Running Back Upgrades In PPR Leagues
May 28, 2013 | C.D. Carter
Running backs with heavy involvement in a team’s passing game, like quarterbacks who tack on a few points with rushing yards every week, give fantasy footballers a little cushion that we don’t find with many two-down runners. Think of a back’s reliable receptions as a kind of fail-safe.
But we’ve already talked about that, haven’t we?
Projecting running backs who deserve the attention of your fevered brains this summer are largely related to a change in teams or a shift in offensive scheme – not prior year’s usage. This, clearly, can prove a bit tricky, though I wouldn’t include a back on this list if I didn’t think there was something to the “coachspeak” coming out of their respective camps.
Here are five backs who are in for a heavy passing game workload this year. I’m upgrading every one of these guys in point per reception leagues – to different extents – and I think you should too.
Read more about PPR running back rankings…
Running Back Downgrades in PPR Leagues
Darren Sproles, RB, New Orleans Saints: This almost goes without saying, but alas, Sproles is the preeminent pass-catching back in one of the NFL’s most fantasy friendly offenses. He’s one of the only backs who could pile on 10 fantasy points in a single drive without scoring a touchdown. Sean Payton or no Payton, Sproles is once again primed to lead all runner in targets, as he compiled 93 looks from Drew Brees in 2012. Sproles led all backs with 75 receptions, despite missing three games.
And in case it’s slipped your mind, Sproles caught more passes than any running back in 2011 (86). Sproles, even before he was a Saint, was a top-5 pass-catching back in San Diego in 2010. He’s currently being drafted as the 21st running back off the board. In PPR leagues, you should treat him as a top-12 option.
Matt Forte, RB, Chicago Bears: Forte’s value comes largely from owners’ dismissal of the runner as a guy who won’t get many goal line looks (and even when he has been given the rock at the goal line, he’s had limited success). Take advantage of this. Bears head coach Marc Trestman is expected to use his tried-and-true pass-as-run scheme in 2013 – the same one that turned Oakland Raiders running back Charlie Garner into a PPR deity in the early-2000s, when Trestman captained the Oakland offense. Forte somehow managed to finish 2012 as a top-10 pass-catching running back.
Trestman, who bemoaned Forte’s paltry 60 targets in 2012, said he watched every single reception from Forte’s 2010 campaign, when he snagged 51 catches. “He had a lot of catches from different positions, on the line of scrimmage, from the backfield,” Trestman said. “We want him to be a complete back, and he has the ability to do that.”
Forte is being drafted as RB11 today. I wouldn’t hesitate to take him as a top-7 runner in PPR leagues, as 70 receptions isn’t out of the question in Trestman’s pass-heavy scheme.
Reggie Bush, RB, Detroit Lions: It’d be tough to argue a PPR value boost for a guy who caught all of 35 balls last year as a Miami Dolphin. Let’s see what Lions head coach Jim Schwartz has to say about Bush’s pass game usage in 2013: “This is a guy who can potentially catch 60-to-70-to-80 balls, depending on how you use him.”
Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell combined to catch 86 passes last season in the most vertical offense in the history of the league, making Schwartz’s 80-catch prediction within reach, if slightly on the optimistic side. Bush is the 17th running back off of mock draft boards; he should get a bump of at least four spots in PPR formats.
Shane Vereen, RB, New England Patriots: The Patriots’ offense didn’t exactly prioritize passes to running backs last season, with Vereen, Stevan Ridley, Danny Woodhead, and Brandon Bolden combining for just 74 targets in 2012. For a touch of perspective: three players – Ray Rice, Darren Sproles, and Marcel Reece – had more targets by themselves.
Ridley, as we’ve discussed at length, is simply not a part of the New England passing attack, and Vereen was spectacular in that role in the team’s two playoff games, nabbing seven receptions of nine targets for 105 yards and two touchdowns. Vereen was occasionally split out wide, meaning his value wouldn’t be limited simply to dinks and dunks out of the backfield. With Woodhead gone, it’s only natural for Vereen to assume his workload.
It’s a miniature sample size, I know, but Vereen averaged .62 fantasy points per opportunity in PPR leagues on 88 total touches last season, according to PFF. That sort of wild efficiency will ebb when his workload jumps, but I think it speaks well of his production with extraordinarily limited usage.
Oh, and the New England sports media has already begun chatter about two 1,00-yard backs in the Patriots’ backfield. While there’s hype that should get the cold shoulder from fantasy owners every offseason, I think talk of Vereen as a cog in a potent New England offense is worth paying attention to. Vereen is now the 36th running back coming off of draft boards. By August, he could easily be in the RB25 range.
Danny Woodhead, RB, San Diego Chargers: The Chargers didn’t bring in Woodhead from New England this offseason to rot on their bench in 2013. He’s going to be used on passing downs, just as Ronnie Brown’s zombie replaced Ryan Mathews on most obvious passing situations in 2012.
Only 12 running backs caught more passes than Woodhead in 2012, who had 40 receptions, tying Arian Foster and Adrian Peterson. Woodhead, it should be noted, scored .46 fantasy points per opportunity last season, according to Pro Football Focus. His efficiency – even if it was bolstered by four rushing scores – isn’t in question. Woodhead, especially for a pint-sized back, has proven a reliable pass blocker, allowing just two sacks in pass-blocking 156 snaps in 2012. Mathews, on the other hand, has allowed five sacks on 89 pass-blocking opportunities, according to PFF.
Media reports have been nothing but encouraging during Woodhead’s first few months in San Diego. “Woodhead looked comfortable in the practice I watched on Monday,” Tom Krasovic wrote in a May 23 U-T San Diego article. “He seemed to grasp the new system. He looked quick and decisive.”
Woodhead could be one of the better PPR values this season. He’s RB47 today, coming off the board after a handful of backup running backs with no PPR appeal. I’d value Woodhead as a top-40 PPR back, with room for a bigger bump if Mathews, once again, loses the faith of his coaches.