Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
Last offseason, the Green Bay Packers, Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh Steelers and St. Louis Rams all waited until the draft to address their running back issues.
This year, we already have a good idea of who most teams' lead back will be a couple weeks before the draft, and not just because the NFL pushed it into May.
More teams used the free agency period to fill their running back needs this offseason.
Below, I rank eight of the NFL's new starting running backs based on their projected fantasy value.
1) Montee Ball, Denver Broncos
Reason for starting: Knowshon Moreno signed with Miami Dolphins
Outlook: Ball was supposed to have a major impact last year after the Broncos selected him in the second round, but Knowshon Moreno has nine lives and wasn't ready to be buried yet. Moreno compiled 1,586 yards from scrimmage (1,038 rushing) and 13 touchdowns on 301 touches (241 carries) in 2013 to rank as one of fantasy's top backs. In 2014, the 23-year-old Ball will get his turn to run against the light defensive fronts Peyton Manning creates. He's a better player than Moreno, so it isn't unreasonable to expect him to improve upon Moreno's 2013 numbers, especially on the rushing end.
2) Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati Bengals
Reason for starting: Much greater talent than BenJarvus Green-Ellis; departure of offensive coordinator Jay Gruden
Outlook: For some reason, Gruden never tired of watching Green-Ellis fall down after gaining three yards and ended up giving him 50 more carries than Bernard. Bernard finished with 695 rushing yards on 170 carries and 514 receiving yards on 56 carries. This season, the two players' rushing workloads from 2013 will be flipped at the very least and there's a chance Bernard will see even more carries than that. Bernard had nine gains of 20-plus yards as a receiver, more than any other running back.
3) Toby Gerhart, Jacksonville Jaguars
Reason for starting: Signed away from Minnesota Vikings
Outlook: The Jaguars decided to move on from the 29-year-old Maurice Jones- Drew (3.4 ypc in 2013) in favor of Gerhart. Gerhart is just two years younger than Jones-Drew but has much more tread left on his tires because the Vikings didn't take him for a spin very often in his four years with the team. As Adrian Peterson's backup, he accumulated 276 carries; MJD had 234 carries last year alone and 2,139 total touches since 2006. Jags coach Gus Bradley said in March that there is a "strong possibility" that Gerhart will touch the football 18 times per game.
4) Ben Tate, Cleveland Browns
Reason for starting: Signed away from Houston Texans
Outlook: After trading Trent Richardson last season, the Browns ended up trotting out Willis McGahee, Chris Ogbonnaya, Fozzy Whittaker and Edwin Baker at running back for the rest of the season. Those four combined to run for 867 yards and four touchdowns on 258 carries (3.4 ypc). To enhance the position, the Browns grabbed Ben Tate, who has been itching for a starting job for four years after missing all of his rookie season and running for 1,992 yards on 421 carries the last three as Arian Foster's backup.
5) Andre Ellington, Arizona Cardinals
Reason for starting: Retirement of Rashard Mendenhall
Outlook: In a situation similar to the one Bernard went through in Cincinnati, the Cardinals handed Rashard Mendenhall the rock 217 times even though he managed just 687 yards (3.2 ypc). Meanwhile, Ellington galloped for 5.5 ypc on 118 attempts and caught 39 balls for 371 yards. Mendenhall is gone, but I don't trust the Cardinals staff to commit to the undersized Ellington like I do the Bengals to commit to Bernard. Arizona has wavered this offseason, with coach Bruce Arians first saying he wants to build the offense around Ellington and then indicating he doesn't want to put too much responsibility in the running back's hands, and GM Steve Keim saying the team will use multiple backs and that Ellington won't be "featured." Ellington averaged 10.5 touches per game last season; we should see his workload increased to 13-15 per game which will put him in the 210-240 range for the entire season, but he won't get any short-yardage opportunities.
6) Rashad Jennings, New York Giants
Reason for starting: Signed away from Oakland Raiders; departure of Andre Brown; uncertainty of David Wilson's health
Outlook: Jennings would be ranked higher if David Wilson wasn't expected to be ready for OTAs, but Wilson's presence clouds this situation. I still like Jennings better than the final two guys on this list for two reasons: Wilson hasn't exactly been the most reliable player in the NFL in his two seasons and Jennings will most likely get goal-line carries for a team that gave its running backs plenty of short scoring chances last year (Andre Brown, Brandon Jacobs and Peyton Hillis rushed for just 3.6 ypc but combined for nine rushing touchdowns).
7) Chris Johnson, New York Jets
Reason for starting: Signed following release from Tennessee Titans
Outlook: Jets coach Rex Ryan told reporters than "nothing was promised" to Johnson regarding his role when he signed a two-year contract with the team. While I expect Johnson to lead the team in carries, the gap between Johnson and Chris Ivory won't be that wide. The Jets also didn't provide many touchdown opportunities to their running backs last year and if they do in 2014, Johnson is unlikely to be the guy getting most of them.
8) Knowshon Moreno, Miami Dolphins
Reason for starting: Signed away from Denver Broncos
Outlook: Remember when I said Moreno has nine lives? I think he used the ninth one last season. The Broncos let him walk even though Miami gave him only $3 million for one year. Dolphins running backs ran for 3.9 yards per carry last season and the team has been obsessed with keeping Daniel Thomas involved despite three years of evidence proving he's a below average player. Miami improved its offensive line with the addition of LT Branden Albert, but even if the Dolphins somehow boast a top-five offensive line in 2014 (unlikely) there's no way Moreno's situation will be better than the one he had in Denver last season.