Steven Jackson and Rashard Mendenhall(notes) are endangered species. In a pigskin world dominated by timeshares both are expected to tote workhorse loads for their respective teams. Which projected first-rounder will yield the most value? Fantasy MDs Brad Evans and Andy Behrens offer their diagnoses.
Evans reluctantly leads: Brandon Funston picked this topic solely for his sadistic pleasure. Forced to denigrate one of our most cherished mancrushes (Mendenhall) is an extremely difficult assignment. But despite our allegiances to the Orange and Blue it's imperative to follow brain over heart.
Steven Jackson wins in a landslide.
The brutish Ram is the Rasputin of RBs. No matter how many times he's beaten, shot, stabbed or drowned he finds a way to eclipse 100 total yards every single week. In '09, the nearly invincible rusher managed to finish No. 12 among backs in points per game (13.2), an amazing accomplishment when considering he was hampered by a painful back injury, running behind a decimated line against stacked defensive fronts and playing in a dreadful offense that ranked dead last in the league. Remarkably, he surpassed double-digits in 11 of 15 starts averaging 4.4 yards per carry, his highest mark since 2006. His 50 receptions, which tied Chris Johnson for the seventh-most among plowshares, made him even more valuable in PPR formats.
As a whole, Steve Spagnuolo's bunch is on the upswing. The offensive line, anchored by '09 first rounder Jason Smith(notes), is an ascending unit which should be much improved. A.J. Feeley(notes) may take snaps Week 1, but No. 1 pick Sam Bradford(notes), once ready, will undoubtedly receive most starts. The rookie's intelligence, accuracy and quick release amplify Jackson's overall worth. For the first time in years the number of overloaded boxes he sees may decrease. If the passing game is remotely close to average, 1,800 total yards with 8-12 touchdowns is a certainty. Keep in mind the Rams have the most RB-friendly schedule on paper entering 2010.
Mendenhall is a wonderfully talented runner who should emerge as Pittsburgh's workhorse. However, minus Ben Roethlisberger(notes) for the first six weeks defenses will likely key on the run. The Steelers' tougher schedule and air-centric philosophy are also negatives. Not to mention Rashard, who is prone to coughing up the pill, could be one critical in-game fumble away from losing goal-line touches to rookie bulldozer Jonathan Dwyer(notes). Throw in Willie Colon's(notes) season long absence and the projected first rounder loses even more luster.
Bottom line: Jackson's consistency is worth its weight in gold. Though Behrens will embellish his injury potential and red-zone downside, he's a dependable rusher in a rising offense. To the Noise, he's one of the virtual game's best low-risk options, exactly what fantasy owners are looking for in Round 1.
Behrens responds: Well, this is surreal. It's certainly not the first time I've had a Mendenhall argument with Evans, but it's the first time I've been so firmly on Rashard's side. He's clearly a first-round pick in fantasy drafts; Steven Jackson clearly is not.
In fact, I'm eager to see the case for Jackson, because I can't formulate one myself. No matter what you think of his talent — and he's exceptionally skilled, no question — you have to concede that the team context is absolutely abysmal. As we just discussed in the Juggernaut Index, the Rams averaged 10.9 points per game last season, ranking dead-last in the NFL. And the year before that, they averaged 14.5 points (31st). And the year before that, they averaged 16.4 points (28th).
The St. Louis offense is terrible, period. The 2010 version of the Rams will feature a rookie quarterback (transitioning from a spread offense in which he wasn't asked to audible) and a sketchy offensive line (LT Jason Smith is already hurt, as are RT Rodger Saffold(notes) and C/G Mark Setterstrom(notes)). Oh, and St. Louis has less talent in the receiving corps than any team in the league. Do you seriously think this helps Jackson somehow? He completely dominated the football last season, leading the team in receptions and scrimmage-yards, yet he scored only four touchdowns. And that TD total wasn't some fluke — Jackson only received 35 touches in the red zone, because the Rams rarely visit an opponent's territory. The St. Louis offense crossed the goal line just 16 times all year.
Again: They're unforgivably bad. The forecast is for continued bad, with periods of laughably bad.
When you factor in Jackson's injury history — he's recovering from back surgery and he's missed nine games over three seasons — it seems more reasonable to discuss whether he can possibly sustain last year's fantasy value, because there's very little chance that he'll improve.
Mendenhall, however, is an entirely different story. (And I'm fairly sure Brad agrees with me, though he may not tip his hand in this feature. He ranked himself into a corner here). Rashard didn't take over primary backfield duties last year until Week 4, but he still closed the season with 1,108 rushing yards (4.6 per carry), 25 receptions, and eight touchdowns. He enters 2010 as the unrivaled feature back for an offense that averaged 23.0 points and 371.3 yards per game in 2009. Ben Roethlisberger's early season absence is a concern, sure, but it won't be a factor in the second-half, when fantasy owners need production the most.
If there's any truth at all to the many stories about Pittsburgh transitioning to a more balanced run/pass mix, then Mendhenhall's value gets another bump. Even if Jonathan Dwyer or Isaac Redman(notes) earns a role in the Steelers' short-yardage game, that won't mean that Mendenhall will leave the field when his team reaches the red zone. He's going to get more RZ touches than S-Jax, easily.
It's possible that you'll be faced with a Mendenhall/Jackson choice near the end of Round 1. (Although for me, it's really a Mendenhall/Greene, or Mendenhall/Charles, or Mendenhall/Matthews. Jackson isn't in the discussion). Don't pick the running back tied to a hopeless offense. Instead, take Rashard. When we get right down to it, with the clock ticking down in the draft room next month, I suspect that's what Brad will do.
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