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My Five: Breakout Running Backs

Finally! It is here. I must apologize for the delay in continuing my breakout series. I know you have all been suffering and waiting with bated breath. (cue laugh track) I did some traveling through Yosemite National Park (an absolute must see for anyone who is fond of the outdoors), and caught a music festival in San Francisco (check out Regina Spektor if your music library extends beyond Slipknot or Young Jeezy, you'll be glad you did). Then there's that "real job" thing that always gets in the way. Regardless, the delay was a blessing in disguise as I've flip-flopped a solid 47 times on who to include here today.

When trying to predict a significant leap in production from the running back slot there are a few qualifications I look for these players to meet. First and foremost, is talent. Speed, power, hands? All the above is great, but I'm shooting for at least one elite trait that can be exploited and worked into the game plan. Put a different way, do they pass the eye test? For the majority of potential candidates, their workload has been limited to this point, so I also evaluate their production on a per-touch basis to see if they're making an impression on coaches and teammates.

A close second is opportunity. Are they going to be able to showcase that talent? This one is trickier because a lot of times the breakout stars ascend to a prominent position as a result of an injury, and therefore predicting an increase in touches is almost impossible to do with any degree of certainty. If said player is a "newly anointed" starter, the picture is much clearer. For those who enter the season as backups, or committee backs, I ask myself two questions. What can this runner accomplish if he takes over the lead role? And are his skills significant enough to make an impact even as a part-timer?

Lastly, I want to evaluate their supporting cast. Will their offense consistently move the ball and create scoring chances? Is there an effective passing game present to keep defenses honest and prevent them from loading the box? And finally, how does their offensive line stack up? With all these factors analyzed, and a healthy amount of film from last year and this preseason perused, I think I'm finally ready to lock down my favorites. Two entries are carry-overs from my Not Dead Yet column, which is not an act of laziness, but rather indicates my higher-than-average opinion of them.

Just like in my evaluation of the quarterbacks, not all these players are coming out of nowhere, and their inclusion on today's list is not an endorsement they'll set the world on fire and finish the year in the top-10 at the position. It is merely a confident endorsement they will post solid statistics that outperform their draft day price tag.

Once again I have excluded rookies from consideration (also players such as Ryan Williams and Mikel Leshoure who have yet to take an NFL snap) as there is no baseline to measure this year against.

Let's get to it!

5. C.J. Spiller - Buffalo Bills - |STAR|ADP 96

|STAR|average draft position figures referenced from as of 8/20/12

I'm not in the camp that sees Spiller overtaking Fred Jackson for the starting role, which is a dwindling group according to his plummeting average draft position in the wake of his two preseason duds. In fact, I don't anticipate Jackson's carries being cut significantly, or a true committee developing in upstate New York. I do, however, see Spiller as an explosive part-time player with a high ceiling, and I'm projecting a Jamaal Charles 2009-lite type of season. Say, 1,100 total yards, 40 receptions, and six scores.

Make no mistake, this isn't a "sleepers" column. Like those to follow, Spiller will be selected in the middle rounds and drafting him carries some risk due to his uncertain workload. Last season he did virtually all his damage after Jackson broke his leg. That said, I don't think 2012 is a repeat of the same. His impressive audition may not garner him carries at Jackson's expense, but I do think it cemented the idea within management he needs to be more involved. His agility and flat-out speed make him a dynamic threat each time he touches the ball, evidenced by his 14 combined carries and catches of 20-plus yards last year.

The production isn't there through two exhibition games, but he has been on the field a healthy amount with Jackson, a scenario I see playing out often. Spiller works well as a receiver out of the backfield, but also ran slant routes from the slot, and was even split out wide at times catching receiver screens. These are the types of plays I think he gets allotted this season, in addition to periodic series to spell the 31 year-old Jackson.

The icing on the cake is his potential should he find himself the outright starter once again. He averaged 105.4 total yards and scored five touchdowns in his six starts late in 2011 and would be a fantasy starter in all leagues should that recur. When it comes time to draft and the alternatives are higher-usage starters of the ilk of Shonn Greene or Beanie Wells, I'd rather take my chances on a high-upside guy.

4. Kevin Smith - Detroit Lions - |STAR|ADP 100

Unlike the two uber-talented players Smith is sandwiched between here, his inclusion is more about opportunity. Poor Jahvid Best had an incredibly bright future that more-and-more seems as if it will never materialize due to his concussion issues. Mikel Leshoure has the measurables and a strong junior year at Illinois on his resume, but a torn Achilles' last preseason, a hamstring ailment this summer, and two offseason marijuana arrests put a damper on his outlook for 2012. He'll miss the first two games to a league suspension and he hasn't seen the field in game action for a calendar year.

Regardless of who comprises Detroit's active backfield, Smith won't be running the show solo, but I think he's the most reliable option they have and at pick 100 is a nice value with upside. Along with my top pick for today, he's a member of the illustrious college 2,000-yard club that since 2000 has produced runners such as Matt Forte, Ray Rice, Larry Johnson, and LaDainian Tomlinson (also J.J. Arrington for full disclosure). The numbers just haven't materialized at the pro level yet, but he flashed us a glimpse last November. In his second game back in action, he posting a whopping 201 total yards and three touchdowns. He has looked good so far this preseason and his pass-catching talents are a nice fit in Detroit, who attempted more passes than any other franchise last season and figures to have a similar attack this year.

Unfortunately, Smith is no picture of health himself and carries significant risk in that department. He made a triumphant return from knee surgery in 2011, but was hampered by an ankle injury just three weeks after making it back onto field. His final 4.9 yards-per-carry average was stellar (more pedestrian 3.9 excluding his monster week), he totaled seven scores, and could really take off as their explosive offense should produce plenty of scoring opportunities. I'm anticipating low-end RB2 numbers at the price of an RB4.

3. Ben Tate - Houston Texans - |STAR|ADP 81

Were he assured a starting role, Tate would be a top-10 fantasy running back and easily rank no. 1 on today's list. Unfortunately for the former Auburn star, that's not the case, and the consensus no. 1 overall fantasy pick, Arian Foster, stands in his way.

Despite his less-than-ideal role, he is insanely talented and really pops on film. He is that rare combination of powerful yet elusive, big yet fast, and the Texans would be foolish not to put those skills to use. Most likely, Tate will once again play second fiddle in 2012, but I still believe he's a valuable fantasy asset as a backup. Not a superstar by any means, but in deeper leagues and as a flex play owners could do much worse. Houston is a run-first offense with a terrific line and he'll get series to showcase his elite skills on a weekly basis.

Last year, from Week 4 to Week 16, he received double-digit touches just five times, but still closed out the season just shy of 1,000 yards (942) with four touchdowns and a robust 5.4 yards-per-carry average. This season I anticipate Houston to make a more concerted effort to get Tate at least 10-12 touches per game even with a healthy Foster. The result should be carries (175) and yardage totals similar to those from a year ago, but an up-tick from his four scores and 13 catches is a reasonable expectation that should be the difference which makes him a more consistent fantasy contributor.

Like Spiller, the outside chance Tate becomes the lead dog again in 2012 alone is reason enough to draft him. He showed what he could do in a feature role to start 2011 when Foster was forced to sit out the majority of the first three contests. He churned out over 100 rushing yards his first two NFL games (82 in Week 3), and also just missed the century-mark (97 yards and a score) with an idle Foster in Week 17. Drafting in the hopes of an injury is a dangerous proposition, but Tate's part-time production should be very close to his current cost, and the low-probability, big-time payoff has to be factored into his upside.

2. DeAngelo Williams - Carolina Panthers - |STAR|ADP 81

There were so many younger runners with "apparent" larger roles I wanted to put here instead. I just couldn't get myself to do it.

I love Roy Helu's skills and he looks like a very talented all-around player to me, but he's under the dreaded Mike Shanahan cloud. He couldn't make it through his rookie season healthy and has been dealing with hamstring and Achilles' issues this summer (not to mention his ADP of 63 isn't exactly a bargain). Plus I got burned by the Tim Hightower craze last summer. Lesson learned...unless Helu keeps falling, haha.

I'm sometimes a year early on players, and Isaac Redman was a top sleeper pick for me last season. Two weeks ago he looked to have the Steelers job to himself and I was all over it. Now he's got an injured groin and the timing couldn't have been worse, as Jonathan Dwyer has been very impressive in preseason action. Plus Rashard Mendenhall was taken off the PUP list and more than likely will be back in the mix come playoff time.

It somewhat pains me to give up on Reggie Bush right after he proved himself capable of being a full-time back, but with a rookie quarterback leading a questionable offense and his ADP of 55 I don't see the value.

DeMarco Murray has the makings of a stud, but he's already being drafted as if he'll provide 1,300 rushing yards and double-digit touchdowns as the 22nd guy off the board. This can only go wrong.

Mark Ingram has potential, but I don't have any confidence he can stay healthy.

Stevan Ridley looked to be the guy in New England, and now Shane Vereen is my favorite to claim that role. Not to mention Bill Belichick's Shanahan-esque rotation the last few years.

I even considered Williams' running mate Jonathan Stewart before he got nicked up.

So here we are. And yes, I realize I'm treading on thin ice venturing into the sardine-can-packed Carolina backfield. But you know what, Williams is very, very good. He has a career 5.1 yards-per-carry average, a season with 1,515 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns on his resume, and each of his two seasons he carried the ball 200 times he posted at least 1,117 yards on the ground. I think he crosses that threshold again in 2012. Stewart is already nicked up, they want Newton to run less (not sure I buy that but either way he draws a ton of attention), Tolbert and Stewart will get theirs, but Williams still has game-breaking ability.

I simply think he's the most talented, non-rookie running back who projects to be lined up as the starter for his team's opening possession being drafted this late. Carolina has a top-notch offensive line, an improving passing game, Newton to draw defenses, and I think the Panthers score a lot of points. Call me crazy in the comments below, seriously, please talk me out of this, but as of now I envision Williams being the RB4 on several of my teams this fall. Low floor, still a significant ceiling, low cost.

1. Donald Brown - Indianapolis Colts - |STAR|ADP 99

Ironically, the player I like the most to break out this season is coming at just about the cheapest cost. Brown gets a check on almost all accounts. He has talent. As I mentioned above, he rushed for 2,083 yards at Connecticut in 2008 and proved himself at the pro level last year. He was working in a committee situation, but still managed five scores and averaged 4.8 yards-per-carry. He was also effective in the red zone, piling up 85 yards and four of his touchdowns on just 18 attempts. He isn't the most durable player ever, but Brown has a solid build, standing 5-foot-10, 210 pounds, and his skills as a receiver point to him being one of the near-extinct, three-down feature backs still around in the NFL.

The preseason is not to be overrated, but Brown has already shown enough to cement the starting gig should he stay healthy. He's taken a screen pass 63 yards for a score, found pay dirt again in Game 2, and I've seen enough of Andrew Luck to feel confident that he'll keep defenses honest. I also believe he has the football acumen to get his offense into the correct play and help out the offensive line with their blocking schemes. That group is my biggest worry concerning Brown, but I think they'll be better than last year when they were decimated by injury despite the loss of Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday.

When you put all this together, Brown has the best ratio of skills, opportunity, value, and upside. He'll be a top target for me come draft day for sure.

Check out my evaluation of the big guys up front on Rotowire's Offensive Line Grid.

Also, listen to the Fantasy Sports Digest radio show podcasts I co-host

Follow me on Twitter @FantasyZenMastr

And please comment and list your favorite RB breakouts! Receivers next. Happy drafting.

I'll be representing Rotowire in the SOFA Classic league run by The Huddle which drafts tomorrow. Pick 10 of 12, PPR. Wish me luck, I'll post the results.