Just about every fantasy football season a rookie running back taken in the mid-late rounds explodes onto the scene and delivers a top-10 campaign at the position. Recent history has provided us with an abundance of such players; Doug Martin and Alfred Morris in 2012 and Eddie Lacy in 2013 are a few of the latest examples. While it is very difficult to predict which rookie backs will be best suited to transition their game from the college level to the pros, it is equally hard to predict which guys will build upon their rookie successes and who will fall victim to the dreaded sophomore slump. With this in mind I will take a look back at three of the best rookie runners of the 2013 season, Giovani Bernard, Eddie Lacy and Le’Veon Bell, and project their relative values for the upcoming 2014 season.
First up is Cincinnati’s Giovani Bernard, Bernard was the first RB taken off the board in the 2013 NFL Draft going in the second round at number 37 overall. He finished last season with 695 rushing yards and 5 touchdowns on the ground to go along with an impressive 56 receptions for an additional 514 yards and 3 receiving touchdowns. He played in all 16 games last season and averaged 10.4 Fantasy Points per Game in standard leagues and 13.9 FP/G in PPR formats. These numbers made him a high-end flex player for standard leagues and a solid RB2 in PPR leagues. Bernard was fantastic last season without a true feature back workload, but it is this lack of workload that will limit his ceiling in 2014. Coaches in Cincinnati are talking this offseason about giving Bernard more touches and hopefully getting him closer to 300 after he had only 226 a year ago, but the continued presence of Ben Jarvus Green-Ellis limits his upside as the veteran back is sure to get his share of the workload and possibly vulture some of the goal line duties. Also, Bernard’s small frame (5’9" 208 pounds) could lead to some future durability issues if the workload does increase substantially.
2013 Average Draft Position (ESPN): 81.8
2014 Draft Recommendation: Late 2nd- Early 3rd Round
Next is 2013 fantasy sleeper Eddie Lacy of the Green Bay Packers. Lacy was the best back in college his last year at Alabama, but fell in the 2013 NFL Draft all the way to the end of the second round going number 61 overall as the fourth RB selected. He turned in a stellar first year finishing with 1,178 rushing yards and 11 rushing TDs on his way to an Offensive Rookie of the Year award-winning season. He added 35 catches for an additional 257 yards in the receiving game bringing his yards from scrimmage total to 1,435. Lacy suffered a concussion early on in the season, but managed to play in 15 games averaging 13.8 FP/G in standard scoring leagues and 16.2 FP/G in PPR formats. These numbers put Lacy squarely in the high-end RB2 discussion for both scoring systems. Although his rookie season was spectacular, I expect some regression in his sophomore campaign. For starters, the Packers re-signed James Starks who had 89 carries in 13 games last season and could steal upwards of 100 carries from Lacy again this season. Also, Lacy’s carries were a bit inflated towards the end of the season as the Packers leaned much more heavily on the running game than they normally would because of the absence of All-Pro quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
2013 Average Draft Position (ESPN): 42.1
2014 Draft Recommendation: Early-Mid 2nd Round
Last up is Pittsburgh Steeler running back Le’Veon Bell. Bell was the second running back selected in the 2013 NFL Draft going in the second round at number 48 overall. He missed the first 3 games of the season, but was all systems go from there on out, averaging 22.2 touches a game (more than both Lacy, 21.3 and Bernard, 14.1) for the remaining 13 contests. He finished the year with 860 rushing yards and 8 touchdowns on the ground to go along with 45 receptions and 399 receiving yards. With both Bernard and Lacy you have to worry about other players on their respective rosters vulturing touches, but with Bell that concern isn’t as large. Bell also possesses the size (6’1" 240 pounds) teams look for in a durable feature back. The Steelers are committed to Bell as the future bell cow of their organization and he not only contributes in the running game, but is also a major factor in the passing game, amassing 66 targets in only 13 games a season ago. I believe he will build upon his per game averages of 13.2 (Standard) and 16.7 (PPR) from last season and bring them even higher next year. Heading into 2014 he is my highest ranked second year back and it seems he is currently being underrated.
2013 Average Draft Position (ESPN): 108.3
2014 Draft Recommendation: Late 1st- Early 2nd