Ball, Bell or Stacy?
Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The running back position really doesn't have a renowned draft class like 1983 and 2004 for quarterbacks and 1996 for wide receivers.

But last year's class may be remembered as the pinnacle for rushers.

No running backs were drafted in the first round, but Giovani Bernard (37th overall), Le'Veon Bell (48th), Montee Ball (58th), Eddie Lacy (61st), Zac Stacy (160th) and Andre Ellington (187th) all made an impact as rookies.

All are expected to leave an even larger imprint in 2014.

Among those six, there's a clear-cut top four in fantasy leagues, with Bernard and Ellington on the outside looking in due to workload concerns and Lacy serving as the consensus top guy in the group.

It appears to be a toss-up between Ball, Bell and Stacy, but I don't think there's any question that Ball is the best fantasy option of those three and also a guy who could challenge for a spot in the top five at the position.

Ball may handle the pigskin 30-40 fewer times than both Bell and Stacy, but he's going to be playing for a Denver Broncos offense that set numerous records in 2013.

Knowshon Moreno, Denver's starter last season, ranked fifth among running backs in fantasy points while touching the football 301 times.

I expect Ball to see at least 320 touches this season now that Moreno is with the Miami Dolphins.

Remember, Moreno had Ball backing him up and taking 140 touches away from him. Ball won't have a high-caliber backup stealing touches this season.

Broncos running backs caught 92 passes and scored 18 total touchdowns in 2013. Ball should easily grab 40 passes and match the 13 TDs Moreno scored last year and there's potential for more with Eric Decker gone.

Moreno managed to pick up 4.3 yards per carry for Denver, which seems impressive enough until you consider 192 of his 241 carries came with six or fewer men in the box, according to ESPN's Christopher Harris.

It's telling that Denver didn't make much of an effort to re-sign Moreno. The Broncos clearly think Ball is the better player and should do better than Moreno against the soft defensive fronts Peyton Manning creates.

As for Bell, he averaged 22.2 touches and 96.8 yards from scrimmage per game in his 13 games with the Pittsburgh Steelers, but he only rushed for 3.5 yards per carry.

In his final six, the Steelers gave him 24.2 touches per game and he produced an average of 107.7 yards from scrimmage, but he still only had 3.9 yards per carry in that span. The acquisition of LeGarrette Blount will likely prevent Bell from getting that many touches per game for the entire season, but he should end up with at least 350.

The same goes for Stacy, who averaged 22.9 touches in his 12 starts with the St. Louis Rams. The Rams put Stacy in a great position to improve upon his rookie numbers by drafting lane-clearing lineman Greg Robinson with the second overall pick.

But Stacy doesn't factor into the passing game very often -- he averaged 2.2 catches and 11.8 receiving yards per game as a starter -- and that keeps him behind Bell, who averaged 3.5 catches and 30.7 receiving yards per game.

I have Ball ahead of both players because he'll provide better rushing statistics than Bell while still contributing adequately as a receiver. Plus, his touchdown potential is much higher than either of his counterparts.

Fantasy owners may be hesitant to trust Ball in 2014 because he was a disappointment a year ago. He was expected to be the best of the rookie bunch but never seized the starting job in training camp and sunk a lot of early drafters.

But let 2013 go.

The Broncos already have displayed more faith in Ball this offseason than they did last year by allowing Moreno to leave and not selecting another running back in this year's draft.

That should give fantasy owners the confidence to pick up Ball and run with him.




Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Thomas J. Harrigan at tharrigan@sportsnetwork.com.

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