Through two weeks of preseason games, NFL teams are still figuring out how to incorporate offseason acquisitions into their game plan and some revamped coaching staffs are ironing out the best paths to success in the regular season. It's pretty obvious who the top fantasy running back picks are this year -- there are only four of them. (Can you guess?) Beyond that, the pool gets a little murky. Just this week some thicker clouds rolled into the Committee Meetings forecast, as two teams that projected to utilize clear No. 1 backs divulged that their backfield strategies could be shifting this season.
The Pittsburgh Steelers recently revealed that they are likely to implement a running back by committee (RBBC) plan this season. And you thought you were safe with Le'Veon Bell as your RB1. Well, well, well, how the turntables...
After Bell put up over 1,200 yards from scrimmage and eight touchdowns on 244 carries in 13 games in his rookie season, he seemed to be the clear favorite as the Steelers' featured back heading into 2014. When training camp began, he seemed locked in as a borderline first round pick in fantasy. But the mentality has changed in the Steel City and since the team signed former Patriot LeGarrette Blount to a two-year deal in March, Pittsburgh has been developing a new strategy for what's been called best running back tandem since Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley combined to rank second in the league in rushing in 2004 (the Steelers ranked 27th in rushing last season).
From Week 13 through Week 17 of last season, Blount was among the top eight running backs scoring an average 14.7 fantasy points per game. Bell was one spot ahead of Blount during the same span, averaging 15.4 fantasy points per game in the final four weeks of the regular season. The Steelers did not add the 27-year-old Blount to ride the pine while Bell racks up the carries, but to complement him, creating a dangerously productive duo. Quite clearly, a timeshare is in the works that will involve Bell, Blount and possibly rookie speedster Dri Archer in some very creative ways.
Coach Mike Tomlin explained that the team wants to leave one back in with a "lead dog" mentality until he's out of gas, then rotate in the fresher legs. "I like both guys, obviously, and both guys are going to be big components of why we're successful," Tomlin said.
The Steelers new running backs coach James Saxon has also stressed that the team is still formulating a plan, but that it would behoove Pittsburgh to exploit each of their backs' respective strengths as Bell, Blount and Archer are all extremely talented in their own way.
When Bell was asked about the team's developing backfield strategy he said that he thinks it's a good idea to be able to have help staying fresh and that there were points last season where he might have been able to be more productive if he hadn't been so spent.
The second-year back also mentioned that Blount is likely to get the goal-line touches, and that he doesn't mind if the coaches use the bigger back in that fashion. "That's probably what will happen," Bell said. "He's a big, strong guy, so when they put him in, he's in. We hopefully get that touchdown and I'm glad. I don't care." Well, Bell may not care, but fantasy owners surely should, especially if Blount becomes a touchdown vulture.
At his current ADP of Round 15 he's virtually going undrafted in standard leagues, Blount is well worth a late-round flier with potential goal-line duty and his value would skyrocket if Bell had to miss any playing time. As Marcas Grant suggested, it's time to move Bell down your draft boards a bit. One thing to keep in mind is the PPR league value differential between the two as Bell collected 45 receptions last season to Blount's two.
Another team we haven't considered in our Committee Meetings to this point is the Dallas Cowboys. DeMarco Murray finally proved himself as a durable featured back in 2013 and only missed two games on his way to career highs in yards, touchdowns and receptions and finished ahead of Adrian Peterson in total fantasy points. There is no doubt that he's looking for a payday at the end of this season as 2014 is a contract year for the 26-year-old back.
Like Bell, Murray was shaping up to be a borderline first round fantasy pick earlier this summer, considering the lack of depth and consistency at the position. But last week, Cowboys' coach Jason Garrett said that he sees Murray as "the leader of a committee" this year but that Murray definitely has "bell-cow" traits. Great. Thanks for the clarification there, coach.
The other runners that figure to factor into this "committee" in Dallas include No. 2 back Lance Dunbar, second-year guy Joseph Randle, and possibly Ryan Williams who came from Arizona. Both Dunbar and Randle saw some playing time last season and had increased roles when Murray was out. From Garrett's comments, it sounds like the team plans to get all of these backs more involved in 2014 in what's becoming a popular strategy across the league -- an effort to keep the "lead dog" fresh throughout each game and more importantly, over the course of the entire season.
Something else to consider here is the fact that Dallas' new offensive coordinator Scott Linehan was in Detroit last season. The Lions running backs, Reggie Bush and Joique Bell both finished in the top 20 in terms of total fantasy points among running backs in 2013 and both of them averaged double-digit fantasy points per game. That's not to say that any of the backs behind Murray are as talented as Bush or Bell, but it could mean that they will be more incorporated in the run game on a week-to-week basis than they were last season.
Murray is still in line to get the bulk of the Cowboys' carries as Dallas looks to build upon the success he had last season. Like Le'Veon Bell, Murray carries more value in PPR leagues as he caught 53 balls last year and should expect more of the same going forward. He is currently going as the eighth running back off the board in NFL.com leagues as a second rounder which isn't too crazy, but this whole RBBC deal in Dallas is definitely something to keep in mind when deciding on an RB1 during your fantasy draft.
Matt Franciscovich is an associate fantasy editor at NFL.com. Follow him on Twitter @m_franciscovich