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Start Hightower, Best in Week 1
Anybody who has ever participated in an organized sport has heard those words from a coach.
You missed a block? “Run.”
You didn’t run the clock down far enough before launching a shot? “Run.”
You missed the cutoff man? “Just run.”
I got back onto the pitch for a friendly soccer game over the weekend, the first soccer I’d played since college. Yeah, make your jokes about me running, I’ll wait.
It’s only appropriate that I hearken back to those days of wind sprints, whistles and suicide drills as I contemplate the top running backs for Week 1 of the NFL season. With kickoff running up on us quickly, it’s time to break out the Lineup Calls and dissect the good, bad and ugly at running back.
(Exclude Arian Foster, Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson, Maurice Jones-Drew, LeSean McCoy, Jamaal Charles, Frank Gore, Darren McFadden)
Week 1 Heroes
Ahmad Bradshaw at Washington: Despite entering the 2010 season with health concerns, Bradshaw topped 1,500 total yards and scored eight touchdowns. He returns for 2011 alongside tag-team partner and punisher Brandon Jacobs.
I do have some reservations about the offensive line, but I can’t dismiss Bradshaw as a fantasy starter this week. Bradshaw’s growing role in the passing game (47 receptions in 2010) makes him a strong Week 1 option. The Giants will work to get him into space while the offensive line comes together. He finished 13 of 16 games with at least 80 total yards in 2010.
Tim Hightower vs. New York Giants: He’s the “IT” guy coming into 2011 and will take the reins for the Shanahans against an injury-depleted New York defense. Seriously, the Giants had the worst preseason of all teams, as members of the secondary fell to the wayside.
There’s just enough firepower in Rex Grossman and the passing game to create space for Hightower, who excelled as a runner and receiver during his tenure in Arizona. Shanahan has given him the “I believe in you” spot in the rotation. We’ll see if he takes advantage of it.
Jahvid Best at Tampa Bay: Are you in or are you out?
Best opened the 2010 season with a bang, scoring five touchdowns in the first three games of the season before injuries (including Matthew Stafford’s) derailed his year. He’s already dealt with a concussion in camp, so the initial buzz surrounding Best following Mikel Leshoure’s injury has quieted. Best has an opportunity to win dubious owners over in the opener against the youthful Tampa Bay front.
The secondary will be tested by Stafford and his deep receiving corps. Early successes downfield will create space for Best, who generated 13 runs of at least 10 yards as a rookie. He’ll also contribute as a receiver after catching 58 passes.
LeGarrette Blount vs. Detroit: I’m not jumping onto the 1,800-yard campaign that Kellen Winslow started for his teammate, but I do like Blount here at home. First-round pick Nick Fairley is not expected to be available for the opener, though the team does have depth on the defensive line with Corey Williams at the ready.
Blount amassed at least 70 rushing yards in seven of his 11 appearances as a featured back in 2010.
Matt Forte vs. Atlanta: The Bears and Forte agreed to table any contract talk until after the 2011 season. It’s a short-term risk for Forte, but an improved offensive line in year two of the Mike Martz system should allow him to boast huge numbers and get the payday he seeks.
The Falcons were a top-10 run defense in 2010. I don’t project Forte to have a huge effort on the ground. His added value comes in the passing game. Forte has averaged 98 total yards per game (3.5 receptions) during his three-year NFL career.
Knowshon Moreno vs. Oakland: Moreno stands as one half of John Fox’s two-pronged backfield for 2011 alongside powerhouse Willis McGahee. I anticipate an equitable split of the rushing attempts, but for Moreno to add a handful of receptions each week. Moreno’s the home run hitter of the backfield, though he’ll lose the glory touches at the goal line.
Oakland boasts a strong pass rush, but there are gaps on the ground and in the secondary (now that Asomugha is working in Philadelphia). Kyle Orton will find success downfield, thereby creating ample space for Moreno to operate. The Raiders ranked 29th against the run in 2010.
Felix Jones at New York Jets: Jones began the 2011 fantasy draft season in the RB3 range with fantasy owners still questioning his ability to take on a huge workload. That issue hasn’t been solved, but a few glimpses of Jones’ explosiveness in the open field this preseason reminded fans and fantasy owners why the Cowboys snagged him in the 2008 NFL Draft.
Jones will continue to cede carries to DeMarco Murray and players to be named, but his speed and aptitude as a receiver make him a mighty dangerous proposition. If Tony Romo connects with Miles Austin or Dez Bryant downfield, Jones is going to be dangerous in space.
Ryan Mathews vs. Minnesota: The Vikings will play without run-stuffer Kevin Williams in the opener after the NFL suspended him for two games in connection with the long and drawn out StarCaps fiasco. As such, Mathews has an opportunity to put the struggles and criticism of his rookie season behind him in a hurry.
The San Diego offense is positively loaded for 2011. Vincent Jackson left his holdout in the rearview and Antonio Gates, even with a raging plantar fasciitis, cannot be contained. Look for Mathews to amass 15-20 touches out of the gate and to be active in the passing game.
DeAngelo Williams at Arizona: Williams struggled mightily at the start of the 2010 season before an injury shelved him for the balance of the season. He averaged 4.1 yards per carry and eclipsed 64 rushing yards only once in his six appearances.
Coordinator Rob Chudzinski wants to reestablish the run with Williams and Jonathan Stewart to take some of the pressure off of Cam Newton. Their efforts will be aided by the return of tackle Jeff Otah, who missed the 2010 season.
Arizona ranked 30th against the run in 2010 (145.9 yards allowed per game).
Steven Jackson vs. Philadelphia: Jackson is the first chance to test the rebuilt Philadelphia defense, led by offseason addition Cullen Jenkins at tackle. For the first time in recent memory, Jackson will receive consistent support from the Sam Bradford-led passing game. Such balance portends to additional goal line chances.
He’s a workhorse whose touch count and aptitude as a receiver yields a strong weekly baseline. Jackson finished 11 games with at least 84 yards in 2011.
Shonn Greene vs. Dallas: I built the Greene bandwagon a year too early. He’s ready to take the lead role behind the strong New York offensive line. He averaged 4.1 yards per game during the season and 4.4 yards per carry during the AFC Playoffs.
The Jets will pound the rock early with Greene to give Mark Sanchez throwing lanes and he’ll have his opportunity to establish himself as the goal line option.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis at Miami: The high-octane Patriots are the favorite to lead the NFL in scoring this season. They’ll get to work immediately against the division rival Dolphins, with Green-Ellis ready to take his customary place in a workload split and as the primary goal line hero. He scored in both games against the Dolphins last season.
Fred Jackson at Kansas City: He’s one of the underrated starting backs in the game. Jackson figures to cede more touches to speedy second-year man C.J. Spiller, but Jackson remains the top option. He’s a dual threat out of the backfield and should be active in the opener. I’m anticipating a strong effort out of Chan Gailey’s offense out of the gate.
Joseph Addai at Houston: I’m still spying rookie Delone Carter as a potential thief to carries, perhaps even as early as Week 1. However, the likely insertion of Kerry Collins under center signals a need to rely heavily on the running game. No, I don’t believe that Collins will keep things motoring in a fashion akin to Peyton Manning, but the Houston defense (I have been a vocal supporter of the Texans’ efforts to improve their defense) won’t shut them down altogether.
Week 1 Ninjas
Willis McGahee vs. Oakland: He’s not just a vulture. In John Fox’s offense, we can reasonably expect McGahee to see 12-15 touches per week, including the all-important glory touches around the goal line. Look for Fox to implement his two-back system immediately, particularly with a retooled defense (Elvis Dumervil returns and rookie Von Miller is a beast) keeping the offense out of shootout mode.
The Oakland defense posted some fantastic efforts in pressuring the quarterback last season, but the run defense was terrible (29th at 133.6 yards allowed per game). The loss of Nnamdi Asomugha in the secondary doesn’t do the defensive front any favors.
Beanie Wells vs. Carolina: Wells gets his chance as the starter following the departure of Tim Hightower and the season-ending injury to rookie Ryan Williams. He has performed well in spots, but fumbles and knee issues marred his first two NFL seasons.
He takes center stage (new addition Chester Taylor might get into the mix immediately) against Carolina, a team trying to forge a new identity under Ron Rivera. Charles Johnson is the lone veteran starter on the defensive line, and the Panthers will likely operate without star linebacker Jon Beason.
It’s a new-look offense for Ken Whisenhunt this season. Look for Kevin Kolb to stretch the field and open holes for Wells on the ground.
Brandon Jacobs at Washington: The Giants are getting back to basics, and Jacobs looked much like his rookie self this preseason. He’s running with authority and hitting the line hard. Eli Manning struggled during the exhibition season, so I anticipate a large helping of the power running game immediately to get things on balance.
Jacobs averaged 7.2 yards per carry with three touchdowns against Washington last season.
Pierre Thomas at Green Bay: Thomas returns to full health after undergoing ankle surgery this offseason. He opens the season in a workload split with Mark Ingram and will undoubtedly factor into the passing game with regularity. Thomas’ aptitude as a receiver keeps him in the mix for goal line work at the outset of the season.
Reggie Bush vs. New England: The Dolphins waved goodbye to veterans Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, replacing them with the tandem of Bush and rookie Daniel Thomas. Thomas failed to state his case for the feature back role, thereby opening the door for Bush to take on a much larger role. He’ll offer Chad Henne a huge safety valve as a receiver, and his versatility makes him a dangerous option in the red zone (when healthy). Flex him up while he’s available.
Mike Tolbert vs. Minnesota: As mentioned above, the absence of Kevin Williams has the San Diego running game licking its chops. Philip Rivers will pressure the secondary, thereby affording the bulldozing Tolbert space up the gut. He’ll make at least one goal line plunge on Sunday afternoon.
Week 1 Flops
Rashard Mendenhall at Baltimore: Mendenhall represents one of the most difficult lineup decisions of Week 1. While Haloti Ngata and the Baltimore front have done a fantastic job of limiting Mendenhall’s yardage count, he’s been a frequq1ent visitor in the end zone (five touchdowns in his past four games). Mendenhall scored in these games, but he also rushed for 46 yards or fewer in three of those games.
Do you want to bank on a goal-line plunge?
Ray Rice vs. Pittsburgh: To the surprise of no one, Rice joins Mendenhall on this list. In five career starts against the Steelers (regular season), Rice has averaged 78.2 total yards (56.2 rushing) and has never scored. Rice did plunge into the end zone during last season’s playoff loss, but that’s little consolation.
Michael Turner at Chicago: Longtime readers know of my affinity for Turner. This is one of those difficult spots for Turner on the schedule. He finished five games with fewer than 50 rushing yards last season and faces a Chicago run defense that ranked second (90.1 yards per game), up from 23rd in 2009.
I must note that Chicago defensive tackle Anthony Adams missed the entire preseason because of a calf injury. Adams’ availability and performance is pivotal to slowing what is expected to be a high-powered Atlanta offense. Turner’s still a starter for Week 1, but temper expectations.
Marshawn Lynch at San Francisco: Lynch electrified the football universe with his spectacular 67-yard sprint to daylight against the Saints during the 2010 NFC Playoffs. I don’t anticipate a repeat performance against the 49ers, particularly with the Seattle passing game sputtering under Tarvaris Jackson. Will the offensive line be able to replicate Tom Cable’s success in Oakland?
The 49ers ranked sixth in the NFL against the run in 2010. San Francisco allowed 97 yards and 0.75 rushing touchdowns per game.
Daniel Thomas vs. New England: Thomas was expected to shine immediately as the primary tailback in Miami, but a tepid preseason and knocks on his toughness have pushed him to the No. 2 slot behind Reggie Bush. As Bush isn’t a 20-touch back, Thomas does figure to see a healthy touch count in the opener. Not only do you have to figure out how Brian Daboll will split the workload, you need to account for the dominant inside presence of Vince Wilfork and Albert Haynesworth.
Mark Ingram at Green Bay: Ingram has performed as advertised during the preseason, and the Heisman Trophy winner sits atop the New Orleans depth chart. He’s a hard-nosed runner between the tackles and could amass a decent yardage total despite the presence of the imposing force that is B.J. Raji in the middle. However, this unit is stingy in the red zone. The Packers have allowed just 11 rushing touchdowns in the past two seasons.