Backfield intrigue

Injuries shake up RB ranks; expectations for Flacco, Rivers, Jets

Updated: September 7, 2012, 4:32 PM ET
By Christopher Harris | ESPN.com

Fans of this column know it's a place where I usually put my observations based on film study and try to apply it to forthcoming games. There's no actual meaningful film yet, so this week I'll hit some hot topics and a few spots where my opinions might vary from the pack.

Christopher Harris' Hard Count

Five in depth

1. The looming RB mess in Pittsburgh. Sorry, Pittsburgh Steelers, I'm not buying that Rashard Mendenhall is ready to be your Week 1 backfield starter. He didn't play a single preseason snap; he's eight months removed from a torn ACL; and I have a hard time believing he has taken much, if any, contact from tacklers. It does sound as if Mendy has a chance to contribute in the season's first month, but I'm as skeptical about him as I am about Adrian Peterson. Although not all ACL tears are the same, the history of such late-season procedures isn't good for next-year production. For Sunday night in Denver, let's remove Mendenhall from the equation and talk about Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer and Chris Rainey.

In April, heading into our initial ESPN group ranking session, I put Redman 30th among fantasy running backs. Considering Mendy's knee was a mess, Dwyer hadn't done much because of a broken foot, and the team hadn't yet drafted Rainey, you could argue that the rank was low. After all, look at the rushing touchdowns the Steelers have produced the past three seasons:

Say what you want about an offensive line that seems regularly in flux, this team likes to bang it into the end zone via the ground. Twenty-three of Mendenhall's 29 rushing TDs in that span came from inside an opponent's 5. If Redman was the inheritor of this job, why didn't I like him more?

Two reasons. First, I was never sure he was actually destined to get the starting job. Did I suspect he would battle hip and ankle injuries this summer, creating doubt about his ability to even start Week 1? Of course not. Nor did I expect Dwyer's light switch to go on, but apparently that's what happened. This preseason, while Redman was averaging 2.2 yards per carry (38 yards on 17 totes), Dwyer produced 147 yards on 28 carries (5.2 ypc). Granted, 74 of those yards came on three carries -- a 33-yarder versus the Philadelphia Eagles, a 23-yarder against the Indianapolis Colts and an 18-yarder versus the Buffalo Bills -- but it was those explosive runs from a 235-pound player that opened eyes.

Second, I'm not sure what it is about Redman's past that is supposed to convince us that he's ready to handle this job alone. No doubt he's a big dude (230 pounds), but he is significantly slower than Dwyer. If you didn't know that Dwyer came out of college having played in the triple option at Georgia Tech and needing at least a couple of years of pro seasoning, you would consider him the better potential fill-in. With Rainey around to play the old Mewelde Moore role, it's hard to see Dwyer or Redman playing many third downs.

The upshot? For the purposes of our weekly rankings, I assumed Redman would play but ranked him 32nd, and I put Dwyer 37th. There's no guarantee Redman's ankle will allow him to go, and this game against the Denver Broncos is on Sunday night. For me, Dwyer is a must add because there's a solid chance he'll start and excel against a Broncos D that, according to my metrics, was a fairly OK matchup for opposing running backs in 2011. If I could avoid starting Redman, I'd do it.

2. I Heart Joe Flacco? For as much smack as I talk about Cam Cameron as the Baltimore Ravens' offensive coordinator, I sure did rank Flacco high this week. I put him ninth on my QB list, well within starting range and at least six spots higher than my fantasy ranking compatriots did. Am I buying all these stories about how up-tempo and no-huddle the Ravens are going to get? Even if I do, do I think Flacco is the kind of guy who can make such an attack hum?

Well, no. Flacco's skills are almost prototypically opposite of a run 'n' shoot. He has a huge arm but limited mobility, and he has never appeared to be a guy who processes information at laser speeds. In the preseason, Cameron launched a pass-heavy, hurry-up attack that seemed willing to throw in the red zone, but my gut worries that, when push comes to shove, John Harbaugh will want to play it closer to the vest, especially against defenses he fears.

I'm intrigued about the possibility of a new-style Ravens attack truly taking root -- and I'll be watching the film closely to see how aggressive it stays and how it might affect Ray Rice -- but this week's ranking isn't so much about that as it is the Cincinnati Bengals' secondary. When healthy, Leon Hall is one of the NFL's best corners, but he's returning from a torn Achilles. Nate Clements was borderline awful in coverage last season, but he'll start because hyped rookie Dre Kirkpatrick had a setback recovering from his fractured knee. Given that the safeties are former busts Reggie Nelson and Taylor Mays, this looks like a potential dream matchup for Flacco to unfurl his freak flag.

It would be a change if Flacco and Cameron suddenly produced a consistently effective downfield passing attack. The Ravens quarterback was tied for third in the NFL in attempts that traveled more than 20 yards in the air last season, but he completed just 23.6 percent of those throws:

The bottom line is that I anticipate the Bengals as a great matchup for Flacco because of their defensive secondary personnel, but I'm not going to be sold that a new era of Ravens downfield dominance is upon us until I see it happen more than once.

3. Who is Mark Ingram? The Heisman winner was much-ballyhooed before the 2011 draft, and his fall to the back end of the first round was a major storyline. The fact that he landed with the New Orleans Saints, who already had Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory and had just signed Darren Sproles, injected noise into the equation. There were still some folks who endorsed Ingram as an Emmitt Smith clone who would fight his way into a valued fantasy role through sheer talent. Whoops. Ingram's rookie campaign, which was shortened by a turf toe injury that cost him the season's final month, was a borderline disaster. He finished outside the top 40 fantasy running backs and averaged a meager 51.6 yards from scrimmage per game, scoring just five times.

Now we're left to sift through the rubble. There were times last season when Ingram showed the combination of power and in-the-box quickness that were his best features at Alabama. I felt that was especially so toward the end of his season (before toe surgery), but there were many other times when he didn't look like a particularly special player. He had 12 carries inside an opponent's 10 last year and scored on just one of them. By contrast, Thomas had nine such carries and scored on four. Those stats back up the anecdotal feeling I have that Ingram was inconsistent from game to game, and sometimes from run to run. Thomas is a more versatile player, and I don't think there's much question that he was the better rusher in 2011:

And this is to say nothing of Sproles, who led the team in rushing and managed 1,313 yards from scrimmage. Not only should Ingram continue to be trapped in a three-headed platoon but, if he really is the guy we saw last season, he could verge on bust territory.

For the moment, however, that's not who I think he is. As with the Miami Dolphins' Daniel Thomas, I'm proceeding under the assumption that Ingram's occasional rookie ineffectiveness was in large part because of lingering injuries. In admittedly limited preseason action, Ingram looked better to me -- more powerful and a more consistent punisher. Of all the skills I ascribed to him as a collegian, his short-yardage ability seemed least in question. If he lucks out and the Saints see a bunch of goal-line chances, he'll be significantly better there in 2012. Is he fast? Not particularly. Has he shown great instincts? Nope. But, entering the season, I still view him as a 10-team-league borderline flex and a deep-league starter. With better health, double-digit touchdowns are in play.

4. Looking for Jimmy Graham. You know Graham's story. He was a hoops player at the University of Miami who had barely played football, but the Saints took him in the third round of the 2010 draft, essentially redshirted him for much of his rookie season, harnessed his ridiculous athletic skills and reaped the rewards of a 99-catch, 1,310-yard season in 2011. NFL teams are finding fewer and fewer NFL-ready tight ends from a collegiate game that values the spread offense, and they are turning over rocks to find raw athletes they can sculpt into deadly weapons. (This has been going on for a long time; see: Tony Gonzalez, Marcus Pollard, Antonio Gates et al.) The past two seasons, we've seen teams draft several size/speed freaks, some of whom have played a bunch of football, some not, but not one was a major-college star. Where do they stand? Let's survey:

[+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesJimmy Graham was one of the biggest fantasy surprises last season. How many Graham clones will follow in his footsteps?

Jordan Cameron, Cleveland Browns. I made Cameron one of my Super-Deep Sleepers this summer, so I think a breakout is possible. The Browns shed Evan Moore, and now only aging Ben Watson is in the way of Cameron's converting his hoops skills into gold. Measurables: 6-foot-5, 245 pounds, 4.59 40.

Rob Housler, Arizona Cardinals. Housler had a nice career at Florida Atlantic but was unknown in most circles until he ran a fast time at the 2011 combine and wound up as a third-round pick. He is a talented kid who has Todd Heap ahead of him on the depth chart, and Heap doesn't usually stay healthy these days. I'm not saying Housler is likely to be a star with John Skelton winging it to him, but he can go vertical. Measurables: 6-5, 250 pounds, 4.55 40.

Julius Thomas, Denver Broncos. Thomas caught one pass in his rookie season and needed surgery to repair torn ankle ligaments, from which he has been slow to recover. With Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen in Denver, Thomas likely will have to wait at least another year for deep-sleeper status. Measurables: 6-5, 255 pounds, 4.68 40.

Virgil Green, Broncos. Because Thomas has those ankle problems, Green will be third on the Broncos' depth chart after he returns from a four-game PED suspension. He caught three passes in his rookie season and is buried behind Tamme and Dreessen, but I have to believe that eventually one of these Denver kids might break out. Measurables: 6-5, 252 pounds, 4.64 40.

Adrien Robinson, New York Giants. Martellus Bennett caught a touchdown on opening night, but he also showed why the Dallas Cowboys were consistently frustrated with him by running incomplete routes and complaining to officials. Giants GM Jerry Reese called Robinson the Jason Pierre-Paul of tight ends this spring. Although you might not get much out of the raw rookie this season, he could bust out big next year. Measurables: 6-5, 269 pounds, 4.51 40.

Ladarius Green, San Diego Chargers. A rookie out of Louisiana-Lafayette, Green caught 148 collegiate passes, and he can move. He needs to put on more weight, but he has some dude named Antonio Gates to learn from. Dynasty leaguers take note. Measurables: 6-6, 241 pounds, 4.53 40.

Evan Rodriguez, Chicago Bears. E-Rod is likely to be Chicago's third tight end and play special teams in his rookie campaign, but the Bears envision him as a future downfield threat and H-back. Measurables: 6-2, 239 pounds, 4.58 40.

5. Beware pronouncing the New York Jets dead. There could scarcely be less optimism among Jets fans right now. I walk around the ESPN campus, talk to my Jets-fan friends, and am beset by a combination of frustration, resignation and self-loathing. The fact that neither Mark Sanchez nor Tim Tebow led the offense to a preseason touchdown stands in for all the existential angst these folks can muster. Although I questioned the Tebow acquisition and don't have the Jets in my playoff projection, I'm leery of getting so negative about a team with this much talent.

[+] EnlargeMark Sanchez
William Perlman/THE STAR-LEDGER/US PresswireMark Sanchez had a tough preseason, but he is coming off a season when he threw for 26 TDs and he is still the starter.

I don't think I need to convince you that the defense is very good. Darrelle Revis cures many ills in the pass defense, and, provided nose tackle Sione Pouha gets healthy quickly, I still like the run defense fairly well. You can call the pass rush somewhat below average, but at least 15 cities would gladly swap their defense for the Jets'.

No, the drama obviously comes on offense, where never has so much blame been placed on a right tackle. Wayne Hunter had the big-time yips in pass protection last season and this summer, and the furor basically got him run out of Gotham. Otherwise, the other four members of the O-line graded out as above average -- and some well above average -- on ProFootballFocus.com.

Is Sanchez a terrible player? I won't say terrible, but he's certainly not great. His throwing accuracy is bad, as he has never managed higher than a 56.7 percent completion rate in a season, which is pretty awful for a guy who was tied for 29th in yards per attempt last season. There's no trustworthy second wideout alongside Santonio Holmes, which will lead the team to start green rookie Stephen Hill. Shonn Greene is a pedestrian running back who, according to Pro Football Focus, was tied for 50th among qualified running backs in yards after contact per attempt (2.3) last season.

But here's the thing: This is the same cast of characters who averaged nearly 24 points per game last season and exceeded 27 points seven times. Were the Jets a juggernaut? No, in fact they got their offensive coordinator, Brian Schottenheimer, fired. But were they one of the 10 worst offenses in the league? I'd argue not. Sanchez threw for 26 touchdowns (albeit with 18 interceptions), ninth most in the NFL. It was a strong red zone attack, with 21 passing touchdowns and 13 rushing touchdowns coming from inside an opponent's 20. Was it elite? No. Was it a Dumpster fire? No.

The notion that we saw the best new coordinator Tony Sparano can offer in the preseason is laughable. I'd be lying if I said I watched every snap, but, whenever I saw Tebow, he was playing the traditional quarterback role the Jets hope he never has to play this season. They're going to use him in the Wildcat. They're going to get creative with him. Would I be overly psyched to consider starting any Jets offensive player in a 10-team fantasy league? No. But do I think guys such as Holmes and Greene have big upside and value if things break right for them? I do.

Five in brief

6. Philip Rivers' blind side. I named Rivers one of my flag-planted players for 2012. He didn't play particularly well last season, but his numbers still didn't stink. However, for Monday night's game versus the Oakland Raiders, I'm skittish about Rivers and rated him 10th among quarterbacks, three spots lower than any other ESPN.com ranker. This isn't really about the Raiders' defense, which last season by my metrics was second-most friendly to opposing fantasy quarterbacks. No, I'm specifically worried about the brewing mess at left tackle. Jared Gaither is ruled out for this game because of an injured back, which means the team will go with undrafted rookie Mike Harris, a collegiate right tackle at UCLA. This might not go well. Norv Turner will help the kid wherever possible, but sometimes it isn't possible. DE/OLB Matt Shaughnessy must be licking his chops. Does anyone else remember the first time these squads played last season, a game in which Rivers was sacked six times? A primary reason he wasn't sacked at all the second time around was that, by then, the team had signed Gaither. There's not much to love about the Oakland secondary, but increased pressure on Rivers -- and the mistakes that sometimes result -- is a reason to consider the Raiders' D this week.

[+] EnlargeStevan Ridley
Kim Klement/US PresswireStevan Ridley is likely to receive the lion's share
of carries for New England against Tennessee.

7. Breakout for Stevan Ridley? To my knowledge, Shane Vereen hasn't practiced in September because of a foot injury. That takes the steam out of a supposed platoon in the New England Patriots backfield, doesn't it? Danny Woodhead will get involved on third downs and in other situations, but this looks like Ridley's gig to run away with. We can't trust Bill Belichick to be consistent with his running backs, and, if Ridley fumbles Week 1, the Pats might bury him so far down on the depth chart that it'll take a miner's helmet to find him. But, if all goes well, Ridley could take a giant leap forward. As I wrote when I gave Ridley a nod as a flag player this summer, this is a bigger, more dynamic version of BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and the Law Firm got a whopping 50 carries from inside an opponent's 10 in the past two seasons combined, converting 19 of them into short touchdown runs. At some point, that many attempts in close quarters is less a matter of luck and more a matter of an offense that simply produces an inordinate number of scoring drives. Put Ridley in the mix for that kind of high-impact work and he is easily a No. 2 running back for fantasy. I ranked him No. 17 among running backs against the Tennessee Titans this week.

8. The Land of Damaged RBs, Part I. As of this writing, it wasn't official that Adrian Peterson would suit up for Week 1, but I assume it'll happen. The Minnesota Vikings' PR machine has been in full swing about his superhuman healing qualities for months, and it would be a crusher to have him sit now. I made not drafting Peterson a major pillar of my draft strategies this summer, but, if you ignored me, now you have to decide when to use him. I say not this week. All Day still hasn't taken hits to his legs in practice, and I can't figure out what incentive the Vikes have to put their $96 million running back in serious harm's way eight months after his ACL tear. If Peterson sees more than 10 touches Sunday versus the Jacksonville Jaguars, I'll be shocked. Toby Gerhart will take a large percentage of the work and, as a result, will be an acceptable No. 2 running back in what shouldn't be a super-favorable matchup, as the Jags were the sixth-toughest defense for opposing rushers to score fantasy points against last season, according to my metrics. I think we're going to have to miss a good game from Peterson before we can feel safe starting him. It stinks, but there it is.

[+] EnlargeMarshawn Lynch
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PresswireMarshawn Lynch's back spasms are going to give fantasy owners fits, as it looks as though he'll be a game-time decision.

9. The Land of Damaged RBs, Part II. Trent Richardson's dual knee surgeries this year were of a far less invasive variety than Peterson's, but the fact that T-Rich missed the entire preseason bodes poorly for early-season fantasy value. Let's first acknowledge that NFL enthusiasts tend to fall in love with new shiny objects, so, when a top running back draft pick such as Richardson arrives on the scene, we're ready to give our hearts away. But even the most optimistic Cleveland Browns fan had to acknowledge that, with a rookie quarterback (Brandon Weeden) under center and returning pretty much the same interior O-line that struggled so badly last season, Richardson's impact likely would come through sheer volume. He would be a workhorse right away, and, in a world of platoon backs, that's worth a lot. Now that scenario is as poked through with holes as T-Rich's knee. Even if they play him Sunday -- and most indications are that he'll go -- the Browns simply can't afford to give Richardson a heavy workload. We'll see Brandon Jackson and Montario Hardesty a bunch. T-Rich is barely inside my top 30 running backs for the week, and, if I could stay away from using him, I would.

10. The Land of Damaged RBs, Part III. Marshawn Lynch has told reporters he expects to play Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals, but, as of this writing, he has been limited in practice by the same back spasms that unexpectedly cost him a midseason game last year. Lynch can say whatever he wants, but if he tries to get warm and can't stand up, he won't play. Heck, he could feel fine to start the game, take a single hit and pack it in for the afternoon. Adding to the fantasy misery, this game has a late-afternoon start time, so many of your running back alternatives likely will have begun their Week 1 action before we get definitive word on Lynch. This is one of those cases when you might just have to roll with Lynch, making sure you have Robert Turbin on the off chance that King Skittles winds up inactive. Then again, given a choice between starting Turbin or, say, Ronnie Brown, who is likely to go Monday night in place of Ryan Mathews, I might just try Brown. If Lynch is active, however, you drafted him high enough that you probably should take your lumps and play him.

ALSO SEE