Fantasy Football: 2015 running back sleepers and busts


Fantasy Football: 2015 running back sleepers and busts

The NFL may be a passing league, but running backs are still the kings in the castle.


As is the case every year in fantasy, there are more running backs going in the first round than any other position. Unless the NFL does away with the position altogether, we're not sure the trend will ever truly change. 

In 2015, the reasoning is simple: Every team needs at least two running backs (plus, likely, a flex spot and depth/handcuffs on the bench) and there just are not that many reliable options at the position. 

[MORE - Fantasy Football: 2015 Quarterback sleepers and busts]

Obviously, if you can get one of the Top 5 backs (Eddie Lacy, Le'Veon Bell, Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, Marshawn Lynch), go for it. But for the rest of you (and to fill out your starting lineup for even those with Top 5 picks), here are some running backs to keep an eye on and avoid this fall:

Top Targets

Jeremy Hill, CIN: It’s always risky to use an early fantasy selection on a sophomore running back as they tend show major regression, but in my mind Hill is the real deal. When starter Gio Bernard went down with an injury in Week 8 last season, Hill put a stranglehold on the job and never looked back, rushing for over 140 yards in four of the Bengals last nine games of the year. Hill won’t be mistaken for Jamaal Charles, Matt Forte or even his teammate Bernard as a pass-catcher, but he’s adequate in that regard and should provide fantasy owners with a little added value because of that ability. With plenty of question marks surrounding the running backs (Mark Ingram and DeMarco Murray) going around the ADP range of 14, stick with the guy who’s going to be the focal point of his team’s offense in Hill. - Scott Krinch

Alfred Morris, RB: I'm always amazed at the annual slide the former sixth-round pick goes through in fantasy drafts. No, he doesn't have a run longer than 45 yards or a reception longer than 26 yards in 48 career games, but it's that last number that cements him for me as a solid, solid RB2. In three seasons he hasn't missed a game, has rushed for 1,000+ yards and found the end zone at least seven times. Yes, last season saw career lows for him in carries, yards and yards per rush. But you know what you're going to get with him. Chances are you're going to be taking some kind of risk in either of the first two rounds (think Odell Beckham, Julio Jones or DeMarco Murray). Why not play it safe in Round 3 and "reach" for Morris and not worry about one of your two running back positions the rest of the year? - Mark Strotman

LeSean McCoy, BUF: His hamstring injury definitely put a scare into me but in terms of usage, Rex Ryan will run him into the ground. He IS the Bills offense and should receive at least 25 carries a game in addition to catching a few passes from whatever jugs machine they roll out on the field. In his years with the Jets, Rex has always been a huge fan of running the ball and that was even when teams knew all the Jets could do was run. McCoy should be the guy you target at the end of the first round if running back is the direction you want to go. - John "The Professor" Paschall

Lamar Miller, MIA: Lamar Miller is an RB1. That may seem like a rather bold statement, but he is, regardless of how your league scores. In standard scoring ESPN leagues, Miller finished eighth in 2014, rushing for 1,099 yards, eight TDs and catching 38 passes for 275 yards and a TD. He averaged 5.1 yards a carry and has 4.4 speed, yet he only averaged 15.875 touches a game. The only thing keeping him from the elite category is a lack of touches in the Miami offense, but, as we mentioned in the podcast, there is no clear backup in place. I'm targeting Miller because of that job security, but also because his production level is on target with the elite backs, even if his touches aren't. Once the Top 5 backs are gone, Miller represents a safe play with a huge upside. - Tony Andracki


Chris Ivory, NYJ: Ivory was already known for his physicality but he’s added a new element to his game: speed. No, he’s not a burner like Jamaal Charles but he’s looked so much faster this year in early preseason action. He’s in a good situation in New York too where there isn’t much competition for him. Stevan Ridley will likely start the year on the PUP list while Bilal Powell is a better option in real life football compared to fantasy. He will be the goal line back for the Jets so expect Ivory to outperform where he’s going in drafts this year. - JP

Doug Martin, TB: I promised I wouldn't do it. I swore to myself I'd never go back to the well. Three years ago Martin won me my primary fantasy league with an outstanding 1,900-yard all-purpose season that included 12 touchdowns as a rookie. Two years ago I had no choice but to take him in the second round, and he became world's biggest headache before being lost for the year six games into the season. A fresh outlook in 2014 had me excited, and luckily I flipped a coin and went with Le'Veon Bell over the Muscle Hamster, and we all know how that turned out. I swore I was done with Dougie Fresh, but I absolutely love his situation this year. He's in a contract year (that's not a cliche, either; it matters) and is part of an offense that could provide some fireworks. With Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans catching passes from the cannon of Jameis Winston, the run game could open up in a hurry for Tampa Bay. It's a questionable offensive line, for sure, but if you can grab Martin around his current ADP (75) you'll be happy with the results. Pardon me while I go throw up. - MS

[MORE FANTASY: Get ready for your Fantasy Football draft by checking out our complete coverage]

Latavius Murray, OAK: You won't find many running backs, like Murray, that are built like a Mack Truck and possess 4.3 speed. Murray has every physical trait that NFL teams look for, but he has yet to play a full 16-game schedule in his short two years in the league while dealing with a plethora of injuries during that span. Healthy for the first time since his college days at UCF, Murray rushed for 424 yards with a sparkling 5.2 yards per carry in 15 games (mainly as a backup) last season. Firmly entrenched in a starting role Murray has an ADP of 37, which is tremendous value for a running back of his caliber. With little competition behind him (Roy Helu, Trent Richardson), expect Murray to get the bell-cow duties in Oakland and fully exceed his pre-draft projections. - SK

CJ Spiller, NO: Spiller has been a tantalizing fantasy option for five straight seasons, even though he has just one 1,000-yard season under his belt. But Spiller has been overrated for so long that I think he's actually underrated. He's going as the No. 27 running back off the board (71st overall) in average draft position, meaning he falls as a sixth or seventh round pick. But in PPR leagues, how can you argue with a guy who is a solid receiver moving to a Saints offense that has been known to highlight running backs in the passing game with Drew Brees as quarterback and only Mark Ingram as true competition for touches. Spiller may only carry it a few times a game, but Darren Sproles was a solid fantasy option in N'awlins as basically just a receiver out of the backfield. Spiller and his gamebreaking speed can do the same. - TA


CJ Anderson, DEN: I feel a little bit better about Anderson after the signing of Evan Mathis but that Broncos offensive line is terrifying. Between rookies and unproven starters, I’m worried about Anderson’s production this year because of the big guys in front of him. I understand Gary Kubiak wants to run the ball a lot but unless you’re a once-in-a-generation talent like Adrian Peterson, you need the big guys up front to be on their game. The chemistry won’t just come for these guys right away. Anderson also doesn’t provide much in the passing game. He’s not worth a first-round pick at this point in time. - JP

Mark Ingram, NO: Don't fall into the Ingram trap. After three years of being labeled a first-round bust in New Orleans, Ingram turned a brief three-game 2014 stretch into a lucrative, four-year deal this past offseason. That run has catapulted Ingram into the upper echelon of the fantasy running back rankings in 2015. Although the Saints are expected to run the ball more often this season, you would be wise not to draft a New Orleans running back in the second round. Sean Payton has employed a running back-by-committee approach during his tenure as head coach of the Saints, and with C.J. Spiller and Khiry Robinson already in the fold, don't expect Ingram to be the guy week in, week out. - SK

[MORE - CSN Fantasy Football Podcast: Previewing Raiders, AFC West]

DeMarco Murray, PHI: Look, if you're expecting another 1,800 yards and 57 catches for Murray this season, I'm gonna pin him as the biggest bust of all time. There's simply no way he's going to get 450 touches again, not with Ryan Mathews in town. The Eagles aren't paying Mathews $5 million guaranteed to just sit and watch. But even if you're realistic about the fact that Murray will fall back to Earth, can you still trust him to hold up? He's been far from a picture of health in his NFL career prior to 2015 and now, coming off one of the most heavily-used seasons by a RB in history, he's in the most fast-paced offense in the league and expected to stay healthy? Oh, and he moves from out behind the best offensive line in the league. With all that risk, do you really want to waste a first-round pick on him? - TA 

Joseph Randle, DAL: I do believe Randle will be the Cowboys running back to own this season, and running behind the league's best offensive line makes him a worthy prospect of a mid-round draft pick. But he's got just 105 carries to his name in two seasons, already is battling an oblique injury and has a pair of noteworthy backs behind him in Darren McFadden and Lance Dunbar. His best-case scenario is a top-5 or 6 finish among all running backs, meaning the potential reward outweighs the risk. But everyone is falling in love with him and assuming he's simply the next DeMarco Murray. I expect the Cowboys to utilize all three backs, capping his ceiling - and that's if he manages to stay healthy all season long. Pass. - MS

2017 Bears position grades: Outside Linebacker

2017 Bears position grades: Outside Linebacker


2017 grade: C-

Level of need: High

Decisions to be made on: Willie Young (contract), Pernell McPhee (contract), Sam Acho (free agent), Lamarr Houston (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: DeMarcus Lawrence, Ezekiel Ansah, Adrian Clayborn, Connor Barwin, Kony Ealy


Would you believe that no true outside linebacker in this year’s free agent class had more sacks than Lamarr Houston did last year? Houston and the Rams’ Connor Barwin each had five, underscoring how rare it is for an elite edge rusher to make it to free agency.


There are a few that, for now, are due to hit the open market. DeMarcus Lawrence racked up 14 ½ sacks with the Dallas Cowboys last year, but played as a defensive end in a 4-3 scheme. The same goes for the Detroit Lions’ Ezekiel Ansah, who had a dozen sacks in 2017. But if either reaches free agency, it’d be a surprise -- again, pass-rushers with that kind of production rarely escape the franchise tag.


If Lawrence or Ansah do become available, the Bears would likely be a part of the feeding frenzy to sign either player. Whether they could convince either player that 1) Chicago is a desirable destination and 2) that they’d be just as, if not more, productive in a 3-4 base instead of a 4-3 is a different question.


The same goes for Atlanta’s Adrian Clayborn, who had 9 ½ sacks last year (including a ridiculous six-sack game) but played in a 4-3 and may not be looking to leave Atlanta. The Falcons, though, could be in a tricky salary cap situation with defensive lineman Dontari Poe and longtime kicker Matt Bryant both due to hit free agency.


Fangio’s scheme is malleable, though, and any of these players would be a fit in it one way or another. Spotrac estimates Lawrence would command an average annual salary of $14 million per year, while Ansah would be slightly lower at $13.2 million. Either way, either of those guys could command the biggest contract Pace has given a defensive player (although the Bears were prepared to give cornerback A.J. Bouye more than the $13.5 million average annual salary that he’s receiving with the Jacksonville Jaguars.


Both Willie Young and Pernell McPhee could be released this off-season, too, to free up cap room. Cutting Young would net $4.5 million in cap savings, while a release of McPhee would free up a little over $7 million, according to Spotrac. Of the two, Young may be the more likely guy to stick around, despite coming off a season-ending triceps injury. While he’ll be 33 next September, Young has 9 ½ sacks in the last two year while McPhee has eight (while playing in more games than Young). This may not be an either-or situation, though -- the Bears could very well cut both.


Houston is an interesting option to retain after he racked up four sacks in five games after returning to the Bears last December. He’s struggled to stay healthy in his career, though, and the Bears probably wouldn’t re-sign him and count on the 30-year-old to be a starter in 2018, especially considering the uncertain recovery status of Leonard Floyd. Sam Acho could be brought back as a solid depth option, too.


The success of this unit, though, will hinge more on Floyd than whatever the Bears are able to do in free agency or the draft. The Bears need their 2016 first-round pick to A) stay healthy and B) improve as an edge rusher after injuries have limited him to 22 games and 11 ½ sacks in his first two seasons. If every team needs three reliable pass-rushers, the Bears will need to pencil in Floyd next to Akiem Hicks (who, for what it’s worth, is more of a run-stuffer, but did total 8 ½ sacks in 2017) and then either a free agent or a draft pick.


The most likely route to land that third pass rusher, though, is probably through the draft unless a top talent like Lawrence, Ansah or Clayborn hits free agency -- and then matches with the Bears.

The Bears have options but no easy decisions on tagging Kyle Fuller

USA Today

The Bears have options but no easy decisions on tagging Kyle Fuller

The Bears need long-term solutions at cornerback, and have one of the NFL’s most reliable players at that position in 2017 about to hit free agency. But that doesn’t mean Ryan Pace has an easy decision on his hands when it comes to applying the franchise tag on Kyle Fuller. 

Fuller was one of four players with at least 20 passes defended (breakups plus interceptions) in 2017, and also played well in run support. For a guy who not only had his fifth-year option declined last April, but had to play his way onto the Bears’ 53-man roster in training camp, it was an impressive year that should set Fuller up for a sizable payday. 

“(I’m) very proud of Kyle Fuller,” Pace said last month. “He went through some adversity the last couple of years and how he responded this year, his ball production was outstanding. A lot of PBUs. His preparation was outstanding. I think you can tell when a corner is prepared to play. And he can anticipate routes and things of that nature. Just a very professional approach. Very even-keeled approach. I think it started really with the way he attacked the offseason. And he had a good season because of that.”

That adversity Pace alluded to is another factor in the Fuller decision — was he a one-year wonder in 2017, and will the injuries and inconsistencies that plagued him from 2014-2016 return? 

The injuries are harder to predict, though it’s worth noting Fuller re-gained the trust of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio in 2017 after sitting out the entire 2016 season due to a knee issue. The inconsistencies, logically, shouldn’t return as long as Fuller remains as dedicated to film study and preparation in 2018 and beyond.

“(It was) definitely a different kind of season,” Fuller said on locker cleanout day in January. “Definitely feel good about what I was able to do. You always feel like you could do better.”

Fangio, importantly, consistently praised Fuller's play last season — and Fangio rarely entertains empty platitudes in his media sessions. 

"I think he’s come back with purpose," Fangio said in December. "He’s been very mature the whole year with his work ethic and habits and I think he had a mindset to go out and play better than he had in ’15 because you can’t compare it to ’16 and I think he’s achieved that. I just think he’s in a better frame of mind, more competitive. He knows what he wants and he’s got it narrowed down.”

If Fuller’s ceiling is higher than what he did in 2017 — he dropped a handful of interceptions, which stands as an easily-identifiable area of improvement - then perhaps he’d be a bargain with whatever contract he gets. 

But for now, we’re going to focus on the franchise tag. The Bears have the following options:

Place the non-exclusive franchise tag on Fuller. This would allow other teams to sign an offer sheet with another team, but the Bears would have the ability match the offer. If they didn’t, they’d be entitled to receiving two first-round draft picks from the team that signed Fuller. 

Place the exclusive franchise tag on Fuller. This would prohibit Fuller’s representation from seeking offers from other teams, and lock Fuller in to playing for the Bears in 2018 unless the tag were rescinded for some unexpected reason. 

Place the transition tag on Fuller. This would allow the Bears to match any offer sheet signed by Fuller, but they wouldn’t be entitled to compensation if they don’t match it. 

Decline to tag Fuller. This would mean he’d hit the open market once the league’s legal tampering period begins March 12 and free agency officially opens March 14. 

Let’s evaluate these options:

Non-exclusive franchise tag

The dance here would be if Fuller would quickly sign the one-year tag and begin negotiating a long-term deal — the two parties would have until July 16 to do so — or if he’d wait things out until the spring or summer to sign it. The Bears are in a healthy position salary cap-wise, so Fuller wouldn’t necessarily gain leverage by signing the one-year tender to guarantee him somewhere around $15 million (the NFL hasn’t released its official franchise tag figures yet, and won’t do so until sometime in early-to-mid-March. The Bears could afford to pay Fuller that one-year salary and still seek another top-level free agent, as well as other signings. 

It’s unlikely any team would be willing to part with a pair of first-round picks for Fuller, so effectively, this would be an exclusive tag. 

The calculation for Pace is this: Is Fuller really worth somewhere in the range of $15 million? That salary would make him the highest-paid player on the Bears, on an annual average salary basis, ahead of Akiem Hicks ($12 million annually), Kyle Long ($10 million), Charles Leno ($9.25 million), Pernell McPhee ($7.75 million, though he could be cut) and Mitchell Trubisky ($7.258 million — and this doesn’t include Mike Glennon, who all but certainly will be cut). 

In a multi-year deal, Fuller wouldn’t get an average annual value of $15 million — not when A.J. Bouye ($13.5 million) and Stephon Gilmore ($13 million) got less in free agency last year. Spotrac provided the following “market value” estimates for fellow 2018 free agent cornerbacks: $13 million annually for Malcolm Butler, $11 million for Trumaine Johnson, $9.3 million for E.J. Gaines and $6.9 million for Bashaud Breeland. How accurate those numbers are depends on your evaluation of each player — but for what it’s worth, Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 rankings have Fuller (No. 10 corner) as the highest-rated player of that bunch. 

If the Bears couldn’t work out a long-term deal with Fuller, he’d play out 2018 on the franchise tag, leading to Pace facing the same decision — albeit at a higher salary — at this time in 2019. 

Exclusive franchise tag

Fuller may be a good player, but he’s not *so* good that the Bears would want to place the exclusive tag on him. Some team may be willing to give up two first-round picks to sign Le’Veon Bell, but almost certainly not Fuller. 

Transition tag

If the Bears were to place this on Fuller, it would cost them less money in 2018 (it pays the average of the top 10 salaries at a position, instead of top five for the franchise tag) but wouldn’t entitle the Bears to compensation if they declined to match an offer sheet for Fuller. It seems unlikely the Bears would use this, given the defensive coaching staff and front office remain in place and have a strong and thorough evaluation of Fuller. Essentially: The Bears should know by March 6 at the latest if they're in or out on Fuller. If the Bears are going to risk losing Fuller to get him at a lower price, they’ll more likely…

Decline to place the tag

This would mean Fuller would be risked losing to the open market. Butler, Johnson, Gaines and Breeland comprise a solid crop of free agent corners, but that may not prevent Fuller from landing one of the three biggest contracts at his position. If the Bears went this route, they’d likely still try to re-sign Fuller while also putting forth competitive offers (as they did last year for Bouye and Gilmore) for Butler and/or Johnson. 

Letting Fuller hit unfettered free agency could mean the Bears are confident in their ability to sign at least one top cornerback, though that’s a dangerous game to play after Bouye turned down more money from them to sign with the Jacksonville Jaguars a year ago. But perhaps Pace feels more confident this year in his team’s ability to lure top free agents, thanks to consistency in a well-respected defensive staff, a young and energetic head coach, a hopeful franchise quarterback in place and significant improvements to Halas Hall in the works. 

Pace has two weeks to make his call; expect him to use up most of that time to calculate the decision on Fuller. The Bears could opt to go a route that keeps Fuller in Chicago, then re-sign Prince Amukamara (who’s an unrestricted free agent) and Bryce Callahan (who’s a restricted free agent) and keep the top of their cornerback depth chart steady, and then draft a cornerback — either a top one, like Ohio State’s Denzel Ward, or a more developmental one in the middle rounds. Or the Bears could blow up the depth chart, letting Fuller and Amukamara walk and looking to sign and draft players to fill out the position. 

But the decision on Fuller is the first step. What it is will start to bring the Bears’ offseason into focus.