It’s summer, and that means it’s time to start our fantasy football preparation for 2010. The first step is to identify the Tier 1A and 1B players at running back, wide receiver, and quarterback. In this post, we’ll identify the elite guys (aka The A-Team because of this summer’s movie relaunch) at running back, with wideouts at quarterbacks to follow.
Definition of an A-Team player: A guy you can legitimately build a fantasy team around. He can’t just be a no-question starter; he has to be a stud who will produce even more than an average fantasy starter at his position. At running back, that means a guy we expect to have fantasy production that equals at least 12 total touchdowns and at least 1,600 yards from scrimmage. The A-Team at running back includes players on Tiers 1A and 1B but not players we’re slotting on Tier 1C of our draft board at this point.
Chris Johnson, Titans – Johnson enters our fantasy football preparation as our No. 1 overall player, in a close race over Adrian Peterson. He’s coming off a 2,006-yard rushing season that also included 500 receiving yards and 16 total touchdowns. And with LenDale White gone, Johnson may get a few more cracks in short-yardage, goal-line situations. The third-year back still has young legs, and so last year’s strong workload isn’t yet a cause for concern. It’s unreasonable to expect 2,000 rushing yards again, but 2,000 yards from scrimmage is a reasonable expectation for one of the league’s fastest players. And don’t worry about Johnson’s current contract dispute unless it lingers into August training camp. For now, Johnson’s the No. 1 pick.
Adrian Peterson, Vikings – Peterson was more of a touchdown generator than Johnson last year with 18 journeys into the end zone, but his yardage total of 1,800 paled in comparison to Johnson’s ridiculous output. Peterson is still an elite back, and with Chester Taylor gone he might actually pile up more yards between the 20s this year. Rookie Toby Gerhart could take away a few goal-line opportunities, but that’s not a major fantasy concern. Peterson has had 1,600, 1,700, and 1,800 yards from scrimmage in his first three seasons, and he’ll be in that neighborhood again without question. Add in double-digit touchdowns, and he’s an easy call as a top-2 player in fantasy drafts this season.
Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars – MoJo was always a fantasy producer, but last year for the first time he had the chance to be an unquestioned every-down back in Jacksonville because Fred Taylor was gone. Jones-Drew delivered 1,391 rushing yards, 374 receiving yards, and 16 total touchdowns to cement his status as an elite fantasy running back. He’s one of the few backs who doesn’t have to share more than about 20 percent of his carries, and that plus his proclivity for finding the end zone (54 offensive touchdowns in four seasons) makes him an incredibly safe bet at the top of fantasy drafts. Jones-Drew can’t run with Johnson and Peterson because he doesn’t have the top-end potential that those guys have, but he’s a great consolation prize if you end up with the third pick in the draft.
Ray Rice, Ravens – In his second season, Rice broke out in a huge way with 1,339 rushing yards, 702 receiving yards, and eight total touchdowns. That 2,000-yard output shot Rice to the top of the fantasy charts, and he’ll stay there this year. His touchdown potential is limited by the presence of Willis McGahee and LeRon McClain, both of whom are fine short-yardage backs. But Rice will continue to be the main yardage guy in Baltimore, and the Ravens’ run-first approach gives fantasy owners some assurance that Rice will be worth a top-5 draft pick even with McGahee and McClain around. Rice comes with a little risk, but in the end we’ll include him in Tier 1B as part of the A-Team.
Frank Gore, 49ers – Gore has a reputation of missing games, but he’s actually only been in street clothes for five games in the past four seasons. And when he plays, he produces, with 1,500 total yards and 13 touchdowns last season. Gore has only had one season in his four as a starter with more than 1,600 yards from scrimmage, and that came four years ago, and last year’s 13-touchdown season was his first double-digit campaign. But he’s a dependable producer who represents a safe pick in the first round. Don’t forget that the 49ers spent two first-round picks on offensive linemen in the draft to give their run game more punch this season in your evaluation. Gore doesn’t have the upside that Rice has, but he still makes the cut to be a Tier1B option. That puts him on the A-Team.
Steven Jackson, Rams – After two years of missing a quarter of the season, Jackson played all but one game last year and returned to top-level production with 1,738 yards from scrimmage. Jackson did this on a terrible team, and while that limited his yardage total it scuttled his touchdown total so that he had just four. Jackson is an every-down back on a terrible team, and no matter what the Rams have added this offseason that hasn’t changed. So it’s unreasonable to expect Jackson to return to his elite level of 2005-06. You can count on Jackson for 1,500 yards, but the touchdown total will struggle enough to keep him in Tier 1C instead of on the A-Team.
Michael Turner, Falcons – After a massive 2008 season with 1,740 yards from scrimmage and 17 touchdowns, Turner struggled with injuries last year and finished with 906 yards and 10 touchdowns in 11 games. He tried to come back from his injury before he was 100 percent, and that limited his effectiveness. The question is whether his high-volume 2008 season burned him out, or whether at age 28 Turner is starting to slip even though he didn’t have a ton of carries in his first four NFL seasons. Turner has the potential to force his way back onto the A-Team, but after his 2009 struggles we’re inclined to leave him on Tier 1C for now and see how our opinion changes through the rest of the offseason. He’s a borderline first-round pick in most leagues, but we’re not ready to include him among the elite.
Ryan Grant, Packers – After a sterling half-season as a starter in 2007, Grant has posted back-to-back 1,200-yard rushing seasons to establish himself as a legitimate first-round option. Grant also had 11 touchdowns last season, making his five-TD 2008 campaign look more like a fluke than his eight-TD half season in 2007. Grant doesn’t have the top-end potential that Rice or Turner has, but he’s so dependable that he’s at least in the A-Team conversation. In the end, we’ll put Grant on Tier 1C instead of with the A-Team, but don’t overlook him as an option.
DeAngelo Williams, Panthers – Williams missed three games last year and split time with Jonathan Stewart, but he still piled up big numbers in one of the league’s most run-heavy offenses. Williams’ total of 1,369 yards from scrimmage and seven touchdowns is impressive even before you prorate it over a full 16-game season. Then when you realize that Jake Delhomme won’t be turning the ball over and over and over for the Panthers this year, Williams’ prospects look even better. While it’s pretty unlikely that Williams has another 20-touchdown season in him, even splitting time with Stewart doesn’t take totals like 1,500 total yards and double-digit touchdowns off the table. It’s more likely Williams lands in Ryan Grant land, but we’re at least toying with the idea of moving Williams up to the A-Team. For now, Tier 1C is a given.
Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers – Mendenhall didn’t take over as a starter until October, but he still piled up 1,108 rushing yards and 261 receiving yards to go with eight total touchdowns. The assumption is that with Willie Parker gone, Mendenhall will get a few more carries in the first half of the season, Mendenhall would move into the 1,500 total yard, 10-touchdown category. But we’re not as bullish on Mendenhall. We’ve never loved his straight-up running style, and his lack of breakaway ability means he usually has to be completely sprung free to break off a big gain. So we don’t see Mendenhall having the upside that others do. While some people have Mendenhall as a top-8 fantasy player this year, we’d feel a lot better about taking him in the 10-15 range, a la Ryan Grant. He’s in Tier 1C, not on the A-Team.
Cedric Benson, Bengals – Benson missed three games at the end of the season last year, but through 13 games he piled up 1,362 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns. Benson isn’t a dynamic runner, but in a run-first offense he figures to pile up a ton of yards once again. The lack of touchdowns is a minor red flag, and we wouldn’t be surprised to see Benson land in the 1,200-yard range instead of the 1,500-yard promised land. But he’s at least worth mentioning in the A-Team discussion before we slot him comfortably at the bottom of Tier 1c.