4 Running Backs with Big Opportunities to Exceed Expectations

Opportunity is important for running backs, and these four players are flying under the radar despite good situations.

Here at numberFire, we like efficiency. Our Net Expected Points metrics measure how much a player adds or subtracts from his team's production, rather than focusing on raw data which can so frequently deceive.

But fantasy football is won through a combination of both. Bad players in good situations can win fantasy leagues, and good players in bad situations will rot away on a fantasy football bench. This is why Tim Tebow won many a fantasy football championship a few years ago, while fantasy owners struggled to figure out which of the handful of Broncos' skill position players to use last season.

Opportunity is especially important at the running back position, where the era of committees running the football has arrived, and the age of the workhorse, bell-cow back has passed us by.

Last season, 35 backs carried the ball 150 or more times, but only two players (LeSean McCoy and Marshawn Lynch) topped 300 rushing attempts. Compare that to 10 years ago, when 13 backs saw 300 or more carries, but only 31 saw 150 or more. The playing field at running back has shifted, and for fantasy purposes, it's no longer good enough to simply cross off the starter on every running back depth chart as your draft unfolds.

We're living in a fantasy football world where two Detroit Lions backs are going before any one back from the Baltimore Ravens, Atlanta Falcons, Miami Dolphins, Oakland Raiders and New Orleans Saints. We're drafting in a climate where a team's best "third-down" back (Shane Vereen) is being taken ahead of the team's first-choice ball-carrier (Stevan Ridley).

Opportunity means more than just "is he the starter or not?" For fantasy football, opportunity is a complex concept that's difficult to predict, but valuable when understood.

Here are four backs currently being taken in Round 10 or later (according to Fantasy Football Calculator) who have increased potential due to the opportunities they have in 2014.

DeAngelo Williams, Carolina Panthers

Admit it, you've probably made fun of the Carolina Panthers' receivers at some point this summer. As a Buccaneer fan, I admit that I did quite a few times. But the reality of the offensive situation in Carolina is that the wide receivers haven't been good in quite a long time.

The last time the Panthers had two wideouts catch 60 or more passes was 2008, when Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad accomplished that feat. Since then, running backs and tight ends have been heavily involved in the offense, with Smith representing the only real threat at the receiver position.

That's where DeAngelo Williams gets his opportunity. With question marks at wideout and no new competition at running back, Williams and long-time running mate Jonathan Stewart will see more of the work out of the backfield for Carolina.

Williams (somewhat) jokingly told NFL Network earlier this year that "I went from probably being drafted in the fifth or sixth round to being in the first round, me and Jonathan alike, because we have no receivers." But the reality is that Williams isn't being picked until the 10th round, and Stewart is being selected even later.

The Panthers had the fifth-most run-heavy offense last season, calling 1.07 passing plays to every 1 rushing play. Compared to league average, this means the Panthers ran 60-80 more running plays over the course of the season. That won't change, as the offense is built around the mobility of Cam Newton and the flexibility of having multiple capable backs to split the workload.

Williams is being taken in as running back 43, and last season, the 43rd-best running back (Shane Vereen) didn't even play the whole year, and saw only 91 touches. Other backs in that scoring range include James Starks, Roy Helu, Daniel Thomas and Marcel Reece, who all saw only sporadic time on the field due to injury or competition from other players.

Which means the "risk" of taking Williams is already baked into his ADP. He's being taken at a spot in the draft where he's not expected to be a full-time player. But if he gets 150 carries (something he's done each of the past three years) and adds in 20 receptions (something he's done five times in his eight year career), he'll have more than enough opportunities to shatter his ADP value and be a very strong selection as a "bench" running back.

And last year, as a back receiving mid-tier usage, he performed well compared to his peers. Among runners with 150-250 carries, Williams ranked eighth out of 25 players in our Rushing NEP metric. That meant his production as a runner trumped Ben Tate, Zac Stacy, Bobby Rainey and others, something that should continue into 2014.

Our numbers currently have him ranked as the 27th-best running back in fantasy.

Shonn Greene, Tennessee Titans

The Tennessee Titans drafted Bishop Sankey, and he instantly became the object of fantasy footballer affection, earning a high ADP and praises as the best fantasy rookie back this season. And while that may be all well and true, there is something many are overlooking.

There's another guy in Tennessee with an inside track at a big opportunity in that offense, and at a much lower price. Shonn Greene is currently not listed on the FFC ADP page, meaning he's not drafted frequently enough to register an ADP in their system. And according to MyFantasyLeague's ADP, Greene is going as the 58th back off the board, in the 16th round on average.

This is an incredible value for a player who has received plenty of work throughout his career, and delivered with solid production according to our metrics. Greene has always produced well in our Success Rate statistic, which measures how often a player gains positive NEP for his team. Greene has never had incredible overall production, but his consistency has been noteworthy.

In fact, every one three of Greene's five NFL seasons saw him earn a Success Rate that would have finished in the top 12 in the NFL last season among backs with 75 carries or more. This, of course, includes Greene himself, who finished 11th in 2013 among that qualified group.

Yes, Bishop Sankey is the back of the future in Tennessee, and Jackie Battle will compete with Greene for carries. But Greene is the better back with a proven track record, and he should meet his current ADP value with ease. He finished in the mid-50s among backs last year in only 11 games, and his current ADP reflects that output. Without Chris Johnson, and with health (which is the biggest question for Greene at this point), the former Jet should fly past that value and be a very valuable end-of-draft selection. In fact, we have him listed as the 38th-best back.

Devonta Freeman and Jacquizz Rodgers, Atlanta Falcons

Last month, I wrote this article proclaiming the end of Steven Jackson's time as a featured back in the NFL. His career workload has already caught up to him, and there's no reason to believe that a late-career resurgence is going to happen for the worn out former Ram.

So that means opportunity for those on the depth chart behind Jackson, which opens the door for Florida State rookie Devonta Freeman. According to Fantasy Football Calculator's data, Freeman is currently being drafted in the 10th round as the 45th back off the board. Is that the right price for the new Falcon rusher?

It could be if Steven Jackson has to hand over the reigns of the offense to Freeman. Our current projections have Freeman as the 59th-best back in the league for fantasy purposes, but on only 76 carries. These same projections assume 230 carries for Jackson, and 73 for Jacquizz Rodgers. But if Jackson can't handle that big of a workload, and it's likely he can't, both Freeman and Rodgers will benefit.

And even a 50% increase in his projected carries, bringing him to approximately 115, would be enough to bring him up to his current ADP range of the mid-40s.

In other words, the uncertainty about Jackson's future in the NFL already seems to have boosted Freeman's ADP, meaning he's not the value he once was. But it hasn't boosted Rodgers' ADP yet, and that means he is the player to target.

Currently going undrafted in most drafts, Quizz is a little more than a freebie pick at the very end of the board. He, too, will pick up carries in the likely event that Steven Jackson has to take a step back, and his current value doesn't reflect that fact.

Add in his prowess as a receiving back and his veteran advantage over Freeman, and it's pretty easy to see that a clear path to opportunity and a skill set that suits the pass-happy Atlanta offense will help you get more than enough value out of the currently under-drafted Rodgers.