Commentary

Rating potential fill-in running backs

Updated: November 4, 2011, 2:02 PM ET
By Christopher Harris | ESPN.com

Christopher Harris' Hard Count

Five in depth

1. What would life be like with Brandon Jacobs as a starter? The story that caught like wildfire Thursday afternoon was Ahmad Bradshaw's foot fracture, whether or not it actually exists, and whether it'll keep Bradshaw out of action for Week 9 and/or the long term. It doesn't sound as though surgery is likely just now, so this may come down to a pain-management issue. Bradshaw is a tough kid, and has played through severe foot and ankle problems in the past, so I'm not counting him out, and nobody should consider dropping him right now.

But what if he's set to miss significant action? What if the Giants' RB job suddenly very clearly belongs to one Mr. Jacobs? Just how high would Jacobs' fantasy upside be? Well, for a couple of different reasons, his fantasy glory isn't likely to come from yardage. This is a guy whose career high in six NFL seasons is 1,089 rush yards. Even in his prime, he was a severe injury risk, and indeed at times his fantasy value seemed almost indirectly proportionate to his playing time. The most valuable days of his pro life came in '08 and '10, when he was teamed up with other backs (Bradshaw and Derrick Ward in '08; Bradshaw in '10) who could help protect his balky knees. It's also worth noting that the 2011 version of the Giants isn't exactly tearing it up on the ground, almost no matter what metric you look at:

However, the elephant in the room here is the elephantine Jacobs himself. Even if he's not going to give you yards, it's possible that a full-time-starting Brandon Jacobs could become a TD machine. After all, Jacobs had 15 scores in '08 and nine in both '06 and '10. At 6-foot-4, 256 pounds, he's a whole lotta person. One issue with that, however, is the fact that unlike previous years, this season's version of the Giants isn't seeing very many plays in which they're lining up inside an opponent's 5-yard line. In seven games, the Giants have had only eight such plays; only five NFL teams have seen fewer such TD-rich snaps. (Get this: The Buccaneers have had only three plays inside an opponent's 5 all year. How about that, LeGarrette Blount fans?) Bradshaw has run it four times in such circumstances (for three 1-yard TDs), Jacobs has run it once (he also scored from the 1), Eli Manning has run it once (he scored from the 2) and the Giants have passed it twice. To some extent, you can argue this is fluky, because ball carriers have to get tackled inside the 5 without scoring. But look at how many similar opportunities this team generated over the past few seasons:

Maybe this can't keep up, but I do think the Giants' big-play passing game -- which has produced seven TDs of 20 yards or longer -- serves as something of an explanation. Anyway, if Bradshaw is out, I'm not trying to argue Jacobs doesn't make a smart waiver add, or even a pretty wise fantasy starter. I'm just saying double-digit TDs aren't the lock we once might've assumed.

2. How about that 49ers … offense? The 49ers' D/ST has been a fine story. When Ted Ginn scored those two return TDs in Week 1, it seemed the resulting fantasy points might skew the numbers, but this has been a double-digit fantasy unit in three of six games since then, and against John Beck and the feckless Redskins this week, I rate the Niners' D as a top-five fantasy option, even on the road. No, I didn't think Carlos Rogers would play this well at corner, nor did I think rookie Aldon Smith -- who seemed a natural fit to play 4-3 end, not 3-4 linebacker -- would look quite so dominant getting after the passer so quickly while standing up. But it's what Alex Smith & Co. are doing on the other side of the ball that's truly unexpected.

And no, that's not to imply that Smith is suddenly a valuable fantasy commodity. He's best left alone in 10-team leagues, because he just isn't given very much to do. At just 26 pass attempts per game, Smith is tied for 31st in the league among the 33 QBs who have at least 100 attempts on the season (he's tied with Donovan McNabb, ahead of only Blaine Gabbert). His 6.96 yards per attempt places him 23rd in the NFL, and his 12 pass plays of 25 yards or longer rates tied for 18th. That's at least in part why none of Smith's wideouts currently rank in fantasy's top 70, and why Vernon Davis is 14th in fantasy points among TEs. Frank Gore is truly the only 49ers must-start offensive player.

But Smith's control has nevertheless been a big part of the Niners' 6-1 magic. It's no fair claiming that San Fran "hasn't beaten anyone" (the 49ers have topped the Lions, Eagles and Bengals), and its recipe for success is as clear as it is clichéd: Don't beat yourself. Punts are good plays. What I find notable about the 49ers over the past five weeks is that they've been poison for opposing fantasy defenses:

Smith isn't taking languorous seven-step drops and patting the football, looking lazily for open receivers. (Well, not often.) He's thrown only two picks all year, which might be a bit fluky, but I think it's indicative of what I see on tape: The Niners go hard with Gore, mix in Kendall Hunter and keep most throws short. Smith is 29th in average yards at the catch for his receivers. This formula obviously won't work well when the 49ers fall behind, and I still don't believe the defense is truly elite. But by allowing the fewest fantasy points to opposing defenses over the past four weeks, this Niners offense is a matchup to avoid for your fantasy D.

3. Rate the no-name RBs: If you're a fantasy football veteran, you're used to the drill. Running backs have never been more maddening than they are now. Back in '01, there were 22 RBs who racked up 200 or more carries, and 10 who racked up 300-plus. This year, with more than half a season of injuries still ahead of us, we've got 19 RBs on pace for 200-plus and six on pace for 300-plus carries. I won't be surprised if we end the year with half as many "high-use" backs as we saw a decade ago. And because we get so many strains and sprains and season-enders, and because we're already beset by so many committees, you wind up having to consider a whole lot of backup RBs you may never even have heard of.

I've watched film on all these guys by now, and have some overriding impressions. Of course, opportunity is the best fantasy asset around, and each of these once-and-future waiver darlings will need "good luck" to be useful. But what should you make of them if there's a knock at the door?

A) The Browns' Chris Ogbonnaya isn't a mere scat-back (he's 6-foot and 220 pounds), though he does catch it well enough out of the backfield that he might be Cleveland's third-down solution for a while. Peyton Hillis sounds like he'll play Sunday, but could Ogbonnaya excel if Hillis goes down again? I say probably not. He's fast but not particularly quick, and he got Colt McCoy clubbed on multiple occasions with pass-protection mistakes last week. … B) The Colts hope Joseph Addai will be back this week, and if he's not, Delone Carter and Donald Brown will probably get a straight split. You know Brown's act (he's a dancer at the line), but what about Carter? He comes billed as a between-the-tackles fireplug -- short, squat and powerful -- and doesn't disappoint. He barrels into people. But he also displays very little wiggle, ending the Maurice Jones-Drew comparisons right there. Plus the Indy offensive line is just a total mess. … C) Jackie Battle appears to have the Chiefs' starting gig sewn up, though Tim Hasselbeck correctly pointed out to me that when your starting RB is also still playing special teams, beware the idea that he's a long-term solution. Nevertheless, Battle has 56 touches the past three weeks. He's a big guy who supposedly has strong straight-ahead speed, but we've yet to really see him break one. Battle is often painfully slow getting to the hole, though to his credit he does no dancing when he gets there. He can bang. But the talent isn't there for long-term stardom. This year, though? He's borderline top 20. … D) With Chris Johnson looking so awful, Javon Ringer's name gets brought up as a possible sleeper for the season's second half. But I'm skeptical Ringer is ready to be a star. He's not a big guy, and to me he never looks decisive when he's running between the tackles. He lights up sometimes trying to get to the edge, though, and I'll grant he's been better than Johnson. I don't mind him as a handcuff right now. … E) With Frank Gore healthy, Kendall Hunter is a handcuff, too, though deep-leaguers should know that the 49ers rookie did have a four-game streak of at least eight carries stopped this past week versus Cleveland. Watching Hunter run, you see a whole different kind of cat: He's quick and vicious at the point of contact, though I'll admit sometimes you see him take too long to really get going. I still think this kid would be a fantasy star if Gore went down. … F) Because he had exactly zero carries versus the Steelers last week, Stevan Ridley appears to have lost any chance we thought he had of unseating BenJarvus Green-Ellis for early-down work. Then again, Bill Belichick is super-flaky when it comes to his RBs (see below). To me, Ridley has looked like a better ball carrier than Green-Ellis: Bigger, faster and more punishing. I'd love to see him get more looks. … G) Finally, Alfonso Smith stands to benefit if Beanie Wells' knee flares up again, but what can you really expect out of Smith? I looked back at his lone start, Week 3 versus the Seahawks, and saw a kid with interesting size and straight-ahead speed, but not much else. I have doubts he'd be a fantasy starter with Beanie out of the picture.

4. What's wrong with Philip Rivers, and will the Packers cure his ills? The legion of experts lining up to diagnose Rivers is growing. I've read treatises on his throwing motion and how it looks more elongated than ever, perhaps as Rivers protects an injury. (It looks pretty much like the same quasi-tortured jerk-down as it's always been to me.) Some say he's wincing when he throws. (To me, he always seems to have that same cupie-doll expression.) Others excuse Rivers because his favorite pass targets have been beaten up all year. (You may have something there.) The bottom line, of course, is that a player who some viewed as a top-three fantasy QB to begin the season -- I had him No. 6 until Peyton Manning got hurt -- currently ranks tied for 16th in fantasy points per game among signal-callers. His impossible end-of-game fumble in the "Anomaly at Arrowhead" (copyright 2011) Monday night was the kind of head-clutching mistake you almost instantly associate with Rex Grossman. And Rivers has a Grossman-esque seven TDs and 11 INTs on the year. Yuck.

Is this the week Rivers gets back on track? After all, the Packers are coming to town, and we all saw tons of stories back in September about how bad that Green Bay pass defense is, right?

Not so fast, my friend. True, Green Bay allowed a couple of huge days to opposing QBs at the season's outset:

Tramon Williams' shoulder injury didn't help, and losing Nick Collins for the season was also pretty bad. In retrospect, however, allowing Newton to go nutty (especially via a late-game rushing TD) isn't the mortal sin we believed at the time. Since those first two games, here's how opposing QBs have fared against the Pack:

That's more like it. My eyes tell me Charles Woodson has slowed down a lot (he's been banged-up, too), but the Packers know this and play him more out of the slot. Sam Shields missed Week 7 because of a concussion, and Morgan Burnett took some time adjusting to Collins' free safety job. The guy who's really been missing in action is Clay Matthews -- who's had a thigh injury of his own -- as he's stuck on three sacks for the entire season after registering 10 and 14 the past two years. And honestly, I do think it's worth positing that Aaron Rodgers being so efficient on offense isn't the best thing in the world for this defense, since on average teams are throwing 39 times per game versus Green Bay (fifth highest in the NFL), and they're forcing it downfield to the tune of a 7.3 yards-at-the-catch average, which is tied for fourth highest.

Still, I don't think the Packers are Rivers' elixir this week. Maybe he's hurt. Maybe he's out of sync with his best weapons -- Antonio Gates, Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd -- because those guys have been injured and/or there was no training camp. Maybe having left tackle Marcus McNeill freak out on national TV on Monday is a reflection of some kind of Chargers-wide virus. Regardless, watching film of the Pack work against the pass the past few weeks gives me confidence that they'll prolong Rivers' slump.

5. John Skelton, come on down! As of this writing, it seemed unlikely that Kevin Kolb would play versus the Rams this week because a sprained foot and turf toe, which would mean Skelton could be in line for his fifth career NFL start. Regardless of how easy St. Louis has been to throw against this year (last week's weirdo versus the Saints notwithstanding), presumably there aren't too many people thinking of starting Skelton and his career 47.6 percent completion rate. But what about Larry Fitzgerald?

Fitz is somehow currently tied for 11th in fantasy points among WRs, no thanks to Kolb. Anyone who watches Cardinals games probably has the same experience I do: You spend about two-and-a-half quarters wondering why Kolb isn't throwing to his best receiver, then suddenly there's one drive where Fitzgerald goes crazy and has five catches for 52 yards or something. Fitz has only two TDs on the year, putting him on pace for a career-low five (he had six in '10, during his first bout with the post-Kurt Warner blues). I think you know this, but I'll say it anyway: None of this is any sort of reflection on Fitzgerald himself. He's still furious to the ball, he's still athletic as heck, he still runs great routes and he still wants it. This comes down to the quarterback, and Kolb hasn't played well.

Things don't figure to be instantly better if Skelton's at the helm. This second-year guy out of Fordham has the great big arm that Kolb doesn't, but as I've already implied, he has major accuracy issues (think Derek Anderson). The real question fantasy owners want answered is: Does Skelton under center hurt Fitzgerald so much that we have to consider sitting him? To answer that, let's look at Fitz's numbers in the four games Skelton started in '10:

Though you'd like to see more TDs, that's three very acceptable games and one stinker, and it's also an absolute passel of targets. Heck, Fitz has double-digit targets only twice in seven games this year. Yeah, I know, this doesn't really prove anything. Skelton might wind up seeing what Kolb sees, and looking away from Fitz. But I guess my point is, recent history tells us Skelton has a proclivity to force it in to Fitz that Kevin Kolb just might not have. And that's why I'm still willing to take a chance on starting Fitzgerald against that beaten-up Rams secondary.

Five in brief

6. Is Carson Palmer ready to rock? I ranked Palmer higher than my ESPN.com ranking cohorts, putting him 15th on my QB list and thus implying that he's a decent bye-week fill-in. That's quite a leap, considering Palmer's only appearance of 2011 (and his only appearance as a Raider) was a single half of football against the Chiefs, in which he went 8-for-21 with three picks. And I feel safe saying that I was probably the most restrained of anyone at ESPN as the Palmer-to-Oakland hype mounted, proclaiming him no better than a league-average signal-caller at this point in his career. But league-average does mean he should roughly be no worse than replacement level, especially against a Broncos pass defense that's allowed the most fantasy points to opposing QBs this year. I don't put much faith into jock-speak, but when Palmer claims he's more familiar with his new teammates and his new playbook after the bye, I tend to believe him. And T.J. Houshmandzadeh aside (boy, that's a signing that doesn't seem destined for good things), he's got aerial weapons. With Darren McFadden looking shaky to play, I think Palmer gets a chance to do a few good things Sunday.

Jon Baldwin
Peter Aiken/Getty ImagesJon Baldwin made a big impact in just his second NFL game.

7. Jon Baldwin's breakout: Baldwin, a mercurial first-round rookie out of the University of Pittsburgh (alma mater of one Mr. Larry Fitzgerald), missed the Chiefs' first five contests because he broke his thumb trying to punch out Thomas Jones in the locker room. Seriously. This did nothing to assuage concerns over this diva-in-making, who ran lazy routes and showed sporadic effort in college. That's why it's so interesting to see how far Baldwin has come in just a matter of weeks. This isn't just a matter of me purring over a very nice 39-yard TD catch Monday night against the Chargers. The truth is that Baldwin looks certifiably dangerous out there: A big, bookend menace who can do some of the same physical things that make Dwayne Bowe so good. Of course, it took Bowe three frustrating seasons before his light bulb permanently went "on," so let's restrain ourselves. That said, Baldwin is a nice weapon in the slot in three-receiver sets, and on Monday he appeared to rotate with Steve Breaston in two-receiver sets. Any pass-catcher not named Bowe in that KC offense is currently destined for sporadic production, because the Chiefs run it so much. But I still rated Baldwin quite a bit higher than my ESPN compatriots because he's got No. 1 style skills, even if they're lurking beneath a brain of questionable maturity. Baldwin is worth adding in all leagues.

8. What in the world should you do with BenJarvus Green-Ellis? There's a temptation to stand here with arms akimbo and proclaim that now we've finally figured out Bill Belichick's RB plan. Now that Kevin Faulk's torn ACL is healed and he's off the PUP list, of course he's New England's third-down back and pass-catching specialist. After all, he played 39 snaps last week against the Steelers, and that must have been situational: The Pats were losing, so they were in pass mode, so Faulk was in there. When things go back to normal, and the Patriots are winning, Green-Ellis will be "the man" again. Of course he will. The thing is, having watched Belichick for more than a decade, the only thing I know is that when he doesn't feel like he has a lead back -- and he doesn't this year -- he's apt to change the rules as he goes. I don't believe we've seen the last of Ridley, just as I don't believe Faulk will be allowed to play only when the Pats are losing. Last year, BJGE was a TD machine from an opponent's 2; he had six such scores in '10. This year he has one. Ridley looms. Heck, we haven't heard the last of Danny Woodhead. Maybe Shane Vereen gets in the act at some point. Anyway, I hope this explains why I was the only ESPN ranker not to put the Law Firm in my top 20 this week.

9. That goes double for Lance Moore: Until last week, when he scored a complete garbage-time TD (down 17 points with six seconds left in the game), Moore hadn't eclipsed 50 yards receiving or found the end zone since Week 3. While he did lead the team in targets last week -- he had nine -- four of them came on the meaningless final drive when the Saints were four-wide and the Rams were just keeping everything in front of them. This isn't to say Moore is a bad player, or Drew Brees suddenly doesn't like him, but Moore's usage is down. The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that Moore played 38 offensive snaps last week, compared to 51 for Marques Colston, 41 for Devery Henderson and 40 for Robert Meachem. That's not a laughable total, but it doesn't instill confidence that Moore is ready to be the same guy who scored 10 TDs in '08 and eight in '10. The bottom line is: None of these guys are usable except Colston. I put Moore No. 50 on my WR list this week, while a couple of the guys had him in the 30s. And now you know why.

10. Hey, there's Antonio Gates! For two straight games, I've thought Gates has looked slow coming off the line. He's always taken a bit of a windup to get up to full speed, but this has looked borderline painful, though he claims his injured foot still feels fine. Certainly the fact Gates played almost every snap against the Chiefs on Monday night (after seeing action on only about half of the Chargers' offensive plays against the Jets two weeks ago) is a great indication that he's pain-free. And as the Monday night crew pointed out, Gates drew a double-team on a wide variety of occasions, where KC baldly just threw a linebacker and a safety on him to track him everywhere he ran, often to comic, "Three Stooges" effect. In the end, Gates caught four passes for 73 yards and had a TD catch called back because of a questionable (OK, I'll say bogus) pass interference call. It's good to see the big fella out there, and there's no way you can bench him. But I'm going to watch him closely at the snap going forward. If he still looks cumbersome when he's supposed to be bursting off the line, well, it'll put a wrinkle of doubt in my mind about him going forward.

Christopher Harris is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy. He is also the author of the newly published football novel "Slotback Rhapsody." Get information about this book at www.slotbackrhapsody.com.

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