- Christopher Harris, Fantasy
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Ronnie Brown: Sneaky sleeper or overrated?
As a group at ESPN.com, we agreed to rank Ronnie Brown 18th among fantasy running backs this summer. But you know the old saying: a camel is a horse put together by committee. Any time a gang of savvy experts gets together to rank anything -- movies, minestrone, favorite Dungeons & Dragons maneuvers (c'mon, admit it: you had your suspicions) -- outliers tend to get smoothed, results tend to get averaged, and you're left with a list that can be categorized as both "solid" and "milquetoast."
The fact is I consider it relatively unlikely that Brown will wind up rated 18th at the end of 2008. Either he's back from his torn ACL, which would probably make him one of the NFL's 10 most talented rushers, or he's not, in which case he's a glorified platoon back and an injury risk to boot. For a high-risk guy like Ronnie Brown, the middle ground will not do.
Now, it would be silly for me to stamp my feet and tell you I have the definitive word on how Brown's knee will respond to the regular season. Stephania Bell reports that Brown feels good, and expects to be 100 percent, and if he's full strength, his upside is prodigious: in the six-plus games he played last year before his injury, he rushed for 602 yards (and a 5.1 yards-per-carry average) and had 39 receptions for 389 more yards. He was on his way to being one of fantasy's biggest stars in '07, on a team that nearly went 0-16. But the fantasy highway is littered with happy training-camp-recovery stories that go bad quickly. In some ways, ranking Brown 18th is perfect: it captures both the possibility of him lighting it up anew in '08 and the obvious risk involved. In other ways, though, it's a total copout.
If I'm guessing, based on the history of ACL returnees at running back and because Brown hurt himself in late October, I'm going to guess that Brown struggles to start the year. As Stephania mentions, there's good statistical evidence to show that in their first year back, ACL victims tend to function at a significantly lower percentage of their capacity. Given that Ricky Williams is on hand in Dolphins camp, given that he reportedly looks good and is in much better shape than he was when he tore his pectoral in his first game back in '07, I suspect that the Fins will play it relatively close to the vest when it comes to Brown. Sure, he'll start Week 1, but I'm betting Williams splits series right down the middle at first. If you're a Brown owner, your optimal scenario would have Brown dominate right off the bat, so that new head coach Tony Sparano won't have any choice but to keep running him out there. Or you're hoping Williams himself is limited by injury. But in an NFL landscape that's gradually becoming dominated by platoon backfields, Miami's is starting to smell like one.
So where would I put Ronnie Brown in my own running back hierarchy? I'd probably have him right around 23rd or 24th, which means compared to the ESPN.com default list, I'd duck him behind Laurence Maroney, Thomas Jones, Darren McFadden, Michael Turner, Selvin Young and possibly Earnest Graham. Hey, if you can convince yourself he'll be healthy, Brown is the kind of guy who can make a fantasy season, because if he gets 300 carries (it would be the first time in his career), he'll be a stud, and deserves to be an early second-rounder. And I suppose that the Dolphins signed Chad Pennington helps a little, since teams absolutely didn't respect Miami's passing game last year (though it's unclear at this point whether Pennington or Chad Henne will start to begin the year). But if you decide to draft Brown, you should definitely overpay to get Williams as a handcuff, and you might also consider rookie Jalen Parmele as a very-late-round gambit: a player who could be an adequate fill-in if both the injury-prone men ahead of him miss time.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner across all three of those sports.
You can e-mail him here.