A Review of the 2014 Fantasy Football Season: Running Backs

Running backs are probably the most divisive position in all of fantasy football, but how did things shake out this year?

This year more than ever before, fantasy footballers were inclined to pass on running backs early in drafts in favor of any of the other positions.

The Zero RB approach began to sweep the collective fantasy football nation, and less extreme versions -- waiting a few rounds to pluck some running backs -- were much more common than a few years ago.

But those who stuck to taking backs in the first round were, mostly, rewarded greatly.

After the first round or two, the running back picks were flaky -- Doug Martin, Toby Gerhart, and remember Zac Stacy?

How did our projections fare among the position itself, then?

Well, running backs can be tricky. Spot-starters come in handy but don't always make the season leaderboards. Starters can get phased out of the offense unexpectedly. Knowing this, season-long fantasy points aren't really the best way to know how valuable a player really was. I mean, Matt Asiata finished as the 16th-best fantasy running back this year, but if you plugged him into your line-up week after week, you wouldn't have lasted long.

Still, we -- and other rankers -- are faced with the task of assigning a preseason rank to all players, and that matters when looking back to grade the projections.

So, who did we get right? And who did we get wrong? Let's start with the top 25 in our preseason ranks and the final top 25 backs in terms of standard scoring leagues. (The "Difference" column indicates how many spots above or below the guys in the final top 25 finished when compared to our preseason rankings.

Preseason RB RankProjected FPActual RB RankActual FPDifference
1Jamaal Charles305.96DeMarco Murray2829
2Lesean McCoy290.39Le’Veon Bell2726
3Adrian Peterson263.91Marshawn Lynch2532
4Matt Forte263.03Matt Forte2310
5Marshawn Lynch248.84Arian Foster2232
6Eddie Lacy243.68Eddie Lacy2160
7Arian Foster242.49Jamaal Charles197-6
8Le'Veon Bell238.19Justin Forsett189116
9Montee Ball230.28Lamar Miller17127
10DeMarco Murray229.12Jeremy Hill17121
11Doug Martin196.84C.J. Anderson16765
12Giovani Bernard188.5Alfred Morris1592
13Zac Stacy184.09LeSean McCoy158-11
14Alfred Morris183.96Joique Bell15414
15Ryan Mathews182.67Mark Ingram15429
16Andre Ellington180.97Matt Asiata13947
17Reggie Bush176.01Frank Gore1351
18Frank Gore172.84Giovani Bernard132-6
19Toby Gerhart167.84Chris Ivory12424
20Pierre Thomas158.51Andre Ellington122-4
21Rashad Jennings153.96Andre Williams11530
22Chris Johnson150.43Steven Jackson1112
23Trent Richardson148.23Tre Mason11135
24Steven Jackson145.78Fred Jackson1101
25Fred Jackson144.45Jonathan Stewart11027

What We Got Wrong

Zac Stacy, RB, St. Louis Rams

We really missed on Stacy, who finished 73rd in standard scoring, and I'm willing to admit that he was one of my ideal third-round targets. If only I had known. The thing we were banking on was volume, which I thought was a given considering that Tre Mason was projected as little more than a change-of-pace guy.

So, my logic was, "Provided that he [...] doesn't become Trent Richardson overnight, Stacy should be a lock to live up to his draft-day price and finish as a top-20 fantasy rusher."

Oof. Stacy's Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) per carry (-0.18) ranked 58th out of 60 backs with at least 75 carries. Richardson's was -0.09 -- still bad -- but was 46th out of 60. Mason's, by the way, wasn't much better (-0.08), ranking 42nd.

Doug Martin, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

We also had Martin ranked highly -- 11th among backs. We missed by 40 spots. Martin got banged up, sure, but he averaged just 44.9 yards per game in the 11 games he played, and his Rushing NEP per carry (-0.06) ranked 39th of the 60 backs with at least 75 carries. The math trusted Martin to play more like rookie-year Martin than injured and struggling sophomore-year Martin, but he failed to live up to the year-end production of his rookie year.

Martin tallied only 13 receptions, too, scantly more than 1.0 per game despite racking up 49 in his rookie year, and he totaled only 58 fantasy points all year -- just more than 5.0 per game.

Justin Forsett, RB, Baltimore Ravens

To be fair to us, nobody really predicted Forsett to be much of a factor this year -- at least not the eighth-best fantasy back on the year. He was buried on the Baltimore depth chart, and then things got messy for the Ravens, but our preseason numbers were locked in on guys like Forsett long before opportunity came knocking. We did peg the duo of Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce for a total of 206 fantasy points, and Forsett nearly got there (189), but I can't not mention that 116 in the difference column whether anybody could have foreseen it or not.

Honorable Mentions: LeSean McCoy (ranked 2nd, finished 13th), Mark Ingram (44th, 15th), Ben Tate (27th, 47th)

What We Got Right

Matt Forte, RB, Chicago Bears
Eddie Lacy, RB, Green Bay Packers

I get it, but hear me out. I'm lumping these two together because their stories were quite similar this year. After the first three picks -- almost unanimously Jamaal Charles, Adrian Peterson, and McCoy -- the decisions really started. Forte, Lacy, or another position? Well, if you trusted our analysis, then you would have went with running backs instead of bailing on the position.

Well, we had Forte as a firm number-four and Lacy as the sixth-pick, and it worked out that way, as they finished fourth and sixth, respectively, among the running back position, which our math indicates as the most critical position in fantasy football. I'm not touting us for nailing mid-first-round picks but for trusting the numbers and getting great assets when the trend was to look elsewhere.

Marshawn Lynch, RB, Seattle Seahawks
Arian Foster, RB, Houston Texans

Same thing here, and the fact that first- and second-round running backs did, in fact, live up to the hype should be a takeaway -- even though guys like Stacy and Martin flamed out. If you were leery of Forte and Lacy, odds are you went with a guy such as Jimmy Graham or Calvin Johnson by picks six and seven rather than two aging backs. Well, we had Lynch as the fifth-best back this year -- he finished third -- and Foster, whom lots of people were ready to give up on, was projected seventh and finished fifth.

Forte, Lacy, Lynch, and Foster all averaged at least 15.0 fantasy points per game, which is hard to find at the position that is now being delegated to by-committee approaches. Sure, you can point to guys like Ball, Stacy, and Martin to justify not going near the position early, but the top seven finishers at the position were second-rounders at the very latest.

Bishop Sankey, RB, Tennesee Titans

If you were one to wait on backs, you probably targeted Sankey, who seemed to be stepping into a big role. We actually overvalued Sankey by nine spots -- we pegged him at 37th and he finished 46th. But jumping on unproven backs are something our math didn't do this year, and it paid off in this instance.

Sankey's Rushing NEP per carry (-0.09) ranked 49th among 60 backs with at least 75 carries, and being low on him ended up being the right call.

Honorable Mentions: Fred Jackson (ranked 25th, finished 24th), Alfred Morris (14th, 12th), Steven Jackson (24th, 22nd), Shane Vereen (32nd, 29th)