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5 Running Backs An Injury Away From a Breakout Season

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All it takes is one injury and then some unknown backup puts up a monster year. Know that backup.

Fantasy football is a game won in the margins. Assuming you play in a reasonably competitive league, it’s not good enough anymore to draft your team of big-name players, and sit back and roll with that team the whole season. You need to constantly be on the lookout for hidden value. Sometimes, you even need to identify guys who aren’t valuable yet. That’s where these five guys come in.

Whoever picked up Alfred Morris in your league last year, either at the end of the draft or off the waiver wire in Week One, got a tremendous value. He was second in the NFL in rushing yards and he cost next to nothing to acquire. Morris didn’t necessarily rely on an injury to emerge from the Mike Shanahan running back-by-committee swamp, but he did come basically out of nowhere. No one could’ve reasonably predicted that explosion from Morris on August 1 of last year, but smart fantasy players would’ve at least had him on their radar.

That’s the point of this list – injuries are impossible to predict, so there’s no guarantee any of these runners will even get the chance to get meaningful carries. But they are players to keep an eye on, players who have been remarkably efficient in limited reps, and who are one injury away from a breakout season.

Danny Woodhead

We’ve shown Woodhead love on this site before, but he still has got to be on this list. Factors that go into a potential breakout candidate are A) is the player actually talented and B) is the player backing up a guy who might falter, for whatever reason? Woodhead’s answer to both is a resounding yes.

Woodhead is now in San Diego, where he has the pleasure of backing up Ryan Mathews. In three pro seasons, Mathews has started more than 10 games exactly once, in 2011. At this point, when he signs his check at restaurants, his signature has a little red Q next to it. He’s rarely healthy, and even when he’s played, his performance has dipped, evidenced by his paltry 3.8 yards per carry last year. Woodhead might not even need Mathews to get hurt to see plenty of playing time.

Even in the unlikely event Mathews stays on the field all season, Woodhead should still get plenty of playing time. He’s already the third down back, and he brings substantial skills as a receiver. But don’t sleep on Woodhead’s rushing ability; in 75 attempts last year, he put up .09 Net Expected Points (NEP)/attempt. Adrian Peterson had .10. (NEP refers to how many points a given player added or subtracted from his team on a given play. Rushing NEP is fickle, because runners have very different roles, and high volume tends to work against backs. Basically, Woodhead was nearly as effective in his role as Peterson was in his very different role. Don’t worry, we know AP is way better than Danny Woodhead.)

That’s no outlier either: Woodhead posted NEPs of .11 and .25 in 2011 and 2010, respectively. When he’s gotten the chance to run, he’s been wildly effective. Combine that with his pass-catching abilities and Woodhead might be worth a flex spot even if Mathews is playing. If Mathews goes down, see if you can pounce on Woodhead right away.

Kendall Hunter

Does anyone think Frank Gore is getting 258 carries again this season? Gore’s actually had more than 200 carries every season since his rookie year, but now he’s on the wrong side of 30, and fantasy owners are increasing wary, as evidenced by Gore’s slip into the third round, per fantasyfootballcalculator.com.

But San Francisco is really good at running the ball, and someone has to get the carries this year. Last year the Niners finished second in the NFL in adjusted rushing NEP/play, just behind Washington. (Adjusted NEP/play takes into account opponent and situation. A 100-yard rushing day against Chicago is not the same as a 100-yard game against New Orleans.) Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards metric pegged the 49ers as the best offensive line in the league.

Which all brings us to Hunter. Everyone knows San Francisco is great at running the ball and loves to do it. Everyone thinks that this is finally the year Frank Gore breaks down. You do the math. LaMichael James is the other sexy name in that backfield, thanks to his big years in college, but it’s actually Hunter listed second on the depth chart.

Plus, he’s been extremely effective in his limited opportunities. In his 72 attempts, he ran for 371 yards on a stellar 5.2 yards per carry. And his longest run was just 26 yards, so there’s no outlier that skews the data. His NEP/attempt was an outstanding .19, which shows that nearly every time Hunter touched the ball, he produced a positive outcome for his team.

Despite all of this, Hunter is the 57th running back coming off draft boards, behind his inferior backfield-mate James and, somehow, three different St. Louis backs. Like anyone on this list, there’s no guarantee Hunter will put up a monster fantasy season, but just don’t act surprised if Gore goes down and Hunter puts up 1,000 yards. All the ingredients are there.

Bilal Powell

Look, you really shouldn’t be drafting anyone from the tire fire that is the Jets offense. And you probably shouldn’t be drafting Powell either. But you better at least know who he is.

In case you forgot, he's the running back in the muddled Jets backfield who got the most carries last season. He got 110 for New York, but he is presumed to be the back up to former Saint Chris Ivory, who hasn’t even won the job yet. Ivory hasn’t topped 100 carries since 2010, but to be fair, he was stuck in the low volume quagmire that is the New Orleans backfield.

The Jets backfield is anything but low volume, even if they aren’t particularly good at running the ball. Last season, New York ran the ball 494 times, good for 6th in the league. (They averaged a mere 3.8 ypc, which put them in a five-way tie for 23rd.) That marked the second time in three years the Jets had been in the top six in rushing attempts. The other was in 2010, when they finished second in the league with 534 attempts.

Given their quarterback options, it’s a pretty safe bet that New York will keep running the ball. Do you think Chris freaking Ivory is going to get 500 carries? Someone has to carry the ball, and Powell is left over as the incumbent with the most experience and success. Sure, he only averaged 4.0 yards per carry on his 110 rushes last year, but hey, volume counts for something. If he gets 170-200 carries, that’s not for nothing, and he could be valuable if you’re thin at RB.

He’s currently not even among the top 60 running backs drafted (still behind all those Rams!) so you probably won’t even need to spend a pick on him. But keep his name in the back of your head, and don’t act shocked when he keeps showing up in box scores with 15 carries. The Jets are going to be running all day.

Ben Tate

Tate always shows up on these lists. Not sure if that’s a good thing, in that everyone recognizes his talent, or a bad thing, since he’s always stuck behind Arian Foster. Either way, he faces the same obstacle this season he always has: he backs up the second-best running back in football. But that obstacle is coming off a season with a whopping 351 carries, which puts him at an incredible 956 carries in the last three seasons, or just over 318 per year.

If you’re buying stock in an Arian Foster down year, prices have never been higher. Even if he doesn’t get hurt, the Texans will probably scale back his workload (at least they should) and those extra touches are all going to Tate.

Our metrics love him: .06 NEP/rush in 2012 and .05 in 2011. Traditional stats reflect a good player too. His yards per carry was 5.4 in 2011 before it dropped to 4.2 last year, thanks in part to injuries. He’s entering camp completely healthy, and is already taking reps with the first team while Foster nurses a calf injury.

Tate will definitely get drafted in your league (he’s the 36th running back off the board currently) maybe even by Foster’s owner as a handcuff. But if Foster goes down, Tate has the potential to go off for 1,000 yards.

Shane Vereen

Shane Vereen is going to get plenty of run in New England as is, with the turnover in skill position players and Bill Belichek’s love of pooling running backs. Just know that our numbers speak incredibly highly of Vereen, to the tune of a .11 NEP/rush. New England actually had the second-most rushing attempts in the league last season, and Stevan Ridley is coming off a scary injury in the AFC Championship Game against the Ravens.

Ridley has also caught a grand total of 9 passes over the last two years, so he’s not going to replace Woodhead’s pass-catching threat out of the backfield. That’s likely to be Vereen, who may get the third down snaps in addition to periodic series where he’s the primary runner.

Like the Jets, the Patriots are going to run the ball a whole lot and they need backs to pick up carries. Unlike the Jets, the Patriots are reasonably good at running the ball, and they have multiple talented backs. Of this group, Vereen will cost the most (he’s currently the 31st running back coming off draft boards) but he also plays in the best offense, and is the most likely to see consistent playing time. If Ridley goes down early, Vereen could take his spot as a top-15 running back.

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In This Article

Adrian Peterson
RB, Minnesota Vikings

Arian Foster
RB, Houston Texans

Bilal Powell
RB, New York Jets

Danny Woodhead
RB, San Diego Chargers

Kendall Hunter
RB, San Francisco 49ers

Ryan Mathews
RB, San Diego Chargers

Shane Vereen
RB, New England Patriots

Stevan Ridley
RB, New England Patriots

Ben Tate
RB, Houston Texans

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