The 2012 NFL off-season hasn't been short of major headlines. Generally during the off-season other sports tend to dominate, but not this year. With Peyton Manning and Tim Tebow getting most of the attention, there have been four significant back-up running back acquisitions that quietly have slipped through the media cracks. Michael Bush , Mike Tolbert, Benjarvus Green-Ellis and Brandon Jacobs will all be making an impact next season in new citites.
Year-after-year, a number one back for a team will get hurt for an extended period of time or regress to the point of uselessness. All of a sudden these backs that nobody really cared about are in the spotlight and have the chance to be a game changer. Back-up running backs are fantasy sleeper gold mines. If you hit the right one, they can bring you to the promise land. Good back-ups are often underappreciated in fantasy, especially because more and more teams are shifting towards the use of a two back system rather than overload one back with 25 plus carries a game. If you don't pay attention to the back-ups, you may find yourself in a panic when your number one or number two running back gets hurt and his back up is already owned by someone else in your league.
I think the most interesting and possibly most fantasy relevant signing was by the Chicago Bears. Michael Bush has been proving himself worthy of being a number one back for two years now, and he's not about to stop producing now that he's in Chicago. He had to wait for Darren McFadden to miss time to really get any touches in Oakland, but once Bush took over last season… it was a wrap. He took off with 839 rushing yards and 5 touchdowns after McFadden got shut down in week 7. He has had 8 total touchdowns in both of the last two seasons and will certainly be lurking as the Bears near the Red Zone. Matt Forte is lightning in a bottle, but over and over has shown he can't push it in on the goal line. Look for Bush to get more than a few carries each week and will probably get the majority of goaline touches. If Forte misses a few games next season it wouldn't be surprising to see Bush outperform him in fantasy, and even if Forte stays healthy, Bush will be getting a fair share of touches. He could be a gamble worth taking in the early to middle rounds of your draft.
Possibly most out of nowhere signing of the group was Mike Tolbert going to the Carolina Panthers. As the roster stands now, he would be third string behind Jonathan Stewart and Deangelo Williams. Both Williams and Stewart have had their struggles and their injuries, so to me this signing is means that the Panthers are getting ready to deal one of the two. Tolbert could be scary on a rapidly improving Panthers team. Last year he had 54 receptions, 900 total yards and 10 total touchdowns while only sharing the load with Ryan Mathews in San Diego. He's a touchdown vulture and a relatively consistent PPR threat. If he gets anywhere near the same amount of touches, he could be a respectable mid round pick.
The Bengals signing of Benjarvus Green-Ellis is interesting because Cedric Benson has hit the 1,000 rushing yard total for three years in a row in Cincinnati. Benson is getting older but is still a very viable number one back on a team that generally likes to pound the ball. He is averaging just under 300 carries per season for the last three years which is somewhat of a red flag. That can definitely take a toll on the legs of an aging running back. The Bengals may be looking to Green-Ellis to be the future number one in Cinci if/when Benson's age ends up catching up with him. Not sure I would gamble in the middle rounds on Green-Ellis but he definitely has the potential for a late round sleeper who could emerge and end up being quite valuable.
For me, Brandon Jacobs landing in San Francisco has the least upside out of the rest of the group. He is 29 and has more miles on him than any of the other backs. His bruising rushing style clearly takes a toll on his body, and he is not the same running back that defenders used to fear. With that being said, if he is used in the right situations he could still be a touchdown vulture and have some fantasy value. He may never gain more than 50 or 60 yards in a game, but who know? If you are in a pinch for a running back during a bye week or having an injury plagued roster, he could reward you with a cheap touchdown or two when you need it. I probably wouldn't draft him, but if injuries strike he may become a useful waiver pick-up.
You never really know with running backs. The top 10 fantasy backs might only have a handful of the same faces from year-to-year. Injuries are a part of the game and they often strike at this physical position. That's why it's always important to stay aware of back-ups lurking in the shadows, waiting for their chance to step into the spotlight.