3 Running Back Battles to Watch as the Preseason Closes Out

With the season approaching, find out which running back battles are weighing heavily on future fantasy success.

With the NFL season just around the corner, it’s that special time of the year – draft time. Many of you are quickly making last second notes, looking at sites’ rankings and reading article after article at numberFire (right?). By now, most of you have a feeling about which players you're targeting in the early rounds. But what about the late-round fliers, the players who might go undrafted or the guys who haven't quite grabbed their starting gig yet?

Well, that’s what we’re here for.

With two preseason weeks in the books, positional battles are heating up as players make last-ditched efforts to climb the ranks, or even just make the 53-man roster. Here are three battles at the running back position to keep a close eye on, as opening kickoff approaches.

1. Maurice Jones-Drew vs. Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders

The Case for Maurice Jones-Drew

According to our metrics from last year, Maurice Jones-Drew had his worst season as a professional football player. He finished 2013 with a -21.21 Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP), which ranked 37th out of 43 running backs with at least 110 carries.

While this was an awful year for MJD’s standards (or anyone’s for that matter), it can be argued that his lowly 2013 can be credited to his poor offensive line in Jacksonville, which ranked last in run-blocking according to Pro Football Focus. Even with his poor Rushing NEP and atrocious blocking, Jones-Drew still managed to finish the year ranked 20th in standard scoring. In limited work this preseason, Jones-Drew has rushed eight times for 22 yards and added three receptions for 36 yards.

The Case for Darren McFadden

We all know the story with Darren McFadden - all the talent in the world, yet the man can't stay healthy. McFadden has averaged about 11 games player per year over his six year NFL career. As if that’s not bad enough, he finished 2013 with a Rushing NEP of -17.49, only three spots above new teammate, Jones-Drew.

There are some bright spots to McFadden’s case though. Sort of. In five of the 10 games he played in last year, he rushed the ball seven or fewer times. In the other five, he averaged 17.6 carries, 56 yards and 0.8 touchdowns per game. Three of those five games (Week 1, Week 2 and Week 8) were top-12 finishes. So far this preseason, McFadden has rushed nine times for 50 yards, one of which was a 23-yard dash in the Oakland Raiders’ first game.

Bottom Line

I actually believe the addition of Jones-Drew in Oakland helps both running backs. It takes the physical toll away from having to be a bell cow (which is limited in today’s game anyway). This particularly helps McFadden, who now doesn't have to subject himself to too many runs inside the tackles.

Last year, the Oakland Raiders had 341 non-quarterback rushes. The year before that, they totaled 346 rushes. It's safe to assume another 340-plus carry year is in store, especially with the two talented runners they have, and the inept/inexperienced quarterback play on the horizon. We can expect a split between these two running backs, so long as they both stay healthy. With that said, I don’t see McFadden averaging 17 carries a game like his five productive 2013 weeks required. However, what I can see is Jones-Drew getting close to last season’s totals of 230 rushes. It is for this reason I am taking Jones-Drew, with his late seventh round Average Draft Position (ADP), over McFadden, who comes at an even cheaper price of the late ninth round. Our numbers seem to agree.

2. Alfred Blue vs. Jonathan Grimes, Houston Texans

The Case for Alfred Blue

Blue has the physical tools and stature to be a productive back in the league. He stands 6’2”, 220 pounds - his size and style are extremely comparable to those of Texans starting running back, Arian Foster.

Blue is an instinctive runner with plus vision. He’s not the quickest back in the league, nor is going to burn anybody down the sideline. What Blue will do for you though is not dance around in the backfield. He doesn’t have the “pitter-patter” - like we’ve seen from young runners like Trent Richardson - when deciding on which hole to hit.

This is the reason he averaged six yards per carry during his time at LSU. It can also be attributed to his 4.7 yards per carry average during his first two preseason games. Albeit is preseason and not all his carries came against the first team, he did have some meaningful snaps against the ones in the Texans’ second preseason game against the Atlanta Falcons. In the preseason so far, Blue has rushed 11 times for 52 yards with one goal-line touchdown. He's also added three receptions for 10 yards.

The Case for Jonathan Grimes

Grimes is entering his third season in the NFL. Last year, in extremely limited time with the Texans, Grimes rushed 21 times for 73 yards, good for 3.5 yards per carry. Grimes did finish the year with 0.06 Rushing NEP per play, which ranked 16th of all backs with at least 20 carries. While the volume was limited, it shows Grimes can be semi-effective when given the opportunity. This preseason, Grimes has 19 carries, 81 rushing yards, 3 receptions and 25 receiving yards.

The Bottom Line

My bold prediction in a previous, collaborative numberFire article was that Alfred Blue would finished the second half of the 2014 season as a top-20 running back, and I stand by that prediction. The only advantage I see Grimes having over Blue, at this point, is experience. Grimes was cut from the Jaguars two years ago and saw limited action last year. At the end of the day, talent could win out, and I believe Blue to be a more talented back than Grimes. This is one of the more intriguing battles of the preseason; should Foster go down, the winner looks to see significant time and opportunity. Seeing as both players are currently going undrafted, I’m taking the flier on Blue.

3. Jacquizz Rodgers vs. Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons

The Case for Jacquizz Rodgers

Jacquizz Rodgers has been a solid backup for the Atlanta Falcons over the past couple of years. But that’s about it – a solid backup. However, where he makes his money is in the passing game. In 2012 and 2013, Quizz caught 53 and 52 passes, respectively. This is solid consistency in the passing game, which looks to be a good sign for the future. In fact, in the four games he started in place of an injured Steven Jackson, he averaged five receptions per game. Although Rodgers did finish on the low end, with a Reception NEP per target of 0.21 (24th out of 30 back with at least 32 receptions), he did manage to catch the 14th most passes of any running back last year. But is this all Rodgers is good for?

The Case for Devonta Freeman

Freeman may be small, but he’s by no means a chump. The 5'8" back comes in at 206 pounds. To put it in perspective, that’s only four pounds lighter than Frank Gore when he entered the league in 2005 – a player we typically consider to be a bruiser.

Over his past two seasons at Florida State, Freeman averaged almost six yards per carry and found the end zone 14 times in 2013. In his two preseason games, Freeman has rushed 16 times for 81 yards, with an impressive touchdown run against the Texans that was nullified by a holding penalty. He’s also caught two passes for 68 yards. While getting a little work with the first team, Freeman has been extremely productive this off-season as a do-it-all back.

Bottom Line

As with Blue in Houston, I think it’s only a matter of time before a more talented rookie surpasses his competition on the depth chart. While Rodgers is a fine pass catcher, this seems to be all he can do at this level. He has a career 3.6 average yards per carry, as well as unappealing rush totals over his three years. As mentioned above, in the four games he started in 2013, he did exceptional as a receiver, yet was underwhelming in the rushing department, running for an average of 44 yards per game on 12 carries.

Freeman is a much more complete back, whose only obstacle at this point is learning the nuances and fundamentals of the game at an NFL level. Freeman does come with a ninth-round price tag, but given the potential, it's not a terrible idea to buy.