2013 Outlook: Undrafted out of Wayne State, Bell bounced from Buffalo to Philadelphia (twice) to Indianapolis to New Orleans (twice), before finally landing in Detroit at the end of '11. He became an unsung hero for the Lions last year, tying for fifth in catches by a RB and producing 899 yards from scrimmage. Unfortunately for Bell, Detroit paid big dollars for Reggie Bush this winter, which makes it hard to imagine Bell can repeat. However, Bell is a better player than Mikel Leshoure, and could easily wind up being the Lions' most valuable RB commodity should the occasionally fragile Bush suffer an injury.
2013 Outlook: Entering '12, Helu looked like a potential top-20 fantasy back. He's got a tempting size/speed combo, catches the ball wonderfully, and produced a few big days at the end of his rookie year. But Helu battled two sore Achilles in training camp, then suffered a turf toe injury that required surgery. In the meantime, Alfred Morris left him in the dust. The Redskins say they still like Helu, and he appears to be the leader for backup and third-down duties behind Morris. That makes him an important handcuff for the Shanahans of D.C., but without an injury to Morris, it's probably not going to be a big fantasy year for Helu.
2013 Outlook: The glass-half-full assessment of Hillman reads like this: After a decent regular season, the rookie did a brilliant job taking over for injured Knowshon Moreno in a playoff loss to Baltimore, piling up 103 total yards on 25 touches. The glass-half-empty assessment goes like this: Coach John Fox's praise this offseason was limited to calling Hillman "capable," and then Denver drafted Montee Ball in the second round of April's draft. For a time this summer, it appeared Hillman might be a legit candidate to start, but then he started to fumble in preseason games. At the moment, we view him as third on the depth chart, behind Ball and Knowshon Moreno.
2013 Outlook: Michael is an intriguing physical specimen who suffered a broken leg and torn ACL in different collegiate seasons, and also was suspended for a game last season, plus threw a punch in a different contest. In short, he has a bad reputation, and it isn't just talk. But at April's combine he ran a 4.54 40, did 27 bench reps, and posted the highest high jump ever for a RB. As Robert Turbin has struggled to stay healthy in training camp, Michael has made a solid first impression. He'd be a far more intriguing handcuff to Marshawn Lynch, as he's simply a spectacular athlete.
2013 Outlook: Brown brings 224 pounds worth of thump to his runs, he's strong in pass protection, and while it takes him a while to get up to top speed, he's not slow once he gets there. He also scored all eight of his TDs last season from inside an opponent's 2. But he's been immensely injury-prone throughout his four-year NFL career, and fractured his leg in the final preseason game. He will miss the Giants' first eight games, so he no longer looks like anything but a deep-league handcuff to David Wilson.
2013 Outlook: The Jets offense was terrible last year, finishing 30th in total yards and 28th in scoring. But Rex Ryan sure does like to run the ball: New York's 494 carries were sixth-most in the NFL. Chris Ivory figures to be first in line in '13, but he's been nicked up his entire pro career, and Mike Goodson will miss at least the first four games of '13. Next on the list should be Powell. A plodding runner who doesn't have size enough to move the pile, Powell did prove useful catching passes out of the backfield late last season.
2013 Outlook: This veteran vulture got eight carries inside an opponent's 3 last year and converted seven into touchdowns. Believe it or not, Tolbert has more TDs since '10 (28) than Frank Gore, Chris Johnson and Matt Forte. At 245 pounds in an offense that also features DeAngelo Williams, "short-yardage hammer" is just about the only role in which Tolbert will get carries, though he'll also catch you a few passes per week. Still, Tolbert has scored at least seven TDs in three straight seasons. He can steal you a week as a deep-league fantasy fill-in.
2013 Outlook: The Lions paid lip service to Leshoure's ability through the early winter, but when free agency began, their actions spoke louder than their words. They paid Reggie Bush $4 million guaranteed and will no doubt give him their backfield's heaviest workload. Where does that leave Leshoure? Well, eight of his nine TDs last season came in goal-to-go situations, which makes sense: He's a powerful 227 pounds. There's a chance Leshoure spells Bush in short yardage. However, there's also a chance that Joique Bell, who's simply a better, more dynamic player, earns the backup job. We're not interested in owning Leshoure this year.
2013 Outlook: Goodson spent three years in Carolina buried behind DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, then one season in Oakland behind Darren McFadden. When the Jets acquired him this winter, the plan was to pair him with Chris Ivory, giving the team decent backfield upside but massive injury risk; Goodson has missed 24 games in his career with leg injuries while Ivory has regularly gotten hurt in limited action. However, Goodson will be suspended for four games to begin the year, and also has legal troubles. It sounds like he'll be on the Jets roster, and Ivory's health gives Goodson some upside. But he's nothing more than a deep lottery ticket.
2013 Outlook: It's Bush's fate to play behind heralded RBs, steal their touchdowns, and show flashes whenever the starter gets hurt. That was the case when he understudied for Darren McFadden, and now it's the case as he backs up Matt Forte. In '12, Forte was his legendarily awful short-yardage self once again, and Bush scored all five of his TDs from inside an opponent's 3. Plus when Forte injured an ankle, Bush filled in capably. Unfortunately, he also hurt ribs in December, and wound up on IR. Expect Bush to lead the Bears in rushing TDs, and make sure you handcuff him to Forte.
2013 Outlook: We liked Thomas as a sleeper heading into '12. Whoops. He suffered multiple concussions early, a season-ending knee injury late, and was an uninspiring rusher in between. Reggie Bush is gone from Miami, but the Dolphins are primed to give Lamar Miller first crack at the starting role, and drafted Mike Gillislee this April. At 6-foot-1 and 228 pounds, Thomas should be a threat to lead the team in TDs. But in 25 career carries inside an opponent's 10, he has 31 yards and four TDs. Consider our breath not held.
2013 Outlook: Thomas ended '12 with one of his roughest months as a pro, with 16 carries for 48 yards and no touchdowns. At the same time, fellow Saints RB Mark Ingram was showing signs of life. Now, we're not mortgaging the farm to bet that Ingram is suddenly ready to be a fantasy stud, and Darren Sproles' high usage as a receiver limits both Thomas and Ingram. Still, if there's one guy in this triumvirate whose arrow is pointing down, it's probably Thomas. He's a good bet for 800-plus yards from scrimmage, but it's folly to expect more than a handful of TDs.
2013 Outlook: At the tail end of an impressive sophomore campaign, Hunter partially tore his left Achilles and missed the 49ers' playoff push. Amazingly, however, Hunter is ready to go in Week 1 as Frank Gore's backup, while LaMichael James will miss the season's first month with a sprained knee. Should Gore go down later in the season, we'd likely be looking at a Hunter/James platoon, which makes Hunter an imperfect handcuff to Gore. Still, he'd likely be the Niners' biggest backfield contributor should Gore get hurt.
2013 Outlook: Woodhead made a good living in New England for the past three years as the Pats' loveable scrappy change-of-pace back. But now that he's signed as a free agent with the Chargers, his role may expand. For as long as he's healthy, Ryan Mathews will handle early-down duties and Ronnie Brown is still around to compete for third-down looks, but Woody may be asked to handle 100-plus carries in a year for the first time as a pro. Also, Philip Rivers threw a whopping 139 passes behind the line of scrimmage last year, second-most in the NFL, which gives Woodhead a crack at 50-plus catches, too.
2013 Outlook: The Human Hyphen finally got a chance to be a feature back in his fourth pro season, after Ryan Williams and Beanie Wells both went down with injury and everyone else on the Cardinals depth chart stunk it up. LSH broke a couple long runs, but mostly proved that at 5-foot-7 and 185 pounds without true breakaway speed, he's best suited for a reserve job. The Steelers signed him to play a role when they go spread, and we think he'll be more of a factor than Felix Jones will in the passing game.