The Fun-house: Backs on the Hot Seat

Brandon Funston

I still have one fantasy draft left – I'd tell you how many that makes, but I still don't have a firm grasp on that figure yet – but, for all intents and purposes, draft season is over and Week 1 is standing in front of us like a cloud-high monolith. It's tough to make such a sudden mental transition from draft analysis to Week 1 starting lineup deliberation. Who cares whether Tatum or Mike Bell should be drafted first, you either have one of them, both of them or none of them. And if you don't have them, well, they are probably dead to you now. And if you have one or both of them, well, now is when your work is really cut out for you – the brain-racking to come courtesy of Mike Shanahan, of course.

It's all about the guys you've chosen to go to battle with at this point. And now that you have a regiment of fighters, it's time to get a lay of the land, so as to avoid potential land mines. I'll lend a helping hand by offering up the running back Hot Seat for Week 1, a feature you'll see in the NFL Skinny every Monday during the regular season:

Running Back Hot Seat
1st Chair: TBD
2nd Chair: Tatum Bell, Mike Bell, Cedric Cobbs
Skinny: This situation has become such a complete mystery, I decided that a new Hot Seat temperature designation was needed – White Hot. Head coach Mike Shanahan says that he won't reveal who will start in Week 1. "For this game, I won't give away which back will start for tactical reasons," Shanahan said. "Now after this game, it'll be different." Somehow I doubt it. I wouldn't put it past Shanahan to guard his starter each and every week. Owners of the Bells (Tatum and Mike) can figure they own a worthy No. 3 fantasy back. I think, either way, both players will get enough carries to be impactful for fantasy purposes – the system is a run-producing juggernaut. And don't sleep on Cedric Cobbs. He needs to be owned in every 12-team league or deeper, because he'll have a role, and it would not be unprecedented in Denver if he ascended to the top spot at some point. If I had to lay odds on these guys this week, I'd make Tatum the favorite given that he's the most experienced and his speed is best-suited for the artificial turf in St. Louis.
1st Chair: Derrick Blaylock
2nd Chair: Kevan Barlow, Cedric Houston, Leon Washington
Skinny: It's looking like a running back-by-committee approach to start things off early for the Jets. Barlow hasn't had much time to assimilate with the Jets' offense yet, so the team will let him work his way into the mix slowly. New head coach Eric Mangini plans to use all his backs in some capacity, with Blaylock likely getting the starting nod for Week 1. Consider this an open audition for a more featured role. Ultimately, I'd put most of my money on Barlow first, followed by the rookie Washington, who Mangini said was, "… definitely in the running back mix." But you really can't start any of these guys in Week 1 as Mangini has gone all Shanahan on us by keeping us guessing.
1st Chair: Wali Lundy
2nd Chair: Ron Dayne, Vernand Morency
Skinny: I guess we shouldn't be surprised that the fantasy nation has to contend with three Houston backs considering that head coach Gary Kubiak comes from Denver, where he ran Mike Shananhan's offense for years. At least we know that rookie Lundy is the starter. And it seems evident that Dayne is now the goal-line back. But how many carries Morency takes from Lundy is still in question. Morency had a strong camp, and seemed to respond to Kubiak's advice to dance less and commit to his first cut. He's likely earned himself an 8-10-carry piece of the pie, but we'll have to see. Start Lundy in Week 1 if you must, but know that Philadelphia should be improved against the run in '05. You'll want to wait on the others until you see how this plays out a little more.
1st Chair: Thomas Jones
2nd Chair: Cedric Benson
Skinny: A shoulder injury has forced Benson to the sidelines for all four preseason games. He was named the starter early in the summer when Jones failed to attend offseason workouts and then strained a hamstring at the start of training camp. With Jones' health back and Benson out, Jones now re-assumes the starting gig. However, because the anticipated head-to-head battle for supremacy here never materialized, this will be a war that will continue to be waged during the season now that Benson has stated he's ready to go for Week 1. Jones is the starter for now, and head coach Lovie Smith said he plans to use both backs. But who gets the lion's share of the carries will likely be based on how they do on the field from week to week. That said, I'd feel much better owning Jones than Benson.
1st Chair: Julius Jones
2nd Chair: Marion Barber III
Skinny: Woe is anyone who drafted early in the summer and took Jones in the second round – I'm talking to the man in my mirror, too. Since then, Bill Parcells has made it clear that Jones will be getting no special treatment just because he shares a last name with the team's owner. In fact, unless he's trying to motivate Jones, it's pretty clear by his comments that his affections lie with Barber, who he says will play a major role in the running game this year. Jones is the starter, but he'll share carries. And if injury or a bout of lackluster play inflicts him, he'll quickly be pushed down the ladder. I think Jones is the more talented back, but that doesn't make me feel any better about the couple teams that I own Jones in sans a Barber handcuff.
1st Chair: Deuce McAllister
2nd Chair: Reggie Bush
Skinny: Bush will probably have 10 times the number of SportsCenter highlight runs this season than McAllister, but expect Deuce to have nearly twice as many carries overall, and that's the fantasy bottom line. McAllister stepped up with a six carry, 62-yard effort in his final preseason game against Indianapolis and suffered no post-game swelling in the knee that underwent ACL surgery last year. His performance reaffirmed that he is the starter and Bush will be a creatively-employed backup. Because the Saints will find ways to get Bush the ball with room to move, Bush has the potential to score several long TDs this season. But the bigger Deuce will man the goal-line and, ultimately, the fantasy value of the two should be fairly close to equal.
1st Chair: Chris Brown
2nd Chair: Travis Henry, LenDale white
Skinny: Despite some reports to the contrary, Brown is the starter in more than just name. CBS Sportsline had reported that an unnamed source within the Titans organization had revealed that Henry would actually start in Week 1, but that has proved to be unfounded. Brown is the starter, he's a in a contract year, and his fantasy stock is back on the rise, especially now that LenDale White is obviously out of the picture to start the season – he's the No. 3 running back and may not suit up in Week 1. If you have Brown, don't hesitate to give him the nod in Week 1. There are rumors that Tennessee will look to run the ball upwards of 40 times, and a home date against the New York Jets could help maximize those efforts.
1st Chair: Dominic Rhodes
2nd Chair: Joseph Addai
Skinny: Rhodes doesn't get much fantasy respect despite being listed as the starting running back for one of the top offenses in the league – my Labor Day fantasy draft saw Addai go two rounds ahead of Rhodes. Most everyone figures that Addai will eventually replace Rhodes – the thought process is that Rhodes has less upside than Addai from a talent standpoint and is also inclined to breakdown health-wise. This is fair reasoning, but Rhodes can go a long ways towards keeping Addai at bay if he just produces early on. His experience in this complex offense and familiarity with Peyton Manning's tactics on the field are a big feather in his cap in this competition. I, too, would rather have Addai, but perhaps I, too, don't give Rhodes enough credit.