Running back battles to watch (NFC)

4 06 2009

This is the follow up post on running back tandems to watch in the NFC. You can find the top 5 AFC tandems to pay close attention to here.

I introduced the AFC version by briefly talking about how the trend has come about in recent years and fantasy owners need to consider these time-shares. Marion Barber III was one of the first beneficiaries of a strong backup role, and that’s where we begin with the NFC.

Cowboys1. Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys are absolutely loaded at running back with Marion Barber III, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice. Barber could very well be the most valuable modern RB without a 1,000-yard rushing season. But 42 TDs in four seasons is why you want him on your fantasy team. When Dallas used the overall No. 22 on Jones, the thought was that Jones would serve as a strong backup to MBIII, much like Barber did with Julius Jones as the starter. Felix Jones only played six games but averaged an incredible 8.9 yards a carry. When he was injured (and Barber toward the end of the season), Choice stepped in and performed great in the fantasy playoff weeks (averaging 90 yards rushing against the Giants, Steelers and Ravens). Right now the fantasy experts at Yahoo have Barber rated as the No. 13 back and Felix Jones at No. 31. Barber is among the highest-rated backs who find themselves in a running back by committee approach. He’s worthy of a top 10 pick but make sure you have another strong back in the second round. Felix Jones makes for a strong No. 2 or flex position.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs signed Derrick Ward in the off-season to be their starter. Ward was a great No. 2 back behind Brandon Jacobs of the Giants for the past few seasons, including their Super Bowl win. (I’m a Giants fan, and, yes that was a cheesy reference.) While Ward ran for more than 1,000 yards last season he doesn’t get the goal-line carries: only two last season, and only five scores in 342 rushes. On the other hand, Earnest Graham has scored 14 times in 25 games the past two seasons. Look for Graham to be the more productive back for fantasy owners — and he can be had later in the draft since he likely won’t be the starter. Also on the Bucs roster is Carnell Williams. The Cadillac broke onto the NFL scene with nearly 1,200 yards rushing and  scored six times in 2005. Since then, injuries have taken over and he has only played 10 total games the past two seasons. Let someone else take a flyer on the often-parked Caddy.

3. Philadelphia Eagles. For someone with injury concerns seemingly all the time, Brian Westbrook sure has played a lot of games: 99 in seven years, an average of 14 per season. He is also consistent, scoring 11, 9, 7, 11, 12 and 14 TDs the past six seasons. Unfortunately, injury concerns start early this season: Westbrook will have ankle surgery this week. The Eagles invested a high draft pick in LeSean McCoy, who could take over scoring opportunities for Westbrook. Monitor Westbrook’s off-season surgery and rehab, and be prepared to snag McCoy before your rivals do.

4. New Orleans Saints. Depending on whether Edgerrin James signs with the Saints, this could be one of the more intriguing backfields to watch. If James isn’t in a Saints uniform, the team already has two strong fantasy backs. Reggie Bush brings the flash and Pierre Thomas brings renewed bulk. Bush has 20 scores in three seasons, and with Drew Brees at QB, Bush is certainly capable of a 10-12 TD season. But don’t overlook Thomas — the early Yahoo rankings have him at No. 15 RB, while Bush is No. 27. Thomas scored nine times on the ground last season, after Deuce McAllister was sidelined with an injury. Look for another strong performance from Thomas this year.

5. Arizona Cardinals. We now move from stacked backfields with previous NFL experience to the Cardinals, who have two unproven (in the NFL) backs competing for time and carries. Tim Hightower is the incumbent while Chris Wells is the Cards’ top draft pick. Hightower played in all 16 games last season, behind James and sometimes J.J Arrington, but only averaged 2.8 yards a carry. The good news? He scored 10 rushing TDs. Wells will be given every opportunity to start. I don’t imagine he will have a breakout rookie season but he will be given more opportunities to score, more than Edge did. Be leery of a repeat 10-TD performance from Hightower. Wells could be a good secondary RB, especially for those in keeper leagues.


Running back battles to watch (AFC)

23 05 2009

In recent years more teams have gravitated toward using multiple running backs, instead of relying on one back to do the bulk of the work.

Marion Barber III quickly became more valuable than Cowboys starter and teammate Julius Jones since he vultured lots of TDs. Other running back by committee approaches were used in Jacksonville (MJD-Fred Taylor), New York (Brandon Jacobs-Derrick Ward) and Denver (too many to list). Even the league’s best back — Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson — has a solid backup in Chester Taylor.

With that in mind, fantasy football owners are wise to watch how these running back tandems take shape during training camp and the pre-season. Here are the five top battles to watch in the AFC (NFC teams will be evaluated in a few days):

addai1. Indianapolis Colts: Last year’s unimpressive season by Joseph Addai forced the Colts to use their first round pick in in the NFL Draft, to take Donald Brown of Connecticut. After successful seasons in 2006-07 (23 TDS, more than 1,000 yards rushing in each), Addai was a major disappointment to fantasy owners last year. He scored only seven times and only had 544 yards on the ground — 6 more than backfield mate Dominic Rhodes, who is now with Buffalo. Expect Addai to be the starter but watch Brown’s workload; he may be in for a time-share much like Rhodes was last year.

2. Denver Broncos: While nothing is guaranteed, the Broncos will probably not have an entire fleet or running backs land on injured reserve like last season. Most of last year’s walking wounded are gone (sans Peyton Hillis). The Broncos loaded up on running backs during the off-season with No. 12 overall draft selection Knowshon Moreno, Eagles castoff Correll Buckhalter, former Cardinal J.J. Arrington and former Raider/Jet LaMont Jordan. Figure Moreno and Buckhalter to emerge 1-2 as the primary backfield weapons. Moreno will likely have the most fantasy value, especially in keeper leagues.

3. Baltimore Ravens: While the Broncos completely reloaded their RB position, the Ravens kept three backs who contributed last season and added a late-round draft pick (Cedric Peerman of Virginia). Here is how the three returning RBs (Willis McGahee, Le’Ron McClain and Ray Rice) compared last season:

Player        G   Carries Yards   Avg.   TD     Rec Yards   Avg.   TD

McGahee     13     170         671     3.9       7         24     173      7.2      0
McClain       16     232         902     3.9      10       19      123      7.7      1
Rice              13     107        454     4.2        0        33      273      8.3      0

At first glance, you might say that McClain would be the way to go since he had the most yards and TDs last season. He may be the one who emerges as the best fantasy option this year. But I would not be surprised if Rice turns out to be a strong sleeper pick, taking away key carries and scoring opportunities from the other backs. Stay tuned.

4. Buffalo Bills: The Colts’ loss could be the Bills’ gain: Dominic Rhodes. The starter in Buffalo is Marshawn Lynch, but he will unavailable due to a three-game suspension. Lynch is a top-flight back — recording more than 1,000 yards rushing in each of his two seasons in Buffalo and scoring 16 times overall. Rhodes scored nine TDs last season and 30 overall in eight seasons with Indy and Oakland. While Lynch is suspended, Fred Jackson will likely be the starter but watch Rhodes. He is an excellent No. 2 back and could repeat a nine-TD season in what should be a very improved Bills offense. As I blogged about earlier, if Lynch’s three-game suspension holds up he will miss about a third of your regular season in the playoffs. He should still bring in solid numbers overall, but just remember he’ll miss some early games.

5. San Diego Chargers: Trivia question: Which San Diego player has the third-highest total yard performance in a playoff game? Nope, not LaDainian Tomlinson. Last year’s gutsy performance by Darren Sproles against the Colts was truly amazing. Let’s be clear here for fantasy value, LT is still the way to go early. He’s slipped a bit since his consensus No. 1 rating a few seasons ago but if he’s healthy he can be a real asset to your team. He still had a 12-TD season last year, well short of his 28 scores a few years back but still worthwhile. Sproles’ value, on the other hand, is largely dependent on LT. If LT returns to his Hall of Fame form, Sproles won’t be much use. If the Chargers split time and touches between the two, Sproles could turn out to be a mid-round steal.

Top 5 free agents to watch

16 05 2009

It’s only May and there are still several months of various forms of practice, training camp and pre-season games before football season starts.

That means there is lots of time for injuries to occur, which could mean some teams would have an instant need for a veteran player at a skill position. For your fantasy purposes, you won’t necessarily be looking at any of these players as a high draft pick. However, given the right situation, they could be well worth your consideration.

1. Brett Favre. As I blogged about recently, there are some things you should consider should the former Packers QB wind up with the Vikings. If he does, there will be better options available. But I would strongly consider him for a strong backup.

2. Plaxico Burress. First, a Super Bowl hero then he almost literally shot himself in the foot. Well, the leg actually. There is no denying that Plax can help out a team in need of a wide receiver. At this point, though, it appears that teams have cooled on him, not knowing whether there will be jail time or a suspension forthcoming from the league. If he’s available near the start of the season and his legal issues have been sorted out, keep a close eye out. There may be teams in need of his services, looking for help. Cowboys, Titans and maybe the Cardinals if they deal Anquan Boldin. Depending on the situation, Burress could be considered a No. 1 WR not only for the NFL team willing to give him a shot (OK, bad word choice) but for your fantasy team.

James3. Edgerrin James. When the Cardinals drafted Chris Wells from Ohio State, it was over for the veteran running back. Well, over at least for his time in the desert. In the three years James was with the Cardinals, he averaged less than 4 years per carry each season and only score a total of 16 touchdowns. Contrast that with his final three seasons in Indianapolis, where he averaged more than 4 yards a carry each season, scored a total of 34 TDs and was an integral part of the passing game. When the football season starts, Edge will only be 31. In this era of two-back attacks, the right situation could help James return to his glory of past years. As far as your fantasy team goes, Edge could make for a nice flex position starter or No. 3 running back.

4. Warrick Dunn. The often-elusive back scored a total of 62 touchdowns for Tampa Bay and Atlanta. During his prime, he was a better option for a receiver out of the backfield than James. But now as both players try to regroup and find new homes, James is the better option. Dunn may find new life with a new team. But keep him off yours, at least until you have three other running backs to choose from. The concern here for fantasy owners is actually other RBs on a team with Dunn. He likely has enough in the tank to vulture some TDs for your guy. Be on the lookout.

5. Amani Toomer. There’s a fairly significant dropoff from the third spot in the list to the fourth and then fifth. Toomer had a great career with the Giants. The Bears apparently were interested in Toomer but a deal has not been signed yet. Toomer — like some other free-agent wideouts such as Marvin Harrison and Drew Bennett — are likely past their prime for real fantasy value. Keep your eyes peeled and if you are in a deep league that starts three wideouts, you may be able to get good value late. But don’t pick Toomer or the others based just on past performance.

5 things to know if Favre joins Vikings

10 05 2009

Brett Favre, who has a treasure trove of highlights, has been a solid fantasy contributor to many teams over the years. Even as his stats dwindled toward the end of his career with the Packers, he still remained a productive fantasy quarterback. Last season with the Jets, he didn’t win any fantasy leagues single-handedly but he kept teams competitive.

So what happens if he joins the Vikings (other than becoming No. 1 public enemy in Cheeseland)? Here are the top five things to consider for fantasy owners

1. He’s an outdoorsman but plays better inside. His career stats show that Favre has a higher completion percentage, QB rating and other favorable statistics for games played inside. Stats via Yahoo Sports:

Situation G QBRat Comp Att Pct Yds Y/G Y/A TD Int Sack YdsL
Outdoors 202 85.6 4206 6883 61.1 48142 238.3 7.0 353 225 342 2230
Indoors 38 90.3 894 1400 63.9 10455 275.1 7.5 74 46 62 453

favre.jpg2. BF meet AP. Favre has never had a running back with the skills as Adrian Peterson. Favre was clearly the man during his time in Green Bay and his one-year stint with the Jets. He had solid contributions from players such as Ahman Green, Ryan Grant, Thomas Jones, et al. But he never had a game-changing back like AP. If AP continues to chug along for 100 yards every game that would cut into Favre’s passing yards. But on the plus side, defenses would have to pay attention to AP, giving Favre some decent opportunities to throw

3. The schedule. Heading into this season, the Vikings play the league’s second-easiest schedule (.420) In the all-important fantasy playoff weeks (14-16), the Vikes host Cincinnati, visit Carolina and travel to Chicago for a Monday night game.

4. The wideouts. Right now, the Vikings have Bernard Berrian, Bobby Wade and second-year man Sidney Rice and rookie Percy Harvin. It’s not a very imposing group. But they also have tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, who scored seven times last year.

5. He’s motivated. If Favre returns, the biggest reason is that he wants to prove that the Packers made a mistake.
When you mix talent and such motivation together, success is often the result.

The bottom line: Favre will turn 40 in October. If he plays with the Vikings, he will be a legit fantasy starter but certainly below the elite QBs of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees. Depending on the scoring of your league, Favre is a legit pick in the middle rounds.

NFL Draft recap: 5 moves with most fantasy impact

30 04 2009

1. Cards grab Wells. Days later, Arizona cuts The Edge. Clearly, the Cardinals have a loaded offense but the 39.5 yards a game last season from Edgerrin James were not going to cut it. Chris Wells (Ohio State) is expected to battle with Tim Hightower (no, not the guy from Police Academy) for the lead running back spot. Whoever wins it, should expect around 20 carries a game. But beware: this is a prime spot for a TD vulture. If not a goal-line TD artist, then Larry Fitzgerald could also snag some cheap scores. Keep a close eye on this RB tandem during training camp.

2. Michael Crabtree falls to the Niners. Think about another talented WR who had off-field issues that left him sitting around draft day longer than expected. This WR was picked No. 21, and he entered the NFL on a mission to burn the teams that passed on him. Randy Moss caught 17 touchdowns his rookie season and helped the Vikings develop one of the most potent offenses in NFL history over the next several years. He rejuvenated his career with the Patriots, setting the single season touchdown reception record in 2007 with 23. Could Crabtree become another superstar like Moss? Only time will tell. For those in keeper leagues, the potential of high reward could be worth an early-round selection.

3. Lions grab Pettigrew. The jury is out on the Lions first selection in the first round, Matthew Stafford. He will be paid handsomely but will he succeed? The Lions used their second pick in the first round to grab a TE that Stafford may come to rely on — quickly. Brandon Pettigrew (Oklahoma) is very athletic and strong, and could be destined to be a top TE in the league. Young QBs often look toward their TEs for help so Pettigrew could up some decent numbers. He won’t be a top 10 to start the season but will likely provide more value at his position than his fellow Lions rookie.

4. Colts select RB Brown. This is another team that is potentially looking at a rookie RB as part of a time-share. Donald Brown (UConn) will start as the backup to Joseph Addai. But in the Colts offense, there is plenty of talent, yards and scores to go around. Running yards (544) and scores (5 running, 2 receiving) were disappointing for Addai last season. If he gets off to a slow start, the Colts new regime may be tempted to give Brown a real shot. Addai is the clear top choice from the Colts backfield, but Brown will be worth a reserve position.

5. Jets zoom up to get Sanchez. Years from now, it will be clear whether Matthew Stafford or Mark Sanchez was the better pick. Remember the great Peyton Manning-Ryan Leaf debate from the late 1990s? It didn’t take long for pro football fans to see that the Colts made the right pick. Will the Jets be rewarded with their draft day dealings to nab Sanchez? Only time will tell. As the New York Daily News reports, Sanchez gives the Jets a QB of the future. But they still need a top-tier wideout to lead an average cast and complement emerging tight end Dustin Keller. Sanchez will likely have a rough first year but he may be worth stashing as a second or third QB, especially in keeper leagues.

Top 5 pre-draft moves

25 04 2009

It’s eve of the NFL Draft, which means the opening kickoff is only about four months away. It’s been a busy off-season for teams. Trades, signings and releases have kept teams busy and fantasy football owners interested — and eagerly anticipating the next season. Here’s a look at the top five off-season moves to date and what they may mean for fantasy owners …

1. Jay Cutler to the Bears: The Broncos shipped the strong-armed quarterback to the Bears for a couple of key draft p
icks and Kyle Orton, whose stats bear a striking resemblance to Cutler’s. In two full seasons, Cutler has thrown 13 more TDs than interceptions (45 to 32) while Orton had 18 TDs to 11 picks last year, his first full season after a forgettable rookie campaign in which he only had nine TDs and 13 interceptions.

The lowdown: While Bears fans are overjoyed at having a young QB who can zing the ball, fantasy owners may be better off taking a chance on Orton as a strong backup. While Cutler is capable of throwing for 4,000 yards for a season and a threat to toss multiple TDs in most games, the Broncos offer a better mix of offensive players key to the QB’s success. WR Brandon Marshall is a top 10 receiver, while Eddie Royal makes for a strong second option. The Broncos running game is assured of being more consistent than last season when about 172 of their running backs ended up on the disabled list. Orton, who has started 33 games for the Bears in three seasons, will provide steady leadership and could return good value on what will surely be a lower-tier pick. Cutler will be between the sixth and 10th quarterback taken but his value depends heavily on the currently weak corp of Bears wideouts. Pass on him and take Orton later for a value pick.

2. Warner stays with Cardinals. The grocery-shelf-stocker-turned-quarterback flirted with leaving the Super Bowl runner-up Cards in the offseason but decided to stay in Arizona. Warner may or not have his dynamic duo wideouts lining up once the season begins. Larry Fitzgerald showed the world his playoff ability during last year’s playoffs, but Anquan Boldin has been the rumor of trade talks starting about 90 seconds after the Steelers raised the trophy. Warner tossed 30 TDs last year (27 the year before).

The lowdown: Warner will be a highly regarded commodity, whether or not Boldin returns. If Boldin is traded, the Cards figure to add a young wideout (in addition to finding a solution at running back). Either way, Warner and Fitz have developed a real chemistry. Their values should remain high, especially Fitz who could be the top wideout taken when draft day rolls around.

3. Giants give Plax the ax. In the final five games of the season without their main wideout, the Giants lost four, including the playoff game to the Eagles. The Giants won Super Bowl 42 (yeah, I don’t do Roman numerals) and dominated the first 12 weeks of last season until Plaxico Burress shot himself in the leg. Without him, the Giants could still pound the ball but they were clearly lacking a go-to wide receiver. The complementary receivers are decent – the “other” Steve Smith who is a good young possession receiver, Kevin Boss is growing into a productive tight end, and if you need a clutch catch David Tyree is still around.

The lowdown: For a franchise on the brink of a Super Bowl run (and fantasy owners) none of the current WR options will get them to the promised land. The Giants have been rumored to be chasing Boldin and Braylon Edwards of the Browns. If either lands with the Giants, their value should at least stay the same if not increase. If Eli Manning is able to start the season with Boldin, Edwards or a similar top-tier receiver his value soars probably around sixth or seventh of QBs. If not, stay away. Kevin Boss could be a good pickup since Eli looked to him more and more during the end of last season.

4. Going, going Gonzo. Days before the draft, the Chiefs sent longtime TE Tony Gonzalez to the Atlanta Falcons for a 2010 draft pick.

The lowdown: This gives rookie sensation Matt Ryan a great option and a legitimate scoring threat in the red zone. Gonzo scored 10 times last season, equating his output from the two previous seasons combined. Don’t expect another double-digit TD season but he will be productive enough to be a quality top 10 TE. For Ryan owners, the Gonzo trade should increase his value. For owners of Michael Turner, this could mean a slight decrease in TDs (he had 17 last year) near the goal line but overall the offense will be improved enough so TDs and yards will be in good supply.

5. NFL suspends Lynch. The Bills running back makes for a good second round selection, either adding depth for a team that took a top-shelf RB in the first round, or needs a steady, TD threat after taking a top QB or WR in round one. However, Marshawn Lynch’s three-game suspension threatens his value. The Bills also added some other offensive firepower in the offseason, adding Terrell Owens and Dominic Rhodes.

The lowdown: In a fairly normal 13-game fantasy schedule, Lynch will be unavailable for 31 percent of a fantasy owner’s regular season games, including the Bills bye week. I’d move him back to a 4th or 5th round pick, depending on the size and scoring of your league. With TO in a Bills uniform, defenses will focus less attention on Lynch (15 TDs in two seasons) which may help him when he starts in Week Four. However, that seems late in the season to realize value of someone who would ordinarily be a strong second-round pick. If you are picking near the top of your draft, you may be able to snag AP or another elite runner and then be patient and wait for Lynch late in the fourth round or early fifth. Having an AP-Lynch backfield tandem for the playoffs would serve any owner well. Just be certain you have enough other firepower from the early rounds to cover for the games that Lynch will miss.

The lowdown (2): The signing of Rhodes further perplexes the situation at RB. If Rhodes starts the season really strong, could he end up staying as the starter? Even if he remains the No. 2 back, Rhodes will be a good mid- to late-round pickup who can steal some carries, yards and TDs from the troubled Lynch.