Fantasy: Four Backfields To Avoid Like, Well, You Know

Unless you play in some sort of circus league with three tight ends, two kickers, and three quarterbacks, the backbone of any reasonably successful fantasy football operation is the running back. In today's NFL, with pass-wacky chuckleheads seeming to run all 32 of the league's offenses, and quarterbacks throwing three dozen or more deep post routes per league, it's even harder to ensure you have a true foundation player at your running back position.

Le'Veon Bell is suspended. Jamaal Charles is an "injury risk." Eddie Lacy has suffered a concussion, which is always worrisome, no matter what the league may tell you. (Hint, Washington franchise: there's no such thing as a "mild" concussion; you either are concussed or you're not, much like pregnancy. It's not horseshoes, folks. You're welcome, Stephania Bell!

Adrian Peterson is...well, we know how I feel about him. Marshawn Lynch is playing essentially behind a wall of empty metal trash cans at this point. Did you know the Seahawks have two converted defensive linemen slated to start on the offensive side of the ball? I did, and it's freaking terrifying.

Basically, what I'm saying is there isn't a clear-cut, worry-free 100% stud running back, but we all know this. If you're yet to draft this season (and if you're smart, you are), more important than knowing the varying mild weaknesses of the big names is realizing which teams to avoid entirely; the teams with just enough hype to seem intriguing. Those dark horses who may lure you in with preseason flashes, unknown rookie potential, or even "well, they can't possibly be as bad as they were last season"-ness, you know what I'm talking about.

Fear not, my friend, and allow me to guide you around these pitfalls.

To answer your question: yes, they certainly can be as bad as they were last season.

Cleveland Browns

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Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

I hate to keep piling on the poor Browns, but I mean, what other choice do I have? Even just taking the rushing into account, let's look at how the team's fantasy-relevant running backs have fared individually so far this preseason (assuming no starters will play in the final preseason game, which I think is safe to do), according to both statistics and Pro Football Focus' grading system:

Isaiah Crowell (presumptive starter): 17 carries, 47 yards (2.8 YPC), 0 TD

Grade: -1.9

Terrance West: 22 carries, 78 yards (3.5 YPC), 0 TD

Grade: 0.0

Duke Johnson: 1 carry, 4 yards, 0 TD. 

Grade: 0.0

Just for fun, would you like to guess who the team's highest-graded rusher is in the 2015 season? I'll give you a few seconds.


It's not Johnny Manziel, sadly (five carries, 31 yards, one TD, grade of 0.3).

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Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Surprise! It's Josh McCown! Yes, you read that correctly. Josh McCown, with three carries for 20 yards, is the highest-graded rusher the Browns have managed to drag onto a football field so far in 2015, at a whopping 1.1. To put that into a bit of focus, the highest-graded runner in the league in the preseason (with at least 10 carries) is undrafted rookie sensation Zach Zenner of the Detroit Lions; Zenner has rushed 17 times for 77 yards but has yet to find the end zone, good for a 3.2 grade.

And so, I project the Cleveland backfield as such: Crowell will be fine, until he fumbles. Or gets hurt. Or drops head coach Mike Pettine's coffee on the way to a Monday team meeting. Crowell and West essentially split the backfield duties 50-50 in 2014, making starting either man an entirely suspect decision, not to mention their final season grades (-4.4 for West, -5.6 for Crowell). Neither back topped 700 yards, and while Crowell did score eight times, even the return of All-World center Alex Mack to health can't rescue this semi-three-headed dumpster fire.

Atlanta Falcons

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Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

It may not surprise you, but that's the only real in-game photo of a Falcons running back of any fantasy relevance so far in 2015. So take a good look at Tevin Coleman, making one of his four carries (for two yards, mind you). His only real competition for the starting position, Devonta Freeman, hasn't even taken a preseason snap. Both he and Coleman have nursed various injuries this offseason, true, but this offensive line hasn't provided much evidence of fixing its 2014 woes, where Freeman only mustered 65 carries for 257 yards behind an aging Steven Jackson.

Coleman was a stunner while a student-athlete at Indiana, absolutely, but...Indiana isn't even really the Big Ten, let alone the NFL. Between the injury concerns, lack of depth and poor offensive line play, I'm staying as far away from the red and black as I can.

#RiseUp to a better pick here, is all I'm saying.

Tennessee Titans

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Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Side note: I'm loving the USA Today photographers getting these perfectly-timed photos, by the way.

Anywho, back to business. Bishop Sankey was the first running back taken in the 2014 NFL Draft, and his campaign as the main back for the Titans didn't exactly pan out how they had hoped:  152 carries, 575 yards (3.8 YPC), two TDs and an overall PFF grade of -0.5. He was pretty much a wasteland every single week he played, never topping 61 yards, and he failed to score after Week 11.

The Titans realized this, however, not being a complete disaster of a franchise. They chose David Cobb in the fifth round of this year's draft, under I assume the "nobody could be worse than the guy we already have" concept used to such success by their 2015 Week 1 opponent, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with their first overall pick.

Jameis Winston is just awful, you guys. Seriously. 

But I digress. In the preseason so far, Sankey has accrued 20 carries for 80 yards, while Cobb has 19 totes for 79 yards.

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Curious. Sankey has the advantage in missed tackles (five to one), yards after contact (45 to 37) and longest run (19 to 10), but has also fumbled once while Cobb has yet to mishandle the rock.

In a close race between two clear losers, can there even truly be a winner? You, if you #TitanUp and avoid them entirely. Note to the Titans social media team: you couldn't think of a better, less derivative hashtag? Come on, guys.

Dallas Cowboys

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Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Calm down! Put the pitchforks down, good lord. I know what I'm doing here, trust me.

Repeat after me:

The sky is blue.
The sun rises in the east.
Water is wet.
Darren McFadden is terrible.

These are all things humanity has known since the dawn of recorded history (or, in McFadden's case, the dawn of his career), and are in no danger of changing any time soon.

Removing McFadden's outlier season of 2010 (13 games, 223 carries, 1,157 yards and seven scores), he's, well, not good. He's never topped 707 yards, 216 carries or five scores in any other season; oh yeah, he's never played more than those 13 games in a single campaign either, with seven or fewer games started in four of his six non-outlier years.

He stinks, and it's unfair, I get it. I feel for him, I truly do. The combination of injuries, and being stuck in Oakland is unduly draining on a player's soul, but even a change of venue can't change this Razorback's, uh, spines? Is that what a wild hog has?

Then there's Joseph Randle, the "man who wins the job by default," because Jerry Jones is stubborn and didn't draft a running back this year. Sure, if Randle were the only guy in Dallas, he might be a solid RB2 for you. That is, if he's more of the 2014, 6.7 YPC guy than the 2013, 3.0 YPC guy, but he's not.

"But you idiot!" you're exclaiming. "Dallas has the best offensive line in football! You said yourself that Jason Witten was a solid tight end because of the Cowboys going back to a more bala...oh, right."

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That's right, weirdly-on-point reader. I did say that. The reason Witten's 2013 campaign is more predictive (I feel) of 2015 than last year is that '13 saw less of a workload for DeMarco Murray (only 217 carries), out of fear for his health. Obviously, last season was a total script-flip for the Cowboys, but I truly think they'll want to limit both of these backs to around 200 carries (should everything go as last season did), but game flow may not allow that. The defense may likely not be as dominant, allowing the 'Boys to focus on pounding with that impressive offensive line. Either way, if you must draft one of these two running backs, you're kind of signing up to roster both; and much like handcuffing, I don't ascribe to that kind of thinking.

As always, never drink and draft!

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