Are you tired of hearing about how incredibly stupid you'd be if you don't take two running backs extremely early in your fantasy draft? Hey, I subscribe to that theory, but even I'm tired of listening to the rhetoric. So let me throw a bone to those who feel that there is more than one way to skin a cat in fantasy football.
For years, I have bought Fantasy Football Index magazine when it hits the newsstands. In fact, this past week, I purchased the '06 FFI mag, giving me 10 consecutive years of this magazine on my bookshelf. I mention this because I decided to use the magazine as a benchmark for some recent historical running back analysis – I looked at the top 12 RBs off their cheat sheet for the past nine preseasons and compared those backs to how they finished during that actual season.
First, I should just mention that I've found FFI to be as credible as anyone when it comes to preseason rankings, so I have no reservations at all that they properly captured the preseason landscape for each of these RB rankings lists. That said, my findings were interesting. One of the selling points for the RB-early theory is that RBs are a more reliable sort – in other words, you can bank on their production more than the other positions. However, this study reveals that top-ranked running backs can be as volatile as quarterbacks and/ or receivers.
In the past nine years, only once has there been more than eight of the FFI top 12 preseason running backs to finish among the top 15 RBs. The average number of preseason top 12 running backs to finish among the top 15 RBs overall during this span is seven. If recent history holds true to form, that means that five running backs that will be taken among the top 12 RBs in this year's fantasy drafts will not finish among the top 15 backs when '06 totals are in the books. When compared to the QB and WR positions, RBs don't stand out as that much more trustworthy. Let's take a look at where the RB position has most failed in these past nine seasons:
1997: Baltimore's Bam Morris, after closing out '96 with 717 rushing yards and five touchdowns in the final nine games, is ranked No. 12 at running back by FFI heading into the '97 season. He's hit with a drug suspension, missing the first four games of the '97 campaign. He finishes with 774 yards and 4 TDs to land at No. 30 among RBs.
1998: Green Bay's Dorsey Levens comes into the season as FFI's No. 3 RB after ringing up 1,805 yards from scrimmage and 12 TDs in '97. Levens decides to hold out during training camp but returns to the team at the end of August and is able to play in the season opener. However, he's afflicted by leg and ankle injuries in his second game and proceeds to miss the next nine games. In the end, his season totals rank him 53rd among RBs.
1999: '99 ranks as one of the most perilous for top RBs. Four of the top 10 rated RBs by FFI wind up being complete fantasy non-factors. The top-rated Terrell Davis suffers an ACL tear four games into the season … Garrison Hearst (No. 3) has ankle surgery and fails to play a single game … No. 5 back, Jamal Anderson, suffered the same fate as Terrell Davis (ACL tear), only Anderson went down just 19 carries into the season … This was the summer that Barry Sanders (No. 9) called it quits, announcing his retirement on the eve of the start of training camp, further driving home the point to fantasy owners that you shouldn't hold a draft until the end of August or early September … Fred Taylor (No. 2) started to hear the "Fragile" moniker attached to his name in '99, as he missed seven games with a hamstring injury and finished 28th among RBs in fantasy points … Ricky Williams (No. 8) missed four games with a toe injury, but he scored in just one of the 12 games he did play, landing him 29th at the RB position.
2000: Dorsey Levens (No. 5) strikes again. A 10-TD, 1,607-yards from scrimmage performance in '99 had fantasy owners buying in early on Levens – and once again, they got burned. Knee and ankle injuries forced Levens out of all but five games in '00, placing him 50th among RBs while backup Ahman Green rose to prominence with 13 TDs … Philadelphia's Duce Staley (No. 10) followed up 1,500-plus yards from scrimmage and 6 TDs in '99 with just 545 total yards and 1 TD in '00 as he landed on the IR (toe) after logging just five games played. He netted out as the 51st ranked RB.
2001: Another rough year for top-ranked backs. The top dog, Edgerrin James, who amassed 2,301 yards from scrimmage and 18 TDs in '00, averages 142.5 yards from scrimmage in the first six games of '01, but falls victim to an ACL tear in the sixth game. He misses the final 10 games of the year and winds up 31st in fantasy points among RBs … Baltimore's Jamal Lewis (No. 3) suffers his second ACL tear (he tore his other ACL in college) before the Ravens' first preseason game, missing the entire season. At least it was early, saving many fantasy owners from a wasted draft pick … The same cannot be said for "Fragile" Fred Taylor (No. 4), who fell victim to a groin injury in Week 2 and sat the remainder of the season. Backup Stacey Mack would wind up scoring 10 TDs in his stead … Detroit's James Stewart (No. 12) followed up an 11-TD '00 campaign with just 2 TDs in '01 as he missed five games with an ankle injury. He finished outside the top 30 in fantasy points at the RB position.
2002: Chicago's Anthony Thomas (No. 6) suffers the sophomore jinx after rushing for 1,183 yards and seven TDs in his '01 rookie campaign. He manages 721 rushing yards and six TDs before succumbing to a finger injury that forces him to miss the final four games of the season. His numbers land him at No. 31 among RBs … Edgerrin James (No. 9) illustrates the difficulty that RBs face coming off an ACL injury. While he misses just two games (hamstring), his production is nowhere near his pre-ACL numbers. He finishes with 989 rushing yards and just 3 TDs and does not crack the top 30 fantasy RBs list for '02.
2003: RB proponents will point to '03 to strengthen their case. Of FFI's top 12 rated RBs heading into the '03 season, not one of them finished worse than 14th in fantasy points at the RB position.
2004: In search of "greener" pastures, Ricky Williams (No. 8) decides to bolt the Miami organization just prior to training camp, leaving Sammy Morris, Travis Minor and Leonard Henry to pick up the pieces. Again, later-drafting fantasy owners were able to avoid this pitfall.
2005: Deuce McAllister (No. 6) blows out his knee (ACL) in the fifth game of the season. He finishes with 335 rushing yards and 3 TDs to land 48th among fantasy RBs … Detroit's Kevin Jones (No. 11) fails to capitalize on the buzz he created in '04 as a rookie when he rushed for 906 yards in the season's final eight games. He was one of the most ire-inducing RBs of the '05 season, rushing for just 664 yards and five TDs in 13 games to finish 32nd in fantasy among RBs … And, of course, there was Priest Holmes (No. 5), who suffers a season-ending neck injury seven games into the '05 campaign, opening the door for backup Larry Johnson. L.J. goes on to score 17 of his 21 TDs in the final nine weeks to land him at No. 2 among fantasy RBs for '05 and No. 1 on many '06 preseason cheat sheets.
So, it seems that it's not a question of "if" a top RB is going to run off the tracks but, rather, "when." Will it be Tiki Barber, who has missed just two games in the past eight years? How about Shaun Alexander, who has yet to miss a game in his six-year career? Is Edgerrin James going to re-visit the injury bug in Arizona?
Somewhere along the line of early-drafted RBs, someone is going down. As a fantasy owner, you should recognize this as an opportunity. In last year's drafts, many were aware that Larry Johnson would have huge upside if Priest Holmes were out of the equation. He went as high as the fourth round in some of the leagues I was in, and no matter where Johnson was ultimately selected, he was a fantastic value and a player that many fantasy teams rode heavily to a league championship. And that's really what I'm trying to get at here. Who are those backs that could come out of the woodwork and carry a fantasy team down the stretch if serious playing time were to fall into their lap, for whatever reason? Here are six backup running backs falling outside the "starters" rounds of fantasy drafts that have high-impact potential:
1. Chris Perry, Cin: Perry was fourth among RBs in catches in '05 (51), no small feat when you consider that RB Rudi Johnson was on the field for 337 carries. Perry may not be as tough an inside runner as Johnson, but the former first-round pick certainly has the make-up (6-foot, 224 pounds) to be an every-down back. With his speed and pass-catching ability in this offense (fourth in scoring in '05), it's my opinion he'd be a better fantasy RB than Johnson if given the same opportunity. Viable now as a bench option in point-per-reception leagues, he'd be an absolute gold mine in any league should he ascend to a starting role.
2. Ladell Betts, Was: Offensive Coordinator Al Saunders – you know, the guy who has been the mastermind of the Kansas City rushing attack the past few years – loves what he's already seen in Betts and is looking at ways to get Betts on the field together with Clinton Portis. Saunders has better offensive weapons to work with in Washington than he did in Kansas City, and the offensive lines are comparably elite. If Betts landed in a starting role, he has the all-around, above-average skill package to stay on the field as an every-down back. Washington was fourth in rushing attempts in '05, and Saunders won't veer from the run-heavy philosophy – his Chiefs offense had just five fewer rushing attempts than the Redskins last season. In a starting role, Betts wouldn't have quite the big-play upside of Perry, but he would be a very steady production churner.
3. Greg Jones, Jac: Jones averaged just 3.8 yards per carry as a backup to Fred Taylor last season, but he's a banger and I came away impressed every time I watched him. At 250 pounds, he'll probably garner most of the goal-line carries regardless of what's happening with Fred Taylor in the featured role. But we saw when Taylor missed four games in '05 what Jones is capable of with extended work. In those four games, Jones combined for 364 rushing yards and three TDs. The Jaguars ranked eighth in rushing attempts and sixth in rushing TDs a year ago, so Jones would be in a nice situation should Taylor go down – Taylor go down? Inconceivable!
4. Cedric Cobbs, Den: Ah, Denver, the land of milk and honey for running backs. It's the system that created rookie 1,000-yard rushers of Terrell Davis (sixth-round pick), Mike Anderson (sixth-round pick), Olandis Gary (fourth-round pick) and Clinton Portis (second-round pick). Last season, Denver was fruitful enough on the ground that two backs (Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell) finished among the top 17 backs in fantasy points. With Anderson off to Baltimore, Ron Dayne is expected to assume his power role, while Bell will remain the quicker, outside-the-tackles option. At 6-foot, 225 pounds, and with well-rounded skills, Cobbs would be a viable replacement for either Dayne or Bell, should the need arise. Cobbs is the guy that I keep hearing about from folks who follow Denver closely. Head coach Mike Shanahan is said to be very fond of him. Just remember, in Denver, you have to expect the unexpected.
5. Michael Turner, SD: Turner has averaged 5.7 yards per carry in just 77 combined carries in his first two seasons backing up LaDainian Tomlinson. He contributed 113 rushing yards and a back-breaking 83-yard TD run in helping the Chargers hand then undefeated Indianapolis its first loss of the '05 season in Week 15. He's a bowling ball (5-foot-10, 237 pounds) with speed, and he'd be a regular 100-yard game producer if Tomlinson were out of the lineup.
6. Verron Haynes, Pit: Like Denver, Pittsburgh is a ground force. The Steelers carried seven more times than the Broncos last season to claim the title of the most run-heavy team in the league. And like Denver, the Steelers split their carries between an inside, short-yardage guy (Jerome Bettis) and an outside, between-the-20s guy (Willie Parker). While Parker will reprise his role from last year, the goal-line gig is open now that Bettis has retired. Veteran Duce Staley is regarded as the favorite, but head coach Bill Cowher says that Haynes is a serious contender for playing time and that he'll come to camp with no pre-conceived notions. Like Cobbs in Denver, Haynes has the make-up to handle either of the two backfield roles – He's a very good receiver and shows good instincts as a runner. Staley has proven injury-prone in recent years, and Parker doesn't exactly fit the profile of a back that can withstand a lot of pounding, so it's easy to envision Haynes seeing an increased workload in '06.