s probably not going to see very many snaps.
That’s probably why Ball is currently battling with Ronnie Hillman for first team reps despite likely possessing the more complete skill set. Both Ball and Hillman struggled in the preseason opener against the stout San Francisco defense (Ball – 5 carries, 9 yards and Hillman – 3 carries, 9 yards), so we’ll call it a push right now. And it’s not likely to get much better this week as the Broncos face the even more suffocating Seahawks on Saturday. If Ball fails in pass protection against this attacking defense he could seal his fate as the 2nd option entering the season.
At worst, Ball figures to be the goal line back in Denver from the outset and if nothing else that gives him marginal fantasy value. The Broncos are a prolific offense to say the least, and Manning guides them into the red zone on a regular basis. Given Manning’s lack of mobility (to put it lightly) and the absence of an elite tight end, there figures to be lots of scoring opportunities for an RB inside the 5. And while his 33 TD of 2011 are a distant memory – as are his 22 of a year ago – it’s not unrealistic to think he could plunge in for half that total (similar to what T. Richardson did last year on a far worse team).
An 800-yard, 9-11 TD campaign is realistic, and that kind of seemingly modest output would make Ball a solid low end RB2. That’s why he comes in just behind Bell at #24 on TopTeamFantasy’s staff RB rankings.
Eddie Lacy (Green Bay Packers): Packers Head Coach Mike McCarthy recently came out and stated that journeyman DuJuan Harris is still his starting RB. If that remark was true and not simply a bit of coy gamesmanship then Coach McCarthy needs to clue Lacy in on the pecking order. That’s because the Alabama product is running like a feature back so far this preseason. “Circle Button” – as he’s known for his sick, video game-like spin move – looked sharp in an intra-squad scrimmage two weeks ago and racked up an impressive 51 total yards on 9 touches in his preseason debut against the Rams on Saturday night.
If Lacy does in fact find himself looking up at Harris, Alex Green or James Starks to start the season it won’t be an unfamiliar position. He arrived at Alabama with eventual Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram and the aforementioned T. Richardson ahead of him on the depth chart. All he did in his 2010 collegiate debut was light up San Jose State for 133 rushing yards and 2 TD, and by the end of their respective collegiate careers Lacy was arguably the best of the three Crimson Tide backs. That notion doesn’t bode well for Lacy’s current Green Bay brethren as they’re all vastly inferior to his former Alabama mates. In 2011, while splitting time with Richardson, Lacy finished 6th in the nation with 7.5 YPC. He finally got his chance to start in 2012 and took advantage of the opportunity – rushing for 1,322 yards with 17 TD on the ground and 2 TD receiving. His collegiate career ended with a commanding 140 yards rushing paired with rushing and receiving TDs in the BCS National Championship Game against Notre Dame – a performance that earned him Offensive MVP honors.
The Packers are a winning franchise and Lacy’s pedigree on multiple Alabama national championship squads should help him rise up the depth chart. But like Ball in Denver, Lacy joins a team with a star QB who’s the face of the franchise. Protecting Aaron Rodgers is job #1 for any Green Bay RB, and if Lacy can’t pass protect he won’t play much. Lacy should also be in the same boat as Ball in that at minimum he will likely see the bulk of short yardage carries for the Packers and really should have no problem beating out the retreads standing in his way for regular snaps. His greatest competition for lead back duties is probably fellow rookie Johnathan Franklin (who didn’t make this list due to length but is worth a look around the 9th or 10th round).
We’ll get a better sense where Lacy stands once we see him in preseason action, but for now he comes in at #31 in TopTeamFantasy’s staff RB rankings. That’s with yours truly pulling him down by having him at #36, but I’ll be bumping him up into the #28 range in our upcoming rankings update that has not yet been published at the time of publication (but likely will have been by the time you are reading this).
Giovani Bernard (Cincinnati Bengals): The University of North Carolina is known more for producing hardwood heroes like Jordan, Carter and Stackhouse than it is for churning out gridiron greats. Bernard is hoping to change that.
The explosive 5-foot-9, 208-pound Bernard isn’t listed as being all that smaller than Ball, but he certainly earns his money in different ways. While Ball is a between the tackles bruiser Bernard does his best work in space. That includes a turn as one of the nation’s most lethal punt returners a year ago. In his final season at Chapel Hill, Bernard dropped back to field 16 punts and returned 2 for TDs while amassing a nifty 16.4 YPR. It remains to be seen if the Bengals will use Bernard in the regular season as a return specialist the way the Giants used Wilson a year ago, but if they do it will certainly boost the value (for those of you who’s leagues count return yardage) of an already intriguing Bernard.
The only rookie featured here who arrived in camp with a legitimate incumbent ahead of him in BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Bernard should only need to prove slightly better than breathing to ultimately unseat him. The Law Firm did crack the 1,000-yard mark a year ago, but it was more a result of volume than talent. But despite the lack of upside, Green-Ellis has proven to be a solid NFL back – especially in pass protection. That is the most noticeable area in which Bernard will need to improve over the remainder of the preseason and early regular season to secure consistent action.
Bernard certainly proved up to the task during his brilliant yet brief college career. In two seasons he reached the end zone 25 times on the ground and 6 more on receptions. He also ran for 2,481 yards with a healthy 5.9 YPC. The red flag is that Bernard rushed just 184 times a year ago in the notably weaker ACC. That fact, as well as an ACL tear in 2010, raises serious concerns about whether or not Bernard can ever shoulder the kind of workload required for a NFL bell cow. In my opinion, that’s a status he’s going to need to work toward over time.
That’s why I think Bernard spends most of his rookie season as a compliment to Green-Ellis. Fortunately his 92 career receptions for 852 yards – not to mention his 3 catches for 16 yards in his preseason debut – indicate he can be a valuable asset as a pass catcher. For that reason, I like Bernard out of the gate as a viable low end flex with RB2 upside in standard leagues and slightly more valuable in PPR formats.
Despite being the top RB drafted in April, I think Bernard has the toughest road to fantasy relevance among the rookies featured here. Green-Ellis will make it hard for him to see lead back snaps at first and I worry about his ability to handle the punishment that comes with 15+ touches week in and week out in the NFL. On the contrary, he’s probably the most dynamic of this group and could easily tally the most fantasy points should the Bengals find a suitable role for him. For now he comes in at #30 in TopTeamFantasy’s staff rankings – just ahead of Lacy. I do, however, plan to personally slot Lacy ahead of Bernard in my next update.
Moving the Chains
So to answer our initial question, which of these rookies has the potential to be this year’s Martin?
The answer for me is none of them. Martin had a truly historic rookie year with 319 carries for 1,454 yards and 11 TD. I don’t see any of these guys – with the exception of Bell – getting close to that number of carries either because of the nature of the offense they’re in (passing oriented attacks in Denver and Green Bay) or backfield committees (Cincinnati). And Bell lacks the kind of big play ability to pile up that many yards even with a similar workload. Ball and Lacy will probably come up well short on matching Martin’s yardage but could rival his total of 11 TD. Martin also caught 49 passes for 472 yards for 1 TD – aerial production that likely could only be matched by Bernard and perhaps Lacy.
That means that while all four of these guys could equal Martin’s production in one or two facets of the game none is likely to produce the all-around numbers that made the Muscle Hamster an instant superstar. So while Martin proved to be a steal in the 4th or 5th round last year with his 1st round value, don’t expect lightning to strike again this year. All four of these guys are worth a pick in the 4th through 6th round but should be expected to be nothing more than a solid low end RB2 or flex. If you reach for any of them expecting more than that I believe you’ll be disappointed come Week 17.
What do you think of this year’s rookie RBs? Did I get the analysis right? Did I miss the mark? Let me know in the comments section below.