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Training camp cuts roundup

Jerricho Cotchery of the New York Jets running...

Ex-Jet Jerricho Cotchery. Image via Wikipedia

In this post, we’ll discuss the players released during training camp. This will include players cut until the first cutdown on August 30. (For players released earlier, check out this link to our pre-camp cuts analysis.)

Vikings (cut OT Bryant McKinnie)We discussed McKinnie’s release in this post.

Cowboys (cut C Andre Gurode) – Gurode has made the Pro Bowl the last five years, but the nine-year vet’s play no longer matches his price tag. It’ll be interesting to see what contingency plan the Cowboys have in mind, but it’s clear that Gurode still has enough in the tank to be at least an above-average center for someone.

Bills (cut OLB Aaron Maybin) – Maybin, a former first-round pick, was an utter disappointment in Buffalo. He never provided much of a pass rush, and so his impact was negligible. His talent may earn him a look elsewhere, but it’s hard to see someone who was such a complete bust completely turning his career around. The Bills, under a regime different than the one that drafted Maybin, cut the cord after two seasons, indicating they thought he was a hopeless case.

Jets (cut WR Jerricho Cotchery) – Cotchery has been a decent starter for the Jets, but after the Jets spent big money for Santonio Holmes and Plaxico Burress, his price tag proved to be too much. So the Jets (who also lost Braylon Edwards and Brad Smith) will likely try to add a veteran as the third receiver until Jeremy Kerley develops. Cotchery latched on with the Steelers.

Saints (cut OT Jon Stinchcomb and DE Alex Brown) – Stinchcomb had started every game at right tackle the past five seasons for the Saints, and he made a Pro Bowl just two seasons ago in 2009. But his play slipped last year, and he’s not the heavy-duty run blocker the Saints seem to prefer at this point. So New Orleans saved $2 million plus and released him. Still, he’s good enough to start elsewhere, especially for a West Coast offense team. Brown, whom the Saints added last season, is a decent starting defensive end because he’s OK against both the pass and the run, but he’s no longer an impact guy. He lost his job as the Saints upgraded across the D-line and his pricetag no longer matched his expected contribution.

Bengals (cut DT Tank Johnson, CB Fred Bennett and QB Jordan Palmer) – The Bengals gave the troubled defensive tackle a chance, and it worked out beautifully in 2009. But last season, Johnson’s performance fell off. If he can prove he’s healthy and stay on his best behavior, Johnson could still latch on as a backup DT elsewhere. Bennett, a former Texans starter, has completely fallen off the map. Palmer (the brother of Carson Palmer) lost a roster spot after the additions of Andy Dalton and Bruce Gradkowski. 

Titans (cut DT Jovan Haye) – Haye was a starter for the Titans in 2008-2009, but he lost his starting gig last year and then lost his roster spot this year. Still, he provides experience at a position of need, so he should find a job somewhere.

Broncos (cut RB LenDale White) – The Broncos signed White after the Titans and Seahawks gave up on him, but he got hurt last preseason and missed the entire year. After adding Willis McGahee, White became expendable for Denver.

Steelers (cut WR Limas Sweed) – Sweed, a former second-round pick, was supposed to replace Plaxico Burress in the Steelers’ offense, but injuries and inconsistency limited his impact. Instead, later draftees like Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, and Antonio Brown emerged, making Sweed extraneous. Some team will really be looking at the way-back machine if it is to give him a second chance.

Ravens (cut FB Jason McKie and OT Oniel Cousins) – McKie is a decent fullback, but after the Ravens upgraded with Vonta Leach, he became expendable. Given the dearth of teams that use a fullback, McKie could have trouble finding work. Cousins entered camp as a potential starter at right tackle but lost the job and then a roster spot. The addition of Bryant McKinnie made Cousins an expendable piece.

Eagles (cut DE Ricky Sapp) – Sapp, a fifth-round pick in 2010, was battling knee injuries and roster depth before he left the Eagles early in camp. Given their depth, the Eagles decided to cut Sapp instead of keeping his rights.

Patriots (cut safeties Brandon McGowan and James Sanders) – McGowan, who was a starter at free safety for the Patriots in 2009, had fallen behind youngsters Patrick Chung and Brandon Meriwether at the position. So he was released. The more surprising cut was Sanders, who was a starter and a regular last year and a starter in the third preseason game two days before his release. He’s still good enough to fit in somewhere.

Redskins (cut PK Shayne Graham) – Graham lost out in a kicking competition with Graham Gano. The vet will likely become an injury replacement somewhere before the season is out.

Rams (cut LBs David Vobora and Na’il Diggs) – Vobora, a former Mr. Irrelevant, was a stat-minded favorite, but his talent wasn’t going to justify a roster spot. It’ll be interesting to see if an analytics-driven team gives him a shot. (UPDATE: Seattle did.) Diggs is a solid veteran who is a replacement level starter at best. He will find work as an injury fill-in at some point.

Lions (cut RB Mike Bell, DT Montavious Stanley, and PK Dave Rayner) – Bell, one of the running backs whom the Lions signed after Mikel Leshoure’s injury, failed to make an impact to win a job. Stanley provides decent depth at tackle but lost a job on Detroit’s deep line. Rayner did a good job filling in for Jason Hanson last year, but Hanson’s back for his 20th year in Detroit.

Jaguars (cut WR Tiquan Underwood) – Underwood, a former sixth-round pick, becomes the first draft pick of the Gene Smith era to be cut in Jacksonville. His three years were underwhelming, and the Jags have added a ton of other receivers in the draft since he was selected.

Bears (cut DE Vernon Gholston and DT Tank Tyler) – Tyler, an ex-Chief and Panther, has never lived up to his draft status as he’s bounced around the league. But he’s not nearly the bust that Gholston, a former sixth overall pick, was. The Bears took a shot on Gholston as a reclamation project, but it obviously didn’t take. (Meanwhile, Amobi Okoye, a similar case, has performed pretty well.)

Chargers (cut LS David Binn) – Binn played 17 years for the Chargers, but he’s always been small for a long snapper and no longer holds up. The Chargers’ special teams problems last season ultimately led to many changes, including this one.

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FR: Training camp signings

NFL teams see needs surface during training camp, and players who need a job try to capitalize by coming in late to win roster spots. This post comments on training-camp signings through August 19. For signings earlier in the offseason, go to the pre-camp signings post and work your way back. Signings later in the preseason will be covered in a subsequent post.

Jets (add WR Laveranues Coles) – Coles returns for a third tour of duty with the Jets after a single disappointing season in Cincinnati. Coles’ main role with the Jets will be to fill in for Santonio Holmes during his four-game suspension to start the season. Coles won’t produce like Holmes will, but he provides a veteran balance to Braylon Edwards and Jerricho Cotchery in the first month of the season.

Broncos (add RBs LenDale White and Justin Fargas) – White, who had some good years with the Titans, blew his chance with his old college coach Pete Carroll in Seattle, and he faces a four-game suspension to start the season. But the Broncos, who lost Knowshon Moreno and Correll Buckhalter to training-camp injuries and traded away J.J. Arrington, needed a professional running back during camp and turned to White. He may just be a camp body, but if he shows promise, the Broncos might keep him around. Fargas, though, is a better bet to stick around. Although he’s now 30, Fargas still has the ability to be a decent performer if given an opportunity, and he has fewer miles on his tires than other backs his age. It’s entirely possible that Fargas could even usurp Buckhalter as Moreno’s backup. The fact that Fargas won’t miss four games to start the season also gives him an edge over White in terms of making the opening-day roster.

49ers (add RB Brian Westbrook) – The 49ers responded to the retirement of Glen Coffee by signing Westbrook as Frank Gore’s backup. Westbrook had a dynamic eight-year career in Philadelphia, producing big numbers as a runner and receiver and proving to be a team-first, smart guy. The problem with Westbrook was his durability. He missed games in every year of his Eagles career, and that durability is one of the reasons the Eagles moved on. Because San Francisco relies on Gore so heavily, Westbrook will have a limited role, and that may enable him to last throughout the season in San Fran. For a 49ers team trying to move into the playoffs again, Westbrook is a worthwhile investment as a role player.

Titans (add DL Raheem Brock) – Brock is a versatile lineman who can hold up outside or serve as a pass-rusher inside at defensive tackle. Plus, he comes from the Colts, so he’ll bring some insight to town for the division-rival Titans. At age 32, Brock doesn’t have a lot left, but he’s probably still good enough to fill a reserve role for a contender like the Titans.

Saints (add RB Ladell Betts) – The Saints responded to Lynell Hamilton’s season-ending injury by adding ex-Redskin Betts as their No. 3 back. Betts spent his first nine years in Washington, and although he was a lead back in just one year, he proved his value as a versatile back who can block and catch in addition to run. He steps in for Hamilton in the role that Mike Bell had last year for New Orleans as Pierre Thomas’ counterpart and short-yardage specialist. Betts may not be the thumper that Bell was, but he’s good enough to allow the Saints to keep Thomas fresh, and that’s all they could hope for with a mid-August replacement.

Eagles (add UFA WR Kelley Washington) – Washington, who has stuck in the league for seven seasons as a big, rangy special-teams guy, actually showed some skill as a receiver last year with a career-high 34 catches. Now he moves from Baltimore to Philly, where he will be the fourth receiver and fill the role that Hank Baskett dropped last year. That’s an upgrade for the Eagles.

Colts (add UFA CB DeShea Townsend) – Townsend has played 12 years, all with the Steelers, and he remains a solid No. 3 or No. 4 corner. The Steelers didn’t want Townsend back, but he’ll be a nice veteran presence for the Colts’ young corner group.

Seahawks (add DT Quinn Pitcock and LB Tyjuan Hagler) – Pitcock played one year with the Colts after being a third-round pick in 2007, but he retired. He said the reasons were depression and a video-game addiction, both of which made him less than excited to play football. But the former Ohio State player says he’s excited about football again, and the Seahawks hope he can recapture the potential he showed as a collegian and a rookie. It’s worth a low-cost shot for the club. Hagler spent the last five years with the Colts, starting 17 games over the last three years. He adds depth in case Leroy Hill’s off-field problems sideline him for an extender period of time.

Dolphins (add OG Randy Thomas) – Thomas only played two games last year, but he’s been a long-time starter with the Redskins and the Jets before that. He’s near the end of the line, but he’s probably still good enough to start if Miami gets in a pinch inside. He’s a nice depth addition in mid-August.

Chargers (add S Quinton Teal) – Teal, who played the first three years of his career in Carolina, lands in San Diego after an offseason stop in Seattle. Teal is a replacement-level safety who adds depth to the Chargers’ backfield.

Saints (add WR Mark Bradley) – New Orleans has a deep corps of wide receivers, but they still decided to add Bradley, who played for Kansas City and Tampa Bay last year. Bradley has never lived up to his potential as a second-round pick in Chicago, but he’s a professional receiver who could be a No. 5 for someone – though probably not the receiver-rich Saints.

Patriots (add OG Eric Ghiaciuc) – Ghiaciuc, a three-year starter in Cincinnati, has bounced around the past several years, but he could still add depth for the Patriots up front, especially with Logan Mankins holding out.

Bears (add QB Matt Gutierrez) – Gutierrez, the former Patriots third-stringer who was with Kansas City last year, comes on board to try to beat out rookie Dan LeFevour for the backup QB job behind Jay Cutler.

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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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FR: Training camp injuries

As NFL teams start full-contact practices in training camp, the injuries start piling up quickly. This post compares the significance of major training-camp injuries. Because training camp injuries are so prevalent, we’re only including injuries that will or could cost players regular-season time. We’ll update this post throughout training camp as the injuries add up.

For comparison of injuries during minicamp season, check out this post.

10 – OLB Elvis Dumervil, Broncos – Dumervil stayed away from offseason work in Denver until he got a new contract, but just after he signed his $60-million-plus extension with $43 million in guaranteed money, he tore a pectoral muscle in training camp. He’ll miss four months, which takes him into the final quarter of the season and could lead the Broncos to put him on injured reserve. That’s a huge blow, because Dumervil developed into a premium pass rusher in Denver’s 3-4 defense last year. His 17 sacks were nearly half of the team’s 39, which is a statement about how good Dumervil was and how little other pass-rush help the team has. Without Dumervil, Denver’s 3-4 will undoubtedly struggle to pressure the passer, which will lead to more gimmick pass rushes that put more pressure on the secondary. For a team whose defense collapsed down the stretch, that’s a recipe for disaster. Now that Brandon Marshall and Jay Cutler have been shipped out, Dumervil was one of the two best players Denver had, and losing him is a massive blow that changes the course of Denver’s season. The fact that another of Denver’s elite guys, OLT Ryan Clady, is still trying to get back from an offseason torn patella tendon only makes the Broncos’ prospects bleaker.

9 – DE Ty Warren, Patriots – Warren, a seven-year veteran, has started all but one game he has played since his second season, and the former first-round pick has proven to be a durable and dependable defensive end in the Patriots 3-4 defense. However, a hip injury that required surgery forced Warren onto injured reserve, which means he will miss the 2010 season. While Warren isn’t a flashy player making a big statistical splash, his reliable presence allows the Pats to be creative in the linebacking corps. With Warren gone, the Patriots could miss Richard Seymour even more in 2010 than they did in 2009, as well as Jarvis Green, another recent departee.

8 – CB Domonique Foxworth, Ravens – Foxworth was the Ravens’ big signing at cornerback in 2009, and he started all 16 games with four interceptions last year. But he won’t start any games this year after tearing his ACL in the first practice of training camp. Losing a starter is always a big deal, but the Ravens losing a solid player like Foxworth in their biggest area of weakness is especially painful. The five-year vet says he’ll try to contribute to the team by participating in meetings and watching practices in an attempt to mentor Baltimore’s young corners, but the bottom line is that not having Foxworth on the field dampens the Ravens’ high hopes for the 2010 season a bit.

8 (con’t) – WR Donnie Avery, Rams – Avery was set to become the Rams’ No. 1 receiver once again, but he tore the ACL in his right knee in the Rams’ third preseason game, which will land him on injured reserve and end his season. The injury is a big blow to the Rams, because Avery (who had 100 catches over the past two years) is the only proven receiver on the Rams’ roster. The injury not only stymies a St. Louis attack that’s bereft of playmakers; it also makes it harder for rookie QB Sam Bradford to succeed because he has so few quality targets to look for.

7 – OLB Sergio Kindle, Ravens – Kindle, a second-round pick by the Ravens in this year’s draft, injured his head in a fall in a home in late July, and as a result he was not able to report to training camp. His college head coach, Mack Brown, has said that Kindle suffers from narcolepsy, which could explain the fall. Kindle is not cleared to leave Austin, Texas, while the swelling on his brain lessens, and as a result he likely won’t make it to Baltimore until after the Ravens break camp. It wouldn’t be shocking if the Ravens either placed Kindle on injured reserve or simply didn’t sign him until he’s healthy later this season or after 2010. The injury is a big loss, because we’re big believers in Kindle’s talents.

7 (con’t) – DE Phillip Merling, Dolphins – Merling suffered a torn Achilles in late July, just before camp opened, and it will cost him the entire 2010 season. Although he started only four games over  his first two seasons, Merling was a sturdy run-stopper who figured into the mix at defensive end. Miami now needs first-rounder Jared Odrick to be an immediate contributor and veteran Charles Grant to adjust quickly to the 3-4 defense after years in the 4-3. Veteran Marques Douglas, like Grant a pre-camp signee, also adds depth.

7 (con’t) – CB Leigh Bodden, Patriots – In a surprising move, Bodden was placed on injured reserve at the end of August with a rotator cuff injury. Bodden played well for the Patriots last year as a starter, and the team will miss his physical presence out on the corner. Now the Patriots must rely on youngsters like Darius Butler and Devin McCourty to hold down the fort on the corner.

6 – RB Ben Tate, Texans – The Texans’ offense took a big hit when second-round pick Ben Tate suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the preseason opener. Tate was slated to compete with Arian Foster as the Texans’ featured back, and Houston head coach Gary Kubiak has shown he likes to have a deep stable of running backs. Now that Tate’s out for the year, Houston will need Foster to become an every-down back and Steve Slaton to regain consistency as a third-down back. Tate’s injury is a blow to Houston’s prolific offense, and that offense is the reason the Texans have playoff hopes.

6 (con’t) – RB Montario Hardesty, Browns – Hardesty, a second-round pick out of Tennessee, was a chic pick to become the Browns’ starting running back. But he suffered a torn ACL in the final preseason game that will cost him the entire season. It’s a blow to a Browns offense that has a solid line but a lack of playmakers.

5 – TE John Phillips, Cowboys – Phillips, a backup tight end who was emerging as a complete threat for the Cowboys, tore his ACL in the Hall of Fame game and will miss the season. Now that Phillips is out, Dallas needs Martellus Bennett to convert his potential into performance on a far more consistent basis to balance all-star Jason Witten.

5 (con’t) – RBs Lynell Hamilton and P.J. Hill, Saints – With Mike Bell leaving via free agency, Hamilton was slated to step into the backup running back role for the Saints behind Pierre Thomas. That was an important spot last year, because it allowed Reggie Bush to be a versatile threat and not a heavy-use runner. Now, with Hamilton gone for the year with a torn ACL, the Saints will need to add a back or give Bush more carries and hope he stays healthy. Hill bounced around as a rookie last year, and after Hamilton’s injury he may have been able to fight his way into a roster spot, but a left leg injury cost him the 2010 season as well.

5 (con’t) – WR Torry Holt, Patriots – Holt, the long-time Ram who was trying to hook on with New England this year to continue his career, suffered a knee injury that caused the Patriots to put him on injured reserve and end his season. This may be the end of the line for the seven-time Pro Bowler who was on the NFL’s all-decade team of the 2000s, and if it is, he unfortunately ended with a whimper.

5 (con’t) – S Gibril Wilson, Bengals – Wilson has been viewed as the answer in Oakland and Miami the last couple of years, but he hasn’t played up to the level he showed in his first four pro seasons with the Giants. The Bengals were ready to give Wilson a try this year, but he suffered a torn ACL and MCL in the second preseason game and will spend the season on injured reserve instead.

5 (con’t) – RB LenDale White, Broncos – White, who landed with Denver just after training camp began, had a nice preseason and looked to have a job locked down. But White suffered a torn Achilles in the preseason finale and will miss the season. White would have sat out the first four games of the year on a league-mandated suspension, but his injury takes away an option that the Broncos would have liked to have had.

4 – CB Walt Harris, Ravens – Harris, 35, was trying to prolong his career in Baltimore after missing the ’09 season with an ACL injury. But he couldn’t get healthy enough to practice, and that landed him on injured reserve with an ankle injury. It’s a shame, because after Domonique Foxworth’s injury, the Ravens could use Harris’ veteran wiles on the corner.

4 (con’t) – DT D’Anthony Smith, Jaguars – Smith, a defensive tackle expected to be a big part of the Jaguars’ rebuilt defensive line this year, tore his Achilles tendon and will likely miss the season. Smith, a third-round pick  out of Louisiana Tech in April’s draft, was along with Tyson Alualu to add depth to an area that has been a weak spot since the glory days of John Henderson and Marcus Stroud. Now the Jags need guys like Terrence Knighton to step up alongside Alualu, who needs to be a premium player for Jax.

4 (con’t) – C Eric Heitmann, 49ers – Heitman has started all but two games for the 49ers since 2004, but he will miss at least the first month of the 2010 season with a broken leg he suffered in training camp. That’s a blow for a Niners team that invested so heavily in upgrading its offensive line this offseason. With Heitmann out, David Baas, who has started for the Niners but hasn’t played center since college, gets the first shot to step in.

4 (con’t) – ILB Donald Butler, Chargers – Butler, a third-round pick out of Washington in April’s draft, was contending for a starting spot in San Diego’s 3-4, but he suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon tear in early April. That’s a loss for the Chargers, who need stability at inside linebacker and don’t have a ton of depth there. Veteran Kevin Burnett now needs to hold up for a bunch of snaps for the Bolts.

4 (con’t) – ILB Andre Frazier, Steelers – Frazier, a five-year vet, had carved out a role as a backup inside linebacker in the Steelers’ vaunted 3-4 defense. But a knee injury will sideline Frazier for the season.

4 (con’t) – S Jamie Silva, Colts – Silva, an undrafted player three years ago, carved out a niche as a special-teamer with Indianapolis, both on coverage and also as a punt returner last year. But a knee injury in the preseason opener will halt Silva’s 2010 season before it begins.

4 (con’t) – WR Mike Furrey, Redskins – Furrey, one of the veterans the Redskins added in the offseason to provide depth in a sorry receiving corps, battled concussion symptoms throughout training camp and decided not to play the season. The issue could end his career, which as Pro Football Talk spelled out, is a unique one. He played both wide receiver and safety in the league, including playing both last season with the Browns. Not bad for a guy who had to fight his way into the league by playing in the Arena League.

4 (con’t) – WR Kerry Meier, Falcons – Meier, a rookie out of Kansas, looked to be winning a spot on the Falcons’ roster as a tall possession receiver, perhaps replacing long-time Falcon Brian Finneran. But the fifth-round pick suffered a season-ending knee injury in the second preseason game and will miss the season.

4 (con’t) – WR Marcus Easley and LB Danny Batten, Bills – Buffalo placed two of its 2010 draft picks on injured reserve on the same day. Easley, a fourth-rounder, suffered a knee injury in early August that required surgery, while Batten, a sixth-rounder, needed surgery for a training-camp shoulder issue. Both will miss the season.

3 – DT Chris Hovan, Rams – Hovan, a former star, was trying to prolong his career with the Rams, but a back injury landed him on injured reserve. He will miss the season and may be done for his career as well.

3 (con’t) – RB Brian Leonard, Bengals – Leonard turned into a solid third-down back for the Bengals last year, but in the Hall of Fame game he suffered a Listfranc injury for his foot. That’s a blow to the Bengals, who don’t have another back who can block, catch, and run at Leonard’s level. Bernard Scott will have to step up behind Leonard as the complement to Cedric Benson until Leonard returns, which the Bengals hope will happen at midseason.

3 (con’t) – ILB Scott McKillop, 49ers – McKillop was a backup last year as a rookie out of Pittsburgh, recording 15 tackles. But his second year stopped before it started when he blew out his ACL in a training-camp practice. With McKillop out, veteran Matt Wilhelm or rookie NaVarro Bowman will have to be ready to step in at a moment’s notice.

3 (con’t) – OLB Marcus Howard, Titans – Howard, who played in nine games with 1.5 sacks as a rookie last year, suffered a triceps injury in training camp that will cost him the 2010 season in Tennessee.

3 (con’t) – LB Jordon Dizon, Lions – Dizon, a second-round pick in Matt Millen’s last Detroit draft, hadn’t established himself as a starter but did play in every game last year for the Lions. He was slated for a backup role until he tore his ACL in mid-August; now he will miss the season.

3 (con’t) – P Dave Zastudil, Browns – Zastudil, an eight-year vet who has done a good job in unkind weather conditions in Cleveland, will spend the 2010 season on injured reserve because of a patella tendon injury that cost him the second half of last season as well. He will be replaced by Reggie Hodges, who filled in last year as well.

3 (con’t) – QB Charlie Frye, Raiders – Frye, who got a cameo as a starter in Oakland last year because of injuries, will miss the 2010 season with a wrist injury. But the loss isn’t a huge blow to the Raiders, because they have Bruce Gradkowski set behind new starter Jason Campbell, and Kyle Boller may be an upgrade over Frye at No. 3.

3 (con’t) – LB Freddy Keiaho, Jaguars – Keiaho, who was a starter for the Colts in ’07 and ’08 but fell out of the regular lineup last year, was trying to regain relevance in Jacksonville. But a concussion in the preseason opener landed him on injured reserve.

3 (con’t) – WR Jaymar Johnson, Vikings – Johnson, a sixth-round pick in 2008, played as a fifth receiver in ’09, but he had a chance at more playing time this year, especially early, given the health issues of Percy Harvin and Sidney Rice. But Tarvaris Jackson’s former college teammate suffered a broken thumb that will cost him the season, further depleting Minnesota’s receiving corps.

3 (con’t) – QB Byron Leftwich, Steelers – Leftwich, who was battling with Dennis Dixon to be the Steelers’ starter in the first four games of the season while Ben Roethlisberger was suspended, suffered an MCL injury in the preseason finale. It’s a two-to-four week injury that takes Leftwich out of consideration to start the season opener and may take away his starting shot entirely.

2 – ILB A.J. Edds, Dolphins – Edds, a fourth-round pick out of Iowa, suffered a torn ACL in an early-August camp practice and will miss the season. Edds was expected to find a role on passing downs at inside linebacker in Miami’s 3-4. The injury is a blow to Miami and a blow to a rookie trying to earn a gig in the NFL.

2 (con’t) – DT John Gill, Colts – Gill, a second-year player, had a shot to win a rotation spot at defensive tackle for the Colts, but he will be sidelined as he deals with an alcohol problem. The team has placed Gill on the non-football injury list.

2 (con’t) – RB Harvey Unga, Bears – Chicago spent a seventh-round pick in the summer supplemental draft on Unga, who had a nice career at BYU. But when he struggled in training camp, a roster spot appeared like a long shot, so the Bears took advantage of a hamstring injury to put Unga on injured reserve and get a full offseason with him in 2011.

2 (con’t) – RB Stafon Johnson, Titans – Johnson’s feel-good story took a nasty turn when the undrafted rookie suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the preseason opener. Johnson, a starter at USC who suffered a catastrophic throat injury during a weighlifting session when the bar fell on his throat, was trying to return to the field, but this injury makes the NFL an impossibility this year and even more of an improbability going forward. Johnson deserves better luck.

1 – RB-KR Kory Sheets, Dolphins – Sheets tore his Achilles tendon in a non-contact drill and will miss the season. He was contending to be the Dolphins’ primary kickoff returner. The Purdue product played in two games in his rookie season in ’09.

1 (con’t) – CB Evan Oglesby, Dolphins – Oglesby, who played one game for Miami last year, will miss the season with a left leg injury that landed him on injured reserve.

1 (con’t) – LB Darnell Bing, Texans – Bing, who spent the last two years in Detroit, was trying to make the Texans, but instead he will spend the season on injured reserve.

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Elvis has left the building

The Broncos added a name guy and lost a name guy this week, but the loss of OLB Elvis Dumervil to a torn pectoral muscle far outweighs the addition of RB LenDale White. Below are thoughts on both situations.

Dumervil stayed away from offseason work in Denver until he got a new contract, but just after he signed his $60-million-plus extension with $43 million in guaranteed money, he tore a pectoral muscle in training camp. He’ll miss four months, which takes him into the final quarter of the season and could lead the Broncos to put him on injured reserve. That’s a huge blow, because Dumervil developed into a premium pass rusher in Denver’s 3-4 defense last year. His 17 sacks were nearly half of the team’s 39, which is a statement about how good Dumervil was and how little other pass-rush help the team has. Without Dumervil, Denver’s 3-4 will undoubtedly struggle to pressure the passer, which will lead to more gimmick pass rushes that put more pressure on the secondary. For a team whose defense collapsed down the stretch, that’s a recipe for disaster. Now that Brandon Marshall and Jay Cutler have been shipped out, Dumervil was one of the two best players Denver had, and losing him is a massive blow that changes the course of Denver’s season. The fact that another of Denver’s elite guys, OLT Ryan Clady, is still trying to get back from an offseason torn patella tendon only makes the Broncos’ prospects bleaker.

Meanwhile, White, who had some good years with the Titans, blew his chance with his old college coach Pete Carroll in Seattle, and he faces a four-game suspension to start the season. But the Broncos, who lost Knowshon Moreno and Correll Buckhalter to training-camp injuries and traded away J.J. Arrington, needed a professional running back during camp and turned to White. He may just be a camp body, but if he shows promise, the Broncos might keep him around.

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Fantasy Football: Changing situations

As part of our continuing fantasy football coverage, we previously discussed WRs, RBs, and QBs in new places. Now we’re going to flip the script and look at players who didn’t change teams but who did see their situations change in significant ways this year. We’ll analyze what’s new about the situations and how it affects these players using our rise/sink/float tool as we compare their 2010 fantasy stock to their ’09 performance.

QB Jay Cutler, Bears – With Mike Martz coming in as offensive coordinator, the Bears’ offense figures to feature even more passing and deep passing than it did last year under Ron Turner. That could be a good sign for Cutler, who threw for 27 touchdowns and 3,666 yards last year. The yardage total should certainly increase, and with Martz around Cutler could threaten the 30-TD mark, which is elite level for fantasy quarterbacks. The question is whether Cutler can trim his interception number down from 26. Because of the yardage total, though, we’re confident saying Cutler’s overall fantasy numbers will increase. Verdict: Rise

QB Joe Flacco, Ravens – Flacco has the same offense, but the addition of WRs Anquan Boldin and Donte Stallworth mean that he has a far greater group of receivers than he did last season. Given that talent around him, it’s safe to say that Flacco will better his totals of 3,613 yards and 21 TDs from last season. Verdict: Rise

QB Matt Hasselbeck, Seahawks – Hasselbeck had a disappointing fantasy season in ’09 with 3,029 yards and 17 TDs in 14 games. His supporting cast added Leon Washington and Golden Tate, who will help but not make a massive shift. The question is whether Pete Carroll’s coaching style will affect Hasselbeck’s stock. The addition of Charlie Whitehurst in the offseason doesn’t seem to bode well for Hasselbeck’s future, and the supporting cast makes us believe that the best-case scenario for Hasselbeck is basically a repeat of his ’09 production. Verdict: Float

QB Mark Sanchez, Jets – Sanchez’s rookie year wasn’t a fantasy boon, as he threw for 2,444 yards and just 12 touchdowns with 20 interceptions. The usual progression of a first-year starter is to move up to the 16-18 TD level in his second year, but since the Jets added Santonio Holmes and have a full season of Braylon Edwards, Sanchez’s second-year leap could actually surpass the norm just a little. He should move up to the 3,000-yard, 20-TD level, which would put him at the bottom of the top 20 for fantasy quarterbacks. Verdict: Rise

RB Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers – Mendenhall had just seven carries in the first three games last year, but once he took over in Week Four he became a highly productive back, finishing the year with 1,108 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. Now fantasy owners are slotting him into the top 10 at the position. He’s barely worthy of that level, even with Willie Parker now gone, because the Steelers’ efforts to fortify their offensive line with Maurkice Pouncey went one step forward and then one step back when Willie Colon got hurt. That, plus the absence of Ben Roethlisberger in the first four games of the season, will keep Mendenhall from ratcheting his numbers way up. Our hunch is that Mendenhall will be on the borderline of top-10 back status, as he was last year, but that he won’t step forward into the elite class. Verdict: Float

RB Jamaal Charles, Chiefs – Charles was the breakout fantasy star of the second half of last season, reeling off five 100-yard games (plus a 93-yard game with 54 receiving yards), one 250-yard game, and eight touchdowns in the final seven games of the season. On the surface, that points to a breakout season. But the Chiefs added Thomas Jones in the offseason to keep Charles from being the every-down back throughout the season. Our sense is that Charles won’t keep up with his second-half pace, but his totals of 1,413 yards from scrimmage and eight total touchdowns are reasonable expectations even with Jones around. Charles is a solid No. 2 back, and he still has upside to join the elite if the Chiefs will trust him and give him the chance. Verdict: Float

RB Matt Forte, Bears – After a standout rookie season, Forte took a step back last year with just 929 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns. His receiving numbers helped, as he had 57 catches for 471 yards, but the truth that his medicore numbers were actually inflated by four solid fantasy performances against the Lions twice, Browns, and Rams. Now the Bears have made two additions that are good news and bad news for Forte. The good news is that offensive coordinator Mike Martz will seek to take full advantage of Forte’s receiving skills, which will help buoy his numbers. The bad news is that free agent Chester Taylor will eat into Forte’s chances. Our hunch is that Forte’s yards-from-scrimmage total will decrease from 1,500 to the 1,000 level, with Taylor picking up the slack. Forte’s decline continues another year. Verdict: Sink

RB Justin Forsett, Seahawks – Forsett didn’t get any carries in his rookie year, which was split between Indianapolis and Seattle, but last year he played all 16 games for the Seahawks and had a nice season. He ran for 619 yards, averaging 5.4 yards per carry, and had 41 catches for 350 more yards. It appeared that Forsett was ready to relegate Julius Jones to a backup role, but new head coach Pete Carroll had other ideas. The LenDale White trade already failed as White was cut, but Leon Washington came in via trade, and he duplicates a lot of what Forsett does. Forsett doesn’t have the injury questions Washington does coming off knee surgery, and he’s still far more dynamic than Jones. But Carroll’s commitment to competition likely means Forsett won’t have the opportunities to greatly surpass his ’09 totals. He figures to remain in the neighborhood of 1,000 total yards and five touchdowns. Verdict: Float

WRs Larry Fitzgerald and Steve Breaston, Cardinals – We discussed in this post how Fitzgerald figures to slip from Tier 1 to Tier 2 because Matt Leinart is the quarterback instead of Kurt Warner. So even with Anquan Boldin gone, Fitzgerald’s catch total will probably slip from 97, and his TD total could slip from 13 as well. That means Fitz is a second-round pick, not a first-rounder. Breaston, meanwhile, figures to make a jump forward with Boldin gone from his ’09 levels of 55-712-3. Breaston was a 1,000-yard receiver in ’08 when Boldin was missing, and so the Cards will trust him enough for him to move back into the 70-catch area. Verdict: Sink for Fitzgerald; Rise for Breaston

WRs DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, and Jason Avant, Eagles – Jackson had a breakout season in ’09 with 12 total touchdowns and 1,156 receiving yards with a 18.6-yards-per-catch average. With Kevin Kolb now on board, Jackson will continue to have to put up big numbers with a relatively low number of catches, but he’s shown he’s capable of that enough for us to expect similar numbers in 2010. Maclin had 56 catches for 773 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie, and although he’ll undoubtedly be a better player in his second season, Kolb’s inevitable growing pains will probably keep Maclin’s numbers from shooting upward. Likewise, Avant will probably hover around his ’09 numbers (41 catches, 587 yards, three touchdowns) which makes him an emergency fantasy fill-in. Verdict: Float for Jackson, Maclin, and Avant

WR Hines Ward and Mike Wallace, Steelers – While Santonio Holmes emerged as a No. 1-caliber receiver last year, Ward still performed incredibly well for fantasy owners, piling up 95 catches for 1,167 yards and six touchdowns. And now that Holmes is gone, the first assumption might be to count on Ward to match or surpass his ’09 numbers. But remember that Ben Roethlisberger will miss four games at the beginning of the season, and fill-in Byron Leftwich has slow feet and a slow delivery. Those four games could knock 10-15 catches off Ward’s season total as the Steelers’ passing game struggles. It’s not Ward’s fault, but a sink is coming. Wallace, meanwhile, figures to gain from Holmes’ absence and move into the starting lineup. That means his strong rookie season of 39 catches for 756 yards and six touchdowns won’t be a fluke. Wallace will get more catches, but given the passing-game status, his yardage and touchdown numbers will be about the same level, which makes him a solid No. 4 fantasy receiver with some upside. Verdict: Sink for Ward; Float for Wallace

WR Derrick Mason, Ravens – At age 35, Mason posted his eighth 1,000-yard season and third in a row with a 73-catch, 1,028-yard season that came with seven touchdowns. But that streak will end in 2010 because Anquan Boldin will seize Mason’s No. 1 receiver mantle. Mason will still be a starter, and he’s a given to have 55 catches for 800 yards or so. But a sink in his strong 2009 numbers is inevitable. Verdict: Sink

WR Devin Hester, Johnny Knox, and Earl Bennett, Bears – With Mike Martz in town, it’s fair to assume that the Bears will have a more pass-happy offense that will add to their receivers’ numbers. Hester, who had a 57-catch, 757-yard, three-TD season in ’09, should get into the 60-catch range, and he should be in position to use his elusiveness to break free and turn some of those catches into scores. Knox was a rookie surprise as a late-round, small-school draft pick, piling up 45 catches for 527 yards and five touchdowns. He should move into the 50-catch realm, increasing his yardage and still getting TD chances. Bennett had 54 catches for 717 yards and two scores, but our hunch is that he loses a bit of his role to potential breakout player Devin Aromashodu because Aromashodu has better size to be a possession receiver. Verdict: Rise for Hester and Knox; Sink for Bennett

WRs Louis Murphy, Chaz Schilens, and Darrius Heyward-Bey, Raiders – With Jason Campbell in town, the Raiders’ young crew of promising receivers suddenly takes on more fantasy importance. Schilens missed the first half of last season, but in the final eight games he piled up 29 catches for 365 yards and two touchdowns. He’ll exceed that pace this year and make it into the 60-catch range with 800 yards and six TDs. Murphy will also see an increase from 34 catches, 521 yards, and four TDs. He could make it to the 60-catch level as well. Heyward-Bey, who was a first-round pick last year, had a disappointing season with just nine catches as a rookie. There’s no doubt Heyward-Bey will see more action, but his numbers are more dependent on his development and maturity than on Campbell’s presence. Still, Heyward-Bey joins the boats rising with the stability Campbell brings. Verdict: Rise for Murphy, Schilens, and Heyward-Bey

TE Brent Celek, Eagles – Celek had a breakout fantasy season with 76 catches for 971 yards and eight TDs, and he thrived with eight catches for 104 yards in each of Kevin Kolb’s two starts. But with Kolb replacing Donovan McNabb, it’s wise to assume that some inconsistency will result that will limit the Eagles’s passing game at times. That inconsistency is most likely to affect Celek, because he was the team’s leading receiver in terms of catches last year. He’ll still have a good season, but he’ll slip into the 60-catch range, with yardage and touchdowns falling as well. Verdict: Sink

TE Chris Cooley, Redskins – Cooley only played seven games last year, but he was on pace for a 60-catch, 700-yard season. With Donovan McNabb in place, he has a great chance to surpass those numbers. It figures that Cooley will become McNabb’s top target, especially with a motley crew of receivers around him. Cooley has a chance to recover a spot among the top fantasy tight ends in 2010. Verdict: Rise

TE Greg Olsen, Bears – While Jay Cutler and the Bears’ outside receivers will benefit from the arrival of offensive coordinator Mike Martz, tight ends don’t normally thrive in Martz’s system. That’s a major warning flag for Olsen, who had 60 catches for 612 yards and eight TDs last season. We expect Olsen’s catch numbers slip to the 50 range, and his abnormally high TD percentage comes back to earth. Don’t get carried away with Olsen’s stock. Verdict: Sink

TE Zach Miller, Raiders – Miller overcame the JaMarcus Russell struggles to post a solid fantasy season with 60 catches for 805 yards and three TDs. He figures to maintain that level with Jason Campbell now in town. Remember that Campbell looked to tight end Chris Cooley often in Washington, and rate Miller accordingly. Verdict: Float

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Fantasy Football – Rookie running backs

Rookie running backs are the biggest X-factors in fantasy football drafts year after year. As more NFL teams have moved to two-RB systems, it’s become harder and harder for rookie backs to emerge as fantasy forces. But in most years, some unknown rookie runners end up being great sleepers for fantasy owners. So in this post, we’ll compare the fantasy value of rookie running backs and try to uncover some hidden gems.

To do so, we’re going to use our Football Relativity comparison, with 10 being the most impactful rookie back and one being guys who barely merit making your draft board. In the comparison, we’ll note where the tiers break and what this comparison means as you put together your draft board. Also, You can read more about Jahvid Best of the Lions, C.J. Spiller of the Bills, and Ryan Mathews of the Chargers in this post. And there’s lots more fantasy analysis in the fantasy football category here on Football Relativity.

10 – Ryan Mathews, Chargers – Mathews steps into the most fantasy-friendly situation of any rookie back. All fantasy owners know that LaDainian Tomlinson thrived in San Diego for years, and now that Tomlinson’s gone, Mathews is set up to succeed. Of course, Darren Sproles is still around to provide big plays in small doses, but as long as Mathews adjusts to the pros quickly he’ll be the guy who gets the bulk of the carries and the goal-line chances. We’ve already discussed how we’re placing Mathews on Tier 2, and that makes him by far the most valuable rookie running back. We suspect 1,200 yards and 8-10 touchdowns are in the offing.

(*Mathews is the only rookie back on Tier 2, which means he is a starting running back in 10- and 12-team leagues.)

9 – none

8 – Jahvid Best, Lions – Best slipped into the end of the first round with Detroit, with Lions head coach Jim Schwartz talking highly of Best’s big-play ability. With Kevin Smith hurt, Best could get more carries early in the season than a Sproles/Leon Washington style big-play back, and with that being the case Best has a decent amount of upside. But Detroit hasn’t been a fantasy-friendly spot for running backs in recent years, and the additions the offense has made recently seem to help the passing game more than the run game. Best can catch the ball well, which may mean he has more success via the air than the ground as a rookie. He has value, but relying on him as an every-week starter is overly optimistic. Instead, Best is an ideal No. 3 fantasy back with some upside as a rookie.

7 – C.J. Spiller, Bills – Because my wife is a Clemson grad, I’ve seen a ton of Spiller’s college career, and he’s a fine player. He’s explosive as a runner, receiver, and returner, and he can carry the load between the tackles more than some might expect. But while he was the ninth overall pick in the draft, he ended up in a terrible spot for running backs. With Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch around for now (though Lynch could be cut or dealt by the opening of the season), Spiller’s chances will be limited. And even if Spiller gets carries, they will be behind a below-average offensive line with a below-average quarterback. Throw in bad Buffalo weather, and it’s clear that the cards are stacked against Spiller becoming a fantasy stud as a rookie. He’s worth a shot as a No. 4 fantasy back just because he can fill in and make one big play in any given week to make him a spot starter, but expecting more out of him this season is unwise because of the morass that is the Bills offense.

7 (con’t) – Montario Hardesty, Browns – If there’s a sleeper rookie who will be available on Tier 4 who has the upside to have a Steve Slaton-type of rookie year, it’s Hardesty, a second-round pick from Tennessee who goes into a decent situation in Cleveland. While holdover Jerome Harrison finished the season strong, he hasn’t been a reliable back through his career, and so Hardesty beating him out is at least on the table. Hardesty is a big banger who will run behind a line that features standouts in OLT Joe Thomas and C Alex Mack. Keep an eye on Hardesty’s progression through training camp, and be prepared to pounce in your draft in search of a sleeper – even if you have to do so on Tier 3.

(*Best, Spiller, and Hardesty fall on Tier 3. Best is a No. 3 running back in 10- and 12-team leagues; Spiller and Hardesty are No. 4 backs in such leagues.)

6 – none

5 – Ben Tate, Texans – Tate steps into a crowded situation in Houston, where at least three backs – Slaton, Arian Foster, and the departed Ryan Moats got shots as the No. 1 back last year. Slaton and Foster are still around, but Gary Kubiak’s unwillingness to stick with one starter means that Tate could find an opening. But it’s hard to picture Tate breaking free the way Slaton did as a rookie two years ago, which means that Tate’s probably a 2-3 game option, not a guy who could start for fantasy teams for a month or more. He’s still worth a look on Tier 4, but Tate is more of a high-risk option than Hardesty.

4 – Toby Gerhardt, Vikings – Gerhardt is a big, burly back who nearly won the Heisman Trophy at Stanford last year. But now that he’s a Viking, he’s not going to be the same kind of complement to Adrian Peterson that Chester Taylor was last season. While Taylor was a good receiver who provided a different dimension than Taylor, there’s a lot more similarity between Peterson and Gerhardt. That limits Gerhardt’s fantasy upside as a rookie. Since Peterson will be the No. 1 back without question, Gerhardt looks to be a fill-in with 10 carries or less a game. Plus, Peterson figures to get the lion’s share of goal-line carries. Were Peterson to get hurt, Gerhardt’s stock would shoot up, so he’s worth drafting for that reason – especially for Peterson owners. Gerhardt is a No. 5 fantasy back whose main upside comes if Peterson misses a game.

4 (con’t) – Joe McKnight, Jets – McKnight never completely lived up to the hype at USC, but he proved to be a versatile back with breakaway ability. With the Jets, he looks to be a good complement to Shonn Greene – a la the Thomas Jones/Leon Washington combo the Jets formerly had. Having LaDainian Tomlinson around gums up the works and could take away some of McKnight’s receiving chances this year, but McKnight has enough big-play ability that he has a smidgen of fantasy potential. McKnight is more of a fill-in than a guy who can start for fantasy teams weeks in a row, but he’s still a top 50 back.

3 – Dexter McCluster, Chiefs – McCluster will play more as a slot receiver, but since some leagues may allow McCluster running back eligibility, we’ll include him in this post. McCluster is tiny but speedy, which makes him a mini-Reggie Bush type of threat. He won’t get many carries behind Thomas Jones and Jamaal Charles in Kansas City, but McCluster could end up with 40-50 catches, and if he has RB eligibility in your league that could make him a Tier 4 back. He’s a guy worth taking a shot on in the late rounds, just to see if he can find a role.

(*Tate, Gerhardt, McKnight, and McCluster fall on Tier 4. They are all No. 5 backs in 10- and 12-team leagues. For the following backs, we note what scenarios they are draftable in.)

2 – Jonathan Dwyer, Steelers – Dwyer is a sleeper for fantasy owners, but given our lack in faith in Rashard Mendenhall as a stalwart back, we are curious to see if Dwyer emerges as a complement in Pittsburgh. Dwyer had a good college career but a bad combine season, which is why he fell into the sixth round of the NFL draft. Our hunch is that Dwyer is worth a flier as a sixth back in 12- or 14-team leagues just in case he establishes a role behind or alongside Mendenhall.

1 – Anthony Dixon, 49ers – Last year, rookie Glen Coffee looked to have the backup job behind Frank Gore in San Francisco, but Coffee’s performance when Gore was out was subpar. Now Dixon, another rookie, looks to have the shot to surpass Coffee as Gore’s backup. Given Gore’s injury history, Dixon is worth grabbing, especially for Gore owners. But we don’t see a ton of fantasy upside in Dixon because of Coffee’s presence and Gore’s dominance. He’s only draftable in 12-team leagues if you own Gore.

1 (con’t) – LeGarrette Blount, Titans – Blount wasn’t drafted, but he’s worth noting because there’s an opening in Tennessee for a complement to Chris Johnson now that LenDale White is gone. Second-year man Javon Ringer will get the first shot, but Blount has enough talent to beat out Ringer for that role. Watch how things break down in training camp to see if Blount is worth a flier in large leagues with 14 teams or more.

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