Battle in the Backfield: Who Will Win the Starting Job?

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Training camp is underway and players around the country are fighting for their spot on a team roster. For the fantasy football community, all eyes are on a few key battles for the starting running back job. Now these guys are not your elite tier backs (or they wouldn’t have to compete for the job), but they possess value as a consistent flex option and come in handy in weeks where you lose your RB1 or RB2 to a bye.

There is still a whole preseason to be played, but for now here are my predictions into a few running back battles that are sure to impact your fantasy season.

Cleveland Browns: Isaiah Crowell vs. Terrance West vs. Duke Johnson

This is probably the most interesting of all the running backs battles this offseason, for a couple of reasons. Not only do all three guys have a chance at the starting job, but also whoever wins can expect a consistent workload throughout the season. When you enter the year with a choice between Josh McCown or Johnny Manziel under center, it’ safe to say the Browns will be leaning heavily on a solid run game.

Undrafted rookie Isaiah Crowell burst onto the scene last year after taking the starting job from Terrance West. Crowell rushed for 607 yards and also tacked on 8 TDs in 2014. The one thing I like about Crowell is his big play ability. He had a 10+ yard run on 13.5% of his rush attempts, that’s the ninth highest percentage among NFL running backs. However, there are a couple things that are stopping Crowell from winning this job outright. He isn’t a big pass threat in the backfield and he is one of the least elusive backs in the league.

However, in camp so far it looks like its Crowell’s job to lose. Out of these three backs, West is the one I can see at the bottom of the totem pole. He was very inconsistent last year and ended up losing his job to an undrafted rookie. On top of all that there are also questions looming around about his lack of maturity.

Now we come to Duke Johnson, the all time leading rusher at the University of Miami and the Browns third-round draft pick in 2015. Johnson has by far the highest upside and also is the best receiving back out of the group. He is currently nursing a hamstring injury that is keeping him sidelined at camp. For now it seems he will assume the role as the passing down back, while Crowell will be the team’s premiere rusher. If Johnson can outperform Crowell in the preseason it will make a strong case to give him the start, but for now I see him as the RB2 in the depth chart. This does not undermine Johnson’s value in a dynasty league. Although he may not be the starter come Week 1, he has incredible potential and can break out when he’s given the chance.

Atlanta Falcons: Devonta Freeman vs. Tevin Coleman

Last season the Falcons ranked 24th in rushing offense, however that could improve this year with a new offensive coordinator. Kyle Shanahan joins the Falcons after spending last season with the Browns. Shanahan is known to be generous when it comes to calling run plays, so I expect a lot more work out of the backfield. The two contenders for the job are incumbent Devonta Freeman and rookie Tevin Coleman from Indiana. Freeman, a rookie last year, didn’t impress all that much when he had the ball in his hands. He carried it 82 times and averaged 3.8 yards per carry while playing behind Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers. With not too much proven to the coaching staff, Freeman has left a window of opportunity for Coleman.

Drafted in the 3rd round of 2015, there is a lot to like about Tevin Coleman. He is a fearless runner that does not shy away from contact, he has dangerous cutting ability, and great burst into the second level. Not to mention his ability to break free. Half of his 28 career rushing touchdowns were of 43+ yards, eight of those being 64+ yard runs. The Falcons drafted Coleman because they were not completely satisfied with what they already had. They got a back with incredible speed and potential that can finally bring a run game to Atlanta. Come September I think Coleman will get the majority of the carries while Freeman racks up a handful as the backup.

Dallas Cowboys: Joseph Randle vs. Darren McFadden

The biggest question for Dallas resides in their backfield. How will they fill the shoes of the reigning leading rusher DeMarco Murray? They won’t. Murray had an outstanding season, rushing 392 times for 1,845 yards and 13 TDs. The workload he left behind can’t possibly be picked up by what they have now. However, it doesn’t mean this backfield isn’t worth watching. Dallas still has one of the top run blocking offensive lines in the league (second behind Philadelphia). Expect the run game to still be relevant to the Cowboy offense, just not to the levels Murray took it to.

So far in camp Randle is solidifying himself as the main back in this offense. With McFadden currently sidelined because of a hamstring injury, everyday Randle plays he separates himself from the competition. Randle has great breakaway ability, last season 12 of his 55 touches resulted in 10+ yards including two 40+ yard TD runs. He also had an impressive 61.3 yards after contact percentage, which shows that if he can’t break free, he is going to push for as many yards as possible. However, this does not mean McFadden is out of the picture. Compared to Randle, he is the superior pass protector, which can lead him to Run DMC taking a lot of the receiving opportunities. In the end this looks to be a run-by-committee in the backfield. I expect Randle to lead the charge, but only by about a 60-40 split with McFadden.