DeMarco Murray lit up the NFL for an incredible 1,845 yards and 13 touchdowns last season, helping the Dallas Cowboys win the NFC East crown and post a 12-4 record as one of the top teams in the conference. Now, it might have been a coincidence that last season Murray played a full 16-game schedule for the first time in his career, and it just so happened to be his final year under contract with Dallas before he became an unrestricted free agent.
The Cowboys might have felt Murray put up the best year of his career because his deal was up, and wound up balking at his contract demands to see him sign with the rival Philadelphia Eagles for $40 million ($21 million guaranteed) over five years. But any fantasy owner who happened to balk at Murray’s better-than-average play in his three previous seasons and made him their starting running back reaped huge dividends in 2014.
This year shouldn't be much different with several running backs entering the final year of their contracts, just like Murray, and capable of putting up some astounding or at least above average numbers to garner a lucrative deal next year.
After delving into quarterbacks, wide receivers, and tight ends, we’ll complete our early series of undervalued fantasy players entering critical seasons with arguably the most important position in all of fantasy: running backs.
The early projections from FantasyPros.com have nine running backs off board in the first 12 picks of a 12-team league, and in the second round, three more backs are gone. Thus, half of the first two rounds in a 12-team league are devoted to running backs.
With training camps still a couple of months away, the top-rated back is the Chiefs' Jamaal Charles, followed by the Packers' Eddie Lacy and the Vikings' Adrian Peterson -- all of whom are capable of carrying your squad in 2015.
But there’s lots of unheralded value that owners can snag in the later rounds this season.
Here are eight running backs, with some competing against each other, that are up for new deals and could explode in the upcoming season.
Alfred Morris, Washington Redskins
Since posting a stellar 1,613 yards and 13 touchdowns in rookie season, Morris’ yards and touchdown totals have declined over the last two seasons. But he’s one of the most durable running backs in the NFL having never missed a game or a start since he entered the league.
Furthermore, Morris’ awesome rookie year coincided with quarterback Robert Griffin III’s, and now Washington’s signal caller should be healthy heading into 2015. Last year, Morris still put up his third-straight 1,000-yard season and was tied for third in the league with nine rushes of more than 20 yards, despite three different quarterbacks starting under center.
Morris is still currently projected as the 12th back and No. 25 player overall, but by the end of 2015 some owners might regret not taking him sooner.
Bobby Rainey and Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
One of several position battles, and the first of two on this list, Martin and Rainey must also compete with Charles Sims for the starting spot in 2015. However, Sims contract isn't up after next season and both Martin and Rainey’s are.
After missing all but six games in 2013 because of a shoulder injury, which was a shame after totaling 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns in his rookie year, Martin then missed five games last season with various knee and ankle snags. That gave Rainey the chance to swoop in and rack up 406 yards and a touchdown at 4.3 yards per carry over 15 games last year, compared to 3.7 yards per carry for Martin.
Rainey signed a one-year tender offer with the Bucs, which means he might not even make the roster, but if he does owners will need to monitor Tampa Bay’s OTAs and training camp to see who emerges as the No. 1 back. Its possible head coach Lovie Smith goes with a triumvirate of Martin, Rainey, and Sims, which would diminish most of their fantasy value. But if one is chosen over the others it could prove fruitful in the fantasy season.
Martin’s the 34th back listed, and Rainey’s not even on the board, which means either could be a steal in the later rounds.
Lamar Miller, Miami Dolphins
Miller’s coming off a career year with 1,099 yards and eight touchdowns, and he’s seeking a contract just like his quarterback Ryan Tannehill received earlier this month. He’s missed only three games over the last three seasons, and Miller should be the starter in Week 1. But he’s also the 18th back off the board and No. 44 player selected overall.
Picking up Miller in the third or fourth round represents very little risk, and he could be paired with any of the running backs currently ranked higher. Furthermore, there’s little competition behind Miller with only rookie Jay Ajayi a serious threat heading into training camp.
Matt Asiata, Minnesota Vikings
Adrian Peterson’s ongoing saga with the Vikings is getting ugly with head coach Mike Zimmer telling NFL Network that he’ll either play for the Vikings or no one else. If he does play, than Asiata’s value diminishes considerably and owners might hold on to him only if Peterson shows signs of rust after a year away from the game or as a handcuff for red zone opportunities.
Asiata netted nine touchdowns and 570 yards at 3.5 yards per carry last season, and though Jerick McKinnon was better per carry at 4.8 yards per attempt, Asiata’s proven he can punch into the end zone. He’s making only $800,000 next season, and at age 27 Asiata can still audition for other teams around the league and get a major deal in 2016.
He’s the 51st back off the board, and No. 180 overall, which is fair with Peterson on the roster. But if the saga continues, Asiata might be worth a gamble in the early to late teen rounds, or maybe higher if we have more information after training camps wrap up.
Matt Forte, Chicago Bears
For Bears fans it's good news that Forte isn’t holding out for a new deal, but only seven months away from turning 30 years old it would be understandable if he did. His fantasy value is incredible, especially in PPR leagues. Last season he snagged 102 receptions for 808 yards and four scores, on top of his 1,038 rushing yards and six touchdowns.
Forte’s ranked as the No. 6 back and seventh overall player, both excellent rankings, but he might be higher if not for quarterback Jay Cutler. Cutler’s propensity for turnovers hurts the Bears scoring chances and thus Forte’s value. But with Peterson’s future in doubt, and the Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch potentially regressing after he signed a new lucrative deal, Forte might be undervalued. He’s a first round pick for sure, but if you’re choosing late in the first round and the choice comes down to Forte or a high-scoring receiver or quarterback, take Forte.
Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson, Denver Broncos
Another major position battle, with this one deciding who gets to benefit from Peyton Manning. Hillman will be an unrestricted free agent while Anderson’s options will be restricted next year. But both stand to benefit next year from winning the starting nod.
Losing the top spot after appendectomy surgery last August, Montee Ball is also in this mix. Ball said last month that the starting job is Anderson’s for now. Anderson exploded for 767 of his 849 total yards and eight touchdowns over the last eight games of last season, while Hillman did most of his damage in the first two months.
Anderson’s projected as the safer pick of the three as the No. 10 back selected and No. 19 overall, with Hillman at No. 159 overall, and Ball currently unlisted. This battle will be a huge subtext to the fantasy season. It may be wise to stay on top of the Broncos' camp and OTAs.