Does Ryan Grant's 2009 look closer to 2007 or 2008?
What's most curious about the case of Ryan Grant is that if you look at his 2007 and 2008 full-season fantasy point totals, you might think that it was his 2008, not his 2007, that presented the better campaign.
In 2008, Grant actually had more fantasy points (147) than in 2007 (145). Outside of those numbers, though, there isn't a person out there who will tell you that Grant meant more -- or even close to as much -- to fantasy owners last season as in the one before. His numbers showed a sharp decline in terms of touchdowns (from eight to four), yards per carry (5.1 to 3.9), and if you count only the 10 games of 2007 in which he was the "go-to" guy in the Green Bay Packers' backfield, his average rushing yards per game also dropped (92.9 to 75.2).
It's those 10 games of Grant's in 2007 that had fantasy owners -- myself included -- so tantalized heading into last season. Taking only his numbers accrued during those games, during which time he was considered the team's "starter," literally or figuratively, then scaling them to a typical 16-game NFL season, he'd have been a 1,486-yard, 13-touchdown rusher with 227 fantasy points, and been a certain No. 1 running back.
Grant -- and more important, his agent -- realized this, and as a result his camp engaged the Packers in a preseason holdout in the summer of 2008. The two sides bickered over dollars, as so many teams and players do this time of year, and Grant sat out practice after practice throughout the offseason as well as the first week of training camp before finally coming to terms. Only days later, he suffered a nagging hamstring injury that lingered into the regular season, the first misstep in what was ultimately a disappointing 2008 campaign.
Was Grant's hamstring issue a direct result of his having missed so much practice time? Was he not in prime physical condition at the time he signed his new contract? We might never be able to prove that, but the chain of events supports the inference, and that Grant spent much of last year bruised and battered -- he also dealt with a sprained thumb in the latter weeks of the season -- and dealing with a bad case of fumble-itis lends itself to thinking that Grant's holdout led to his injuries, which ultimately led to his having a lackluster year.
Time for a statistic that might back that up: From Oct. 1 through season's end, Grant totaled 1,017 yards and four touchdowns on 257 rushing attempts in 12 games. Scale those numbers over a 16-game season, and you get 1,356 rushing yards and five touchdowns. That's no arbitrary date; removing Grant's Week 4 (Sept. 28) "adjustment period" game, the first in which he did not appear on the injury report -- I think a one-week mulligan in your first "healthy" game is acceptable -- those 12 games were the ones that occurred after his hamstring had healed.
That's not to say that a 1,356-yard, five-touchdown season is a great one, or even the mark of a certain No. 2 fantasy running back, but it offers a hint of promise for a player who had suffered an otherwise forgettable season. For one thing, 1,356 yards would have placed him fifth in the league. Plus, with a full, uninterrupted preseason leading into a healthy Week 1, Grant almost certainly could have exceeded those numbers.
Now let's flash forward to this summer, when Grant isn't holding out, has nothing but positive reports on the health front, and has been drawing rave reviews in the Green Bay media for improving his decisiveness and explosiveness, two big knocks from the previous season. That Grant has spawned nary a question mark through more than half the preseason can be considered nothing but a plus.
Grant hasn't had any issues this year adapting to Green Bay's one-cut zone running scheme, and so far in the preseason, he has averaged 4.4 yards per carry with two touchdowns on 16 carries, numbers that actually have all the marks of a bounce-back candidate. He's hardly the kind of back, from a raw-talent perspective, who warrants top-tier status, but as a second-tier option, a No. 2 fantasy running back, he's well worth your attention. After all, this is a guy who not that long ago was compared by the Packers' brass themselves to former Packers running back Dorsey Levens, who, coincidentally, also wore the number 25.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers also has a full year's experience as an NFL starter under his belt, meaning he has earned fantasy owners' trust with a hefty investment, and coach Mike McCarthy has historically been known as a pass-first coach. Those traits in mind, fantasy owners probably regard the Packers as a passing offense, first and foremost, allowing Grant to slide in as a modest bargain candidate.
Sure enough, to this point in the preseason, Grant is being picked 36th on average in ESPN live drafts, 19th among running backs. That 19th is key -- he ranked 22nd at the position in fantasy points in a down year in 2008.
Touchdown potential will ultimately determine how close Grant gets to his 2007 per-game performance, and that will probably be closely tied to his level of improvement controlling the football. So far so good this preseason, meaning he might get a lot closer to his 2007 goal-line numbers (four scores in 16 chances in 10 "starts") than 2008 (three in 18 in 16). The two preseason scores are promising in that regard, especially if you look closer at the box scores and notice that da-da-da-DAAA! they both came on goal-line chances.
I won't forecast a season of nearly 1,500 yards and 13 scores, which was his per-game impact of 2007. Chances are, though, he'll contend for double-digit touchdowns at his current rate of improvement, and that alone makes him a strong bet to rebound to near-2007 fantasy form.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is an FSWA award-winning fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.