Commentary

Redskins' running backs underwhelming

Updated: August 10, 2010, 2:51 PM ET
By Ken Daube | Special to ESPN.com

32 Questions

What can be expected from the Redskins backfield with Mike Shanahan calling the shots?

Yes, Mike Shanahan still hates you. He hates all fantasy footballers. He might split his running backs' carries in such a way that won't make sense to anyone. That being said, there is value to be had in this backfield. Remember, for each time-share that was super frustrating, historic seasons occurred, too. Terrell Davis, Olandis Gary and Mike Anderson are names forever entrenched for those who have been playing this game for more than 10 years.

It's not unreasonable to expect that Clinton Portis is going to open the Washington Redskins' season as the lead back. His current average draft position (78.6) supports that many competitors are making that assumption. It also supports that there's concern over Portis' ability to produce anywhere close to a No. 2 fantasy back.

Let's look at each back in the mix:

Clinton Portis: It'll be a major upset if Portis doesn't get the first shot to be the starting tailback. Under Shanahan's tutelage with the Denver Broncos in two season from 2002-03, Portis ascended to the elite level of running backs, averaging 130 combined yards and one touchdown per game. For perspective, only Chris Johnson attained such a lofty combination in 2009.

The zone-blocking scheme that Shanahan is going to employ is perfect for Portis. He has been at his best when the offense is capitalizing on his quickness and burst into the hole. That being said, Shanahan also made it no secret when he called for Portis to drop some of the weight that he had put on since the two parted ways in Denver, but Shanahan also pointed out that Portis was averaging almost six yards per carry when he weighed between 205 and 210 pounds.

Larry Johnson
Geoff Burke/US PresswireLarry Johnson is hoping to find the end zone for the first time since December 2008.
Larry Johnson: It's very easy to dismiss Johnson as another aging back getting another chance that he doesn't deserve. You shouldn't. After being traded to the Cincinnati Bengals in 2009, Johnson experienced a mini-rebirth. In the seven games he played for the Bengals, Johnson averaged 4.4 yards per carry. Compare that to Cedric Benson's 4.2-yard average that he earned for the same team, and it becomes a bit harder to write off Johnson while watching Benson come off the board in the third round. When you consider that Benson had the benefit of going through a complete offseason, including training camp, and that Johnson was thrust onto that team midseason, the fact that Johnson had a better yards-per-carry mark should be very impressive.

Of course, there's an extremely ominous reason for why Johnson was on the Bengals at all -- he was a malcontent during the latter part of his tenure with the Kansas City Chiefs and his production outright stunk. If you are going to give Johnson credit for outperforming Benson on a per-carry basis, he should also be crucified for averaging just 2.9 yards to Jamaal Charles' 5.9.

The real knock on Johnson is his maturity. He proved this past season that he can still play, albeit it seems he only does so when he wants to. He's likely on his final chance after being in the doghouses of both Dick Vermeil and Todd Haley during his tenure in Kansas City. That being said, it's not super unusual for a player to redeem himself later in his career. If Johnson does display the effort and talent to produce, you know Shanahan is going to find ways to get him into the rotation. Therefore, you need to realize that overlooking Johnson's presence on this team could be disastrous to your fantasy season. As his average draft position (ADP) puts him at the end of the 17th round, you should feel comfortable using a late-round flier on him; he has the potential to return third- or fourth-round draft value if the chips fall just right. Otherwise he's waiver-wire fodder, which is essentially what you are drafting at that point anyway.

Willie Parker: Once known for his speed, Parker is now considered a shell of his former self. He shouldn't be. While many will point to the fact that Rashard Mendenhall ripped the starting job away from the former undrafted free agent, the difference in production wasn't the only reason why Mendenhall got the opportunity to take over. Mendenhall was a first-round selection of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2008 NFL draft, and the Steelers guaranteed a significant amount of money to Mendenhall within his rookie contract. Like many NFL teams, the Steelers have realized that running back is one position where a team can be frugal and still be competitive.

Parker, despite not rushing for any touchdowns in 2009, still finished the season with 4.0 yards per carry. There is plenty of room on NFL rosters for backs who can gain that type of yardage between the 20s, as not only do they compile needed yardage, but they also save the primary back some of the play-to-play grind that goes along with being their team's primary back.

Ryan Torain: The dark horse for playing time in this race is Torain. Many are forgetting two things that, especially in deeper leagues, need to be remembered:

1. Torain was drafted by Shanahan in the coach's final draft with the Broncos, and &

2. Torain was widely considered an extremely high-upside sleeper until an elbow injury derailed the start of his rookie season and a torn ACL ended it.

If Torain has worked himself back into NFL shape, then there's a small chance that Shanahan will give him the opportunity to earn game-day chances.

With all of these players taken into account, here's what I expect from this very fluid situation: Portis will open the season as the clear No. 1 back for the Redskins. He'll likely earn three out of every five series' worth of first- and second-down carries to begin with, and Johnson and Parker will spell him here and there. As Johnson and Parker push each other for their NFL lives, both should put themselves into a position to earn more carries. They can only do so by cutting into Portis' workload, which means a drop in opportunities for Portis. That change alters Portis' fantasy status from usable to un-startable in standard ESPN.com leagues. I'm still willing to draft Portis near his ADP, but I'll also be looking to sell high after his first good game.

Ken Daube is a fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. His ESPN.com fan profile is available here.

Ken Daube

Fantasy Football
Ken Daube is a fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Fantasy Football Now" with Dave Rothenberg on Sundays between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET, which streams at ESPNNewYork.com, and can also be listened to via the ESPN Radio app.