The running back position is changing in the NFL. Or at least how teams use their running backs is changing. You have almost as many different philosophies as you have offensive coordinators. Knowing how a team plans to use its rushers will impact where fantasy owners select those players in their drafts.
There's the Green Bay logic. The team used Eddie Lacy heavily last season. Much of that was owed to Aaron Rodgers missing significant time with injury. But it doesn't seem to have deterred the team from following that path again in 2014. "If he gets 40 (carries in a game), I'm OK with that," said Packers running backs coach Sam Gash. All signs point to Lacy being a true workhorse this season which is part of the reason he is likely to be off the board within the first six or seven selections.
Things are a little different in Tampa Bay. Doug Martin was once on track to have a Lacy-like workload, but that train was derailed when the former Boise State star was sidelined for much of 2013 with a shoulder injury. This season, new head coach Lovie Smith is referring to Martin as a "bell cow", but signs point to the Bucs splitting carries with Mike James and Bobby Rainey. There's also rookie Charles Sims, who could force his way into the mix. Martin is the top back to own in Tampa, but fantasy owners would be wise to find a solid handcuff.
It's a similar situation in St. Louis where Zac Stacy is the incumbent starter, but might need to look over his shoulder to see if rookie Tre Mason is creeping up. Head coach Jeff Fisher is labeling Mason as a change-of-pace back, but the former Auburn standout says he wants more. For the time being, don't expect Stacy to be seriously challenged by the rookie.
Then there's Cleveland, where things might be more unsettled than we realized. New acquisition Ben Tate confidently proclaimed that he didn't have any competition for the starting running back job. Tate apparently didn't talk to head coach Mike Pettine before saying that. Pettine recently called the coming camp battle between Tate and rookie Terrance West"the best competition" the team might have in preseason workouts.
Finally in Baltimore, the Ravens are preparing for life without Ray Rice -- even if only temporarily. In the meantime a slew of backs could carry the rock, starting with Bernard Pierce and including Justin Forsett and Lorenzo Taliaferro. Once Rice returns, things could get really hairy. Look for a full-on committee meeting in Charm City this season.
» The first step in Rob Gronkowski's quest to play 16 games is complete. The Patriots tight end has been medically cleared and will avoid the physically unable to perform list. That's good news for Tom Brady, who struggled without Gronk in the lineup for long stretches last season. No player has caught more touchdown passes from the future Hall of Fame quarterback, with Gronk posting double-digit touchdowns in three of his first four NFL seasons. As long as Gronkowski is healthy, he won't last in drafts past the fifth round.
» In more tight end news ... there's no longer a concern about Vernon Davis holding out. The dynamic 49ers pass-catcher has reported to camp on time. Nothing has changed in Davis' desire for a new deal; instead he was more concerned about the team's stance on not negotiating with holdout players as well as any substantial fines he might incur from the team. While Davis' finances aren't much of a concern for fantasy enthusiasts, his availability is. With the veteran back in the fold, he's likely to once again be a top five player at his position.
» As is his tradition, Reggie Waynearrived to Colts training camp in style. However, he also arrived with the good news that he's been medically cleared following his rehab from a torn ACL. That's encouraging, but it's wise to be wary of a 35-year-old veteran trying to return so quickly from a serious knee injury. That's part of the reason we've preached caution on Wayne heading into the new season.
» The news for Julio Jones was cautiously optimistic. The star Falcons wideout will be ready for the start of training camp, but the team plans to have Jones take things slowly. It's a wise move for a player who projects to be a big part of Atlanta's offense for many years to come. We expect Jones to be ready to go for Week 1 and end up as a top 10 fantasy receiver once the dust settles.
» In other Falcons news, the team will have a big hole in the offense due to the retirement of Tony Gonzalez. Don't expect one player to pick up the slack. Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter says the team will spread those targets around this season. Levine Toilolo is penciled in as the starter, but Bear Pascoe could see a few snaps as well this season. Right now, there's little reason to think of any Falcons tight end as a consistent impact fantasy player.
» Now that the Giants are transitioning to a version of the West Coast offense, Victor Cruz has started watching old tape of Jerry Rice. There are worse things in the world than studying a player who excelled in that scheme like no other and while Cruz's goal of 100 receptions, 1,500 yards and 10 touchdowns might be lofty (only 13 players in NFL history have accomplished the feat), it could get the Giants receiver closer to where he was in 2011 and 2012. One can only hope.
» Ace Sanders will miss the first four games of the season. The Jaguars receiver revealed that fact on a recent conference call, although the reason for the suspension is unknown. Sanders was going to need to compete to overcome rookies Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson on the roster, so it doesn't appear that his ban will have any serious fantasy football repercussions.