In the past few years, we’ve seen a proliferation of NFL teams turning to multi-running back attacks. Where once there was a running back, a fullback, and perhaps a third-down back, now there are all sorts of different roles for running backs, with many teams using two or even three regularly. While that might make an NFL offense run more smoothly, it makes putting together a fantasy football backfield much trickier.
So in an effort to sort through some of these situations, we’re going to look at some of the backs who have part-time roles with their NFL teams and try to figure out where they fit in a fantasy football team. We’re going to use a Football Relativity comparision to do this, and as we go down the scale we’ll indicate how each level on the comparison translates as you build your roster.
One more note before we begin: You can find all of our fantasy football coverage by searching the fantasy football category on our blog, and you can also use the search function on the right of the blog to find individual players.
10 – Jonathan Stewart, Panthers – Stewart is currently fighting an Achilles tendon injury, and the Panthers are being overly cautious to protect him. But as long as Stewart is ready in week one, he’s a fantasy starter even in a limited role. A lot of people look at his 10-touchdown stat line from ’08 and consider Stewart a goal-line back, but he’s more than that. Look again, and you’ll see that he had 836 rushing yards and a 4.5 yards-per-carry average. In other words, he’s a ton better than T.J. Duckett. Even playing a role behind DeAngelo Williams, Stewart is a No. 2 fantasy starter in most leagues whom you can count on for 800 yards and 8-10 touchdowns again at a minimum. Plus, he has the upside to do more if he stays healthy throughout the season or if Williams gets hurt or struggles. Stewart fits starting at the beginning of the third round in regular-sized fantasy leagues.
*Players above this line are in general every-week starters in 10- or 12-team fantasy leagues. Players below this line become matchup plays and flex-position options.
9 – Donald Brown, Colts – Most people are projecting Brown to be the change-up for Joseph Addai, and that role would make him a fantasy backup. But Brown has more upside than that because he could actually usurp the starting role from Addai. That makes Brown an ideal No. 3 back in most fantasy leagues because of his upside. To begin the season, Brown is a matchup play or a flex option, but he could easily become a starter by midseason.
9 (con’t) LenDale White, Titans – White also has a goal-line back rep, but he got 200 carries last year en route to a 773-yard, 15-touchdown season. That touchdown number is out of proportion, and so it would be unreasonable to expect that many scores from him this year. But White is a 10-12 touchdown guy who should also get 700 rushing yards or more. The Titans will use White in short-yardage situations, but they’ll also use him to spell Chris Johnson to help keep Johnson healthy throughout the season. You probably don’t want to count on White as an every-week starter, but he can be a strong matchup play and flex option, and if you end up having to start him most weeks, it’ll probably turn out OK.
8 – Reggie Bush, Saints – Bush is not a starting NFL running back, and at this point he’s not an ideal fantasy football starter either. He is an elite player at what he does well – catching the ball out of the backfield and returning punts. He’s dangerous enough with the ball in his hands that he should get 15-18 touches every game, and he’s liable to score 10 touchdowns with that limited number of changes. But Pierre Thomas is the Saints running back who can start for your fantasy team this year. Bush has scored six offensive touchdowns in each of the last two years, (though he added three on punt returns in ’08), and he has missed at least four games in each year. You simply can’t count on him every week. But if you draft him as your No. 3 back, you’re going to have a guy who will score 6-8 touchdowns and pile up some yards and receptions for you. He’s the definition of a fantasy football flex-position guy.
*Players above this line are consistent flex options and/or matchup plays. Players below this line fall into more traditional backup roles for fantasy football.
7 – Felix Jones, Cowboys – Jones has a ton of talent, but he’s kind of hard to project from a fantasy perspective because he missed so much time in his rookie season. In the six games he played, Jones averaged 5 carries per game, in addition to a handful of catches and returns, but he scored four TDs in those six games. If he can get 10-12 touches a game and stay healthy, he can probably double that touchdown total and end up with more than 600 yards. That would make him a solid No. 3 fantasy back. But because of his undefined role, he’s more of a borderline No. 3 or supersolid No. 4 fantasy back who you take hoping his role ends up being more than we’re expecting it to be at this point. Nonetheless, he’s a guy worth taking a flier on in your fantasy draft.
6 – Chester Taylor, Vikings – Playing behind Adrian Peterson the last two years, Taylor (a former 1,200 yard rusher) has scored 6 and 7 touchdowns and had 800 and 1,000 total yards. That kind of production merits a top backup spot in your fantasy league. The thing that keeps Taylor half a notch below Felix Jones is the lack of upside; we’ve seen over the last two years what Taylor is going to be. Only a long-term Adrian Peterson injury opens the door for Taylor to be more. So Taylor is a smart pick if you have Peterson, and he’s a solid bye-week and/or emergency fill-in for other fantasy owners.
6 (con’t) – Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers – Mendenhall had a disappointing rookie season, averaging just 3.1 yards per carry before suffering a season-ending injury in the fourth game. But this year, a healthy Mendenhall remains a good fantasy prospect. He’ll start off as Willie Parker’s backup, but Mendenhall’s size could allow him to seize short-yardage carries first and then eventually start to carve into Parker’s regular workload. Mendenhall starts off as a lower-end No. 3 fantasy back or a top No. 4 fantasy back, but he’s one with a lot of upside. He probably won’t be as good to play in an emergency as Taylor will be, but he could end up with bigger numbers because of the role he could develop in Pittsburgh as the season wears on.
5 – Leon Washington, Jets – Triple threats like Washington have huge value to their NFL teams, but their value to fantasy teams is hard to quantify. Washington had 800 yards and 10 total touchdowns last year, which is enough to make him a No. 3 fantasy back. But that’s probably the top end of what Washington can provide in the role he has. I’d prefer to make him a top No. 4 fantasy back (basically between 32 and 45 on the RB draft board) who has potential to start pretty much every week if your roster faces tough matchups, byes, or injuries. It just doesn’t make sense to me to depend on him for more than that. He can be an asset to your roster, but relying on him too heavily will leave you disappointed in the end because his role is so compacted.
5 (con’t) – Darren Sproles, Chargers – Sproles is the same song, second verse as Washington. Last year he finally carved out a sizable offensive role in San Diego, and he delivered with 662 yards and six touchdowns. Throw in a return touchdown, and you have a valuable fantasy backup. Sproles’ numbers could go up a tiny bit this year, because he will get regular offensive touches from the start of the season, but he’s still a top No. 4 running back who is best as a fill-in. Like Washington, Sproles isn’t a guy you want to rely on regularly, but he is a guy you can call on at any time.
4 – Le’Ron McClain, Ravens – McClain is nominally the Ravens’ fullback, but he was a running back who had 900 rushing yards and 11 total touchdowns last year. Those numbers will be hard to match in ’09 with the emergence of Ray Rice, but McClain will still have a role. Still, he fits below Washington and Sproles because his productivity as a short-yardage specialist and rotation back is a little more dependent on matchups than the production of explosive players like Washington and Sproles. That makes McClain a No. 4 fantasy back who falls just below Sproles and Washington on the draft board.
3 – Ahmad Bradshaw, Giants – Bradshaw gets a lot of attention as a member of the Giants’ Earth, Wind, and Fire backfield, but his production doesn’t match the hype. He fell behind Derrick Ward in the NYG hierarchy by the end of last season, and while Ward is gone, it’s possible that Danny Ware could prevent Bradshaw from leaping ahead in touches this year. Some people are touting Bradshaw as a No. 3 fantasy back; it says here that’s he’s really an average No. 4 who will end up in the 40s in terms of running back production. He’s a decent backup who has upside if (or when) Brandon Jacobs gets dinged up, but he’s not going to break out in a big way.
2 – Tim Hightower, Cardinals – Hightower exploded onto the fantasy scene last year with seven touchdowns in the Cardinals’ first eight games, but his production waned pretty severely. While he scored 10 touchdowns and had 34 catches, he ended up averaging just 2.8 yards per carry. Now that the Cardinals have Beanie Wells as their first-round pick, Hightower looks to fall into a more traditional backup role. He’s just a No. 5 fantasy back whose upside is tied to Wells’ downside but not much more. He’s still worth drafting in most leagues, but relying on Hightower even as a bye-week fill-in is dangerous.
2 (con’t) – Jerious Norwood, Falcons – Norwood is a lite version of Washington and Sproles, a triple threat who provides a great change of pace to Michael Turner. He had 800 offensive yards and six touchdowns last year, and he’s likely to come close to that yardage total again this year. But Norwood, while talented, is not in Washington’s or Sproles’ league as a gamebreaker. That means that his touchdown total of 6 could easily fall to 2-4 this year. Norwood is a No. 5 backup who could go into your lineup in a big-time pinch, but relying on him for more is unwise.
1 – Michael Bush and Justin Fargas, Raiders – The Raiders had a solid running game last year. Fargas ended up with 853 rushing yards, and Bush had 421 rushing yards with a late-season push. Both are talented backs, but both should lose carries to Darren McFadden this year. Fargas is the back who is most likely to lose in this transaction, as he and McFadden could basically switch yardage totals in ’09. Bush has a chance to maintain his role because he’s a bigger back with short-yardage ability. But the uncertainty makes Fargas and Bush specialty backs who fit in the No. 5 fantasy back category.