Part two of a multi-part series. Click here for Part 1.
Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall
If there’s one thing we know about the Steelers, it’s that they will be a running team first and foremost year in and year out. Pittsburgh is one of the few old-school teams in the NFL still channeling their offense mainly through the RB. They are a smash-mouth football team — always have been, always will be — so having the #1 back in this backfield is going to produce numbers. For example, last year when Mewelde Moore was forced into the line-up due to injuries, he became a waiver wire gem in many fantasy leagues.
Willie Parker struggled last year with knee injures, but before that, he posted three straight seasons of at least 1200 rushing yards. First choice to fill in was last year’s first round pick, Rashard Mendenhall, who was highly touted but never got a chance to make the most of this opportunity before Ray Lewis put an end to his season. If Fast Willie Parker can stay healthy this year, he is still in line to get 250 carries, at least for one more year.
Rashard Mendenhall is a great handcuff for Parker owners (we’ve already mentioned how productive the starting back for the Steelers can be). Mendenhall has all the potential in the world, but he didn’t exactly make a case last season for unseating Parker as a starter. He struggled a bit with ball carrying issues and, traditionally, Pittsburgh is never in a hurry to rush their young players into a leading role. Mendenhall’s best course would be to establish himself as a short-yardage/goal-line runner to keep Parker fresh, a role in which he could become a nice flex option. Parker is the Steelers back to own until Mendenhall establishes himself (keep an eye on his pre-season), since Rashard is at least a year away from contributing heavily.
Advantage: Willie Parker
Thomas Jones, Leon Washington & Shonn Greene
The Jets were a team that thrived on the ground game last year, and will rely on the run even more this year. All signs point to a rookie QB leading this team, so it’s a given that they’ll need to establish the running game. I fully expect the Jets attack to look like a replica of the Ravens offense last year, which could lead to each runner getting a significant amount of carries.
There have been trade rumors swirling around Thomas Jones, and he’s been a no-show at OTA’s since he wants a better contract. Even though he was a fantasy stud last season, Thomas Jones is not a guy I’d expect to carry my team. He’s had a pretty heavy workload the last two years, and he’ll be 31 when the season starts. Odds are heavily against him posting another 1000-yard season at this age, especially with other runners in the mix, and I doubt he’ll be part of the future in NY.
Leon Washington looks like he’ll extend his contract to stay in NY, and is a very valuable player to the team — many think he’s their best back. One of the best kick returners in the league in 2008, new coach Rex Ryan will reportedly cut Leon’s return role significantly to keep him strong for rushing duties. Washington offers a lot of versatility catching passes out of the backfield, and offers a lot of upside as a flex player. He’ll be in the mix for several carries a game, and will be a great check-down option for a QB under pressure.
The rookie Shonn Greene is the wildcard in the Jets RBBC. They traded up to the first pick in the third round to make sure they could land this promising, punishing runner. Rex Ryan said he envisions the rookie as a “4th quarter closer”. His role is still a question mark, but judging from that comment, a good role model for him would be Marion Barber (when he was in the same role). Barber had 136 carries as a 4th quarter closer, and 14 rushing TDs to go with 600 rushing yards. While I’m not expecting Greene to completely usurp Washington’s role and reach 14 TDs right away, he’s the Jets RB to keep an eye on, since his role will likely increase as the season goes on.
Advantage: Shonn Greene
Derrick Ward & Earnest Graham
Derrick Ward is new to the Buccaneer scene, coming from the Giants via free-agency, and he’ll provide a spark for a team that will most likely run the ball a lot more than they did last year. Ward is a very efficient runner who’s always had a high YPC (last year he averaged 5.6 YPC). He also caught 40+ balls as #2 RB, so PPR owners take note.
Earnest Graham will still get his carries, since he’s a grind-it-out type runner with 14 TDs over the past two seasons. He also has good hands, but he’s not the big play threat that Ward is with the ball in his hands. Graham is coming off ankle surgery, and you always have the risk of him moving to FB when he’s not 100%. The guy you want is Ward — he offers all the upside, and should lead the team in carries.
Advantage: Derrick Ward
Jamal Lewis, Jerome Harrison & James Davis
This backfield already shows signs of being a huge mess going into 2009. Jamal Lewis will be 30 years old when the season starts. He has long showed signs of decline, and is now on his last legs. Lewis may be the most familiar name in this backfield, but he’s only worth drafting as a back-up this year, having little upside.
Jerome Harrison is a very intriguing player. This off-season, he’s gotten some ringing endorsements from the coaching staff, signaling he’s about to have his role in the Browns offense increased. Jerome’s career numbers seem to inspire little faith, as he’s been in the league three years now, and has managed a maximum of only 34 rushing attempts in one season. He has proven to be capable of breaking off a long play at any time, but we have seen guys like Leon Washington and Jerious Norwood prove valuable parts of their offense, yet not much of a boon to your fantasy team. While he may be one of those “fourth-year-wonders”, Harrison will have to prove capable of handling an increased workload before becoming a worthwhile fantasy draft option.
Rookie James Davis is someone you should really keep your eye on. He’s much better then his 6th round selection might suggest — Clemson’s entire team imploding last year had a lot to do with his draft stock dropping. Many lazy fantasy players judge a rookie’s talent level by the number of their NFL draft selection, but the shrewd owner shouldn’t miss the boat on Davis. He’s the most gifted back on the roster. Opportunities may be slim early, but eventually he’ll get his shot, and with a very good offensive line in front of him, expect him to excel. Lewis is a safe bet if you’re looking for a back to get around 600 yards with a few TDs, but Davis offers a pair of fresh legs. More often than not, you see a team leaning towards youth in the backfield, so don’t be afraid to take a risk on a dark horse with the potential to take over by mid-season.
Last year Edgerrin James was coming off five straight huge seasons of over 300 carries and 1200+ total yards in each, yet last year he managed only 133 carries. All it took was Tim Hightower, the small-school 5th-rounder, to unseat him as the starter, so don’t be fooled by Lewis’ past huge workload. He’s had an enormous amount of carries to this point for a back his age, and was ripe to be replaced last year — don’t expect him to hold onto the starting job for long. Davis has the talent, size, and speed to be much more effective. Given his position on the ranking boards, even in redrafts he’s all upside, and since nobody really salivates over drafting from this backfield, targeting Davis late in the draft is a move that could pay huge dividends.
Advantage: James Davis
Cedric Benson, Brian Leonard, Kenny Watson & Bernard Scott
Cedric Benson had what some considered to be a career revival when he landed in Cincy: He got career highs (though well below average for a starter) in attempts with 214, yards with 747, and YPC with 3.5. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why people are so excited about this guy going into the this season — those numbers are career highs for a top 5 pick who has been in the league for 4 years now. Really? The sad part is that if he hadn’t racked up big yardage vs. Cleveland and KC at the end of the season, these statistics would’ve been even more pathetic. I’m not ready to get excited about Cedric just because he ran all over two teams who had thrown in the towel by that point in the season. Benson was forced into the line-up due to lack of talent in the backfield; Chris Perry was given many opportunities to win the job, but he couldn’t hold onto the football. The Bengals were left with no other option. Although Benson is slated for the starting role, the starter going into the season isn’t guaranteed to be the guy who finishes — often he’s replaced by a more productive back.
Kenny Watson had his moments two years ago. He filled in nicely for Rudi Johnson, and people forget that his 2007 was much better than Benson’s 2008 season, yet this past year they dropped Watson’s carries to from 178 to 13. Only 13 carries (in a decidedly mediocre backfield) doesn’t inspire much confidence about him going into 2009. Poor Kenny’s really lost in the shuffle now. Brian Leonard is a guy coming over from STL in a trade, but he’s strictly a depth player who hasn’t had much success being a primary RB. He’s used a lot like a FB, and a multi-purpose back can come in handy in case injury strikes a certain position, but he shouldn’t be anywhere near your fantasy roster.
The most talented back in this backfield is the troubled but decorated Bernard Scott. Coming from a D-II school (Abilene Christian), he rushed for 2,165 yards last season and scored 39 touchdowns as a senior — 1,892 yards and 27 TDs as a junior. Scott is also a graceful pass catcher out of the backfield, with 47 receptions last year for 826 yards and 6 TDs. That production may not translate completely to the NFL, but he’s shown he can put a team on his back and make plays year after year. Regardless of the level of competition, at the rate he was producing it’s an eye-opener. Scott offers many abilities sorely lacking in this backfield. The first is a burst to get through the hole and turn the corner that already has teammates comparing him to the Titans’ Chris Johnson. No one has ever accused Benson, Leonard or Watson of possessing such a burst. Scott also has great hands, and easily becomes the best pass-catching back on a team that loves to utilize the RB in the passing game (Chris Perry caught over 50 passes as a secondary RB in 2005, when that offense was at it’s best). Scott isn’t a big bruiser (a solid 200 lbs.) that you can expect to come in and get 23 carries a game, but he could provide a spark for a team that so desperately cries out for a playmaker in their backfield.
It must be noted that with the on-field upside he provides, Bernard Scott has also been arrested 5 times and was kicked off multiple teams before finding his niche at Abilene Christian. Sounds like a recipe for disaster — especially when you consider he’s playing for the Bengals of all teams, right? Well, it’s hard to tell who is going to keep their head on straight and follow the straight-and-narrow when they get paid, but I know I would rather own the back I feel has the most talent, and who has a great chance at cracking the line-up. I know Benson is young, and slated to start, but I would be lying if I told anyone I would rather own Benson over Scott in a redraft or keeper. It may be crazy, but I don’t mind being crazy if it’s truly how I feel. Benson was largely unimpressive to me last year (it’s not hard to have 100-yard games when you’re getting 38 carries a game). I see a split of some sort this year, and I’d easily take my chances on Scott, if he’s given 15 or so touches a game.
Advantage: Bernard Scott
Chris Johnson, LenDale White & Javon Ringer
The Titans ground game was productive with both of their backs last year (Chris Johnson and LenDale White), and with the consistent Jeff Fisher in charge, you can count on more of the same in 2009. CJ had a breakout season in 2008, his rookie year, bursting into the NFL with 1500 total yards and 10 TDs. The scary part about his second-year outlook is that he has so much room to grow. All the reports out of Tennessee are that the Titans held back somewhat last year, fearing “rookie overload”, but they plan on opening up the playbook for him now, expanding his role even more — especially in the passing game.
The sky is the limit for CJ. He looks like the next Clinton Portis — somebody who could break 2000 total yards at least once in his prime. He’s obviously got elite speed (one of the fastest backs ever clocked at the Combine), but what separates him from the Michael Bennetts or Trung Candidates is his incredible vision to find cutback lanes. It’s not all about running to the outside as fast as he can. He sets his blockers up in front of him, and explodes when the hole opens up — he’s a very patient runner for someone with his speed. CJ’s increased involvement in the passing game should do wonders for his fantasy stock, especially in PPR leagues. It’s truly scary to think that he’ll improve on last season (43 receptions), but the coaches love this guy. Don’t be afraid to take CJ as the #2 back off the board if you really like him (I have him ranked as my #2 RB); Peterson was the consensus #1 pick last year and finished about 10th. The upside is there with Chris Johnson to win your team multiple games.
LenDale White really showed what he’s capable of in goal line situations (raking in 15 TDs), but his carries also dropped off by at least 100, and should dip even more this year. The addition of rookie Javon Ringer, as well as staff being upset about his weight over the off-season, could mean his time in Tennessee is growing short. He’s still one of the few backs capable of double digit TDs, so standard scoring leagues take note that he’ll be someone you can rotate in or use as a flex option. Still, it’s very easy to see that this backfield belongs to CJ.
Advantage: Chris Johnson
Julius Jones, TJ Duckett & Justin Forsett
Julius Jones is another example of a below-average starting RB who will likely be replaced eventually. I have been avoiding Julius Jones in fantasy drafts of all sorts since 2006, but that’s not the point here, his many shortcomings are. Jones, who has had some flashes in his career, is a speed back with no vision whatsoever — he runs up the back of his blockers, or simply past them, way too often. He’s soft as a runner (making for a poor goal-line back), but has hands of stone (he’s never been a trustworthy receiving back). If Seattle really had confidence in him, they would have given him more than ten starts after signing him as a free agent. To be blunt: If you drafted him last year, you were rewarded with a paltry 700 total yards and 2 TDs.
TJ Duckett didn’t really get the attempts JJ did (with only 62), but he still managed 8 TDs — a number that could even increase this year. He will (and should) still be the goal line vulture, especially considering JJ’s softness. Whoever ends up with the majority of carries from this RBBC, it certainly won’t be Duckett. This will be a backfield that’s likely to produce an “unknown” seemingly out of nowhere, leading to a mad scramble of claims off the waiver wire at some point. My goal here is to prepare loyal readers to beat the crowd, so let me introduce you to Justin Forsett and Devin Moore.
Justin Forsett has yet to make a regular season impact, but he was impressive in the pre-season last year. He’s still only 23 years old, and growing as a player. He’s got the quickness to succeed in a zone-blocking scheme, and his name could end up at the top of the staff’s list. He was a great player at Cal, and this type of offensive scheme lends itself to unknowns breaking through and continuing to produce. Devin Moore is a long shot right now, but don’t forget his name. He’s got great quickness and burst, and could settle in as a 3rd down back and kick returner. Believe me, the Seahawks approach to the ground attack requires familiarity with everyone who could possibly contribute, because I can see a full RBBC developing.
For reasons already given, I’m not a fan of Julius Jones, but he is the most experienced (and highest-paid) RB Seattle has at this time. He’s decent in a zone-blocking scheme, and has been known to have sporadic big games. If you end up with him this year, let me suggest to you ahead of time to ’sell high’ if he does get on a small streak. Also, expect Duckett to get all of the goal line rushes and potential for 10+ TDs.
Advantage: Julius Jones
Darren McFadden, Justin Fargas & Michael Bush
Darren McFadden is the highly touted draft pick from a year ago, and he’s well known in fantasy circles (he was viewed as #1 rookie RB last year by many players and pundits). Although McFadden showed some flashes of brilliance, most of his rookie season was derailed due to multiple injuries (toe and shoulder). He is expected be fully recovered for 2009, and I think it’s very obvious the team wants to expand his workload and unleash him. Thing is, I still expect McFadden to disappoint fantasy owners because he’ll be drafted so high, and I don’t think he’ll live up to those expectations. He has the speed you look for in a back, but he hasn’t displayed the elite vision you want to see from a speed back — frankly, to my eye, he never seemed like he would be “special’, judging by his previous play. I equate his potential closely with that of Michael Bennett in that he’s a super-fast back, he’ll have some solid fantasy seasons, and he’ll continue to be sporadic and hard to rely on.
Michael Bush is the guy I’d wager on becoming the most productive out of the Raider backfield — that week 17 game vs Tampa Bay was just a sample of what he can do when given the opportunity. He was on his way to being a first round pick in his own right, before suffering a devastating injury at the beginning of his senior season (broken leg), but he looks like he’s back to his former self. He’s a big back with great feet, he can catch out of the backfield, run inside for tough yards, and he’s got the size to be an every down back if asked to be. It’s a good sign that Oakland has been reluctant to trade him, and I think Bush has gained the confidence needed to be a major factor in their offense. McFadden has been lining up some at WR, and they will do a lot of trickery with him, but Bush should get more of the traditional carries. With a season of seasoning, as well as his regained health, plan on Michael Bush only getting better.
Fargas is slowly being phased out of the premiere role. He was a solid, steady starter for Oakland, but there is youth and fresh potential behind him, and he’s only standing in the way. He may start the season involved in the offense, but by season’s end he’ll be low man on the RBBC totem pole.
Advantage: Michael Bush
Todd Ransom is one of a growing number of fantasy experts who write for the Cafe. You can catch up with Todd in the Cafe's forums where he posts under the name of LS2throwed.
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