A new season is upon us and that means it’s time for the return of the “Running Back Workload.” As became tradition last season, I developed an alter ego of sorts. Nostra-Dom-us, as he affectionately came to be known, operated strictly in the nature of prediction. In kicking off the Running Back Workload this season, I will pick up right where I left off in 2015 with the Running Back Awards. Last season I titled my final edition of TRBW “A Season in Review” which makes this one “A Season in Preview.” Now, without further ado, here are my thoughts…
Eric Dickerson Award: (Rookie Rusher of the year)
2015 Winner: Todd Gurley
“It is largely accepted that in 1983, Eric Dickerson had the single greatest rookie season of any running back ever. Straight out of Southern Methodist University, Dickerson entered the NFL as a Los Angeles Ram, toting the rock 390 times for 1,808 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns, while also catching 51 passes for 404 yards and two more touchdowns. Knowing this makes it pretty understandable why the award is named after Dickerson. In 2015, Todd Gurley perfectly exemplified the explosive nature and flashed the potential dominance that Dickerson did back in ’83, which is why he came away with the award. With a talented group of backs entering the league this season, 2016 should be even more hotly contested for the award this time around.”
As I will outline later in this edition, Elliott is the overwhelming favorite for this award, so much so that he will be getting running back MVP consideration from me. I have made it abundantly clear since NFL Draft talk began swirling after last year’s Super Bowl in February, that Elliott is the best running back I have seen coming out of college since Adrian Peterson (yes, even better than Todd Gurley). I believe that after this injury to Tony Romo, the Cowboys will be forced to rely upon Elliott even more than they had originally planned. Sure, Alfred Morris will get his share, but Elliott is too talented not to take this league by storm. He will, literally, run away with this award, health provided of course.
I consistently bashed on Henry throughout the entire draft process this offseason and cited that his running style had little chance of success in today’s NFL. I mentioned two situations that would work for him – Dallas and Tennessee – and naturally he ended up in one of them. The criteria needed to guide Henry towards success is an elite offensive line – check for both teams – and a running game that specialized in one-cut and downhill paving. Again, a check for both. Regardless of the presence of DeMarco Murray, I feel that the Titans will truly commit to the run game enough that he will be able to produce at a fantasy-relevant level. He has, so far this preseason, proven that he is in excellent shape and is just as physical as advertised. With his high touchdown potential, he seems to be the only legitimate option to threaten Zeke’s chances at this award.
Washington is certainly the darkest of horses here considering he was drafted all the way down in the fifth round. However, if you have been reading my draft work throughout the offseason, Washington should be a name with which you are already familiar. He’s really been a “pet cat” of mine throughout the entire process and I am happy to see that his college tape didn’t deceive. His game reminds me of a poor man’s Maurice Jones-Drew in that he is built just like him, has underrated shiftiness and is also an accomplished receiver out of the backfield. So far this preseason he has been the most productive back in the league and has done such a good job that he has already secured the third down role with the first team offense. Couple this with the fact that the Raiders starting back Latavius Murray is the most overrated back in the league and Washington just might have a chance to really breakout as a rookie. Having said that, he would probably need both Henry and Elliott to get injured for this award to come to fruition.
Adrian Peterson Award: (Comeback Back of the year)
2015 Winner: Adrian Peterson
“Coming off of a torn ACL that occurred late in the 2011 season, the then 27-year-old Peterson entered Week 1 of the 2012 season with plenty of question marks surrounding his potential production going forward. By season’s end, he finished as the league MVP coming only nine yards short of the single-season rushing record set by the aforementioned Eric Dickerson. Peterson’s 2,097 rushing yards, 12 touchdowns, and mind-boggling 6.0 yards per carry set his 2012 far apart from anyone else in terms of greatest comeback season of all-time by an NFL running back.”
Few running backs entered the fantasy football season last year with higher expectations than Murray. However, I warned of his potential plummet back to earth.
To put it in plain terms, he joined a system that did not fit for him whatsoever. He’s a patient one-cut back, whereas Chip Kelly’s system had him stringing out sweeps far too often. Get him a crease or cutback lane early on and watch the magic happen. That is exactly what I expect the Titans to do for him this season and that is what he put on display during his excellent preseason. My main fear last year – aside from his square peg, round hole fit in the Eagles system – was his health. No running back has ever toted the rock that many times in a season and remained healthy in the following one. Murray was no outlier and while he only “missed” one game, he was banged-up or benched far too often and ultimately disappointed many fantasy owners in 2015.
Murray has a chance to remain healthy this season due to a reduced workload and because of his time on the bench last season. Rookie Derrick Henry’s presence will allow Murray to take less of a pounding and will also allow him to showcase his talent as a receiver out of the backfield.
2016 will be remembered as the return of the Titans ground game and the rise from the grave of DeMarco Murray.
Shady had all the workings of a nice season lined up in 2015, however he missed four games due to injury. His pace for a 16-game season had him at 1,200 rushing yards, 42 receptions, and 10 total touchdowns. That was all while operating out of an offense in which he was losing touches to rookie Karlos Williams. If Shady can remain healthy this season, the Bills will have no other option but to feed him the rock early and often. I could totally see him bouncing back in a big way in 2016.
Charles was on pace to win the Emmitt Smith Golden Football (MVP) last season prior to blowing up his knee, but that is the unfortunate nature of the NFL. If he can return at full-strength, he has more than enough talent to win this award. I’m honestly not banking on him just yet because word is that he won’t be healthy enough to go in Week 1. Not an encouraging sign, which is why the other guys have a better shot than he does.
The case for Lacy has been well-noted throughout this offseason, as he finally trimmed down from a sumo wrestler to the size of a left guard. Regardless of his still-hefty look (at least still in pads) Lacy appears to have his burst back. He looked healthier than ever this preseason, and while operating out of an already explosive Packers offense, his fantasy potential could skyrocket.
Hyde is a back I really love and always have since his college days. When healthy, he flashed the ability to take over a game against a legitimate NFL defense (See 2015, Week 1, Monday Night Football: Vikings @ 49ers). Joining a Chip Kelly offense could mean one of two things for Hyde, either: he can go the way of the aforementioned DeMarco Murray and completely fall out of favor due to his poor scheme fit, or he could follow the also aforementioned LeSean McCoy’s path in his first year with coach Kelly and completely unlock all of his potential. I feel that Hyde’s skill-set does, in fact, fit Kelly’s offense because he is patient and shifty with adequate enough hands to remain on the field during passing downs. He is the lead man out there in San Fran, so health permitting, he should bounce back in a nice way in 2016.
Truth be told, I’m not sold on the health of Foster and I’m not sold on Gordon as a legitimate NFL back. Let me know (@Dommurtha) if I end up being wrong about either…
The Herschel Walker Bronze Crutch: (Backfield Bust of the year)
2015 Winner: DeMarco Murray
“For all of his imposing physical features and outstanding stats as a college and USFL professional player, Walker never seemed to live up to the billing as an NFL player. Sure he had some solid years, but in his 13 NFL seasons, Walker only rushed for over 1,000 yards and scored double-digit touchdowns twice. Considering the hype train that consistently surrounds Walker despite his lack of NFL production, I would consider the “Bust” award a proper fit for his namesake.
As I just outlined previously with regard to DeAndre Washington’s potential, I find Murray to be the most overrated back in football. Sure he’s only being valued as the 19th back in ESPN Standard formats, but the aura around him is that, blessed with all of these physical gifts – size, speed, power, he is just one season away from putting it all together. The reality is that behind a good offensive line last season, he barely averaged 4.0 yards per carry. He isn’t trusted by the coaching staff around the goal line and he isn’t a great receiver out of the backfield. He has already lost carries and third down reps to a fifth-rounder entering this season, which should make no fantasy owner feel optimistic. Murray is my bust of the season.
Anderson was nominated for this award last year, given his early-year meltdown after an excellent finish to 2014 and incredibly high expectations entering 2015. But while expectations are much more tempered for him entering 2016, I still find him being overvalued. Currently, he’s listed as the 14th overall back, ahead of potential stars in Jamaal Charles and Thomas Rawls, potential PPR machines Matt Forte and Duke Johnson, touchdown machine Jeremy Hill, and my pick for comeback player (running back) of the year, DeMarco Murray. Simply too high for a guy who has a rookie back breathing down his neck and coming off a mediocre, at best, 2015.
Jonathan Stewart hasn’t done much throughout his career to be considered a bust, but he has never been considered a star either. Typically, you can pencil him for about 850 yards and five touchdowns or so per year and he will reach those marks. The problem this season is that he is being valued as the 12th best running back and may be losing carries to Cameron Artis-Payne. His touchdown potential is always low because of the presence of Cam Newton, while his PPR potential has never been existent. Simply put, people are way too high on him.
I’m going to make a disclaimer here first that there really isn’t a bigger fan of Bell’s game than me. Well, maybe Big Ben, but there honestly can’t be many people who love to watch him play more than I do. Having said that, Bell is being ranked as the 6th best back this season – and while deserving higher based off of talent alone – his potential suspension and injury history raise some serious question marks. Entering only his fourth season, bell has already missed 11 games due to injury out of his potential 48, while he will have been suspended for an additional five after he serves the first three games of 2016. Is he someone whom fantasy owners can not only trust to stay healthy, but also remain quiet off the field? This “dark horse” selection has nothing to do with on the field talent, but everything to do with everything else.
Larry Centers Trophy: (PPR Performer of the year)
2015 Winner: Danny Woodhead
“Often gone unrecognized, No running back was more impactful in the passing game or had their production more singularly tied to receiving the football than Larry Centers. Lining up as a fullback for the Cardinals, Bills, Redskins, and Patriots throughout his 14-year career, Centers rarely received many carries. Instead he made his money as a PPR monster, averaging nearly 70 catches per year over his 12 seasons as a starting fullback. Each year many try to duplicate what Centers did throughout his career, some of who have succeeded including Matt Forte, LaDanian Tomlinson, and Marshall Faulk just to name a few, but forever this award will remain named after Centers – a man who’s sole reason for existence was getting open out of the backfield.”
I typically like to give this award to a guy who more fits the Centers profile in that his impact was directly tied to catching the ball out of the backfield. Last year’s winner Danny Woodhead is a perfect example. However this season, I really am finding it tough to think of a back who will be more impactful as a backfield receiver than young David Johnson, despite the fact that he will have huge rushing expectations as well.
Starting in only five games last season, Johnson still managed to catch 36 passes and four touchdowns. In the playoffs, he did even more PPR damage, as he caught six and nine passes in his two respective playoff games. He originally was drafted out of Northern Iowa as a receiving back with a chance to start for certain teams, but last season he proved to be a complete back as well, when given the opportunity. Considering this, it is clear that still his best skill is as a receiver, first and foremost. Expect Johnson to be a PPR machine in 2016.
All three of these players listed have a legitimate shot to win this award. Heck Woodhead won it last year, and Riddick led all backs with 80 receptions in 2015. Duke Johnson – in just his rookie season last year – was targeted 74 times out of the backfield and is expected to have an even more expanded role in 2016. Simply put, this race is wide open.
The Field –
These four guys are the top contenders for the award, however as I said, the race is relatively wide open. There are a few rookies like C.J. Prosise – a former wideout in his own right – or Ezekiel Elliott, whom I didn’t mention because their roles aren’t exactly set in their offenses yet. With Zeke, considering he is not only the best back on the Cowboys roster, but the best on third rounds as well, he could certainly come away with this award. Also not mentioned are standard bearers in the PPR community… Giovanni Bernard, Matt Forte, and DeVonta Freeman – who led all starting backs with 73 catches last season – will definitely be in the mix for the Larry Centers Trophy come season’s end as well.
Emmitt Smith Golden Football: (MVP)
2015 Winner: Devonta Freeman
“There may be contention on who the greatest running back ever is, but in terms of a fantasy award, the numbers never lie. Emmitt Smith is the all-time leader in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, and in his time, was widely regarded as a top pass catching back. When really boiled down, it’s tough to find a better example of a consistent fantasy MVP than Smith.”
If you haven’t noticed from my NFL Draft writing since February, I have decided to go all in on Zeke this season. This most recent injury to Tony Romo in fact cemented this award in my mind rather than the opposite effect that it likely had on most people. I have beat to death the type of dynamic player that I think that Elliott is, so I will spare you, but speaking specifically of him after this Romo injury, I now know that he will become the focal point of this Cowboys offense. Expect 20-plus touches per game from him, and that is even with taking into account Alfred Morris’ share of the load. With Dak under center, the Cowboys are going to heavily lean on the ground game and work the play-action roll out off of it. To make you feel better, in my most recent draft I took Elliott fourth overall. Lets take this leap of faith together!
Each player listed is poised for a breakout season in their own right, and I consider Elliott right there amongst these names. It really came down to picking someone, and while I am a fan of each name listed above, I felt that Elliott’s potential rises above the rest. Having said that, do not be discouraged if you own any of the above listed, as I fully expect them all to perform at a top-notch level. Please believe me when I say that it was an incredibly tough decision.
These would not be considered “dark horse” selections if I had written this a year ago, but times do change quickly. Well, I should rather say that the opinion of the public changes quickly, as neither of Murray or McCoy suddenly lost talent over night.
We are only one season removed from Murray lighting the league on fire with over 1,800 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns to go along with an additional 57 catches. And as I stated above, he joined a system that didn’t work to what he does well. This preseason he and the Titans play calling proved to mesh together better than peanut butter & jelly, while he also physically looks to be back to 100-percent – which is something that he couldn’t say last season. People may consider the presence of rookie Derrick Henry a detriment to his fantasy prospects, but I believe that lessening Murray’s workload will help him stay healthy for 16 games. If the Titans pound the rock this season like we all expect them to, Murray and Henry may turn into the DeAngelo Williams/Jonathan Stewart tandem of 2008. Williams finished that season (Murray in this year’s potential version) as the league’s Emmitt Smith Golden Football Award winner with his 1,515 rushing yards, 5.5 yards per carry, and 18 rushing touchdowns.
As for Shady, his route to the trophy is simpler. I mentioned in full above that he is blessed with talent and is operating in an offense that desperately needs him to produce. He is an excellent receiver out of the backfield and has proven 1,500 yard rushing potential throughout his career as well. Without much competition behind him (bye, bye, Karlos Williams) the name of the game for McCoy is health. A Rex Ryan football team is always looking to get back to “ground and pound,” so if he can remain healthy for 16 games this season, there is no reason that Shady can’t contend for this award.
The Bo Jackson Memorial “What Could Have Been” Trophy
2015 Winner: Jamaal Charles
“No single football player was expected to do more with his football career than Bo Jackson was. He is considered by many to be the most talented athlete of all-time, but injuries got the best of him. This award is presented to players who came into the season with Bo-like expectations or potential, yet due to unfortunate circumstances of a major injury or multiple nagging injuries, things just didn’t work out.”
Now because I am not in the business of wishing injury upon any athlete, I will not be predicting this award. It is one however, that is imperative to evaluate at the end of the season. I truly wish the best of health to each NFL running back and hope that talent and production will be the defining factor in these awards come season’s end. Unfortunately that is not the nature of this game and thus the Bo Jackson Memorial Trophy exists. In any event, to find my thoughts on this particular award, check the site in Week 17. Until then, take what I have given you here and watch it play out on the field… Nostra-Dom-us has spoken.