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Easing the burden
Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - There aren't many workhorse running backs left in the NFL, and the number is seemingly decreasing by the year because coaches are always looking for a way to lighten the load.

This spring and summer, there have been rumblings that some of the NFL's top workhorse backs are going to receive less work in 2014.

Here are six running backs fantasy owners should expect to receive fewer touches per game in 2014 than they did last season.

Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks

Touches per game in 2013: 21.1

Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell created a stir in June when he said he would use a running back by committee in 2014. While he backed off from that statement a week later, the Seattle Times predicted Wednesday that Lynch could see 45-50 fewer carries in 2014. The reason? Christine Michael is ready to explode and Lynch could be on the verge of breaking down after averaging 300 carries the past three years. Lynch was one of three players, along with LeSean McCoy and Matt Forte, to receive at least 330 touches last season. If the team takes 50 away from him he'll still be in the 285-290 range, but far more players, 12 to be exact, reached that total in 2013. Lynch did tie for the NFL lead in rushing touchdowns and the guarantee of the goal- line work is enough to keep him as a first-round pick, albeit one with less upside than Arian Foster and Montee Ball, the two running backs going immediately after him in fantasyfootballcalculator.com mock drafts.

Frank Gore, San Francisco 49ers

Touches per game in 2013: 18.3

In the past three years, fantasy owners who bet on a Gore decline lost -- he averaged 272 carries, 1,184 rushing yards and 8.3 touchdowns per season in that span -- so we can't write him off yet. But Gore is now 31 and the 49ers' have been cultivating depth behind him. San Francisco took a chance on Marcus Lattimore last year and took Carlos Hyde, one of the top running backs in the 2014 NFL Draft, in the second round. Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James are still part of the equation as well. According to John Clayton of ESPN, "the early word" from San Francisco is that Gore could get 50 fewer carries this season, which would put him in the 225-230 range. It isn't just hearsay either; 49ers GM Trent Baalke has frequently indicated he wants to move away from one running back carrying most of the load. Gore averaged 3.6 receptions per game from 2006-10, but he's caught just 1.3 per game in three years since Jim Harbaugh became coach of the 49ers. A 50-carry reduction would be devastating for Gore's fantasy value. Think of him as a high-end flex option in 12-team leagues.

Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Touches per game in 2013: 23.2

Martin touched the football 368 times as a rookie, and he was on pace for 371 touches last season prior to suffering a season-ending torn labrum in his shoulder. After he went down, Mike James and Bobby Rainey had their moments as fantasy-relevant running backs, and Tampa Bay's new regime drafted Charles Sims 69th overall in this year's draft. Suddenly, the Bucs look pretty deep at Martin's position. In June, Tampa Bay OC Jeff Tedford said he believes in a running back rotation, according to the Tampa Bay Times. "I think you have to alternative," Tedford said. "... I don't believe that one back can carry the load. It's just too physical." Tedford had a running back committee in most seasons when he was the head coach at California from 2002-12. That doesn't mean Martin is going to be phased out, however. He should still see 275-280 touches and could return low-end RB1 value in 12-team leagues.

Reggie Bush, Detroit Lions

Touches per game in 2013: 19.8

Just 23 fantasy points separated Bush and backup Joique Bell in 2013, though Bush did miss two games. The gap could close even more this season if Bell's contract extension, which will pay him more guaranteed money than Bush received last offseason, is any indication. Bush averaged 15.9 carries per game to Bell's 10.4, but we could see closer to a 50-50 split in the run game this year. Fantasy owners should expect 16-17 touches (12-13 carries, 3-4 catches) per game from Bush.

Fred Jackson, Buffalo Bills

Touches per game in 2013: 15.8

Jackson played 16 games in 2013 for the first time since 2010 and put up 1,277 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns. But the Bills acquisition of Bryce Brown combined with a healthy C.J. Spiller could lead to Jackson being used as more of a 10-touch-per-game guy. He'll still have some flex value because he'll get goal-line carries and some third-down work, but the arrow is pointing firmly downward for the 33-year-old.

Chris Johnson, New York Jets

Touches per game in 2013: 20.1

While Johnson's effectiveness has declined in the past few seasons, he remained a strong fantasy contributor due to his voluminous workload. In fact, he finished eighth among running backs in fantasy points last season even though he ran for a career-low 3.9 ypc. He's also joining a team that has finished sixth or higher in rushing attempts in four of Rex Ryan's five seasons at the helm. But New York acquired Johnson not to steal Chris Ivory's thunder, but to add lightning to it. Johnson will likely top out at 250 touches in 2014.

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

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