Just like every other year, there are a handful of starting running back positions with an uncertain outcome, and picking the right side could make or break your fantasy season. For the most part, these players are worth having but not worth reaching too early for given their uncertain playing time. Therefore, the value will be found when these players start to fall in your league’s draft or if the auction cost is low.
There are two bigger name players in this group – Thomas Jones of the Jets and Derrick Ward of the Bucs. The Jets starting quarterback will likely be rookie Mark Sanchez after Brett Favre’s departure, plus the team lost starting wide receiver Laveraneus Coles, both moves that will hurt Jones’ fantasy potential. Ward moved over to the Bucs from the Giants and is supposedly in a battle with Earnest Graham for the starting position.
We’re putting this in here as a battle but that’s mainly because most people seem to think it’s one. We don’t. Jones is coming off a huge season, he’s a workout warrior and motivated to earn a new contract and avoid being given the pink slip after this season. Sure, his fantasy situation isn’t as favourable as last season when he finished as the league’s 5th ranked fantasy running back but he’s unlikely to lose his spot to the diminutive Washington or Greene, the team’s 3rd round pick in 2009. Jones won’t likely be a top ten back in 2009 but should be a decent low end second running back with mild upside. The risk is the Jets season going south and Jones losing playing time to Greene.
Not satisfied with Hightower’s performance as a starter as a rookie in 2008 when he averaged just 2.8 yards per carry but still managed to score 10 TD, the Cardinals spent a 1st round pick on Chris Wells to provide competition and depth at the position. Reports out of Arizona indicate that Hightower is having a solid training camp while the rookie Wells is in limbo courtesy of a right ankle injury. Questions regarding Wells’ durability helped cause his draft stock to fall and missing time will certainly impact his ability to supplant Hightower. Rookie running backs generally struggle with their pass blocking assignments and that is very relevant in Arizona where starting quarterback Kurt Warner is perhaps the least mobile player at his position in the league. Basically, Hightower played well enough last year to deserve another chance unless Wells had an outstanding training camp and that can’t happen when he’s in the trainer’s room. Look for Hightower to start on opening day and for Wells to have to earn the starting nod as the season progresses. Either way, this looks to be a timeshare.
After three years in the league, Graham came virtually out of nowhere to post 898 yards rushing, 10 TD and 324 yards receiving in 2007 despite starting only ten games. Unfortunately, he followed that up with a lacklustre campaign in 2008 with 737 combined yards and four TD while missing six games due to injury. The verdict out of Tampa was that Graham was not a full time back and hence the decision to sign Ward away from the Giants.
Ward is coming off a stellar campaign in New York, where he topped 1,000 rushing yards as Brandon Jacobs’ backup while also notching 384 receiving yards, good enough for the 23rd fantasy ranking at the position. Critics point to the fact that Ward managed just two TD and benefited playing behind a solid Giants offensive line. However, he did manage 5.6 yards per carry and 9.8 yards per reception and there is little doubting that Jacobs is one of the better, if not the best, short yardage backs in the league. In addition, the new Bucs regime brought in their guy, he was hugely productive in 2008 and he is shiftier and provides more big play potential than the incumbent. The only question here is whether Graham gets the goal line carries.
The veteran malcontent goes up against the out of nowhere fullback and the diminutive second year player for the starting running back position on the team that figures to run the ball more than any other team in the league in 2009. This has the makings of an extremely fascinating fantasy football issue heading into this season as owners determine which back to hedge their bets on. Unfortunately, what’s more likely to occur is that all three will put up decent production but ultimately disappoint their fantasy owners because of consistency issues.
Rice figures to have the most upside given that he is currently carrying starter status and is the best receiving option amongst the three players. McClain will focus more on a fullback role in 2009 but could be the short yardage and closer running back, particularly if the team keeps Jason Cook as a backup fullback. McGahee, who is coming off offseason knee surgery, will likely spell Rice and get significant carries in a backup role. In a nutshell, it is likely best to avoid all three unless they fall to the lower rounds in your league’s draft. If you must have one, bet on Rice.
Another fantasy carousel figures to happen in Denver where new head coach Josh McDaniels brought over Jordan with him from the Patriots, signed Buckhalter from the Eagles and drafted Moreno with the 12th pick in the draft. McDaniels also signed J.J. Arrington but the team released him after determining his knee wasn’t healthy enough to allow him to contribute in 2009. The team also has fullback Peyton Hillis, who averaged 14.4 points per game over his last six games in 2008.
Moreno clearly has the most upside of the bunch and figures to be starting by midseason, given the new regime’s investment in him. Look for Jordan to start on opening day before being relegated to a relief role, Buckhalter to be utilized on passing downs and Hillis to move to more of a traditional fullback role. Moreno’s the guy to have but don’t reach for him.
The Patriots backfield is a fantasy mess, consisting of talented but injury prone players (Morris, Maroney), a solid receiving option (Kevin Faulk), a low rent 2nd year player who scored five TD in just 74 carries as a rookie (BenJarvus Green-Ellis) and a veteran newcomer with a history of putting up 1,000 yards rushing (Taylor). Look for Morris or Taylor to earn the starting job out of camp with Maroney either earning time as a backup or being moved to another team. Green-Ellis will be in tough to make the roster and Faulk will definitely have a few big games catching the ball out of the backfield. This is another situation to avoid but the players with the most potential are Taylor and Maroney with Taylor getting the nod here.