Fantasy Football's Compelling Questions - RBs
By Jeff Tefertiller
June 7th, 2010

Once the weather turns hot, many situations seem to have more questions than answers. The offseason camps are just around the corner. NFL teams are looking to find the answers to the same questions fantasy footballers are asking. This is the second in a three-part series looking at the questions for different positions. Every year it seems the same, but there seems to be fewer primary ball carriers. This series will be written from a fantasy viewpoint and will look to help fantasy football owners get a jump on the competition. The last article addressed the quarterback position. This one will look at the running backs. We have so few answers and many questions. Below are some answers to the more compelling questions for the running back position.

12. Who will be the primary ball carrier in Cleveland? Jamal Lewis was on borrowed time. The Cleveland Browns had little in the backfield at the end of the season, other than Jerome Harrison. Harrison played great, leading the team on an unexpected winning streak. The Browns were looking to address the position in the draft and had their hand forced after Houston selected Auburn product Ben Tate. This made the Browns panic. They traded up to nab former Tennessee Volunteer Montario Hardesty. The way the draft went, it seemed as though Cleveland preferred Tate, but settled for Hardesty because he was the only back left they liked. Harrison and Hardesty will likely split time, with Harrison getting more receptions. He is a good receiver and Cleveland will often be playing from behind. The Browns will want to run the ball often. They have little in the passing game. In 2009, Harrison only started a handful of games, but still finished as RB24 with the strong finish. He is being drafted as RB28. Hardesty has an ADP of RB44. The Browns ran for almost 1,600 yards last season and will look to eclipse the 2,000 mark this year. Given the few very poor games from the Cleveland offense last season, it is remarkable that the team averaged 100 rushing yards per game. With Lewis now out of the picture, that total should rise to 125 yards per game. Both of the Browns running backs are good values at their respective ADPs. The pie is big enough for both to exceed expectations.

11. Can Knowshon Moreno step up his game to warrant being a primary ball carrier? Not many times is a fresh-legged rookie outplayed by a 30-something back who has endured more than his share of knee injuries. But, this was the case with the 2009 Denver Bronco rush attack. Correll Buckhalter was far more explosive than Moreno. Their respective yards per carry averages bear out the point. Moreno averaged 3.8 yards per carry. The veteran Buckhalter averaged 5.4 yards every time he carried the ball. The difference (1.6 yards/carry) is huge. Buckhalter displayed more decisiveness and explosiveness last season. With an ADP of RB15, Moreno is way too risky for a third round pick. An eleventh round selection on Buckhalter is the better play. You get the better player with a lower pick. Yes, the Denver brass will want Moreno to succeed, but the results on the field were clear last season. At least, with the late pick on Buckhalter, there is little at risk.

10. Can the New York Giant rushers return to 2008 levels of production? The answer is a resounding "no". The good news is that both Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw should be at full strength this season. Each suffered through injury-plagued 2009 years. But, the reality is that the 2008 Giants rushed for almost 2,500 yards and added another 500 yards through the air. This was with ex-Giant Derrick Ward in the backfield. The three backs were a productive committee. With Ward in Tampa Bay, New York struggled to run the ball well last season. As a team, they averaged approximately 50 fewer rushing yards per game. That is a huge difference for a team, and its coach, that likes to pound the ball. The good news for fantasy owners is that the ADPs for the Giant ball carriers reflect the 2009 results not those from the year before. Both are being drafted as a fantasy RB3 with Jacobs at RB25 and Bradshaw as RB34. With the injury history of both, and no other threat to take carries, taking the pair as a combined RB3 is a good move. One or both should be startable most weeks.

9. Will the Miami Dolphin running game be as productive as in the recent past? This is a situation that may strike many as very compelling. The Dolphins only utilize two running backs, and both are highly effective. So, what's the rub? Ronnie Brown is coming off a nasty Lisfranc injury. He is not expected to be back at full contact practice until training camp. Brown stated that he is at 80% of full strength. With the optimistic way players portray their injuries, this is a major concern for fantasy owners. If there is a setback and Brown is put on the PuP (Physically Unable to Perform) list, or just starting the season late, fantasy owners (and the Miami offense) will be in a difficult spot. Brown is effective running the "Wildcat" offense. His injury is one that is prone to setbacks and is notoriously slow healing. He has admitted to still having soreness in the foot. This is not a good sign. It is best not to depend on Brown as a starting fantasy back this season. He struggles to finish the season healthy having played more than nine games just once in the last three seasons. Now, onto Ricky Williams who revitalized his career in 2009. The 33 year old rushed for over 1,100 yards and eleven touchdowns last year. But, how much do you really want to rely on the aging Williams? Very few running backs are effective this late in their careers. Williams is being drafted as a fantasy RB3 (RB29 and player 68 overall) in the sixth round. This is just too much risk exposure. This is the year to avoid both Dolphin ball carriers. Each will be overdrafted and possess too much downside. The 2011 starting tailback is not on the roster. This could be the last year for the pair in Miami. Patrick Cobbs is a back that could see time if the injury bug bites.

8. After the departure of Justin Fargas, what should we expect in the Oakland running game? In 2008, the Raider ground game was effective with almost 1,800 rushing yards. This total slipped some in 2009, but the Oakland backfield still accumulated approximately 1,800 total yards. If this is the expected total for 2010, there will be plenty to go around for both Michael Bush and Darren McFadden. Bush has had some good games when given the heavy workload the past two seasons. He is a powerful back that is more nimble than most realize. McFadden is a speedster who has found it difficult to remain healthy and productive as a professional. Of the two, Bush is the one to own, especially for the price. He is a good gamble in the ninth round as the RB43 off the board. This is much preferable to relying on McFadden as a fantasy RB3. That is just asking for trouble. McFadden is coming off a year with a 3.4 yards per carry average and has yet to eclipse 500 yards rushing in a season. Bush has more upside and a better chance to be a fantasy starter ... plus a cheaper price.

7. Who should I draft from the Seattle ball carriers? What a mess Pete Carroll inherited in Seattle. The Seahawks have little talent at the skill positions. The running back position is especially void of NFL caliber players. Newly acquired LenDale White has now been released leaving even less depth than before. Julius Jones has nothing left in the tank and is not worthy of fantasy consideration. Leon Washington is recovering from a compound fracture in his leg and may need to start the season on the PuP list. With such a serious injury, he may need time to regain his speed and acceleration. This leaves just Justin Forsett as a fantasy option. Assuming that the Seahawks do not bring in another ball carrier, Forsett is a good bet to surpass 1,000 total yards. He came very close last season in limited duty. Seattle will want to get their most explosive ball carrier the ball. Forsett averaged a whopping 5.4 yards per carry and 8.4 yards per reception last season. At the present time, he has gone unnoticed in fantasy drafts. Forsett is being drafted as RB47 in the tenth round. What a steal for such a productive back. The only caveat is if Seattle trades for another back. The most likely candidate would be Marshawn Lynch. The two teams have talked trade in the past and could do so again. Even if there is a trade, Forsett will be worth his price, especially in PPR (Point Per Reception) leagues.

6. What to make of the mess in the Houston backfield? Steve Slaton had a tremendous rookie season in 2008. He was quick to the hole and explosive. The next offseason, he decided to gain weight to better hold up under the heavy workload. Well, the added pounds took away the quickness. It is not good for a smaller back to suddenly be slow. Slaton injured his neck and has yet to be cleared for full practice. Undrafted rookie Arian Foster came on strong at the end of the year to throw his hat into the ring for the 2010 starting job. The team was not ecstatic with these two choices so they selected Ben Tate in April's NFL Draft. This situation looks like a huge backfield committee negating the viability of all three unless one emerges. The total pie is large enough as the Texans have averaged about 2,200 total yards from the running back position over the last two years. Given that some rookie backs struggle to gain a footing against veterans, Tate is not worth the RB31 price tag. He will get a long look, but Tate is risky at that price. As a fantasy RB4 (RB45), Slaton is hazardous with the neck injury. Foster is the best play of the three with a very inexpensive ADP of RB61 in the last round or two of the draft. He flashed skill the last couple of weeks in 2009 and could represent once again. Neither Tate nor Slaton are worth considering at those costs. This could be a huge committee once again and those prices are too high.

5. What to expect from the Buffalo running backs? The Buffalo Bills have a crowded backfield after the team selected rookie C.J. Spiller in the first round of the NFL Draft. Marshawn Lynch had consecutive strong seasons in 2007 and 2008 to begin his career, before underachieving last year. Lynch is talented but was passed by Fred Jackson. Jackson flashed talent starting during Lynch's suspension to start the season. He had some big games when he got the carries. Jackson is a versatile ball carrier that could be a steal this season. He quietly had 1,400 total yards on a struggling offense. There is a chance that Buffalo trades Lynch. The problem is that the Bills' asking price is high considering the struggles off the field. Adding Spiller to the mix only makes things more complicated. Since it is Lynch on the trade block, it can be assumed he is the third back. There is some talk of him not being available for trade but that is just rhetoric trying to increase interest. So, how will Jackson and Spiller split up the touches? Given the weather in Buffalo, the Bills will need to have an effective ground game. Spiller was drafted to provide a spark to the offense and return game. I would expect an average of 12-15 touches per game for both Jackson and Spiller with the coaches riding the hot hand. Each is being drafted as a fantasy RB3 (Spiller RB27 and Jackson RB33) and both could warrant their respective ADP. For this season only, Jackson is the better play as Spiller adjusts to the NFL.

4. Jamaal Charles had a good 2009. Can he take another step in 2010? Also, what will be the role of Thomas Jones? The Chiefs were a passing team last year, only running the ball an average of 24 times a game. This is a huge step down from the previous seasons. Was it because of the new offense and quarterback Matt Cassel or lack of strong options? This is the key question. The addition of Thomas Jones adds credence to the idea that the Kansas City coaching staff did not feel comfortable in giving either Larry Johnson (until his release) or Jamaal Charles the heavy workload until late in the season. The last half of the season, Charles was on fire ... racking up big yardage in six of the eight games, including a 259-yard rushing performance in week 17 against the Denver Broncos. Charles averaged 20 carries a game over this stretch. With Jones now in Kansas City, will the Chief coaches allow their speedy back to carry such a heavy workload? I do not think so, but he still will be well worth his price (ADP). The team will want to ease Charles' carries enough (from the last half of the season) that he does not wear down. Also, expect the hard-running Jones to get the short yardage carries. Charles finished the season as RB12 last year despite playing only playing heavily the last eight games. He is now being drafted as RB14. Even with a reduced workload, Charles will be well worth the ADP and has big upside, as evidenced by the strong finish to the 2009 season.

3. Can Shonn Greene fill the large shoes of the departed Thomas Jones? Replacing Jones is the key to the Jet offense for 2010. He was a workhorse, carrying the ball an average of 311 times the last two seasons. His strong 2009 campaign allowed New York to employ a conservative game plan for their rookie quarterback, Mark Sanchez. The Jets allowed Jones to test the free agent market and he found a new home in Kansas City, as noted above. As a rookie, Greene only carried the ball 109 times during the regular season, then another 54 times in the playoffs. Many of those rushing attempts were after Jones wore down opposing defenses. It is now time for Greene to be the lead back. Can he pick up where Jones left off? Greene is very talented but I question his ability to be productive carrying the ball 300 times during the season. In addition, he has had a problem with fumbles. The Jets added LaDainian Tomlinson to complement Greene. The only problem is the Tomlinson is far past his prime and is on steep decline. He is not viable enough to take the pressure off of Greene. Making matters even worse, New York traded injured scatback Leon Washington to Seattle (also noted above). Washington, when healthy, would be able to contribute. Rookie Joe McKnight was drafted to take the Washington role as a change of pace option. In total, the Jets loss a steady primary back and a very good scatback while replacing them with expensive imposters. So much pressure is now on the shoulders of Greene. An ADP of RB10 is way too pricey for a back with 109 regular season carries.

2. Can Beanie Wells finally overtake Tim Hightower? This is a fluid situation. The Cardinals will look to run the ball more after the retirement of Kurt Warner. There is NO WAY the team can pass the ball 393 times again this year with Matt Leinart under center. Arizona averaged only 20 rushing attempts per game last season. Expect that number to go up in a big way. The Cardinal coaching staff has a history of a strong rushing attack in Pittsburgh and could look to implement a power running game in the desert. As it stands now, Hightower will start the games with Wells getting more carries. The coaches will look to strike a balance between Hightower's versatility and Wells strength running the football. Both are young and talented. Hightower amassed over 1,000 total yards last season with Wells just shy of the mark. An increased priority on the ground game this year could vault both backs into the Top 20. Given the split in touches, Hightower is a much better value as RB41 in the ninth round than Wells as RB13. Hightower is a steal as a fantasy RB4.

1. What to make of the Dallas running backs? The Cowboys have three capable ball carriers. Many assume that Felix Jones will be named the starter after the two strong games against the Eagles late in the season. But, can he carry the ball enough to be worth his ADP? There is no way he is worth an ADP of RB22. What a high price for a back who only twice during the regular season carried the ball more than ten times in a game. The Cowboy backfield is full of uncertainty. Marion Barber will be back to full health. He is the pounder of the Dallas running corps. Barber has carried the ball at least 200 times each of the last three years, finishing as RB21 or better each time. So, with an ADP of RB30, Barber is a good bet to exceed expectations once again. The sleeper of the group is Tashard Choice. He has flashed some skill the when given the opportunity. Choice has an ADP of RB55 and has great upside as a fantasy RB5. The advice to fantasy players in redraft leagues, is to avoid Jones and take a chance on Barber or Choice.

Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to tefertiller@footballguys.com.