Mar 27, 2010
Note: Ages are accurate as of midseason 2010.
What’s interesting about this position is how watered down it is. Because so many backfield are utilizing two (even three) players in a rotation, the number of clear studs is low. And while there are more players these days than usual who do have some value now due to a fairly large role, they’re still in situations that prevent major fantasy production. We’ve also seen fewer legitimate developmental prospects at the position and a lot of players who are kind of in limbo, with little long-term potential and even questionable short-term potential.
I’ll start off this section with the (surprisingly few) players who are clearly slam-dunks for those in keeper leagues: Adrian Peterson (Min, 25), Steven Jackson (Stl, 27), Chris Johnson (Ten, 24), Maurice Jones-Drew (Jac, 25), and Ray Rice (Bal, 23).
These five players are clearly the cream of the crop, and with youth on their side. Rice may not be a legit top-5 overall RB over the next few years, as the team should always look to work a bigger back into the mix. But he was so impressive in 2009 that he simply has to be in this elite realm, especially since he’s so young and versatile. Jackson’s window may be starting to close, but there have been zero signs of slowdown yet, and he should have a couple of peak seasons left in him. Their QB situation is worrisome, but the OL has been built up quite nicely.
The talent and fantasy potential and reliability does drop off a little after this group, but there are certainly still some really attractive options, such as Rashard Mendenhall (Pit, 23), DeAngelo Williams (Car, 27), Michael Turner (Atl, 28), Frank Gore (SF, 27), and Jonathan Stewart (Car, 23). Mendenhall does need to prove he can maintain a high level of play for another season, but if the Steelers get the best out of him, his potential on this good team is actually mind-blowing because he’s very talented. Williams will be a free agent in 2011, but if we’re in the same situation as we are next year with the CBA, he’ll be restricted again and won’t likely go anywhere. He has the obvious problem of playing with Stewart, but Williams is so damn good. He proved to be the real deal in 2009 coming off a dream 2008 season. I think he’s fantastic. Turner’s a guy who could fall off in a couple of years, but keep in mind his workload so far for a 28-year old has been minimal, so he probably still has a good amount of peak time ahead of him. Gore’s starting to build up a lot of touches in his career, and while injuries are a concern, he is still in his prime and should be fine if healthy the next two years at least. Stewart’s in the same boat as Williams. He’s unbelievably good, but in a timeshare. At least for those looking way down the road, that timeshare should extend both player’s careers. I brought that up while interviewing both Williams and Stewart on the radio last year – and they wholeheartedly agreed that the timeshare will extend their careers. Stewart is clearly a stud, and I’ll take my chances on a young stud in a keeper league, even with a timeshare situation.
While the players mentioned above appear to be the cream of the crop, there are certainly some other very appealing young backs still, such as Shonn Greene (NYJ, 25), Chris Wells (Ari, 22), Jamaal Charles (KC, 23), Knowshon Moreno (Den, 23), and LeSean McCoy (Phi, 22). They’re all very young and in very good situations, so while they aren’t certain slam-dunks, they’re desirable. Greene’s going to be the main ball-carrier on what should be a good team for years to come, but there are others here who will take touches away, at least for the short term (LaDainian Tomlinson and Leon Washington, of course). Wells on talent alone could be considered a top-5 keeper, but he has durability issues and his poor blocking should mean a steady role for Tim Hightower. But Wells has big upside. Speaking of upside, Charles has a ton of it, as evidenced by his ballistic run at the end of 2009. He’s certainly a very nice keeper, but I would just keep expectations realistic in case his lack of size prevents the team from truly committing to him like the Titans have committed to Chris Johnson. The signing of solid veteran Thomas Jones is a sign the team will be somewhat judicious with how they use Charles. Still, he’s a fine keeper given the juice he offers. Moreno’s a little bit of a tough call. He was solid at times last year and he’s a high pick who will get every chance to play a lot, but he also showed some limitations (and that he’s not special) and I’m concerned with injuries considering all the contact he takes. It’s also questionable where this team is going with their best wideout likely heading out of town and the QB situation not exactly good. Moreno needs to improve, bottom line, because he wasn’t good enough to stave off Correll Buckhalter last year, which is a bad sign. Buckhalter looks very much in the mix again this year, and head coach Josh McDaniels looks like a guy who has no qualms using a committee approach. But Moreno is far from a stiff, and he has youth on his side. McCoy certainly showed nice potential in his rookie year, and he should be even better in 2010. It’s great for him how they parted ways with Brian Westbrook, but he’s another guy who’s not exactly a lock to do well the next 2-3 years. At times last year, he didn’t look as quick and decisive as he did in college, so we’ll have to see if that was just his being hesitant and a little unsure of himself. But his role’s obviously expanding big time, even with veteran Mike Bell added.
There’s no question the talent and keeper potential drops a level after the aforementioned players. There are plenty of options, but they all have some sort of issue that appears prohibitive. You have players like Cedric Benson (Cin, 27), Ryan Grant (GB, 27), and Ronnie Brown (Mia, 28), at least, and they are relatively young and have large roles on their teams, so they are solid. You have players who have the talent to produce, but could be limited by a lack of touches, due to the presence of other players on their teams. Examples would be Matt Forte (Chi, 24), Fred Jackson (Buf, 29), Joseph Addai (Ind, 27), Marion Barber (Dal, 27), and Pierre Thomas (NO, 25). Each situation is different, so I’d look hard at these players’ ages, supporting casts, and offensive systems. Forte and Thomas do have youth working in their favor, while Addai and Barber are in good situations. Jackson’s very good, but he’s probably at best a high-end #3, unless the team fully commits to him, which is yet to be determined.
Next up, I like the group of young options who have active roles and should have them for years to come, like Felix Jones (Dal, 23), Steve Slaton (Hou, 24), Ahmad Bradshaw, (NYG, 24), Reggie Bush (NO, 25), and Darren McFadden (Oak, 23). Jones is clearly the best of the bunch, and he could even be considered a borderline stud in 7-8 months if he fully takes charge of this backfield. I’ve said for a while now that I think he could potentially be a “lead” back, and if he is and he stays healthy, look out. He actually has more upside than a guy like Jamaal Charles because he’s a bigger and better pure runner. Bradshaw’s a player, so he’s not a bad option at all as a 3rd back. Bush at least we know will always have a role, and while he’s frustrating, he does make plays. Slaton’s a bit of a wildcard, but at the worst, he should be a guy who gets 35-40% of his team’s touches – unless the Texans hit a homerun in the draft and nabs a productive power guy. As for McFadden, I’m not a fan, but he is very young. At some point, someone has to take advantage of his North-South running ability and solid receiving potential.
A player who doesn’t really have a group is Donald Brown (Ind, 23). He should be, at worst, an active complementary player – but he could be much more than that. He could be the guy in 1-2 years, so he’s very much worth hanging on to. He’s pretty thin and needs to show he can stay healthy, but he’s a very good runner and receiver, and he’s in a great situation.
There are some players next up who I don’t think will be major factors in 1-2 years, but who do have value for right now and could certainly prove me wrong and be top-30 backs over the next two years. Brandon Jacobs (NYG, 28), Jerome Harrison (Cle, 27), Cadillac Williams (TB, 28), and Ricky Williams (Mia, 33) are in this group. Although it’s hardly a lock he’s the lead guy for the next few years, Harrison probably also has the best to chance to surprise over the next few years, while Williams’ value could be nil this time next year, as he might retire. Jacobs and Willliams will have key roles heading into 2010, but they could quickly lose a ton of fantasy value due to injuries, wear and tear, etc. Thomas Jones (NYJ, 32) can be placed in this group as well.
Getting back to the younger guys, we do still have some out there, but none are guaranteed expansive roles, and they could really go either way in the coming years. I do like Justin Forsett (Sea, 24) a lot, so he tops this group, but there’s no real indication the team views him as a major player in their backfield for the long-term, or that they really should (although he showed a lot in 2009). But at the very least, he should be a really nice complementary player. Kevin Smith (Det, 23) is coming off a serious knee injury and shoulder problems, but his biggest issue is his lack of dynamism. That could lead the team to look for an upgrade in the draft soon. Laurence Maroney (NE, 25) continues to fumble away his chances and clearly prevent the team from fully committing to him, and Tim Hightower (Ari, 24), while very solid, will always split time with Wells in Arizona. I’d put Michael Bush (Oak, 26) in this area as well. He may finally get a chance in Oakland now that Justin Fargas is gone. He hasn’t done enough to feel great about him, but on the other hand he’s definitely showed flashes. If he takes control over the “lead” role here, he could be a solid #3 fantasy back/flex starter for the next couple of years.
There’s another group of players who are all pretty young, but whose futures are really up in the air. LenDale White (Ten, 25), Leon Washington (NYJ, 28), Chester Taylor (Min, 30), Marshawn Lynch (Buf, 24), Jason Snelling (Atl, 26), Arian Foster (Hou, 24), Darren Sproles (SD, 27), and Jerious Norwood (Atl, 27) fall in here. Taylor’s going to have some value the next 2-3 years in Chicago, as will Washington wherever he is if healthy, so they are nice back-up types for a larger keeper league. Sproles and Norwood do have some upside, but they’re never going to command a lot of touches. White and Lynch are young and have a chance to resurrect their careers, but they might also continue to do nothing and their 2009 seasons don’t instill much confidence. Foster’s probably not going to be in this group after the draft, as the Texans are a good bet to draft a bigger back because at the end of the day, Foster’s “just a guy.”
Sticking with the younger players, at this point, you can’t truly count on the remaining options – but they’re probably worth stashing away due to their youth and, in many cases, their potential. Tashard Choice (Dal, 25) and James Davis (Cle, 24) are good example, and I really like Choice as a versatile football player. Eventually, he should get his chance. Davis could still be the guy in Cleveland. And while I know for a fact the team doesn’t really view him as a true lead back, Bernard Scott (Cin, 26) is very talented, so worth a shot. If you really want to dig deep and look at younger players, the guys to look at are Andre Brown (NYG, 23), Aaron Brown (Det, 24), Javon Ringer (Ten, 23), Rashad Jennings (Jac, 25), and Mike Goodson (Car, 23). Brown has a chance to replace Brandon Jacobs as their power back some day, the Lions like (Aaron) Brown and he has speed, Ringer’s a nice little back who could replace LenDale White as the #2 soon, Jennings has a chance to be an effective 1st and 2nd down back at some point, and Goodson is pretty darn dynamic and could eventually get an opportunity to play.
We’ve yet to cover some bigger names in the business, but that’s likely because their chances of helping you beyond 2010 are in serious question – and they’re hardly locks to contribute this coming year. Players like: Clinton Portis (Was, 29), Willis McGahee (Bal, 28), Julius Jones (Sea, 29), LaDainian Tomlinson (NYJ, 31), Derrick Ward (TB, 30), Larry Johnson (Was, 30), Maurice Morris (Det, 30), and Willie Parker (FA, 29) are in this mix. It’s really hard to make a strong case for any of these options in a keeper league, but McGahee is still relatively young without a ton of wear and tear and in a good situation. Ward doesn’t have a lot of wear and tear and could conceivably carry the load for a decent spell (he’s set to split time with Cadillac Williams in ’10). Portis should split time with Larry Johnson in Washington this year, which is a killer because he’s nearing the end and probably has one good year left in him, if that. Jones is probably done in Seattle, and they should draft a back early in April. I’ll also throw Correll Buckhalter (Den, 31) and Earnest Graham (TB, 30) in here. Buckhalter at least looks like he has a role in Denver for another year at least, but Graham’s career appears to be in the toilet right now (through no fault of his own). But that guy’s pretty darn solid and it’s not inconceivable that he gets another chance somewhere, so he might be worth stashing away in a larger keeper or dynasty league.
And this basically brings us to the bottom of the barrel at this position. I will start off by listing some younger players who have caught my eye and appear to at least have a chance, such as Chris Jennings (Cle, 24), Brandon Jackson (GB, 25), Lex Hilliard (Mia, 26), D.J. Ware (NYG, 25), Glen Coffee (SF, 23), and Mike Bell (Phi, 27). Bell’s a little older, but he has a role as a short yardage guy and can score TDs. I really liked what I saw from Hilliard, and he could be the #2 with Ronnie Brown in Miami soon. Jennings did look good in limited time in Cleveland, but there’s a logjam there, and he’s ultimately just a guy. I’m not that impressed with Coffee, but he could be a stop-gap guy for 1-2 years for the 49ers and at the least for now has value in case Frank Gore gets hurt. D.J. (formerly Danny) Ware is an intriguing prospect as well with his good power and receiving ability, but you could argue that he’s 4th in their pecking order at RB right now.
We’re left with very little at this point, so it’s best to look at players who either have youth or clearly defined roles for 2010. Options like Quinton Ganther (Sea, 26), Mewelde Moore (Pit, 28), Le’Ron McClain (Bal, 25), Kevin Faulk (NE, 34), Peyton Hillis (Cle, 24), Leonard Weaver (Phi, 27), Lynell Hamilton (NO, 25), LaRod Stephens-Howling (Ari, 23) and J.J. Arrington (Den, 27) at least have a chance. Moore has a chance to get consistent touches behind Mendenhall in Pittsburgh, but at this point he needs an injury to a starter to have a chance. Hillis could carve a niche in Cleveland was possibly a goal line back and 3rd down option. Faulk, Weaver, and Hamilton should have defined roles, at least.
I can’t say the same for Ryan Moats (Hou, 27), Sammy Morris (NE, 33), Ladell Betts (Was, 31), Justin Fargas (FA, 30), Fred Taylor (NE, 34), and Brian Westbrook (FA, 31). Betts is coming off a serious knee injury and could be done, while Morris and Taylor are well over 30 and in a committee. Fargas has some health issues, too. Moats is a decent prospect, but guys like him are a dime a dozen.
And finally, some more players who are at least young and at least deserve a mention: Brian Leonard (26), Kolby Smith (25), BenJarvus Green-Ellis (25), Gartrell Johnson (24), and Marcus Mason (26).