Commentary

Sometimes the coach makes the player

Updated: August 16, 2009, 2:08 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Are any of the Seahawks' running backs worth the trouble?

Fantasy football isn't completely about owning the superstar player. It's every bit as important -- and I'd argue more important -- to find hidden value.

32 Questions
Considering the Seahawks' No. 1 running back, Julius Jones, is being selected 109th, on average, in ESPN live drafts so far this preseason, while goal-line back T.J. Duckett is barely even garnering a look (he has been picked in only 4.7 percent of leagues), there is absolutely hidden value to be found in this backfield. Heck, even No. 3 man Justin Forsett might warrant a look in a deep league.

It's all about the change to the coaching staff; out is the retired Mike Holmgren, and in is ex-Falcons coach Jim Mora, who brings with him his offensive coordinator from back in their days in Atlanta, Greg Knapp. During the latter stages of the Holmgren era, the Seahawks were known as more of a passing offense. Under Mora, this team should put more emphasis on running the football.

Mora will implement a zone-blocking scheme, coaching his backs to make one cut before heading downhill. It's a system he employed with great success during his tenure in Atlanta. In his three years as head coach from 2004-06, the Falcons ranked first in the league in rushing yards and yards per carry every season, and in the top five in rushing attempts each year.

Jim Mora
Steve Dykes/US PresswireNew coach Jim Mora brings a run-first philosophy to the Hawks.

Look at the average season produced by the Falcons' running game during that span: 531 attempts, 2,719 yards, 15 touchdowns, 5.1 yards-per-carry average.

Now compare that to the three nearest surrounding seasons (2002, 2003 and 2007) in which Mora wasn't the head coach, noting that the running backs were largely similar to the Mora years (most notably, Warrick Dunn remained the starter): 448 attempts, 1,946 yards, 16 touchdowns, 4.3 per-carry average.

Granted, the primary personnel difference between the 2004-06 Falcons and 2009 Seahawks comes at quarterback; Matt Hasselbeck in no way has the scrambling ability of Michael Vick. Vick averaged 115 rushing attempts and 846 yards in his three years working with Team Mora/Knapp, while Hasselbeck has never run the football more than 40 times or for more than 202 yards in a season. As a team, Seattle probably won't be a candidate for any league-leading rushing totals for that reason, but that doesn't mean Hasselbeck can't help improve the run game's chances. He'll make quite a few more short rhythm passes to loosen up opposing defenses.

Besides, fantasy owners probably wouldn't want Hasselbeck cutting into the running backs' workloads in a zone-blocking attack. This team that ran the football 417 times in 2008, 22nd in the NFL, might see a substantial increase this season. Mora's Falcons teams averaged 416 rushing attempts from running backs alone from 2004-06; that's 7.2 percent more than Seattle had last season (Seahawks backs ran the football 388 times in 2008).

Here's another interesting correlation between those 2004-06 Falcons teams and this year's Seahawks: Mora already has two integral parts with him that he had back in Atlanta: goal-line back T.J. Duckett and fullback Justin Griffith. Both are well-versed in zone blocking, which should help ease the team's transition.

That leaves Jones as the most unfamiliar cog in the new system, but is it unfair to suggest he's capable of playing the "Warrick Dunn" role? Offseason reports indicated Jones was adapting nicely, and the Seahawks have made every indication that he will not only start but also presumably receive the bulk of the carries.

So let's feed that comparison. Here's what Dunn did, on average, in three years working with Team Mora/Knapp: 277 rushing attempts, 1,221 yards, 5 touchdowns, 4.4 yards per carry. Not top-10 fantasy numbers, mind you, but how, exactly, are those not numbers that at least warrant a top-100 overall pick in the draft?

Bust on Jones all you want: He's a weak goal-line back, and he wears down late in the season. Those are legitimate concerns, but it could also be argued that in the past two seasons he didn't get a chance to be a true workhorse, the 250-plus-carry back that he might yet be in this system. Last season he was sharing the chores with Maurice Morris. The year before that, it was Marion Barber in Dallas thieving most of his touches. Morris is gone, so it's Jones' first true chance to shine since 2006.

Jones' career trend is that he tends to wear down in the second half of the season, but if that's the case, might it not be smart to take a midround chance on him, then trade him in October if you still have doubts? After all, he's still 28 years old, with only 1,043 career rushing attempts on his legs. It's no stretch to say he has plenty left in his tank, so he can hardly be called a high-risk proposition.

Be aware, though, that Duckett is nearly certain to get the goal-line carries. That was his role on Mora's Falcons teams as well as last year for the Seahawks. In 2008 he had 15 rushing attempts from within 10 yards of the end zone and scored on eight of them. In 2004 and '05 in Atlanta, he had 28 such attempts and scored 13 times. And in his seven-year NFL career, Duckett has 82 attempts in those situations and 36 scores, good for a 43.9-percent success rate. Simply put, this is one of the better goal-line backs in football, regardless of his mediocre 2006 and '07 numbers.

It's something to keep in mind if you're in a touchdown-heavy fantasy scoring system or perhaps seeking a bye-week sleeper to slot in as your flex RB/WR. Duckett thrived in this system in Atlanta, and with Morris out of the picture he might even see a decent bump in carries between the 20s. That fantasy owners aren't even giving Duckett a second look is a bit surprising. No, he might not make an immediate impact in standard ESPN leagues in his currently projected role, but it's a funny thing how an undrafted player in the early part of the preseason often has a difficult climb to garner fantasy attention. Duckett is the kind of player to keep on a watch list because his value has plenty of room to improve.

As for Forsett, while he is projected to begin the season as a clear -- and distant -- No. 3, Jones doubters might want to jot his name down as a player to watch. The ex-Colt would stand to benefit if Jones has a disappointing preseason or early regular season, so keep tabs on the reports out of camp this month.

Does the sum of the parts make this a terribly exciting backfield? Well, no, but again, I return you to the idea of value in draft selections. That this is a question at all underscores how dismissive people are of Seattle's running game; there isn't a Seahawks running back being selected among the top 40 at the position so far. Yet Mora's Atlanta teams were routinely tops in the game running the football.

So again I ask, how does taking Jones in the 11th round not make sense?

Tristan H. Cockcroft is an FSWA award-winning fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.