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Crowded backfields to monitor during training camp

To fantasy football owners, the following phrase is like hearing finger nails screech slowly down a chalkboard (insert ear plugs): "running back by committee," aka RBBC. When a coach claims his backfield will use the increasingly popular, fantasy-frustrating rushing strategy, it's a safe bet that your weekly decisions will become more taxing than you might have imagined. But you can't lose sleep over it. That's where Committee Meetings come in (it's safe to remove your ear plugs now). Each week, we'll break down the teams with several fantasy-relevant rushers in their backfield, navigating you through this RBBC nightmare all season long, beginning now.

We kick it off with five teams who had some of the most notable and widely-owned RBBCs in all of fantasy football last season: The Bills, Chargers, Patriots, Saints and Panthers all split the load among several rushers in 2013. Whether on the ground or through the air, it's worth noting how these committees got the job done for fantasy owners and how their situations are shaping up for 2014.

BUFFALO BILLS

Looking back: Buffalo ranked second in the league in overall rushing in 2013 and had more rushing attempts than any other team with 546. The duo of veteran Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller combined for 408 of those carries with an almost equal split of the workload. Their respective fantasy production, though, was not even close to similar. Jackson scored 10 total touchdowns to Spiller's two. Spiller was plagued by an ankle injury most of the season resulting in his fantasy-busted campaign while Jackson proved to be one of the most underrated fantasy backs of last season.

Looking ahead: The Bills traded for running back Bryce Brown this offseason, a move that could have a major impact on Buffalo's committee approach and something to watch for during training camp. Brown is a capable NFL running back who served his first two seasons in the league as LeSean McCoy's backup in Philadelphia. When he was given a real shot to shine and started two games in a row in 2012, Brown rushed for over 165 yards in each game and scored four touchdowns in that span. The Bills want him to grow into a lead back, but until either Jackson or Spiller are completely out of the picture, Brown's fantasy value will remain limited.

A fully healthy Spiller in 2014 will look to redeem himself after a lackluster year and should lead the Bills' RBBC as long as he can hold up. Jackson, who arrived to training camp in style, has been through a number of injuries of his own and this is the final year on his contract with the Bills. If he can't endure the rigors of another full season at age-33, Brown may have to step in to carry some of the load. There might be more pressue on the Bills' backfield to perform this season than any other team, as second-year quarterback EJ Manuel will rely on his rushers to help open up the passing game.

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS

Looking back: The Chargers found a balance in their backfield last season using Ryan Mathews as their main runner on early downs and subbed in the sure-handed Danny Woodhead on third down passing plays. Both backs made the most of their opportunities as Woodhead recently signed a two-year extension with the team, locking him in as a Charger until 2016 and Mathews is heading into a contract year looking to prove worthy of a big payday come 2015.

Mathews led the Chargers last year with 285 rushing attempts for a career-best 1,255 yards and six touchdowns. The 26-year-old added 189 receiving yards and one receiving touchdown to total 184.4 fantasy points on the season, good enough to be the No. 12-ranked fantasy running back of 2013. He has vowed to do more for his team this season, a promise that hinges on his durability, which has been a major issue his entire career.

Woodhead carried the ball 106 times for 429 yards but was a more dangerous threat out of the backfield on third downs. He collected six touchdown catches (more than any other running back in the NFL not named Jamaal Charles) and 605 yards on 76 receptions, proving to be one of quarterback Philip Rivers' favorite short-yardage targets.

Looking ahead: San Diego acquired veteran Donald Brown from the Indianapolis Colts this offseason. He finished 2013 with 751 scrimmage yards and eight total touchdowns. Fantasy leaguers do need to be wary of how much work the Chargers give Brown during training camp as he could pilfer a few of Mathews' touches. Brown should be viewed as a security blanket should the injury-prone Mathews miss any time but will likely remain undrafted in standard leagues.

You can bank on the fact that Mathews will again see the majority of work as the team's "bell cow" in 2014, while Woodhead will carry much more value in PPR leagues as his role remains as the third-down guy with great hands. Until we see more during training camp, stay away from Brown.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

Looking back: The most unpredictable backfield in the NFL is that of the New England Patriots. Last season, the Pats finished ninth in the league in rushing attempts with 470 but not a single runner broke the 1,000-yard rushing mark. Surprisingly though, the touchdowns were aplenty as the Pats tied for second in the league in rushing touchdowns with 19 -- a majority of which came from Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount, who each had seven rushing scores. Both backs also eclipsed the 750-yard rushing mark, although neither was consistently reliable on a week-to-week basis for fantasy owners.

Looking ahead: New England is hoping for a healthy return from the dynamic Shane Vereen, who missed time with a wrist injury last season. When he did play, he put up some impressive numbers in a short amount of time. Couple Vereen with Ridley's undeniable talent (although he's had ball security issues), and the fact that they are both in contract years, this is the season the Patriots and fantasy owners have been waiting for from the New England backfield.

The Patriots took running back James White in the fourth round of the 2014 draft, and the Wisconsin product has a chance to factor into this committee if he can prove himself in training camp. Other players on the radar are Brandon Bolden, who had 55 carries and three scores last season, and fullback James Develin -- neither of whom are locks to make the roster.

Vereen and Ridley are the two best fantasy options heading into training camp and should be drafted accordingly. Both backs have mid-to-late round ADPs in standard NFL.com fantasy leagues and are amazing bargains at their current spots, so if you can get them late, take the chance.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Looking back: Carolina's backfield has notoriously been a situation to avoid for fantasy owners dating back to Cam Newton's rookie year in 2011, and for good reason. Superman has played a major part in the Panthers' ground committee during his three years in the league and had 111 rush attempts last year for 585 yards. He also had more rushing touchdowns than any Panthers running back in 2013 with six, which should come as no surprise.

Running back DeAngelo Williams saw an uptick in opportunities last year with the absence of Jonathan Stewart, who missed most of the season due to ankle and knee injuries. Williams had 201 carries and 26 catches for 1,176 total yards, and had four total touchdowns, averaging 9.2 fantasy points per game.

The third man in the Panthers' recurring committee is fullback Mike Tolbert. He managed 545 scrimmage yards on 128 touches with seven total touchdowns in 2013. As in Williams' case, Tolbert can attribute his uptick in opportunities to the absence of Stewart.

Looking ahead: This summer, reports have been positive on Stewart's health and the Panthers will look to him to step up in 2014 to bolster their backfield. His current ADP in NFL.com standard fantasy leagues is in Round 16 and he could end up as one of the most undervalued fantasy rushers of 2014. Keep an eye on how much work Stewart gets during training camp and how his return to form may cut into Williams' opportunities. Tolbert may still factor in short-yardage situations this season and could vulture a few scores but to put it simply, do your best to avoid the three-headed approach in Carolina.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Looking back: When the same rushing stat mentioned in reference to Cam Newton applies to Drew Brees, it's time to start paying attention. Brees led the Saints in rushing touchdowns last year with three -- more than any running back on the team. It's not like three is a high number or anything. Heck, Matt Asiata of the Minnesota Vikings managed three rushing scores in the sole game he started last season.

The New Orleans backfield earned their paychecks elsewhere, proving most valuable in PPR leagues. Pierre Thomas had more receptions than any other running back in the NFL with 77 and led the Saints committee with 549 yards on 147 attempts and five total touchdowns, while Darren Sproles hauled in 71 balls for 604 yards.

Looking ahead: Thomas should emerge as the first option in the Saints backfield once again, but the main thing to watch in training camp will be the role second-year back Khiry Robinson takes on. The Bill Parcells-endorsed Robinson is primed to steal the show in New Orleans this season, and for fantasy owners it's just a matter of knowing when to deploy him. His current ADP in NFL.com standard fantasy leagues is in Round 15 which makes him a great sleeper candidate for 2014.

With the departure of Sproles to Philadelphia, there's room for someone to step up, something fantasy afterthought Mark Ingram failed to do last year. He will look to play a bigger role in the Saints backfield in 2014 but if Robinson outplays him the preseason, Ingram could find himself riding the pine frequently.

Either way, the lack of touchdowns in New Orleans by anyone not named Jimmy Graham is a red flag for fantasy drafts and no Saints running back can be relied on as anything more than a low-end flex play from week-to-week.


Matt Franciscovich is an Associate Fantasy Editor at NFL.com. He encourages you to check in next week for more RBBC analysis on some additional teams with several fantasy relevant running backs. You can follow Matt on Twitter at @m_franciscovich

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