At a Glance: Running Backs

A couple weeks ago, I was smacked over the head by an invitation from a friend in the fantasy industry looking to conduct an experts fantasy football draft. About a week later, I received another invitation from another friend in the industry – he, too, was looking to get an experts draft in the books. It's always a pleasantly jolting surprise to get that fantasy football call in early May. But the sooner the better, in my book. And I trust that there are many of you out there like myself – those that feel like it's never too early to start talking fantasy football.

The good news is that the Yahoo! '06 fantasy football season arrives in early June. So your appetite for the gridiron is about to be satiated. Until then, here is an appetizer – an overview of the running back position, with the other positions filtering in advance of the launch of Fantasy Football '06:

Pecking Order
Tier 1: Shaun Alexander, Larry Johnson, LaDainian Tomlinson
Tier 2: Tiki Barber, Clinton Portis, Edgerrin James
Tier 3: Rudi Johnson, Carnell Williams, Ronnie Brown, Steven Jackson, LaMont Jordan
Tier 4: Julius Jones, Domanick Davis, Willis McGahee, Brian Westbrook
Tier 5: Kevin Jones, Corey Dillon, Reuben Droughns
Tier 6: Willie Parker, Warrick Dunn, Deuce McAllister, Reggie Bush, Thomas Jones, Chester Taylor, Tatum Bell
Tier 7: Ahman Green, Jamal Lewis, Joseph Addai, DeShaun Foster, Curtis Martin, Fred Taylor, Ron Dayne
Tier 8: Frank Gore, Chris Brown, Dominic Rhodes
Tier 9: Greg Jones, Laurence Maroney, Chris Perry, Kevan Barlow, Samkon Gado, LenDale White, Cedric Benson, Mewelde Moore, DeAngelo Williams
Other Notables: Priest Holmes, T.J. Duckett, Brandon Jacobs, Eric Shelton, Brian Calhoun, Mike Anderson, Ryan Moats, Duce Staley, Marion Barber, Cedric Cobbs, Michael Turner, Maurice Morris, Maurice Drew, Verron Haynes, Marshall Faulk, Ladell Betts, Michael Pittman, Michael Bennett

Hot Spots
Denver: The Broncos backfield always produces big-time rushing numbers – and the system works regardless of who mans the backfield. Since the Broncos failed to draft a running back, Tatum Bell is likely to split carries with Ron Dayne, who would fill the role that Mike Anderson vacated. Bell's big-play ability has landed him about 50 spots ahead of Dayne on average in two early experts drafts that I've participated in. That's too large of a discrepancy. Expect that as the preseason unfolds, Dayne is likely to be one guy that starts to creep up the draft boards. Indications have been that Mike Shanahan doesn't view Tatum Bell as true featured-back material. In the very latest rounds, Cedric Cobbs makes a nice gamble. The Broncos' warm feeling towards Cobbs is one of the big reasons they didn't take another back in the draft.

New Orleans: Sure, Deuce McAllister is coming off major knee surgery, but it's foolish to think that the injury and the presence of Reggie Bush is going to relegate Deuce to the bench in '06. That said, Bush was drafted on average at 17.5 overall in the two early experts drafts – he'd almost have to be the clear-cut featured back to achieve that value. And, again, I really can't see Deuce being asked to take on a small enough role to allow Bush to reach the kind of production to justify that high of a pick – this should be a fairly equitable split of carries. And let's not forget that this was the second-worst offense in the league last year. Even with a new coach, Drew Brees at QB and Bush in tow, it's hard to imagine the Saints becoming an offensive juggernaut overnight. Assuming Deuce is healthy, he has too much ability and makes way too much money to ride the pine. And he can provide the power carries (read: goal line) that aren't suited for Bush. Because they'll take from each other, I'd look to these guys after the higher upside featured backs are off the board. Consider both No. 2 fantasy RBs for now.

Jacksonville: Fred Taylor isn't feeling the love in Jacksonville, especially after the team went out and drafted UCLA mighty mouse speedster Maurice Drew. But, to his credit, he's come into camp with a positive attitude and has taken up the role of a team leader. The thought is that Drew and Greg Jones, in tandem, could represent the team's backfield future. Head coach Jack Del Rio has publicly professed commitment to Taylor, and Taylor's professional attitude could help him stave off the competition one more year. Regardless, it's a situation that bears watching. Jones is a nice later-round option to round your backfield out with since he's likely to get goal-line carries, and he could take on a larger role if Taylor gets hurt or ends up exiting the picture for other reasons.

Indianapolis: Here's another piece of real estate ripe with potential. Whether it be Dominic Rhodes or rookie Joseph Addai in the featured back role, the running back here is going to make a fantasy impact, thanks to the Colts' high-powered, well-oiled offense. We'll likely have to wait until deep into the summer before we know whether this will be a classic platoon or if one of these backs steps up and claims a bigger share. Most pundits will hedge their bets on Addai, and so will I.

Chicago: The Bears' willingness to make Thomas Jones available for trade near the NFL Draft indicates their desire to get Cedric Benson more involved in the offense – he's making too much money to ride the pine for a second consecutive season. Assuming Jones stays put in '06, there seems little doubt that he'll play less than he did last year. Whether Jones likes it or not, the passing of the torch, however slow that may be, is underway.

Tennessee: Chris Brown is in the last year of his contract, and he heads into the season facing a serious challenge from rookie LenDale White. White's Bus-like talent, familiarity with offensive coordinator Norm Chow and Brown's inability to stay healthy were the key factors in the team's selection of White on draft day. At the minimum, a healthy White (he's recovering from a hammy tear) should get the goal-line carries – He's a load who scored 57 TDs in three seasons at USC. It wouldn't be surprising to see Brown fall further out of favor and lose more than just pay dirt carries to White. And, let's not forget that Travis Henry remains on the roster as well. For my money, I'd prefer to take White in a draft than gamble on Brown a few rounds earlier. Brown has everything to lose, and quality competition trying to take it away.

On the Rise
Brian Westbrook – Head coach Andy Reid has conceded that he has to be willing to lean more on Westbrook despite his smaller stature. If Westbrook can hold up under the load, he'll see more opportunities than ever before. It's a pretty good argument for who is more exciting with the ball in his hands, Westbrook or Steve Smith. And it's that elusiveness that can make him a fantasy difference maker given an increased opportunity.

Reuben Droughns – Lee Suggs is being phased out in Cleveland. The Browns drafted Jerome Harrison, and he fits the third-down mold, meaning that Droughns is set to run unopposed in the featured role again. He's been going as high as mid-second round in experts drafts.

Reggie Bush – Fantasy "experts" are jumping aboard the Bush train in the second round. Hey, I'll admit the guy is an uber-talent, but that's an over-reach given that he'll share the ball with McAllister.

Kevin Jones – Why is Jones landing among the top 25 in experts drafts despite such an utterly disappointing '05 campaign? It's all about new Detroit offensive coordinator Mike Martz. The Lions have talented skill position weapons, and many are expecting Martz to make them go.

Ronnie Brown – Ronnie Brown, even if Miami trades for Michael Bennett, will likely garner an extra 50-plus carries now that Ricky Williams has been suspended for the year. The way Miami closed last season (six straight wins), and with the addition of Daunte Culpepper, the Dolphins are the buzz of the AFC like Arizona is the buzz of the NFC.

Domanick Davis – Like Miami, the Texans have interest in Michael Bennett, but if they were to secure a deal for the former Minnesota back, he wouldn't see the kind of playing time that Reggie Bush would have had he gone to Houston. All of this is to say, Davis dodged a bullet when the team drafted defensive end Mario Williams. If Davis can stay healthy, he should put up good numbers with an improved offense that added WR Eric Moulds and some solid talent on the OL via free agency and the draft.

Frank Gore – A platoon could be the early scenario in the San Francisco backfield, but the money is being laid on Gore being able to win the lion's share of playing time. Gore averaged an excellent 4.8 yards per carry as a rookie and closed strongly the final three weeks as his role increased because of Kevan Barlow's knee problems. Gore had offseason shoulder surgery, but Barlow also went under the knife, so ultimately health is likely to play as big a role in this battle as anything.

On the Decline
Deuce McAllister – The experts have, for the most part, disregarded the presence of Deuce in early drafts, opting for Reggie Bush 30-some picks ahead of New Orleans' rehabilitating (ACL) incumbent. McAllister says he'll be 100 percent by the start of the regular season.

Corey Dillon – In the back of my mind, I fear that Dillon could quickly evolve into the '05 version of Jerome Bettis – giving away carries between the 20s to Laurence Maroney like Bettis did to Willie Parker. He's still the featured back for now, but if he starts showing his age or those nagging injuries start cropping up again, he's in a very precarious situation.

T.J. Duckett – Atlanta used its second pick in the draft on Mississippi St. tailback Jerious Norwood. It also signed Warrick Dunn to a two-year extension. The team also dabbled in some trade discussion with Pittsburgh involving Duckett prior to the draft. As a poor fit in the West Coast offense, it couldn't be clearer that Duckett no longer figures prominently in the Falcons' future. If he's not dealt, he'll be close to a non-factor in fantasy this season.

Chris Brown – See Hot Spots (above)

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