With training camp and preseason just over the horizon, fantasy football owners are—or at least, should be—gearing up for the 2014 fantasy football season.
There are just 61 days until kickoff, and the owners who want to get off to a fast start have shifted their attention from menial things like jobs and families back to fantasy football.
As we near the home stretch of the offseason, owners will undoubtedly begin looking into the training camp battles that can affect the upcoming season. More specifically, they should be looking into the battles being waged in the backfields of NFL teams.
We all know that you can't win a fantasy championship without some serious help from your running backs. So don't sleep on these training camp battles that could ultimately make or break your season.
CJ Spiller vs. Fred Jackson, Buffalo Bills
A year ago, this wasn't even a discussion. Spiller looked like an elite fantasy player who was taken in the first round of most drafts after the Bills declared that they would feed him the ball "until he throws up."
However, Spiller was not the one who finished as a top 10 back last season—it was the 32-year-old veteran out of Coe College.
Now 33 years old, Jackson still figures to steal some carries from Spiller. While the team and Spiller have both said that the Clemson product was dealing with ankle injuries that held him back last season, that doesn't mean that he will have the breakout fantasy year we've all been hoping for in 2014.
It's likely that the Bills will feature a running back-by-committee (RBBC) approach this season. The team added a power back in Anthony Dixon and another speedy back in Bryce Brown this offseason.
Typically, having four backs that could conceivably get consistent touches would be a bad thing for fantasy owners. But that may not be the case in Buffalo.
Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett says he wants to run the hurry-up offense again this year, and this remains a run-first team. Don't be surprised to see both Spiller and Jackson end up being RB2s this year. But also don't expect one or the other to be a fantasy star, either.
Reggie Bush vs. Joique Bell, Detroit Lions
This is another training camp battle that wasn't a contest last season, but now it's one of the most intriguing matchups of the offseason.
After several minor injuries to Reggie Bush and an ample supply of touches to go around left Bell in a good position last season, the Wayne State University product finished as the 16th best back in fantasy football, just four spots behind his teammate and the former Heisman-winner, Bush. Bell quickly became a trendy pick-up that turned out to pay serious dividends to the lucky owners who added him.
Now, as the Lions prepare for the 2014 season, new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi sees an offense that will utilize both backs in different roles.
Lombardi previously worked with the New Orleans Saints, a team which used its running backs in very different ways. When Lombardi was there, the team had a role for a power back (or three power backs) and another for a speed back that could catch passes.
This works out nicely for the Lions. Bell can be the power back that Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Chris Ivory were, while Bush can better utilize his speed in the passing game by catching screen passes or running to the outside like Darren Sproles did.
While they will likely both be productive, it shouldn't surprise anyone if Bell turns out to be the better fantasy value. After all, Bush is 29 years old and has 1,600 touches-worth of wear and tear on his body. The Lions may want to decrease his touches to keep him healthy, which would mean more work for Bell and, obviously, more fantasy points.
Considering that Bush is being taken as the 17th running back off the board while Bell is the 25th, Bell could certainly be worth targeting in the later rounds of your draft so long as he impressed in camp.
Lamar Miller vs. Knowshon Moreno, Miami Dolphins
When the Dolphins signed Moreno it looked like he would be the top back in Miami (or at least split carries). Now, however, he's gotten off to a bad start and has left the door open for the 23-year-old Miller.
When Moreno came to Miami he seemed out of shape and was "a little thick around the middle." That's not what you want to hear about your star running back who accumulated nearly 1,600 yards and 13 touchdowns the year before. If that wasn't bad enough, Moreno then needed to undergo knee surgery, which will sideline him through the beginning of training camp.
Things couldn't be much worse for Moreno, as he will need to work hard to get back in shape after his surgery. That means that Miller has taken the majority of snaps thus far in the offseason, and will continue to do so at the beginning of training camp.
This is the first time that Miller has had the opportunity to be the lead back. He was overshadowed by Reggie Bush his rookie year and was forced to split time with Daniel Thomas last season. However, he'll get the chance to prove himself, which means fantasy owners will have to keep an eye on him during training camp to see who will be the featured back in the 305.
Steven Jackson vs. Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons
The writing is on the wall for S-Jax in Atlanta. After dealing with a hamstring injury last season and failing to impress in the Falcons' high-octane offense, the team went out and drafted Freeman in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL Draft.
Jackson still figures to be the starter in Week 1, and the job is his to lose. However, if Freeman can impress during training camp, he could steal carries from the vet as the season progresses. More importantly, Freeman could take over the job if Jackson suffers another injury.
The key to Freeman seeing time on the field and stealing carries could also be his pass protection. It's something he prides himself on, and Josh Norris of NBC Sports was impressed with his blocking back in May. If he continues to improve, it shouldn't surprise anyone if he becomes an impactful fantasy player.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis vs. Jeremy Hill, Cincinnati Bengals
Giovani Bernard (I refuse to call him Gio) remains the top option for the Bengals at running back. But that doesn't mean that he'll be taking all the carries.
The Bengals remain a run-heavy team that utilizes a dual-back offense. Bernard remains the speedy, pass-catching running back. But the team needs a power back complement, and rookie Jeremy Hill is going to push Green-Ellis for that role.
Hill was the epitome of reliability at LSU. The 235-pound bruiser ran for 2,156 yards on 345 carries in his two seasons with the Tigers and fumbled only once. That's a microscopic 0.29 percent chance that he fumbles.
That reliability is a big reason why the Bengals drafted Hill over Carlos Hyde and why he was seen taking first-team reps in June.
Green-Ellis is still the incumbent and might have a slight edge, but the Bengals know that Hill is the future power back the team needs. While training camp will ultimately decide who gets more carries this season, Hill seems likely to take over at some point this season—if not by Week 1.
Zac Stacy vs. Tre Mason, St. Louis Rams
Stacy seemed like a non-entity at the beginning of last season, and the fact that he had just four rushing yards on one carry through the first four games of the season showed why. However, over the last 12 games he ran for 969 yards and seven touchdowns while averaging 12.5 fantasy points per game (which would have ranked sixth in the league over a 16-game span).
However, the Rams did the unthinkable once again and spent an early draft pick on Auburn running back Tre Mason.
The Rams proved last season that it's almost unfair to predict anything when it comes to their backfield. And adding Mason into what seemed like a clear-cut situation has made the waters murky once again.
This is a battle that might not even be decided by the end of training camp, but it should have owners thinking twice about drafting Stacy in the first round of their fantasy drafts this year.
Stepfan Taylor vs. Jon Dwyer, Arizona Cardinals
So far, every training camp battle on this last has been for either a starting or complementary role. However, this one is for a firm backup position.
The Cardinals have made it widely known that Andre Ellington will be their starter, as head coach Bruce Arians said almost sarcastically that Ellington would get 25-30 touches per game. Regardless of whether or not that's true, we know that Ellington will be the starter. The only question is who his backup will be.
This is an interesting situation for the Cardinals. The team has second-year back Stepfan Taylor (who sat behind Ellington and the now-retired Rashard Mendenhall last season) who touched the ball just 44 times last season. It also brought in perennial backup Jonathan Dwyer, whose small body of work is considerably larger than Taylor's since it spans the past four seasons.
This battle hinges almost entirely on how training camp and the preseason play out, as neither back has any sort of advantage at this point.
Pierre Thomas vs. Mark Ingram vs. Khiry Robinson, New Orleans Saints
As they seem to have every year, the Saints have another training camp battle in the backfield this offseason. And slightly less surprisingly, it's between three backs…again.
If fantasy owners were hoping that the departure of Darren Sproles would free up some touches and lead to a star back playing in New Orleans, they were sadly mistaken. Veteran Pierre Thomas, who garnered over 200 touches last season, is still around. As is the 24-year-old Mark Ingram. And second-year back Khiry Robinson figures to get more involved in the offense this year.
No matter who ends up on top of the depth chart at the beginning of the season, the Saints will likely continue to utilize a running back-by-committee approach in 2014. The team has three talented backs, but no real stars. They should all be used in different situations, which is why taking any of them remains a calculated risk.
Doug Martin vs. Charles Sims, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
After an incredible rookie campaign in 2012, Martin came back to earth a bit in 2013 because of a shoulder injury that forced him to miss the final 10 games of the season. Many owners were hoping for a bounce-back season in 2014, but new offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford might make that impossible.
As Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times reported in June, Tedford wants the team to lighten the load on Martin's shoulders by employing a RBBC approach.
That is a phrase that every fantasy owner fears, and it may have taken another star running back from the shrinking pool.
Martin doesn't figure to be a RB1 if the Bucs end up utilizing rookie Charles Sims, Mike James and Bobby Rainey. But it does open the door for the unknown Sims to carve out a role out for himself if he can impress during training camp and the preseason.
This team could end up yielding two viable fantasy options instead of just one this year.
Ray Rice vs. Bernard Pierce, Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens went from believing they had one of the best backfields in the league a year ago to having a complete mess on their hands this year.
With Rice coming off the worst year of his career and having a suspension by the league looming over him, the team must turn somewhere else. Ideally, that would lead them to 23-year-old Bernard Pierce, who has shown flashes of excellence. However, he is coming off shoulder surgery and his play in training camp will likely dictate whether the team starts the season with a RBBC situation or relies solely on Pierce.
Let's also not forget that if Pierce plays well enough to earn the starting job in Week 1, then he will also be pushing to maintain carries when Rice eventually returns from suspension.
It's dicey to take anyone from Baltimore's backfield early in a redraft league because there is simply so much up in the air right now. And if you think that's going to change by the end of training camp, you have another thing coming.
Ben Tate vs. Terrence West vs. Isaiah Crowell, Cleveland Browns
After trading away Trent Richardson last season, the Browns got minimal production from their running backs. However, they figure to get much more this year after signing Tate in free agency, drafting West in the third round and signing undrafted free agent Crowell.
Tate looks like the favorite to win the starting job. He's coming off several good seasons as Arian Foster's backup for the Houston Texans, but will finally get his chance to be a starter in Cleveland.
However, West looks to challenge Tate for the starting job. He's said he wants the job, even though Tate apparently doesn't consider him a threat. Regardless, West may get his chance if Tate gets hurt. And he had serious problems with injuries during his stint in Houston, never playing in 16 games in a season.
And let's not forget that the team signed a former five-star recruit in Crowell. While he went undrafted because of character concerns, he still has a ton of talent and could figure to steal some carries throughout the season.
It will be interesting to see if the Browns decide to use their three new backfield weapons in a RBBC scheme or instead decide to feature one back at a time. That will likely be decided by the end of training camp.
Trent Richardson vs. Ahmad Bradshaw vs. Vick Ballard, Indianapolis Colts
After the Browns traded Richardson to the Colts for a first round pick last season, the college star and rookie standout struggled. He was just plain awful in Indy, averaging just 2.9 yards per carry and failing to live up to the hype surrounding him.
Now, T-Rich figures to fight for touches in preseason alongside Bradshaw and Ballard. However, Richardson seems to have a few big advantages over the other two.
First off, both Bradshaw and Ballard are coming off of major surgeries that ended their seasons last year. It's not easy for running backs to come back from such injuries, and if either struggles because of them that will leave the door open a bit wider for Richardson.
The Colts also want to see Richardson succeed. The team gave up a first round pick for him, and they're hoping that a year with the team to learn the playbook and feel more comfortable will help him succeed. Some reports from the team indicate that he is playing better and could even be a three-down back once again.
While how the load is split will likely be decided during training camp, it seems, for now, that T-Rich has the early edge.
Toby Gerhart vs. Jordan Todman vs. Storm Johnson, Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars' running back situation is simultaneously as clear-cut and murky as possible.
After signing Adrian Peterson's backup, Toby Gerhart, this offseason, coach Gus Bradley said that Gerhart will be a workhorse for the team. As a big, strong back, Gerhart can handle the punishment that will be dealt out as a starter.
However, Gerhart has yet to be tested as an every-down back and his game is lacking in several areas, including burst and quickness. That could leave the door open for someone like Todman or seventh round draft pick Storm Johnson to take some carries away from Gerhart. And let's not forget that Denard Robinson is still in Jacksonville and has been impressing coaches as of late.
While the Jags appear to be prepared to rely heavily on Gerhart, he could end up being another bust for the team, which would leave the door open for someone else.
Shonn Greene vs. Bishop Sankey, Tennessee Titans
The Titans knew they needed a new running back heading into the NFL Draft and predictably took one in the second round. The surprise was that the back they chose was Bishop Sankey over Carlos Hyde.
Sankey enjoyed a productive career at Washington, during which he proved himself to be an every-down back who seemed to get better later in games as he got more touches. The Titans are hoping that can translate over to the NFL.
However, Sankey shouldn't be considered a fantasy star just yet, as the fact remains that there are going to be times when the ball is handed off to other running backs.
Shonn Greene is a bruiser who can certainly take touches away from Sankey. And let's not forget that Dexter McCluster impressed with the first team during OTAs and Jackie Battle looks better than ever, according to Jim Wyatt of The Tennesseean.
While Sankey still looks like the best fantasy play among rookies backs, his role will largely be decided once he attends camp, since he missed OTAs because he was still in school.
Maurice Jones-Drew vs Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders
MJD and Run DMC were among the best backs in the league a few years ago, but have since fallen off the map because of injuries and a lack of production. However, the Raiders are hoping that the two can push each other and create one of the best tandems in the league.
Surprisingly, MJD considered retiring at the end of last season. He just turned 29 in March, but perhaps a recent surgery was the reason he felt he couldn't play anymore. However, he decided to come back and is now hoping to tear it up alongside McFadden.
As for McFadden, he remains the injury-prone player he's been for years. He isn't a reliable fantasy option…but neither is Jones-Drew. Throw in the fact that the two will likely be splitting carries, and neither one seems like anything more than a backup in terms of fantasy production.
Marshawn Lynch vs. Christine Michael, Seattle Seahawks
As long as Lynch wants to play, the job seems to be his. However, if his threat about retiring if he doesn't get a new contract is legit, fantasy owners might want to think twice about spending a first round pick on him.
Michael, on the other hand, is the new, exciting option in Seattle. He is expected to be a fantasy superstar whenever he gets his chance to start for the team, and he improved his stock even further after impressing during OTAs.
The Seahawks may also be thinking about cutting down Lynch's workload. After all, he's taken 901 carries and 87 receptions over the past two seasons. That means a lot of wear and tear on his body. Depending on how the two perform in training camp (and whether or not Lynch even shows up), this backfield could look a little different in 2014.