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RB committees: Who is the lead back?
I’m examining the top running back committees that'll vex fantasy owners this fall.
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The situations in New York (Jets), Kansas City and Chicago are excluded, as those backfields don't truly meet the committee tag. Dallas is intriguing, and we’ll eventually need to sort out the Felix Jones and Marion Barber battle (I’m still on Barber for now). I’ll table that discussion for later.
Let’s kick things off in Buffalo.
1. Buffalo: Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller (with Marshawn Lynch)
What else can you say? New coach Chan Gailey has a huge decision in front of him and a wealth of talent at tailback. Jackson excelled as a versatile dual threat (1,062 rushing and 371 receiving yards) in 2009 and supplanted two-time 1,000-yard rusher Lynch as the featured back in the system.
The Buffalo offense was stagnant, but Jackson’s productivity (4.5 yards per carry) certainly didn’t contribute to the malaise. Lynch’s issues last season and short-term holdout from OTAs puts him behind Jackson and the electrifying rookie out of Clemson. According to Gailey, Spiller still has a long way to go toward learning the playbook.
Summary: The Bills state that Lynch will be part of the mix as the team approaches the regular season, although there are still a host of other teams seeking backfield options. And, of course, the rigors of training camp normally necessitate adjustments in personnel. Jackson performed nicely last season, but he won’t be able to hold down the multi-faceted game of Spiller for long. Spiller continues to rise up the fantasy draft board, as owners expect the first-round pick to become an instant star. I just don’t see Jackson sliding to the background altogether.
I'd expect to see an equitable split between Jackson and Spiller, as both can catch the ball out of the backfield and represent RB3 options. Lynch is the odd-man out in this scenario, and I still suspect we see a deal before all is said and done.
2. Cleveland: Montario Hardesty and Jerome Harrison
Harrison was one of the heroes of the fantasy postseason, having racked up 561 yards with five touchdowns during the final three games of the season. He started to slide up fantasy draft boards this offseason until the selection of Hardesty was announced. Hardesty was originally thought to be a threat to Harrison’s goal-line efforts, but things have changed in the past two months.
Summary: Mike Holmgren’s public praise of Hardesty and Harrison’s absence from OTAs flipped the script, and Hardesty's now getting the love on draft day.
Hardesty took advantage of the extra reps, demonstrating toughness between the tackles and an aptitude for catching the ball out of the backfield. He's rolling up toward the back of the second running backs with Harrison starting to slip away to a late RB3.
The Raiders shocked the natural order by doing the logical thing and severing ties with JaMarcus Russell this offseason. Jason Campbell still has some wrinkles to iron out in his game, but he can at least deliver a consistent pass (completing nearly two-thirds of his attempts last year).
The running back position changed as well, with longtime battering ram (I don’t know how else to describe the style) Justin Fargas getting his release. That leaves former first-round pick Darren McFadden to battle Michael Bush for carries in Tom Cable’s offense.
Summary: I remind you the Raiders ranked 10th at rushing offense two seasons ago. As such, there’s definitely potential here, particularly when you’ve got a quarterback who can convert a third-down pass attempt. Coach Cable's talked openly about splitting the workload between McFadden and Bush to open the season. Neither back can be counted on to become the sole option. Thus, neither back's being drafted as such right now (McFadden's a RB4 with Bush as a late-round flier). I’m expecting McFadden to get the first crack to lay claim to the role, but Bush’s 4.8-yard per carry average and short-yardage power have my interest piqued.
4. Seattle: Justin Forsett and Leon Washington (with Julius Jones)
I’m still frothing at the mouth about the early release of LenDale White from the Seahawks. It just appeared to be a brilliant reunion with Pete Carroll and a potential flurry of goal-line touches. Instead, he's pounding the pavement, and there’s a three-man battle in place for touches.
As of this writing, Jones stands atop the depth chart, although fantasy owners have been quick to jump aboard 2009 standout Justin Forsett’s bandwagon. Washington currently sits as an afterthought on draft boards, but he’s a complete wild card in the equation.
Summary: Jones retains the lead role for the early July depth chart, but I suspect all three tailbacks see action in Pete Carroll’s system once Washington's cleared for action. Jones has the body to absorb more of the punishment between the tackles, but Forsett and Washington add a speed element Jones has lost. Forsett excelled as a change-of-pace option last year, amassing nearly 1,000 yards of total offense on 155 touches. I’m intrigued to see how Carroll splits the workload. Forsett’s a late RB3 option with upside in PPR leagues.
5. New York Giants: Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs
Jacobs did less with more last season. He racked up 224 carries, the highest total of his career, but struggled in short-yardage situations and saw both his rushing average and touchdown total drop markedly (down by 1.3 yards per carry and 10 fewer touchdowns).
His struggles at short-yardage opportunities opened the door for Bradshaw, who amassed nearly 2.5 times his carry total of 2008 while scoring seven touchdowns (he gained nearly 1,000 total yards).
Summary: Jacobs remains the top option in this two-back system and is expected to reclaim his goal-line presence after a dismal 2009 campaign. Bradshaw impressed last season and produced a better rushing average (and two more touchdowns than Jacobs), but his health history rivals that of Jacobs, and he’s returning from foot and ankle surgeries.
There’s also chatter that Bradshaw handles kickoff return duties, per The New York Daily News . That certainly takes him out of the equation for a lead role. So, while he’ll certainly eat away some of Jacobs’ carries and goal-line work if Jacobs falters again, the bulldozer gets the nod out of the gate and should be drafted as a late RB2 or early RB3.
6. Houston: Arian Foster, Steve Slaton and Ben Tate
Slaton was one of the darlings of the 2008 NFL season, as he racked up more than 1,600 total yards with 10 total touchdowns. Unfortunately, Slaton was afflicted with fumbleitis and struggled markedly as a sophomore, and a nerve injury was later diagnosed. The Texans are optimistic that Slaton will be cleared for the start of training camp.
The Texans also added Tate to the mix out of Auburn. He’s a beast between the tackles and is likely to siphon off goal-line carries. But, as Tate was quick to point out when I talked to him last month, he’s also got great foot speed (sub-4.4 at the combine). He’s working back from a hamstring injury and participated during the most recent OTAs.
With Slaton and Tate ailing, Foster's been working with the first unit. He finished the season with strong efforts against the Dolphins (97 yards) and Patriots (117 yards) while scoring three touchdowns.
Summary: Foster may enter training camp as the No. 1 option for Gary Kubiak, but I agree with the early draft trends and believe that Tate wins out before it’s said and done. Do I hear ROY? The Houston offense certainly has the firepower to put up a hefty point total. The only thing that concerns me is the potential for a Shanahan-inspired multi-back system.
7. Washington: Larry Johnson, Willie Parker and Clinton Portis
Speaking of Shanahan, he’s back on the sidelines and ready to torment fantasy owners once again. He’s reunited with his former Denver pupil Clinton Portis, who currently stands as the top option of a three-man veteran committee. He returns from an injury-riddled 2009 campaign (494 yards in eight games) and will seek to fend off former Pro Bowlers and first-round fantasy options Larry Johnson and Willie Parker.
Summary: If healthy, I have to believe Portis wins out in the three-man battle, particularly given his ability and willingness to pass protect. That’s certainly not been a strong point for either Johnson or Parker in their respective histories. However, Portis’ health, the arrival of two other capable backs and the Shanahan effect can't be dismissed. He comes into the season as a RB3, and more than a few have run screaming to the hills instead of snagging him, but there’s a ton of upside potential.
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