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NFC Team-by-Team Backfield Breakdown

By Jared Smola | Updated on Tue, 23 May 2023 . 1:27 PM EDT

Let's take a spin around all 16 NFC backfields ...

Arizona Cardinals

Top fantasy target: Andre Ellington
Other notables: Stepfan Taylor, Jonathan Dwyer

There’s no doubt that Ellington is the lead dog in this backfield. The question is just how many touches the Cardinals will give him.

Ellington is listed on at 5’9 and 199 pounds. He’s reportedly packed on 8-10 pounds this offseason but remains on the smaller side for a lead back. Ellington also had foot and ankle surgeries in college and missed games last year with a concussion and MCL sprain.

HC Bruce Arians made headlines this offseason when he said that he expects Ellington to get 25-30 touches per game. That’s obviously not realistic. Even insider Darren Urban’s projection of 20-22 touches per game seems optimistic. Only 11 RBs averaged 20+ touches per game last season.

We have Ellington projected for 276 touches, or 17.3 per game. That’d be enough to make him a high-end RB2 with RB1 upside in PPR leagues.

Of course, our projection of 226 carries for Ellington still leaves around 150 carries for the rest of the RBs. Taylor looks like the best bet to land most of those. Last year’s 5th-round pick is currently listed as the #2 RB on Arizona’s depth chart. If he hangs on to that role, 100+ carries -- including goal-line work -- could make him a viable spot starter.

If Taylor doesn’t improve on last year’s 3.2 yards per carry, Dwyer could take over the #2 job. It’s worth noting that Dwyer received a goal-line carry over Taylor in Arizona’s 2nd preseason game.

Atlanta Falcons

Top fantasy target: Steven Jackson
Other notables: Devonta Freeman, Jacquizz Rodgers

This backfield comes down to 1 question: Can Jackson stay healthy?

As long as he’s on the field, Jackson is still capable of RB2 production, especially in PPR leagues. The Falcons still believe in him as a lead back. Jackson’s well-rounded skill set gives him ample receiving and TD upside.

But this guy turned 31 in July and leads all active RBs with 2,552 career carries. He missed 4 games with a hamstring injury last season and injured the opposite hammy early in this year’s training camp. Jackson seems like a poor bet to make it through all 16 games.

Any missed time will open up opportunity for Freeman and Rodgers.

The rookie is the more intriguing fantasy option. Freeman averaged 5.9 yards per carry last year and became Florida State’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Warrick Dunn way back in 1996. Atlanta believes he’s future lead-back material. But like all rookie RBs, Freeman needs to prove reliable in pass protection. He’s been just “OK” in that facet so far.

Freeman’s progress will likely determine how much action Rodgers sees. He’s been a valuable pass-catching back the past 2 years, totaling 105 grabs. The Falcons have never viewed Rodgers as a lead back, though. He’s reached 12 carries in just 2 games through 3 pro seasons. That limits Rodgers’ upside to bye-week option in PPR leagues.

Carolina Panthers

Top fantasy target: DeAngelo Williams
Other notables: Jonathan Stewart, Mike Tolbert

As usual, this backfield is a fantasy quagmire.

Williams is the best fantasy bet, only because we can trust him more to stay healthy. He’s missed just 1 game over the past 3 seasons. But Williams’ TDs and yards per carry have dropped in 2 straight seasons, bottoming out at 3 scores and 4.2 yards per carry last year. Now 31, he's not likely to bounce back in 2014. Williams would be a weak RB3 for your fantasy squad.

It’s always the same story with Stewart: injury problems. He’s missed 17 games over the last 2 seasons and was sidelined early in camp this year with a bum hamstring. He’s still only 27, which is prime time for RBs. But it’s fair to question if he has anything left. He’s averaged 3.6 and 3.8 yards per carry, respectively, the past 2 years. You certainly shouldn’t be counting on Stewart in fantasy this season, although he’s not a crazy bench stash at his current 16th-round ADP.

Tolbert might be the most reliable guy in this backfield. He just doesn’t come with much fantasy upside. The 5’9, 245-pounder has caught 27 balls and scored 7 TDs in each of his first 2 seasons in Carolina. He finished 37th among RBs in PPR scoring in 2012 and 40th in 2013. It’s tough to see him climbing any higher this year.

Chicago Bears

Top fantasy target: Matt Forte
Other notables: Ka’Deem Carey

Forte will see as many touches as he can handle. His 289 carries last year were 71.5% of Chicago’s total rushing attempts. No player garnered a higher percentage of his team’s carries. And that was with Michael Bush around as the #2 RB. Bush is gone now, and the rest of Chicago’s RB group is unproven. Forte could see an even bigger piece of the pie this season.

Of course, he’ll also play a huge role in the passing game. Forte finished 3rd among all RBs last year with 74 catches. He’s tallied at least 44 catches in each of his 6 NFL seasons. His 341 total grabs over that span rank 3rd at the position.

Carey should eventually emerge as Chicago’s #2 RB. The 4th-round rookie doesn’t impress in the measurables department but is a well-rounded back who posted huge college numbers. His only competitors for the #2 job are Shaun Draughn and Michael Ford. The former has averaged 3.7 yards per carry across 3 NFL seasons. The latter was a 2013 undrafted free agent who didn’t get on the field at all last year.

Look for Carey to win the #2 spot. But he’s unlikely to see more than a handful of touches per game as long as Forte is healthy. Consider Carey just a handcuff.

Dallas Cowboys

Top fantasy target: DeMarco Murray
Other notables: Lance Dunbar, Joseph Randle, Ryan Williams

The biggest difference with this backfield from 2013 to 2014 figures to be the increased action in the passing game. New play-caller Scott Linehan has a long history of getting his RBs involved as receivers. In 10 seasons calling plays, Linehan has produced 8 seasons of 40+ catches by a RB. Six of those guys topped 50 grabs.

It’s not just 1 RB catching balls in Linehan’s system, either. His #2 pass-catching back has reached 25 catches in 8 of his 10 years.

It’s all good news for Murray and Dunbar. Murray has totaled 113 grabs over his first 3 seasons, including a personal-best 53 last year. He’s capable of setting a new career high in 2014.

Dunbar figures to play a significant change-of-pace role, specifically as a pass-catcher. He’s thin on NFL experience but did haul in all 7 of his targets and average 8.4 yards per catch last year. Over his final 4 seasons at North Texas, he racked up 85 grabs with an 11.6-yard average. We like him to emerge as a PPR value this year.

The majority of the ball-carrying duties will fall on Murray’s shoulders. He’s averaging a gaudy 4.9 yards per carry for his career, including 5+ in 2 of 3 seasons. He averaged 15.5 carries per game last year and should be around there again in 2014.

Of course, Murray has had trouble staying on the field. He entered the league with an injury-prone label and has missed 11 games over his first 3 seasons.

If Murray misses more time this year, we’ll likely see a committee with Dunbar and the winner of the Randle/Williams battle. Randle is in the lead there, running ahead of Williams in each of Dallas’ first 2 preseason games. But Dunbar is the top Murray handcuff thanks to his running and pass-catching ability.

Detroit Lions

Top fantasy target: Joique Bell
Other notables: Reggie Bush, Theo Riddick

The Lions offense is now being run by Joe Lombardi, who spent the past 5 seasons under Sean Payton in New Orleans. The Saints, of course, tend to deploy committee backfields. And we’ll likely see the same in Detroit this season.

We’re projecting Bell to lead the team in carries. At 5’11 and 220 pounds, he looks and runs like a power back. Only 5 RBs forced more missed tackles per carry last season, per Pro Football Focus. Bell’s 2.3 yards after contact per carry ranked 13th. He was a stud near the goal line, converting 7 of 10 carries inside the 5-yard line into scores.

This isn’t some stone-handed ogre, though. Bell is also a plus pass-catcher. His 53 grabs last year ranked 10th among RBs. His 547 receiving yards were good for 6th. That well-rounded skill set makes him a major asset for both the Lions and fantasy owners.

If Lombardi is bringing the Saints offense to Detroit, Bush will step into the role of … Bush. He spent his first 5 seasons with the Saints, averaging 140 carries, 557 rushing yards, 78 catches, 571 yards and 8 TDs per 16 games. We’re projecting a slightly bigger ball-carrying role, but Bush won’t approach those 78 receptions in Detroit’s loaded pass-catching corps. He’s still a fine RB2 in PPR leagues.

Riddick is the question mark in this backfield. He’s been buzzing all offseason and seems ready to take on a significant role. But where will the touches come from in an offense that features Bell, Bush, Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate and a deep TE group? Until we know for sure what Riddick’s role will be, consider him just a late-round flier in PPR leagues.

Green Bay Packers

Top fantasy target: Eddie Lacy
Other notables: James Starks

It didn’t take long for Lacy to emerge as Green Bay’s workhorse last year. After being limited by injury early on, he racked up 269 carries over the final 13 regular-season contests. Lacy reached 20 carries in 9 of those 13 games. No RB toted the rock more over that span.

Lacy was also plenty busy in the passing game, tallying 34 catches for 226 yards over those final 13 games. Both marks ranked among the top 25 RBs.

He could be even busier this season. Lacy should be more comfortable in the offense this year. And remember that he was plagued by a bum ankle for the final 4 games of last season. The Packers have talked about keeping Lacy on the field for more snaps this year so that they can increase their offensive tempo.

Worried about a healthy Aaron Rodgers meaning fewer carries for Lacy? Don’t be. Lacy actually averaged 22 carries per game in 6 full outings with Rodgers last year vs. 16.9 in the other 9. Rodgers increases the fantasy upside of the entire offense.

Behind Lacy sits James Starks, who set career highs with 5.5 yards per carry and 8.9 yards per catch last year. Of course, he only topped 12 touches in the 2 games where Lacy missed time, so he wasn’t a reliable fantasy option. Expect a similar role in 2014. But Starks is a top-notch handcuff for a RB with a lengthy injury history.

Minnesota Vikings

Top fantasy target: Adrian Peterson
Other notables: Jerick McKinnon, Matt Asiata

Expect Peterson to be as busy as ever this season. New OC Norv Turner has a long history of deploying a workhorse back. He’s had a 300-carry RB in 12 of his 23 seasons calling plays. Nine of those guys topped 330 totes.

Turner has coached some super-talented RBs -- Emmitt Smith, LaDainian Tomlinson, Ricky Williams -- but you could certainly argue that Peterson will be the best he’s ever worked with. Expect Turner to ride his stud. 300 carries are easily within reach.

On top of that, the Vikings have talked all offseason about getting AP more involved in the passing game. He’s been a reliable receiver throughout his career, with a 71.5% catch rate and 8.2 yards per reception. But he’s never topped 57 targets or 43 catches in a season. Peterson could set new career highs in both categories in 2014. Note that Turner has produced ten 50-catch seasons from his lead backs.

McKinnon and Asiata will need a Peterson injury to even sniff fantasy value this year. McKinnon is the more intriguing talent. The 5’9, 209-pounder clocked a 4.41-second 40 time at the Combine. He also ranked among the top 3 RBs in the bench press, vertical jump, broad jump and 3-cone drill. But McKinnon has very little experience as a RB in a pro-style offense. He probably isn’t ready for a feature role this year, so expect a committee attack with him and Asiata if Peterson goes down. Neither guy is a strong handcuff.

New Orleans Saints

Top fantasy target: Pierre Thomas
Other notables: Mark Ingram, Khiry Robinson

We know what Thomas’ role will be. He’ll dominate passing-down work in the Saints backfield and see anywhere from 5-12 carries per contest depending on game flow.

PT set a career high and led all RBs last year with 77 catches. While it’s tough to expect him to match that in 2014, he could come close considering Darren Sproles and the 101 targets he averaged over the past 3 seasons are gone.

Thomas also matched a career high with 147 carries last year. How close he comes to that mark in 2014 will depend on the performance of the other 2 guys in this backfield. Thomas is a good bet for at least 100 totes, though. And you’re drafting him for the receiving numbers anyways. He’s a low-end RB2 in PPR leagues.

The real intrigue here lies in the battle for early-down work between Ingram and Robinson. Ingram has been written off by most as a bust after 3 mostly disappointing seasons. But he’s still only 24 and closed last season by averaging 5.7 yards per carry over his final 4 games.

Robinson has developed a bit of a cult following after word leaked that Bill Parcells likened Robinson to Hall-of-Famer Curtis Martin. Robinson went undrafted last year but flashed with lines of 8-45 and 13-57-1 in the postseason.

We’re expecting an increased role for Robinson in 2014. But ultimately, this will be a committee attack. That makes Ingram a better value at his 14th-round ADP than Robinson in the 12th.

New York Giants

Top fantasy target: Rashad Jennings
ther notables: Andre Williams

Williams has been the hot name in this backfield since training camp opened. He’s been getting 1st-team goal-line work and has averaged 4.6 yards per carry on 22 preseason carries so far.

Jennings ripped off a 73-yard TD in New York’s 2nd preseason game. And no one said a word. That’s fine by us. He continues to be 1 of our favorite mid-round RB values.

The Giants signed Jennings to a 4-year, $10 million deal on the very 1st day of free agency. He has the type of reliable, well-rounded game that HC Tom Coughlin covets. Jennings has lost just 1 fumble on 387 career carries. He’s a no-nonsense runner and is dependable in the passing game.

It’s in the passing game where Jennings really separates from Williams. The rookie is a zero as a receiver. Literally. He didn’t catch a single pass last season, despite operating as Boston College’s feature back. He finished his 4-year college career with 10 catches for 60 yards.

That lack of pass-catching ability limits Williams’ fantasy upside. Even if he impresses as a runner, he won’t be on the field in passing situations. Ultimately, we’re expecting him to see 6-10 carries per game, including plenty of goal-line action. It makes him a bye-week option with the potential to become an every-week RB3 or flex in non-PPR leagues.

Jennings will serve as New York’s lead back. He’s a good bet to top 200 carries and has 50-catch upside. That makes him a bargain at his 6th-round ADP.

Philadelphia Eagles

Top fantasy target: LeSean McCoy
Other notables: Darren Sproles, Chris Polk

This is Shady’s backfield. He led the league with 314 carries last year. That was partly due to Philly finishing 4th in the NFL in rushing attempts. But McCoy’s 62.8% share of the carries also ranked 4th league-wide.

Expect him to see a similar percentage in 2014. Sproles arrived via trade but is unlikely to play a major ball-carrying role. He’s topped 53 totes just once in the past 4 seasons. And the 31-year-old averaged just 4.2 yards per carry in 2013. Polk is nowhere near talented enough to take a significant bite out of McCoy’s workload. Sproles and Polk are unlikely to see much more than the 86 carries Eagles backup RBs totaled last year.

Sproles’ biggest impact will come as a receiver. Only 2 active RBs have more than his 378 career catches. Sproles is now 31 years old but hasn’t shown signs of slowing down as a receiver. His 8.5 yards per catch last season was right in line with his career average. He also received his best overall grade from Pro Football Focus in the past 7 years.

You can bet the innovative Chip Kelly will get the most out of this guy. Sproles won’t reach the 77 catches he averaged in New Orleans, but he should at least remain in the RB3 conversation in PPR leagues.

Polk carried just 11 times last year but averaged a juicy 8.9 yards per. That was enough for the Eagles to trade Bryce Brown this offseason and roll with Polk as the primary backup. Don’t expect more than a handful of carries per game, but Polk would become a fantasy starter if McCoy goes down.

San Francisco 49ers

Top fantasy target: Carlos Hyde
Other notables: Frank Gore, Marcus Lattimore, LaMichael James

We’re fully expecting Gore to lead this backfield in fantasy points this season. But we’re not very interested in drafting him.

He turned 31 in May and has racked up 2,187 career regular-season carries. Among active RBs, only Steven Jackson has more. Simply put, Gore is well past the point when most RBs hit the wall.

He started showing signs of slowing down last season, averaging a career-low 4.1 yards per rush. Even more alarming is that his per-carry average dropped to 3.8 over his final 8 regular-season games and 3.4 in 3 playoff contests.

Perhaps he has another quality season in him. But we’d rather jump off the bandwagon a year too early than a year too late.

Even if Gore does stay healthy and productive this season, the 49ers seem ready to reduce his workload. They traded up in the 2nd round of May’s draft to add RB Carlos Hyde to an already-deep backfield.

ESPN’s Bill Williamson projects about 220 carries for Gore this season. That still would have ranked 16th league-wide last year but would be 56 fewer carries then he garnered in 2013. Factor in the reduced efficiency and limited use in the passing game and it’s tough to get excited about Gore’s fantasy prospects. Interestingly, we have Gore projected at 221 carries, which lands him at #30 in our PPR rankings and #27 in non-PPR.

Hyde is the more intriguing fantasy option, especially since you can get him 3-4 rounds later. He was widely considered the top RB in the 2014 class and seems ready-made for San Francisco’s physical style of football. At 6’0 and 230 pounds, he’s a true power back. Look for Hyde to quickly assume a complementary role behind Gore. And if the veteran’s late-2013 decline continues -- or he gets hurt -- the rookie’s workload could grow throughout the season.

Neither Lattimore nor James is draft-worthy at this point. The former still isn’t over his devastating 2012 knee injury. The latter has struggled to carve out a role through 2 seasons and is recovering from a dislocated elbow suffered early in camp.

Seattle Seahawks

Top fantasy target: Christine Michael
Other notables: Marshawn Lynch, Robert Turbin

You know how we feel about Lynch. We’re not interested in drafting him unless he drops deep into the 3rd round -- and that’s not happening.

That doesn’t mean we don’t think he’ll lead this backfield in fantasy points. He’ll remain the top dog as long as his body holds up.

But he’s unlikely to see the 300 carries he’s averaged over the past 3 seasons. The Seahawks figure to throw the ball at a higher clip this year, with QB Russell Wilson entering his 3rd season and WR Percy Harvin healthy. Plus, it sounds like Seattle wants to get RB Christine Michael more involved.

The 2013 2nd-round pick was basically red-shirted last year, carrying just 18 times. But the Seahawks brass has been talking him up all offseason. HC Pete Carroll called him the team’s “biggest breakout candidate.” GM John Schneider labeled him 1 of the team’s “most explosive players.”

It’s worth noting that Michael still sits behind RB Robert Turbin on Seattle’s most recent depth chart. That seems like semantics, though. Turbin is reliable in both the run and pass games, but he’s nowhere near as talented as Michael. If Lynch goes down, look for Michael to step in as Seattle’s lead back. Turbin would retain passing-down duties.

At minimum, Michael is a top-notch handcuff. And it’s plenty possible that he carves out a big enough role to be a fantasy factor even if Lynch remains healthy.

St. Louis Rams

Top fantasy target: Zac Stacy
Other notables: Tre Mason, Benny Cunningham

The Rams project as 1 of the run-heaviest teams in the league, which means there could be enough to go around for 2 fantasy assets to emerge. Who that #2 guy will be is unclear at this point.

Mason brings the name value. He popped off 1,816 yards and 23 TDs at Auburn last year and was named SEC Player of the Year. But he has a significant transition to make in the pros after playing in Auburn’s spread offense.

Mason is listed as the #4 RB on St. Louis’ most recent depth chart. But that could just be a case of making a rookie earn his spot. Mason had a nice preseason debut, carrying 15 times for 51 yards and drawing praise for his pass protection from OC Brian Schottenheimer. He wasn’t as good in the 2nd exhibition, managing just 30 yards on 12 totes.

Don’t sleep on Cunningham, though. An undrafted rookie last year, Cunningham averaged 5.6 yards on his 47 carries. He’s worked ahead of Mason all offseason and has averaged a healthy 4.8 yards per carry through 2 preseason games.

Our money is still on Mason serving as St. Louis’ #2 RB based on his talent and draft status. Until a clear winner emerges, though, it’s tough to recommend either guy as more than a late-round handcuff.

Regardless of who is the #2, Stacy will be the clear lead back. He turned in a workmanlike rookie season, carrying 249 times over the final 12 games. Only Eddie Lacy toted the rock more often during that span. More importantly, Stacy was fantasy’s #8 RB in non-PPR and #9 in PPR.

Don’t expect him to average the 20.8 carries per game this season that he did over that 12-game stretch. (That’d give him 332 for the season.) But Stacy has a good chance to finish among the top 10 in carries. Our projection of 283 puts him 5th.

That workload will support Stacy as an every-week RB2. He’s a fine value at his 3.08 ADP.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Top fantasy target: Doug Martin
Other notables: Charles Sims, Mike James, Bobby Rainey

There’s been talk of a committee attack in Tampa Bay all offseason.

That’d be a different feel for Martin, who was the definition of a workhorse back in 2012. As a rookie, he garnered a whopping 76.7% of the team’s carries. Martin’s 319 totes ranked 4th league-wide.

He was even busier early last year. Martin totaled 116 carries in his 5 full games, a full-season pace of 371.

He’s unlikely to reach that mark in 2014. Tampa has assembled a deep backfield, adding rookie Sims to Martin, James and Rainey. But Sims is expected to miss at least the first half of the season with a broken ankle suffered in practice.

Sims looked like the biggest threat to Martin’s workload. The 3rd-round pick averaged 5.9 yards per carry and caught 203 balls over 4 college seasons. HC Lovie Smith talked up Sims on a couple occasions over the past 2 months.

"We just felt like Charles would bring something else," Smith said. "I'm talking about as a pass catcher out of the backfield. He has excellent hands, great quickness. He gives us a little more in the passing game than what we've had."

The rookie seemed primed for a significant pass-catching role immediately. Those duties will now go back to Martin, though.

James and Rainey both flashed on occasion with Martin sidelined last season. The winner of that battle could see 6-8 carries per game, but that’d still leave him short of reliable fantasy value.

As for the lead back in Tampa, Martin remains a good bet for 275+ total touches. And he could top 300 now that Sims is sidelined. That makes Martin a borderline RB1 worth considering in the late 2nd or early 3rd round of your fantasy draft.

Washington Redskins

Top fantasy target: Alfred Morris
Other notables: Roy Helu, Chris Thompson, Lache Seastrunk

A new coaching staff has the roles in the Redskins backfield a bit cloudy.

Morris was an ideal fit in former HC Mike Shanahan’s offense. How much credit Shanny deserves for Morris’ 2,885 yards over the past 2 seasons remains to be seen. It’s worth noting, though, that Morris has fared well in Pro Football Focus’ individual metrics. He ranked 9th among RBs in yards after contact per carry in 2012 and then moved up to 8th last year. He finished 3rd and 5th, respectively, in missed tackles forced.

New HC Jay Gruden deployed a committee attack last year with BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Gio Bernard. But that was only because the personnel dictated it. In his first 2 seasons as Bengals OC, Gruden handed his lead backs (Cedric Benson and Green-Ellis) 273 and 278 carries, respectively.

Washington doesn’t have a Bernard on the roster to turn this into a committee. Morris won’t see the 335 carries he did in 2012, but he’s certainly capable of reaching last year’s 276.

That won’t leave a whole lot of carries for Helu, who looks like the strong favorite to open the season as the #2 back. But Helu should see plenty of action as a receiver. He’s averaged 2.6 catches per game through 3 NFL seasons -- a 16-game pace of 41 grabs -- with a healthy 7.8-yard average. With the Redskins’ loaded group of pass-catchers, though, it’s tough to see Helu garnering enough targets to be a reliable fantasy option.

The 5’8, 193-pound Thompson has had trouble staying healthy, suffering a season-ending shoulder injury last year and missing time in training camp this year with a sprained ankle. There was talk this spring that he could carve out a change-of-pace role, but he needs to stay on the field before he can even think about making a fantasy impact.

Seastrunk is an electric runner who averaged a gaudy 7.6 yards per carry at Baylor. But that was a spread offense, so Seastrunk has a big adjustment to make in the pros. And he needs major work in the passing game. The rookie would need a Morris injury to have a chance at fantasy value this year.

Jared Smola Author Image
Jared Smola, Lead Analyst
Jared has been with Draft Sharks since 2007. He’s now Lead Analyst, heading up the preseason and weekly projections that fuel your Draft War Room and My Team tools. He currently ranks 1st among 133 analysts in draft rankings accuracy.
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