Is Ronnie Brown a No. 2 fantasy running back?
Wow, that's an easy one -- sure he is! He finished 17th among running backs in fantasy points in 2008, slotting right into that comfy-cozy No. 11-20 range at the position, which translates to "No. 2 back." And, naturally, if he did it before he'll do it again, more than justifying the label. Right? Right?
First there's the matter of using final rankings from a previous season to classify a player "this" or "that." By that logic, Steven Jackson, who finished 13th, would have been a "No. 2 back." But he missed four games (not to mention significant time in a fifth), and if we scale his fantasy point total to an uninterrupted 16-game season he'd have had 233 and matched Adrian Peterson. You might dispute this assessment, but I'm sorry, in no way do I call Steven Jackson anything other than a No. 1 back, mainly because when healthy, he'd have never sat for my teams.
Then there's the matter of how the player came to that final point total, a relevant evaluation tool in Brown's case. Much of his 2008 stat line was fueled by a four-touchdown game that included another passing score in Week 3 at New England, good for 39 fantasy points. Out of Brown's 164 fantasy points last season, a whopping 23.8 percent came in that one game. During a three-game hot streak from Weeks 3-5, in fact, he amassed 43.9 percent of his fantasy points for the entire season. Plus, remember we're talking about a guy who played in all 16 games.
There's a simple explanation for why Brown was so successful during that brief, early-season stretch: He and his Dolphins still had the advantage of a new, novel offensive attack we now call the "Wildcat." You might have heard of it; it was all the rage by season's end as copycats everywhere adopted some form of it into their own offenses. The problem is, as teams familiarized themselves with the Wildcat, the Dolphins lost the "trick-play" advantage that teams tend to experience initially. Sure enough, from Week 7 on, Brown totaled four touchdowns and averaged 52.5 rushing yards per game, 4.0 yards per carry and 6.6 fantasy points per week.
Project those to a full season and you're talking 840 rushing yards, five touchdowns and 105 fantasy points, which would have ranked Brown 36th among running backs in 2008, one point ahead of Jerious Norwood.
To put it another way, though Brown placed 11th among running backs in my consistent players column, one black mark against him is that of the nine games of 16 in 2008 that he was worthy of starter's status (a mediocre 56.3 percent consistent starter percentage), five of those were games of 8-11 points. Only four times all season did Brown score 14 points or more, and only eight times in 20 contests combined between 2006-07 did he have at least that many.
I don't know how you feel about that level of consistency, but to me, that's the mark of a good flex-play running back, not a clear No. 2. Of course, we might have different definitions of those things. Here's mine:
No. 2 back: One who more often than not will reside in my weekly lineup, though can't be relied on to win me a week as often as my No. 1. These players can occasionally be benched when they face a particularly unappealing matchup.
Flex option: A matchups-based running back, one I'd be wary of locking into my weekly lineup, instead rotating accounting for soft matchups.
Maybe your opinion differs, but when I'm locking in my No. 2, I need to trust a player more than I do Brown, at least for the price he commands.
To this point in the preseason, Brown is being selected the No. 15 running back on average in ESPN Live Drafts. Depending on the depth of your league, that might be as valuable as a mid-second round pick, if running backs tend to fly off the board quickly, or as ordinary as a fourth-round selection (at No. 28, Brown has been picked as effectively a late-third rounder). The latter pricing seems more appropriate, and even then, the depth available at wide receiver in the third round might make him one of the weaker such selections of that round.
Here's another knock on Brown: His schedule isn't quite as soft as it was in 2008. Last season, he got to beat up on miserable defenses such as Denver, Kansas City, Oakland and St. Louis, all of which ranked among the bottom six in the league against the run and allowed 23-plus rushing touchdowns. Of the 10 nondivision games the Dolphins played, their opponents averaged 126.2 rushing yards and 1.08 rushing touchdowns per game, and 4.4 yards per carry. This season, the team's nondivision opponents' numbers in those categories are 113.3, 4.2 and 0.83.
Now, I might not be the kind of guy who puts a ton of stock in last year's numbers when evaluating this year's defenses, but it's hard to look at this year's schedule and see it as comparably favorable to last year's. Pittsburgh, San Diego and Tennessee present tough matchups, tougher than any the team had in 2008 except Baltimore. New Orleans should be improved, and Carolina and Tampa Bay have decent reputations. And from within the division, the Jets have one of the league's best run defenses, while the Patriots should be improved.
Those factors more than cancel out any benefit of Brown's being an additional year removed from knee surgery, a popular comment made in support of his being a bounce-back candidate in 2009. If it's true that Brown will be healthier, more durable and most importantly more productive, may I ask just how much more productive are we talking? Five percent? Ten? Fifty-six-point-two?
I pick that latter number, 56.2, for an important reason: It's the percentage difference between the 105-point fantasy pace he maintained in Weeks 7-17 of 2008 and his actual 2008 full-season total. Unless you believed his Weeks 3-6 outburst was a representation of his true talent at the time -- and I do not -- then any expected improvement he makes to his previous-year performance should be projected comparative to the bench-fodder, 105-point version of Ronnie Brown.
If I'm picking Brown as my No. 2 back, effectively meaning I envision him as a top-25 caliber player, I demand at least a 175-point fantasy season from him. Folks, that is a 166.7-percent improvement on a 105-point campaign. That is a heck of a lot to ask from a guy who last year practically split his team's carries with Ricky Williams (he had 216, Williams had 160).
Be pleased if you get Brown in the level of a flex-play back. But based on his current ADP, he'll cost more than that and I'd say he's not worth it.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is an FSWA award-winning fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.