Fantasy Preview: Running Back Competitions

RB Training Camp Battles to watch in 2014

Training camp battles are always important for Fantasy owners to pay attention to, as many of the late round gems often emerge out of these camp battles.  This year, there is no shortage of offensive skill position battles that could have a big impact on your draft.  

Additionally, with Dynasty Owner, the salary element makes for an even more compelling drama.  In most scenarios, Dynasty Owners are rooting for the player with the more cap friendly contract to win the battle, especially if it's someone they think can have a break out performance.  This is usually the case with young guys or rookies still on their first NFL contract.  Getting a breakout performer early in their rookie contract can make a huge impact on your Dynasty franchise.  So be sure to watch these camp battles closely heading into the pre-season games.  Last week we highlighted QB battles to watch, this week we tackle the RB position.

Raiders: Darren McFadden/Maurice Jones-Drew

Maurice Jones-Drew

Oakland Raiders: Two accomplished backs who have shown flashed of fantasy dominance (in MJDs case for an extended period), this will probably be the highest profile camp battle at the RB position.  Let's first take a look at the contracts:

  • McFadden ($1.65 MM/Yr)
  • MJD ($2.5 MM/yr)

Both are surprisingly low and absorbable contracts, and the difference against the salary cap will be nominal.  So this will come down to a pure performance assessment in camp, to see who you will want to target on draft day.  Looking at the average draft position data available at , Jones-Drew is going at 7.10 (seventh round, 10th pick) and McFadden at 8.08.

Many experts also think MJD will actually win the battle out of camp, but the Raiders secretly want McFadden to elevate his game and take the job.  Still just 26 years old, the former number 4 overall pick has shown flashes of brilliance but has struggled to stay healthy and consistent and last year was a disaster.

If MJD does win the job out of camp, the 29 year-old has some upside despite having a lot of tread on the tires.  He figures to be more of a bellcow type while McFadden winning the job would probably mean more of a rotation at the onset. If both backs can stay healthy in camp and during the exhibition season, look for a 60/40 time share out of the gates with MJD getting the 60% early on.  But Dynasty Owners will want the electrifying McFadden to quickly become the unquestioned leader in the backfield, this year and for the next several years to come, although it should be noted it will be for a much heftier price tag as McFadden is on a 1-year prove himself type deal.  If he has a big season, a big payday (relatively speaking for RBs) will be imminent next year.

The only thing OTAs showed us about this competition and the Raiders philosophy in general is everything is being explored, even the two running backs doing special teams duties.  Maybe that's the fastest way to get one of them injured so the decision is made for them.

Who will win the job: MJD

Who fantasy owners should want to win the job: McFadden

Long Term Outlook: As mentioned above, Dynasty Owners should want McFadden to become the unquestioned #1 RB in Oakland again.  MJD is on the downside of his career and RBs over 30 never just turn it around once they lose it.  The big question will be what will a productive season mean for McFadden, as his 1 year deal will certainly motivate him to try and get a pay day on the strength of this year's numbers.

Dolphins:  Moreno/Miller/Thomas

Dolphins: Coming into the offseason this looked like Moreno's job to lose, as he was easily the highest profile RB to hit the free agent market.  But that all changed when Moreno showed up out of shape and apparently injured as he's just gone under the knife and got his knee scoped.    As's Michael Fabiano puts it, this is catastrophic for the newly signed RB and his fantasy value.

While the dolphins are saying Moreno should be ready for camp, odds are this will do nothing but set his conditioning back even further, and give Lamar Miller a clear look at being the unquestioned number 1 back to start the season.  Miller was subpar in the role last year, but this looks like a case of having little competition for carries as the only other threat is the plodding Daniel Thomas who was worse than Miller last season.

This isn't a great situation overall, but Miller has a chance to get significant carries early on and any time that is the case Fantasy Owners need to monitor the situation.  

  • Moreno ($3 MM/Yr)
  • Miller ($2.5 MM/yr)
  • Thomas ($800k /yr)

Who will win the job: Lamar Miller

Who fantasy owners should want to win the job: Lamar Miller

Long Term Outlook:  Miller looks like the favorite in 2014 but we don't like any of these options beyond this year, and you need to account for that in your dynasty planning.  Obviously the Dolphins thought they needed an upgrade at the RB position and thus went out and signed Moreno at a hefty price when there weren't any other suitors or a strong RB market.  That decision is looking really bad, but the underlying need will remain and we think the Dolphins will probably end up spending a high draft pick next year to finally address a need they have had since the Ricky Williams days.  View Miller and his $2.5MM contract as nothing more than a stop-gap option this year.

Browns:  Ben Tate/Terrance West

The browns figure to run the ball early and often in Kyle Shanahan's RB friendly scheme that made Alfred Morris into a top fantasy option the last couple years in Washington, which is why this is an RB battle you need to pay close attention to.

  • Terrance West ($600k / Yr)
  • Ben Tate ($3.1MM / Yr)

By the time drafts roll around, West will almost certainly be an overhyped 'sleeper' pick, and we actually think the best result of that will be Ben Tate falling and being a steal in drafts.

If OTAs were any indication, it's going to be Tate's job to lose and while West will be used heavily in the rotation, we think this will be a classic case of the rookie hype machine causing the backup to be drafted too high and the starter to be a discount.  We also recommend a draft strategy where you can secure both RBs, as either back with a full workload projects to a top 12 RB ranking.

There is no denying that long term, Terrance West is the RB to own as his low cap number and perfect fit offense can mean huge value.  But we don't see that being the case in the 2014 season, so make sure Ben Tate isn't overlooked on draft day and do yourself a favor and draft both of them to your Dynasty Owner franchise.

Who will win the job out of camp:  Ben Tate

Who fantasy owners should want to win the job:  Terrance West

Long Term Outlook:  West is the clear target from a Dynasty Owner perspective.  We think he'll be one of the top performing RBs in terms of Dynasty Dollars / pt for the next 4 years (the duration of his rookie contract).  Remember, Ben Tate is only signed on a 2 year deal so it appears the door is wide open for the RB1 job to be West's for the next 4-5 years if he can perform like we think he will.

Bills:  Jackson / Spiller / Brown

In what was already a crowded backfield with just Spiller and Fred Jackson, the Bills adding Bryce Brown to the mix only complicates the rotation.  However, Bills running backs have had such success in recent years (2nd ranked rushing unit in the NFL last year) it's a battle fantasy owners must watch and probably handcuff themselves with as soon as they decide to draft Spiller (the RB who will go highest barring training camp injury).  Here are the contracts:

  • CJ Spiller ($5.00MM / Yr)
  • Fred Jackson ($4MM / Yr)
  • Bryce Brown ($500k / Yr)

Spiller was a huge disappointment last season, though starts the season healthy and motivated to prove last year was a fluke.  It's the same story with him every year, if he can stay healthy he can be a top 5 RB even with a rotation.  But at this point, we doubt we'll ever see the season where Spiller stays healthy for a significant portion of the season.

Fred Jackson is a year older and ancient running back standards (33 years old) , but still figures to be prominent and effective in the Bills offense as long as he can also stay healthy.  But the addition of Bryce Brown is the wildcard factor here.  He profiles similar to Jackson between the tackles but is also a very effective pass catcher out of the backfield like Spiller, so it will be very interesting to see who his arrival affects more.

The worst case scenario is that all 3 running backs water down the upside and share touches amongst them.  But this won't last, remember fantasy owners last year were scrambling for Tashard Choice by the middle and end of last season.  If history is any indicator, a primary RB option will emerge based on injury and any of these three options will be a strong RB1 option week in and week out with the majority of the carries.  If that happens to be Bryce Brown, he could be a steal for a measly $500k per year contract in a very strong rushing offense.  

Who will win the job out of camp:  CJ Spiller

Who fantasy owners should want to win the job:  Bryce Brown

Long Term Outlook: Bryce Brown taking over the RB1 duties this year would certainly spell the end of the Fred Jackson / CJ Spiller era and that might not be a bad thing given how unreliable the duo has been in fantasy.   Brown has 2 years left on his rookie deal and then figures to get a big bump if he performs and becomes the lead RB in Buffalo, but for those two years you'd be hard pressed to find a cheaper source of potentially elite production if he gets the chance to carry the ball 15+ times / game this year.