Position Primer: Running back
LaDainian Tomlinson wasn’t born with two left feet like the Dodo. Edgerrin James the vicious jaws of the Tasmanian Tiger. And Jamal Lewis the intimidating rack of the Irish Elk.
But similar to their defunct animal kingdom comparisons, the 300-carry back is practically an extinct species.
No wonder graybeard Emmitt Smith, who tallied an all-time high 4,409 carries in his illustrious 15-year career, is a Just For Men pitchman.
In today’s NFL, two-back systems have become all the rage. Last season, at one time or another, nearly half the league showcased a committee at running back. Heck, the New York Giants blazed a championship trail partly on the legs of Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw. And because of that winning formula, roughly 15-17 teams are expected to employ similar tactics this year.
Thumbing through the historical record, the RBBC design, albeit rare, isn’t a novel concept. In 1976, Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier chugged their way to 1,000-yard seasons for the smash mouth Steelers. In ’86, Cincinnati’s three-cat attack of James Brooks, Larry Kinnebrew and Stanley Wilson vaulted the Bengals to a league-leading 24 rushing scores. And from ’90-’91, Kansas City’s bruising duo of Christian Okoye and Barry Word terrorized tacklers, and Tecmo Bowl gamers, combining for over 3,500 rushing yards.
Coaches both past and present who’ve instituted the RBBC method view it as a way to maximize offensive output. It optimizes specific player skills and keeps backs fresher, longer. Even historically ardent single-back supporter Herm Edwards is coming around to the idea. As he expressed to our own Charles Robinson in May, he wants to curtail Larry Johnson’s workload this season:
“He knows he’s going to get the ball. … He’s going to touch it a lot, but those other guys (backups Kolby Smith and Jamaal Charles) are going to touch it some, too. Larry is not going to carry the ball 40 times. He’ll be lucky to get 30.”
For virtual pigskin players who prescribe to the running theory (drafting numerous RBs in the early rounds), RBBCs are synonymous with bouts of dizziness, chronic fatigue and nausea.
And, unfortunately, there isn’t a little blue pill owners can swallow that could focus the Houston Texans blurry backfield.
So how have committees altered running back value?
To illustrate how the RBBC trend has evolved and how it’s impacted fantasy over the past five seasons, examine the chart below:
300C=Number of backs with 300-plus carries
250C=Number of backs with 250-plus carries
RBBCs=Number of running back by committees in given year
13.0 FPPG=Number of RBs that averaged 13.0-plus fantasy points per game
*Based on standard yardage scoring (6 pts/rush TD, 1 pt/10 rushing/receiving yds, 0 points per reception)
The right column is the most telling of how plowshare platoons have altered running back performance in fantasy. After 2004 a switch flipped. Although the number of 250-plus carry backs was nearly identical to the previous two seasons, the increase in RBBCs consequently caused running back points per game averages to shrink over the next four years.
Not displayed on the chart but equally engrossing, only 1.4 committee backs per year since ’04 averaged 13.0 or more FPPG. Meanwhile, 9.8 tugboats per season (71 percent) that shared the rock less than 30 percent of the time reached the 13.0 PPG plateau.
This information presents two hard facts: 1) Unquestionably, workhorse backs (e.g. LT, Jackson, Portis, Lewis, McGahee, Lynch and Westbrook) are a premium in ’08 and 2) Once the elite backs are off the board, it’s sage to target the best available player regardless of position.
Blame Tom Brady. Blame Randy Moss. Hell, blame Lucifer Shanahan. But given the Olympic-sized pool of quality rookie backs and advancing number of time-shares, the traditional running theory (RB-RB-RB) isn’t as trustworthy as in years past. However, a hybrid version of the same idea, the jogging theory (RB-WR/QB-RB), is still relevant. And if fantasy fanatics adhere to the latter strategy, several dependable runners (e.g. Earnest Graham, Michael Turner, Darren McFadden, Matt Forte and Selvin Young) will be available later in drafts (after pick 30) than usual.
Still, based on the evidence presented above, those lucky enough to be awarded a top eight pick in standard scoring formats should stick with tradition and draft a 300-carry back like LT, Jackson or Portis, before they go the way of the dinosaurs.
Here are the risers, fallers and baby crawlers at running back this year.
*Mock Draft Central ADPs (ADP) are courtesy of MockDraftCentral.com
*Y!RNK=2008 Y! experts composite ranking among RBs
*12TMRD= round equivalent based on ADP in 12-team leagues
|On the Rise|
|'07 Stats: 4.4 RUSH/G, 4.5 YPC, 19.8 RSYPG, 4 REC, 16 RECYDs, 1 TD|
No longer underneath LT's shadow, "The Burner" is set to ignite in Hotlanta. This offseason's most coveted backfield free agent, Turner is a complete back who has the muscle to inflict punishment between the hashmarks and enough jet fuel to kick on the afterburners in the open-field. His 5.5 career yards per carry and balance outline his potential fantasy success for an Atlanta offense in transition. New head coach Mike Mularkey commented to the Associated Press in June that his "No. 1 objective in games is to be physical," which implies Turner will be relied upon heavily. The Falcons offensive line was a disaster last season, but the addition of left tackle Sam Baker should provide enough stability to make them serviceable. Mularkey, who was offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh from '01-'03, will rotate Jerious Norwood into the offensive flow for roughly 10-12 carries per game, but Turner is expected to net 20-25 touches per contest. With that kind of workload and given his well-roundedness he could easily be a top-15 back, a bargain when you consider he's being drafted on average in the late-third, early-fourth round. |
Fearless Forecast: 316 carries, 4.5 YPC, 1,422 rushing yards, 14 receptions, 87 receiving yards, 7 touchdowns
|'07 Stats: 14.8 RUSH/G, 4.0 YPC, 59.9 RSYPG, 49 REC, 324 RECYDs, 10 TDs|
As his first name implies, Graham is an intense competitor blessed with the versatility and vitality of a fringe No. 1 back. For most backs, the late 20s is the penultimate phase of their career. However for the once little used Graham, age is just a number. Due to devastating injuries to Cadillac Williams and Michael Pittman, Graham became the default starter in Week 6. In 10 starts he averaged 85.6 total yards per game and scored seven TDs, six straight from Weeks 9-15. For his backers, the Bucs bulldozer was an unheralded hero over the second half of the fantasy season. This year, expect Graham to step into the RB forefront. Running behind an inflexible offensive line, he should tote the rock roughly 15-18 times splitting time with fire ant Warrick Dunn. Jon Gruden loves his work ethic and approach. With that endorsement, he's hardly a one-year wonder. Similar to Turner, you won't find a better value in the late-third round. |
Fearless Forecast: 227 carries, 4.4 YPC, 998 rushing yards, 39 receptions, 261 receiving yards, 9 touchdowns
|'07 Stats: 10.3 RUSH/G, 3.6 YPC, 36.8 RSYPG, 23 REC, 203 RECYDs, 2 TDs|
If Marion Barber was the George Michael of the Dallas backfield, Jones was the other dude from WHAM!. After eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark in 2006, the former Golden Domer became an afterthought last season, averaging just 5.7 fantasy points per game, 53rd among plowshares. Thrilled to be out of the Big D, Jones is hungry and primed to rekindle his career under Mike Holmgren. Although the old walrus has remained mum on who will start, it appears a committee will initially be installed. Given Jones' superior talent, balanced approach and breakaway speed, it seems likely he'll earn approximately 60 percent of the touches. The low number of expected carries may sound unappealing but Seattle beefed up its offensive line with the signing of former Pro Bowler Mike Wahle. Maurice Morris and T.J. Duckett will be involved, but Holmgren is dedicated to reviving a running game that was essentially nonexistent last year. Jones is an excellent RB3 in 12-team leagues. |
Fearless Forecast: 231 carries, 4.1 YPC, 947 rushing yards, 28 receptions, 202 receiving yards, 6 touchdowns
|'07 Stats: 9.3 RUSH/G, 5.2 YPC, 48.6 RSYPG, 35 REC, 213 RECYDs, 1 TD|
With Travis Henry frantically trying to find work to squelch his ongoing off-field drama, Young is expected to be the Broncos featured back. That is, until Lucifer Shanahan coaxes Olandis Gary out of retirement. In eight starts last year, the unmemorable former Longhorn recorded two 100-yard games, averaged a stout 72.3 rushing yards per game and 4.9 yards per carry. Young, who looked chiseled in mini-camp, added 15-pounds of muscle this past offseason to generate more power and increase endurance. A slasher with laser vision and excellent acceleration, Young is an ideal one-cut back who fits perfectly in Shanahan's zone-blocking scheme. He will be pushed by Andre Hall, Michael Pittman and Ryan Torain for playing time in camp, which makes him a risk, but given his intestinal fortitude and backing from running backs coach Bobby Turner he could be the biggest steal of your draft. Since 2004, 4.4 backs per season drafted after pick 60 have finished in the RB top 20 in fantasy points per game. Given his enormous versatility (35 receptions in '07) and overall upside, Young could enter that club this season. Think minimal risk, very high reward. |
Fearless Forecast: 233 carries, 4.9 YPC, 1,141 rushing yards, 33 receptions, 249 receiving yards, 8 touchdowns
|'07 Stats: 4.3 RUSH/G, 4.8 YPC, 21.0 RSYPG, 17 REC, 151 RECYDs, 2 TDs|
Last season, Graham, Ryan Grant and, briefly, Derrick Ward were largely undrafted backs that made a significant fantasy impact. This year, that distinction will belong to Thomas. Heavenly in his lone start Week 17 at Chicago, the former Illinois standout churned out an absurd 226 total yards and a touchdown on 32 touches. Although he doesn't possess the dynamite speed of teammate Reggie Bush, Thomas is a classic downhill bowler with surprising brawn. His ability to read coverages and exploit soft spots in the short-field labels him a dual threat. Sean Payton admires his grittiness and flexibility, meaning he could see some occasional action even with Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush healthy. Deuce, who is coming off surgery on both knees, has missed 25 games in three years. If an injury were to beset the 29-year-old again, Thomas, and not Bush, would presumably slide into McAllister's vacated role. For those in deeper leagues hoping to strike 'Nawlins gold in the beer-hazy hours of your draft, grab Thomas. |
Fearless Forecast (4 starts): 64 carries, 4.8 YPC, 307 rushing yards, 20 receptions, 144 receiving yards, 2 touchdowns
|'07 Stats: 14.2 RUSH/G, 4.5 YPC, 64.2 RSYPG, 4 REC, 116 RECYDs, 6 TDs|
Maroney is the Applebee's of the running back class. His name can be found on any roster, but the statistical menu is rather unexciting. Limited by offseason shoulder surgery entering camp last year and an in-season groin injury, Sir Laurence's curtailed workout regimen set him back significantly over the first half of '07. However, once healthy, he played spectacularly, registering four 100-yard games and seven touchdowns over the Pats' last six contests, including the playoffs. Entering training camp at 100 percent, the former Golden Gopher hopes to build of his strong finish, emphasizing patience and confidence in camp. With defenses expected to key on Tom Brady and the spread passing attack, Maroney could be in line for a banner year facing vulnerable defensive fronts. But, he's expected to split carries with Sammy Morris and, to a lesser extent, Kevin Faulk. Given his injury-laden past, Belichick's treachery and the potential platoon, the Koolaid bling king is riskier than Jamal Lewis, Jones-Drew and Graham, all of whom are being drafted after him. |
Fearless Forecast: 218 carries, 4.4 YPC, 959 rushing yards, 21 receptions, 168 receiving yards, 7 touchdowns
|'07 Stats: 21.4 RUSH/G, 4.1 YPC, 87.7 RSYPG, 23 REC, 164 RECYDs, 2 TDs|
In terms of fantasy, the Steamin' Willie Express has likely made its last stop in the RB top 20. Parker's '07 was one of the most bizarre seasons in virtual football history. His 321 carries, 1,300-plus rushing yards and eight 100-yard games were first-rate, but with just two goal-line plunges his overall fantasy points per game rate (10.7) was terribly marginal. Because the 27-year-old operates best on the peripheries and due to lingering question marks surrounding his durability, the Steelers selected battering ram Rashard Mendenhall in April. Bruce Arians has designs of installing a pony backfield to compliment each player's talents. Although the time-share will reduce Parker's chances for injury, his carries should decline dramatically, likely in the 230-260 range. Essentially, Fast Willie will morph into the Steelers' version of Fred Taylor, which makes him RB3, not RB2 material in 12-team leagues. Throw in a suspect offensive line and anticipated lack of goal-line carries and it's understandable why Parker's perceived value has slipped in early drafts. |
Fearless Forecast: 249 carries, 4.1 YPC, 1,021 rushing yards, 18 receptions, 127 receiving yards, 4 touchdowns
|'07 Stats: 15.5 RUSH/G, 2.9 YPC, 45.2 RSYPG, 13 REC, 110 RECYDs, 4 TDs|
With hybrid platoons en vogue, it's only appropriate a gas-guzzling Escalade like Johnson has lost his buyer appeal. From 2004-2006, Rudi was the epitome of consistency. His 87.9 rushing yards per game and 12 scores per season made him a perennial late first round draft choice. However the excessive 340-plus workloads over that span eventually caught up to him. Burdened by a nagging hamstring injury, Johnson missed five games last season and, more disheartening, lost his confidence. Arguably the biggest bust of the RB class last year, his 7.7 fantasy points per game ranked 40th among plowshares. In mini-camp Marvin Lewis glowed about Johnson's renewed intensity and determination to silence his doubters, telling CBS News: "Rudi had an outstanding offseason. You see quickness in his cuts and things like that, and he's stronger than he's ever been. He wants to dispel the rumors and prove that the lack of production was more through injury than it was, say, his ability to make people miss or breaking through tackles." The Bengals trench team, when healthy, is above average, and Carson Palmer's ability to stretch the field are major pluses for Rudi, but the wear and tear on his body is worrisome. He's an excellent value pick in the mid-fifth, but don't be shocked if Lewis turns to an RBBC (Kenny Watson/Chris Perry/Johnson) to keep Rudi upright.|
Fearless Forecast: 247 carries, 988 rushing yards, 16 receptions, 106 receiving yards, 8 touchdowns
|'07 Stats: 13.1 RUSH/G, 3.7 YPC, 48.4 RSYPG, 73 REC, 417 RECYDs, 6 TDs|
The uber-hyped dancer unbelievably continues to be overvalued in drafts. Currently the 17th back selected off the board in MockDraftCentral drafts; Bush is going ahead of Graham, Turner and Ronnie Brown. Yes, he's incredibly valuable in PPR-friendly formats, but his 11.3 FPPG (19th among RBs) doesn't warrant consideration over more TD-favorable backs. Bush's maneuverability, terrific route-running skills and deceptiveness in the open-field are stunning. But his break-tackle ineffectiveness, durability concerns and impassionate play are glaring weaknesses. Upstart Pierre Thomas is expected to compete with Bush for third-down duties in camp and if Thomas wins out, Bush's value would plummet further. Unless you're in a PPR league, consider other options in Round 3. |
Fearless Forecast: 161 carries, 3.7 YPC, 596 rushing yards, 66 receptions, 481 receiving yards, 6 touchdowns
|'07 Stats: 18.9 RUSH/G, 3.7 YPC, 69.4 RSYPG, 20 REC, 114 RECYDs, 7 TDs|
Surprisingly, White, who somehow must be related to the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, sported a slimmer figure last year, powering his way to 1,108 rushing yards and seven scores. His 69.3 rushing yards per game, five 100-yard games and five touchdowns in his first eight games, made the portly pounder an unheralded consistency king over the first half of '07. White is a classic downhill steamroller that uses his 6-foot-1, 235-pound beer keg frame to drag tacklers. This year, offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger has plans of incorporating the 23-year-old more into passing game, which could spike his value in PPR leagues. However, because of White's plodding style, fleet-footed rookie Chris Johnson will be heavily involved in the Titans rotation. White is a respectable No. 3 and a reasonable value in the mid-fifth, but Young, McFadden, Forte and Stewart, who collectively are going around the same time, are far more desirable. Throw in that White is coming off arthroscopic knee surgery and he's one to circumvent for more attractive options. |
Fearless Forecast: 279 carries, 3.8 YPC, 1,056 rushing yards, 26 receptions, 151 receiving yards, 7 touchdowns
|Rookies to Watch|
|'07 Stats (Arkansas): 25.0 RUSH/G, 5.6 YPC, 140.8 RSYPG, 21 REC, 164 RECYDs, 17 TDs|
Oakland's Run DMC will be anything but a "Sucker M.C." The much ballyhooed first-round pick is a dazzling athlete. His electrifying speed, impressive balance, strength and trustworthy durability will eventually guide him to numerous NFL rushing titles. Prior to Adrian Peterson's unforgettable rookie campaign, several scouts rated McFadden higher than the Purple Jesus in college. Ironically, McFadden is being picked in nearly the identical position as Peterson was at this time last year. Initially the rookie is expected to split carries evenly with Justin Fargas, but his superior versatility will inevitably tilt the scales. Oakland's run-oriented offense, stalwart offensive line and JaMarcus Russell's anticipated improvement enhances McFadden's chances to be productive. You won't find more potential than the Silver and Black back in Round 5. |
Fearless Forecast: 215 carries, 5.1 YPC, 1,096 rushing yards, 31 receptions, 268 receiving yards, 7 touchdowns
|'07 Stats (Oregon): 21.5 RUSH/G, 6.2 YPC, 132.5 RSYPG, 22 REC, 145 RECYDs, 13 TDs|
Carolina's first-round pick is a miniaturized Donkey Kong. Similar in style and substance as Maurice Jones-Drew the stocky 5-foot-11, 230-pound youngster is a stout, low-to-the-ground pile driver who obliterates defenders with his astonishing strength. His exceptional intelligence and reliability as a receiver also makes him a versatile asset. As Jon Fox told USA Today earlier this summer, "He breaks a lot of tackles and gets yards after the first contact, which is something we look for." Stewart had surgery to repair a nagging turf-toe injury in March, but he's slated to start training camp at full strength. The Panthers revamped offensive line and one-cut system will benefit Stewart's production greatly. Although he'll lose roughly 10-12 carries per game to DeAngelo Williams, his interior muscle will prove profitable in the red-zone. If you take the Brady plunge in Round 1, Stewart is someone worth reaching for as early as Round 4. |
Fearless Forecast: 223 carries, 4.6 YPC, 1,026 rushing yards, 25 receptions, 193 receiving yards, 8 touchdowns
|'07 Stats (Illinois): 20.2 RUSH/G, 6.4 YPC, 129.3 RSYPG, 34 REC, 318 RECYDs, 19 TDs|
When Mendenhall's name is uttered in the Noise's presence, "Unchained Melody" plays on the mental jukebox. The Ying to Willie Parker's Yang, the Steelers first-round pick is a flexible crusher who generates plenty of yards after contact. His superb skills as a pass catcher and blocker explain why Bruce Arians described him as a "bigger, faster Edgerrin James." The Clydesdale in Arians' pony backfield, Mendenhall, who was ironically compared to Jerome Bettis by Illinois head coach Ron Zook last September, could revive "The Bus'" role. Pittsburgh's offensive line is rather unstable entering camp, but if it can be just average, Mendenhall will at least be a fringe top 20 back. Routinely available in Round 7 in early drafts, it's mind-boggling his stock isn't higher. |
Fearless Forecast: 215 carries, 943 yards, 21 receptions, 159 yards, 8 touchdowns
|'07 Stats (Tulane): 30.1 RUSH/G, 5.9 YPC, 177.3 RSYPG, 32 REC, 282 RECYDs, 23 TDs|
Cedric Benson's Nick Nolte moment will forever be remembered as the day the Bears embarrassing running game turned around. Last season, Forte was the lone offensive standout on a four-win Tulane team. He single-handedly destroyed opposing defenses rushing for 2,127 yards, the seventh-highest single-season total in NCAA history. His burly 6-foot-1, 224-pound body, sticky-fingers and fall-forward style are an impeccable fit for Ron Turner's offense. In mini-camp, Turner was jazzed about the creative ways he could use Forte, going to extreme lengths to profess his "love" for the youngster. Yes, Chicago's offensive line is questionable, but the addition of No. 1 pick Chris Williams and Jon Tait's shift back to RT should make them serviceable enough to create gaps for Forte to plow through. Also, given the decrepit state of Chicago's air attack, he'll snag close to 30 catches, skyrocketing his PPR value. Given the Black and Blue's commitment to the run and Forte's well-rounded tools, he could be this year's Marshawn Lynch. |
Fearless Forecast: 246 carries, 4.4 YPC, 1,082 rushing yards, 39 receptions, 274 receiving yards, 7 touchdowns
|'07 Stats (Central Florida): 32.1 RUSH/G, 5.7 YPC, 183.4 RSYPG, 24 REC, 242 RECYDs, 30 TDs|
Smith posted the second-best NCAA rushing season ever last year with Central Florida. Ironically, the greatest season by a back in NCAA history belongs to another Lion, Barry Sanders. Expected to revive a ground game that's been in state of flux since the Sandman retired in 1998, Smith has the vision, natural athleticism and determined work ethic to be formidable runner in his rookie campaign. Former offensive line coach Jim Colletto was promoted to offensive coordinator and plans to overhaul the Lions attack. Gone are the pass-happy ways of Mike Martz. Instead the ground game, spearheaded by Smith, will be emphasized. Because the Lions run a similar zone-blocking scheme as UCF did last year, Smith should adjust comfortably to the pro game. Although Tatum Bell is still in the mix, the third-round pick will undoubtedly break camp as the featured back. Like Mendenhall, Smith is a superb seventh round value. |
Fearless Forecast: 229 carries, 4.2 YPC, 962 rushing yards, 26 receptions, 179 receiving yards, 6 touchdowns