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.

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