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RB Risers

By Jared Smola 6:19am EDT 7/25/13

With training camps underway, teams are releasing their initial depth charts.

They're written in pencil, though.  Change is constant in the NFL.  Players are always jockeying for snaps and touches.  And that creates opportunity for fantasy football owners.

There isn't as much shuffling at RB as there is at other positions.  But that just makes it even more important to pinpoint RBs that could wrestle away starting jobs.

Last year saw C.J. Spiller, Alfred Morris and Vick Ballard rise up their respective depth charts and emerge as big-time fantasy assets.

So who's ready to pull the trick in 2013?

The 5 RBs listed below aren't currently being counted on to lead their respective backfields in touches.  But each is capable of snatching a lead job - without an injury to the starter.  All 5 are prime targets at their current ADPs.

Gio Bernard, Bengals (ADP: 6.04, RB30)

Bernard is the most obvious name on this list.  He's also the most expensive.  Even as a 6th-round pick and the 30th RB off the board, though, he presents plenty of upside.

Bernard will open his rookie season as BenJarvus Green-Ellis' caddy.  He'll likely see 6-8 carries per game and play on passing downs.  The Bengals have talked about splitting Bernard out wide, too.  He caught 92 balls for 452 yards and 6 scores in 2 seasons at North Carolina.

There's room for Bernard's role to grow beyond that.  Green-Ellis isn't untouchable as Cincy's lead back.  He ran for 1,094 yards last year, but it was 1 of the weaker 1,000-yard seasons you'll see.  BGE averaged just 3.9 yards per carry.  He ranked 139th out of 144 RBs in Pro Football Focus' overall grades.  Only Darren McFadden received a lower running grade.

Green-Ellis rarely got more than what was blocked.  He averaged just 2.1 yards after contact per attempt.  That ranked 80th among RBs.  His .68 missed tackles forced per carry placed him 97th.

This is all to say that Green-Ellis is just a mediocre RB.  Bernard, meanwhile, is a game-breaking talent.  He averaged a juicy 5.9 yards per carry at UNC, with 9 runs of 40+ yards.  Gio had a 78-yard reception this past year and also scored twice on punt returns.  This kid is slippery in the open field with breakaway speed.  If he can get comfortable in the offense and prove reliable in pass protection, Bernard could pass Green-Ellis in the pecking order sooner than you think.

Shane Vereen, Patriots (ADP: 6.06, RB31)

Vereen has moved beyond sleeper status.  His ADP has rocketed up a full round over the past couple weeks.  But he could still prove a value pick in the 6th round.

At minimum, Vereen figures to play a bigger pass-catching role in 2013.  Danny Woodhead and his 92 catches over the past 3 seasons are gone.  So are Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez and Brandon Lloyd.

Vereen has flashed plenty of pass-catching ability.  He averaged 9.1 yards per reception at Cal.  And he went for a ridiculous 16.9 yards per catch on 15 regular-season and postseason catches this past year.  That included an 83-yard TD and a 33-yard score when he lined up out wide.

But we're talking about RBs with a chance to capture starting jobs, right?  Yep, Vereen qualifies there.

Stevan Ridley will enter the season as New England's lead dog.  But don't consider him a lock to stay there.  Fumbling problems got him benched back in 2011.  Ridley put the ball on the turf 4 times this past year, losing 2.  It didn't impact his workload then, but things could change in 2013 if the Pats feel more comfortable with Vereen leading the backfield.

Don't forget about the concussion Ridley suffered in last year's AFC Championship.  Another 1 of those could knock him out for an extended period and open the door for Vereen to assume the lead role.

Andre Brown, Giants (ADP: 7.07, RB34)

Fantasy nation has been quick to anoint David Wilson.  He's a popular breakout pick and is coming off the board in the 3rd round of most fantasy drafts.

There are plenty of reasons to hop on the bandwagon.  Wilson is an electric talent with top-notch speed, acceleration and make-you-miss ability.  He averaged 5.0 yards per carry, 8.5 yards per catch and scored 5 TDs on 75 rookie-year touches.

But he didn't see significant playing time until December.  Ball-security and pass-protection shortcomings kept him off the field.  Heck, Tom Coughlin made the kid cry after a Week 1 fumble.

Now, just 1 year later, we're supposed to believe that Wilson is locked in as the feature back for a team with Super Bowl aspirations?  Sure, plenty of RBs make big leaps from their 1st seasons to their 2nd.  And Wilson has reportedly showed improvement this offseason.  But OC Kevin Gilbride admitted in early July that Wilson "still makes mistakes" and is "still not 100%."

Wilson will certainly get the 1st crack at the starting job.  But Coughlin won't be afraid to yank him if he's missing blocks and/or putting the ball on the turf.

Having a reliable backup in Brown will make that easier to do.  The journeyman turned in the best season of his career in 2012, churning out 385 yards and 8 TDs on 73 carries - good for 5.3 yards per.

Brown graded out considerably higher than Wilson in Pro Football Focus' 2012 overall RB rankings.  More importantly, Brown ranked 30th among 144 RBs in blocking.  Wilson was all the way down at #115.  Brown didn't fumble on any of his 85 touches.

Brown isn't as far behind Wilson in the race for touches as most think.  In fact, Giants insider Ohm Youngmisuk believes Coughlin "will likely go with the hot hand and whomever he trusts in crunch time" at RB.  Based on what we saw last year, Brown is more trustworthy.  We'll see if that changes in 2013.  But it wouldn't be shocking to see Brown spend parts of this season as New York's lead back.

Johnathan Franklin, Packers (ADP: 10.05, RB45)

We're cheating a bit here because Franklin hasn't even lost the starting job yet.  (He hasn't won the #2 spot, either.) 

But fantasy nation is sure drafting like Eddie Lacy is Green Bay's starter.  The Alabama product is going in the 5th round as the 28th RB off the board.  Franklin, meanwhile, is going 5 rounds and 17 RBs later.  Fred Jackson, Vick Ballard and Danny Woodhead are all being drafted ahead of Franklin.  None of those guys has as good a shot at a starting job as Franklin - or as much fantasy upside.

Lacy figures to get the 1st crack at the lead job.  He was the more highly regarded prospect and was drafted 2 rounds ahead of Franklin.

But Lacy is far from a clean prospect.  He comes with a lengthy medical history that includes toe, hand and elbow injuries.  Knee and pectoral problems kept him out of the Combine, and he missed Alabama's pro day with a bum hamstring.  His physical, contact-seeking style makes durability a definite concern.

On top of that, a report surfaced last week that some have questioned Lacy's passion for the game.  We're not nearly as concerned about that as the injury problems.

Lacy could certainly emerge as a stud RB - both for the Packers and fantasy owners.  But that remains a projection at this point.

Franklin has a better shot at winning the starting job than most fantasy owners are giving him credit for.  He proved wildly productive at UCLA, setting school records with 4,403 rushing yards and 4,920 all-purpose yards.  He averaged 5.6 yards per carry for his career, plus 8.9 yards per catch on 58 grabs.

This is a well-rounded back who's quicker, more elusive and better in the passing game than Lacy.  It gives Franklin a legitimate shot to emerge as Green Bay's lead back this season.  That'd give him top 20 upside.

Pierre Thomas, Saints (ADP: 11.04, RB48)

Mark Ingram was talked up all spring.  Again.  He's reportedly as healthy as he's been since entering the league in 2010.  The Saints are re-committing to the run game.  And Chris Ivory is gone.

But then there was this nugget that went largely unreported: Ingram took most of his reps with the 2nd-team offense in June minicamp.

Yeah, it's padless spring practice.  Teams are fidgeting with their depth charts and playing around with different formations.

Still, it's interesting that Ingram worked with the 2nd team, while Thomas received the "vast majority" of his snaps with the starters. 

Interesting, but not surprising.

After all, Thomas has been the more productive back since Ingram entered the league in 2011.  The former Alabama star has slogged to just 3.9 yards per carry.  Just 6 of his 278 attempts have gone for 20+ yards.  None has gone for more than 35. 

Ingram hasn't even been good near the goal line.  Only 4 of his 17 carries from inside the 10-yard line have hit pay dirt.  Ingram has just 10 total TDs through 2 seasons, despite playing for a team that's finished each year among the top 3 in points scored.

Then there's Thomas.  All he's done over the past 2 years is average a juicy 4.8 yards per carry.  Among RBs with at least 150 carries, only 7 have been better.  Even before Ingram arrived, Thomas averaged 4.8+ yards per carry in 3 of 4 years.  (The only exception was an injury-shortened 2010.)

Even in the red zone, Thomas has been more efficient than Ingram.  PT has scored on 5 of his 13 carries from inside the 10 over the past 2 seasons.  That's a 38% conversion rate vs. Ingram's 24% mark.

And we haven't even touched on receiving production, where these guys aren't even in the same stratosphere.  Thomas has posted 89 catches, 2 TDs and 8.8 yards per reception over the last 2 years.  Ingram?  17 catches, 0 scores and 4.4 yards per.

If Ingram wasn't a former 1st-round pick, he'd have been demoted a long time ago.  Perhaps this is the year the Saints finally wise up and make Thomas their lead back.  With an 11th-round price tag, he's certainly worth grabbing in case they do.

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