Targeting the proper handcuffs and complements for every backfield can win a fantasy football league. Some ground games are straightforward, like the Houston Texans' Arian Foster-Ben Tate hierarchy. Some, however, require digging and forecasting.
Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, Brandon Jacobs, LaMichael James
Long shot: Anthony Dixon
In Shanny's perfect world....
San Fran will let Alex Smith throw more, but they're run-first. Objective: Keep 29-year-old Gore fresh coming off the second biggest tote workload (282) and ground yardage total (1,211) in his career in only his second 16-game campaign.
Meet his suddenly crowded supporting cast. Jacobs, if he makes the team, would be a thunder option, including around the goal line. He inherits a better offensive line for north-south bruisers, but he's 30 and a slow-down risk.
Hunter ranks as the closest thing to a Gore handcuff. Despite questions about his build, he showed last year he could rove between the tackles thanks to his strong lower body. The explosive James is built almost like Hunter and will compete with him for third-down work; the rook has shown weaker interior running or pass blocking, though Jim Harbaugh could favor him because, while with Oregon, James tore up coach's Stanford Cardinal.
Even with the crowd, this year's Gore could yield a solid return if you can nab him as an RB2 in, say, the fourth round, acknowledging the typical injury and performance risks. The backups rank merely as final-round fliers.
Tim Hightower, Evan Royster, Roy Helu
Long shot: Alfred Morris
The poster child for running back roulette, the vindictive Mike Shanahan likes to shuffle the inhabitants of his zone-blocking scheme.
Hightower, on paper, is Shanny's perfect back, with his one-cut style, stable pass blocking and veteran presence. Of course, his No. 1 place on the preseason depth chart hides his dull running, all things equal, and he's recovering from a tear of the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
Royster looks like the best back in camp, and he's an optimal combo of fresh legs, fit and familiarity, despite being a second-year guy. Unfortunately, his second gear isn't prominent, either. Helu has the highest ceiling, but the coaching staff worries that he can't carry a full workload or protect franchise QB Robert Griffin III.
Though he's technically the No. 1, Hightower is hardly a safe choice in anything before your last few rounds. Royster would start gaining more hype with successful tune-up games. Snagging him as an RB5 would be fine. Helu still might be overvalued in many circles - notably PPRs - but increasing negativity could lower his price.
Latching on to an option from here is all about timing; at any point during the year, the best commodity might be on your league's waiver wire and worth a tuck-away. Unscrambling this backfield might be a tad easier if you're drafting later this month. Of course, it's more likely to be a puzzle throughout the season.
Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert
Stewart or Williams could be the lead back for many other squads. While this is a dream backfield for the Panthers, it's a nightmare for fantasy players, especially since Rob Chudzinski has cultivated a formidable passing attack. As if the presence of Tolbert, Ryan Mathews' vulture last year, wasn't enough to jeopardize the goal line chances for the top two backs, remember, Cam Newton, despite his ability to open up the ground game for others, takes the snaps and controls things near the end zone.
The authoritative J-Stew is also quite elusive, and he's far and away the better PPR option of the two, considering his utility on passing downs. Much of Williams' production comes on big plays, which combined with the "many mouths" situation makes him less predictable.
This is quite the hot-hand situation, which will leave you out in the cold if you consider Stewart and Williams anything more than RB3s on draft day. Ideally, they're handcuffed, but if you own both you'll spend plenty of time wondering whether it's acceptable to play both instead of choosing one. You're better off building up your backfield with three options and then taking a chance on landing one of these two, just for the lotto ticket that would occur if the other gets hurt.
Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Danny Woodhead
Long shot: Brandon Bolden
Sproles, then ... good luck
Ridley's build makes him the most prototypical feature back to take over BenJarvus Green-Ellis' role, but in their committee work, the Pats are like the Redskins, except that the run game is typically even less of a priority.
In his rookie year, Ridley committed some key fumbles late in the year that resulted in his postseason exile. He's also a rhythm back that's not a smart bet to see workhorse reps. But he's the closest thing they have to a short-yardage and touchdown-sniffing option, and that counts for something as you get to the middle rounds, where he'll likely sit ripe for the taking.
The return of Josh McDaniels' offense likely means an increase in screen plays. Vereen, who succumbed to various injuries last year, and Woodhead will factor into the passing sets; Woodhead is the most traditional third-down protector and has the most trust of the coaching staff in a pass-first offense, but he's not draftable in most leagues because of his unpredictable stat patterns.
New England wants to see what the shifty Vereen offers. He's similar to Woodhead but is a much better inside runner more designed to take a beating; he's widely considered more naturally talented than Ridley.
Vereen is the second fantasy choice worth a trial in the final few stanzas; if Ridley's fumbling problems pop back up, the other rookie back from New England's 2011 class could easily step up.
Darren Sproles, Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory
The ground game is secondary in the Big Easy, but the diminutive, reception-happy Sproles will be on the field most of the time as the top option and serves as an RB2, safer as a 3, in PPRs.
The battle for secondary work between the three alternatives complicates the speculative rounds. Ingram's health might take away the need to have so many dump-offs to the scat backs. Those little screens were substitutes for a plow they now have. Though Pete Carmichael working without mentor Sean Payton won't veer too far off course, maybe the OC will stay on the ground and slow things down more often. They need a little balance, after all.
Thomas had 50 catches last year while picking up scraps. With Robert Meachem gone, enough targets could open up for him to yield flex contributions a few weeks during the season. He's the most versatile of the backs and would benefit from an injury to either specialist.
Ivory's fortunes are tied to Ingram's health, and he'll remain waiver-wire material until that works in his favor.
Reggie Bush, Daniel Thomas, Lamar Miller
Long shot: Steve Slaton
The reception-friendly Bush will love this offense, which will get the ball in his hands through the air quickly and often. Bush showed more punch between the tackles in 2011, but he's not a consistent 1,000-yard rusher. Tony Sparano's pounding system is gone.
Though Mike Sherman has a history of cultivating workhorse-like backs, expect Miami to limit Bush's reps and play to his slasher strengths, knowing that it's a risk to expect another 15-game campaign from him. Joe Philbin said he's "not locked into one guy carrying the ball 23 times and the next guy carrying it seven."
A healthy Thomas would facilitate that diversity. Knee and hamstring woes - along with a woeful O-line - kept him from showing the snappy running they were hoping for. The bruiser will serve as the direct changeup to Bush and is draftable based on changeup work that could be flex-worthy.
Contrasting Thomas' style, Miller is a home run threat that could find himself lining up as a singleback with Bush at wideout. Still, Miller's reps will be fantasy significant only with a Bush injury - hardly a stretch, but hardly a reason to take a confident stab on draft day in normal-sized leagues.
Ahmad Bradshaw, David Wilson, Danny Ware, Da'Rel Scott
Long shot: Andre Brown
Bradshaw will still have help
The G-Men rushing game finished dead last in the league last year, thanks in part to a roughshod offensive line. Don't forget the erratic running and health of Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs, though. The Big Blue let Jacobs walk and drafted first-rounder Wilson in his place.
Bradshaw is the leader here, but count on something closer to 200 totes and not the 276 he received in 2010; they want to make sure he's conserved, considering he plays in the system the best. He's going hard at practice now but he'll ease off a bit during the season, considering the fragility of his feet.
Those concerns kept the Giants focused on employing a committee behind him to cover the gaps in play. Wilson, who's listed as the RB2, boasts a mix of agility and size that makes him a fresher, more versatile version of Jacobs. His isn't far off from Bradshaw's skill set, either. This fresh horse needs to be broken, though; Wilson, per Bradshaw, is going a bit hard in drills and putting his body under more stress than he should at this point in camp.
Ware, Brown and Scott should compete for reps but aren't draftable yet, considering how high New York is on their new Giant.
Possible time shares
- Denver Broncos (Willis McGahee, Ronnie Hillman, Knowshon Moreno)
- Detroit Lions (Kevin Smith, Mikel Leshoure, Jahvid Best INJ)
- Green Bay Packers (James Starks, Alex Green, Brandon Saine)
- Indianapolis Colts (Donald Brown, Delone Carter, Vick Ballard)
- Pittsburgh Steelers (Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, Rashard Mendenhall PUP)
- Baltimore Ravens (Ray Rice, Bernard Pierce)
- Dallas Cowboys (DeMarco Murray, Felix Jones, Phillip Tanner)
- Houston Texans (Arian Foster, Ben Tate)
- New York Jets (Shonn Greene, Joe McKnight, Bilal Powell)
- Oakland Raiders (Darren McFadden, Mike Goodson, Taiwan Jones)
- Philadelphia Eagles (LeSean McCoy, Dion Lewis, Bryce Brown)
- San Diego Chargers (Ryan Mathews, Ronnie Brown)
- Seattle Seahawks (Marshawn Lynch, Robert Turbin)
- Tennessee Titans (Chris Johnson, Javon Ringer)
Tim's work has been featured by USA Today/Sports Weekly, among numerous outlets, and recognized as a finalist in the Fantasy Sports Writers Association awards. The Boston University alum, who competes in the prestigious LABR and Tout Wars, has won numerous industry leagues in both baseball and football.
He appears frequently, including every Sunday, on Sirius XM Fantasy Sports Radio, as well as every Wednesday on 1570 AM WNST in Baltimore.