Monday, May 18, 2009

Fantasy Rookies 2009: The Running Backs

What's not to like about running backs? I could chat about - and on occasion - with them for hours and never get bored.

In so far as fantasy impact, the running backs coming out of college have less of a learning curve than the quarterbacks and wide receivers.

As I said last time, I don't expect many Steve Slaton's here. Guys who could surprise because you don't know who they are. There are a ton of backs to like overall though and long term, some real potential.

We start off with a trio of backs with the best chance to have an impact immediately.

Knowshon Moreno, RB, DEN
While a gasp inducing pick for many – myself included – Moreno has an excellent blend of talent and opportunity. I don’t foresee most of the guys behind him taking too many carries away if he has a good camp.

Buckhalter and Jordan are threats but not hugely so. Moreno can do everything – hit the hole hard and run through the tackles, catch the ball out of the backfield and he can even block well. He might need to adjust his running style, which is very aggressive and might lead to too much abuse.

But in what will probably be a one cut and run rushing attack, Moreno could have significant success and get a bunch of carries. I know, historically, with DEN RB you have to be extra careful. But new coach, new offense – I think a new attitude as well.

Moreno should be off the board no later than three and probably will be gone in one. While the offense could struggle this year, I think he can do enough well to be on the field three downs and even in a timeshare short term, he’ll be worth a ton long term.

He’s one of the few guys I would take to use as a consistent starter, though you have to figure flex/RB2 depending. But his upside is pretty good. He could go as anywhere between the 25th onward in a redraft and I don’t think I would blink.

Chris Wells, RB, AZ
In the conversation for top rookie RB, Wells fell into a very good situation in Arizona. Edgerrin James is gone (although you can blame some of his underproduction on lack of use) and Tim Hightower showed us he was not able to carry the full load last season.

Wells - an outstanding downhill runner with good burst, vision and top speed – has some durability concerns and isn’t a great receiver. But I think in the injury concern isn’t as bad as many fear. The lack of good receiving skills may hurt him on long third downs and that’s why he’s behind Moreno here.

He might be the better back, but he’ll be on the field one less down. But when he's on the field, he has an outstanding pass attack to keep the opposing defenses honest and that will give him good room to get to top speed and take off.

Also, he could work hard to improve his receiving game and that could make him even more dangerous.

Like Moreno, Wells will go in the top three of any Dynasty draft and he should. He won’t get you as many points in a PPR, so again, this is another reason he is behind Moreno. But if you are in the 1,2,3 slot in your draft, be very happy.

Could be a guy who will go near Moreno (yes again) somewhere after RB25 and on. He has the upside to be better than that so he might go earlier than 25th back off the board, but I don’t expect Forte or Johnson here. He should be a very reliable but you can’t expect more than you would from other backs who we’re not sure about like Derrick Ward in Tampa and part timer/scoring machines like LenDale White.

Donald Brown, RB, IND
I like what Brown brings to the table – he has good hands and can catch, can make a big play even when he doesn’t have the speed to run away from defenders, has great vision and can break tackles. I don’t know what to expect from him and Addai going forward.

Unlike Moreno who I believe to get most of the carries in Denver and Wells who is just a better back than his partner Hightower, Brown is a guy who has a legit starting back next to him.

Addai’s biggest problem is injury – and Brown will get the rock enough to keep him healthy.

But I have two questions.

First, what if Addai is healthy? Do we see Addai retain 75% of the snaps? And who is getting the third down/short yardage carries? Neither Addai nor Brown are short yardage backs. So who is getting the short yardage? And if it isn’t them – well how much will that hurt their overall numbers?

I think long term, Brown will end up with the starting gig. It’s just a feeling as Addai is spending too much time hurt while Brown has proven (at least in college) that he can carry a full load. Brown is easily a top 5 rookie pick, but keep in mind that he may only be a part timer for you at least the first year. If you have Addai, and happen to see him drop to you, I would consider him even over the other two, since you are already invested in the Colts run game.

Because there is so much clutter around how this RBBC split will go, Brown drops a little further down the board in a redraft – even in a PPR league. He could have tremendous numbers – but he could also be average. I would say somewhere in the neighborhood of RB35 and beyond – amongst fringers who start but are aging and seeing smaller production totals (like Jamal Lewis) and backups with upside (like Felix Jones).

After the above guys, you have upside, but players who might take time just getting onto the field.

Shonn Greene, RB, NYJ
Greene is a guy who could shoot up or drop down this list at any time. As of right now, Leon Washington and Thomas Jones are both holding out. I don’t expect that to stay the case but it brings up some important thoughts.

First, we can be pretty sure that the guy who gets paid first (Leon Washington) is the guy who will still be there down the road and the guy who isn’t (that would be Thomas Jones) won’t be.

Got a headache yet? You should, but pop some aspirin and bear with me. Long term, Jones isn’t the answer for Gang Green. It’s one of many reasons why the team leaped up a second time to get him. They know (or think they do) Jones isn’t the long term guy.

It’s why he won’t get the money he wants. And the longer he holds out, perhaps the better it is for Greene.

Greene, for his part, is a great match for the speedy, game breaking Washington (who will get some money). He’s physical, powerful with a very strong lower body, gets stronger as the game goes, fights for the last inch and always falls forward and he rarely coughs the ball up.

Paired with Washington in the backfield, Greene would help give the Jets the running game they need to control the clock the way they want and help protect their inexperience QB (whichever guy it is).

Greene should go somewhere in the first 10 picks – it depends upon need. I might take Stafford or Sanchez if I had ok RB depth. Crabtree should almost certainly go before him. But he will be the Jets starting running back within two years and should have worthwhile success. Jones will likely be back in camp, so Greene may not produce this year. But he will soon.

As I said, I expect both Washington and Jones to go to training camp, which will limit Greene’s effectiveness this year. You can take a flier on him, but that means after all the starters and upside backups go – probably around RB 55-60 give or take.

If Jones holds out for even a portion of camp, I might be tempted to pull him out a little earlier. Recall how hard it was on even backs like Steven Jackson when they skip portions of camp? Jones may find himself struggling if he holds out into late August – and then Greene may get more carries. But still, mostly upside which is likely to remain untapped here for 2009.

LeSean McCoy, RB, PHI
Am sort of torn on McCoy.

On the one hand, he's a great athlete, with natural vision and instincts. He's quick, agile, and can either catch the ball well or hit the hole hard.

In short, Westbrook part 2, although that doesn't do justice to what he is capable of in my opinion.

He has his downsides - his size, ball security and not much of a blocker. But I think he could really be a big factor, save for one big minus.

That would be Westbrook. If Westy stays healthy (and I always assume a player will) how much will 'Shady' get the rock?

I think down the road, he could be Westbrooks' replacement. But if that tales two or three years, what does that mean for his owners?

I like McCoy a ton. If you are a Westbrook owner, I think he is a must have and around the 4-6 spot if he is there and you already have Westbrook, you grab him. It may take a few years to get his full shot, but he will and I like what I have seen so far. Even if you don't have Westbrook, he's a worthy guy to grab and will produce down the road.

If you grab Westy in the first, you almost have to get McCoy later. The question is - WHEN? While I might take him after Greene in Dynasty, I think he's probably a slightly better bet in redraft leagues.

I know, I said I don't count on players getting hurt. But with Westy's history, better safe than sorry. I grab him maybe around RB 50 - around the time guys like Jerrious Norwood go. A part timer who could put up ok numbers and has a shot if someone gets hurt.

Rashard Jennings, RB, JAX
Man, I still boggle at how Jennings got overlooked. Maybe it was the small school. Maybe it was bouncing around between Pitt and Liberty.

Whatever, Jennings dropped into the laps of the Jags and they have to be happy.

Athletic, strong and powerful, but with decent speed for the size. He can move the chains and could be a huge factor in a short yardage game.

I think he could pair up well with Maurice Jones-Drew and can both block for MJD, as well as sub for him. And as he can catch AND run, not too much of a step back from a strategy standpoint.

How much he will play is a question mark, but here is a guy who can rocket up this ranking in short order this summer.

On top of what I wrote, this is a good character guy. Why did he leave Pitt for the small program at Liberty? he went to be nearer to his

I think this is a guy you have to think about no later than second round in a rookie draft. There are issues, and I don't know if he will win enough of the load to impact immediately, but I think the skillset and ability fit well with the Jags.

And with a newly shored up OLINE? Dang.

Jennings is a guy who will be hard to decide on until I know it's him and not Washington or Greg Jones as the #2 behind MJD. Whomever is that guy will have value somewhere in the neighborhood of RB 50-60. If not, you can count Jennings as not worth drafting - this season.

Andre Brown, RB, NYG
I have heard conflicting evaluation on Brown. I have heard he will step right in for the departed Derrick Ward. I have heard him called a project and that Danny Ward will be the 'Wind'.

I think Brown is probably in the middle.

He's got a great set of skills and should at least get into the RB rotation as a #3. Whether he can catch Bradshaw is another thing.

Brown runs with very good power, can break tackles and can also catch out of the backfield.

His downside is a lack of great speed and elusiveness, some durability concerns and isn't great at turning the corner.

Thing is, his skill-set fits very well with the rotation that the Giants. If he can stay healthy, he can probably hold off Ware - who I like, but believe does not have as much upside as Brown.

Brown will probably work his way more and more into the lineup but with Jacobs there for the duration, his impact might be limited, especially since he splits the carries three ways instead of two. Eventually if he is effective, you can imagine Bradshaw will be let go in free agency. But there is a chance all three will stick and that could limit his long term impact.

I like Brown, as he will probably play this season. But that three way split makes him a little less attractive than the backs who have preceded him on this list. Jacobs is a sure thing in the run game but Bradshaw and Brown's splits are a question mark. I like him, but probably around RB60 or so and as an upside pick later in the draft.

Here are some other guys who may impact down the road or have a shot in some way this season, but by no means are they assured carries.

Javon Ringer, RB, TENN - Ringer has some durability and size questions but he is a solid runner who has something some say LenDale White lacks - an amazing work ethic and leadership. If White carps in 2009 like he did in 2008 - Ringer could take his slot. A later pick in Dynasty and a Hail Mary pick in a ReDraft though don't expect much this season.

Gartrell Johnson, RB, SD - Two years running people have said 'Oh, the Bolts have grabbed LT's replacement' but it hasn't happened yet. Johnson is a good late Dynasty pick as he could fit part of that role - a tough, aggressive runner who can block and get tough yards. But he isn't necessarily a bell-cow, but could fit well with Hester or Sproles in a two back system. Untouchable in redraft, but a mid-to-late round in a Dynasty draft.

James Davis, RB, CLE - Jamal Lewis is slowly grinding out the end of his career, though effectively, given the Oline issues. Jerome Harrison was the LAST staff's guy. And most of those last staff's guys are gone. The Clemsen back is a strong runner who can run inside, but lacks game breaking speed. Still, he'll get his shot. A good later round pick in a rookie draft, but another guy not to grab unless very late in a redraft.

Glenn Coffee/Kory Sheets, RB, SF - Both backs have question marks but someone has to help Frank Gore carry the load if this becomes a run-centric offense. Coffee could do some short yardage work which failed last year and Sheets is a fast, quick back who can catch out of the backfield. This looks like it could be a junior version of the Giants 3-headed monster. If Michael Robinson or Thomas Clayton were the answer, there wouldn't be two rookie backs in camps.

Arian Foster, RB, HOU - Steve Slaton has great value because the Texans didn't pull a running back within the draft. However, they still have questions about how he can do alone. They need a second back and Foster is an intriguing possibility. He's not incredibly fast and isn't a big play threat but he can block, shows good patience and can catch out of the backfield. He has the skills, but also some questions which make him a shaky long term (or short term) pick. But he's a guy to watch. Jeremiah Johnson is an interesting prospect as well, and is similiar to Foster. Either one can succeed as a back up to Slaton.

There are other backs worth watching - Chris Ogbonnaya with the Rams, Mike Goodson with the Panthers, Bernard Scott with Cincinnati and Cedric Peerman with Baltimore.

All those guys have some value either as backups to big backs or are in situations which are cloudy enough to give them a shot to emerge at some points.

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