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The Weekly Gut Check - Vol. 52
Career Placement, the Job Market, and Other Occupational Hazards of NFL Running Backs

The “Gut Feeling” is often synonymous with a sense of desperation resulting from a lack of preparation. The Gut Check is a huge proponent of studying the numbers, but there’s a point where one can place too much emphasis on the wrong information. This can result in the undervaluing or overlooking a player’s potential. Therefore, The Weekly Gut Check is devoted to examining the frame of reference behind certain number-driven guidelines that fantasy football owners use to make decisions.

Although The Weekly Gut Check doesn’t claim to be psychic, he does believe that he can dispel certain numbers biases and help you make the best choices for your team. We’ll keep a running tally of The Weekly Gut Check’s insights. This way you can gauge his views as something to seriously consider, or at least seriously consider running the opposite way as fast as you can!

It’s a great job market for backup running backs this season. The Barber was hired last week, and now it is the Fisher(man)’s turn for an extended interview. But if you are an established, NFL starting RB don’t be surprised when employers seem more interested in recruiting candidates straight out of college when 2006 rolls around. This week, The Gut Check profiles Barber, analyzes Fisher, and references a couple of hazards inherent with the occupation of NFL RB—injuries and coaches losing trust.

The Gut Check believes Marion Barber III is a talent back. In fact, he drafted Barber in the late rounds of two drafts. Bill Parcells obviously wanted talented depth at the RB position after Julius Jones missed significant time during his rookie year. The fact that Jones has missed 11 games in two years is something Parcells has played up to the media when he discussed his RB situation this week. Is the coach’s statement another motivational tactic for a young player? Possibly, but high ankle sprains are troublesome and Parcells just may be accepting the fact that he may have to count on Barber.

Marion Barber caught the Gut Check’s eye a few years ago as a freshman for the Minnesota Golden Gophers. RB Tellis Redman was the starter, but Barber looked like the more talented of the two backs in limited time. Right out of high school, Barber displayed a talent for running between the tackles and finishing runs like a potential pro. A junior, Redman declared himself eligible for the NFL draft at the end of the season and wound up a late pick of the Baltimore Ravens, where he failed to distinguish himself there and later on in Seattle. It was highly probable Redman left early so he didn’t have to compete with Barber.

Barber encountered a similar situation at Minnesota when Laurence Maroney burst on to the scene. Barber and Maroney shared time in 2004 and both backs accumulated impressive season stats. Then in some ways like Redmond, Barber declared for the draft as a junior. The difference was that Barber was more NFL-ready than his predecessor. One can speculate Redmond left because he feared he might have spent much of his senior year on the bench. Barber may not have wished to share the spotlight with Maroney for a second straight season, but he established that he could hold his own with a certain first round pick like Maroney. The Cowboys rookie’s 22-carry, 95-yard performance against Seattle demonstrated that he was more NFL-ready, than Maroney-wary.

Barber is a slasher in the mold of Curtis Martin. He’ll have the occasional long run, but he’s more a move the chains runner with a good burst, than a game-breaker in the style of Julius Jones. A late career, Ottis Anderson and Curtis Martin are Parcells guys, and Barber not so coincidentally, is a close fit.

The problem is Parcells has two other backs he’ll use in a pinch. Tyson Thompson may have the most talent of all the healthy backs in the Dallas stable, but his all around game appears too raw for the coach to stomach. If Barber slips up, Parcells won’t hesitate to pull him from the lineup because he has already given the rookie his mulligan with the 4th quarter fumble against the Seahawks.

The imminent return of Julius Jones and Parcells’ tendencies are a couple of reasons why The Gut Check wants to focus on Tony Fisher as another, viable waiver wire choice. The 4th year Packer was part of the same draft class as former 2nd string RB, Najeh Davenport. The difference is that Davenport was drafted—which in the NFL, is all the difference in the world. Is Yours Truly implying that Davenport’s depth chart status is based on the fact he was a 4th round draft pick and Fisher was a free agent?

Maybe. Certainly, there’s a perception in the real world that the new employee with the MBA recruited into a position is often provided more opportunities for success—and a greater tolerance for failure—than the middle manager that worked his way out of the mailroom. In the NFL, there are plenty of examples of drafted players that received countless opportunities to succeed despite numerous mistakes both on and off the field. Lawrence Phillips, Michael Westbrook, and Jeff George come to mind as examples.

The Gut Check believes Fisher has received a lot of playing time for a #3 RB on a depth chart despite this level of talent ahead of him for several reasons—some the Packers are reluctant to discuss publicly. The Gut Check believes the Packers coaching staff recognizes Fisher has more developed skills as a blocker and receiver than Davenport. Yours Truly also thinks Davenport isn’t the best fit for the Packers system, but someone influential within the Packers front office invested a lot of their clout into the original selection of Najeh Davenport. The Gut Check believes this desire to prove they were right about their 4th round runner may outweigh the benefits of keeping him.

Davenport was an RB that split time with Edgerrin James, Clinton Portis, and James Jackson at the University of Miami. While talented in his own right, he was more on par with Jackson than James or Portis. When Davenport tore his ACL the NFL touted him as a potential FB or single back in a power running game the next year.

Jamal Lewis, Willis McGahee, or Frank Gore did not suddenly become FB material after tearing an ACL. Granted, Davenport has a bigger frame than these backs, but some of the better fullbacks in this league are still nothing more than halfback-sized players that weren’t seen as explosive runners to earn a shot at the position: Mack Strong, Justin Griffith, and Patrick Pass were all decent, college running backs. Rueben Droughns was a fullback until very recently.

So we all know Davenport has talent, but his late fourth round status reflects a team’s interest in his skills but possibly a lack of certainty that he’ll make the most of his opportunity or trepidation about previous injury. The Packers clearly saw Davenport has an RB, but not all NFL teams felt this way. This is the first inclination that Davenport wasn’t seen as every down back material.

The other reason for a player dropping to the late 4th round has to do with the player’s character. Onterrio Smith and Maurice Clarett are good testaments to the risks of fourth round picks where the talent below the neck wasn’t the uncertainty. Certainly, Davenport’s inebriated rendezvous with a hamper prior to his rookie camp didn’t help dispel their worries. Yet, the Packers brass stood behind their rookie through this incident.

Despite various injuries that kept Davenport away from the field to consistently spell Ahman Green—and receive opportunities to develop quickly with more playing time—they even turned down trade offers for the bruising RB. One may argue the team’s refusal hinged on Davenport’s talent. But The Gut Check doesn’t necessarily see this in the numbers when he compares them with Fisher’s production over the same period of time:

 Davenport & Fisher: 2003-2004
2003   Att Rush Yd Rec Rec Yd TDs F Pts
Fisher Total 40 200 21 206 3 58.6
Avg 3.1 15.4 1.6 15.8 0.2 4.5
    Att Rush Yd Rec Rec Yd TDs Fpts
Davenport Total 77 420 6 38 2 57.8
Avg 5.5 30 0.4 2.7 0.1 4.1
2004   Att Rush Yd Rec Rec Yd TDs F Pts
Fisher Total 65 224 38 277 2 62.1
Avg 4.1 14 2.4 17.3 0.1 3.9
2004   Att Rush Yd Rec Rec Yd TDs F Pts
Davenport Total 71 359 4 33 2 51.2
Avg 7.1 35.9 0.4 3.3 0.2 5.1

Fisher may not have the physical talent, but he’s arguably a better all around player for the Packers system and the numbers indicate this is the case. How else can you justify a #3 RB getting this much playing time? Davenport has more rushing yardage, but a close look at the stats shows that Davenport’s yardage and attempts were nearly twice the amount of Fisher. One could speculate Fisher could have gained similar yardage with more attempts and the opportunity to get into the rhythm of the game.

Fisher was a highly recruited player out of Ohio when he arrived at Notre Dame, but injuries cost him the opportunity to blossom during his college career. At 6-1 225-lbs., Fisher is a big enough back to run between the tackles and as his stats indicate, he has excellent hands. The Packers offensive line may be in shambles, but Fisher’s well-rounded game should net him the opportunity to gain respectable totals.

Rightfully so, the skeptic will point out Ahman Green’s totals were far from respectable for a starting fantasy RB. The Gut Check was clearly wrong about Green’s prospects this year. He thought the offensive line would still be a decent run-blocking unit despite the key losses. Green’s ruptured quadriceps tendon appears to be a more serious result of a chronic condition. In 2002, reported The Packers RB originally strained this tendon in week 2 against the Saints.

According to Knee Pain, “Quadriceps tendinitis usually occurs as a result of overdoing an activity and placing too much stress on the quadriceps tendon before it is strong enough to handle the stress. This overuse results in 'micro tears' in the quadriceps tendon, which leads to inflammation and pain. Over time damage to the quadriceps tendon can occur. In extreme cases, the quadriceps tendon may become damaged to the point of complete rupture…

…Treatment of quadriceps tendinitis may include relative rest, icing, medications to reduce inflammation and pain, stretching and strengthening exercises. Quadriceps tendinitis may be prevented by easing into jumping or running sports and by using good training techniques. Off-season strength training of the legs, particularly the quadriceps muscles, can also help. Doctors and physiotherapists trained in treating this type of overuse injury can outline a treatment plan specific to each individual.”

The disabled, an informative site that discusses sports injuries, says a tear of the quadriceps tendon though incredibly painful and debilitating in nature, can be repaired surgically and “most people can regain full mobility and strength in their legs after torn quadriceps surgery.”

It’s possible Ahman Green has been playing with recurring problems with his quads for a few years, now. Don’t be surprised if Green’s less-than-impressive 2005 had a little something to do with his health as well as his line play. Najeh Davenport certainly looked good in his limited time against the Saints. Considering the Saints are rated higher against the run than the Vikings, don’t write off Davenport’s performance too soon.

So considering these points, what should one expect from Tony Fisher? Here’s one take on how the numbers will look. First The Gut Check analyzed Fisher’s 2003-2004 totals and compared them with Green and Davenport’s 2005 performances:

 Fisher Going Forward?
Player Year Avg/Att Yds/Catch TDs/Touch
Fisher 2003 5 9.8 0.05
Fisher 2004 3.4 7.3 0.02
  Avg 4 8.19 0.03
Green 2005 3.3 7.7 0
Davenport 2005 3.5 1.5 0.06
'05 Starter Avg 3.4 7.1 0.02
'05 Fisher 2005 3.7 7.6 0.03

Fisher’s 2003-2004 averages in very limited time as a receiver and runner were better than both Green and Davenport thus far this year. This is expected with the state of the Packer’s offense this year. So, The Gut Check decided he’d average Fisher’s 2-year average with the average performance of the starting RB for the Packers in 2005 (Green and Davenport’s totals).

Next, The Gut Check applied Fisher’s projected averages to current season totals of catches and carries projected out to ten games:

 Fisher Projected
  G Att Yds Rec Yds TDs
Season Totals 6 107 360 21 150 2
Projected Totals 16 286 961 56 401 5
10 game Projections 10 179 601 35 251 3
Fisher's Projected Totals 10 179 662 35 266 6

Fisher’s yardage doesn’t change much when one applies his projected averages per catch and carry to the 10-game projected totals, but where it does make an impact is projected scores. The amount nearly doubles and The Gut Check feels good about this figure because defenses will regard Fisher differently than they did with Green or Davenport.

How so? Defenses view Green and Davenport as threats out of the backfield: stop them and make Favre beat you with his limited group of receivers. The problem is Favre has been dangerous with his limited, supporting cast. Now teams will weigh their options and most likely attempt to play defenses that invite the Packers to prove they can run the ball. This adjustment will allow Fisher the opportunities to make bigger plays out of the backfield with fewer personnel in the box to stop him.

In terms of fantasy points, this amount calculates to 12.9 points per game in standard leagues allowing .1 pts per rushing and receiving yards, and 6 pts per score. Even if you don’t accept The Gut Check’s projections for touchdowns, a more acceptable figure of 3 scores yields an 11.1 points per game average—still a borderline #2 Rb, or quality flex option in 12-team leagues.

There are a lot of whispers about practice squad RB, Samkon Gado out of Liberty, but only take this serious if Fisher doesn’t perform up to expectation. Gado may be a fine runner, but he’s raw in the areas that will keep Brett Favre upright, or moving the chains in passing situations. Gado is a deep sleeper/under the radar guy, but not someone to bypass Fisher to acquire.

Scouting Checklist Profile Preview #8

Texas A&M QB Reggie McNeal

This week the Gut Check sizes up one of the more exciting college quarterbacks in the game. Many people tout Reggie McNeal as a quarterback that has become equally dangerous as a passer as he is a runner. To see the checklist, and a more detailed explanation of the perspective behind the evaluation process, click here.