Wednesday, July 19, 2006

FANTASY FOOTBALL, RUNNING BACKS... THE BEST OF THE REST

The 3rd tier runners don't end with Warrick Dunn and Willie Parker and, quite frankly, at this point they're practically interchangeable.

This article has a certain... como se dice', Clint Eastwood, "Go Ahead, Make My Roster!" feel to it. I have listed a trio of "The Good," "The Bad," and a pair of "The Ugly" backs for your fantasy pleasure.
Thereafter, I reviewed a trio of young guns who just might make an appreciable impact upon the fantasy landscape.
For all you Roto-rooters out there, understand that if ANY Rook' is gonna' make a fantasy dent and help guide your club to the playoffs... it'll be a Running Back.

"The Good"

Eagles, Brian Westbrook: Westy' (617/3 rushing, 616/4 receiving) is one of Football's most versatile runners and is one helluva' good fantasy pick. Realistically, the Eag' back should've been slotted a bit higher but questions surrounding the Philly' passing game make his ranking not quite so egregious.
At 5-8/203, Brian Westbrook just isn't built for between the Tackles totes. He is, however, as elusive as a drop of water on waxed paper and once he finds daylight? Dude gobbles up yards like Pacman does dashes and dots. Westy' has exemplary wiggle, possesses more moves than a Vegas Call Girl, and could be staring down the barrel of a career year given the team's committment to the run. Westbrook's hands and open-field moves make him such a valuable fantasy commodity, and an 1,800+/10-12 season is not beyond his grasp assuming he stays healthy.
Westbrook sandwiched 7- 19+ touch games around a pair of iffy starts (Weeks 4 and 5), but the work really took a toll on him Westbrook wore down towards the season's end, and his regular season concluded with a 14 touch, 55 yard "Weak" 13 effort.
Although I like the dimunitive back and think he could be a rock-solid #2 fantasy runner, his week to week production can be troubling. Smart owners might consider "handcuffing" themselves by taking 2nd year man Ryan Moats (278/3) in the later rounds. Moats flashed nice tools while filling in for a hobbled Westbrook last season, but at 5-8/210... Moats is Westbrook's stunt double.
**NOTE: Look for the club to also try and get Correll Buckhalter touches. Another fragile Philadelphian, at 6-0/222 Buckhalter is bigger than either Moats or Westbrook but he may be even more frail, if that's possible. Buckhalter has been a spectator in 3 of his 5 seasons due to knee injuries.

Ravens, Jamal Lewis: Jamal (906/4) has gotta' be stark ravin'! The '03 season saw Lewis record nearly 2,100 yards and 14 TDs, but then... then the house came tumbling down. And of course, Lewis was then shipped off to the "Big House," prison, for "brokering a drug transaction over a cell phone."
In addition to his legal troubles, though, Lewis also suffered from a bum ankle. He had the joint surgically repaired, but the Balty' back just wasn't his usual explosive self last season. Indeed, all of Lewis' numbers have declined since his banner '03 campaign; his rushing yards fell by nearly 1,000 to 1,006 in '04, and to just 906 last season, his rushing TDs fell from a high of 14 ('03) to 7 ('04) to 3 ('05), and his YPC (5.3 in '03) average has fallen by a yard per season, settling in at 3.4 last season.
Could Jamal Lewis be reborn? Without a Federal drug charge hanging over his head like the proverbial sword of Damocles (for you, Flashjeff) and with his ankle 100% healthy, and lest we forget that the Ravens can now boast a legit' Signal Caller in Steve McNair? my money's on J-Lew'.
With the forward pass once again part of Baltimore's offensive repetoire, opposing defenders won't be so cavalier about stacking the 'box. In fact... and although Lewis entered camp 10 pounds overweight, I would look for a 1,400/8 season.

Cowboys, Julius Jones: Picking this 3rd back wasn't as easy as you might imagine for there were several candidates to choose from. However...
The presence of WR Terrell Owens changes the entire complexion of the team, a team built to win now. Coach Bill Parcells, no fan of injury or ignorance, will accept nothing less than complete committment and effort from his players and towards that end Julius Jones (993/5) must prove himself to be sturdier. Jones has been dogged by nagging injuries; a high ankle sprain here, a sprained shoulder there, and Parcells was forced to draft Marion Barber (III) last season. Barber (538/5) is bigger than Jones (6'/215 as compared to Julius, 5-10/205), doesn't turn the ball over, has displayed good hands, and is better suited to inside running. Jones, on the other hand, has better burst, superior vision, and can "git' gone" in a flash.
Any worries that "JJ" was a 1-year wonder? Take a gander at the guy's Week 16, 211/2 (total yards) game against the stout Panther D' and fear no more. Look for both Jones and Barber to share time in the 'Poke backfield, with Julius seeing the bulk of the work between the 10's. Therefore, although Jones will have great value in all formats, I believe him to be a better "yardage league" candidate than "Scoring Leaguer."

"The Bad"

Jets, Curtis Martin: It's amazing how an athlete can go from "top o' the heap" to "bottom o' the barrel" in a matter of months. The Gang Green back was the NFL rushing leader in '04 with 1,697 yards (and 13 TDs), but last year (735/5) was a whole other story, and Martin has entered into a steep decline. Of course, it would be patently unfair to lay all of the blame on Martin's shoulders. The team, strapped at Quarterback, was even forced to trot-out QB Vinnie Testaverde. Frankly, if Testaverde, who I believe played ball with Knute Rockne and Red Grange during his rookie year of '27, is your club's Field General... the season's not just over, it's gone to hell in a handbasket. In addition, the team put both Jay Fiedler and Brooks Bollinger over Center. With QB play of that order, few Running Backs are going to flourish.
However, even if incumbent QB Chad Pennington should miraculously recover what little arm strength he possessed before his shoulder injuries? Martin, at age 33, is no longer a 300 carry back. In fact, I'd be shocked to see C-Mart record as many as 225 carries.
The team will acquire a new look under new coach Eric Mangini. When Herm "I'm Your Friend" Edwards shepherded the club no player EVER feared for his job; Edwards was the teams' greatest excusionist. Mangini, who studied at the "Bill Belichek School of Excellence," won't hesitate to reconfigure the Jet roster. First order of business? Addressing the QB situation. Shortly thereafter? What do the Jets have in a young Derrick Blaylock and a younger Cedric Houston.
Owners and fans can expect a Canton-bound Curtis Martin to see some work (think of how the Rams used Marshall Faulk last season), but he'll probably be nothing more than a fantasy spare part.

Packers, Ahman Green: Not unlike Curtis Martin, Ahman Green (255/0) enjoyed a sensational year (in '03, 2,200+ combined yards and 20 TDs), saw his numbers enter a modest decline over the next season ('04, 1,400+ combined yards and 8 TDs), and then watched slack-jawed as his production fell off a cliff.
Green's deterioration did not come as a surprise to many fantasy observers, and in last season's "Pre-Draft Positional Rankings" I urged readers to leave Green (and QB Brett Favre, for that matter) to another owner. Why? Aside from 61 carries as a Seahawk ('98 and '99), Green has played his entire career on the rough and tumble terrain of Lambeau Field. To call Lambeau a "frozen tundra" is no exagerration, and repeatedly landing upon it with 450-700 pounds of defensive meat clinging to you can wear a guy out. Thus, Green is an "old" 29.
Attempting to return to the gridiron after tearing a quad' may be admirable, but it's unlikely. I wouldn't rule Green out entirely, but I DO think that last season's surprise breakout player, Samkon Gado, will continue in his role as the primary back. Further, if Najeh "I'm Pooped" Davenport, who is built like an ox, can return from a busted ankle... he'll be the 1st Goalline option. In other words, and as I pleaded with you all last season, let someone else fret over Ahman Green's health and production. For my money, I'd rather draft a potential high-impact rookie like Colt Joseph Addai or Panther DeAngelo Williams (Saint Reggie is a likely 2nd to 3rd rounder), or even a lightly-used veteran who has changed unis', ala' Minnesota's Chester Taylor.

Chiefs, Priest Holmes: Holmes has surmounted a number of serious maladies over the span of his decade-long career, a downright ugly right hip injury that would've derailed virtually anyone else's career amongst them. Alas, this latest injury... a neck injury, looks to be the one that will force Holmes into retirement. Although Priest seeks a return to the Chief tabernacle and has been trying to find a Doctor who'll clear him to play, the KC RB has failed to land a positive medical opinion. Holmes has been quoted as saying that he'd like to be able to ambulate without need of a Walker or wheelchair when he's older. Well, he may therefore elect to hang 'em up now as that's a very reasonable aspiration.
If, by chance, Holmes does secure a physician's nod of approval... such may not mean very much to new coach Herm Edwards. The Chiefs unfurled a banner back in Larry Johnson last season, and the likliehood that these 2 will split carries is nil. If anything, Holmes will be the recipient of 5-8 token totes per game, possibly of the Goalline variety.Priest DOES have a proven nose for the 'Zone. Nevertheless, at this point in his career, Holmes is better left for another owner!

"The Ugly"

Falcons, T.J. Duckett: With a versatile Warrick Dunn looking every inch the stud even at this stage of his career, and the team going to a more pass-oriented offense, the Falcs' have been looking to move the slower, more physical Duckett (380/eight). Earlier this spring and again, in June, the Steelers expressed interest in the '02 draft pick. Should Duckett end up in Pittsburgh, his value will rise substantially. Now, though, he's nothing more than an insurance back.

Jaguars, Fred Taylor: What does the future hold for Fred Taylor (787/3)? Well, that answer really depends upon who you talk to. According to Taylor, his knee is fine and he's in the best shape of his 9 year career. Team observers, though, feel that Taylor has been in decline for the past 3 seasons and that his days of being a bell cow are at an end. "Fast Freddy" is coming off of a knee injury and having played in just 25 of his last 32 regular season tilts, draft the 30 year old Jag' at your peril.
The counterpoint to that argument? Taylor is a big (6-1/235) back who can catch the ball, he's unopposed to making his own holes if need be, and when healthy possesses another gear. It could be that Taylor is prepped for 1 last season in the F...L...A... sun, but there are better options. Consider Taylor nothing more than a #3 fantasy back, anything more will be a pleasant surprise.

"Young Guns"

Saints, Reggie Bush: While the club maintains that Deuce McAllister (335/3) will be the team's lead back, look for the dynamic rookie to bear a prominent role in the club's O.
Reggie Bush has rare speed, is much more versatile than Deuce is, and can be lined up as either a Wide Receiver or return man. Yes he's unproven, but if any rook' is a "sure thing" it's Reggie Bush. Someone will undoubtedly take this year's 2nd overall pick in the 2nd round of your fantasy draft, but that's probably a round too early. If, however, you belong to a "Keeper" or "Dynasty" league? Expending a high 2nd to low 3rd round pick on Bush should pay rich dividends.
Assuming QB Drew Brees is operating at let's say 80% efficiency, the pass catching combination of Joe Horn and Donte' Stallworth will make it impossible for foes to ignore the passing game and few defenses will be able to cover such a speedy duo. Look for the Saints to line both Deuce and Reggie up in the same backfield in order to capitalize upon the respective talents of each. Deuce is a bruiser with uncanny patience and unexpected speed for a man of his size, Bush is lightning in a bottle.

Colts, Joseph Addai: The team has called Addai an "Edgerrin James clone" and that's high praise indeed. It would seem as if the Colts felt that, next to Reggie Bush, Addai was the fastest, most versatile, most pro ready runner in the '06 class. Again, high praise indeed.
The plain fact of the matter is, Addai has fallen into a great big pile of good furtune. The Colt O revolves around playaction, the receiving corps ranks amongst the NFL's top 3 (more likely, 2), and the Colts' system is dangerous enough to transform any Nickle and Dime back into a 1,000 yard runner.
While coach Tony Dungy says that he's comfy' with veteran Dominic Rhodes assuming feature back duties, Rhodes hasn't done so in 4 years and Addai is no Nickle and Dime ball carrier. Rather, Addai IS the Running Back of Indy's future.
While the club will probably start him off slowly, look for Addai to be a 20 touch weapon by mid-season if not earlier. Oozing talent and potential, Joseph Addai is a 4th-6th round pick, predicated upon the size of your league.

Titans, LenDale White: I was torn between White, Panther DeAngelo Williams, and Patriot Laurence Maroney. After much deliberation, I decided that Williams will replace DeShaun Foster at some point this season because Foster just can't seem to stay healthy and Maroney plays for a club, and with a QB, that loves to spread the ball around... and he'll have a tough time supplanting an aging but still effective Corey Dillon.
The challenges White faces are no less steep for the Titan RB stable already boast Chris Brown and Travis Henry. Brown, the feature back, has put on size and strength this off-season in order to increase his value and durability. Although his heart is willing, Chris Brown's ego consistently writes checks his body cannot cash. Some athletes are built from papier mache', and I believe Chris Brown to be of that ilk.
A physical specimen at 6-2/235, White will likely get the G-Line carries straight from the gate in order to keep a fragile Brown as healthy as possible. Chris Brown is remarkably explosive and can pluck the ball outta' the air, but his long-term prognosis seems bleak given his lengthy medical history. With "Air" McNair now in Baltimore, the club will lean heavily upon the run game. Travis Henry? Tough as nails but you can time the dude's 40 with a Sundial.
Look for LenDale White to really emerge some time around mid-season... possibly earlier if Brown stays true to form and falls to injury.

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