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Fantasy football outlook for the rookie running backs in 2014

Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL Draft is finally here. Fantasy owners should keep an eye out to see where the running backs fall. Several will end up being huge factors come this fall.

The 2014 NFL Draft is sure to be filled with multiple fantasy football studs of tomorrow. Running back is one position that consistently churns out instant fantasy impact. This year should be no different.

Running back is arguably the most coveted position in every fantasy football draft. More teams operate with a platoon backfield today, making it more difficult for fantasy owners to pinpoint which backs to rely on. That's just one more reason owners need to keep a close eye on where the rookies go. There's a good chance several backs entering the league will take the reigns in 2014.

How did the top rookies fare last season?

Player Carries Yards Catches Rec. Yards Total TDs Games
Eddie Lacy 284 1,178 35 257 11 15
Zac Stacy 250 973 26 141 8 14
Le'Veon Bell 244 860 45 399 8 13
Giovani Bernard 170 695 56 514 8 16

No running back was taken in the first round in 2013. That marked the first time of such an event in the common draft era. We could easily see a repeat in 2014. Lacy, Bell and Bernard were all drafted in the second round, while Stacy turned out to be a steal in Round 5.

The year prior, Doug Martin and Alfred Morris finished in the top five in rushing yards as rookies. Trent Richardson put in an impressive rookie campaign, too. As running backs become more expendable in the eyes of NFL teams (just look at how free agency went this year), more rookies will have a shot at filling starting roles immediately.

Let's look at some of the top running backs in the 2014 class, along with teams in need of new talent in the backfield.

Carlos Hyde, Ohio State
Projected selection: Round 2

Hyde is not the fastest running back. He's not the most elusive running back. But he certainly doesn't shy away from contact. If you watched him play for the Buckeyes you know how impressive he was as a senior, finishing with 7.3 yards per carry.

Despite the knock on his speed, Hyde rarely losses yardage when he gets the call. That makes his a valuable asset in short-yardage and goal-line situations, something fantasy owners should keep in mind. Hyde has the size to be a workhorse at the next level, and he can be a factor in the passing game as well. Depending on where he lands, the Buckeye might end up rushing for the most yards among the newcomers. Shades of Le'Veon Bell, perhaps?

Bishop Sankey, Washington

Projected selection: Round 2-3

If you watched Sankey on ESPN's "Draft Academy," you saw his off-the-charts agility. Sankey is lightning quick (take a look at his three-cone and 20-yard shuttle times from the Combine). He also benched 26 reps, second-most among his position.

Reminiscent of the knock of David Wilson coming out of college, Sankey needs to focus on getting upfield at times instead of trying to break open a big play. He draws comparisons to Gio Bernard and Shane Vereen. He'll likely be a second-stringer to start, coming in more for passing situations. PPR owners, keep him on your radar.

Ka'Deem Carey, Arizona
Projected selection: Round 2-3

If not for the run-ins with the law off the field, Carey's stock would be even higher. His college production proves he can handle the workload, with back-to-back seasons of 300+ carries.

Running backs coming from Rich Rodriguez's programs have the perception of not being NFL-ready, but Carey is well-rounded and able to start today.

Tre Mason, Auburn
Projected selection: Round 2-3

Similar is stature to Carey, Mason launched himself up draft boards while helping Auburn reach the national championship. The Tigers' spread offense doesn't translate well to the NFL, but Mason's talent does.

Mason wasn't used much as a receiver and he needs to improve his pass blocking. For that reason, he'll be lower on fantasy radars than some of the other rookies. But if he proves himself in camp and preseason, he could work his way into an expanded role.

Jeremy Hill, LSU
Projected selection: Round 2-4

A downhill runner, Hill is a powerful runner who has decent straight-line speed. He comes with character issues, too, but imagine plugging Hill in at the goal line. He could be a touchdown vulture right away.

Hill isn't going to add much as a receiver, but if his future coach talks up his goal line potential, his draft stock will be on the rise.

Devonta Freeman, FSU
Projected selection: Round 3-4

Freeman is another with national championship experience. A smaller back with a quick burst, Freeman will become a solid part of any rotation he enters.

Terrance West, Towson
Projected selection: Round 3-4

Will his schedule in college factor in? Probably. Towson doesn't exactly play Alabama-type teams every weekend. But West is another back to monitor. He dominated at the FCS level.

Charles Sims, West Virginia
Projected selection: Round 4-6

Sims gets pegged as a poor-man's Matt Forte by some. Obviously that's a huge step to take considering what Forte has accomplished in the NFL, but Sims is versatile enough to be a threat receiving out of the backfield. He's better on the edge. Don't count on him as a rookie who will rack up carries, but he's another one PPR owners need to look at.

Best of the rest

Andre Williams reminds me of Michael Turner, except with worse hands. Yes, somehow that's possible. Williams will provide absolutely zero value as a receiver, but that route works out fine for Stevan Ridley (when he holds onto the ball). Lache Seastrunk has ridiculous measurables with little power. De'Anthony Thomas is as fast as his nickname. Some of the speedier players could hold returner value.

Which teams need RBs?

Tennessee Titans - Fantasy owners, stay on high alert for any running backs heading to Nashville. The Titans have Shonn Greene and Jackie Battle at the top of the depth chart. I'll wait for you to stop laughing before we continue.

Aside from last year's stint as the Chargers offensive coordinator, new head coach Ken Whisenhunt hasn't developed a reputation for running the ball often. Despite their philosophy, though, any rookie going to the Titans will be one of the most coveted in fantasy drafts.

Chicago Bears - Forte is a stud. No one is jeopardizing his touches. After him, though, there's a steep cliff the offense is walking straight off of. Michael Bush is gone, finally. While Forte owners would prefer not to have anyone taking carries behind him, the Bears need another back.

Michael Ford is currently No. 2 on the depth chart. An incoming rookie will immediately fight for carries and possibly some third-down work. Also, Forte turns 29 in December and has tons of miles on his tires. Dynasty owners will consider that carefully.

Atlanta Falcons- Steven Jackson is old. He'll be 31 in July. That's over the qualified age for AARP as a running back. Last year he averaged 3.5 yards per carry behind a horrid offensive line. While the Falcons are working to improve their run blocking, Jackson is close to the end of his career.

Jacquizz Rodgers is in the mix as well as a chance-of-pace back. The Falcons are surely drafting a running back, though, and he will see valuable snaps if anyone gets injured. Whoever they draft has a shot at starting in 2015.

Cleveland Browns - Ben Tate is the clear-cut starter, but injuries continue to cut into his playing time every year. We can only anticipate another stint on the sideline in 2014. Who's next in line after Tate? You don't even want to look.

Chris Ogbonnaya, Edwin Baker, Dion Lewis, Fozzy Whittaker. It's like looking at an entire C squad of players. If Cleveland decides to draft a running back, the No. 2 spot on the depth chart is already up for grabs.

Bottom line: The running back that ends up in Tennessee will likely be a fourth or fifth-round fantasy pick, just from a competition standpoint. Greene and Battle are plodders. Running back is a deeper position in this draft. Unfortunately, it's not a huge need around the league. We're looking at more backup roles and fantasy fill-ins for 2014.

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