- AJ Mass, Fantasy
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Is Kevin Smith a top-10 fantasy back?
Back in May, Kevin Smith made a bold statement in his blog that got a lot of attention, most of it of a derisive nature. He wrote, "I won't make a prediction about how many games we're going to win, but I will say this: We will definitely make the playoffs this season." Perhaps many of you rolled your eyes, shook your heads or did a classic spit-take when reading his words. After all, he did play for a team that went 0-16 last season, didn't he? While I'm not on board with Smith and his postseason plans just yet, I am completely down with the following prediction for 2009: "Kevin Smith will be a top-10 fantasy back this season."
At first blush, I understand your skepticism. After all, the Lions ranked 30th in rushing yards last season, ahead of only the Colts and Cardinals, and Matthew Stafford isn't exactly going to be mistaken for Peyton Manning or Kurt Warner any time soon, so the offense as a whole has a lot of growing to do. Certainly, if you were to try to list the top running backs in the NFL, Smith probably wouldn't come to mind in the same breath as Adrian Peterson, Michael Turner, Maurice Jones-Drew, Steven Jackson and LaDanian Tomlinson but exactly what kind of production are we talking about here? What kind of numbers does a top-10 back put up?
Last season, the No. 10 fantasy back in ESPN standard scoring was Jacksonville's Jones-Drew, who finished two points behind Clinton Portis of the Redskins. Smith finished a distant No. 18. Here's a look at the trio's final stats:
Portis and Jones-Drew were two different styles of backs last season, with MJD being much more of a threat out of the backfield. Smith is much more suited for comparison with Portis, who doesn't rely on receptions to pad his overall yardage totals. So let's compare. Smith barely missed the 1,000-yard plateau in his rookie season but nearly equaled Portis' touchdown output in 104 fewer carries. At his 2008 success rate, which was 4.1 yards per carry, he would have had 1,402 yards if you gave him enough carries to match Portis, pretty darn close to a top-10 finish. And that doesn't take into account the fact the Smith got much better as the season went on. After using the first half of the season to get his feet wet, Smith gained 671 yards on 168 carries over the last eight games, compared to 305 yards on only 70 carries in the first eight games.
With Maurice Morris as Smith's only "competition" for carries, it's clear the Lions are going to give him nearly all of the workload, which should give him more than ample opportunity to reach nearly 1,500 yards for the season. The offensive line added Jon Jansen, who did the lion's share of blocking for our good friend Portis in Washington last season, and rookie tight end Brandon Pettigrew, who is 6-5 and weighs in at 265 pounds. That certainly will open up some holes for the running back as well.
Additionally, the Lions brought in Bryant Johnson and Dennis Northcutt to join forces with the man called "Megatron" (Calvin Johnson) in the wide receiving corps. Regardless of whether the team turns to its rookie quarterback right away or lets him learn by watching Daunte Culpepper, this offense certainly will look like something that belongs in the NFL, after suffering through five signal-callers and the likes of Shaun McDonald, John Standeford, John Owens and the well-traveled Keary Colbert running patterns by season's end. If this offense can finally shake its long-lingering Mike Martz hangover and approach even an average run-pass ratio, Smith is almost certain to get those extra hundred carries he needs to bring his workload into the realm of the NFL elite.
Those are the pros on Smith, but even if he falls a bit short of expectations, there's still a great chance he could finish in the top 10 as other backs fall short of their usual performance levels. Larry Johnson and Willie Parker? Old by football standards, and both on the downside. Brian Westbrook? He's sure to lose some playing time to LeSean McCoy in order to keep him at full strength for the entire season. Marshawn Lynch? He'll miss the first three games of the season due to suspension. Chris Johnson? He'll get his yards, but LenDale White still will vulture a bulk of the fantasy points in the red zone.
Finally, there's the psychological factor. Defenses will see that "Detroit" on their schedules and, based on last season's record, smile at the chance to "take a bit of a breather." We're not suggesting teams will lie down for the Lions, but let's face it -- when the Rams play Minnesota, Jacksonville and Indianapolis in the three weeks before their tilt with Smith & Co., odds are they won't be showing up at Ford Field with the same level of intensity. That's sure to add a little padding to the Lions' running backs' season totals. By the end of the 16-game schedule, even if Detroit falls a bit short of Smith's "guarantee," the fantasy owner who drafts him can pretty much make a playoff guarantee of his own.
AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.