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Breakout or bust? Studying sophomore RBs: Part 2

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In the latest episode of the NFL Fantasy LIVE podcast the gang discussed which sophomore RBs and QBs will slump or surge, late-round QBs to target with the most value, and early mock draft trends. Don't forget to subscribe and listen in HERE!

It's June, which means we're filling our time with detailed analysis to help the fantasy degenerates out there pass the time until actual football returns. That's why Marcas Grant and I have been diving into the tape of the sophomore players to try and see who might be ready for a breakout. Earlier this week I profiled the top three sophomore RBs, and after hours of more film study here is the rest of the bunch who have a chance for fantasy success in 2014. These are not all of the second-year rushers, but the ones with legitimate opportunities to have fantasy value in 2015. Take a look and take note -- there are a lot of training camp battles we'll need to keep an eye on.

Charles Sims, TB

 

PRIMER
Sims was drafted in the third round in 2014 to push Doug Martin, but instead was forced to start the year on injured reserve with a designation to return after having surgery on a torn ligament in his ankle. Once Sims did see the field, he seemed stiff and had to fight for his life behind one of the worst offensive lines in the league. However, the coaching staff is pumping him up endlessly this offseason, giving me reason to re-evaluate the West Virginia product.

2014 IN REVIEW
After coming off IR, Sims looked a little sluggish and gun-shy when making his reads, which could have led to the subpar vision and burst noted by our Around the NFL colleagues. Sims does boast quick feet and great hands for catching passes out of the backfield, which could help his future fantasy success. His stats -- 66 carries, 185 yards, 2.8 yards per carry, one touchdown, 19 receptions, 190 yards -- don't inspire a lot of confidence. But for the optimists out there, the best tape Sims put together in 2014 was Week 17, and if that's the Sims the coaches have been seeing all offseason, well, then there's reason to potentially believe the hype.

2015 AND BEYOND
Sims has been getting a lot of love this offseason from his coaching staff, but fantasy owners won't know anything until the pads come on and Sims is the first back to step onto the field with the No. 1 offense. Until then, these are all just smokescreens. With Jameis Winston under center and a younger (hopefully) more consistent offensive line, there could be a chance Sims has a sneakily good fantasy season. But that would require almost everything to go right for the young running back. He has value, especially in PPR leagues, but don't get caught reaching too high until we know more about his role.

2015 DRAFT VALUE
Surge: It'd be hard for Sims to slump lower than his output in 2014. He's worth targeting as an RB4 or RB5 based purely on potential, but don't expect to count on him as a starter/FLEX in the early goings.

Tre Mason, STL

 

PRIMER
The Rams knew they had a project in Mason when they drafted him in the third round last year, but once the rookie figured out how to pass protect and saw real game action, he provided a significant spark to the Rams' rushing attack. Now, with Todd Gurley crowding the backfield, Mason could be fighting for carries in 2015.

2014 IN REVIEW
Mason didn't see the field until the Rams' fifth game, and wasn't seeing starter action until Week 7. Once he got on the field though, he was a difference maker for the offense. Mason is able to combine quick feet with solid vision to burst through holes in the line of scrimmage for solid gains. He'll occassionally miss a big cutback opportunity, but for the most part was able to get the yardage that was blocked and then some. He showed a nice ability to finish runs for a back of his size (5-foot-8, 207 pounds), but won't be bowling people over any time soon. He had 11 runs of 15 yards or more (and six of 20-plus), which helped him finish with solid rookie totals of 179 attempts, 765 rushing yards (4.3 ypc) and four touchdowns.

2015 AND BEYOND
The Mason hype train was building steam this offseason ... until the Rams drafted Todd Gurley with the 10th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. Gurley is working his way back from a torn ACL last season (and could be a candidate to start the seaosn on the PUP list), but once he's healthy he will undoubtedly eat into Mason's production. This will be a battle worth watching in the preseason, as Mason could still have fantasy value and post solid totals if the team takes a cautious approach working Gurley in. Mason has the talent to be a fantasy contributor, but unfortunately his situation might hold the trump card here.

2015 DRAFT VALUE
Push: Without Gurley, Mason would be a "surge" candidate, but with Gurley in the picture it'll be tough for Mason to do more than what he accomplished in his rookie season.

Terrance West & Isaiah Crowell, CLE

 

PRIMER
The Browns signed the crown jewel of the free agent running back class in 2014 in Ben Tate, but he was eventually cut and it was a combination of Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell who led the charge on the ground. With new rookie Duke Johnson joining the mix, this will be a three-headed race for touches that could give fantasy owners fits all season long.

2014 IN REVIEW
West was a much touted sleeper among draftniks and fantasy fans alike, hailing from the small school of Towson. He notched 100 rushing yards in his first game, and surpassed 94 two other times en route to leading the team in rushing. West is a classic one-cut runner, who has solid vision and power, but lacks real breakaway speed. He is decisive in his reads and rarely gets tackled behind the line of scrimmage unless his blocking goes horribly wrong. Crowell is the bigger, faster, stronger back, with equally as good of vision. He was certainly the big-play threat in the backfield, and per Pro Football Focus had the fifth-highest breakaway percentage of running backs who had at least 25 percent of their team's carries. The only trouble with Crowell is that he sometimes waits too long trying to find a home-run hole and gets tackled for a big loss. On one particular play, he drifted along the line all the way to the sideline for an 8-yard loss instead of driving up field to make something out of nothing. But, the good far outweighs the bad with Crowell based on what he put on tape in 2014.

2015 AND BEYOND
I was really liking this tandem as a nice one-two fantasy punch in 2015, with both offering value in the RB2 to RB3 range, but now with Duke Johnson in the mix this backfield is completely muddled. Johnson figures to eat into the backfield targets, as the team has even reported giving him reps at wide receiver. That means West and Crowell will be duking it out for carries, likely both staying in the 10-15 range per game (if that). This is bad news for West, who was more of a volume runner in 2014. In the six games where he had 15 or more carries, he averaged 12-plus fantasy points per contest, versus a mere 3.4 in the nine where he had fewer than 15 totes (he was a healthy scratch in Week 6). Crowell on the other hand, given his propensity for the big play (and nose for the end zone) will have greater upside in Cleveland, even if Johnson gets a healthy amount of touches.

2015 DRAFT VALUE
Static: I'm breaking the rules here, but until we know more about how this backfield will look once the pads come on later in July, it is truly impossible to predict. If you're drafting before then, however, both West and Crowell (as well as Johnson) need to be drafted in standard leagues. There will be a leader in this backfield ... we'll just have to wait and see who it is.

Jerick McKinnon, MIN

 

PRIMER
McKinnon, a rookie out of Georgia Southern, had a chance to see the field plenty in 2014 splitting time with Matt Asiata while Adrian Peterson was on the Commissioner's exempt list. He was the more effective running back, but failed to find the end zone as a rookie, which is why Asiata finished higher in fantasy (16th) and few people outside of football diehards know the name Jerick McKinnon.

2014 IN REVIEW
McKinnon didn't see much game action until Week 4 against the Atlanta Falcons, which was his coming out party. He rushed 18 times for 135 yards including a 55-yarder (which you can watch to the right), while also catching one pass for 17 yards. McKinnon out-rushed Asiata in all but one game in 2014 where they both saw significant snaps (Week 5, at GB), but Asiata out-scored him in fantasy because he got ALL of the goal-line looks. While McKinnon had 152 total yards against the Falcons, Asiata had three touchdowns. Lots of yards and no touchdowns was the story of McKinnon's season. Standing at just 5-foot-9 and weighing 208 pounds, McKinnon doesn't move the pile, but he's also not a push-over. He's at his best when he can read the flow of the line and use his lateral agility and above-average vision to find cutback lanes or small creases to dart through for gains. Taking out his first three games where he totaled a mere five carries and seven yards, McKinnon averaged 4.9 yards per carry on 108 totes -- not bad production.

2015 AND BEYOND
With Adrian Peterson back for 2015, it's his backfield in Minnesota and no one is disputing that. But for owners looking for a handcuff to Peterson, McKinnon is the one to target. His talent is evident on game tape, and the coaches have taken notice, saying the "sky's the limit" for the second-year back, and he will see touches week-to-week. However, those touches will likely be minimal unless he catches fire or Peterson suffers an injury.

2015 DRAFT VALUE
Slump: McKinnon is only a slump because he now has a workhorse in front of him eating up carries. He is worth a late-round draft pick to handcuff to Peterson, though.

Devonta Freeman, ATL

 

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PRIMER
Devonta Freeman was a fourth-round selection by the Falcons in 2014 to serve as a change-of-pace for Steven Jackson, and did just that. Now, after an offseason of being showered with high-praise from the coaching staff, Freeman will be competing with new rookie Tevin Coleman for carries in the Falcons backfield.

2014 IN REVIEW
Freeman didn't exactly get much of a chance to prove himself on the ground in 2014 (65 carries), and was mostly used out of the shotgun. He did have a few nice runs out of more traditional formations, including a 31-yard touchdown gallop, but his primary role for the Falcons was to catch passes out of the backfield. Freeman has a good build for his 5-foot-8 frame, but still won't be moving a lot of piles or bowling backs over. He has some nice shiftiness, including a jump cut to help him get to the hole when he's pressured in the backfield. His vision is solid, and could be a nice asset for operating out of Kyle Shanahan's zone-blocking offense.

2015 AND BEYOND
The Falcons rushing attack was a mess last season, as evidenced by the lackluster yard-per-carry averages posted by their three main backs: Jackson (3.7), Freeman (3.8) and Jacquizz Rodgers (3.7). Per Pro Football Focus, only four teams were worse at run blocking than Atlanta, but that was partly due to a rash of injuries turning their offensive line into a revolving door of mediocrity. They will be healthy in 2015, employing a new system and blocking for two talented backs in Freeman and Coleman. Freeman has been getting first-team reps thus far in the offseason, but that could all change once the pads come on in late July. Even if Coleman does win the lion's share of the carries (as many analysts are expecting), there should be enough touches to go around for both him and Freeman to be successful.

2015 DRAFT VALUE
Surge: Freeman will be best suited for PPR leagues in general, with more upside if he wins the starting job over Coleman in camp. This is one of the key positional battles to watch as the season approaches.

- Alex Gelhar is a fantasy writer/editor for NFL.com who really thinks you should be watching "Hannibal" on Thursday nights on NBC. Follow him on Twitter @AlexGelhar.

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