We move the debate to the most important position in fantasy football. I’d argue that it’s also the most frustrating one. Every year at this time, there aren’t enough clear-cut No. 1 running backs to satisfy 10- or 12-team fantasy leagues. As a result, draft position can determine your fate more than anything else. This year’s running back pool is particularly frustrating because one of the game’s top backs continues to hold out.
What to do with Chris Johnson?
Brad Gagnon: Johnson is a top-three fantasy back (and most would argue he’s No. 1) under ordinary circumstances, but he’s locked in a holdout that could be over next week, but could also last well into the regular season. So is he worth the gamble? Using a top pick on Johnson and then losing him for much of the year would likely result in the death of your fantasy team, so if you’re drafting in the top five before Johnson’s holdout has been settled, I’d recommend going in another direction. At this point, it’d be safer to take Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles, Arian Foster, Ray Rice, LeSean McCoy, Darren McFadden and Maurice Jones-Drew. I wouldn’t consider taking CJ until late in the first round, when you know you’re going to be able to draft another running back a few picks later anyway. When would you choose him?
Sean Tomlinson: Perhaps my level of risk tolerance is a little higher, which is why my loved ones have advised me against playing the stock market. Clearly Johnson has to move down your draft board right to the back half of the top ten, and in the Michael Turner/Rashard Mendenhall territory. But exactly how far he falls depends on both your level of risk tolerance, and the calendar. If you’re in a league that drafts earlier (this week) then have faith that not even the stubborn, bird-flipping Bud Adams will put his team through a significant chunk of the season without a crucial piece of its offense. However, if we get into September and there still hasn’t been a Johnson sighting in Tennessee, the risk then becomes too much to bear. The fantasy season is usually just 14 weeks long, so losing even a short period of Johnson’s production after passing on the other top RBs will be devastating. Ideally, the best solution right now is to let CJ be someone else’s headache, but the temptation may be too great.
Differences in opinion
Brad: I have LeSean McCoy in my top five, but he barely makes your top 10. That’s a big gap at the top end of a very important list. McCoy’s numbers improved drastically in his second year, and I believe he’s primed to become a superstar in Year 3. Defenses simply can’t key on him with Michael Vick, DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin in place. He’ll also continue to be a major factor in the passing game as he enters his prime. I think he’ll become even better than Brian Westbrook was. You seem to think Rashard Mendenhall, Michael Turner and LeGarrette Blount will be more productive, but Mendenhall’s average is too low, Turner’s injury-prone and getting up there in age, and Blount could still be a one-hit wonder.
Sean: I really like Blount, but perhaps that’s the gambler in me surfacing again. Sure, the one-hit wonder potential is there, but I’m not willing to blindly toss that blanket over every rookie running back, and especially not one who didn’t become a starter until Week 7 last year and still rushed for over 1,000 yards. Mendenhall’s average may have dipped to 3.9 last year, but in just his second season as the full-time starter it’s too early to make a drastic shift based on that. He averaged 4.6 in 2009, and last year he contributed greatly in one of the areas where it matters most, finishing tied for second among running backs with 13 touchdowns. I like McCoy too, and think that he’ll be a major contributor. But in the latter half of the year when you need him most, his presence in the passing game could decline with the return of Steve Smith, and that subtracts from his unique skill set.
Brad: We also differ on Darren McFadden, who I think will have a monster year in his first full season as the clear starter. He had 1,664 rushing and receiving yards in just 13 games last year, averaging 5.2 yards per carry. Now, at 23, he’s also set to become a superstar. I can understand why you have some vets ahead of him on your list, but I just can’t see Steven Jackson having a better season than Run DMC.
Sean: That’s a decision I wrestled with, and one that became purely motivated by injury concerns. McFadden is explosive, and highly entertaining to watch when healthy, as he was for most of last season. But he became saddled in a platoon during his rookie year because of his struggles with turf toe, and missed a game last year with the same injury along with two others due to a knee ailment. When it’s not an established veteran that we’re dealing with and history shows sluggish production due to injuries, a hint of caution trumps my ramblin’, gamblin’ ways.
Brad: I see you think Maurice Jones-Drew will drop off a bit, which isn’t a rare opinion this summer. There’s been word that he’ll receive fewer carries in a more heavily divided backfield and he might be working with a rookie quarterback for a significant chunk of the season. But MoJo was still the league’s fifth-leading rusher despite playing much of the 2010 season with a torn meniscus and missing the final two weeks of the year. And he’s still only 26. I’m scared that I’ve underrated him at No. 7, but No. 10 seems far too low. I guess you’re just that high on guys like Mendenhall and Blount…
Sean: All of the above, kind of. As mentioned, I am really high on Blount, and like the value Mendenhall brings with his barreling style that leads to touchdowns in a run-oriented offense. Jones-Drew won’t play a quasi-competitive down of football until the final preseason game, so there is a minor injury concern. But my focus remains on the possible presence of Blaine Gabbert and teams clogging the box to shut down Jacksonville’s primary weapon.
Brad: Watch out for Tim Hightower, or whoever wins the starting job in Washington. Mike Shanahan’s offense will get production out of the backfield. They did it last year, and they’ll do it again. And Hightower is currently in the right place at the right time. He’ll make a decent fantasy backup as long as you handcuff him. I also think it’s become apparent Felix Jones breaks out, but you aren’t quite as confident, at least based on your rankings. Jones has looked good early on and doesn’t appear to have a lot of strong competition for the starting job in a solid offense. Why not?
Sean: I’m no Jones hater either, and certainly see the breakout potential. However, I also see the potential for a short leash if he struggles early during his debut as the unquestioned feature back after the Cowboys spent a third-round pick on DeMarco Murray, who’s now recovered from a hamstring injury and is practicing at full speed. I’ll throw in Shonn Greene, who was ranked highly last year and ruined a few fantasy seasons for those who drank his pre-draft Kool-Aid, essentially losing his starting job after fumbling on the Jets’ first two possessions of the season. Confidence in Joe McKnight seems low, and LaDainian Tomlinson should finally fade into the rear-view since it’s time for the Jets to determine if Greene is indeed the future in their backfield.
Brad: Bilal Powell is also in the mix so who knows what happens there. Not feeling Greene too much just yet.
Brad: I’m keeping an eye on both Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas in Miami, where hopefully Brian Daboll will commit to running the damn ball with his new set of backs. If they use Bush correctly, he could be a big-time sleeper. I’d also like to see what Beanie Wells can do now that he’s the clear starter and has a competent veteran quarterback in front of him. I know you’re high on Wells…
Sean: I am, and think that a healthy Wells can have a 1,000-yard season and be a fine option as a No. 2 running back in deeper leagues, especially now that second-round pick Ryan Williams is out for the season. Marshawn Lynch could also provide good value. Tarvaris Jackson has given the Seahawks little reason to trust his ability to throw accurately and lead an offense, meaning the Seahawks’ chances of winning a weak NFC West again could lie with the ground game. The mere presence of Sidney Rice and Zach Miller may be enough to make defenses still respect the pass.
Brad: Okay, I’ll give you Lynch as a No. 3 fantasy back.
Brad: I think Frank Gore and Steven Jackson are on the downswing. You have to predict when the end is about to arrive for running backs, and Gore and Jackson (both of whom are 28) appear to be running out of gas at a quick rate. I refuse to invest in them as fantasy starters this year.
Sean: The end is also quite near for Ryan Grant, who turns 29 in December. The rise of James Starks after Grant’s Week 1 ankle injury last year could develop into a platoon situation. Grant will still produce RB2 numbers and have the support of an elite aerial attack, but anyone investing in Grant on draft day and expecting the player who rushed for 1,253 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2009 will be crying into their foam cheesehead.
Brad: I’m not counting out Grant yet, but we both agree he’s probably not worth a second-round pick these days.
Brad: DeAngelo Williams might be the third-best running back on his own team. He might get the majority of the reps in Carolina as a result of his now ridiculously inflated contract, but eventually he’ll get hurt again. And if he doesn’t get hurt again, he’ll just be badly outplayed by Jonathan Stewart and/or Mike Goodson and the Panthers will be forced to mix things up in their crowded backfield. I’m not touching Williams with a 10-foot pole on draft day.
Sean: Williams embodies the boom-or-bust approach, and over the last two years he’s had three games with 145 or more rushing yards, and seven with 60 or less. I’m trying to become a Jahvid Best fan, and avoid being labelled a hater of all things Detroit (I drive a GM car! Honest!). But similar to his draft-mate C.J. Spiller, I just can’t trust him to carry the load quite yet, and that’s what he’ll likely be asked to do in the Motor City. He scored five touchdowns and had 268 all-purpose yards during his first two games last year, and then scored only one more touchdown throughout the rest of the season. Jerome Harrison will emerge to steal some carries with Mikel Leshoure gone, and Mike Bell may factor in as well.
Brad: Two potential fantasy-worthy rookie backs have already suffered season-ending injuries. So with Ryan Williams and Mikel Leshoure out of the way, three guys stand out: Mark Ingram is in a crowded backfield in New Orleans, but he’s got a chance to emerge as the top back pretty early. I’d take him before drafting any other rookie back. I’d take Daniel Thomas late, especially if Reggie Bush is on my roster. And DeMarco Murray has to be handcuffed to Felix Jones. Roy Helu, Kendall Hunter and Delone Carter could steal carries in Washington, San Francisco and Indianapolis, but none should be drafted prior to the final round (in deep leagues). Thoughts? Does anyone else come to mind?
Sean: Keep that itchy trigger finger ready on the waiver wire to snatch up Hunter at mid-season as you wait for the inevitable Gore injury. Gore’s durability has been on par with an Easter egg, and he’s missed nine games over the past three years, potentially putting Hunter in a position to be highly productive in his rookie year. He needed only nine carries to get 105 yards and a touchdown in San Francsico’s Week 2 preseason win over the Raiders. Michael Turner is yet another running back approaching the position death age (he’s 29), making Jacquizz Rodgers both a required handcuff, and a cheap investment with high upside in deep keeper leagues. Beyond that he has minimal fantasy value this year. Same goes for Taiwan Jones, who’s behind Michael Bush and Darren McFadden, and is currently just a pawn in Al Davis’ speed infatuation.
Brad: Well, that took way longer than expected so I have nothing to add. See you tomorrow to talk receivers, if I decide to show up.
|1||Adrian Peterson||Should get more touches in re-tooled offense.|
|2||Jamaal Charles||6.0 yards per carry in his three-year career.|
|3||Arian Foster||No reason to believe he’ll fall off after a big 2010 campaign.|
|4||Ray Rice||Leach becomes his lead blocker and the interior offensive line is good.|
|5||LeSean McCoy||Lots of weapons in that offense, giving McCoy a chance to go unnoticed.|
|6||Darren McFadden||Should bust out in first full season as No. 1 guy.|
|7||Maurice Jones-Drew||Look what he did in only 14 games with a nagging injury in 2010.|
|8||Chris Johnson*||If his holdout ends, I rank him fourth. Numbers still plummeted last year.|
|9||Rashard Mendenhall||Yards per carry dropped significantly in 2010.|
|10||Michael Turner||He’ll benefit from the offense spreading things out and going deep more.|
|11||LeGarrette Blount||A little worried about his ability to be an every-down back.|
|12||Matt Forte||A little bit under the radar if line can hold up.|
|13||Felix Jones||This is his year to emerge as a Pro Bowl-caliber player. Low risk, too.|
|14||Peyton Hillis||Will have to kick the fumble problems and prove last year wasn’t a fluke.|
|15||Frank Gore||No support from a crappy offense for a guy who looks older than he is.|
|16||Steven Jackson||Not sure a ton of gas is left in this tank, either.|
|17||Ahmad Bradshaw||Like him, but the offense has taken some hits.|
|18||Ryan Grant||Has some work to do to break free of James Starks. Could score a lot.|
|19||Shonn Greene||Make or break year for a guy with Pro Bowl ability.|
|20||Tim Hightower||He’ll benefit from that Shanahan offense.|
|1||Adrian Peterson||Rice is gone, and McNabb is in. Expect a lot more running.|
|2||Arian Foster||Ben Tate could poach a few carries, but not enough to be a concern.|
|3||Chris Johnson*||Stays here if the holdout ends. Otherwise, he’s dropped at least four spots.|
|4||Jamaal Charles||Steve Breston now arrives to make defenses respect the pass.|
|5||Ray Rice||Vonta Leach will bulldoze running holes.|
|6||Rashard Mendenhall||The yards per carry will rebound, and he’ll still score regularly.|
|7||Michael Turner||Jacquizz Rogers will provide a rest, and absorb a few hits.|
|8||LeGarrette Blount||Didn’t start until Week 7, and still had 1,007 rushing yards.|
|9||LeSean McCoy||Running skills nearly matched by his pass-catching out of the backfield.|
|10||Maurice Jones-Drew||He may have to deal with Blaine Gabbert at some point.|
|11||Steven Jackson||Leads the handful of aging yet still productive vets set to hit the wall.|
|12||Darren McFadden||Still needs to prove that he can stay healthy for a full season.|
|13||Ahmad Bradshaw||Eli’s prime targets exited, and the running game could be leaned on more.|
|14||Peyton Hillis||Hardesty is healthy, and Hillis faded fast over the last three games of 2010.|
|15||DeAngelo WIilliams||His bust far exceeds his boom, and he’s still stuck in a time share.|
|16||Matt Forte||Five games with less than 30 yards last year is worrisome.|
|17||Ryan Grant||A year ago he didn’t have a potential platoon. Thanks, James Starks.|
|18||Frank Gore||Use him while he’s still healthy, but handcuff Kendall Hunter.|
|19||Felix Jones||The leading candidate to do the best McFadden breakout impersonation.|
|20||Beanie Wells||A healthy season with an actual quarterback could lead to 1,000 yards.|