One of the fastest ways to the top of any fantasy league is to find an emerging running back on the cheap. Owners who stole Arian Foster in 2010, Marshawn Lynch in 2011, or Alfred Morris in 2012 can tell you exactly that.
I predicted the Washington Redskins' run game explosion back in June of 2012, but wasn’t able to pin down an exact RB because of the way that Mike Shanahan shuffled them. Needless to say, Morris became that guy.
One of the reasons I knew Washington’s running game would take off that season was because the Redskins had a year of continuity up front, a commitment to the outside zone scheme under Mike Shanahan, and a quarterback who would threaten backside defensive ends, which would keep them from crashing down on backside cutback lanes.
Zone Scheme Success
Foster, Lynch, and Morris all benefited from a zone rushing attack during their breakout seasons. Moreover, Morris and Foster benefited from learning the old Denver zone scheme under former Broncos coaches Mike Shanahan and Gary Kubiak.
Guess who's been an offensive coordinator under both of those coaches? Kyle Shanahan.
Kyle Shanahan can now be found in Cleveland, where he is in charge of rebuilding the Browns' offense. I can’t help but think of how many similarities there are between this offense in Cleveland and the one that took off in 2012 in Washington.
While Johnny Manziel may not be the physical specimen Robert Griffin III was coming out of college, he is obviously very capable of terrorizing defensive coordinators with his legs just like RG3.
Kyle Shanahan was one of the architects of an offense that blended the zone scheme and an offense that RG3 was comfortable in. There is no reason that Shanahan can’t do the same thing for Manziel, who also played in a shotgun-based offense in college just like RG3, and will be seeing NFL snaps sooner rather than later.
Help at Running Back and Offensive Line
The Cleveland Browns added Ben Tate via free agency, and fantasy owners should absolutely have Tate on their radar despite the Browns' drafting of Terrance West in the third round. Tate doesn’t have great vision, but he has solid burst and very good breakaway speed for a runner his size.
More importantly, Tate has three years of experience playing in the Houston Texans' zone scheme, which Kyle Shanahan is more than familiar with. Tate will step in with an understanding of what his reads are in the running game, and he’ll be more ready to just play rather than think, which is what West will be doing as a rookie.
Tate will also come in with tape that shows he can pass protect and catch the ball out of the backfield. In other words, Kyle Shanahan will trust him.
The Browns' offensive line returns 4-of-5 starters, giving them the continuity bump. Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz is entering his third NFL season and should take a natural step forward this year. It is also worth noting that Schwartz saw his fair share of zone blocking when he played college ball at Cal.
Joel Bitonio is a hard-nosed zone scheme fit moving in at left guard. He showed a terrific ability to beat defenders to the spot on college tape, which is a big part of what is needed for zone scheme success. Alex Mack is one of the best centers in the league and left tackle Joe Thomas is still Joe Thomas.
The good news for Browns fans and fantasy owners is that Ben Tate and the running game should be fantasy-worthy this year with or without Manziel starting. While the Browns may not see the meteoric rise that Washington saw in 2012 thanks to a more defensive-oriented division, the improvement is coming. That’s a lock.