RB Primer: Gerhart, others could help reestablish position's superiority

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Immense wealth. Opulence. Excess. The Gilded Age, for a select few, represented it all. Ruled often by ruthless tycoons, it was a time of unprecedented industrial expansion. Icons Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller made money hand-over-first in steel, rail and oil, fattening not only their wallets but also their investors. Their innovation raised the bar and established the United States as a world financial power. For the 1-percenters, faces were firmly planted in the lap of luxury.

Then Teddy Roosevelt shut the party down.  

When he ascended to the presidency in 1901, the exuberant politician, a naturalist and torchbearer for the American worker, entered the highest office wielding an axe. His mission: To chop the immense power of monopolistic big businesses. During his two terms, trusts were busted, labor was organized and corporate abuses curtailed. The “Bull Moose” ruled the day …

Over 100 years later, fantasy running backs have undergone a similar makeover. Not long ago Marshall Faulk, Shaun Alexander and LaDainian Tomlinson were the financiers of the virtual game. Week in and week out, they conquered the meek with large workloads, high yardage totals and numerous touchdowns. In terms of overall impact, quarterbacks and wide receivers paled by comparison. No surprise, we fantasy guys worshiped them, naming our teams, dogs, first borns after them.

 Man, those were the days.

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Unlike what happened to industrial giants in the early 20th century, it wasn’t a single individual that changed the course of history. Rather, it was a collaborative idea almost universally accepted by NFL coaches that crippled the position, the dreaded running back by committee.

RBBC is a term that rattles any drafter to the bone. It makes eyes squint, palms sweat and stomachs queasy. It also greatly complicates RB values.

The NFL is indeed a passing league. 
The NFL is indeed a passing league.

Air-heavy offenses became all the rage around 2009. Since that time, 300-carry rushers have nearly gone extinct. Depicted in the chart (right), touches per game among rushers have steadily declined. In fact, the 27.1 rush attempts per game per team logged in 2013 was the lowest in NFL history. However, because defenses are stretched so thin by vertical onslaughts, RBs have become more efficient.

Last season’s 4.2 rushing yards per attempt per team was the second-highest ever, though running QBs like Cam Newton and Terrelle Pryor dished an assist. Despite that maximization, true workhorses, rare species in this day and age, continue to command absurd premiums, seemingly making it imperative to grab a running back within the first three rounds of a draft.

But that’s not entirely the case.

Committees remain a nuisance, however, for those who decide not to buy into the outdated RB-RB principle, a number of promising, value-driven beasts of burden can be had in the early middle rounds or later. Guys like Andre Ellington, Toby Gerhart and Rashad Jennings, players with reasonable odds of surpassing 300 total touches, are largely available between Rounds 3-6 of most Yahoo drafts. Even Arian Foster, not long ago a mega-elite producer, is a bargain in Round 2 (18.6 ADP). Additionally, rosy rookies Bishop Sankey (40.0 ADP), Terrance West (83.1) and Devonta Freeman (109.2), all available at attractive prices, could also breathe new life into the position.

[Photos: NFL players share tender moments with their kids at training camp]

Because of the unattractive bust rates at RB – players selected as RB1s in 12-team leagues have failed to measure up 43.3 percent of the time over the past five seasons, RB2s 45.0 percent – fanatics are abandoning traditional methods for safety. After all, replacement value at RB is much easier to find when compared to other positions, no shock considering the physical demands. Last year, for example, seven RBs drafted after pick No. 65 overall in average drafts (Gio Bernard, Le’Veon BellZac Stacy, Joique Bell, Andre Brown, Knowshon Moreno and Fred Jackson) contributed at least starter-level production in 12-teamers. Among WRs only five drafted in a similar territory finished inside the top-24. Meanwhile, Nick Foles, who was plucked off waivers in a majority of leagues, was the only passer to penetrate the QB1 class.

In many cases, it’s still wise to shoot for a RB in the top-half of Round 1, regardless of the risks. Workhorses should fetch an ultra-premium based on scarcity alone. Just look at those who landed Jamaal Charles last year. Nearly 35 percent of JC of KC followers experienced fantasy nirvana in Yahoo public leagues. Thank the Raiders’ overly accommodating defense for inflating that number. Still, after the first five or six rushers are crossed off your cheat sheet, entertaining Calvin Johnson, Jimmy Graham or Peyton Manning is strongly recommended. Again, there are extraordinary values at RB this year.

RB barons may have gone the way of Carnegie, Morgan and Rockefeller, but a new world order could emerge from the discounted rounds to help repair the position's once sterling reputation. 

With training camps in full swing, here are the top storylines at RB you need to follow: 

What Brown will get down? Ben Tate and West are locked in battle to claim the lion's share of a proposed timeshare in what will be a run-first Cleveland offense. The winner is a likely RB2 candidate in 12-team leagues. 

Unhappy non-camper, Marshawn Lynch. It appears the Beast Mode's swan song in Seattle is nigh. If his absence drags on well into the preseason, Chrstine Michael's ADP will soar. He's definitely buzzy, but keep an eye on Robert Turbin as well. 

Can Montee Ball cement his status as the Broncos' workorse? The ingredients are in place for at least a top-10 season. He's reportedly shown significant improvement in pass pro and receiving, great signs he'll secure a three-down role. Still, many remain apprehensive.  

Bernard Pierce, wide open door of opportunity. After offseason shoulder surgery he packed on roughly 25 pounds, but now leaner and meaner he will likely open the year as the Ravens' primary back. If he produces against Cincy and Pittsburgh in Weeks 1 and 2, suspended Ray Rice could be on the outside looking in. 

Will Ellington sizzle in the desert? Off a rookie season in which he averaged a jaw-dropping 6.5 yards per touch, expectations are high for his sophomore campaign. Noticeably heavier, he should be the bellcow in an underrated Arizona offense. 

Possible committee headaches in New York (Both teams), San Diego, Tampa and Tennessee. Several noteworthy names including Chris Johnson, Ryan Mathews, Doug Martin and Bishop Sankey could be impacted. 

Kicking cans on the comeback trail – C.J. Spiller, Steven Jackson, Ray Rice, Trent Richardson, Stevan Ridley, MJD. Off injury or ineptitude can these veteran backs reestablish themselves as trustworthy fantasy options? 

Adrian Peterson's receiving usage. Historically, Norv Turner has greatly involved RBs in the pass game. Will the Purple Jesus not only walk on water in standard leagues, but also PPR? 

The next Darren Sproles. Detroit's Theo Riddick and Washington's Chris Thompson are rumored to take on a receiving-heavy role, putting them on the radar in highly competitive PPR leagues.  

Frank Gore countdown to the glue factory. RBs are dropping like flies at Niners camp. Kendall Hunter is done for the year after tearing his ACL and LaMichael James will miss the next month with an elbow setback. Will the thirtysomething be the injury imp's next victim elevating Carlos Hyde into fantasy prominence?


Here are our risers, fallers and baby crawlers at the RB position this season: 

Some in the fantasy community are advocating the zero RB theory, pushing for drafters to avoid a rusher with their first three picks. Follow the strategy. What rusher widely available after Round 3 in 12-team drafts (Pick No. 36 overall) would you line up in the crosshairs? 

Brandon – TOBY GERHART. I do believe he'll finish well over 300 touches for the season. His receiving skills are underrated and he's got no legitimate competion behind him, so the reports of the Jags wanting to give him 20-plus touches per game don't seem far-fetched at all.

Brad – ANDRE ELLINGTON. Some will say he's overvalued at his current 38.9 ADP in Yahoo leagues, but there's RB1 potential in that pint-sized body. He averaged 6.5 yards per touch his rookie year and accounted for 12 runs of 15-plus yards. The unrivaled starter on an underappreciated 'Zona offense who should 17-20 touch per game RB, he's a solid backfield building block in Round 4. 

Dalton – First off, I love this strategy, and by that I mean I hope my opponents utlilize it in all of the drafts I'm in. My pick here is RYAN MATHEWS, who totaled 1,444 yards and seven touchdowns last season. 

Montee Ball, a divisive back this draft season, has crept into the late first round in numerous mocks. At his current 10.5 ADP in Yahoo leagues is the Broncos back OVERRATED or UNDERRATED. 

Brad – UNDERRATED. Several myths about Montee have caught fire in the fantasy community. He's impressed thus far in training camp showing marked improvement in pass catching and pass protection. If a incredibly mediocre Knowshon Moreno can finish top-five among RBs, Ball is certainly capable of reaching similar heights. Keep in mind, starting RBs who've played alongside Peyton averaged 1,518 combined yards and 10.4 touchdowns per season. 

Dalton – UNDERRATED. I have Ball as the No. 6 overall player on my rankings right now, and I'm more inclined to move him up than down. I don't see why this is somehow seen as controversial. Ball could easily finish as the No. 1 fantasy back this season given his situation. 

Scott – UNDERRATED for one simple reason - the context. Any back playing in a Peyton Manning offense is going to enjoy the perks, a handful of cheap touchdowns and a season of skimpy fronts, defenses set up to defend the pass at the expense of the run. The Broncos will give Ball every chance to be their primary back.

Much discussed veteran Toby Gerhart has created a schism in Fantasyland. Some absolutely love him. Others completely deplore him. Jags coaches reportedly want to get him 20-25 touches per game, but worries about playing from behind has many believing that ouput is unachievable. OVER/UNDER 314.5 total touches for the RB this year. 

Dalton – UNDER. I have Gerhart as a top-20 fantasy back right now, but betting on any RB getting 315 touches is tough. I fully expect the Jags to give him every opportunity to reach this number and then some, but Gerhart has reached 105 touches once (with his high being 132) during his career. 

Andy – UNDER, only because he'd need to play the full 16 games to reach 315. It's silly to bet on any specific player reaching this total. I like Gerhart well enough, but I'm sure we've removed all possibility of profit here. He's never spent a full season as a full-workload RB, plus he's tied to a terrible offense. This can easily go bad.

Scott – UNDER, simply because that's a very lofty number in today's game (I know, I hate when we all agree, too). But I expect the Jags to run Gerhart early and often, and in all game situations, and I'd love for him to be my RB2 in most formats.

Brad – OVER. I wasn't originally assigned to this, but I feel motivated to waive the #TeamHuevos flag. Gerhart has zero competition, possesses a better-than-advertised skill set (4.5 YPC, 91.3 total ypg in six career starts with the Vikes) and will be the focal point in an offense that will stress ball control. It's entirely conceivable he leads the league in touches. 

Arian Foster and Doug Martin are widely perceived as the likeliest bounce back candidates. What other rusher that broke hearts last fall will mend them in 2014: Steven Jackson, Ray Rice, Trent Richardson, Stevan Ridley or Lamar Miller?

Andy – Great question. I'm gonna go MILLER, because I've always appreciated the talent. He had an unfortunate O-line situation last year, for a variety of reasons, but he's worth another look.

Brandon – LAMAR MILLER. I'm buying the system change to one that will try to mirror what Philly is doing under Chip Kelly. It afforded LeSean McCoy the most touches in the league last season, and I expect it's going to have a very positive impact on Miller, too.

Scott – The answer is never Richardson. Everything is coming up MILLER in Miami - new coaching staff, retooled offensive line, improving quarterback, and the mess that is Knowshon Moreno. The price was a lot more fun a month ago, but Miller still looks like an underlay.

PPR pick 'em. What sticky-fingered rusher finishes higher in the fantasy points per game ranks: Pierre Thomas, Danny Woodhead or Darren Sproles?  

Andy – Gross. Your goal in standard league should be to start none of these guys. But if you forced me to pick one, I'd go THOMAS. He has the greatest early-down potential from this flawed group.

Brandon – THOMAS, easy. PT is going to inherit much of the role that Sproles owned in New Orleans, plus he'll get his usual 8-10 carries per game. Just based on the fact that he should have the largest role of this trio, in a very potent offense, it's gotta be PT.

Brad – PT BRUISER.  It's doubtful he'll replicate last year's unheralded 77 receptions, especially with Brandin Cooks in tow, but he'll be a fixture in the screen/check-down game in otherwise crowded backfield. Count on 65-70 catches. 

Touched on above, the failure rate among first-round RBs is rather significant. What high-profiled back taken on average inside the RB top-12 will have you cursing his name come year's end?

Brandon – LE'VEON BELL. I don't necessarily think he's going to bust, but you have to be concerned about a few things with Bell, first being that he averaged just 3.5 YPC and had one of the lowest percentages of carries that went for 10-plus yards among all starting running backs. Playing behind an offensive line that struggled in run blocking, and looking over bis shoulder at LeGarrette Blount now, if anyone looks like the next Trent Richardson, it's Bell.

Brad – DEMARCO MURRAY. Admittedly, he was spectacular down the homestretch last season, posting top-three numbers from Week 10 on. Still, given his long history of physical setbacks, injury is a concern. So is Dallas' likely horrific defense. 

Dalton – GIOVANI BERNARD. I actually love him, but I have Bernard ranked (barely) outside a top-12 back, and as much as I love his talent, he's going to remain in a timeshare and will lose all goal-line carries to Jeremy Hill.

Last year, Eddie Lacy, Le'Veon Bell, Zac Stacy and Andre Ellington made a cannonball splash as rookies. What first-year rusher will be the most indispensible on virtual rosters this year: Bishop Sankey, Terrance West or Wildcard

Scott – WILDCARD is the play - get me CARLOS HYDE on as many teams as I can. Frank Gore is 31 and all the dominoes are falling just right with the backups. And Jim Harbaugh and Co. know how to design a dynamic running game.

Brad – WEST. Compared to Ricky Watters, Walter Payton and Brian Westbrook by Cleveland's running backs coach, the Towson product has made one splashy play after another early on in training camp. His stout build, terrific vision, one-cut ability and versatility makes him a serious threat to supplant Ben Tate sooner rather than later. Scrawl it in blood, West will be the most coveted rookie RB this year, a possible top-20 rusher overall. 

Dalton – SANKEY. He appears to have the easiest path to touches, and the Titans should have a solid offensive line. That said, Carlos Hyde clearly has the most upside among this group. 

Avoiding overlap with question No. 1, what other running back in early drafts is the most underrated?

Dalton – I'll say JOIQUE BELL, whom I expect to emerge as a workhorse in an offense that will produce a bunch of plays. At worst, he should be Detroit's goal-line back. 

Scott – Miller or Hyde would be good answers here, though the public is catching up to them. Instead, let's give a kind word to DONALD BROWN, who neatly fixed his career with the Colts. Now he's in San Diego, working behind Ryan Mathews (you know the risks) and Danny Woodhead (just a satellite player). If you have to handcuff Mathews, or want to ghoul against him, Brown is the man you want. The "Dammit Donald" Days are over.

Andy – If you can get CJ SPILLER outside the first three rounds, do it. He's pretty clearly a top-5 talent at his position. Give him a second chance, gamers.

Conversely, what running back in early drafts, outside those going on average in Round 1, is the most overrated?

Andy – If you opened this up to the first round, I'd definitely say MONTEE BALL. We've removed all the profit potential there. But if I have to go beyond Round 1, I'll say LE'VEON BELL. He might just be his team's second best back.

Brandon – LE'VEON BELL. See my write-up about Bell above.

Scott – STEVAN RIDLEY concerns me at just about any price this year. We know Shane Vereen has a dedidcated role with the Patriots, and there are new threats coming out of the woodwork. Ridley seems capable of a four-carry washout week on any given Sunday. (Also put me down for Le'Veon Bell distrust; a 3.5 YPC leaves me cold.)

Play the Powerball. What rusher going after pick No. 100 has the best odds of striking it rich in 2014?

Andy – MILLER? WEST? HILL? JAMES WHITE? Lots of reasonable answers here. If you make me pick just one, I'm going Jeremy Hill. The floor seems awfully high. He's a natural complement for Gio, and the team will run all day.

Brandon – LAMAR MILLER. He's the obvious one here. He should be going at least 40 picks higher, on average. And I'd be happy to take Christine Michael in every one of my drafts at his current ADP (127). Talk about a lottery ticket with big-time pay-off potential.

Brad – CARLOS HYDE. Log this number to long-term memory, 2,518 touches. That's what Frank Gore has totaled in his career. At 31, the physical beating is bound to catch up to him soon. He's only human. Because San Fran is already down Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James and considering Marcus Lattimore still nowhere close to full strength, it's not nuts to think the former Buckeye contributes high-end RB2 numbers over a 5-6 game stretch this year. 

Dalton – TRENT RICHARDSON. I realize how bad he was last season, but he was a top-3 pick just three years ago and is the favorite to be a workhorse in an Andrew Luck led offense. I'd give him one more chance considering what the Colts traded for him and his current ADP. 

Scott – LAMAR MILLER is the answer today, but I fully expect he'll be inside the Top 100 when most leagues draft in mid-to-late August. I can't promise they're Helton-approved, but give me these lottery tickets: CARLOS HYDE, BERNARD PIERCE and JEREMY HILL.

See Also: QB Primer, WR Primer, TE Primer, RB backups mini-mock 

Want to bull rush Brad? Follow him on Twitter @YahooNoise. Also check out "The Noise' along with colleagues Andy Behrens and Brandon Funston for another season of 'Fantasy Football Live' every Tuesday-Thursday at 6:30 PM ET on NBC Sports Network