Seven sleeper fantasy football backfields to watch

Once upon a time dominant, powerful beings known as "bell cow" running backs roamed the fantasy football world. Most teams had one, and if they didn't they tried to find one. Sadly, over time, bell cows began to disappear, fading more and more into myth and legend with each passing year. While there are still a few who walk the path of the bell cow in the modern day, more and more teams are embracing a new philosophy: the RBBC (running back by committee).

If you've played fantasy football at all in the past decade, you know this fable all too well. Workhorse running backs are, for the most part, ancient history, and most fantasy football teams need to get by with a patchwork attack of role players week in and week out. This adds a new layer of strategy to the game and increases the importance of deciphering the league's more crowded and confusing backfield corps.

Below I look at seven of the NFL's most intriguing backfields brimming with fantasy potential. Whether they're loaded with talent, wide open competition, or somewhere in between, I try to lay the groundwork for how we should view these groups this season. There aren't any definitive conclusions drawn just yet (it's May, after all), but I try to frame the backfield pecking order and how that might play out in drafts for now. A lot will change as the season nears, but the odds are good that several of these running backs will be fantasy factors this fall.

* = final college season production
= production with a different team than the one they are listed under

Green Bay Packers

Overview: The Packers annually put forth one of the best offenses in the league, but the last time they showcased a top-20 fantasy running back was Eddie Lacy in 2014. Lacy posted back-to-back top eight fantasy seasons his first two years in the league, so we know the potential is there for fantasy fortunes taking handoffs from Aaron Rodgers. The only problem with this backfield for 2018 is determining which runner will be the one to find the pot of fantasy gold at the end of the rainbow ... or top of the depth chart if you will.

The Players - 2017 stats:
Aaron Jones - rush: 81-448-4; rec: 9-22-0 (18 targets)
Jamaal Williams - rush: 153-556-4; rec: 25-262-2 (34 targets)
Ty Montgomery - rush: 71-273-3; rec: 23-173-1 (31 targets)

Montgomery, the longest-tenured player, was the starter and a true workhorse last year until the injury bug hit. For a brief spell in the middle of the season, Jones looked to be taking over as the lead back, posting two 125-plus yard games in a three-week span. Of course, injuries sidelined him and Williams pretty much took over for good. Due to this rolling wave of injuries, the Packers gave their "lead" back 80-plus percent of the backfield opportunities in 10 of 16 games last year. The "lead" back saw fewer than 60 percent of the opportunities just four times. This group scored a combined 14 touchdowns, but split those up 6-4-4, with Williams owning the six. He also led the group in rushes (153), targets (34) and receptions (25), mostly by virtue of him staying healthy the longest.

Looking ahead: The coaching staff has been savvy in not tipping their hand toward any sort of "favorite" here, meaning this could be a completely open competition. Or it could be a full-fledged committee (our worst fantasy nightmare). Joe Philbin, returning as the offensive coordinator, has a solid track record of leaning mostly on one back. In his nine years as an OC or head coach, he's had a back receive 55-plus percent of the carries eight times. Six of those backs also led the backfield in targets, and four saw 50-plus targets. My money is on Jones to assume close to a lead role, as he had the most visible impact on the offense. Williams would be next in the pecking order, after carrying the offense during a stretch of poor quarterback play. Montgomery feels like the odd man out, but I could be totally off reading these tea leaves.

Detroit Lions

Overview: Oh, the Lions running game. Reggie Bush was the last back to rush for 1,000 yards in a season or 100 yards in a game ... back in 2013. The Lions invested heavily in their running game this offseason, signing LeGarrette Blount (on a one-year deal), drafting center Frank Ragnow in the first round, and trading up for running back Kerryon Johnson in the second. So, how are we supposed to look at this backfield for fantasy purposes?

The Players - 2017 stats:
Kerryon Johnson - rush: 285-1,391-18; rec: 24-194-2
LeGarrette Blount - rush: 173-766-2; rec: 8-50-1 (8 targets)
Theo Riddick - rush: 84-286-3; rec: 25-162-1 (35 targets)
Ameer Abdullah - rush: 165-552-4; rec: 25-162-1 (35 targets)

Let's start with Johnson. He was a featured back in his final season with Auburn and posted top-three numbers for his position in both the vertical leap (40 inches) and broad jump (126 inches) at the NFL Scouting Combine earlier this year, two tests that signal explosion. Johnson checks a lot of boxes as a potential featured back at the NFL level ... but so did Ameer Abdullah just three years ago when the Lions drafted him in the second round. Now, Abdullah is fighting for a roster spot. Johnson carries some injury concerns with him into the NFL (he battled hamstring, shoulder and rib injuries last season), and Blount remains one of the league's best between-the-tackles hammers. His 4.4 yards per carry average in 2017 was tied for fifth-most among backs with 150-plus carries, and he was the fourth-most elusive back in the league per Next Gen Stats, gaining 4.51 yards per carry after a defender came within one yard of him. To make matters worse fantasy-wise, the Lions boast one of the league's best pass-catching backs in Theo Riddick. Since 2015, among running backs, only Duke Johnson has more targets or receptions than Riddick, and only James White has more receiving touchdowns (12 to 10).

Looking ahead: Despite all of this, respected Detroit beat reporter Dave Birkett expects Johnson to lead the team in carries. Blount being on a one-year contract means the team isn't highly invested in the 31-year-old, but he could be a big factor. Same goes for Riddick. Right now on, Johnson is the 29th back off the board, Riddick the 50th, and Blount the 72nd. With so much uncertainty surrounding this group, I'd be more inclined to wait and take Blount or Riddick at that steep of a discount.

Baltimore Ravens

Overview: Last summer, fantasy heads were debating between Terrance West, Danny Woodhead, and Javorius Allen in the Ravens backfield. Only one of those backs remains, and he wasn't even the best or most productive runner from the nest. That honor goes to Alex Collins, who looks poised to become close to a featured back in what could be a resurgent offense. However, he hasn't held that role since college and has plenty of competition.

The Players - 2017 stats:
Alex Collins - rush: 212-973-6; rec: 23-187-0 (36 targets)
Javorius Allen - rush: 153-591-4; 46-250-2 (60 targets)
Kenneth Dixon - rush: n/a; rec: n/a

Collins, a former sixth-round pick, was released by the Seahawks last offseason and landed with the Ravens. Injuries opened the door, but Collins' play secured him significant work early in the season. Among backs with at least 200 carries last year he was the eighth-most elusive per our Next Gen Stats metric (yards gained after a defender is within 1-yard of the rusher). Allen served as the team's primary pass-catching back with Woodhead sidelined for much of the year, seeing 60 targets (just over 10 percent of the team total). He wasn't highly efficient, however, turning that volume into 46 catches for 250 yards (5.4 per) and two touchdowns. He's a nice change of pace from Collins, though, and can offer something on the ground as well. The question mark is Draft Twitter darling Kenneth Dixon, who spent last year on injured reserve and served a six-game suspension. Dixon has the tools to play in the NFL but has yet to put it all together. He'll likely be a reserve this year.

Looking ahead: This job appears to be Collins' to lose, and he's entering the year with the mindset that he's the team's No. 1 back. He's a fantastic mid-round target, especially if you skew heavy on wide receivers early (I recently nabbed Collins in Round 6 of our 12-team, PPR staff mock). Allen should mix in as a pass-catcher, though, and has appeal in deeper PPR leagues. Dixon is an afterthought for now, but if injuries hit this backfield he'll be a name to have on speed dial on the waiver wire. Don't overlook this Ravens offense in general, either, as they could be poised for a surprisingly strong year thanks to the new additions in the passing game like Michael Crabtree and John Brown. While they finished tied for last in yards per play, the Ravens were top-10 in the league in points scored and total plays in 2017.

Cleveland Browns

Overview: Believe it or not, the Browns backfield was productive in fantasy last year. Duke Johnson and Isaiah Crowell were the RB11 and RB31 in PPR, respectively, and the RB21 and RB30 in standard. That was with a complete disaster at quarterback and big question marks in the passing game. With stability under center (Tyrod Taylor/Baker Mayfield) and an attractive set of pass-catchers (Josh Gordon, Jarvis Landry, Corey Coleman, David Njoku), the backfield could be set up for big things in 2018. All we must do is determine who the hell is going to be carrying the ball.

The Players - 2017 stats:
Nick Chubb - rush: 223-1,345-15; rec: 4-30-0
Duke Johnson - rush: 82-348-4; rec: 74-693-3 (93 targets)
Carlos Hyde - rush: 240-938-8; rec: 59-350-0 (88 targets)

The Browns let Crowell walk in free agency and signed Carlos Hyde to big money for a running back (average of $5 million per year). Hyde was fantastic last year for the 49ers and fantasy owners (RB8 PPR, RB11 standard), but now he'll face something he rarely encountered in the Bay Area -- workload issues. Not only was head coach Hue Jackson hesitant to hand Crowell big workloads last year (Crowell saw 20-plus touches just twice, and 15-plus touches just eight times), but the team also drafted stud rusher Nick Chubb in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Sigh. A two-way backfield with Hyde and Johnson, or Chubb and Johnson, could have been a great situation for fantasy. Instead, we're stuck fighting this three-headed monster. Johnson's role as the pass-catching specialist seems the likeliest to stick -- since he entered the league he leads all running backs in receptions (188) and receiving yards (1,741). The Hyde-Chubb part of the equation is trickier. While Hyde is on a three-year deal and is getting paid top-10 RB money, the team has an out in his contract after this year. That could mean they'll be more willing to saddle Hyde with a heavy workload this year while Chubb gets acclimated to the NFL before cutting ties with Hyde next offseason. Or, since the team just invested a second-round pick in Chubb and Jackson spoke glowingly about the rookie, he could beat out the veteran and be the primary workhorse for this suddenly deep and talented offense. I'd lean towards not trusting Hue, personally, as this is the man who said the "Earth moved beneath his feet" when he watched Robert Griffin III practice.

Looking ahead: As it stands in early mocks, Chubb is going first followed by Hyde several rounds later and then Johnson several picks later. My general feeling right now is to avoid this group, save Johnson in PPR formats, until we get a better sense of who might lead the way. If this does become Hyde and Chubb splitting Crowell's old workload ... let's just not go there. That's a dark path to wander with summer on the horizon.

Indianapolis Colts

Overview: I'm not sure there's a team plagued with more questions or question marks on the roster than the Indianapolis Colts. What's the status of Andrew Luck's arm? Who's the No. 2 wideout behind T.Y. Hilton? And who is going to lead this backfield now that Frank Gore is out of the picture?

The Players - 2017 stats:
Marlon Mack - rush: 93-358-3; 21-225-1 (33 targets)
Robert Turbin - rush: 23-53-1; 9-56-0 (11 targets)
*Nyheim Hines - rush: 197-1,113-12; 26-152-0
*Jordan Wilkins - rush: 155-1,011-9; 26-241-1

The favorite for that final question is Marlon Mack, a fourth-round draft pick last year who popped up for a few big plays as a rookie. Mack averaged a meager 3.8 yards per carrying, but running behind the 2017 Colts line was no easy task. Mack is an explosive athlete who could fit well into new head coach Frank Reich's offensive system, but he's recovering from labrum surgery and still needs to improve as a between-the-tackles runner. Robert Turbin landed on injured reserve last October after a nasty elbow/arm injury. He was averaging 2.3 yards per carry before going down but is the type of "reliable" veteran coaches love to keep around. He'll face plenty of competition for touches from this year's rookies, though, as Nyheim Hines (fourth round) and Jordan Wilkins (fifth round) will push for significant work. Hines is just 5-foot-8, but has electric athleticism and could be a difference maker in space. Wilkins fits the bill as more of an early-down workhorse, and had some comparable testing numbers to Hines, despite being five inches taller and nearly 20 pounds heavier.

Looking ahead: Mack is climbing up ADP ranks as his sleeper credentials get pumped up by a new fantasy writer each week, which makes Hines and Wilkins ideal late-round targets as dart throws. We'll learn a lot about this backfield once the pads come on and training camp starts in earnest. There will be fantasy points to be had from this group considering Gore finished last year as the RB18 in standard and RB19 in PPR at the tender age of 34.

New England Patriots

Overview: Oh, joy, the Patriots have a confounding backfield committee. In other news, water is wet, the sky is blue, and Han shot first. The team lost Dion Lewis in free agency, but Swiss-Army Knife Rex Burkhead and pass-catching powerhouse James White remained. So naturally, they went ahead and took Sony Michel in the first round of the NFL Draft. Cool. Cool, cool, cool.

The Players - 2017 stats:
Sony Michel - rush: 81-448-4; rec: 9-22-0 (18 targets)
Rex Burkhead - rush: 153-556-4; rec: 25-262-2 (34 targets)
James White - rush: 71-273-3; rec: 23-173-1 (31 targets)
Mike Gillislee - rush: 104-383-5; rec: 1-15-0 (1 target)
Jeremy Hill - rush: 37-116-0; 4-16-0 (4 targets)

Laurence Maroney was the last running back the Patriots took in the first round (2006), and he received 175 carries and 30 targets that year. Much like Michel in 2018, Maroney joined a crowded committee with Corey Dillon leading the way and Kevin Dillon serving as the all-purpose back. The case today is the same as it was then -- the Patriots love finding and exploiting matchups with a diverse backfield in lieu of a traditional "featured back." Case in point, look back at how they deployed Burkhead once he was fully healthy late last season. From Weeks 12-15 he averaged just 11 touches and 57 yards per game but scored six touchdowns in that four-game span. I'd expect a similar role for Burkhead, with Michel the most likely candidate to inherit the 180 carries left behind by Lewis' departure. White will remain the pass-catching specialist, but as is usually the case his usage is a bit tough to trust (five-plus targets in just eight of 14 games played last year). It's also worth mentioning that the Patriots have Jeremy Hill, Mike Gillislee (who saw 104 carries last year) and Brandon Bolden in the mix. It'll be close to impossible for all three of them to make the final roster, but one or two of them will inevitably vulture valuable fantasy production from a more prominent back because Patriots.

Looking ahead: So, for 2018, it looks like Michel has the highest ceiling and highest floor, and as such should be the first Patriot back drafted. Like Maroney before him he is joining a committee, but unlike Maroney there isn't an elite back already in the crowd. Burkhead is tumbling down draft boards and makes for a great flex play in deeper leagues, especially those with PPR scoring. Speaking of PPR, that's pretty much the only format where you'll want to roster White, and even then, it's likely as a backup or matchup-based flex player. The rest of the backs should be left to the waiver-wire for now.

New York Jets

Overview: To the surprise of many, the Jets fielded a relatively strong fantasy offense for parts of the 2017 season (especially those of us who adhered to the faulty #NeverJets strategy). A lot has changed in just a few short months, though, especially in the backfield. Matt Forte retired after a fantastic career, and the team signed Isaiah Crowell and Thomas Rawls in free agency. With Josh McCown or Sam Darnold under center and a group of talented young pass-catchers out wide, there are reasons for relative optimism for this fantasy backfield.

The Players - 2017 stats:
*Isaiah Crowell - rush: 206-853-4; rec: 28-182-0 (42 targets)
Bilal Powell - rush: 178-772-5; rec: 23-170-0 (33 targets)
Elijah McGuire - rush: 88-315-1; rec: 17-177-1 (26 targets)
Thomas Rawls - rush: 58-157-0; 9-94-0 (13 targets)

Bilal Powell clocked in as the RB29 in PPR last year, and will remain a big part of this backfield, but the Jets have made it clear they prefer him in a complementary role. That sets up nicely for Crowell to slide into a sizable workload. Crowell is a talented, but imperfect back who had some success in Cleveland. The fine folks at Gang Green Nation did a rundown of Crowell's accomplishments since he came into the league in 2014 (which you should read here), but the main takeaway is that Crowell has big-play ability and can be successful as a workhorse, but he also has a tendency to gain minimal yardage while trying to hit a big run. Perhaps a more consistent role in New York will help Crowell even out his production. He's played in all 64 games since his debut, but has seen 15-plus carries in just 19, and 20-plus carries once. Thomas Rawls has been fighting for years to regain the form he showcased as a rookie, when he rushed for 830 yards and led the NFL in yards-per-carry with 5.6. Rawls feels like a longshot to make the roster as I write this in May, but he'll be worth keeping an eye on. The remaining backfield denizens are Elijah McGuire and rookie Trenton Cannon, two smaller, explosive change-of-pace backs. McGuire had his moments as a rookie, and will be the likely third wheel while Cannon tries to get seasons for the rigor of the NFL. Neither will be worth much draft capital in redraft formats unless something happens to Powell/Crowell.

Looking ahead:All told, the only draftable options here are Powell and Crowell, with Powell getting a slight edge in PPR and Crowell taking that advantage in standard. The Jets offense certainly suffers in the eye of the casual fan because, well, the Jets have been bad lately. However, in fantasy, this could be one of those situations to exploit in your league, as this team could sneakily find some success this fall.

-- Follox Alex on Twitter @AlexGelhar, on Instagram @AlexGelhar, or like his page on Facebook.

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