Friday, July 14, 2006

FANTASY FOOTBALL; 3 1/2 STAR RUNNING BACKS!

While notable, the drop-off in talent after Shaun Alexander, LaDainian Tomlinson and Larry Johnson isn't enormous. The following crop includes aging but still productive runners such as Tiki Barber and Edgerrin James, and younger players who are just entering their prime years such as Rudi Johnson, Clinton Portis, and Steven Jackson.

FANTASY FOOTBALL'S 3 1/2 STAR RUNNING BACKS!

Cardinals, Edgerrin James: It can be argued that the Colt offensive machine ran like a Swiss watch because Edge' served as it's main-spring. The play-action fake, Peyton Manning's bread & butter, was so darn effective because Edgerrin James (1,506/14 ... 337 rec. yards) was so darn' effective. When forced to face the Colts, opposing D-Coordinators had no alternative but to pick their preferred poison; account for James and allow the brilliant Marvelous Marvin Harrison and his partner in pass catching crime, Reggie Wayne, to kill 'em? Or, cram the line and allow Manning to pick their defensive schemes apart like a Turkey on Thanksgiving Day.
No longer able to afford "The Triplets," Indy' elected to part with the 4th overall pick from the '99 draft and now, the Cardinals have the rushing Edge'.
In line with the Colt blue-print, the Cards' also feature a pair of near peerless pass catchers in Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. Both receivers are young, each possesses additional upside, and they should prove to be no less distracting than Marvelous and Reggie were in Indy'. It certainly seems as if the Cardinals are poised for take-off, but much will hinge upon the health of a creaky Kurt Warner. The out-of-nowhere SuperBowl winner and 2-time MVP is about as sturdy as peanut brittle, and it'd be shocking if he remains intact by Week 8. It's not so much a matter of "if" but when the Cards' are forced to go to the backup, will it be rookie sensation Matt Leinart or will it be Denny Green's pet project, John Navarre? Neither needs to be "special," they just need to play well enough to not lose. If the Offensive Line, which features some new parts and is still integrating last seasons' acquisitions, can give whomever is over Center some time, the receiving corps and James should take the team a long, long way.
For so long the Cardinals running game was fictitious; a laughable, bold-faced lie. Edgerrin James, a Hall of Fame talent who needs perhaps 2 more typical "Edge-esque" seasons to secure a bronze bust, gives the team instant credibility. And should the opposition elect to focus their energies upon James? Make no mistake, Q' and Fitz' will punish the foolish!

Giants, Tiki Barber: Tiki Barber (1,860/11, with 530 rec. yards), a dude who had gone unrecognized yet was consistently one of Football's most productive runners, is finally receiving the acclaim he so richly deserves. Often overlooked when discussion turned to "the best runners in the game," the former "3rd down/change o' pacer" is universally recognized as one of the game's preeminent talents. Versatile to a fault and remarkably durable given the heavy workload he's been subject to over the past 6 seasons, Barber has recorded 300+ carries in 4 of the past 5 seasons and notched a semi-ridiculous 785 touches over the last 2 seasons.
Last year, however, was Tiki's "signature season." The Big Blue back's 11 TD, 2,390 combined yard season was betterd only by Marshall Faulk's '99 season, when the soon-to-retire Ram runner posted the inconceivable; 1,381/7 rushing and 1,048/5 receiving. For the record, Faulk produced a 1,359/18 rushing and 830/8 receiving encore... so pick yer' fave' Faulk campaign!
Anyway, Barber is Football's answer to the multi-tool. With the young Mann' at the helm and maturing by the game, and both WR Plaxico Burress and TE Jeremy Shockey keeping opposing defenders honest, even at 31... Barber is a credible fantasy stud, worthy of your 1st round attention.

Bengals, Rudi Johnson: rudi, ruDi, rUDI, RUDI! I know, I know, you've heard it before. But, hear this: Johnson (1,458/14), according to team sources, is slim, trim, and in the best shape of his 6 year career. Do note, though, that 6 seasons is misleading because Rudi was Corey Dillon's back-up singer and it wasn't until 2003 that Johnson assumed featured back duties.
Built like a Full Back (5-10/225), the Cin' City runner has shifty feet, piston-powerful legs, and woe is the defender who atempts to arm-tackle Johnson! Last season, Rudi reportedly tore cartilage in his left knee during the Week 2 game but played through the pain and discomfort of the injury. Johnson is not likely to suddenly develop home run speed, but now that his knee is healthy and he shed some weight? Look for the Bengal back to get to the hole or crease with a bit more burst.
Bolstered by one of the league's most lethal passing games, Rudi Johnson should be at least as good as he was last season... and assuming QB Carson Palmer is operating at 90% efficiency, Johnson could even eclipse last season's totals.

Redskins, Clinton Portis: Portis' 1st year un a Redskin uni' proved to be a mixed bag. The former Bronco posted good rushing totals (1,315), but his TD production fell by almost 2/3 (from 14 to 5). Coach Joe Gibbs recognized that sweeps and hand-offs caused his feature back to run up his linemen's backs and were a poor fit to Portis' talents. Thus, the team integrated pitches, draws, and a blocking back... and "C Portis Go!" Yup'! Last season, the 'Skin back saw his TD total rebound to double-digits (11) and he cranked out 1,516 rushing yards, his first 1,500+ yard season since he played at Denver's Mile High Stadium.
The Redskin roster welcomes former Steeler WR Antwaan Randle El and former 49'er WR Brandon Lloyd, WR Santana Moss thrived after shedding his Jet gear, and H-Back Chris Cooley recorded a career year; career highs TDs (7), receptions (71), and receiving yards (771).
Portis' fortunes, in large part anyway, will be decided by QB Mark Brunell. Will Bru' bounce-back from the thumb injury he suffered in mid-June? If not, young Jason Campbell will take hold of the Redskin reigns and opposing defenders will be free to key upon Clinton. Even in a worst-case scenario, I'd look for nothing worse than 1,300+/10+ now that new Offensive Coordinator Al Saunders is calling the shots. Saunders served as the Chiefs' O-Coordinator and both Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson flourished during his tenure.

Raiders, LaMont Jordan: Scores of analysts and league observers "went out on a limb" and predicted that the Raiders, after adding WR Randy Moss, RB LaMont Jordan, and QB Kerry Collins, to an already talented offense (particularly deep at receiver) would prosper and make some serious post-season noise.
Collins (3,759/21/12) was an unmitigated bust, Moss (1,005/eight) was hounded by injury and went 11 consecutive games without 100 yards receiving, veteran Jerry Porter did most of his damage after mid-season, and LaMont Jordan? Jordan was the lone offensive bright spot.
LaMont (1,588 total yards and 11 TDs) has nice wiggle for a big (5-11/230) guy, and once he's got a head of steam going? Lighter 'backers are understandably reluctant tacklers. The fact is, Jordan's lower half is HUGE and defenders who try and take him low just sorta'... ricochet off of his pounding legs.
With a great set of mitts (70/563/2 receiving), Jordan is a dynamic athlete and an outstanding fantasy weapon. With Aaron Brooks now shepherding the offense it remains to be seen whether or not the former Saint proves to be an upgrade. It's not exactly news that Brooks' accuracy is suspect and his decision-making horrifying. The Raiders DO field a group of Wide Receivers that ranks amongst the leagues' top 3, and that should make Brooks' job a little easier.
If "A-Bomb Brooks" can keep opposing defenders honest then Jordan will continue his all-out assault on the AFC West. But, if Brooks continues to be a marginal pro? Things will be correlationally more difficult for the one-time Jet back.

Rams, Steven Jackson: An interesting dilemma, slotting Jackson here. It would be easy to put both Ronnie Brown and Carnell Williams ahead of Jax', but I will give the nod to the Ram runner and the passing game that supports him.
Jackson (1,046/8 with 320 rec. yds) was misused by Mike Martz, and to be frank... Jackson was treated like an unwanted step-child by the former Ram coach. Martz, with a soft spot for Marshall Faulk, never allowed Jax' to develop any real rythym or confidence. Unsurpisingly, the 3rd year runner developed some bad habits and doesn't always maintain his concentration.
But there's a new sherrif in town, Scott Linehan, and it's not out of the realm of possibility that Steven Jackson enjoys a real breakout season. The team rarely struggles to put points on the board as few defenses have the resources to contain the receiving troika of Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce and Kevin Curtis, and when you toss speedy #4 receiver Shaun McDonald into the mix? "Fa-shew!" There's a club that will score as easily as Nick Lachey at a Sorority party!
Steven Jackson is tough, swift, powerful, can snatch the ball out of the air, and has Pro Bowl po'. Yes, Linehan has stated that he'd like to get RB Marshall Faulk involved more than he had been, but that may be just so much talk... a way to accord the veteran respect. Able to tote the rock through the Tackles or bounce it outside, Jax' should enjoy a VERY nice fantasy season; 1,800 total yards and 12-15 scores is certainly within reach.

Dolphins, Ronnie Brown: Is Brown a reach here? Perhaps, but I have respect for his abilities and I think the supporting skill po' players are a potentially explosive bunch.
When he was first drafted by the 'Phins, things didn't look real rosy for the former Auburn back. The Dolphins fielded a marginal Signal Caller in Gus Frerotte and Brown was forced to split tokes... err', "totes" with "Swami" Ricky Williams. Frerotte and Ricky disappeared... Gus in a puff o' mediocrity and Ricky in a puff of smoke, and the club now boasts a Pro Bowl talent at Quarterback in Daunte Culpepper, an emerging receiving threat not unlike what 'Pepp enjoyed while in Minnesota, Chris Chambers (I am NOT saying that Chambers is Moss's equal, merely that Chambers is a nice safety valve pass catcher and has great hops), an enormously gifted (if not troubled) TE in Randy McMichael (C-Pepp' does love throwing to his TEs) and the ultimate benficiary of this potent passing game? The running game and Ronnie Brown.
For better or worse, the spotlight is now solely on Brown. Under the brilliant guidance of Offensive Line coach/guru Hudson Houck, the line is now an asset, and Brown should have his choice of creases, holes and gaps. Look for Ronnie to be the recipient of a heavy workload; 325+ carries, 40+ passes, and a breakout season should be at hand.
With so-so Travis Minor now the primary back-up, Miami will need to find a more dangerous complementary runner. Lord help the 'Phins if they enter the season with a 1-2 of Brown and Minor. New Orleans' Michael Bennett might be a logical target. Bennett may be fragile, but he's fast, has ample NFL experience, and the Saints are flush at the Running Back position.

Buccaneers, Carnell Williams: Cadillac (1,178/6) started last season on a real roll. He set records for rushing yards (434/2 by the end of Week 3), averaged over 5 YPC, and made the game look simple. Alas, things are never quite so simple and a foot injury suffered during the Week 4 tilt against the Lions derailed what could've been a record-setting season. As it turns out, Williams reportedly didn't inform the Bucc' training staff as to the severity of his injury... and he played when he probably shouldn't have. Had he allowed himself to be sidelined for 4 or 5 weeks, Williams' foot would've properly healed and he likely would've picked up where he left off. Now, if that doesn't get his owners to gnash their collective teeth I don't know what will.
Really, Caddy' looked nothing like the 140 yard/game runner we saw at the season's start until the final 1/4 of the '05 season. He does, however, enter this season healthy, happy, and whole, and when Caddy' is all of those things and turns in a rushing C-note? Tampa is 6-0! Carnell Williams won't drag tacklers around, but he can run over or around a would-be defender and he is able to gain yards after contact. I would expect the combination of Michael Pittman and Mike Alstott to get the Goalline work in an effort to minimize Williams' wear and tear. Even so, under Gruden, look for a fantastic season out of Caddy' and it wouldn't be at all shocking if the Bucca'back turns in a season that is equal or superior to that of many of the above listed runners.

NEXT UP? THE BEST OF THE REST, FANTASY FOOTBALL'S 3-STAR RUNNERS!

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