Last season, the combined forces of running backs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams helped Miami to a 12th-place finish in the league in rushing yards per game (118.6) and eighth in the league in yards per carry (4.3). The two backs split the backfield load down the middle, with Brown rushing for 907 yards and four TDs on 207 carries and Williams garnering 743 yards and six TDs on 168 carries.
If the momentum of the Dolphins' six-game winning streak to end '05 – of which the running game was a major factor – is to continue, it will have to do so without the services of Williams, whose appeal of a one-year suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy was denied by the league on Tuesday.
Miami is a team clearly on the rise. With Daunte Culpepper set to take over behind center at some point early in the '06 season – as soon as his surgically repaired knee will allow – the Dolphins have playmakers at all the skill positions. WR Chris Chambers and TE Randy McMichael are talented and proven performers, and Chambers, in particular, has been waiting for an arm like Culpepper's that can take advantage of his ability to make catches downfield. And the offensive line surprised many last season with its ability to open running lanes and protect the QB – it gave up 26 fewer sacks than the previous season (52 in '04, 26 in '05).
In evaluating Brown's fantasy value for '06, it's hard not to get giddy about the potential numbers he might produce in this up-and-coming offense that has enough weapons to deflect some of the defensive heat. Combine the numbers of Brown and Williams last season and you get: 375 carries, 1,650 rushing yards, 49 catches, 325 receiving yards, 11 total TDs. Those are Edgerrin James-like numbers – James was a top five fantasy back last season with 360 carries, 1,506 rushing yards, 337 receiving yards and 13 total TDs. But, unfortunately, Brown isn't going to absorb all of the workload vacated by Williams. Few running backs can handle that kind of attention. Shaun Alexander led the NFL with 370 carries last season, and only 10 backs handled at least 300 carries.
Brown is probably going to push for 275-300 carries this coming season (assuming he stays relatively healthy), but might fall a bit shy of that still. Head coach Nick Saban believes the running back role is a two-man job. That means that back-up Sammy Morris, or Travis Minor, is likely to see increased carries in '06. But, it seems unlikely that someone other than Brown will be the goal-line back. Brown had two of the team's three rushing TDs last season from inside the five-yard line. In fact, Brown's biggest goal-line threat could ultimately come from Culpepper, who has been known to often call his number when close to pay dirt.
I expect Brown to average roughly 20 carries per game, including most of the goal-line work, and I also think the Dolphins will look to use his receiving skills a little more than in '05. Culpepper has a history of getting his running backs involved in the passing game and my feeling is that 50-plus catches for Brown is very doable. If these projections for Brown's workload turn out to be accurate, I'm envisioning, on the conservative side, 275 carries, 1,200 rushing yards, 50 catches, 365 receiving yards, and, say, nine TDs. These numbers net out a little better than those of Thomas Jones' from '05 (1,478 total yards, 9 TDs), and Jones was a top 10 RB last season.
With Williams out of the picture, I think right around a top 10 ranking among running backs is the right real estate for Brown heading into the '06 campaign. I'll have Alexander, Larry Johnson, LaDainian Tomlinson, Clinton Portis, Tiki Barber, Rudi Johnson and Edgerrin James ahead of Brown. But, I'd think twice before I drafted any of the backs in my next tier (Steven Jackson, Carnell Williams, LaMont Jordan) before him. No matter where he ultimately falls on my list within that second group of backs, it still makes him a top 15-20 overall pick, in my book.
More Fallout: Brett Favre Returns
NFL news this week also centered around Brett Favre's decision to return to the Packers. He is coming off a miserable season that included 29 INTs, a career high and 12 more than any other QB in the league last season. It goes without saying, given the season he just had, his age (turns 37 in October), and the state of the Green Bay Packers, in general, Favre should be considered for a fantasy backup role only heading into the '06 season. There are definitely 12 QBs worth looking at before Favre, but landing him as a backup would qualify as a very nice insurance plan. Favre has played all 16 games for 13 straight seasons and, if WR Javon Walker can be convinced to return the team and bury his ill will, it would give Favre the two receivers in Donald Driver and Walker that helped him reach the 30-TD pass plateau in '03 and '04.
The biggest concern remains the state of the offensive line, a unit that was in shambles last season after losing Guards Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle to free agency. The group was largely to blame for the team's No. 30 ranking in rushing yards per game and, although Favre was sacked just 27 times, he was constantly throwing off his back foot as he tried to elude the pressure that comes to a quarterback that has no running game to work with. It can easily be argued that Favre opted more often to make a hurried throw rather than take a sack, and his INT numbers support that notion. To make matters worse, Center Mike Flanagan went to Houston via free agency this offseason. New head coach Mike McCarthy plans to address this problem by installing a new zone-blocking scheme and pushing competition amongst the offensive line unit. Frankly, I'm not convinced that that will be enough.