Will Beanie Wells be a viable fantasy option as a rookie?
What the heck should you do with Beanie Wells? Is he a sleeper or is he a bust?
It can't be as simple as this.
One friend of mine at ESPN thinks Chris "Beanie" Wells is a terrific sleeper this year. He's undervalued because so much has been made of his injury-prone college career, and people don't look closer at the skill set: this is a 240-pound man who can run a 4.4 40 and just crush people. If fellow rookie Knowshon Moreno is "shifty for a big man," then what's Wells? Of course, this friend of mine is from the great state of Ohio.
Another ESPN friend of mine thinks Wells shouldn't be drafted with a 10-foot pole, thinks he's made of glass and will never be healthy enough for a full season to be a viable fantasy player. He says Arizona ran the ball only 21 times per game last year, fewest in the NFL, and already has a pretty decent goal-line back in Tim Hightower. So even if by some miracle Wells does stay healthy, he's looking at some flavor of fantasy time-share. And, yes, this friend of mine went to the University of Michigan.
It's probably a stretch to say that the 2009 Beanie Wells debate follows the schism that separates Ohio State from Michigan (Wells played three years at OSU). But opinions about his rookie-year fantasy fate reflect a rather vitriolic split that at least echoes the passion of the big game.
Where do I come down in this debate? Heck, I don't know. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, and there's no question that Wells deserves to be drafted in every fantasy league under the sun. But should you be the owner to take the plunge? Well, let me first mention this: For all the talk about how brittle Wells is, do you know how many games he missed in three years at OSU? Three. He played the entire 2007 season with a broken wrist. This isn't a guy who's a wimp, by any stretch. So if it winds up being a matter of sprains and strains, I don't have many questions that Wells will be on the field.
His pro situation, however, is less than ideal. Sure, the Cardinals really needed to draft a running back, but are they in position to use him? Wells doesn't catch passes very well, so he's probably coming out in favor of Hightower on most third downs no matter what, even if he wins the starting gig. And although Hightower's 2.8 yards per carry during his rookie season in '08 was abysmal, he was pretty good on the goal line, scoring eight times. Then there's the Arizona offensive line, which does a pretty nice job in pass protection but doesn't fire out and maul people in the run game. The right side of the line, which consists of tackle Levi Brown and guard Deuce Lutui, has potential in that area -- but hey, there's a reason the Cardinals averaged only 3.5 yards per carry as a team last year, and it wasn't all Edgerrin James.
The fact that Wells sprained his ankle his very first day in training camp after signing his rookie contract did two things: It allowed the anti-Wells camp to snicker with schadenfreude, and it put Wells behind the eight ball, playing-time-wise. Hightower is entrenched at No. 1 on the depth chart for the moment, and considering Wells didn't play in the Cards' preseason opener Thursday night against the Steelers, there really isn't a lot Hightower can do to blow this job for Week 1. That means while Moreno is looking like a relatively safe starter in Denver, Wells might be relegated to No. 2 status, with a little goal-line work sprinkled in to start the season.
So yeah, running out and taking Wells in the third round of your fantasy draft would be pretty foolish. I know that a vast mediocrity weighs down a whole bunch of running backs this year, and it's possible that more receivers than rushers will get drafted in your second round, which could spark a big-time run on running backs in the third and fourth. But I wouldn't make Wells part of that run, simply because of playing-time concerns.
But honestly, I don't expect Hightower to stay atop this depth chart for long. I think the injury worries about Wells are being overstated by his biggest detractors, and I think he's way more talented than Hightower: He's much faster, he's bigger, and he faced better competition in college. So if you can hold off on Beanie, take him as one of your first reserve picks. I think you might be rewarded. Because while I'm aware of his oft-injured status, I tend to think such concerns rarely wind up being completely validated -- remember how Adrian Peterson was definitely going to suffer a season-ending shoulder injury in the first couple of games of his rookie year? -- and I'm telling you, if you lined up Moreno and Wells and someone asked you who was a better football specimen, you'd say Wells. That's not to say I wouldn't take Moreno before Wells, because I would. But I think you disregard Beanie at your peril.
And I didn't even go to Ohio State.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner. You can find him at www.facebook.com/writerboy.