Fantasy free agency primer: Top running backs

"The running back position is the lifeblood of fantasy football."

I can't tell you how many times I've written that sentence over the years, but it still rings true in a lot of ways. Even in the passing league that the NFL has become, a good running back corps can be a tremendous asset in the world of fantasy football. Just ask Jamaal Charles' owners. That's why it's important to keep tabs on what's going on at the position during the free-agent period.

Following the lead of our Around the League friends, here's a look at the top free-agent backs and who might make the biggest impact with their new teams.

Alone at the top

  1. Knowshon Moreno, Denver Broncos

From a pure fantasy perspective, Moreno's status is the biggest question mark at the running back position. If he remains in Denver, the veteran retains his spot as a potential top-10 option. Should he leave (as expected), a domino effect occurs. First, Moreno's value would likely tumble in an offense that isn't led by Peyton Manning. Second, his absence in the Mile High City would make Montee Ball one of the most attractive sleepers in fantasy land. For Moreno to avoid being labeled a bust candidate, he would need to land with a team that uses him as a featured back. He'd be a pretty nice fit with the New York Giants, but that's an unlikely scenario at this point.

Starting material

  1. Ben Tate, Houston Texans
    1. Rashad Jennings, Oakland Raiders
    2. Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville Jaguars
    3. Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders

Tate should be in a great position to break out this season, assuming he lands with a team that allows him to fill a featured role. He's a tough runner with upside at the age of 25, though Tate does have durability issues that are a cause for some concern. I had him pegged as an offseason target of the Cleveland Browns, but that was before GM Michael Lombardi was relieved of his duties. Right now, I'm looking at him as a potential No. 2 fantasy runner.

As for Jones-Drew and McFadden, there's risk with both of them. MJD has a lot of wear and tear, and he'll be 29 at the start of the 2014 campaign. Age doesn't factor into McFadden's value, but he's been about as durable as a house of cards in a wind storm. In fact, he's missed a combined 19 games over the last four seasons. A reunion with former coach Hue Jackson in Cincinnati makes a lot of sense, but that would happen only if the Bengals cut ties with BenJarvus Green-Ellis.

The player I like most after Tate is Jennings, who showed flashes of serious potential as the featured back in Oakland last season. And while he'll be entering his age-29 season, Jennings has never had even 170 carries in four pro seasons. If he remains in Silver and Black and McFadden is allowed to leave, Jennings would have No. 2 fantasy runner written all over him.

More questions than answers

  1. Andre Brown, New York Giants
    1. Rashard Mendenhall, Arizona Cardinals
    2. LeGarrette Blount, New England Patriots
    3. Donald Brown, Indianapolis Colts
    4. Ahmad Bradshaw, Indianapolis Colts

Brown played well in a featured role last season, but much of his value is tied to David Wilson (neck). Of course, that assumes the G-Men decide to retain the former N.C. State star. ... Mendenhall has some mystery surrounding his status for 2014. Regardless, Andre Ellington is the runner to target in Arizona. ... Blount could wind up back in New England, but that would make for a confusing fantasy mess with Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen also in the mix. ... Brown looked good for stretches in 2013, but he's no more than a committee back. A return to the Colts would hurt the value of Trent Richardson, who will also have to deal with the return of Vick Ballard. ... Bradshaw has had some good fantasy seasons, but his proneness to injuries is a huge red flag.

Ready to make the leap: Toby Gerhart

Watch out for Gerhart this offseason. He's seen limited work at the pro level, but his ridiculous 7.9 yards-per-carry average last season is eye opening. He also has decent pass-catching skills and little wear and tear on his body -- Gerhart had a mere 276 rushing attempts in four seasons in Minnesota.

Michael Fabiano is an award-winning fantasy football analyst on NFL.com and NFL Network and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA) Hall of Fame. Have a burning question on anything fantasy related? Tweet it to @Michael_Fabiano or send a question via Facebook!

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