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Fantasy Football: Crowded backfields

As more NFL teams turn to running back committees, it gets harder and harder for fantasy football owners to sort out crowded backfield situations. So in this post, we’re going to analyze some of these situations to see what fantasy insight we can glean. We’ll do this on a team-by-team basis. If we missed a team you want to discuss, leave a comment and we’ll add them in.

As always, there’s much more fantasy football coverage in the category listing on the blog. And we once again referred to this great depth-chart site to help us along.

BillsRookie C.J. Spiller is the enthralling pick among Buffalo’s stable of running backs because of his breakaway ability, and he makes an ideal No. 4 fantasy back because he can score at any moment. But our suspicion is that holdover Fred Jackson will be a bit more consistently valuable from a fantasy perspective and end up with more fantasy points. So Jackson creeps just above Spiller in the pecking order. Holdover Marshawn Lynch is in the doghouse and shouldn’t be drafted by fantasy owners.

Broncos – It appeared entering training camp that Denver had a pretty clear-cut breakdown in its backfield, with Knowshon Moreno emerging as a fantasy starter and Correll Buckhalter fitting in as bye-week flex play who got a few opportunities. But both Moreno and Buckhalter suffered training-camp injuries that slowed their preparation, and the Broncos added LenDale White and Justin Fargas just to get through the preseason. We still believe in Moreno as a high-end No. 2 fantasy back, but we’ve dropped Buckhalter to a No. 4 back until we see how he heals and whether White and/or Fargas make the team.

Browns – Some fantasy touts are pushing Jerome Harrison as a starting running back, but we don’t agree. Despite Harrison’s strong finish, we are much more comfortable slotting in Harrison as a low-end No. 3 fantasy back and borderline flex play instead of relying on him as a starter. Instead, we’d rather take a chance on rookie Montario Hardesty, who we see as a No. 3 fantasy back with upside. Second-year man James Davis has some talent but will trouble carving out a role and therefore is not draftable for fantasy owners.

Buccaneers – The offensive situation around Cadillac Williams is a bit more favorable than it was last year, and Williams actually had a decent fantasy year last year with 1,040 yards from scrimmage and seven total touchdowns. If he can stay healthy, he’s a solid fantasy backup who could edge into flex position consideration. Derrick Ward, who signed as a free agent in Tampa Bay last year, had a disappointing season with only half the yardage Williams posted and three touchdowns. He’s worth drafting in larger leagues, just in case he emerges quickly, but he’s a No. 5 fantasy back and not much more.

Cardinals – We’re big fans of Beanie Wells this year and expect him to break out as a top-15 back. As a result, we expect Tim Hightower to function more as a handcuff or a No. 4 back who’s an emergency fill-in instead of as a potential flex play, as he has been in the past. LaRod Stephens-Howling is a third-down back who won’t get enough chances to be fantasy relevant unless there’s an injury.

Chiefs – Jamaal Charles broke out as a fantasy performer over the second half of last year, and he’s a hot prospect this year. But because of the crowded backfield around him, it’s hard for us to project Charles as a No. 1 fantasy back. He’s a great investment with upside on Tier 2. The crowd is largely because the Chiefs added vet Thomas Jones in the offseason after he had a great season for the Jets. However, because of his age and Charles’ presence, Jones is more of a No. 3 fantasy back than a starter who will complement Charles instead of compete with him. Note also that rookie Dexter McCluster could get running back eligibility and merit No. 5 fantasy back status.

Colts – Joseph Addai had a solid season last year, holding off rookie Donald Brown to be a fantasy starter. Now Addai enters a contract year, and Brown is the heir apparent. Addai remains a fantasy starter, while Brown is a No. 5 fantasy back who can serve as a handcuff to Addai or as a speculative investment in the draft.

Cowboys – The buzz is around Felix Jones, but the hype doesn’t match reality. We prefer Marion Barber as a fantasy option to Jones (as we discussed in this post), and while we’re comfortable relying on Barber as a No. 2 fantasy back in larger leagues, we can’t say the same about Jones. Jones is an ideal flex play, not a starting running back. Tashard Choice is a talented back with limited opportunity who gains tons of value if either Barber and Jones get hurt. Choose Choice as a No. 5 back and stash him for a rainy day.

Dolphins – Miami, along with Carolina, is one of the few places where the top two running backs both merit fantasy starter consideration. We prefer Ricky Williams, who was amazing down the stretch last year, to Ronnie Brown, but we expect both guys to surpass 1,200 total yards if they stay healthy. Both are solid fantasy starters.

Eagles – Even with longtime stalwart Brian Westbrook gone, the Eagles once again have a crowded backfield situation. Second-year man LeSean McCoy figures to get the most touches, although we see him as much more of a No. 2 fantasy back than a guy with the upside to pace a fantasy roster. Free-agent addition Mike Bell could get some goal-line touches, because that isn’t McCoy’s forte, and fullback Leonard Weaver will get some shots as well. Both Bell and Weaver are No. 5 fantasy backs with a bit of upside in case McCoy struggles.

Jets – Shonn Greene’s performance in the postseason convinced the Jets he was ready to be a bellcow back, and we believe he’ll deliver fantasy starter numbers now that Thomas Jones is in Kansas City. With Leon Washington gone, some people expect LaDainian Tomlinson to emerge as a potential flex fantasy play, but we don’t. Tomlinson’s skills have fallen off the precipice, and we wouldn’t draft him as more than a No. 5 back. We’re far more inclined to bet on rookie Joe McKnight as the complement to Greene as a receiver and runner in the old Leon Washington-style role.

Panthers – As in Miami, Carolina features two running backs who deserve to start for fantasy teams. DeAngelo Williams is a Tier-1 back who will deliver fantasy starter numbers and who could carry a fantasy team to a title, while Jonathan Stewart is a dependable No. 2 fantasy back. Other options, like Mike Goodson and Tyrell Sutton, gain fantasy value only if Williams or Stewart is hurt.

Patriots – Few backfield situations are as inscrutable as New England’s, because so many guys have defined roles. But that makes it hard to mine much fantasy value from the situation. Laurence Maroney, although he’s been disappointing, is still the best prospect. He only had 856 total yards last year, but he scored nine touchdowns, including a stretch in which he had at least one touchdown six games in a row. He’s a No. 3 fantasy back who could emerge as a starter but probably won’t. Venerable veteran Fred Taylor played only six games last year, although he finished strong once he got healthy. If he stays healthy he could actually surpass Maroney in the pecking order. Right now, we have Taylor as a No. 4 fantasy back. Sammy Morris will steal some carries, but not enough to be fantasy relevant, and Kevin Faulk’s third-down back role won’t make him a fantasy option either.

Raiders – Justin Fargas is gone, but the Raiders still have a crowded backfield. Michael Bush and Darren McFadden both could lay claim to being No. 1 running backs, although the most likely scenario is that they split time. Bush averaged 4.8 yards per carry last season, which is a fine number, but he must prove he can handle more than 140 touches in a season. McFadden averaged only 3.4 yards per carry and missed four games, but his pedigree as a top-5 overall pick speaks to his talent. He’s also a much better receiver than Bush, which will help him get more touches. Right now, we have both Bush and McFadden as borderline No. 3 fantasy backs with upside, and if one emerges in the preseason, he could jump up to the top 25 at the position. And it’s not a bad strategy to draft both Bush and McFadden in the middle rounds in hopes that one separates himself.

Redskins – The Redskins have the most geriatric RB corps in the league, and that’s not a good sign. But the situation around those runners is good now that Donovan McNabb and two new offensive tackles (Jammal Brown and Trent Williams) are in town. Clinton Portis thrived with Mike Shanahan in Denver, but he struggled in a big way last season and looks like a No. 3 fantasy back on performance right now. Larry Johnson bombed out in Kansas City last year, but he rebounded a bit in Cincinnati and looks like he could be a No. 4 fantasy back in larger leagues. There’s at least the potential that Johnson could usurp Portis, which adds fantasy upside. Willie Parker (aka old dog No. 3) is more likely to get released than to make a fantasy impact.

Saints – The Saints had a three-headed monster at running back last year, but it looks like a two-man show this season. Pierre Thomas is a solid No. 2 fantasy back, especially now that Lynell Hamilton is out for the season. Thomas should get more touches this season if he can stay healthy. Reggie Bush has carved out a feature role that makes him a nice flex option for fantasy owners. He can score in so many different ways that he’s capable of producing for fantasy owners, but it won’t happen consistently, which is why Bush is a No. 3 fantasy back and not a starter.

Seahawks – The Seahawks have a convoluted situation, but it appears that Justin Forsett will be the best fantasy option among their backs. It’s risky to count on Forsett as a No. 2 fantasy back, but if you can get him as a flex option, you’ll have a great situation. Leon Washington should carve out enough of a role to be a No. 4 fantasy back, and Julius Jones is still around. But Jones averaged just 3.7 yards per carry and will primarily keep Forsett and Washington from getting pummeled too often. That’s not a fantasy-friendly role.

Texans – Few coaches have been as frustrating to fantasy owners as Gary Kubiak, because he’s willing to give any running back a shot at any time. That means that Arian Foster, rookie Ben Tate, and former 1,000-yard rusher Steve Slaton all have upside, but they also have limited roles. Our suspicion is that Foster, who appears to be in line for the first shot at starting, will be the most valuable of the trio, and that’s why we slot him as a No. 3 fantasy back with a lot of upside. Tate is a borderline No. 3 fantasy back, while Slaton, who appears headed for a third-down role (at least for now) is a No. 5 back at best.

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Fantasy Football: Starting Running Backs

Few things in fantasy football are more frustrating than not having solid starters at running back. So in this post, we’re going to continue to break down our running back draft board to identify guys you can trust to start for you this season.

We’ve broken down Tier 1 at running back and looked at rookie running backs and potential breakout running backs. That has given us a clear view of Tiers 1 and 2 at the position, which as of now includes 11 RBs on Tier 1 and six RBs on Tier 2. That means Tier 3 will feature several running backs that will start for fantasy teams. So in this post, we’re going to use our applaud or a fraud tool to discuss running backs on Tier 3 so that we can find the next 8-10 backs that will fill starting spots in 12-team leagues. Players are listed alphabetically.

Joseph Addai, Colts – After a disappointing ’08 season, Addai had a bit of a fantasy bounceback in 2009, piling up 1,164 yards from scrimmage and 13 touchdowns in 15 games. That was a bit surprising, especially after the Colts added first-round running back Donald Brown. But don’t be deceived by Addai’s numbers, because he averaged just 3.8 yards per carry and just 6.6 yards per catch, which was a yard and a half below his previous career low. Part of Addai’s low yards-per-touch averages was Indy’s offensive line, which struggled last year and has been upgraded in the offseason. But Brown’s emergence is still a danger to Addai’s production. Given his role, Addai still fits as a Tier 3 running back, but barely so. He’s only a fantasy starter in larger leagues. Verdict: Applaud

Marion Barber, Cowboys – Barber piled up 1,153 yards from scrimmage last year, and he scored seven touchdowns (giving him 49 in a five-year career). Still, the buzz is behind Felix Jones, not Barber, in the Cowboys’ backfield. Yes, Jones is more explosive than Barber, but we like the fact that Barber rebounded to average 4.4 yards per carry last year. Yes, Jones will get his chances, but Barber’s running and receiving should pile up 1,000 yards with eight touchdowns, which makes him a borderline No. 2 fantasy back and a solid Tier 3 member. Verdict: Applaud

Jahvid Best, Lions – Besides Ryan Mathews (a Tier 2 back), Best is the rookie back with the clearest shot for a starting job, as we discussed in this post. Detroit hasn’t been a great home for fantasy running backs in recent years, but Kevin Smith has put up decent numbers, and he’s not the explosive threat that Best is. Best is a nice investment as a top-25 back because his breakaway ability adds upside. He’s safely onto Tier 3. Verdict: Applaud

Ahmad Bradshaw, Giants – Bradshaw had a breakout season last year, totaling 985 yards from scrimmage and scoring seven touchdowns. He averaged 4.8 yards per carry, continuing his strong work in that category while increasing his workload. From about midseason on, Bradshaw was in basically a 50-50 split for carries with Brandon Jacobs, and we believe that trend continues this year based on Bradshaw’s performance last year. Bradshaw be a 1,000-yard producer with 6-8 touchdowns, and there’s a possibility for more if the Giants continue to swing the carries percentage toward Bradshaw based on performance. Verdict: Applaud

Ronnie Brown, Dolphins – How do you break down the Dolphins’ backfield? Brown ran for 648 yards and eight touchdowns before suffering a season-ending injury in Miami’s ninth game, and afterhe injured his right foot. After Brown’s injury, Ricky Williams ran wild. So it’s safe to say that the Dolphins have a run-friendly offense with a stout offensive line, and even with Williams around Brown should pile up about 1,000 total yards with 8-10 touchdowns. That’s enough to place Brown safely on Tier 3 and consider him a top-25 running back, even though we slightly prefer Williams this year. Verdict: Applaud

Reggie Bush, Saints – At this point, fantasy owners need to accept who Bush is and who he’s not. Bush is a terrific triple threat who can score running, receiving, and on punt returns. But Bush isn’t going to be a mega-yardage producer who is a consistent fantasy performer. Last year showed that, as Bush totaled just 725 yards from scrimmage but had eight total touchdowns. That makes him a terrific No. 3 back who fits as a flex option or as a bye-week fill-in with great upside on any particular week. But if you depend on Bush to deliver on a weekly basis, you’ll be disappointed. He’s on Tier 3, but not as high as his teammate Pierre Thomas. Verdict: Applaud

Justin Forsett, Seahawks – Forsett was one of the few bright spots in a lost season in Seattle last year, amassing 969 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns despite sharing time with Julius Jones. Jones is still around, and Leon Washington is now around, duplicating many of Forsett’s skills. But Forsett is still the best option the Seahawks have, and we expect him to win enough touches in Pete Carroll’s always-compete system to come close to his 2010 numbers again. That encourages us to leave Forsett on Tier 3 as a potential starter in larger leagues.Verdict: Applaud

Matt Forte, Bears – After a terrific rookie season, Forte was a top-5 overall pick in many fantasy leagues last year. But his results dropped off significantly as he ended up with 1,400 yards from scrimmage and just four touchdowns. Even worse, aside from four pretty good fantasy performances against the sorry Lions (twice), Rams, and Browns, Forte’s weekly performance was even worse than his season numbers indicate. The Bears’ offensive line, which was a part of the problem, has gotten an offseason overhaul that should help, but the offense is different for Forte this year with Mike Martz on-board as offensive coordinator. Even more of a threat to Forte’s stock is the appearance of Chester Taylor, a versatile back who could merit at least 40 percent of the work and could take a greater share if Forte struggles. Forte’s receiving acumen fits Martz’s system, but his chances will decrease because of Martz’s system. After last year, we don’t trust Forte as a top-25 back, but he’s still a starter (barely) in large leagues and therefore a fit on Tier 3. Verdict: Applaud

Montario Hardesty, Browns – In our rookie running back post, we talked about how Hardesty is worth drafting at the bottom of Tier 3 because of his upside. He’s not a starting-caliber running back, but we recommend drafting him as such in order to have his significant upside as your No. 3 running back. Verdict: Applaud

Jerome Harrison, Browns – As we recommend Hardesty, we believe Harrison will settle into No. 3 fantasy running back status on Tier 4. Yes, he ran for 862 yards last season, but his numbers were inflated by a 286-yard performance against an abysmal Kansas City defense. More importantly, in games in which he had at least eight carries, that was one of only two games in which he averaged at least four yards per carry. Hardesty’s breakaway ability will surpass Harrison’s workmanlike status, and so Harrison’s numbers will rely on a heavy dose of carries and catches. He’ll have enough for 800 yards from scrimmage and 5-6 touchdowns, but not significantly more. Verdict: A fraud

Fred Jackson, Bills – Jackson successfully carved out a role in Buffalo despite facing off against a first-round pick in Marshawn Lynch, and now he must maintain such a role alongside first-round pick C.J. Spiller. Jackson’s receiving skills will help him do so. While Spiller’s also a talented receiver, the Bills will likely want to limit Spiller’s exposure as a rookie so that they can prolong his career. That means Jackson will continue to pile up around 1,000 yards from scrimmage and with six touchdowns or so. That dependable production means that Jackson is a candidate to start in larger fantasy leagues and therefore a member of Tier 3. Verdict: Applaud

Brandon Jacobs, Giants – After a terrific ’08 fantasy season, Jacobs slipped in a big way in 2009, running for just 835 yards and scoring just six touchdowns. He averaged just 3.7 yards per carry and lost carries as Ahmad Bradshaw was far more productive on 60 fewer carries. Part of the problem was that the Giants’ offensive line, which had been solid for so long, started to slip, but there’s a very real possibility that Jacobs is in decline. Because Jacobs isn’t a good receiver, his stats are all about the carries, and we don’t see him as a top-25 back, which means he shouldn’t be a starter in 12-team leagues. We’ll leave him off of Tier 3 because, while his numbers figure to match the Felix Jones and C.J. Spiller types, Jacobs doesn’t have the upside those guys do. Verdict: A fraud

Felix Jones, Cowboys – In his second season, Jones played 14 games and still averaged 5.9 yards per carry, which is a remarkable number. But he only had three touchdowns on 135 touches. On first glance, we figured Jones was a good No. 3 back with upside, but after studying Marion Barber’s numbers, we’re a little less bullish on Jones. He’s still on Tier 3, but just barely, and he shouldn’t  be considered a fantasy starter. Don’t get carried away. Verdict: Applaud

Thomas Jones, Chiefs – At age 31, Jones had a career year in ’09, rushing for a personal-best 1,402 yards and a personal-best 14 touchdowns. But he slowed down in the playoffs, and the Jets actually cut him in the offseason to save several million dollars. Jones landed in Kansas City, where he will team with Jamaal Charles in the backfield. In this situation, there’s no way that Jones gets 331 carries as he did last year, and he may not get half that total. That means that Jones’ numbers are headed downward. The question is how far. We learned last year not to doubt Jones’ abilities, but our hunch is that Charles’ explosiveness will earn enough carries that Jones ends up in the 800-yard range. He has the potential to be the goal-line back, which could put him near double-digit touchdowns again, but Jones is still a better bet atop Tier 4 than among starters on Tier 3. Verdict: A fraud

LeSean McCoy, Eagles – As a rookie, McCoy had a nice season, stepping in for the injured Brian Westbrook and totaling 945 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns. Now that Westbrook is gone, McCoy seems to have a clear shot to more touches, and that should help him get into the 1,000-1,200 yards from scrimmage range. Don’t get too carried away with McCoy’s stock, because Mike Bell could steal some short-yardage and goal-line carries, and fullback Leonard Weaver is a burly breakaway threat. But McCoy is worth the investment as a starting fantasy back, even in 10-team leagues. Verdict: Applaud

Clinton Portis, Redskins – Portis isn’t even 29 yet (his birthday is just before the 2010 season opens), but he has a lot of miles behind him, which makes us skeptical of his production. The fact that he missed the second half of last season (after concussion symptoms) reminds us that Portis’ decline is coming, if it’s not already here. Portis’ numbers projected to 1,000-yard rushing season (although he scored just one touchdown in one game). Maybe he can recreate those numbers in 2010 under his former head coach Mike Shanahan, who’s now in D.C. But remember that the Skins also added over-30 backs Larry Johnson and Willie Parker in the offseason, which could limit Portis’ numbers. Our hunch is that Portis will be drafted as a No. 3 fantasy back, but we’re slotting him below that level on Tier 4 because we get the sense that his numbers could fall completely off the table. Verdict: A fraud

C.J. Spiller, Bills – We discussed Spiller in our rookie RB post and talked about how his talent doesn’t outweigh his situation in Buffalo. Spiller isn’t a guy you can rely on as a starter because of that situation, but we’ll stick him on the bottom of Tier 3 because his talent creates enough upside to take him as a priority No. 3 back. Verdict: Applaud

Pierre Thomas, Saints – Thomas was the lead back in New Orleans’ three-headed backfield last season, piling up 793 rushing yards, 302 receiving yards, and eight total touchdowns. That production didn’t quite match his ’08 fantasy numbers, but they were still good enough to merit being a fantasy starter. This season, with Mike Bell gone to Philadelphia, Thomas could actually see his workload tick upward, especially at the goal line. He’s among the top backs in Tier 3 and a safe No. 2 fantasy back. Verdict: Applaud

Ricky Williams, Dolphins – At age 32 last season, Williams defied the odds by putting together a terrific season, averaging 4.7 yards per carry as he piled up 1,121 rushing yards and seven touchdowns despite sharing time with Ronnie Brown for the first half of the season. Plus, Williams had 35 catches, which marked the seventh time in his eight full seasons that he had at least 29 catches. With 13 total touchdowns, Williams ended the season with legitimate No. 1 fantasy back production, especially during the second half of the season. With Brown returning, expectations shouldn’t be that high, but Williams is back to being a reliable starting fantasy back who fits comfortably in Tier 3. Verdict: Applaud


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Jersey Numbers: Running Backs

Over the next several weeks, we’re going to look at several different positions (I can’t yet promise all) to identify the best players wearing each jersey number at each position. If this goes as planned, we’ll then compile a list of the best player wearing each jersey number in the league.

If you have quibbles, or want to add someone I forgot, leave a comment and we’ll update this post. And please have patience – this is a big job.

We started this project with wide receivers in this post and then with tight ends in this post and quarterbacks in this post. Now we move to running backs, who wear numbers between 20 and 49.

20 – Thomas Jones, Jets – It was surprising to hear during this week’s Jets/Patriots game that Jones had moved into the top 30 of all-time NFL rushers. That’s an impressive accomplishment, especially for a guy who struggled as a top-10 overall pick in his first stop in Arizona. But in subsequent stops in Tampa Bay, Chicago, and now New York Jones has proven he can produce. He’s an easy choice here over young whippersnappers Steve Slaton of Houston and Darren McFadden of Oakland. Other notable 20: Justin Forsett, Seahawks

21 – LaDanian Tomlinson, Chargers – LDT is no longer the dominant force he was in his prime years, but if one of the top 10 backs of all time is playing in the league, we have to give him the number nod, even over a stud like Frank Gore of San Francisco or a long-time producer like Fred Taylor of the Patriots. Other notable 21s: Mike Bell, Saints; Ryan Moats, Texans; Javon Ringer, Titans; Melwede Moore, Steelers

22 – Matt Forte, Bears – Forte had an outstanding rookie year last year, but this year he’s been stymied by a subpar offensive line. Still, he gets the nod at this point over Julius Jones of the Seahawks and Fred Jackson of the Bills. Other notable 22s: Peyton Hillis, Broncos; Jacob Hester, Chargers; Chris Brown, Texans; Clifton Smith, Buccaneers

23 – Ronnie Brown, Dolphins – Before suffering a season-ending injury, Brown was continuing to prove himself as one of the league’s top-10 backs. Throw in the fact that he can throw it out of the Wildcat, and Brown gets the nod over Marshawn Lynch of the Bills and Pierre Thomas of the Saints. Other notable 23s: Willis McGahee, Ravens; Shonn Greene, Jets

24 – Marion Barber, Cowboys – Marion the Barbarian isn’t having a dominant year, but he’s still a really good back. We have no choice but to give him the nod over comeback story extraordinare Cadillac Williams of Tampa Bay.

25 – Ryan Grant, Packers – While Reggie Bush’s 25 is a best selling jersey not just in New Orleans but league wide, Grant has been the more consistently productive back over the past three years. So we’ll give Grant the nod over Bush. Other notable 25s: Justin Fargas, Raiders; LenDale White, Titans; Garrett Wolfe, Bears; Jamaal Charles, Chiefs

26 – Clinton Portis, Redskins – Although he’s sidelined by a concussion at the home, Portis’ long and productive career makes him an easy choice here over promising rookie Beanie Wells of Arizona.

27 – Ray Rice, Ravens – Brandon Jacobs of the Giants has a bigger profile, and Larry Johnson of the Bengals has a longer career, but Rice is the best back wearing this number right now. Rice is a threat running and receiving, and he can move the chains as well as bust the big play. So he gets the nod over Jacobs, Johnson, and rookie Knowshon Moreno of the Broncos.

28 – Adrian Peterson, Vikings – This is a close call, because Peterson and Chris Johnson of the Titans – probably the two best backs in the league – both wear the same number. We’ll stick to conventional wisdom and lean toward Peterson in this close call. Otehr notable 28s: Jonathan Stewart, Panthers, Correll Buckhalter, Broncos; Felix Jones, Cowboys; Derrick Ward, Buccaneers; Maurice Morris, Lions

29 – Joseph Addai, Colts – Addai isn’t a great back, but he’s good both as a runner and a receiver when he’s healthy. With Leon Washington of the Jets hurt, Addai is an easy choice at this number. Other notable 29s: LeSean McCoy, Eagles; Michael Bush, Raiders; Glen Coffee, 49ers, Chester Taylor, Vikings

30 – John Kuhn, Packers – Green Bay’s fullback is the only notable back currently wearing 30. Thankfully, he has gotten into the end zone often enough to make this selection look respectable.

31 – Jamal Lewis, Browns – Lewis isn’t the back he once was, but the former 2,000-yard rusher has had a terrific career. He’s the clear choice at this number over rookie Donald Brown of the Colts. Other notable 31s: Rock Cartwright, Redskins; Jason Wright, Cardinals

32 – Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars – Jones-Drew has moved seamlessly from being a part-time back to a full-time guy this year while still producing big numbers in terms of yardage and touchdowns. That gives him the nod over Cedric Benson, who is having a terrific season with the Bengals. Other notable 32: Jerious Norwood, Falcons

33 – Michael Turner, Falcons – The Burner has been incredibly productive since joining the Falcons in 2008, and that makes him the best back wearing 33 over pass-catching specialist Kevin Faulk of New England and short-yardage specialist LeRon McClain of Baltimore. Other notable 33: Justin Griffith, Seahawks

34 – Ricky Williams, Dolphins – Ricky wins the battle of the Williamses over DeAngelo Williams of Carolina based on Ricky’s longer career track record of production. Both are outstandingly talented backs. Other notable 34s: Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers; Kevin Smith, Lions; Tim Hightower, Cardinals; Ovie Mughelli, Falcons; Sammy Morris, Patriots

35 – Jerome Harrison, Browns – It’s slim pickings at this number, so we have to give the nod to Harrison, who has had a moment or two as Jamal Lewis’ backup. Other notable 35s: Owen Schmitt, Seahawks; Dan Kreider, Cardinals; Chad Simpson, Colts

36 – Brian Westbrook, Eagles – Westbrook, who has been a terrific multipurpose back for many years now, is the easy choice at this number. He’s a truly great player. Other notable 36: LaRod Stephens-Howling, Cardinals

37 – Jason McKie, Bears – McKie, the Bears’ fullback, gets the nod here over recent Bengals signee Fui Vakapuna, another fullback. Neither will make fans forget a great fullback wearing 37 – Larry Centers of the Cardinals.

38 – Samkon Gado, Rams – Gado has had a few moments in the league, so although he’s just a backup in St. Louis now, we opt for him over Vikings fullback Naufahu Tahi and injured Dolphins back Patrick Cobbs.

39 – Steven Jackson, Rams – Jackson plays for a terrible team, but he remains a terrific bellweather back for St. Louis. He gets the nod over the declining Willie Parker of Pittsburgh and the inconsistent Laurence Maroney of the Patriots. Other notable 39: Madison Hedgecock, Giants

40 – Brian Leonard, Bengals – As we get into the 40s, we’ll have a harder time finding backs wearing these numbers. Leonard, the Bengals’ do-everything back is the only notable runner wearing 40.

41 – Lorenzo Neal, Raiders – Neal has long been one of the league’s best blocking fullbacks, but his career is winding to a conclusion, which is why he’s bounced around in recent years.

42 – BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Patriots – The law firm, as Green-Ellis is called, has done a good job when called on by the Patriots. Other notable 42s: Tony Fiametta, Panthers; Mike Cox, Chiefs; DeShawn Wynn, Packers

43 – Darren Sproles, Chargers – Sproles, the mite-sized, dynamite-powered Chargers back, gets the nod here over underrated Eagles fullback Leonard Weaver.

44 – Ahmad Bradshaw, Giants – Bradshaw, once the speedy portion of the Giants’ RB trio, has emerged as the team’s best runner this season. He gets the nod over a batch of fullbacks here. Other notable 44s: Heath Evans, Saints; Luke Lawton, Raiders; Vonta Leach, Texans; Moran Norris, 49ers, Jason Snelling, Falcons; Mike Karney, Rams

45 – Mike Sellers, Redskins – In a batch of fullbacks, Washginton’s Sellers gets the nod because of his short-yardage acumen and special-teams impact. Other notable 45s: Ahmard Hall, Titans; Brad Hoover, Panthers; Jerome Felton, Lions

46 – Ladell Betts, Redskins – Betts is the only notable back wearing 46. Thankfully, he’s a solid player who has produced when he has gotten the chance to fill in for Clinton Portis.

47 – Lawrence Vickers, Browns – Vickers, a fullback, is the only notable NFL back wearing 47 right now.

48 – None – Poor Stephen Davis. (We went to the same high school.) No current back is making his former number 48 proud.

49 – Tony Richardson, Jets – Richardson has long been one of the league’s better fullbacks, and he now plies his trade with the Jets after stints in K.C. and Minnesota. He’s the only back currently wearing 49.

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Colts/Ravens thoughts

In honor of a vacation week spent partly in Baltimore, we share a few thoughts on the Week 11 game between the Colts and Ravens, both from an on-field perspective and a fantasy football perspective. Indianapolis stayed undefeated by scratching out a 17-15 victory in Baltimore. This was the sixth win by four points or less this season for the 10-0 Colts, and their fourth in a row by that kind of margin. Meanwhile, the 5-5 Ravens lost by less than a touchdown for the fourth time this season.

On-field perspective
*Two pregame thoughts. First, Sports Illustrated’s Ross Tucker had a nice historical tweet just before kickoff. He said: Scoreboard here in Baltimore says “Ravens 0 INDY 0”. They still don’t recognize the “Colts” after all these years. Funny.
*Meanwhile, while I was in Baltimore this week, the hand-wringing was all about PK Matt Stover’s return to Baltimore as a Colt after so many years with the Ravens. The fact that Stover returned the same week the Ravens had to cut his replacement Steven Hauschka because of inconsistency only magnified how dependable Stover had been. No wonder the Ravens’ faithful went crazy when replacement Billy Cundiff narrowly made a 46-yard field goal in the first quarter. Cundiff hit 5-of-6 field goal attempts in the game, but the one he missed proved incredibly costly.
*Dallas Clark’s touchdown catch early in the first quarter was an incredible display of concentration and hand strength. Catching the ball by palming it in your right hand with no other support on the ball, and tapping your toes in the end zone in the process, was something that not many other receivers could do. What a play.
*Kelley Washington has been a nice find for the Ravens this year. He’s terrific on special teams, and he’s emerged as a solid No. 3 receiver as well.
*Young Colts DBs Tim Jennings, Melvin Bullitt, and Jacob Lacey all made nice plays on the ball in the first quarter. That’s a good sign for a team trying to overcome injuries to Bob Sanders, Marlin Jackson, and Kelvin Hayden.
*DE Haloti Ngata makes a huge difference for the Ravens’ defense. He busted up a fourth-down play at the end of the first quarter causing a penalty and a punt, and he makes that kind of impact regularly. He may well be the best player on that defense, and I’d argue that the Ravens need Ngata more than Terrell Suggs, who missed this game with an injury.
*The Ravens’ offense is much more intimidating when Ray Rice is in the game than when Willis McGahee is. Rice provides the opportunity for special plays, and McGahee simply can’t. It’s not that McGahee is a bad back, because he’s OK. Rice, meanwhile, is a big-play threat as a runner and a receiver. LeRon McClain, meanwhile, looks slow and tentative – nothing like the power back he was last year.
*The Colts have really restocked their playmaking ability with rookies Austin Collie and Donald Brown, along with first-year player Pierre Garcon and second-year tight end Tom Santi, who stepped up in this game. That shot of youth is vital with Marvin Harrison gone and Joseph Addai getting more banged up by the day.
*The Ravens did a good job of making plays on the ball vs. Peyton Manning after the first drive, and safeties Ed Reed and Dawan Landry both got interceptions. Reed and Landry make for a strong pair up the middle in the secondary.
*Joe Flacco isn’t the machine that Peyton Manning is, but he showed on the two-minute drill at the end of the first half that he’s a big-time quarterback. Flacco is allowing the Ravens to develop offensively as a new kind of team, and the downfield throw out of his own end zone in the third quarter was a beauty. But you could see the difference in Flacco’s inconsistency on third down, which forced the Ravens to settle for four first-half field goals. And the pick Flacco threw in the fourth quarter was more egregious than either of the interceptions Manning threw in this game.
*The Colts’ front 7 isn’t big, and the only way they could generate a ton of pressure was to send a huge blitz against Flacco. That’s something that some team is going to exploit before the end of the season. Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis weren’t able to generate a ton of pressure on their own against young and huge Ravens OTs Michael Oher and Jared Gaither. For the Colts, Gary Brackett not only had a pick – he had the most impact on that front seven throughout the game. He’s such a solid player for Indy.
*Ravens head coach John Harbaugh did a great job of managing his replay challenges until late in the fourth quarter. He went 2-for-2 on challenges – both of which were ultra-close and therefore worth challenging regarding the outcome – and more importantly avoided a challenge that would have failed in the second quarter. That decision to pick up the red flag saved the Ravens a timeout and probably three points in the first half and 22 yards on a successful challenge in the second half. But when Harbaugh called timeout and then challenged a spot late in the fourth quarter, he cost his team its final timeout and about 40 seconds toward a last-gasp comeback.
*Reggie Wayne is one of the top five receivers in the league. He’s so good catching the ball that you’re surprised when he doesn’t come up with it. His dominance allows youngsters like Garcon and Collie to make plays in spaces much bigger than usual.

Fantasy football perspective
*Dallas Clark isn’t just the best fantasy tight end available; he’s one of the top 15 receivers of any kind in the league. No other tight end comes close to matching his production, because no tight end is as vital a part of his offense as Clark is for Indy.
*Pierre Garcon, who had a 100-yard game, has gone back ahead of Austin Collie as the Colts’ No. 2 wide receiver, mainly because he’s more prone to bust a big play. Garcon is much like Mike Wallace of Pittsburgh in that he’s going to get 2-3 shots at a huge play each week, and if he makes one of those plays, he can help your fantasy team. Garcon isn’t as valuable as some teams’ No. 2 wideouts because of the Dallas Clark factor, but he is a top-35 receiver who can spot start as long as Anthony Gonzalez’s injury continues to linger.
*Colts TE Tom Santi hadn’t had a catch all season, but he had six in this game for the Colts, including a 31-yarder. Santi must have been playing a bigger role in this game because of a matchup the Colts saw that made a two-TE set advantageous. But fantasy owners shouldn’t rely too much on Santi going forward. The Colts don’t use two-TE sets regularly enough to make Santi ownable in any league, despite his 80-yard effort in this game. The fact that Santi fumbled once in the end zone and dropped another possible touchdown won’t add to the young tight end’s chances going forward.
*Joseph Addai scored a rushing touchdown in this game, and he has at least 60 yards per scrimmage in every game but one this season. So while he feels like an unreliable fantasy back, his numbers have been good enough to put him inside the top 20 at the position. He’s a fantasy starter, but he’s not a dominant force.
*Ray Rice is just a yardage machine. He’s so good as a runner and receiver that he’s going to pile up 120-150 yards in just about any game. And if he breaks a big play or scores a touchdown, he puts up elite fantasy numbers. He’s become a dependable top-10 fantasy back.
*Derrick Mason is old for a wide receiver, but he continues to produce solid fantasy numbers as the Ravens’ unquestioned No. 1 wideout. He had more than 100 yards in this game, passing the century mark for just the second time this season. But he has had at least 78 yards in five of 10 games, which makes him a solid top-25 wideout. He’s not cemented as a starter, but he’s a nice option to have around.

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Applaud or a Fraud – Top 35 Running Backs

Over the next several weeks, we’re going to take our preseason draft board and break down the top players at each position in an effort to determine which players are living up to their draft status, which are surpassing their draft status, and which are falling below their draft status. We’ll use our Applaud or a Fraud titles to compare these players vs. preseason expectations, but you’ll want to read each player’s report to see what the verdict means for him.

As a companion to this piece, we’ll look at the top running backs who weren’t in our top 35 before the season and try to determine whether we should applaud them or consider them frauds for the rest of the season. Watch for that post tomorrow.

1. Michael Turner, Falcons – Turner’s yards per carry average isn’t great at 3.5, but he has scored in his last two games and has had at least 50 yards in all three games. This is a bit of a slow start, but it’s still fair to consider Turner a legitimate No. 1 fantasy running back. He hasn’t been the dominant player that most owners who drafted him in the top 2 would hope, but his performance has been good enough for applause. Verdict: Applaud

2. Adrian Peterson, Vikings – Peterson is averaging 103 yards per game, is second in the league in rushing yards, and has five touchdowns already. While much of that production came in a huge Week One, Peterson’s performance is what you expect from a top-tier fantasy running back. Clap it up. Verdict: Applaud

3. Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars – MoJo’s yardage total of 296 rushing doesn’t look great, but he also has 97 receiving yards, and his five rushing touchdowns is tied for the league lead through Week 4. He’ll end up with 1,200 rushing yards, another 400 receiving yards, and 15 TDs or more. That’s exactly what owners at the top of fantasy drafts were hoping for when they called his name. Verdict: Applaud

4. Matt Forte, Bears – Forte started really slow before putting up 121 rushing yards and a touchdown in Week 4. If we had done this post last week, Forte would have been a fraud. But now his yardage totals (271 rushing and 92 receiving) are close enough to Jones-Drew’s, and if he starts scoring he’ll be just fine. He’s been a little disappointing thus far, but he’s still a No. 1 fantasy back. Verdict: Applaud

5. DeAngelo Williams, Panthers – When I was putting together my rankings, it took a long time for me to settle on who the No. 5 and No. 6 backs were. But Williams, who I eventually moved up into this spot, has delivered despite terrible performances by his quarterback and receivers this year. He has 180 rushing yards, 84 receiving yards, and two TDs in three games, which is solid production. Owners can be confident that Williams will end up with 12 touchdowns and 1,200 total yards at least, and those are No. 1 back numbers. He’s the only Panther worth clapping for, but he’s earned it. Verdict: Applaud

6. Chris Johnson, Titans – Johnson was the player I moved into the 6th position, and he has delivered big-time. Even though the Titans are 0-4, Johnson leads the league in rushing yards with 434 rushing yards, and he has another 117 receiving yards and three total touchdowns. If you got Johnson in the first half of the first round of your draft, it’s paying off big time. Verdict: Applaud

7. Steve Slaton, Texans – Like Forte, Slaton started out incredibly slowly before breaking out in Week 4. He has just 192 rushing yards, but he also has 121 receiving yards and the two touchdowns he scored this past Sunday. Slaton looks to be a yardage machine, and if he starts getting into the end zone regularly, he’ll be worth the first-round pick he cost in most leagues. Verdict: Applaud

8. Clinton Portis, Redskins – At one point this offseason, I was staring at Portis’ impressive record and pencilling him in as a top-5 back. I drifted off that a bit, thankfully, as the season neared, but I still considered Portis great value at the end of the first round of my drafts. But Portis hasn’t really delivered, running for 281 yards in four games – three against soft defenses in Detroit, St. Louis, and Tampa Bay. The schedule says that Portis should have had a hot start, but he hasn’t done so, and he hasn’t even reached the end zone yet. At this point, I wouldn’t consider Portis an every-week starter, and that makes this preseason ranking just flat wrong. Verdict: A fraud

9. Brandon Jacobs, Giants – Jacobs hasn’t started frequenting the end zone yet, but he has 288 rushing yards in the first four games. He’s not really a top-10 fantasy back yet, but once he starts finding pay dirt more often he will be. For now, he’s a solid fantasy starter, and that’s enough reason to clap. Verdict: Applaud

10. Steven Jackson, Rams – Jackson is tied for fourth in the league in rushing yards with 367, and he also has 67 receiving yards. The problem for fantasy owners is that he hasn’t yet scored. Jackson is a victim of the Rams’ sorry offense, but at this point he’s still worth starting for fantasy owners because of his yardage numbers. His worst game was a 67-yard performance in Week One, and that’s not abysmal. So we’ll give him a golf clap. Verdict: Applaud

11. LaDanian Tomlinson, Chargers – I was down on Tomlinson this year because of his age and injuries over the past years, and so far those concerns have been valid. Tomlinson has just 72 yards from scrimmage so far and just one touchdown, and he has missed two games. His performance could get better, but at the quarter pole his fantasy owners can’t be happy. Verdict: A fraud

12. Brian Westbrook, Eagles – Westbrook has missed one game with injury and had a bye, and he’s had one good fantasy game and one OK performance. So while he, like Tomlinson, hasn’t really shined yet, his numbers look a little better in context. His upside for ’09 still has yet to be seen, but he’s done just enough to get a soft clap at this point. Verdict: Applaud

13. Frank Gore, 49ers – Gore is another back who’s already missed a game and most of a second tilt. His injury history was a big reason I didn’t include him in my top 10. When he’s played, he’s been terrific, with 298 total yards and 4 TDs. That makes Gore a legit No. 1 back when he’s in the lineup, and that’s worth applause despite his injury. Verdict: Applaud

14. Marion Barber, Cowboys – Barber is another back who’s missed a game already, but in the three games he’s played he has 302 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns. That’s production well worth a top-15 draft spot, even including the fact that he missed a game. Verdict: Applaud

15. Thomas Jones, Jets – Jones isn’t a guy that gives you great assurance when you take him, but as the top back on my Tier 2, he has just barely delivered thus far with 229 rushing yards and three touchdowns. He’s been lacking in some games, but as a No. 2 fantasy back he’s been OK. Given how that meets expectations, we’ll give him some reserved applause. Verdict: Applaud

16. Ryan Grant, Packers – Grant got off to an awful start last year, but he’s been better in the first quarter of the season this year. He’s run for 257 yards and two touchdowns and added 83 receiving yards, which helps. Those are solid No. 2 fantasy back numbers that are worth of this spot on the preseason draft board. Verdict: Applaud

17. Darren McFadden, Raiders – I was far higher on McFadden than most people, figuring that his natural talent would lead to a 1,000-yard, 8-TD season no matter how bad his situation was. But he has just 198 yards from scrimmage and one TD in the first four games, and now he’s hurt. He’s a No. 4 fantasy back, not a fantasy starter. This was a bad preseason ranking. Verdict: A fraud

18. Kevin Smith, Lions – I didn’t love Smith this year, but I liked him enough to rate him as a borderline fantasy starter. And with 335 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns, Smith has been a little better than borderline. He’s been a pleasant surprise thus far. Verdict: Applaud

19. Pierre Thomas, Saints – Thomas missed the season opener and played very sparingly in Week 2, but since then he’s been a big-time back. In the preseason, had Thomas not gotten hurt, he would have been a top-15 back. With 258 yards from scrimmage and 3 TDs in the last two games, Thomas is a legit fantasy starter. Those who had patience with Pierre are being rewarded. Verdict: Applaud

20. Knowshon Moreno, Broncos – Moreno (who was also hurt in the preseason) has been a good but not great fantasy player so far with 249 rushing yards and two TDs. And after a slow start in Week One, he has at least 65 rushing yards in each game. Now that Correll Buckhalter is hurt for a few weeks, Moreno has a chance to really emerge as not just a fantasy starter but as a No. 1 fantasy back. That makes him well worth this kind of preseason ranking. Verdict: Applaud

21. Jonathan Stewart, Panthers – Stewart is a good back, but he’s not good enough to overcome the general malaise that has hit the Panthers thus far. So even though he’s averaging more than 4 yards per carry, he has just 162 yards from scrimmage in three games and no touchdowns. That’s not worth this draft position, and it doesn’t look like he’s anywhere close to being a fantasy starter going forward. Verdict: A fraud

22. Derrick Ward, Buccaneers – This ranking was way, way off. I didn’t see Cadillac Williams as a serious contender for carries, but it’s been Williams who has been the lone fantasy-relevant back for Tampa. Ward has just 129 yards from scrimmage and one TD. That’s not worth this draft position. Verdict: A fraud

23. Larry Johnson, Chiefs – I was far from sold on Johnson, but it was hard for me to imagine him not being at least a decent No. 3 back. But he’s averaging just 2.6 yards per carry, and his 237 yards from scrimmage without a touchdown makes him nothing more than a roster-filler for fantasy owners. Verdict: A fraud

24. Marshawn Lynch, Bills – It’s hard to judge Lynch because he missed the first three games due to his suspension. In his first game, he had just four yards on eight carries, although he did have 43 receiving yards. It’s far from certain that Lynch will be able to beat out Fred Jackson for the bulk of chances in Buffalo’s running game. So the signs aren’t yet good, but if you drafted Lynch you committed to be patient because you knew he would miss the first three games. For now, we’ll be patient with our verdict. Verdict: Incomplete

25. Ronnie Brown, Dolphins – I was a lot further down on Brown than most, and he went as a No. 2 fantasy back in the drafts I was in. But Brown has delivered so far. He’s third in the league with 369 rushing yards, and he also has four touchdowns and 50 receiving yards. He’s a legit fantasy starter right now, which is what I was skeptical of. Another miss on my part. Verdict: Applaud

26. Cedric Benson, Bengals – Benson gained steam as a sleeper during the preseason, and with good reason. He’s tied for fourth in the league with 367 rushing yards, and he has two touchdowns. He’s a legit fantasy starter right now and a nice surprise for owners who took a shot on him. Verdict: Applaud

27. Jamal Lewis, Browns – I was down on the Browns entering the year, but Lewis still made it into No. 3 running back range because he was one of few undisputed starting backs left. Lewis had 150 yards from scrimmage in the first two weeks, which is OK, before missing the last two games. You would never feel good about starting Lewis in a fantasy league, which means this ranking is about five spots too high. He should have been a No. 4 fantasy back at best, not a No. 3, and so we can’t clap for him at this level. Verdict: A fraud

28. Ray Rice, Ravens – Rice is averaging 6 yards per carry, and he already has 429 yards from scrimmage. He just has one touchdown, which is the only thing keeping him from being a No. 1 fantasy back. But he’s a fantasy starter at this point, meaning that owners who got him at this point in fantasy drafts should be thrilled. Verdict: Applaud

29. Donald Brown, Colts – One of my big predictions in my preseason draft-boarding was that Brown would end up being a better fantasy back than Joseph Addai. That’s not yet the case – Brown has 257 yards from scrimmage and two TDs to 283 yards and three TDs for Addai – but I still get the sense that Brown will end up being better. In any case, Brown is already an OK No. 3 fantasy back who still has upside to move into being a regular fantasy starter. Verdict: Applaud

30. Willie Parker, Steelers – Parker missed Week 4, and before that he put up 203 yards and one TD. Those aren’t quite No. 3 fantasy back numbers, but they’re close enough that this draft position for him is defensible. Verdict: Applaud

31. Reggie Bush, Saints – I kept moving Bush down my draft board in the preseason, but even this level wasn’t low enough. Mike Bell and Lyndell Hamilton have scored for the Saints, and yet Bush has just one touchdown. He does have 269 yards from scrimmage, and as a No. 3 fantasy back, he’s marginal. This is probably going to end up being about the right ranking for Bush, so we’ll clap – reluctantly. Verdict: Applaud

32. Beanie Wells, Cardinals – We projected that Wells would beat out Tim Hightower for the Cardinals’ No. 1 running back role, but that hasn’t yet happened. So Wells has just 71 rushing yards, and he doesn’t have a catch yet. If you drafted Wells, you probably have to stash him on your bench hoping that he’ll get it more and more as the year goes on. But even with that hope, this draft position looks too high. Verdict: A fraud

33. LenDale White, Titans – White became a fantasy starter last year by being a rushing-TD machine, but with the Titans falling apart White’s goal-line role has disappeared. He has just one touchdown and just 94 yards from scrimmage. He’s barely ownable at this point. Verdict: A fraud

34. Fred Jackson, Bills – Jackson took advantage of his role as the Bills’ primary back in the first three games, and he has a whopping 493 yards from scrimmage in the first four games. He has just one touchdown, but if you took Jackson as a short-term answer, you have to feel good about how he did and about what he can do moving forward. Verdict: Applaud 

35. Joseph Addai, Colts – You can’t be secure about Addai’s role in the offense with Donald Brown emerging, but thus far Addai has been a solid No. 3 fantasy back. So given this ranking, we’ll applaud him. Verdict: Applaud

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Fantasy Football: Part-time backs

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, JetsTriple 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.

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Fantasy Football: Mock draft

I took part in an online mock draft this week, just to see what players are going higher than I expected and what players are going lower than I expected. I’ve taken the results of this draft and made a list of players who were overvalued and undervalued. This list should help you see which players on your draft board are rated too high and which you may be able to draft later than you expected.

If you think this exercise is valuable, let me know, and we’ll do another round next week.

Mock 1 (8/26/09)
(12-team snake draft; numbers refer to draft position)

No. 6 – RB LaDanian Tomlinson – OVERVALUED – A lot of people like Tomlinson this season, but I’m a little more bearish. I think Tomlinson is a borderline first-round pick (No. 10-12 player overall), because you can get two solid backs drafting from that position. Drafting LDT higher makes you rely on him too much given his age and his decline last year. He’s no longer an elite fantasy back; just a very good one. Don’t draft him high based on history.

No. 17 – RB Clinton Portis – UNDERVALUED – Portis’ numbers over the past several years show that he remains a solid late first-rounder. I actually have Portis above Tomlinson on my personal draft board, but that’s a minority opinion. If you’re drafting late in a 10- or 12-team league, you can probably make Portis your No. 2 running back, which would be a great result. If you get Portis in the middle of the second round or later, count your blessings, because you got a steal.

No. 21 – RB Steve Slaton – UNDERVALUED – This strikes me as a little bit of an artifically low spot for Slaton, but even in the mid-teens Slaton is undervalued. He’s a legitimate first-round pick who should be able to repeat his numbers from last year in Houston’s potent offense. If you draft 9, 10, 11, or 12 in a snake draft and end up with Slaton and Portis as your top two running backs, you’ll be set.

No. 45 – WR Wes Welker – OVERVALUED – Lots of people have Welker rated as a second-level receiver, but I think that’s too high. Instead, I have him as a third-level receiver, much like Vincent Jackson, Braylon Edwards, Brandon Marshall, and Roy Williams. That’s the group between 15 and 20 at receiver on my draft board, which means they’re borderline starters in two-WR leagues. But in this league, Welker went as a No. 1 receiver. He will have consistent yardage numbers (and catch numbers if you’re in a point-per-catch league), but his lack of touchdowns last year wasn’t a coincidence. He’s probably a 6-to-8 touchdown guy, and that holds down his fantasy value. He should go in the 50s, not the 40s, in most leagues.

No. 51 – WR Roy Williams – OVERVALUED – Like Welker, Williams went too high in this draft. Williams becomes the Cowboys’ No. 1 receiver, but he’s not going to automatically match Terrell Owens’ numbers of recent years. The Cowboys have a depth of dangerous guys, from Jason Witten to Patrick Crayton to Miles Austin, and it’s hard for me to see Williams becoming an 80-catch guy. He’s a No. 2 fantasy wideout, but not a top-15 wideout, which is where he was drafted in this mock. My guess is that he’ll be drafted too early in your draft as well.

No. 58 – QB Matt Ryan – OVERVALUED – This is way too high for Ryan, who is a better player in real football than fantasy football at this point in his career. Even with the addition of Tony Gonzalez in the offseason, Ryan is still only about the 10th or 11th best fantasy quarterback. That makes him a borderline starter, not a 5th-round pick. Don’t get your head out over your skis with Ryan – at least not this year. He’s solid but not yet a fantasy stud.

No. 59 – WR Vincent Jackson – UNDERVALUED – Jackson, who broke out in a big way last year, should have gone ahead of Welker and Roy Williams instead of behind them. To me, he’s the best of the third group of receivers (which starts around No. 15 on the wide receiver board) because of his production last year and his upside. I’d be far more excited about taking a gamble with Jackson than with another upside guy like Williams.

No. 63 – RB Knowshon Moreno – UNDERVALUED – I always have rookie running backs higher on my personal draft board than most of the “fantasy experts” do, but most of the time the rookies come through. That trend of undervaluing rookies definitely happened in this draft, and I think it’s a mistake. Moreno should end up as the No. 1 back in Denver, and with his talent that should put him as a starting fantasy running back. But this draft position put Moreno outside the top 25 backs, and that’s simply a mistake.

No. 66 – RB Ahmad Bradshaw – OVERVALUED – Many fantasy observers are looking at Bradshaw and expecting his numbers to rise now that Derrick Ward is in Tampa Bay. But my feeling is that the Giants will keep Bradshaw as a change-of-pack back instead of giving him most of Ward’s work in addition to his own. So instead of making Bradshaw a No. 3 fantasy back, I consider him a No. 4 back (and his teammate Danny Ware a No. 5 or 6 back). So I wouldn’t start considering Bradshaw until about two rounds below where he went in this draft.

No. 73 – RB Ray Rice – UNDERVALUED – Rice has emerged in training camp and in preseason games as the Ravens’ best threat at running back. He’s an ideal No. 3 back and may even end up being a solid every-week starter. He’s got a good offensive line, and he has talent. The only question is opportunities to touch the ball, and it’s looking more and more like Rice will be getting far more of those than Willis McGahee or LeRon McClain will.

No. 74 – RB Donald Brown, Colts – Brown is another rookie who seems undervalued to me. I think he’s a solid pick in the sixth round of 12-team leagues as a No. 3 back with huge upside. If Brown can supplant Joseph Addai, he’ll have a ton of value. But even if Brown shares touches with Addai, my hunch is that he’ll be on the better end of the split, which will make him a terrific flex option or even RB starter. So if Brown falls into the 70s in your draft, grab him before someone else wises up.

No. 76 – WR Hines Ward – OVERVALUED – Ward went ahead of his teammate Santonio Holmes, but Holmes is the Steelers’ receiver I’d rather have this year. Holmes should end up with more yards, and based on his playoff performance last year, he should end up with more touchdowns as well. To me, Ward is a veteran receiver who I’d feel OK about as my No. 3 wideout but not in a more significant fantasy football role. So if you’re counting on Ward as one of your two starting receivers, you’re overstating his value.

No. 82 – RB Cedric Benson – UNDERVALUED – You might not like Benson’s off-field history, and you might have been let down on his performances in Chicago. But Benson looked good in the second half of the season for the Bengals last year, and as the unquestioned starter this year, he should be a quality No. 3 fantasy back and maybe even a dependable starter. He doesn’t have huge upside, but you should get some consistent performances from Benson, and that’s something valuable. It certainly makes Benson more than the No. 4 back he was drafted as in this mock.

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