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Fantasy Football: Which running backs will break out?

As I work on creating tiers on my draft board, one of the things I like to do at the top of Tier 2 is to list young players with big upside. As part of the process, I analyze which young players – especially at running back – are most likely to break out. In this post, we’ll share that analysis of potential breakout running backs, both among veterans and among the top rookies.

(For analysis of who fits on Tier 1, check out our RB, WR, and QB Tier 1 posts. And though it isn’t our work, this fantasy football depth chart site is invaluable.)

Worth the Tier 2 gamble

Ryan Mathews, Chargers – Mathews wasn’t the first running back taken in the April draft, but he certainly has the best opportunity to make a big fantasy impact among rookie runners. Mathews is a big, burly back who can handle 20 carries a game, and he moves into a San Diego offense that helped make LaDainian Tomlinson a fantasy record-setter. With Darren Sproles still in town, Mathews won’t put up LDT numbers, but Mathews should come in with a terrific season – 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns is well within reach. That makes Mathews a great rookie to take a shot on atop Tier 2.

Knowshon Moreno, Broncos – As a rookie, Moreno piled up 1,150 yards from scrimmage and nine total touchdowns, even though he had 10 carries or fewer in five of his 16 games. Moreno still faces a carries challenge from Correll Buckhalter, and Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels is from the Bill Belichick school of rotating running backs, but it’s fair to assume that, in his second year, Moreno will break through the 1,000-yard barrier on the ground. He should finish with upward of 1,300 total yards, and if he gets the 8-10 touchdowns that usually accompany that kind of yardage, Moreno will find himself securely in Tier 2. We predict a modest increase in his numbers, and that makes him a solid fantasy starter.

Jonathan Stewart, Panthers – The Daily Show had another fine fantasy season last year, running for 1,133 yards and averaging 5.1 yards per carry. He also grabbed 139 receiving yards, and, more importantly for fantasy owners, scored double-digit touchdowns for the second straight season. Even in a 60-40 carry split behind DeAngelo Williams, Stewart has proven he’s a legitimate fantasy starter. And when you consider that the Panthers won’t have Jake Delhomme turning the ball over constantly in ’10, both Williams and Stewart could actually see their numbers increase in the upcoming season. Because of his role, his week-to-week production can fluctuate, but the end-of-season results make it impossible to omit Stewart from Tier 2. He’s easily a top-20 fantasy back, and he’s knocking on the door of an even more elite group. And if Williams were to get hurt, Stewart’s stock would shoot up even more. He’s the real deal for fantasy owners.

Jamaal Charles, Chiefs – Charles had shown flashes of great ability in his rookie season and into his second year, but it wasn’t until Larry Johnson was sent packing that Charles exploded. He had at least 17 touches in each of the final eight games, and the results were six days with 100 yards from scrimmage and eight total touchdowns. So if the late-season status was the same, Charles would be a no-brainer for Tier 2 and a contender for Tier 1. But the Chiefs’ addition of Thomas Jones in the offseason will limit Charles’ opportunities enough to make him a borderline Tier 2 player. Charles (who had an impressive 40 catches last season) will still pile up 1,200 total yards, but Jones could steal a few touchdown chances and hold down Charles’ upside. So entering the season, we’ll include Charles at the bottom of Tier 2, with the proviso that if Jones gets hurt Charles could easily become a top-10 fantasy back.

Shonn Greene, Jets – Greene emerged as a running threat in the playoffs last year, and the Jets were sold to the point that they cut Thomas Jones and traded Leon Washington in the offseason. Now Greene and Tomlinson, who came over from San Diego, are the runners in an offense that depends on the ground game. Greene averaged five yards a carry in the regular season last year, and he had two 100-yard games in the postseason. Greene hasn’t proven he’ll be an end-zone specialist, and he hasn’t been much of a receiver out of the backfield, which limits his upside for fantasy owners. But if you’re looking for a No. 2 running back who will pile up 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns without making you sweat while still giving you the potential for much more, Greene’s a good option.

Beanie Wells, Cardinals – As a rookie last year, Wells started slowly, but he ended up with 793 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. More importantly, he established himself as at least an equal partner with Tim Hightower in the backfield by about Week 6, and from that point on Wells was a solid option. With Hightower around, Wells is unlikely to get more than about 18 touches a game, especially since Hightower trumps him in the receiving department. But with Kurt Warner gone, there should be more carries in Arizona, and that bodes well for Wells. And if Hightower were to get hurt, Wells’ upside jumps considerably. We think a 1,000-yard season is in the offing for Wells, and it should come with 8-10 touchdowns. That makes him a guy we’ll sneak onto Tier 2 as an upside play.

Wait to roll the dice

Felix Jones, Cowboys – As the season dawns, it looks as though Jones has a leg up on Marion Barber and Tashard Choice in the Cowboys’ crowded backfield. That’s important, because while Barber and Choice are more physical runners, Jones is the Cowboy with the most breakaway ability. After playing just six games as a rookie, Jones stayed healthy enough for 14 last year, and the results included 800 total yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns. With a few more touches (and good health, which isn’t a given), Jones could knock those numbers up to 1,200 yards from scrimmage and eight touchdowns. But while that upside is there, Dallas’ stacked depth chart and Jones’ injury history make it unlikely. So we’ll leave Jones off Tier 2 and consider him an exciting No. 3 fantasy back instead of a dependable No. 2.

LeSean McCoy, Eagles – With Brian Westbrook gone, McCoy looks primed to take over as the Eagles’ No. 1 back. But don’t read too much into that role. FB Leonard Weaver proved last year that he needs to get a few carry chances in each game, and free-agent signee Mike Bell is going to find a role too. Given that situation, it appears that McCoy’s best games will be 80-yard, single-touchdown affairs, and he could finish under 1,000 yards for the season despite being the starter in Philly. McCoy is only a borderline fantasy starter, and that leaves him on Tier 3 instead of with the starters-with-upside group in Tier 2.

Jahvid Best, Lions – Best is one of three running backs who was selected in the first round of the NFL draft, and like Mathews he seems to have a clear shot at starting, at least until Kevin Smith returns from a major knee injury at midseason. But Best proved to be a bit brittle in college, and he looks like a back who can succeed more in 15 touches a game than a carry-the-load, 25-carry guy. Best will make his share of big plays, but he’s more of a matchup play and a bye-week fill-in for fantasy owners than a guy they will want to depend on each and every week. Others may be enamored with Best’s skills, but our feel for his role causes us to leave him on Tier 3.

C.J. Spiller, Bills – Spiller may be the most skilled of the rookie running backs, and he proved in college that he could break a big play on a run, catch, or a return. But Spiller doesn’t have a clear shot to carries in Buffalo, where even with Marshawn Lynch apparently out of favor, Fred Jackson still merits touches. Spiller is small enough that a carry split is wise, at least early in his career, but Buffalo’s below-par offensive line is another strike against Spiller’s fantasy value. As long as Jackson is around, Spiller isn’t more than a No. 3 fantasy running back in most leagues. On Tier 3, he’ll provide enough big plays to be an exciting option for fantasy owners. On Tier 2, though, Spiller’s numbers will be sporadic enough to make him a disappointment. So drafters should hold off on picking Spiller until the Tier 3 level.

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Washington nabs McNabb

Last year, the big trade of the offseason happened in the first week of April and sent QB Jay Cutler from Denver to Chicago. This year, in the first week of April, we have another huge trade, as the Redskins traded for QB Donovan McNabb. Below are some thoughts on the trade; you can see how it trumps other trades from the 2010 offseason in this post.

The Eagles opted to end the McNabb era by dealing him to their NFC East rivals in Washington. This says a lot about what the Eagles think about McNabb right now. (Chris Mortenson brough up the fact that the last time this happened was when the Patriots traded Drew Bledsoe to the Bills, and the Pats knew when they made that deal that Bledsoe was falling off the cliff.) They’re obviously not scared of playing McNabb twice a year, because it’s not like the Redskins paid a premium for McNabb. In fact, instead of getting a Jay Cutler windfall for McNabb, Philly accepted a deal much like what the Patriots got for Matt Cassel last offseason – an early second-round pick (37th overall) and either a third- or fourth-rounder in 2011. So Philly takes a fair but not exorbinant deal to send away McNabb, who led them to one Super Bowl and five conference championship games in his 11 seasons there. Still, McNabb was never fully embraced by Eagles fans. I was there at the 1999 draft when McNabb, drafted third overall, was roundly booed by Eagles fans who had been bussed into New York by a sports-radio station that had called for Philly to select Ricky Williams. But McNabb proved well worth that pick, becoming easily the best of the five first-round quarterbacks that year and a top-level leader for the Eagles. At age 33, McNabb doesn’t have many of his prime years left, but he certainly played at a quality level throughout the ’09 season. In Washington, though, he faces the obstacles of a mediocre offensive line and receiving corps, along with a running back trio of Clinton Portis, Willie Parker, and Larry Johnson that may be completely cooked. The Redskins do have good tight ends, and the fourth overall pick now figures to go toward an offensive tackle like Russell Okung, which will help. But at best, McNabb takes a team that was headed for five or six wins with Jason Campbell to eight or nine wins max. He can’t solve all the Redskins’ roster problems. The Eagles, meanwhile, now cast their lot with Kevin Kolb, who played well in two starts last year and now gets the chance Aaron Rodgers got in Green Bay two years ago. If Kolb is ready, as Rodgers was, the Eagles will benefit from this move within two years. Kolb steps into a good situation with young receivers DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Jason Avant, and Brent Celek, so the Eagles now look set in the passing game into the middle of the decade. That’s a good thing, even if the Eagles are making the move to their new quarterback a year early. But it’s pretty clear that Philly wasn’t going to re-sign McNabb, and so getting something for him now makes sense. They can only hope that McNabb doesn’t exact his revenge twice this fall and cost them a playoff spots, or else the fans will absolutely revolt against Andy Reid and his regime. On paper, this trade makes sense for the Eagles, but on the field McNabb could make it look foolish if he can keep his play at its current level over the next 3-4 years.

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FR: March signings

As we continue our coverage of free agency, we’ll compare signings from March using Football Relativity. This post includes signings beginning March 11; for signings from the first week of free agency, check out this elongated post.

10 – Jets (added RB LaDainian Tomlinson, S Brodney Pool, and LB Lance Laury; kept FB Tony Richardson) – Tomlinson had a great career in San Diego, but he showed serious signs of slowing down in recent years, with his yards-per-carry average dropping to 3.3 in ’09. So the Chargers eventually had little choice but to release him and move on. With the Jets, Tomlinson should know that he’s taking a subservient role to emerging youngster Shonn Greene, and with Leon Washington returning from an ACL injury, Tomlinson could find carries hard to come by. The positive of that is that Tomlinson will stay fresher, but he’ll have to show a little more patience than he did in San Diego. If Tomlinson knows what he’s signing up for and is willing to be a 10-touch-a-game back, he could help because he provides more contrast to Greene than the departed Thomas Jones would have given. If not, Tomlinson will fade away in a strange-looking uniform, and the two-year, $5.1 million deal the Jets gave him will be wasted. Unfortunately, our hunch points toward the latter scenario. Meanwhile, Pool is a promising player who wasn’t tendered as a restricted free agent in Cleveland. He’ll get $1.3 million in a one-year deal with the Jets, where he’ll have a chance to replace the traded Kerry Rhodes in the starting lineup. Richardson is a solid blocking fullback who knows his role and plays it well. Laury, who was not tendered by the Seahawks, is a backup linebacker and special-teams ace.

10 (con’t) – Cardinals (added OLB Joey Porter, QB Derek Anderson, UFA OG Rex Hadnot and UFA LB Paris Lenon; kept UFA OT Jeremy Bridges, UFA LB Monty Biesel, and C Ben Claxton) – Porter, who was released by the Dolphins, is still a quality pass rusher who can make an impact in a  3-4 defense. At age 33, Porter has a lot of miles on his tires, but with 26.5 sacks in the last two years he hasn’t shown signs of major slippage. He helps to replace Bertrand Berry, who said he is retiring, for an Arizona defense that needs playmakers badly after losing Karlos Dansby and Antrel Rolle in the offseason. Porter isn’t the athlete the departed are, but he can help. While $17.5 million over three years (with a potential $7 million more in incentives) seems rich for a 33-year-old, Arizona was in a spot where it needed a defensive jolt. Porter can still provide that. Anderson, who had one good year out of four in Cleveland, got a two-year, $7.25 million contract in Arizona to back up or even challenge Matt Leinart. Anderson is not consistent, but he has a strong arm, and he’s fearless enought to go for the big play. That has too often led to interceptions, but in the run-first, big-play offense Arizona is moving toward, he could actually be a fit. The fact that Arizona has such a talented corps of receivers makes Anderson a better chance. At the least, he’ll challenge Leinart and force the former first-rounder to step up in order to seize the starting job, and if Anderson does that he’ll be worth the freight the Cards are paying. Hadnot got a three-year, $9 million deal to move over from Cleveland. He’s a physical guard who can also play center and figures to become a starter for Arizona. Bridges, who started several games last year, is a talented tackle who has gotten into trouble off the field. Lenon started for the Rams last year and now moves over to provide a veteran to help fill the gaping hole left by Karlos Dansby. Biesel provides depth but will help more on special teams.

9 – none

8 – Bills (added UFA DE Dwan Edwards and ILB Andra Davis; kept UFA TE Joe Klopfenstein) – As they move to a 3-4 defense, the Bills brought in reinforcements. Davis had a pretty good year as an inside ‘backer for Denver last year and was a nice addition on a two-year deal. Edwards, who got a four-year, $18 million deal to move over from the Ravens, is a sturdy end who can shine in the 3-4. Both are quality additions for a team that desperately needs them.

7 – Browns (added UFA TE Benjamin Watson and QB Jake Delhomme; kept UFA OL Billy Yates) – Watson was an inconsistent talent in New England, but he had some production, and he’s a better tight end than what the Browns had. Tight end is a crucial receiver in the West Coast offense, which is what Cleveland is moving toward, and so making an addition at that position is sensible. Watson got a three-year deal worth $12 million with $6.35 million guaranteed. Delhomme got $7 million over two years while still getting $19 million guaranteed from the Panthers deal he was released from. Delhomme is a terrific locker-room leader, and he has shown a knack for performing well under pressure earlier in his career. But his interception and fumble problems have been stark since his meltdown in a playoff game against Arizona in the 2008 season, and at this point it’s hard to see him breaking that year-long trend soon. Still, Delhomme may be a better answer than Seneca Wallace, who doesn’t have the pedigree of performance Delhomme has over his career. The Browns are getting a little bit of a discount on Delhomme because of his sweetheart Carolina deal, and at those numbers he’s worth a shot. We just don’t expect that shot to come in. Yates is a backup lineman who helps add depth now that Rex Hadnot and Hank Fraley are gone.

6 – Redskins (added UFA RB Larry Johnson, UFA QB Rex Grossman, P Josh Bidwill, and CB Philip Buchanon) – Johnson was released in Kansas City midseason last year as his production waned and his complaints persisted.  Johnson landed in Cincinnati as a backup to Cedric Benson, and he looked a little better, averaging 4.4 yards per carry in Cincy versus 2.9 in K.C. Now Johnson moves to Washington, where he will either work with Clinton Portis or replace him, depending on what the ‘Skins decide to do with their incumbent veteran back. Since Portis’ contract is basically guaranteed, we figure he’ll be back. That’s just as well, because Johnson is no longer a starting-caliber NFL back. He’s better in the role he had in Cincinnati at the end of last year, and spot duty will allow him to keep the limited pop he has left in his legs. The three-year, $3.5 million deal Johnson got indicates that’s the role he’ll have – but the potential of making up to $12 million in incentives indicates that more malcontent behavior could be in the offing if Johnson doesn’t get the ball as much as he wants. Grossman, a former Bears starter, was solid as a Texans backup last year and now moves with ex-Houston offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to Washington. Chances are that Grossman, who got a one-year deal, will back up Jason Campbell. Bidwill was released by the Buccaneers in a cost-saving move after missing the ’09 season, but if healthy he is solid. Incumbent Hunter the Punter Smith is a free-agent, so the Redskins need a fallback option. Buchanon got a one-year, $1.5 million deal to provide help at corner. Buchanon’s a marginal starter but he’s worth that price for depth purposes if nothing else.

5 – none

4 – Chiefs (added OG Ryan Lilja; kept C Casey Wiegmann) – Wiegmann made a Pro Bowl with the Chiefs two years ago and now returns after being cut earlier this offseason. His veteran wiles help a young offensive line. Lilja, who started for the Colts over the past few years before being released this offseason, got a three-year, $7.5 million deal to come to K.C. and help to stabilize the offensive line as well. He’s not an elite guard, but Lilja will be a big upgrade for a Chiefs team that needs solid starters up front.

3 – Packers (kept UFA OT Mark Tauscher, franchise NT Ryan Pickett, and RFA S Nick Collins; added P Chris Bryan) – The Packers rarely get too involved in the free-agent market, instead preferring to develop through the draft. So it’s no surprise that their big strategy has been to re-sign their players. Tauscher, who the Packers brought back at midseason last year to help a horrible offensive line, got a two-year deal to remain at right tackle. He’s a veteran who provides stability until T.J. Lang is ready to seize a starting job. Pickett, the Pack’s franchise player, went from a $7 million tender to a four-year, $28 million deal. He’s done a great job for the Pack after bombing as a first-rounder in St. Louis, and he became even more valuable when he moved to the nose when Green Bay implemented the 3-4 defense last year. Collins, who had been angling for a new contract for two years, got a four-year, $23.4 million deal. He’s a playmaking safety who really adds to the Packers’ defense. Bryan is an Australian Rules Football player whom the Pack hopes can become a solid NFL punter a la Sav Rocca, Mat McBriar, or Darren Bennett. That strategy has actually been pretty successful for NFL teams.

3 (con’t) – Rams (added C Hank Fraley, CB Kevin Dockery, and TE Darcy Johnson; kept LS Chris Massey) – Fraley, who was released by the Browns, isn’t physically gifted, but he’s a rugged center who can help an offensive line that really struggled last year. Dockery and Johnson are former Giants who know now-Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo from days in the Meadowlands. Neither is more than a role player, but they could help a roster bereft of talent. Massey got a four-year deal for being a dependable long snapper.

3 (con’t) – Steelers (added UFA ILB Larry Foote; kept UFA QB Charlie Batch) – Foote was a long-time Steeler who was cut before last season and went to Detroit, where he played well. Now he returns to Pittsburgh on a decent deal that’s worth $3.9 million in year one and potentially worth $9.3 million over three years. He should return to the starting lineup for Pittsburgh. Batch provides stability at quarterback, which is vital given Ben Roethlisberger’s legal problems and Dennis Dixon’s inexperience.

2 – Titans (kept UFA CB Rod Hood; added UFA DE Jason Babin and CB Tye Hill) – Hood started for the Cardinals in the Super Bowl two years ago and then went on an odyssey through Cleveland and Chicago before he found a home in Tennessee at midseason. The Titans brought him back because he fit their defense and can provide depth at a position that has been troublesome for them. Babin was an unrestricted free agent who had given the Eagles right to match any contract offer he got, but Philly opted to let Babin leave on a one-year, $1 million deal. Babin has never realized his potential as a first-round pass-rusher, but Tennessee’s defensive line coach Jim Washburn is one of the best, which makes taking a shot on a talented player reasonable, especially at the price Tennessee is paying. Hill, a bust with the Rams, never found a role with the Falcons last year and was released. But he’s fast, and given the Titans’ struggles last year in the secondary he’s worth a shot to see if he can help.

2 (con’t) – Chargers (added CBs Donald Strickland and Nathan Vasher; kept UFA DT Ian Scott) – Scott did a solid job as a fill-in starter at nose tackle for the Chargers last year, and he fits in as at least a backup this season. Strickland, who was released by the Jets, now gets a chance to replace Antonio Cromartie, who was traded to the Jets. Strickland isn’t great, but he’s good enough to be a third corner on a good team or maybe even a starter, so he’s a nice addition for the Bolts. Vasher hasn’t played well in recent years, in large part because of injury, but he performed admirably for Bolts defensive coordinator Ron Rivera back in Chicago, and that led to this chance in San Diego. Vasher, a cover-two specialist, got a two-year, $4.5 million deal

2 (con’t) – Patriots (added UFA TE Alge Crumpler) – After cutting Chris Baker and letting Ben Watson leave via free agency, the Patriots had no experience at tight end. They now have some in Crumpler, who proved in Tennessee that he is no longer the receiving threat he was in Atlanta. But Crumpler is big, and he’s a good blocker, which could make him a fit in the Patriots’ offense. New England should still look for a young tight end, but Crumpler will fit in at least some sets.

2 (con’t) – Dolphins (added C Richie Incognito) – Incognito is a talent who is tempermental on the field and off, and that act wore thin on the Rams, who cut him. But his talent, physical play, and aggressiveness merits a second chance if he can get with the program in Miami. He’s good enough to start if everything falls in line.

1 – Seahawks (added UFA TE Chris Baker, UFA WR Sean Morey, LB Matt McCoy, WR Ruvell Martin, and RB Quinton Ganther) – Baker is a versatile tight end who isn’t great but who fits well as a backup to John Carlson for the Seahawks. Baker got a two-year, $4.75 million deal. Morey is a special-teams dynamo who will make a big difference in that area moving over from Arizona. McCoy played for new Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley in Tampa Bay the last two seasons. Martin and Ganther were non-tendered as restricted free agents by the Rams and Redskins, respectively.

1 (con’t) – Buccaneers (added UFA S Sean Jones and LB Jon Alston; kept UFA LB Angelo Crowell and WR Mark Bradley) – Jones was once a great prospect for the Browns, but he left Cleveland and then spent one mediocre year in Philly. Jones has talent to help the Bucs at a problem position, but it remains to be seen whether he’ll actually live up to the promise. Still, he’s worth a look for a Bucs team that needs a ton of help. Alston was not tendered by the Raiders in the offseason despite starting eight games over the past two years. He adds depth to the Bucs’ linebacking corps. Crowell missed last season with an injury, but if he can return to his Buffalo form, he could help the Bucs. Bradley showed some potential in Kansas City, and that led the Bucs to bring him back even though he wasn’t tendered a restricted free-agent offer.

1 (con’t) – Vikings (kept UFA DT Jimmy Kennedy) – Kennedy, like Ryan Pickett a former Rams first-round bust, found a home as the third defensive tackle in Minnesota, and he opted for a two-year, $6 million contract to stay with the Vikings. He’s a key player for the Vikes who may be even more key if the StarCaps case goes against starting DTs Kevin and Pat Williams.

1 (con’t) – Panthers (kept UFA DE Tyler Brayton and OT Rob Pettiti; added CB Marcus Hudson) – Brayton, a former Raider first-round pick, became a sturdy run-stopping end for the Panthers, and they brought him back on a three-year deal to add experience to a defensive line that averaged 23.8 years of age before he was re-signed, according to Darin Gantt. Brayton doesn’t produce a huge pass rush, but he is a legitimate presence who keeps opponents from cheating in their blocking assignments. The Panthers didn’t tender Pettiti, whom they signed out of the UFL, as a restricted free agent, but they brought him back anyway. They signed Hudson, who was not tendered by the 49ers, to add depth at corner.

1 (con’t) – 49ers (added UFA CB Karl Paymah; kept UFA OT Barry Sims) – Sims is a good swing tackle who’s acceptable as a starter in a pinch, and that made him worth $2.1 million in 2010 to the Niners. Paymah is a fourth corner who can plug into the third spot in a pinch. He has good size, but his cover skills are spotty.

1 (con’t) – Bengals (kept UFA S Roy Williams; added WR Chris Davis) – Williams started for the Bengals last year before an injury sidelined him. He no longer has great range or coverage skills, but he’s still an asset against the run.

1 (con’t) – Colts (added OT Adam Terry) – The Colts, who added OG Andy Alleman previously, brought in Terry to continue the project of adding size to their offensive line. Terry, a five-year veteran who was not tendered a contract by the Ravens, missed the ’09 season with injury. He’s more of a third tackle who can fill in on both sides than a starting candidate, but he’ll help provide depth.

1 (con’t) – Eagles (added WRs Hank Baskett and Chad Hall) – Baskett (aka Mr. Kendra) comes back to Philly after a year in Indy marred by his gaffe on the onsides kick in the Super Bowl that proved devastating for the Colts. He’s a big receiver who won’t play much on offense but could help on special teams. Hall, a former Air Force player, is eligible to play now after completing his service requirement. He could end up being an under-the-radar prospect.

1 (con’t)- Lions (added LB Landon Johnson; kept DE Copeland Bryan and UFA S Marquand Manuel) – Manuel and Bryan (who was non-tendered as a restricted free agent) are depth players for Detroit. Johnson was released as a backup in Carolina, but he’s versatile and can provide depth at all three linebacker positions.

1 (con’t) – Bears (added CB Tim Jennings) – Jennings, a former second-round pick, never became a rotation corner in Indianapolis, and he wasn’t tendered a restricted-free-agent offer. But he could find a role as a third or fourth corner in the Bears’ cover-2 system, especially now that Nathan Vasher is out of Chicago.

1 (con’t) – Falcons (added S Matt Giordano) – Giordano was released by the Packers in the offseason, but he could find a home and a role with Atlanta, given the Falcons’ lack of depth in the secondary. Giordano is also an asset on special teams.

1 (con’t) – Saints (kept UFA LS Jason Kyle) – Kyle, a long-time Seahawk and Panther, got a Super Bowl ring as the Saints’ long-snapper last year. Now he gets a return engagement for another year. You don’t notice him, which is the ultimate compliment for a snapper.

1 (con’t) – Giants (added P Jy Bond) – Bond is another Australian Rules Football player trying to make the move to the NFL as a punter. He’s insurance in case the Giants can’t agree to a deal with long-time punter Jeff Feagles.

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Old running backs, new places

Here are some thoughts on old running backs in new places — LaDainian Tomlinson in New York with the Jets, and Larry Johnson in Washington. For a take on another old back in a new place, check out this post on Thomas Jones signing with the Chiefs. And as an added bonus, we’ll compare Tomlinson, Jones, and Johnson as fantasy football options in 2010 at the bottom of this post.

In New York, Tomlinson had a great career in San Diego, but he showed serious signs of slowing down in recent years, with his yards-per-carry average dropping to 3.3 in ’09. So the Chargers eventually had little choice but to release him and move on. With the Jets, Tomlinson should know that he’s taking a subservient role to emerging youngster Shonn Greene, and with Leon Washington returning from an ACL injury, Tomlinson could find carries hard to come by. The positive of that is that Tomlinson will stay fresher, but he’ll have to show a little more patience than he did in San Diego. If Tomlinson knows what he’s signing up for and is willing to be a 10-touch-a-game back, he could help because he provides more contrast to Greene than the departed Thomas Jones would have given. If not, Tomlinson will fade away in a strange-looking uniform, and the two-year, $5.1 million deal the Jets gave him will be wasted. Unfortunately, our hunch points toward the latter scenario.

In Washington, Johnson arrives. Johnson was released in Kansas City midseason last year as his production waned and his complaints persisted.  Johnson landed in Cincinnati as a backup to Cedric Benson, and he looked a little better, averaging 4.4 yards per carry in Cincy versus 2.9 in K.C. Now Johnson moves to Washington, where he will either work with Clinton Portis or replace him, depending on what the ‘Skins decide to do with their incumbent veteran back. Since Portis’ contract is basically guaranteed, we figure he’ll be back. That’s just as well, because Johnson is no longer a starting-caliber NFL back. He’s better in the role he had in Cincinnati at the end of last year, and spot duty will allow him to keep the limited pop he has left in his legs. The three-year, $3.5 million deal Johnson got indicates that’s the role he’ll have – but the potential of making up to $12 million in incentives indicates that more malcontent behavior could be in the offing if Johnson doesn’t get the ball as much as he wants.

In fantasy terms, Jones is the best of these three relocated backs. Jones will have to share time with Jamaal Charles, a breakout player last year, but even in that role Jones should be able to pile up at least 800 rushing yards. That, plus six TDs or so, will make him a solid No. 3 fantasy back in most leagues. We see Tomlinson and Johnson as less than that, and strangely, Johnson may have more fantasy upside because of Portis’ lengthy injury history. But the fact that Johnson and Tomlinson have really slowed down makes us skeptical that they’ll be anything more than bye-week fill-ins for fantasy owners this fall.

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud – Week 12

Each week, we dive into the stat sheets to see which weekly performers fantasy owners should applaud and which fantasy owners should write off as frauds. You can read past applaud or a fraud analyses in the category listing. And you can also check out our fantasy football thoughts during the week via our Twitter feed here on the blog or here.

Quarterbacks

Kyle Boller, Rams – As you look for fantasy fill-ins, Boller is a name that tends to get overlooked. But after throwing for 282 yards and a score against the Seahawks, you should at least notice. Boller is going to have the Rams’ job for at least a couple more weeks, so if you’re desperate, Boller is worth a claim to be a backup. He’s not going to produce as much as Vince Young, but he will surpass guys like Dennis Dixon and Matt Leinart. Verdict: Applaud

Ryan Fitzpatrick, Bills – This is a bit of a strange call, but Fitzpatrick has provided a spark for the Bills since interim head coach Perry Fewell inserted him in the lineup two weeks ago. Fitzpatrick threw for a touchdown a ran for another this week, and he seems to be good for at least a score a week. That makes him definitely worth a claim and perhaps even worth a start in multi-QB leagues. Verdict: Applaud

Chris Redman, Falcons– Redman was pressed into action when Matt Ryan was hurt in the first quarter of Atlanta’s win over Tampa Bay. He responded with 243 passing yards and two touchdowns. If Ryan is out, Redman has enough weapons to be a top-18 fantasy quarterback on a weekly basis. He’s the fill-in you want, not Matt Leinart or Dennis Dixon. Verdict: Applaud

Vince Young, Titans– Young had a huge day with 387 passing yards, including a last-minute game-winning drive. But he only threw for one touchdown, which continues the pattern he’s established since he returned to the lineup. That lack of TD passes keeps Young from being a fantasy starter. He’s good depth, and if you’re missing a starter like Kurt Warner, Matt Ryan, or Ben Roethlisberger, Young can be an emergency option. But he’s not a guy you should be looking to start. Verdict: A fraud

Running Backs

Fred Jackson, Bills – With Marshawn Lynch out, Jackson blew up with 73 rushing yards, 43 receiving yards, and two touchdowns. But Lynch should return soon, and that means that Jackson simply won’t get the opportunities to remain a significant or consistent fantasy producer. Verdict: A fraud

Brandon Jacobs, Giants – In a week where Ahmad Bradshaw was out, against a Denver defense that had been gashed on the ground in recent weeks, Jacobs put up just 27 yards on 11 carries. He’s not a reliable fantasy starter at this point. We figure he’s outside the top 20 fantasy backs, which is a disappointment for a guy who was a first- or second-round pick in most leagues. But it’s time to deal with reality and be willing to put Jacobs on the bench when the matchup dictates. Verdict: A fraud

Larry Johnson, Bengals – Johnson rewarded the Bengals for his second chance by running for 107 yards on 22 carries against Cleveland. But even during the performance, Move the Sticks (a Twitter-based scout) was commenting on how slow Johnson looked. That means that Johnson isn’t worth a run against a better defense. That scouting report, plus the imminent return of Cedric Benson, means that Johnson isn’t a top-40 back going forward. Verdict: A fraud

Felix Jones, Cowboys – Jones broke a 46-yard touchdown this week against Oakland and finished with 68 rushing yards. That performance was a window into Jones for fantasy owners. While Jones is capable of busting a big play, he doesn’t do it often, and unless he does his fantasy value is extremely limited. He’s outside the top 35 at running back from a fantasy perspective and isn’t worth a roster spot in leagues of 10 teams or less. Verdict: A fraud

LaDanian Tomlinson, Chargers – If you were watching the ticker, you might have seen that Tomlinson scored twice against the Chiefs. But don’t miss the fact that he also averaged just 3.0 yards per carry on 13 totes. He also had just one five-yard catch. While LDT is starting to find the end zone more often, he’s far from the force he used to be. You should still beware. Verdict: A fraud

Wide Receivers

Miles Austin, Cowboys – Austin had yet another huge game on Thanksgiving, posting seven catches for 145 yards and a score. Consider that star turn a reminder that Austin is now a top-10 fantasy receiver. Verdict: Applaud

Kenny Britt, Titans – Britt caught the game-winning touchdown for Tennessee against Arizona, and he also had his best game of his rookie season with seven catches for 128 yards. Britt has now scored two straight weeks, and he seems to have a pretty good rapport with Vince Young. Don’t get carried away, but if Britt is on your league’s waiver wire he’s now worth a claim. He seems to be emerging late in the season. Verdict: Applaud

Donald Driver, Packers – Driver is almost 35 years old, but he continues to post monster numbers year after year. His 142-yard performance against Detroit, which included a touchdown, goes to show that he’s still a top-15 fantasy wideout after all these years. He should be in your starting lineup in ink. Verdict: Applaud

Percy Harvin, Vikings – The star rookie had his first 100-yard game of the season against the Bears, notching 101 yards and a score on six catches. As Harvin becomes more a part of the offense, he becomes a starting-quality fantasy receiver. He’s moved within the top 30 of fantasy receivers, and his uphill climb might still have heights to attain. Verdict: Applaud

Calvin Johnson, Lions – Considering that most leagues saw Johnson drafted as a top-10 receiver (if not higher), it seems crazy to consider benching him. But with Matthew Stafford banged up and Johnson not at full strength either, right  now it’s foolish to consider Johnson as a legit top-10 fantasy wideout. His two-catch, 10-yard day against Green Bay was redeemed a bit by a touchdown grab, but it’s still a sign of trouble. Megatron is still in the top 20 of fantasy wideouts, but you have to at least look at your other options before starting him. So we can’t rate Johnson as a top-10 guy anymore. Verdict: A fraud

James Jones, Packers – Jones had four catches for 35 yards and a touchdown on Thanksgiving Day. It was his fourth touchdown of the year, all of which have come after Green Bay’s Week 5 bye. In large leagues (16 teams or more), Jones is not a bad fifth receiver, but he still doesn’t have much relevance for fantasy owners other than that. Verdict: A fraud

Terrell Owens, Bills – Don’t look now, but T.O. is on a roll in Buffalo. He has scored in two straight weeks and has at least 78 yards from scrimmage in his last four games. He’s finally back to being an every-week starter in just about every fantasy league. If you kept him, your patience is being rewarded, and if you claimed him or traded for him, your gamble is paying off. Verdict: Applaud

Tight Ends

Fred Davis, Redskins – With Chris Cooley’s significant injury now looking to be a season-ender, Davis is worth a second look. He had four catches and a touchdown against the Eagles, and he’s had at least four catches in three of the past five games. If you’re scrambling for a tight end, Davis is a decent option at this point in the season. Verdict: Applaud

Zach Miller, Raiders – The only redeemable thing about the Raiders’ offense from a fantasy perspective right now is Miller, who had five catches for 73 yards against the Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day. Miller has had at least 50 yards receiving in five of his last seven games, which makes him a startable option in leagues of 12 teams or more. He doesn’t score enough to be an elite fantasy tight end, but he’s raised himself up to option status. Verdict: Applaud

Jason Witten, Cowboys – Witten has seen his production lag this year, but he busted out with a 107-yard game against Oakland on Thanksgiving despite being a game-time decision to play. That’s a positive sign for owners who were wavering about whether to keep starting the former fantasy stalwart. The answer is that yes, you should leave Witten in your weekly lineup. 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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Week 9 moves

We do a weekly update on major NFL transactions. We include signings, releases, and also players who are put on injured reserve, because they are lost for the year. You can check out the Week 8 transactions here and work your way back through the season.

Additions

Lions (add CB Jack Williams) – Williams was the player that the Broncos cut to add Ty Law late last week, and he was obviously in demand as four teams put in a waiver claim. He went to Detroit, which cut Jason David in favor of Williams. That’s the kind of move a bad team needs to make, because while Williams probably isn’t a starting-quality corner, he could end up being a nickel or dime guy down the line. Once again, the Lions showed aggressiveness in adding a guy who might be able to help, which is a good sign.

Raiders (add DT William Joseph) – The Raiders brought back Joseph, a former first-round pick by the Giants, and cut former starting OG Paul McQuistan. In other words, they shuffled the deck chairs. The Titanic? It’s still sinking.

Subtractions

Chiefs (cut RB Larry Johnson; put OG Mike Goff on injured reserve) – We broke down Johnson’s cut on our MVN blog. The Chiefs also put Goff, a long-time starter in Cincinnati and San Diego who moved to K.C. this year and started seven of eight games, on injured reserve and signed Justin Rogers to take Goff’s roster spot.

Panthers (put LB Thomas Davis on injured reserve) – Davis had been a big playmaker at the strong-side linebacker spot, but he suffered a knee injury that will sideline him over the rest of the season. That’s a blow to a Panthers defense that has just a placeholder at the other OLB spot in Na’il Diggs. Carolina promoted LB Kelvin Smith from the practice squad to take Davis’ roster spot.

Browns (put LB Eric Barton on injured reserve) – Barton was one of the ex-Jets that Eric Mangini brought over to install his defense in Cleveland. Now he’s one of two starting inside ‘backers who is out for the year. That’s a blow to a Cleveland D that is bad to begin with. The Browns signed Josh Stamer to take Barton’s roster spot.

Bengals (put WR Chris Henry and S Roy Williams on injured reserve) – The Bengals suffered two big blows because of injuries this week. Henry, the team’s No. 3 receiver and top deep threat, broke his arm vs. Baltimore last week and is gone for the year. Williams, who has been starting at safety, suffered a forerarm injury as well. These injuries will test the Bengals’ depth. To fill these roster spots, Cincy promoted WR Maurice Purify from the practice squad and brought back OG Scott Kooistra, whom they had cut last week.

Eagles (put CB Ellis Hobbs on injured reserve) – The Eagles took two blows at cornerback this week. Hobbs, who was not only a corner but also the team’s kickoff returner, sustained a neck injury that ended his season. Meanwhile, fourth corner Joselio Hanson was suspended four games after testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance. To replace the two corners, the Eagles signed CB Ramzee Robinson (who can also serve as a returner) and promoted CB Jack Ikegwuono from the practice squad.

Buccaneers (put S Will Allen and LB Rod Wilson on injured reserve) – The Bucs suffered two injuries to defensive players. Allen, who had been playing as an extra defensive back, suffered a thumb injury. Wilson, more of a special-teamer, suffered a shoulder injury. To replace them, Tampa re-signed LB Matt McCoy and promoted CB Derrick Roberson from the practice squad.

Redskins (put S Chris Horton on injured reserve) – Horton, who started 10 games as a rookie, started five more this season with more limited success as a sophomore. Now he will miss the second half of the season with a toe injury. To replace Horton, the Redskins brought back RB Quinton Ganther.

Giants (put LB Gerris Wilkerson on injured reserve) – Wilkerson was a backup linebacker, and, as importantly, a special-teams ace. But a wrist injury will end his season. To replace him, the Giants added CB D.J. Johnson, who will step in on some special-teams coverage units.

Bills (cut RB Xavier Omon) – The Bills thought Omon had promise, but he couldn’t find a role behind Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson. So he was finally cut so that the Bills could activate WR James Hardy from the physically unable to perform list.

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