NFC South Running Backs Preview

Doug Martin and Steven Jackson are locked in for fantasy value, but is there anyone reliable on Carolina or New Orleans?

Atlanta Falcons
Starter: Steven Jackson
Backups: Jacquizz Rodgers, Jason Snelling
Jackson is being undervalued as the new featured RB in Atlanta because of one thing: age. Jackson will turn 30 years old July 22nd. While he does have a lot of mileage on his legs already from his 9 years in St. Louis, Jackson is a freak of nature athletically and keeps himself in incredible condition. He is both a big powerful RB and an excellent receiving RB. He rushed for over 1,000 yards in the last 8 consecutive seasons and the only thing that had been missing from his fantasy stats were touchdowns. That was more of a lack of a passing threat than anything else in St. Louis, and it's a problem he won't have in Atlanta. I'd be surprised if he has anything less than 1,200 rushing yards, 50 receptions, and 10 TD's in 2013 as the Falcons new featured RB. Rodgers will be his top backup. Rodgers just wasn't able to push Michael Turner for primary rushing duties the last couple of seasons so it's hard to imagine his playing time going up now that the Falcons have upgraded to Jackson at the starting RB spot. Jackson is a 3 down RB which further muddies Rodgers' outlook as even the 3rd down RB. Rodgers is nothing more than a handcuff to Jackson. Snelling had shown flashes in the past of being both a capable runner and receiver but his carries dropped each of the last 2 seasons despite Turner's efficiency decreasing. It's hard to imagine Snelling has any fantasy value barring an injury to Jackson.
Carolina Panthers
Starter: Jonathan Stewart
Backups: DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert
Stewart was all set to take over as the lead RB for the Panthers in 2013 but required surgery on both of his ankles during the off-season and his recovery is expected to linger on into training camp. When healthy, Stewart has proven to be an effective starting fantasy RB, but that can't be counted on at this time. And if the ankles bother him into the regular season it will likely be another season where Stewart is part of an unpredictable week to week committee with fellow Panthers RB's Williams and Tolbert. Stewart is a high risk/reward candidate as a RB3 in fantasy drafts this season. Williams figures to reprise his role as a part time player in a RBBC with Jonathan Stewart. But he could be in for an increased role as the primary RB for Carolina if Stewart's recovery from off-season surgeries to both of his ankles lingers on into the preseason. Williams is worth taking a flier on fantasy drafts but week to week consistency will elude him no matter what his role as evidenced by his 7 games with 25 rushing yards or fewer in 2012. Tolbert's role is completely determined by the health of the other RB's in Carolina. If Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams are healthy, Tolbert is just an occasional goal line and situational 3rd down RB. And that would preclude him from having reliable fantasy value as he won't get enough touches to be relevant. But if injuries come up again, Tolbert could find himself with some fantasy value.
New Orleans Saints
Starter: Darren Sproles/Mark Ingram/Pierre Thomas
Backups: Darren Sproles/Mark Ingram/Pierre Thomas
Yes, you read that correctly. There is no team in the NFL that has a harder to figure out RB situation than the Saints. Not because of injuries, but because of the way they interchange them week to week. Sproles is the best bet for fantasy value. After a surprising 2011 season where he combined for 1,313 rushing and receiving yards and 9 TD's, Sproles saw his rushing attempts get cut nearly in half in 2012. Sproles is a fantasy RB2 in PPR formats as he is a valuable weapon in the Saints passing attack as their 3rd down RB. But in non-PPR formats, his value drops to being no more than a RB3 with inconsistent value week to week. If the Saints are serious about wanting to run the ball more in 2013, Sproles could see an uptick in carries, but it's more likely the rushing attempts will be given to former first round pick Mark Ingram. 2013 could be Ingram's final chance to prove he deserves to be the Saints lead RB. Both Sproles and Pierre Thomas have averaged more yards per carry than Ingram, but to be fair, opponents have historically known that when Ingram is in the game, they are more than likely running the ball whereas Sproles and Thomas often get their rushing attempts from passing formations. The Saints have said they plan to run the ball more often in 2013 and that could mean a bigger offensive role for Ingram. Still he's dicey as anything more than a borderline RB3/4 and his best games are probably going to come against weak opponents the Saints build an early lead on. Predicting that week to week will be no easy task. Finally, Thomas has surprisingly been running more with the first team over Ingram in OTA's but whether that really means he is in for a bigger offensive role is in question. When he is given chances to play, Thomas has always proved to be worthy of fantasy consideration. But between him, Ingram, and Sproles, it's the hardest backfield to accurately predict on a week to week basis. I think the likeliest scenario is Ingram as the primary rusher, Sproles as the primary 3rd down RB, and Thomas as the top backup and change of pace to both as he is accomplished as both a runner and pass catcher. Despite never having been the Saints true featured RB, Thomas has caught 39 passes or more in 3 of the last 4 seasons and has 188 receptions over the last 5 combined. Considering he's always just an injury away from being given a bigger offensive role, Thomas is a RB4/5 with a lot of upside to become fantasy relevant.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Starter: Doug Martin
Backups: Brian Leonard, Mike James, Michael Smith
Martin was doing well in 2012 as a rookie, but a week 9 explosion for 251 yards and 4 TD's made him quickly ascend to fantasy stardom. Even if you take that one week away, Martin still had 1203 rushing yards, 451 receiving yards, and 8 total TD's. Those are still impressive numbers and unlike most rookie RB's, Martin actually seemed to get stronger as the season went on and showed no signs of wearing down and hitting the rookie wall. Firmly entrenched as the Bucs featured RB, Martin has a low floor of 1,200 rushing yards, 400 receiving yards, and 10 TD's. His ceiling is much higher. There's no reason to not think of Martin as belonging in the group of elite fantasy RB's just under Adrian Peterson in 2013 fantasy football drafts. But it is going to take training camp and preseason to determine exactly who will be his backup. Veteran Brian Leonard was signed as a free agent from Cincinnati and while Leonard possesses some decent size, he isn't a creative runner and has limited fantasy upside. Rookie James will battle it out with last year's rookie, Smith, for what is likely one roster spot. The coaching staff was high on the smaller speedy Smith going into last season but he quickly fell out of favor and it's believed between the tackles banger James is the favorite to stick over him. Martin is one of those fantasy RB1's who doesn't have a clear handcuff so until it shakes out (if it shakes out) there's no reason to draft one. Martin proved last season to be a 3 down featured guy.