A departure from the norm here, I decided to pen a piece on one of my more shameful hobbies, fantasy football. And not the Ronaldo kind...
The trend of 'running back by committee' (RBBC) has never been more prevalent in the NFL. Driven by the need to reduce injuries and general fatigue and decrease risk in financial terms by spreading the load in the backfield, general managers around the country have added a new aspect to fantasy football in the past half decade or so.
Gone are the days of having roughly 32 candidates to slot into your RB1 and RB2 positions and now we as fantasy leaguers have to accept that even some of the top 12 backs in fantasyland are going to be splitting time.
By my calculations, fourteen NFL teams currently use definitive RBBCs (Patriots, Dolphins, Jets, Ravens, Broncos, Raiders, Colts, Titans, Giants, Cowboys, Cardinals, Buccaneers, Panthers and Saints) and at least a further five will look to involve other runners in a semi-prominent role (Bills, Steelers, Chargers, Eagles and the Seahawks).
This doesn’t even include the Vikings and Falcons who are successful enough at pounding the rock that backups Chester Taylor and Jerious Norwood have fantasy relevance. Of course, before training camps and pre-season games certain teams may show themselves to feature more than one tailback (eg; Browns, Chiefs) and others may narrow down to one preferred runner (eg; Cardinals).
Here is my list of AFC teams and how I would recommend pairing up teams’ running backs depending on their situation:
In the East:
Bills: Buffalo represents the most head-scratching situation for fantasy owners in the NFL. Marshawn Lynch figures to be a high end number 2 back if it weren’t for the fact that he is suspended for the first three weeks of the season, especially with his skills as a receiving option. Fred Jackson, recently rewarded with a new contract, should pick up the slack, not only in the first three games of the season, but also as an alternative to Lynch when the dreaded one returns.
VERDICT: If you take Lynch, it is imperative to take his stablemate. In 12 team leagues this means taking Jackson in rounds 9 or 10.
Dolphins: Rebounding from a cruciate knee injury in 2007 Ronnie Brown put up good fantasy numbers last year, taking over from Ricky Williams early. Although Brown faded slightly down the stretch, expect him to improve on his 1,170 total yards in 2009. He is well worthy of a third round pick. Ricky is low-end reserve option.
VERDICT: Do not feel obligated to handcuff Brown as you may end up reaching on Williams.
Jets: Not the biggest mess in the division, the Jets’ fantasy situation is still confusing. With either an unknown quantity in Kellen Clemens or rookie Mark Sanchez throwing the ball to a Lavernues Coles-less receiving corps, opposition defenses can key in on the running game. This decreases the value of an aging Thomas Jones towards the low-end RB2 level. Add in the receiving threat of Leon Washington and the short-yardage work of rookie Shonn Greene and Jones might be someone to avoid.
VERDICT: If you take Jones, target Greene in the 11th since both take value away from the other. Washington represents value in the 10th.
Patriots: With Mike Shanahan no longer in Denver, New England is now the biggest fantasy mess at the running back position. Week to week Bill Belichick likes to go with the ‘hot hand’ and although Sammy Morris is at present the slated starter, Laurence Maroney has more than a modicum of talent at his disposal, Fred Taylor may leap out (although not to anywhere near Corey Dillon levels) and Kevin Faulk remains the principal third down back.
VERDICT: Take one, only one, and make it late in the draft.
In the North:
Ravens: Ah, another triple headed RBBC monster, the Baltimore backfield! Last year’s fantasy point leader in Le’Ron McClain will be moving to a more traditional full back role after the departure of Lorenzo Neal, Ray Rice is said to have progressed from an okay rookie season and Willis McGahee could be healthier. Unfortunately, it seemed that in 2008 the Ravens picked one runner out of a hat before games so be wary here. McClain will still see short yardage work, McGahee will still take most of the carries and Rice will still be the home run threat.
VERDICT: Pay attention in training camp, pick your favorite and wait for the 8th round.
Steelers: In spite of Pittsburgh being a run first team, there are question marks behind the Steel Curtain at the running back spot. Willie Parker has become brittle, has a low-ish TD to carry ratio and was stunted in the AFC Championship game and Super Bowl. Rashard Mendenhall is one year removed from a first round selection, can do it all and is gunning for his job. Do not forget last year’s waiver wire find Mewelde Moore either.
VERDICT: Pick Fast Willie and be prepared to spend as much as an 8th round pick on Mendenhall.
In the West:
Broncos: The Denver backfield, with a mass of signings in free agency, initially seemed a nightmare for fantasy players. However, with the selection of Georgia back Knowshon Moreno as the 12th pick in this year’s draft Denver now has an ultra-talented player who should command at least 50% of the touches among his competitors. Leading his peers to back up Moreno will be Correll Buckhalter and LaMont Jordan, who coach McDaniels favors from his time in New England.
VERDICT: Moreno could be a very productive RB2, but temper expectations for Buckhalter if Knowshon gets injured. Take the former Eagle in the 12th at the earliest.
Chargers: Two big questions in San Diego; Can LT return to dominant form and how much will Darren Sproles be utilized now that he has had the franchise tag placed upon him? Tomlinson was restricted by a toe injury in 2008, which partly suggests he could improve on his 1,536 total yards and 12 TDs. Sproles had two massive games in the final week of the regular season and in the defeat of the Colts in the playoffs, but averaged a mere 3 rushes per game for much of the regular season.
VERDICT: Target Sproles if you select LT, but an 8th round pick for the little speedster is very much risk-reward.
Raiders: For a franchise that has become a running joke in the NFL, Oakland bizarrely has three running backs worthy of draft day selection. Darren McFadden had injuries to blame for his below-par rookie season and would be a risk as a RB2 but a steal as a number 3 option. Justin Fargas has a 1,000 yard season on his resume, but rarely reaches the end zone. Michael Bush enjoyed a strong end to his first year in pro-football (racking up 183 yards versus the Bucs) and like McFadden is a threat as a receiving option.
VERDICT: Being a Raider limits McFadden’s statistical ceiling and it is important to back him up. Follow training camp, but Bush in the late rounds should be favored.
In the South:
Colts: In the mock drafts I’ve been doing Joseph Addai, whose injuries and form are a worry, has been slipping to the end of the fourth round while rookie Donald Brown has risen to the back end of the seventh. Addai should see more touches per game, but between them they have Peyton Manning and the Colts pass attack to take pressure off the line of scrimmage and their potential output is high.
VERDICT: Do not gamble on Addai until the moment is right and take UConn product Brown if he fits your draft strategy. For the right price locking up both has added value.
Titans: One of the biggest fantasy debates centers around the two Tennessee backs, Chris Johnson and LenDale White. In 2008, Johnson outgained White by 700 yards but finished off with 12 fewer touchdowns. The talk is that Johnson will be given more workload in 2009, pushing him into the middle of the first round of fantasy drafts. Remember when White complained to the media after participating in only three offensive plays against the Jets last year? This suggests Jeff Fisher and co do not trust him as much.
VERDICT: Backing up Johnson with White is not crucial since the latter’s numbers could really drop this year.
Check back for the NFC evaluations on Wednesday!