- Nate Ravitz, Fantasy
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Thirty-two teams, 32 burning fantasy questions. Throughout the preseason, we put one of these questions to an ESPN.com analyst for an in-depth look at the most interesting, perplexing or dumbfounding fantasy facet of each NFL team. Be sure to check out all 32 questions.
Will Thomas Jones be a top-20 fantasy player this season?
Let's frame this discussion a little bit. In a typical fantasy draft this year, one quarterback (Peyton Manning) and two or three wide receivers (some combination of Steve Smith, Chad Johnson, Marvin Harrison and Terrell Owens) are likely to be taken in the top 20. So what we're trying to determine is if Thomas Jones can be one of the top 16 or so performers at the running back position.
To answer that question, let's take a look at the 16th-ranked running back in ESPN's recently-released Fantasy Football Draft Kit. That player is Deuce McAllister, who is projected for 949 rushing yards and nine touchdowns, plus another 223 receiving yards. That gives us a pretty good basis to work with: For Jones to be a top-16 back -- and therefore a top-20 player -- he needs to tally upwards of 1,200 total yards and 10 touchdowns. With that in mind, let's delve into the details.
Thomas Jones ... career retrospective
Selected with the No. 7 overall pick of the 2000 draft, Jones was a major bust for the Arizona Cardinals, starting only 15 games in three seasons and averaging less than 3.5 yards per carry. He revived his career as a change-of-pace player in Tampa Bay in 2003 and then signed a nice deal as a free agent to be the featured back for the Bears. In three years in Chicago, Jones averaged 1,406 total yards and 7.3 touchdowns per season.
The great thing about Jones is that, although he's 29 years old and a seven-year veteran, he has just 1,349 career carries, fewer than Clinton Portis, for instance. Plus, Jones is an absolute workout warrior, which is one of the reasons why he's missed only three games in the last four seasons.
Last season, Chicago Bears running backs -- primarily Jones and Cedric Benson -- combined for 1,916 rushing yards. Meanwhile, New York Jets running backs combined for just 1,449 rushing yards. Those numbers would seem to spell trouble for Jones, but they don't tell the whole story. First of all, the Jets essentially wasted 131 carries on Kevan Barlow, who might as well have been running with cement shoes given his 2.8 yards-per-carry average. More importantly, despite all of their problems, Jets running backs scored 15 rushing touchdowns in 2006, as opposed to 14 rushing scores for Bears runners.
The Jets offensive line doesn't compare to one Jones leaves behind in Chicago, but it isn't too shabby. Center Nick Mangold is coming off a standout rookie season, and No. 4 overall pick D'Brickashaw Ferguson -- while struggling at times -- showed plenty of promise, as well.
Competition in the Meadowlands
Although Barlow is gone, Leon Washington and Cedric Houston remain, and we can't properly project Jones without assessing the other options the Jets have. As a rookie, Washington averaged 4.3 yards per carry and made a number of big plays, including a 64-yard catch and run in Week 16 against the Dolphins. The Jets are sure to keep Washington in the mix this season as a change of pace and third-down specialist. Houston, on the other hand, is basically a warm body. He averaged only 3.3 yards per carry last season and wasn't especially effective in short-yardage situations. Houston will probably be a true backup this season and garner few, if any, carries on a game-to-game basis.
Let's say, for the sake of argument, that Washington plays about as much as he did last season, and Jones gets only the 244 carries that went to Houston and Barlow last year. If he averages 4.1 yards per carry, that would be exactly 1,000 yards.
In all likelihood, Jones will get roughly 300 carries and tally 1,200-1,300 rushing yards, with another 150-250 yards as a receiver. So the key factor will be the touchdowns. Barlow and Houston combined for 11 rushing touchdowns last year, all from within six yards and all but three from within three yards. There's no guarantee that the Jets will have a similar number of goal-line opportunities this season, but as long as Chad Pennington stays healthy, they should have an efficient offense that creates plenty of scoring chances for Jones.
The official ESPN projection for Jones this season is 1,119 rushing yards, six touchdowns and 192 receiving yards, but that touchdown total looks awfully low for the lead runner of a team that had 15 rushing scores in 2006. Assuming 16 games played, that projection represents pretty much a worst-case scenario, and that's relevant here. Jones is being selected in the 24-27 range of most mock drafts right now; in the ESPN preseason rankings, he's No. 23, so even considering our conservative projection, he's a slight bargain. If he reaches double-digits in touchdowns, which seems a very reasonable possibility, he's an outstanding value, and easily a top 20 player in fantasy leagues this season.
Jones isn't a sexy pick by any means, but if you can get him as your second running back at the end of the second round or top of the third, you'll be very, very happy.
18hBy Jackie MacMullan