Monday, July 16, 2007
NFL '07 Preview: Running Backs
Fantasy football is about running backs. While knowing this won't automatically take you the title, not knowing this will eliminate you from contention and cause you to be ridiculed mercilessly by your fellow owners and/or random children who will point at you and laugh.
Oddly enough, though, the same doesn't translate to the real-life standings.
Of the top 10 rushing teams in 2006 (measured by yards per game), only three made the playoffs (San Diego, Kansas City, and Philadelphia). Combined, they had a record of 93-83 (7-9 Atlanta was number one by a mile, 5-11 Washington was number five). Granted, that's better than the 62-98 combined record of the bottom 10 rushing teams (with one playoff team, Baltimore), but it's still not the make-or-break harbinger of success you might think. Keep that in mind as you browse the rankings of team running backs.
As we mentioned in our quarterback rankings last week, we're not making a fantasy cheat sheet. This is about which team is strongest at the position, taking into account the likelihood of holdout, injury, or performance replacement of the starter, and the quality of backups on the depth chart. For running backs, we're using rushing, receiving, and scoring as the primary judgment criteria.
1 AND 1A
San Diego (LaDainian Tomlinson, Michael Turner, Darren Sproles)
New Orleans (Deuce McAllister, Reggie Bush, Aaron Stecker)
Notes: Tomlinson isn't just a force, he's a Bo Jackson-in-Tecmo Bowl force. 1,800 yards rushing with 50 catches and 32 scores? That's insane. Add in the fact that Michael Turner is averaging 6 yards per carry for his career and Norv Turner loves to run the ball, and you've got another 2,500 combined-yard year from the Chargers' backfield. No one else can touch it.
Except for the Saints, which is why they're ranked so high even though, as individuals, neither McAllister nor Bush are top-five backs. Combined, though: 1,600 yards and 16 TDs rushing, 118 receptions for nearly another 1,000 yards, a ton of big plays. In terms of offensive schemes that rely on two backs to each play a full-time role, the Saints are at the top.
St. Louis (Stephen Jackson, Stephen Davis, Brian Leonard)
Kansas City (Larry Johnson, Michael Bennett, Derrick Ross)
Seattle (Shaun Alexander, Maurice Morris, Marquis Weeks)
Denver (Travis Henry, Mike Bell)
Notes: The addition of Leonard, the rookie from Rutgers, should give the Rams' backfield an extra dimension with Jackson the still-rising centerpiece workhorse behind a slightly-improved offensive line.
The Chiefs get downgraded because of L.J.'s possible holdout, plus the chance Herm Edwards will kill him with 75 rushes per game against defenses stacked nine in the box because Brodie Croyle doesn't scare them.
Shaun Alexander had a broken foot. For a running back who is about to turn 30 (next month), that's a significant question mark.
From a running back perspective, Travis Henry might be the most important acquisition of the offseason (with nods to Willis McGahee and Thomas Jones).
GREAT WITH AN ASTERISK
Philadelphia (Brian Westbrook, Correll Buckhalter, Ryan Moats)
Jacksonville (Fred Taylor, Maurice Jones Drew, Alvin Pearman)
Dallas (Julius Jones, Marion Barber III, Tyson Thompson)
Notes: When you're talking about the Philly backfield, you have to go three or four deep because there's an excellent chance numbers 1 and 2 are going to get hurt. Otherwise, Westbrook's receptions has them a tad up on the glut of the league.
Jacksonville had one of the best running games in the league in 06, and there's no reason to expect a drop. Starting left tackle Khaliff Barnes might get a league-mandated vacation after pleading no contest on a drunk driving charge, during which he called the arresting officer a "KKK devil who hates all colored people." I mention this only because I think it's funny.
Barber was the man in the red zone under Bill Parcells, but there's no guarantee he stays the man under new head coach Wade Philips. From a fantasy perspective, that makes either back a risky pick. From a total value perspective, it doesn't really matter. Both are really good.
RUNNING WITH THE PACK
Atlanta (Warrick Dunn, Jerious Norwood)
Cincinnati (Rudi Johnson, Kenny Watson, Chris Perry, Kenny Irons)
Minnesota (Chester Taylor, Adrian Peterson, Mewelde Moore)
Chicago (Cedric Benson, Adrian Peterson, Garrett Wolfe)
Indianapolis (Joseph Addai, DeDe Dorsey, Kenton Keith)
New England (Lawrence Maroney, Kevin Faulk, Sammy Morris)
Pittsburgh (Willie Parker, Najeh Davenport, Kevan Barlow)
Detroit (Tatum Bell, Kevin Jones, Brian Calhoun, T.J. Duckett)
Baltimore (Willis McGahee, Mike Anderson, Musa Smith)
Carolina (DeShaun Foster, DeAngelo Williams, Nick Goings, Eric Shelton)
New York Jets (Thomas Jones, Leon Washington, Derrick Blaylock, Cedric Houston)
San Francisco (Frank Gore, Maurice Hicks, Michael Robinson)
Notes: The Falcons come in much lower than their stats because Vick accounts for a lot (35 percent of the yards) and the running backs don't score a lot of touchdowns. Also, they have a rookie head coach. You never know what to expect.
I have a bad feeling about the Cincinnati offensive line.
I like the Chester Taylor/Adrian Peterson duo for Minnesota, but worry defenses will stack the line with Tarvaris Jackson starting at QB.
Are Benson, Addai, and Maroney ready for 300-350 carries? There's a big drop off behind them.
Maybe I should trust Pittsburgh more. I don't know. Another first-time head coach, and a defensive-minded one at that.
The Lions' combo is a sleeper. Mike Martz loves to throw to the backs, and Tatum Bell has the breakaway speed in the open field. I don't want to go all Jon Kitna, but I expect big things.
McGahee could turn in a break-out season, but I'm not sure I'm sold on the offensive line. They've lost some talent there and Jonathan Ogden is getting old.
As much as I like Foster and Williams, the Panthers haven't averaged more than 4.0 yards per rush since 2003. That's hard to ignore.
Love Jones with the Jets, and I really like their offensive line (except Pete Kendall, who they should just cut already). There's just a little bit of an unknown with the coaching staff after they averaged 3.5 per carry last year, third worst in the league. Was it the lack of talent or the scheme? We don't know. But until you've done it, you haven't done it.
Based on last year, Gore deserves better. But Norv Turner isn't around any more, replaced by first-time coordinator Jim Hostler. Play calling is everything for a running back, and we don't know what Gore is going to get.
QUESTIONS WITH UNKNOWN ANSWERS
Washington (Clinton Portis, Ladell Betts, Rock Cartwright)
Houston (Ahman Green, Ron Dayne, Samkon Gado, Wali Lundy)
Tennessee (Chris Brown, LenDale White, Chris Henry)
New York Giants (Brandon Jacobs, Rueben Droughns, Derrick Ward)
Arizona (Edgerrin James, Marcel Shipp, JJ Arrington)
Buffalo (Marshawn Lynch, Anthony Thomas, Shaud Williams, Josh Scobey)
Notes: Will Portis or Green last? Will Brown or Jacobs step up? Will Edge have room? Will Marshawn grow up really, really fast? Will LenDale diet? Find out next offseason, on "Teams That Won't Make the Playoffs."
Miami (Ronnie Brown, Lorenzo Booker, Patrick Cobbs)
Cleveland (Jamal Lewis, Jerome Harrison, Jason Wright, Chris Barclay)
Oakland (LaMont Jordan, Dominick Rhodes, Justin Fargas, Michael Bush)
Green Bay (Vernand Morency, Brandon Jackson, Noah Herron)
Tampa Bay (Cadillac Williams, Michael Pittman, Earnest Graham, Kenneth Darby)
Notes: This could be a catastrophe year for the Dolphins. Even before the Chris Chambers DUI arrest, this team had an "everything is about to go terribly, terribly wrong" vibe to it.
I could be severely underestimating Cleveland. They've invested a ton in their offensive line. If LeCharles Bentley does somehow miraculously does come back this year, they could pave the way for a 1,500-yard season from Jamal Lewis. If only their quarterback situation was more solid, I would like them more.
Michael Bush was one of the steals in the daft for the Raiders (first pick on day two) and will lead this team in rushing in the next three years. This year, however, there are too many backs , an unsteady quarterback situation and a first-time head coach straight from a college coordinator job.
There's so much uncertainty around Tampa, from the staring quarterback to the health of Jon Gruden's job security, that you can't rate anything about them above average.
Also see: NFL '07 Preview: Quarterbacks
Seth Doria is a freelance writer in St. Louis. For daily news and notes on sports, entertainment and politics, please visit The Left Calf.