That’s right, fantasy football is back! Well, it’s been back since June, but now it’s back for real, and so are our fantasy predictions and prognostications doomed to be wrong. We’re kicking off our 2011 fantasy coverage with a look at free agency, and the players whose fantasy stock either rose or plummeted with their new place of employment.

Here are six recent free agent transactions that have impacted the fantasy running back world:

1. DeAngelo Williams re-signs with the Panthers

There was a lot of speculation that Williams would be on the move this offseason, but in a surprise move the Panthers re-signed him to a big fat five-year, $43 million deal. So now that Williams is staying in Carolina, what does that mean for his fantasy value? Well first things first: if Cam Newton ends up being the starting QB, the Panthers will rely on the run to keep the pressure off the rookie pivot. In that sense, Williams will be a fantasy workhorse, but there are some red flags as well. Williams isn’t the only capable runner in the Carolina backfield — he will share some of the load with Jonathan Stewart. And then there’s the mobile Newton, who isn’t afraid to scramble for yardage either. Next red flag? Injuries. Williams played in only six games last season because of a right foot injury. But durability concerns are nothing new for a running back and Williams should put up some great number this year.

2. Ahmad Bradshaw re-signs with the Giants

2010 was a breakout season for Bradshaw (over 1,500 all-purpose yards, eight touchdowns and 4.5 yards per carry) but what about all those fumbles? The 25-year-old lost six fumbles last year, which was tops among running backs. Has he fixed his fumble issues? Will Brandon Jacobs be able to take back his starting job? What about the offseason surgery Bradshaw had to remove bone spurs in his ankle? The Giants like to pound the football so that bodes well for Bradshaw’s fantasy value, but it’s likely that Jacobs will steal away those all important goal-line carries. Too good to pass up, but proceed with caution.

3. Willis McGahee signs with the Broncos

For the Broncos, this is a fantasy fail. But for McGahee’s former team, the Ravens, this is a fantasy win. The power back will be second in line behind Knowshon Moreno in the Mile High City, so his fantasy output will be limited (but he will get looks inside the five). But with McGahee gone in Baltimore, Ray Rice has no more competition in the backfield. The Ravens will re-focus on the ground game this upcoming season — just another reason why Rice will be a top-five pick in most fantasy drafts. Throw in the fact that fullback Vonta Leach has left Houston for Baltimore (he helped Arian Foster become the leading rusher last season), and this could be a year to remember for Rice.

4. Cedric Benson re-signs with the Bengals

With no Carson Palmer, Chad Ochocinco or Terrell Owens, Benson suddenly becomes the veteran on this rebuilding team (scary thought). The troubled running back’s best days are definitely behind him and he has become a one-dimensional player. Simply put: Benson is running out of steam (seven of his 14 career fumbles came last season). With a number of rookies expected to crack the starting lineup in 2011, the 28-year-old will be relied upon more than ever. But is he up to the challenge? Doubtful, especially with the likes of Brian Leonard, Bernard Scott and rookie Jay Finley all threatening to steal carries.

5. Reggie Bush traded to the Dolphins

This move has major fantasy implications for both the Saints and the Fish. The crowded backfield in New Orleans just got a little less crowded but Bush’s move to South Beach is more of a plus for rookie Mark Ingram than the newly re-signed Pierre Thomas. The two backs will battle for the starting job (which Ingram is expected to win) but it’s a safe bet that Thomas will be utilized much like Bush was in the Saints’ system (meaning more passing plays). As for Miami, rookie Daniel Thomas is expected to carry the load, but head coach Tony Sporano has said Bush will receive about 10-12 touches per game (including receptions). Does that make Bush a viable fantasy option? Maybe in the short term as Thomas gets used to his starting role, but Bush is just too inconsistent and that left knee has been a constant problem that fantasy owners can’t ignore.

6. Marion Barber signs with the Bears

Much like Reggie Bush, Barber’s move to the Windy City impacts both the Cowboys and the Bears.  Chicago gets a big bruising back who fits into Mike Martz’s system perfectly and will be a real plus as the weather gets colder at Soldier Field. If Barber can reclaim his old form (and shake off the injuries that have slowed him recently) he will be a real threat to Matt Forte’s production. And though he’ll get the bulk of goal-line carries, he isn’t a great fantasy option for the short term. As for the Cowboys, Barber’s exit paves the way for Felix Jones to become the full-time starter. But will he be able to take advantage of his newfound position? Last season, Jones was the top running back for the Cowboys with 185 carries, more than Barber and Tashard Choice combined. Only problem? He finished with just 800 yards. With no one breathing down his neck, Jones might finally flourish.

Comments (1)

  1. re: #5, you forgot to mention that the Saints signed Darren Sproles, making the NO Saints backfield a true cluster-fu*k. Thomas, Ingram, Sproles, wow. Sproles is just as dynamic as Bush in the passing game… except he’s a much better runner in between the tackles.

    From a fantasy standpoint, I will probably stay away from Saints RBs, as talented as they are. It’s just too tough to tell who will get those fantasy points on any given day…

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