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Running backs preview

6/30/2009

How many true No. 1 rushers are left in the NFL? Go ahead and count. I'll wait.

When I wrote this positional preview in advance of the 2008 season, I mentioned that 300-carry backs were on the decline. I commented that 2007 saw just six 300-carry backs, the fewest since 1999. Well, guess what happened in '08? Only five rushers eclipsed 300 carries, the fewest since 1993: Michael Turner, Adrian Peterson, Clinton Portis, Matt Forte and Ryan Grant. Just as interesting is the fact that just one of these plow horses (Portis) accomplished the feat in '07 as well. So not only are fewer backs averaging more than 18 carries per game (300 carries over a 16-game season averages out to 18.75), but these days even fewer keep up such a hellacious workload from season to season.

How many definitive lead dogs did you count among NFL rushers? I have around 13, give or take, which is a shocking number considering not all the "true No. 1" pro rushers are actual fantasy football assets. (Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you … Cedric Benson!) Of course, many of the runners trapped in platoon situations are fantasy assets, precisely because they don't take their team's every carry, and are fresh enough to get the ball in the end zone when the time comes. Still, as the years go by here in the late 2000s, it's becoming less and less knee-jerk mandatory to grab running backs in the first two rounds of your draft, the way it used to be.
Let's take a look at the leading stories among running backs as we get closer to training camp, and then regroup to figure out what it all means for your draft strategy.

The elite

In 2008, the great debate was whether to draft Adrian Peterson or some guy named Tomlinson first overall. "Purple Jesus" won that one. While Peterson didn't finish first among all rushers in fantasy points scored (he was third), he did capture his first NFL rushing title and had 11 games with 20 or more carries. And he's only 24 years old. In '09, Peterson is the clear-cut No. 1 pick in most drafts. Does that mean he's guaranteed to lead the world in fantasy points? Of course not. Stuff happens. But Peterson offers as much upside as any player in the game, with relatively little week-to-week downside. Folks who argue for anyone else are just trying to look contrarian. … I must admit I'm not completely sold on Michael Turner as the No. 2 rusher this season. I'm concerned that he amassed 376 carries last year, above that key 370 mark that has led to the downfall of so many good backs. But the rest of my ESPN brethren are believers, and it is hard to argue with 17 rushing touchdowns last season, second-best in the league. … Given his size, Maurice Jones-Drew is a curious choice to be a No. 1 fantasy back, but in a year when the true "hyper-elites" are limited, in my mind, to one player, MJD is intriguing. After all, he does the two things fantasy owners prize: He catches passes, and he's amazing around the goal line. The Jaguars don't really have a viable alternative, so although Jones-Drew does present an injury risk, he looks like a fantasy stud. … Matt Forte made headlines for the wrong reason this summer, missing time at the Bears' organized team activities (OTAs) because of an injured hamstring. He's supposed to be fine, which is a relief because he was among the most reliable players in the NFL last year. He'll get a minimum of 300 carries and 50 catches this season. … I'm as spooked as anyone about two straight years in which he has missed at least four games because of injury, but I think Steven Jackson puts together a complete season in 2009. He came back from his quad problem at the end of '08 and put together two very big games; plus, the Rams upgraded at center by signing Jason Brown and drafted Jason Smith second overall to play tackle. … If Peterson isn't the scariest player in football, Chris Johnson is. He doesn't have the size of "All Day," but he's even faster than Peterson, and has at least as accomplished an offensive line in front of him. Among backs with at least 250 carries in '08, Johnson had the second highest yards-per-carry average (4.9). Yes, he lost 15 rushing touchdowns to LenDale White in 2008, but this is the final year of White's rookie contract, and I believe coach Jeff Fisher when he says he plans on using Johnson more. … Finally, the only definite Hall of Famer on this list is LaDainian Tomlinson, yet once again I find myself dramatically out of step with many of my ESPN Fantasy compatriots. Many of our writers believe LT will go right back to being the best player in football again, and they point to the fact that he finished sixth in fantasy points among rushers in a down year in '08. My concern, though, is that he turns 30 this month; his offensive line isn't what it once was; and most important, he evokes the recent ghosts of Shaun Alexander, Edgerrin James, Priest Holmes and Ahman Green, the guys everyone swore up and down could recapture fading glory one last time. For where you'd have to draft him, I wouldn't do it. But many ESPN folks disagree.

Not sexy, but they get the job done

Frank Gore is the kind of player who should be elite; he's a nice combo of quick and punishing. But he never has exceeded eight rushing touchdowns in a season, even in '06, when he accumulated 1,695 rush yards. He also has missed time because of injuries the past two years. But with the 49ers set to scrap Mike Martz's pass-first attack and focus on the run, Gore looks like a pack mule in '09. … This is the second straight year Clinton Portis makes this section. When he's healthy, Portis is better than No. 12 among fantasy backs, but that's where we have him because we've seen him wear down late in seasons. In '08, he had 944 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns in the year's first eight games but never managed a single carry over 15 yards in Washington's final five contests. … You have to admire the gumption of Kevin Smith telling Jim Rome that the Lions will make the playoffs this year. I mean, he's delusional, but it's still admirable. Smith weathered an unfortunate timeshare with an ineffective Rudi Johnson in '08 and now pretty much has the starting gig to himself in Detroit, with only third-down man Maurice Morris in his way. Smith has bucketfuls of talent, but it's hard to imagine the Lions' offensive line will suddenly become competent. Still, Smith will get enough carries to be a good No. 2 fantasy back. … For all the carries he got in '08, Ryan Grant sure had a disappointing campaign, failing to log a touchdown until Week 7 and averaging just 3.9 yards per carry. But this smacks of a fluke. The touchdowns will almost certainly come with use, and there aren't a lot of other attractive options in the Packers' stable of backs. Don't take Grant anywhere near where you drafted him last year, but it says here he'll adapt better in his second year in a zone-blocking system and be solid, if unspectacular.

Falling down


It's a shame that Marshawn Lynch has done such knuckleheaded things off the field because on it, he's one of the most promising backs in the NFL. But his second arrest in two offseasons has NFL commish Roger Goodell annoyed, and Lynch has been suspended for the first three games of 2009. Lynch has appealed, though, and remember that Brandon Marshall was in a similar boat last year, and he wound up serving just a one-game suspension. Without any kind of behavioral issues, Lynch would merit top-10 consideration, but as he misses time, he gives his backups chances to weasel their way into bigger roles in the Buffalo offense. … The Colts are smart. They watched Joseph Addai play last year, and even though it was pretty obvious Addai wasn't 100 percent, Indy decided not to horse around (get it?) with him as an unquestioned starter any longer. Last year, Dominic Rhodes stole significant action from Addai in the season's second half; this year, it'll be rookie Donald Brown (more on him in a moment). Addai's yards per carry have dropped from 4.8 in 2006 to 4.1 in '07 to 3.8 in '08. True, if Addai gets near the touchdown pace he had (23 combined scores) his first two years, he'll have a ton of value. But I'm guessing he doesn't exceed 200 carries. … The Willie Parker Experience is losing steam. After a 16-touchdown 2006, "Fast Willie" scored just twice in '07 and five times in '08, and suffered significant injuries in both of those seasons. The Steelers don't trust him on third down or near the goal line, so even if he holds off Rashard Mendenhall and Mewelde Moore and keeps the starting job, I'm not sure how much that's even worth. … Nobody believed me last year when I balked at ESPN's ranking of Larry Johnson at No. 10 among rushers, and I must admit, I was probably a little lucky, considering LJ missed multiple games because of a suspension. Still, whether it was because of a pass-happy offense or an offensive line that was a shell of its former self, Johnson was just awful in '08, with just one 100-yard rushing game after September. There were rumors the Chiefs might cut him outright this summer, but for now it appears he'll be the team's starter. That said, new coach Todd Haley isn't known for sticking with the run, and the offensive line still isn't good. … Man, was I ever fooled by the Browns' offensive line and Jamal Lewis last year. He went from 4.2 yards per carry in '07 to 3.6 in '08, and looked as cooked as he did toward the end of his Ravens career. Lewis turns 30 in August and has missed time at OTAs this summer because of offseason ankle surgery. New boss Eric Mangini likes the run, but he won't like the way it looks with Lewis lumbering around (or, um, into) the corner this fall.

Opportunity knocks

Deuce McAllister is gone from New Orleans, and there are all kinds of worries about Reggie Bush's knees, so suddenly Pierre Thomas is a top-20 fantasy back. Now, the Saints were third heaviest in terms of pass-run ratio last year, averaging only 25 carries per game, and for as long as he's healthy, Bush is going to get plenty of looks through the air. But after a winter in which Sean Payton kept threatening to draft or sign a big back, Thomas remains the primary goal-line option on this roster. He'll get a chance to be a high-octane offense's between-the-tackles workhorse and go-to goal-line guy. … Darren McFadden didn't get to show the NFL what he could do during his rookie year because of a severe turf toe injury that limited his vaunted speed and explosiveness. Justin Fargas looks like the nominal starter to begin training camp, and Michael Bush won't have to mess around playing fullback any longer, so "Run DMC" has some competition. But if he can stay healthy, he has Adrian Peterson skills. … My colleagues at ESPN really like Derrick Ward now that he has landed in Tampa Bay's backfield, ranking him a surprising 23rd among fantasy rushers. I can see their logic: In a pure backup role with the Giants last year, Ward exceeded 1,000 yards rushing and averaged 5.6 yards per carry, and while the Bucs' offensive line doesn't quite equal the Giants', it does have tons of potential. Still, I'm not totally convinced that Tampa's backfield won't wind up being a straight platoon, with Earnest Graham also in the mix. If you can convince yourself it's not, though, Ward could have lots of hidden value. … Meanwhile, the space that Ward vacated in Gotham likely will be filled by Ahmad Bradshaw, and if oft-injured Brandon Jacobs stays oft-injured, that's a mighty valuable role indeed. Bradshaw had double-digit carries in only two games last year, but he should inherit a lot of Ward's carries and perhaps the lion's share of Ward's 41 receptions from 2008. … Baltimore's three-headed backfield look might be about to feature Ray Rice as its leading man. With Le'Ron McClain moving to fullback (although he is likely to retain his short-yardage role) and Willis McGahee constantly in the Ravens' doghouse, Rice has run at halfback with the first team throughout summer practices. Hey, if Steve Slaton can be an every-down back, so can Rice. He's a terrific receiver, and has really good power and quickness. Obviously, preseason depth charts change all the time, but right now Rice has the look of a breakout candidate. … Darren Sproles was San Diego's most effective rusher for most of 2008, and for a while this winter it looked like the Chargers might actually release LaDainian Tomlinson because of contract issues. Instead, LT renegotiated and Sproles was named the organization's franchise player, which didn't sit well with the mighty mite. Still, Sproles posted a 5.4 yards-per-carry average compared to Tomlinson's 3.8 last year, and he was awesome in two playoff games. If LT gets hurt or simply goes downhill, Sproles has the skills to take advantage in a big way. … Fred Jackson's chance has arrived. As I mentioned above, Marshawn Lynch is likely to begin the '09 season on suspension, and Jackson is the favorite (ahead of Dominic Rhodes) to start in Lynch's absence. For now, Jackson is merely a handcuff, but with a big start to the season, who knows whether that plan will change?

Rookie crop

Knowshon Moreno was the first back selected in April's draft, and I wish we could've justified ranking him higher than 29th at his position. Unfortunately, he landed with the Broncos, who were already infamous for backfield platoons before the platoon-master himself, Josh McDaniels, became their new coach. Now, I do expect Moreno to be the starter in Denver. He's a 220-pound back who can cut and escape. But the presence of Correll Buckhalter, LaMont Jordan, Ryan Torain and Peyton Hillis means there's quite a bit of risk in drafting Moreno early. … Beanie Wells is, to use a well-worn phrase, a physical freak: He's 240 pounds and can run a 4.5 40. However, he also developed a reputation at Ohio State for being in the trainer's room an awful lot, if you catch my drift. With Edgerrin James gone from Arizona, only Tim Hightower stands in Beanie's way, so it seems clear that Wells will be the Week 1 starter. However, it's not like the Cardinals remain particularly devoted to the run in their offensive scheme (their 21 rushes per game last year were the NFL's fewest), and injuries will be a concern. … The Colts took Donald Brown in the first round of '09 despite already having Joseph Addai, a first-round pick from just three years ago. That's how serious the team is about lessening the load on Addai. Brown looks like a slightly smaller version of Matt Forte to me. He's a good all-around player without breakaway speed but is a very good receiver, and he's capable of taking over if Addai gets hurt again. … LeSean McCoy was supposed to contend to be the first rusher taken in April, but his workout measurables and performance were big disappointments. He's neither as big nor as fast as scouts thought, so he fell to Philadelphia in the second round. With Brian Westbrook's ankle potentially a big problem, though, McCoy could get more work than expected early this year. He must improve his blitz pickup as a blocker, though. … Shonn Greene is a crusher at 235 pounds, and he won the Doak Walker Award his final year in college. He's not fast, but he should be in the mix for touchdowns right away with the Jets. And if Thomas Jones winds up making a stink about his contract, Greene could get carries on first and second downs. … Rashad Jennings sank like a stone before the 2009 draft because teams were concerned he didn't look tough enough between the tackles against subpar competition while playing at Liberty University. But at 6-foot-1, 230 pounds, he definitely has an NFL body, and the Jaguars' backfield depth isn't good. Jennings could actually wind up in the mix for the No. 2 job behind Maurice Jones-Drew. … Andre Brown, from NC State, was going to be my favorite rookie sleeper. Then he landed with the Giants, who have lots of backfield depth and probably won't offer Brown a lot of action as a rookie. If Brown hadn't broken his foot twice the past two years, he might've been in the second-round mix in April, and he has a nice combo of power and speed. If Ahmad Bradshaw falters, maybe Brown plays some snaps this fall, but you'll have to wait for that to happen first. … The 49ers reached for Alabama star Glen Coffee in the third round of April's draft. I admit Coffee did have some elite production (behind an elite college offensive line) last fall, but he doesn't have enough size, speed or shiftiness to be an NFL factor, at least not yet. … A couple years ago, James Davis looked like a first-rounder for sure, but the mess at Clemson swallowed him up, and he didn't produce well during his senior season. He has played well during OTAs for the Browns, though, and could be a name worth remembering.

Unsettled situations

It's not that Steve Slaton isn't an unquestioned starter, but will he wind up getting the Texans' goal-line carries? The tiny Slaton overcame his lack of top-end speed to become a fantasy force last year, and he even scored four times from inside the 2-yard line. Still, coach Gary Kubiak hopes Chris Brown can return to health (I'm not holding my breath), and the team signed undrafted free agent Arien Foster this spring, which to me is proof that he's not sold on Slaton in short yardage. Those issues could be the difference between a good and a great fantasy season for Slaton. … As I wrote in this space last year, Marion Barber's running style simply isn't conducive to a full-time job. He's a maniac. If he carries it 12 to 15 times in a game, he's all right, but anything more than that and he starts to break down. The Cowboys have two other options, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice, and have made all sorts of noise this summer about using Barber as they used to do when Julius Jones was around, as a finisher around the goal line and as a fourth-quarter game-sealer. That's good for Dallas but could lead to some painful game-to-game uncertainty for Barber's owners. … Thomas Jones is coming off a tremendous, top-5 fantasy season, but he's unhappy with his contract -- to be more specific, he's unhappy that he's unsigned for 2010 -- and held out of many of the Jets' OTAs before showing up in June. Several sources have indicated Jones is a candidate to be traded before training camp, but with Leon Washington also threatening to hold out because of his contract, it's unclear the Jets would have enough leeway to make such a move. Jones should be the starter, but add rookie Shonn Greene into the mix, and this could easily become a committee. … Surprise! The Patriots don't have a lead back. Instead, they signed Fred Taylor this winter, and while my ESPN buddies are convinced enough that Taylor will be "the man" to rank him highest among the group, I'm actually not. I think there's a pretty good chance Sammy Morris will be the touchdown-maker again, and lead the team in fantasy points, and of course there's always Kevin Faulk and Laurence Maroney to consider. What a mess.

Injury concerns

Brandon Jacobs scored 15 touchdowns in 2008, but he also missed nearly four games because of a knee problem, the second straight year he has missed significant time. With Derrick Ward gone from New York, there'll be more pressure for Jacobs to stay healthy. But can a giant, bruising player like him really do anything different than simply pound into opposing players, while those players take shots at his knees? He's still a risk. … Depending on whom you listen to, Brian Westbrook is either going to be fine after "minor" cleanup surgery on his ankle early in June, or he'll miss all of training camp and have this injury drag him down all season. I'm not inside the man's leg, so obviously I'm speculating. But Westbrook will be 30 before Week 1 and is a tough but injury-prone player, and the Eagles drafted LeSean McCoy, the man they hope will be Westy's eventual replacement, this April. … Jonathan Stewart is still behind DeAngelo Williams, but on a run-heavy team with the game's best up-and-coming offensive line, that's OK. What's worrisome when it comes to the "Daily Show" is a bum Achilles that prevented him from working out with the Panthers this summer. The Panthers say he'll be 100 percent by camp, but of course, you never know. … Reggie Bush surprised some observers by participating in much of the Saints' minicamp this spring after having microsurgery on his injured knee and regular-sized surgery to repair a torn knee meniscus. With Pierre Thomas looking like the better option on first and second downs, Bush needs to prove he's healthy enough to become a big factor again in the New Orleans passing game.

Sleepers

Everyone seems ready to give Derrick Ward the starting job in Tampa, but I think that if Earnest Graham is recovered fully from surgery to repair torn ligaments in his ankle (and he's supposed to be), he might very well get 50 percent of the Bucs' backfield work. He's not quite as fast as Ward, but he's just as good of a pass-catcher, and he's probably a better goal-line back. And I really like Tampa Bay's young O-line. … If, as I wrote above, Marion Barber gets fewer carries so he can be fresh on the goal line and later in games, someone has to pick up the Cowboys' slack, and my best bet is Felix Jones. He pulled a hamstring early last year then tore a toe ligament while rehabbing, but in the brief time he was healthy, Jones set the NFL afire with an 8.9 yards-per-carry average on 30 rushes. He's a home run hitter who probably won't be a week-to-week fantasy constant, but he might wind up winning some fantasy owners' games. … Don't get out the anointing oil for Beanie Wells in Arizona just yet. He hasn't proved he can stay healthy for a full season of college football, let alone in the NFL, and while Tim Hightower pretty much convinced me he can't be a lead back in the NFL, he is very good on the goal line. I think Hightower will be heard from again in '09. … The same goes for Rashard Mendenhall, who must battle Mewelde Moore, along with starter Willie Parker, for looks in Pittsburgh. Mendenhall had problems with fumbles last preseason, then fractured a shoulder blade a month into the regular season, but he's a smart kid with a workmanlike attitude and some nice size, and I think he could be the guy Pittsburgh has been looking for on the goal line since Jerome Bettis retired. … Danny Ware is a deep sleeper for those who still believe in the Giants' backfield combo of "Earth, Wind and Fire." With Ahmad Bradshaw likely stepping into Derrick Ward's old New York shoes, Ware could be third man in, a role that still has value. He doesn't have anything resembling Bradshaw's quickness, and he has all of two regular-season NFL carries, but Ware can move a pile and get downhill, sort of like Ward.

Draft strategy

So which is it? Does the fact that there are so few "true" No. 1 backs mean that the pressure is off to draft running backs with your first two picks? Or does the scarcity that has resulted make it all the more important that you must get the top guys? Honestly, I think it's impossible to sound intelligent while weighing in wholeheartedly on either side of this debate. Hard-and-fast draft strategies are for the narrow-minded. It depends on the players. On the one hand, you clearly don't want to get stuck with a latter-day Fred Taylor as the No. 2 rusher on your fantasy team, so refraining from taking running backs early makes for a nervous game of chicken. On the other hand, you don't need to reach for a mediocre committee back in the second round just to make sure you have the position covered. There are plenty of wide receivers and a few quarterbacks who are worth drafting ahead of some 180-carry softie who'll flummox you on a weekly basis. As always, the bottom line comes down to player evaluation. If you have the right guys in mind, you'll be rewarded for drafting them. If you can intuit how a given injury situation will pan out or how a player will be worked into his new offensive system, it almost doesn't matter what position he plays. Or if you can see the storm clouds brewing for a back and believe he is due for a big-time fall, then just don't draft him. Hey, the running back position is always going to be saddled with the most scarcity in fantasy football, which means you really can't wait too long to grab rushers. But slavish devotion to any positional strategy can end only in tears.

Auction strategy

Each fantasy auction is its own animal, so it's tough to give absolutes on how much you should spend on running backs. In a league that gives you $260 to spend on your players, a decent rule of thumb is that you'll spend roughly half of that on rushers. Your starters will eat up the vast majority of that budget, clearly, while your reserves and sleepers will come on the relative cheap. That said, this "median" budget doesn't account for the variations in strategy that occur in every fantasy football auction. For instance, if you've decided you're going to pay for two elite rushers, you're probably going to have to spend more than 75 percent of your money on two players (i.e., the "Studs & Duds" strategy). However, no matter what, make sure you have a nice long list of potential $1 or $2 rushers for your auction's end game. Just as in snake drafts, I like to wind up with a bunch of "lottery-ticket" running backs in an auction, because rushers who come out of left field to be significant contributors can win fantasy leagues.

Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can e-mail him here.