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RB roundup

Among the copious amounts of NFL news over the weekend were several key running back moves. Let’s analyze these moves on the field and from a fantasy football perspective.

In San Francisco, the 49ers responded to the retirement of Glen Coffee by signing Brian 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.
Fantasy analysis: Gore remains a top-8 fantasy running back even with Westbrook arriving. Westbrook rates higher than Coffee would have but will be a No. 5 back in most leagues. Westbrook’s arrival makes Anthony Dixon a draft pick only in the largest leagues.

In New Orleans, the Saints responded to Lynell Hamilton’s season-ending injury by adding ex-Redskin Ladell 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.
Fantasy analysis: Betts’ addition does not affect the fantasy stock of Thomas or Reggie Bush. Betts becomes a potential No. 5 back in larger leagues.

In Houston, 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.
Fantasy analysis: Tate’s injury means that Foster is now a clear-cut No. 3 fantasy running back who approaches the top 25 at the position. It also makes Slaton a better bet as a No. 4 fantasy back. It’s possible that another Texans back, such as Chris Henry, could emerge as a sleeper as well, so watch the preseason to see if someone else emerges.

In Tennessee, the feel-good story of RB Stafon Johnson 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. The Titans signed vet Samkon Gado to fill Johnson’s roster spot.
Fantasy analysis: Neither Johnson nor Gado had or has fantasy value. Javon Ringer is the handcuff to Chris Johnson, and LeGarrette Blount is worth a look as a sleeper if he makes the team.

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Fantasy Football: Crowded backfields

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fantasy Football: Starting Running Backs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Rise/Sink/Float – RBs in new places

As we continue our fantasy football preparation for 2010, we’re going to analyze players with new teams and predict whether their 2010 numbers will rise above, sink below, or float alongside their 2009 production. In this post, we cover running backs. We covered quarterbacks here, and we’ll cover wide receivers and tight ends in subsequent posts.

RB Chester Taylor, Bears – Taylor passed the dreaded 30-year-old milestone last year, but he remained a productive second back in the Vikings’ system. He surpassed 700 yards from scrimmage in each of the last two years as Adrian Peterson’s understudy. Now he moves to Chicago, where he figures to have more of a 50-50 split with Matt Forte. Taylor’s receiving skills seem to be a hand-in-glove fit with new Bears coordinator Mike Martz, which leads some fantasy analysts to predict big things for Taylor. Add in the fact that Taylor scored at least six touchdowns in the three seasons preceding ’09, and Taylor looks like a nice No. 3 fantasy back who will get some chances to make plays. Because of the new offense and the growing opportunities in Chicago, Taylor looks to move from the 40s at running back into the 30s, which is at least a noticeable rise. Verdict: Rise

RB Thomas Jones, Chiefs – Jones bucked the trend of over-30 running backs falling off last season, rushing for 1,402 yards and 14 touchdowns in the Jets’ run-heavy offense. The former first-round pick, who turns 32 in August, did appear to wear down during Gang Green’s playoff run, but that kind of January workload doesn’t seem to be a threat now that he’s in K.C. What is a threat to his fantasy stock is Jamaal Charles, who broke out over the second half of last season and emerged as an electric big-play threat. Our hunch is that the Chiefs see Jones as a balance to Charles in a 60-40 split (Jones is the 40). And while Jones may get some goal-line carries, his fantasy stock won’t come close to the starter level it was last year. Instead, Jones falls into the 30s at running back and becomes an emergency fill-in but not much more. Verdict: Sink

RB LaDainian Tomlinson, Jets – Others tried to talk you into Tomlinson last year, but his 12 touchdowns didn’t offset his 3.3 yards per carry or the fact that he had just 20 catches after surpassing 50 in each of his first eight seasons. Tomlinson’s numbers ended up making him a borderline No. 2 fantasy back, and that was all because of touchdowns, which are an unpredictable stat. The Chargers saw Tomlinson as on a pretty steep decline and so they cut him. Tomlinson landed in New York, where he and Shonn Greene replace the Jones/Leon Washington combo that New York entered last season with. While we’re pretty bullish on Greene’s stock, we see Tomlinson as the bottom half of a 75/25 split designed to do little more than keep Greene from breaking down midseason. And rookie Joe McKnight could easily emerge as a far better receiving option out of the backfield than Tomlinson is at this point. After nearly a decade atop the fantasy rankings, Tomlinson was in the 20s at running back last season, and now he falls at least one more level – if not two – into the land of No. 3 and No. 4 backs. Don’t let his new gig distract you from the fact that LDT is D-U-N done. Verdict: Sinking like a rock

RB Mike Bell, Eagles – Bell has had a strange career. He ran for 677 yards and eight touchdowns (with 20 catches to boot) as a rookie in Denver, and then had just 19 total carries the next two years as he moved from the Broncos to the Saints. Then last year, Bell emerged as a complement to Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush and carved out a niche, running for 654 yards and five touchdowns. Now Bell moves to Philly, where he will complement LeSean McCoy and Leonard Weaver now that Brian Westbrook is gone. Bell is an effective between-the-tackles runner but not a breakaway threat, which makes him a No. 2 running back for a team. But with Weaver in Philly, Bell’s goal-line chances will be limited. Bell’s a No. 4 fantasy back, and because Weaver is more of a runner than Bush was, his stock actually slips a bit in his new home. Bell will probably run for 500 yards or so, but expecting a bunch of TDs or receptions with that production isn’t wise. Verdict: Sink

RB Larry Johnson, Redskins – Continuing a trend in this post, Johnson is now 30, which is usually a death knell age for running backs. His 2009 stats indicate that he may be in decline, as he averaged just 2.9 yards per carry with the Chiefs before being released. In Cincy, Johnson rebounded a bit, averaging 4.2 yards per carry for a run-first team. That gives a little bit of hope for Johnson from a fantasy perspective, but the glimmer of hope is actually a mirage. The crowded Redskins backfield with Johnson, Willie Parker, and holdover Clinton Portis will limit any of those backs from breaking out, and the Redskins’ offensive line doesn’t look like it will boost performance for any of those aging backs. We believe Johnson will be close to Portis in terms of having the most value of any of the Redskins’ backs, but that’s damning with faint praise. Neither guy will end up in the top 35 fantasy backs. Maybe that’s a slight increase over Johnson’s 2009 value, but don’t draft LJ looking for upside. Verdict: Rise

RB Willie Parker, Redskins – Like Johnson, Parker, a long-time Steeler, is looking for a renaissance in Washington. Parker, who turns 30 in November, averaged 4.0 yards per carry last year but lost his starting job to Rashard Mendenhall in Pittsburgh. Fast Willie doesn’t have the breakaway speed he once had, and last year he had just one touchdown. He figures to settle into a complimentary role in D.C. as a change-of-pace back – which leaves him out of the top 40 among fantasy running backs. Verdict: Sink

RB Peyton Hillis, Browns – Hillis showed some fantasy promise as a rookie in Denver with 5.0 yards per carry and five touchdowns over 68 carries. He lost his role in Josh McDaniels’ offense last year, which is why Denver was willing to include him in a deal with Cleveland. Given the Browns’ questions at running back with Jerome Harrison unproven and Montario Hardesty a rookie, Hillis could find a role as an inside runner in a carries split. He’s just a No. 4 fantasy back, but that’s more than Hillis was last year, and it’s reason enough to put Hillis back on the draft board for 2010. Verdict: Rise

RB Ryan Moats, Vikings – Moats burst onto the scene at midseason for the Texans last year, then burst right back off of it. By the end of the year, he was behind Arian Foster and Steve Slaton in Houston’s pecking order, and after the Texans drafted Ben Tate they released Moats. But Minnesota, looking to replace Taylor, claimed Moats on waivers. Moats is a different kind of back than rookie Toby Gerhardt – smaller, shiftier, and more of a receiver. That gives Moats the chance to establish a little value as Adrian Peterson’s valet. Moats is probably a No. 5 back, but being cut actually landed him in a situation where his value floats along at the same level. Verdict: Float

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FR: Super Bowl 44 potential playmakers

As we did last year, we’re going to play relativity with Super Bowl 44’s best playmakers. After pegging Santonio Holmes as the Steelers’ top option last year, we want to repeat our success. As always, we’re on a 10-point scale where 10 points is epic and 1 point is someone who is a possible playmaker in a remote situation. We’ve left out offensive linemen, because it’s so hard to distinguish them individually because they are meant to function as a unit.

10 – QB Peyton Manning, Colts, and QB Drew Brees, Saints – In somewhat of a no-brainer, we’ll put both Manning and Brees as the playmakers most likely to make an impact on Super Sunday. In a game that figures to be high-scoring, both quarterbacks will need to play at a high level in order for their teams to keep up in what figures to be a track meet. And the fact that both quarterbacks are so freakin’ good makes the chances of that happening quite high. Your Super Bowl MVP will almost certainly come off of this level of the comparison.

9 – WR Reggie Wayne, Colts and S Darren Sharper, Saints – Wayne hasn’t had a huge playoff season, but against the Saints’ cornerbacks he should have much more of an opportunity to break free. The stage is set for Wayne to have a big game and establish himself once and for all and take the leap from Pro Bowler to one of the NFL’ s elite receivers, as Larry Fitzgerald and Hines Ward have done in recent Super Bowls. Sharper, meanwhile, is at the crux of the Saints’ attempt to force turnovers. He’s been one of New Orleans’ biggest ballhawks, and if the Saints are going to take the ball away from the potent and reliable Colts offense, Sharper is the most likely candidate to do so.

8 – DE Robert Mathis, Colts, and MLB Jonathan Vilma, Saints – With Dwight Freeney hurting, Mathis becomes the key guy in Indy’s pressure game. If Mathis can provide enough of a pass rush to at least force a double-team, then he enables other players to generate pressure and also keeps an extra receiver out of pass patterns. If that doesn’t happen, Brees will be shooting fish in a barrel. Vilma is the centerpiece of the Saints’ defense, and he’ll need to match Manning audible-for-audible. Vilma had a key audible against the Vikings that led to a turnover, and if he can make that kind of call in this game, he will put the Saints in the running.

7 – TE Dallas Clark, Colts and RB Pierre Thomas, Saints – Clark is option 1A for the Colts, and he delivers in that role, making catches down the seam and even making some long plays to spark the offense. He’s going to test Saints SS Roman Harper in coverage. On the other side of the ball, Thomas may be the Saints’ somewhat secret weapon. He’s a between-the-tackles runner capable of bleeding the clock and thus keeping Manning off the field. If Thomas can do that against a Colts defense that is far from a Brickyard wall, the Saints will be in far better position to win.

6 – WR Marques Colston, Saints and FS Antonie Bethea, Colts – Colston is the Saints’ most consistent receiving threat, although he’s not the big-play guy that Robert Meachem or Devery Henderson are. Still, Colston will be the guy most frequently on the receiving end of chains-moving plays from Brees. Bethea is a play-making safety who’s probably the Colt most likely to pick Brees off. Bethea emerged as a Pro Bowl player this year, and with Bob Sanders missing the season Bethea has made the biggest impact in Indy’s back end.

5 – WR Austin Collie, Colts and DE Raheem Brock, Colts – Our hunch is that Collie will be more of a factor than fellow breakout receiver Pierre Garcon in this game because Reggie Wayne is more set up for success. Collie is a fine slot receiver who has the ability to get deep on occasion. Brock is the Colts’ do-everything defensive lineman who can play across the line but will likely have to focus on the right end in this game to spell Dwight Freeney. If Brock can provide solid play as usual, that’s good, but making an impact play or two would be a monstrous plus for the Colts.

4 – WR Pierre Garcon, Colts and WR Robert Meachem, Saints – We get the feeling that Garcon’s in line for just 2 or 3 catches in this game, but one of them could easily be a 30-yarder that makes a splash. That has been what Meachem has done all season for the Saints – providing big plays more often than not in games. The Saints will need Meachem to do just that in this one if they are to keep up with the Colts’ offense.

3 – DE Dwight Freeney, Colts and WR Devery Henderson, Saints – Our hunch is that Freeney will play despite his aching ankle, but in a limited amount of plays. But if he can generate a pass-rush presence in 10-15 plays, he can still help the Colts. Still, the impact of this truly great player will be unfortunately muted in the biggest game of the year. Henderson is a deep threat who has more speed than Colston or Meachem but less consistency. Still, he will find himself open deep at least once in this game. The question is whether Brees will get the ball there and whether Henderson will complete the catch.

2 – DE Will Smith, Saints and RB Joseph Addai, Colts – Smith is the Saints’ best pass rusher, and he’s most likely not only to get a hit on Manning but also to force a backfield fumble like he did against Percy Harvin in the NFC title game. We don’t expect Addai to play a huge role in this game, but as the Colts’ reliable veteran running back he’ll have a role in blitz pickup and as an outlet receiver.

1 – PK Matt Stover, Colts and RB Reggie Bush, Saints – While New Orleans’ Garrett Hartley hit the big field goal in the NFC title game, but we figure that Stover, a 20-year veteran who is playing for a franchise other than the Ravens/Browns for the first time, is more likely to hit a fourth-quarter pressure kick in this one. And we include Bush here not because we expect him to have a big role but so that you know we haven’t forgotten about him. He’s more likely to make a mark via punt return than on offense in this one, from what we foresee.

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Championship Game Thoughts

Thoughts on the AFC Championship game, in which the Colts beat the Jets 30-17, and the NFC Championship game, in which the Saints beat the Vikings 31-28 in overtime.

*The Colts showed their moxie by coming back from a 17-6 deficit without panic. The touchdown Peyton Manning led before the half completely flipped the momentum, sparking the comeback. That’s the second time in the playoffs that Manning has led such a drive (with the permission of a coaching staff that isn’t afraid to let him try).
*Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon had to step up in this game because Reggie Wayne was vacationing on Revis Island, and they did. Both went over 100 yards in the game. Their emergence is what has taken the Colts offense from good to great.
*The Jets got off to a great start, and so did Mark Sanchez, but once they fell behind it was pretty clear that Sanchez didn’t have the weapons to return. Sanchez is a winner and a gamer, and his personality is a great match for Rex Ryan. But New York needs more explosiveness – even in games when Braylon Edwards actually makes the big catch.
*Bart Scott gets more pub, but David Harris is the best linebacker the Jets have. He showed that with 11 tackles and 2 sacks in this game, which was confirmation of his fabulous play all year.
*Props to Jim Caldwell, whom I predicted before the season would kill the Colts. He hasn’t done that, and he may get a George Seifert-esque Super Bowl title out of it.

*In the Saints/Vikings game, the moment everybody will remember is Garrett Hartley’s clutch kick. But the Brett Favre interception at the end of the fourth quarter – which was so reminiscent of his overtime pick in the NFC title game in Green Bay two seasons ago – is what I’ll remember. I don’t know why, but I saw this pick coming, both before the game and in the moment (just ask my wife). This is the reason that Favre will be remembered as a great quarterback but not as the greatest of all time, no matter what the stats say. Favre was only briefly the best QB in the league – he took the mantle sometime at the end of John Elway’s career and was surpassed by Peyton Manning and Tom Brady a few years later. His mistakes in key moments are part of his legacy, for good or for ill.
*As for the Saints, they survived against a good Vikings defense because their defense pressured Favre and forced turnovers. Forcing six fumbles (recovering three), and adding two crucial interceptions, is why they’re going to Miami. CB Tracy Porter and LB Jonathan Vilma each forced a fumble and had an interception, and the fumble Will Smith forced in the fourth quarter led to the Saints’ final touchdown. That opportunistic defense has been key for New Orleans all season, and it was good to see it show up on the big stage.
*For a game with just one total sack, both Favre and Drew Brees got beaten up throughout the game. The Vikings’ D-line is the best in the league because all four starters (and some of the reserves too) are too much to handle. But despite the pressure, Favre and Brees both still made big-time plays. Both are terrific quarterbacks.
*Adrian Peterson showed up in this big game, although his fumbling problems ended up being crucial. But he’s a huge talent who can be the centerpiece of the offense.
*Of all the stars in the Saints’ offensive attack, the brightest on Sunday was Pierre Thomas. Not only did he score two touchdowns; his overtime kickoff return was a huge key to setting up the game-winning field goal. Thomas is often overlooked, but he’s a nice back to have to complement Reggie Bush. And the way that Thomas held onto the ball when Chad Greenway put his helmet on it on the 4th-and-1 dive in overtime saved the game.

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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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