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Conference Preview: Big Ten: Running Backs Reign Supreme

Chris Benzine

Chris has been a RW contributor since early 2014, focused on Breaking News, MLB Daily Lineups and occasional NFL Team Previews.

For each conference preview, we will have first-,second-, and third-team All-Fantasy teams as well as sleeper and bust selections. To the right of each player's name will be their overall positional ranking.

All-Big Ten Fantasy Team

First Team

QB: J.T. Barrett, Ohio State (3)
RB: Saquon Barkley, Penn State (3)
RB: Justin Jackson, Northwestern (19)
WR: Parris Campbell, Ohio State (51)
WR: Simmie Cobbs, Indiana (49)
TE: Mike Gesicki, Penn State (7)

Second Team

QB: Trace McSorley, Penn State (23)
RB: Mike Weber, Ohio State (26)
RB: Akrum Wadley, Iowa (23)
WR: Janarion Grant, Rutgers (96)
WR: D.J. Moore, Maryland (69)
TE: Cole Herdman, Purdue (8)

Third Team

QB: David Blough, Purdue (28)
RB: Ty Johnson, Maryland (30)
RB: Chris James, Wisconsin (28)
WR: Nick Westbrook, Indiana (47)
WR: Malik Turner, Illinois (105)
TE: Troy Fumagalli, Wisconsin (12)

Sleepers

Richard Lagow, QB, Indiana

Lagow struggled with consistency in 2016, finishing the campaign with a 57.8 percent completion percentage and 3,362 passing yards, but just a 19:17 TD:INT ratio. With a season of experience and another offseason under his belt, the senior signal-caller should see better results in 2017. Although there should be a slight concern that new offensive coordinator Mike DeBord will lean on the ground game as he did with Tennessee last season, the offensive personnel likely dictates a pass-heavy approach this season. Not only does the team return Lagow, but also two top-tier receiving threats in wide receivers Simmie Cobbs and Nick Westbrook. Given the experience in the passing game, he should be primed to succeed in his final college campaign and shouldnít cost too much on draft day.

Chris Evans, RB, Michigan

Evans didnít lead the Wolverines in rushing as a freshman, posting 614 yards on 88 carries and adding four touchdowns. However, he averaged nearly seven yards per carry in his inaugural campaign with the Maize and Blue and last yearís rushing leader -- DeíVeon Smith -- has graduated. Evansí newfound place atop the depth chart puts him in prime position for a breakout season in 2017, especially with the teamís top three receiving threats from last season moving on from the program. Evans also struggled to grasp protection schemes in his first year on campus, which could result in additional looks in the passing game as a sophomore. Although Wilton Speight returns under center, his inconsistent play -- along with a loaded Michigan backfield -- should lead to a ground-heavy attack headed by Evans, who doesnít rank high on the list of Big Ten running backs.

Bradrick Shaw, RB, Wisconsin

Wisconsin notoriously churns out fantasy running back studs on a yearly basis, with the teamís leading rusher topping 1,000 rushing yards in all but two seasons since 2004. A seasoned offensive line will pave the way for the teamís ballcarriers and the Badgers again feature a tandem of running backs capable of producing significant stats. Corey Clement led the way for the group in 2016, followed by Dare Ogunbawle, but Shaw inserted his name into the rotation with 457 rushing yards of his own while averaging 5.2 yards per carry in the process. Pitt transfer Chris James appears the favorite to take the field on third downs, but a shaky passing attack should lead to a ground-heavy approach (as usual) for Wisconsin in 2017. Shaw should see plenty of those touches and his powerful running style could land him goal-line carries. Even if he doesnít earn the starting gig ahead of James, look for the sophomore to have his own productive season with the potential for double-digit touchdowns.

Juwan Johnson, WR, Penn State

Penn State owns one of the most explosive offenses in college football with junior quarterback Trace McSorley at the helm. Thereís room for targets atop the depth chart following the departure of last seasonís leading receiver, Chris Godwin. One of the wide receivers in the Nittany Lionsí offense seems destined for a breakout campaign to complement McSorley, so why not the junior who possesses the measurables (6-foot-4, 227 pounds) of a potential stud wideout? Johnson hasnít played a huge role in the Penn State offense through his first two campaigns, but he impressed during spring practice and stands in good position for a starting spot for Penn State in 2017. With no clear leader in the group, Johnsonís physical tools make him one of the prime candidates to fill the void as a potential flier late in drafts.

Mikey Dudek, WR, Illinois

Dudek exploded on to the scene as a freshman in 2014, hauling in 76 passes for 1,038 yards and six touchdowns and rushing for another 73 yards on six carries. Unfortunately, his inaugural campaign was followed by two straight that ended before they began due to ACL tears. The 5-foot-11, 185-pound wideout was medically cleared in April to retake the field and has reportedly showed signs of rounding into his old form. Although Wes Lunt has moved on, the team does return both Chayce Crouch and Jeff George Jr., the former of which is expected to take control of Illinoisí offense in 2017. Dudek led the way by a sizeable margin in 2014, but Malik Turner held that title for the Fighting Illini last season and returns to the group this year. Turnerís prototypical build makes him a prime candidate to play the outside, while Dudek will likely do his damage in the slot, making him a solid late-round flier in some leagues.

Other breakout candidates: Clayton Thorson, QB, Northwestern; LJ Scott, RB, Michigan State; Rodney Smith, RB, Minnesota; Jazz Peavy, WR, Wisconsin; Donovan Peoples-Jones, WR, Michigan; Noah Fant, TE, Iowa


Busts

Wilton Speight, QB, Michigan

You would think Speight enters 2017 with lofty expectations given his respectable 2,611 passing yards with a 19:8 TD:INT ratio and 61.6 completion percentage last season. However, last seasonís receiving corps was made up of upperclassmen, including the top three pass-catchers -- Amara Darboh, Jake Butt and Jehu Chesson -- all of whom have graduated and moved on to the NFL. In addition to needing to build a rapport with the new faces of the passing game, Jedd Fisch -- Michiganís quarterbacks and receivers coach from last season -- has accepted a job as UCLAís offensive coordinator. While the 6-foot-6, 243-pound signal-caller likely has a leg up to begin the campaign as the starting quarterback, itís no guarantee with transfer John OíKorn and highly-regarded redshirt freshman Brandon Peters both competing for the job as well. Even if the senior earns the starting gig out of camp, he will likely have a shorter leash in 2017 that should be factored in when considering him in Big Ten leagues and deep national leagues.

Markell Jones, RB, Purdue

Coming off a freshman campaign that saw Jones rush for 875 yards and 10 touchdowns and add another 34 grabs for 239 yards and a score, things seemed peachy for the Columbus, Indiana native entering his second season in Lafayette. However, things went south for him during his 2016 season, totaling just 616 yards and four touchdowns on the ground while reducing his yards per carry from 5.2 as a freshman to just 4.0 as a sophomore. While some of that may be the product of a bad team around him, things donít look much more promising for the Boilermakers heading into 2017. The team fired Darrell Hazell as the head coach and the new regime reportedly hasnít warmed up to the third-year running back early in camp. In fact, heís reportedly fallen behind Tario Fuller for the top spot on the running back depth chart. Even if Jones regains his stature as the lead back for Purdue in 2017, it appears his workload may be reduced significantly. Consider looking elsewhere when looking for those late-round running backs.

Robert Martin, RB, Rutgers

Martin led the way for the Scarlet Knights out of the backfield in 2016, rushing 121 times for 625 yards and two touchdowns. With senior Justin Goodwin out of the picture, Martin -- now a senior himself -- would seemingly earn a larger share of the workload this season. Given new offensive coordinator Jerry Killís proclivity to run the ball -- evidenced by Minnesotaís run-heavy approach under in the early-to-mid 2010ís -- it would seem Martin is destined to break out in his final campaign. However, Rutgers doesn't need to lean on just one back thanks to a deep and talented running back corps. Miami graduate transfer Gus Edwards has built a case for leading the rotation early in camp when Martin was stuck in a limited-contact jersey and the team has some impressive underclassmen that have turned heads, with Trey Sneed topping the list. The name still missing from the mix is Josh Hicks, who returns to Rutgers for his 2017 in search of redemption after dealing with some personal problems throughout last season. The crowded backfield could muddle things for Martin in his final collegiate campaign.

James Butler, RB, Iowa

I may catch some flack for this selection, but Butler -- who pieced together one of the best seasons in college football in 2016 -- inexplicably transferred from a star role at Nevada to a loaded backfield in Iowa City headed by returning senior back Akrum Wadley. Combined with reports early in camp that redshirt freshman Toren Young has impressed, thereís no guarantee Butler will receive a workload similar to what he had with the Wolfpack. Heís still the favorite to lead the way in the passing game, but thereís questions as to how much he will carry the ball for the Hawkeyes in 2017, which could depress his numbers below his average draft slot.


Matt VandeBerg, WR, Iowa

VandeBerg may not receive a ton of hype, but he got off to a blistering pace as the Hawkeyes leading pass-catcher in 2016. Prior to getting injured in the fourth game against Rutgers, he had hauled in 19 passses for 284 yards ad three touchdowns while rushing once for an additional 25 yards. That output would have put him on pace to near or surpass 1,000 receiving yards and potentially reach double-digit touchdowns for the season. Obviously, that would have likely slowed as the season progressed due to increased competition and the temperature drop in Big Ten country during the later months of the season, but he had a nice campaign brewing prior to his injury. And then there's the elephant in the room: Iowa's quarterback situation. C.J. Beathardís graduation leaves a void at quarterback that has yet to be filled, with neither of the two potential signal-callers -- Nathan Stanley or Tyler Wiegers -- separating himself in spring practice. The new blood under center, along with a talented Hawkeyes backfield, is enough to warrant an expected regression from VandeBerg in his final season is enough for me to expect some statistical regression and avoidance for me in the late rounds of drafts.