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The Weekly Gut Check - Vol. 34
No Love For These 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!

In comparison to recent years, the glut of running back talent makes it a tough year to pick the best values at the position. A fantasy owner usually has a decent idea of which backs are at their peak, which backs are on the rise, and which backs are in decline. When The Gut Check looks at the list of projected starting backs, there aren’t many of them Yours Truly views as declining talents.

There’s a lot of talk heading into the preseason about Willis McGahee, Kevin Jones, Julius Jones, and Steven Jackson—all backs with outstanding performances to end their 2004 seasons. These four backs are seen as late first-early second round picks. So if these guys are potential #1 starters for a fantasy team, more established names will have to take a backseat in 2005. In addition, there’s generally a good chance that a first-round rookie back will put up top-ten numbers.

With a historically high rate of turnover within the top ten from year to year and a glut of talent at the position, the possibility of fantasy parity between picks 5-20 is moderately strong. A savvy owner may decide with the fifth pick, it’s a worthwhile risk to select a top tier QB or WR over a back such as Willis McGahee because his chances are good of landing equal, if not greater performance from backs still available in the second and third rounds.

The Gut Check will tell you which backs he believes won’t be giving up their spot in the upper tier, but seem to be losing some value as the 2005 fantasy season gets under way. Yours Truly also believes there are backs in 2005 with equal, or better value than any of these four young studs-in-the-making but early on, aren’t getting the same love from fantasy owners on draft day. At least three of these five backs should be available in rounds two and three if selecting from the middle spots of a serpentine draft.

Not Ready To Pass The Torch Just Yet

Tiki Barber
Barber has been historically a second or third round pick. This year isn’t starting off much different with Barber viewed early on as a mid-second round player. It’s somewhat amazing that Barber isn’t considered a top five back. Tiki was ranked fourth for #1 RB consistency—81.25% of his games were #1 RB-quality and 56.25% of his performances were among the elite on a weekly basis. Although St. Louis, Dallas, Detroit, and Buffalo weren’t the best offensive lines in the league, they certainly weren’t as bad as the Giants—and New York’s line play actually improved from 2003! Similar can be said about the Giants passing game in 2004. So picking Jackson, the two Jones backs, and McGahee over Barber is a risk—something savvy owners sitting at spots 10-12 are hoping will happen!

It’s not like Tiki Barber snuck up on any defenses. He’s been the most consistent weapon for New York over the last few years. This may seem debatable when one looks at the previous five seasons, because there is a pattern of seasons of excellence alternating with seasons of mediocrity.

Tiki Numbers
 Last  First  Tm  Year  G  GS  Rush Att  Rush Yds  Rush TDs  Rec Yds  Rec TDs  FF Pts
Barber Tiki nyg 1997 12 6 136 511 3 299 1 105
Barber Tiki nyg 1998 16 4 52 166 0 348 3 69.4
Barber Tiki nyg 1999 16 1 62 258 0 609 2 98.7
Barber Tiki nyg 2000 16 0 213 1006 8 719 1 226.5
Barber Tiki nyg 2001 14 0 166 865 4 577 0 168.2
Barber Tiki nyg 2002 16 0 303 1386 11 597 0 264.3
Barber Tiki nyg 2003 16 0 278 1216 2 461 1 185.7
Barber Tiki nyg 2004 16 0 322 1518 13 578 2 299.6

What seems to be dictating this trend is the variance in rushing touchdowns, but the yardage totals from 2002-2004 are consistently at a desirable level. Additionally, Kerry Collins missed three games in 2003 and his performance prior to injury was his worst during his tenure as the Giants’ starter.

The Gut Check doesn’t understand how many expect Barber’s fantasy performance to drop when Eli Manning should take another positive step forward, and the Giants get a solid upgrade at receiver with Plaxico Burress replacing Ike Hilliard. Although Brandon Jacobs may get the short yardage and goal line looks, The Gut Check doesn’t see it as much of a concern for 2004. If anything, an effective Jacobs gives the offense more effective play calling options in the red zone.

Barber paired with Eli Manning reminds The Gut Check of the 1998 season when Marshall Faulk was the safety net for Peyton in his rookie year and gained over 2200 yards from scrimmage. Although Eli is entering year two, he has about half a season’s experience. This means Barber will continue to be the offensive centerpiece in 2005.

Ahman Green
The Packers’ stalwart RB had his worst season as a starter in 2004. Many reporters covering the NFL have made the Packers the popular pick as a team in rapid decline. One of the factors they cite is the loss of two starters on the interior line. While the Packers didn’t do much to improve their defense, the Gut Check believes the offense will be just fine. Green was hampered with nagging injuries in 2004. As for the questions about the line, much of what has been written is overblown. Green Bay is getting back their pro bowl center and both tackles are still in place. That is the core of the offensive line so adding veterans to replace the guards won’t be as much of an issue.

Green is the 6th-most consistent #1 RB from 2001-2004 with at least 50 starts. Nearly 64% of his games are at least as good as the 12th best starter in a 12-team league. Plus as only three backs were more consistent as a #2 RB—Green was at least a top-24 back on a weekly basis 84% of the time. Is Green getting the similar snub as Curtis Martin in 2002-2003? A heavy workload back throughout the late nineties that suffered through a couple of seasons of minor injuries and the resulting consensus mistakenly pegged Martin as a declining back. Green has dropped out of the top five this year, and early mocks have him as a late first, early second round value.

The Gut Check doesn’t like to count on players getting re-injured unless there is an established, chronic issue. One couldn’t have predicted Martin’s issues and Yours Truly has the same outlook with Green—there should be no expected health issues heading into 2005. Brett Favre as a starting fantasy quarterback is as good as they come and he’s proven it regardless of the condition of his receiving corps. For Yours Truly this means a healthy Green is still at least a top ten fantasy RB. In contrast, a back like Julius Jones hasn’t proven he can stay healthy—a message Bill Parcells definitely sent with the drafting of Marion Barber III and the signing of Anthony Thomas.

Curtis Martin
Martin’s fantasy point totals place him fourth overall among backs in 2004, but his average draft position places him as a back available in the middle of round two. The guy simply gets no respect, although he rushed for 12 touchdowns and 1697 yards—his career high!!! Fantasy owners must expect Martin to return to his prior totals from 2002-2003—which means they are predicting injury due to his age. The Gut Check doesn’t like to drop a players’ value due to injury concerns unless he’s proven to have chronic issue.

A more plausible reason for his drop is his consistency stats from 2004. Martin performed as a #1 RB in a 12-team standard scoring league about 56% of the time—that’s 13th overall among backs. But 75% of Martin’s performances were at least as good as any #2 RB—good for 9th overall in this category. Better yet, Martin was tied with Priest Holmes for 4th overall in the category of elite performances where 50% of his weekly performances were good enough that only 1 other back could have topped him in that given week. Take into account that Holmes missed half the season and Martin was healthy all year and that’s an impressive point. What better than a back with great upside but virtually no downside throughout the season?

With the annual threat/promise of Lamont Jordan gone to Oakland, Martin is more than ever the undisputed mail carrier. Former Titan’s coordinator Mike Heimderdinger will provide a more aggressive passing attack, but it won’t cost fantasy owners that acquire Martin. In fact, a more vertical system should improve the running game. The Gut Check believes Martin at least has another year of #1 RB-production left in him.

Mike MacGregor’s Bay City Backlash Theory

Lamont Jordan
Mike MacGregor believes Jordan is suffering the effects of what appears to be some Bay City Backlash resulting from Kevan Barlow not meeting fantasy owners’ expectations in 2004. Many fantasy owners touted Barlow as a back ready to crack the top 10 last season, but only a third of his total games were #1 RB-quality and he was only good enough to start in a standard fantasy lineup 40% of the time—a huge disappointment.

There is a contingent of fantasy owners that appear to draw comparisons between Jordan and Barlow—both physically talented backs with power and speed and until recently, biding their time behind a an established veteran for a starting job—and believe Jordan has been long over hyped, otherwise he would have beaten out Curtis Martin for the starting job in New York.

The Gut Check does not share these views. Yours Truly has been watching Lamont Jordan since he was a junior at Maryland. Here’s a scouting report on Jordan during his senior year—a down year due to injury and poor offensive line, which subsequently contributed to Jordan falling in the draft:

LAMONT JORDAN, Maryland, 5-10, 232, 4.48, 1st-2nd Round. "He's a master blaster," Indianapolis general manager Bill Polian said. "He slams it in there." Four-year starter who rushed for 1,632 yards and 16 touchdowns in 1999, then merely 920 and 11 in 2000. "He has more ability than Tomlinson," one scout said. "He can run over people and around them. You just worry about the off-field stuff. Never shows up for anything. Doesn't want to work." Made some amends at the Senior Bowl and workouts. "They hired a guy just to take him to class every day so he could be eligible," another scout said. "That's not good. If he was an A-1 guy he'd be a sure-fire first because on grass he's running 4.4s. He's got great hands, too."

The profile does sound similar to Barlow, a back with great physical tools but suspect character, but The Gut Check believes Jordan is more talented than Kevan Barlow. The anonymous scout rated Jordan as a greater talent than Tomlinson. Although the Gut Check believes Tomlinson has clearly earned his reputation, Jordan has the capability to do it all—breaking the long run, getting the tough yards, or catching the ball out of the backfield. The problem for Jordan as a Jet has been Curtis Martin’s ability to defy expectations and remain a consistently high producer. He hasn't dropped off like Eddie George.

Jordan has been available for 52 games between 2001-2004—Tomlinson has started 64 games. Although Jordan hasn’t started a game during this time, 13% of his performances were at least worthy of a #2 back—that’s impressive for a player with limited opportunities.

To further indulge the Barlow-Jordan comparisons, one has to compare Curtis Martin to Garrison Hearst. Frankly, there is no comparison—Martin has been a much better back. Hearst has four 1,000-yard seasons in his career and two seasons with 9 touchdowns. He also missed two years due to injury. Although Hearst came back strong with a 1200-yard season, his numbers have declined (partially due to age, the injury, and Barlow) ever since.

Curtis Martin also has ten seasons of experience. Martin has never rushed for less than a 1,000 yards and has six seasons with at least 8 touchdowns. Martin has been more durable and he’s played on a team that didn’t have near the offensive firepower the 49ers had with Steve Young, Jeff Garcia, Jerry Rice, and Terrell Owens. In other words, Lamont Jordan’s situation was only similar to Kevan Barlow’s on the surface. Now that Jordan has found his way to the Raiders, The Gut Check believes the new surroundings will be a significant factor in the former Jet having a great fantasy season.

Randy Moss is generally the first new component of the offense that has everyone talking about better things to come for the Raiders. It’s certain that any coordinator safety even contemplating the idea of bringing a safety up to cheat the run will be taking his defense’s life into his hands. While Moss is the most often stated reason for the Raiders’ promise in 2005, The Gut Check believes two draft choices from 2004 will serve as the underpinnings for the Raiders return to contention. Tackle Robert Gallery and center Jake Grove have the talent to develop quickly into perennial all-pros. The two, second-year veterans man a unit that will be capable of mauling opposing defenses.

Al Davis has a “if you can’t beat them, join them,” outlook to free agents. The Gut Check remembers Jordan in one of his first opportunities taking a swing pass and blowing through the Raiders on about a 30-yard jaunt for a touchdown. It was an impressive display of hands, vision, and speed. Jordan’s skills are the best of all the backs on Oakland’s roster in 2004: He has Fargas’ explosiveness; Wheatley’s power; Zeroue’s lateral movement; and Redmond’s receiving skills.

Raiders coach Norv Turner created an offense for Ricky Williams that exploited his all-around talents, and Turner has also done the same for Stephen Davis and Emmitt Smith. Turner will do the same thing for Jordan. In fact the combination of Collins, Moss, and Jordan are the perfect complements to Turner’s style of play: pound the ball and go deep with play action. Jordan won’t need to be replaced with situational backs so the offense becomes less predictable and this also gives Kerry Collins more time in the pocket. Collins is not a great quarterback, but he’s capable of playing great when he has the weapons.

Here are the Raiders’ running backs combined totals for 2004:

Jordan's Goal for '05?
 Last  First  FF Pts  Rush Att  Rush Yds  Rush TDs  Rec Yds  Rec TDs
 Zereoue  Amos 88.9 112 425 3 284 0
 Wheatley  Tyrone 64.5 85 327 4 78 0
 Crockett  Zack 43.9 48 232 2 87 0
 Fargas  Justin 25.4 35 126 1 68 0
   Totals 222.7 280 1110 10 517 0

If Lamont Jordan equals this combined total, the resulting fantasy points places him in the top 10 in most years. Considering the additional off season improvements and Collins now in his second year as the starting quarterback, the projected numbers make a lot of sense.

It’s important to consider the impact of Zack Crockett as a goal line option. The Raiders mentioned Crockett would continue to have this role and last year’s total of two touchdowns as less than a third of his normal total in the last five seasons. This means either Crockett could steal a lot of scores if he gets the opportunities he had in Jon Gruden’s offense, or his totals remain similar to last year—Turner’s first season.

Even if Crockett assumes the fantasy role of goal line vulture, Lamont Jordan is a big play back and should be good for the similar 5-9 rushing scores Wheatley or Garner posted for this offense from year to year. Yours Truly also believes Jordan should easily surpass 1100 yards on the ground.

The Gut Check has provided the Minnesota Vikings’ rushing totals in 2003, when Moss was healthy for the entire year:

2003 Vikings - Rushing
 Last  First  FF Pts  Rush Att  Rush Yds  Rush TDs  Rec Yds  Rec TDs
 Williams  Moe 186.9 174 745 5 644 3
 Smith  Onterrio 100.8 107 579 5 129 0
 Bennett  Michael 63.9 90 447 1 132 0
   Totals 351.6 371 1771 11 905 3

The totals would represent elite fantasy numbers for one back, but Gut Check doesn’t foresee Jordan doing that well. Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that the combination of Randy Moss and Joey Porter with Ronald Curry or Doug Gabriel as the slot receiver certainly rivals Moss’ former stable mates in Minnesota. These stats indicate Jordan’s ceiling for production is significantly higher than the 1100-yard total for the Raiders’ backs in 2004. Plus, the Vikings stats don’t even account for Daunte Culpepper’s rushing yards! Adding Culpepper to the total would be overkill, considering Kerry Collins will never be mistaken as a running threat under center.

In The Gut Check’s estimation, the numbers alone indicate why Jordan should be a great fantasy value. To make matters only more promising, Jordan has long-wished for more opportunities and has been hungry to prove himself to the point of frustration. Jordan will likely enter the season desperately wanting to show the NFL that he was held back in New York. This is a back The Gut Check has seen drop past the second round in some early drafts, although he won’t likely be that great a bargain as the summer progresses.

Best Mid-Round Gamble

DeShaun Foster
The Panthers’ likely starter has all the talent and the offensive system to surpass any of the backs mentioned here. Foster has a similar running style to Fred Taylor—excellent vision, power, long speed, and quick lateral movement. Yet, like Taylor, Foster has coped with injuries early in his NFL career. This, the reputation of the defenses in the NFC South, and the drafting of Eric Shelton, has depressed Fosters’ early value among fantasy owners.

The Gut Check sees a lot of positives beneath the surface that make Foster an excellent mid-round gamble. First, Foster’s season ending injury had to do with his shoulder, and not the knee that was repaired with the controversial micro-fracture surgery in 2002. The Panther’s knee has gone two years without an issue. Although many people will give Kansas City’s defense more credit for Foster’s 32-carry, 174-yard start in 2004, The Gut Check cites the back’s playoff performance in the 2003 NFL Championship game as further evidence of what Foster can do when healthy.

Stephen Davis is slated to return, but he’s entering his tenth year coming of extensive rehabilitation from a knee injury. Yours Truly believes the best-case scenario for Davis is to be situational relief for Foster. The Gut Check foresees Eric Shelton as the type of acquisition where the Panthers feel he has enough talent to develop into a starter, but the financial expectation isn’t such where he’s expected to compete for the starting job right away. This is similar to the Jets drafting Lamont Jordan to back up Curtis Martin. Shelton is more likely thought of as 2005 insurance for depth in case Stephen Davis can’t return to form.

This means Foster will get his shot as the feature back in an offensive system that thrives on running the ball. Stephen Davis in 2003 was a top ten back in terms of performing to a consistency baseline equal to the worst #1 RB in 12-team league on a weekly basis. It’s not stretch to say a healthy Foster could do the same, but all the factors mentioned should drop him to rounds 3-5 in many fantasy drafts. This makes Foster attractive depth with great upside, or for those that are more comfortable with risk, a #2 RB for a team that focused on a top RB, QB and/or WR early.

These five backs should present better value than McGahee, the two Jones backs, and Jackson. In fact, the Gut Check believes McGahee is receiving a bit too much love from fantasy owners. Although Yours Truly understands that projecting McGahee’s stats through a full 16 games in 2004 could warrant such a warm feeling for 2005, the Bills’ starter has yet to play a full season and will be paired with first year, starting QB. True, Tiki Barber was a top-five back, but his stats with Eli Manning as the starter dipped noticeably in comparison to the first ten weeks with Warner. In the Gut Check’s book, McGahee in the early half of the first round is too great a risk considering the players that were much more consistent than the Bills starter:

Too Much Love For McGahee?
 Last  First  G  FF Pts/G  Subpar  Elite  RB #1  RB #2  RB #3  RB #4
 Holmes  Priest 8 24.74 0.00% 50.00% 87.50% 100.00% 100.00% 100.00%
 Tomlinson  LaDainian 15 19.04 0.00% 60.00% 86.67% 93.33% 100.00% 100.00%
 James  Edgerrin 16 16.07 6.25% 25.00% 81.25% 93.75% 93.75% 93.75%
 Barber  Tiki 16 18.73 6.25% 56.25% 81.25% 87.50% 93.75% 93.75%
 Alexander  Shaun 16 19.16 6.25% 43.75% 75.00% 75.00% 87.50% 93.75%
 Dillon  Corey 15 16.79 0.00% 40.00% 73.33% 86.67% 100.00% 100.00%
 Westbrook  Brian 13 15.81 7.69% 23.08% 69.23% 76.92% 84.62% 92.31%
 Davis  Domanick 15 17.44 13.33% 46.67% 66.67% 80.00% 86.67% 86.67%
 Bettis  Jerome 14 12.62 14.29% 14.29% 64.29% 71.43% 85.71% 85.71%
 Johnson  Larry 8 18.99 12.50% 62.50% 62.50% 75.00% 75.00% 87.50%
 Portis  Clinton 15 13.13 20.00% 20.00% 60.00% 66.67% 80.00% 80.00%
 McAllister  Deuce 14 13.16 14.29% 21.43% 57.14% 71.43% 85.71% 85.71%
 Martin  Curtis 16 17.39 0.00% 50.00% 56.25% 75.00% 100.00% 100.00%
 McGahee  Willis 15 13.85 13.33% 40.00% 53.33% 53.33% 60.00% 86.67%

McGahee wasn’t even a #1-quality RB last year based on consistency. His #2 RB baseline was significantly lower than the rest of this group as well. His total fantasy points rate him in the top ten, but unless your league determines championships by total points scored, his lower-scoring games could hurt an owner at the round time. These up and down performances aren’t what one should expect from a top five back. Drew Bledsoe may have been ineffective in Buffalo, but Yours Truly is skeptical J.P. Losman will do much better in his first year. The Gut Check believes McGahee will improve, but until the quarterback makes strides, he will not be suitable for such an early selection.

McGahee’s best value would actually be in the range projected for the other young backs mentioned—end of first to mid-second round. Since reality dictates here, odds are McGahee won’t be available that late. The positive for fantasy owners sitting at the end of the draft order is that a surer thing will be available for the picking—and possibly two.

When examining the historical average value of the running back position, the difference in fantasy points between the # 5 RB and the #15 RB is about the same as the difference between the #1 RB and the #5 RB. In 1981, 1985, 1990, and 1995 the range between 5th rated RB and the 15th rated RB was narrowed even further. The Gut Check wonders if there’s a time in the RB career cycle where the amount of backs entering the NFL exceeds the number retiring to the point where a glut of quality naturally occurs. If so, can 2005 follow suit? Yours Truly believes this could be the case.

If so, factoring consistency into one’s draft list could help an owner better discern value from risk. Drafting an RB at picks 4-6 that won’t far exceed the performance of backs that will likely be available at picks 7-25 may not be as wise a choice in comparison to selecting the most consistent of the elite receivers or quarterbacks and following up with similar value at RB in round two, and potentially round three. This all depends on the how the glut narrows down due to injury. At this point it’s something worth consideration.