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Monday, July 16, 2007

NFL '07 Preview: Running Backs

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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).


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.


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.


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.

Comments on "NFL '07 Preview: Running Backs"

On July 17, 2007, Jeff said...

Ok, given our debate about the QB's, I am sure you will be thinking after reading this I am a Jacksonville homer. I am not a homer, just a huge fan that doesn't get the non-Jags fans perspective of the team.

You have NO listed as the best 1-2 punch in the league, which is a somewhat fair assessment. But the fact that you have Jacksonville listed as great with an asterisk doesn't make sense to me. Exactly what is the asterisk, since you say there is no reason to expect a drop off? You also need to have Greg Jones as the 3rd back listed, not Pearman. Pearman might not even make the team this year. They also have LaBrandon Toefield, who has stepped in and provided 100 yard games in the past.

Look at the comparison between the numbers of Bush-McCallister and Taylor-Jones-Drew and tell me which you would rather have.

Bush-McCallister: 399 carries, 1,622 yards, 16 TD's, 118 catches, 940 yards, 2 TD's

Taylor-Jones-Drew: 397 carries, 2,087 yards, 18 TD's, 69 catches, 678 yards, 3 TD's

So with 2 FEWER carries, the Jags duo had 465 more yards rushing. That is what RB's are paid to do, run the ball effectively. That was also with 8 or 9 men in the box due to the ineffective passing game, making it even more impressive. Brees threw for over 4,000 yards and yet the Saints duo couldn't everage more than 4 yards a carry, including Bush's stellar 3.6 average. I know you will counter with the fact Bush caught 88 balls and was so great in everyone's eyes, but Jones-Drew matched his TD reception total on half the catches.

I am not discounting the quality of the NO backfield, just your impression of the Jags in comparison to them. But if you are using rushing, receiving, and scoring as your primary criteria like you say, then I don't see how you came to the conclusion you did.

On July 17, 2007, Seth said...

Excellent points.

Given a choice between Deuce and Fred for this year, I would take Deuce. The stats, both career and 06, are basically a wash. But Deuce is younger (by three seasons and 700 carries) and mildly more durable (played in 85% of eligible games in his career vs. 77% for Taylor) so he gets my nod.

Given a choice between Bush and Jones-Drew for this year, I would take Bush. That’s no insult to Jones-Drew. I’m a Pac-10 guy, so last year wasn’t the first time I’ve seen him tear up a defense. He’s a potential game breaker on every touch, just like Bush. But I don’t think Jones-Drew gets much better from here. I do think Bush gets better, especially as it relates to his per-carry average. If both Taylor and McAllister go down, I would feel better having Bush backed up by Aaron Stecker and Antonio Pittman (the rookie from Ohio State) than Jones-Drew backed up by Pearman. (Toefield is always hurt, so I’m not counting him any more.)

With that said, I absolutely ranked the Jags too low. They belong in the Workhorse Plus category with KC, St. Louis, Seattle and Denver.

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