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Use Caution with Wells, Jennings
I still attack the analysis and breakdown of running backs with the same fervor as years past. I know that the rest of the football world has moved on to the celebration of gaudy passing numbers. That won’t sway me. The “three yards and a cloud of dust” mentality will always be part of my makeup.
It’s time to break down the committee situations that pervade the NFL landscape. Each week, I’ll present my “Lineup Calls” to highlight advantageous matchups, potential landmines and to trumpet the arrival of new heroes.
Let’s begin our Week 1 preview.
I don’t spend time on the obvious plays in these weekly discussions unless there are compelling reasons to urge an alternative option. So, you can talk about the glory of Arian Foster (does his knee concern you?), Ray Rice, LeSean McCoy, Chris Johnson (you know I love some Wilfork), Matt Forte and Darren McFadden in another space. That list will grow as the season progresses.
Doug Martin vs. CAR
Analysis: I’ve been banging the drum loudly for Martin since his arrival in Tampa Bay on draft night. LeGarrette Blount was ineffective on passing downs and was relegated to the bench frequently in 2011. Blount remains a factor and potentially a goal-line vulture, but Martin will receive the bulk of the workload this week against Carolina. The Panthers will be better by default with their starting linebackers back in action, but the Buccaneers present a more balanced attach (provided Josh Freeman’s accuracy has improved). Carolina allowed 4.6 yards per carry to opposing rushers in 2011.
Fred Jackson at NYJ
Analysis: Jackson was an MVP candidate before an injury cost him the balance of his 2011 season. He averaged 137.6 total yards per game and continued his run as a valuable receiver out of the backfield (39 receptions). Jackson’s ability as a receiver puts him over the top as a starter for Week 1 despite the matchup and presence of C.J. Spiller. The Jets allowed 111 rushing yards per game (3.9 yards per carry) and 17 rushing touchdowns last season.
Steven Jackson at DET
Analysis: Who doesn’t love the durability of Steven Jackson? I know. You wish he’d score more touchdowns each season. You can’t dismiss his ability to absorb punishment and continue to churn yardage. Jackson has averaged at least 98 total yards per game (38 or more receptions in seven consecutive seasons) in six consecutive seasons. Look for the over-play by the Detroit defensive line and running space for Jackson.
Michael Turner at KC
Analysis: The Chiefs ceded a ton of rushing yardage in 2011, a healthy average of 132 yards per game. Turner continues to be the workhorse in the Atlanta backfield, and I suspect that he’ll get his full run this week against the banged-up Kansas City defense. There’s no Tamba Hali on the front line and the secondary is, for the moment, banged up. Turner will have his low points with a few 30-40 yard games. This will not be one of them.
Jamaal Charles vs. ATL
Analysis: Owners are considering the presence of Peyton Hillis as they ponder starting Charles. The former top-5 tailback in 2011 fantasy drafts returns to action after missing virtually the entire season and will face a stiff test early. Atlanta ranked sixth against the run last season (97 yards allowed per game), so this is about getting Charles involved in the passing game as well. He averaged 120 total yards (29.3 receiving yards per game) in 2010.
Toby Gerhart vs. JAC
Analysis: Adrian Peterson’s availability is problematic when assessing Gerhart’s value for this week. I’m still reticent to believe that the Vikings give Peterson a full load out of the gate with this powerhouse at the ready. Gerhart rumbled for at least 90 rushing yards in three of his final five starts last season and demonstrated an ability to catch the ball out of the backfield (23 receptions). Jacksonville’s run defense was strong in 2011 (3.8 yards per carry allowed), but they did cede 14 rushing touchdowns. Gerhart notches one on Sunday.
Darren Sproles vs. WAS
Analysis: Who doesn’t love to watch Sproles run after the catch? He’s not going to log a bunch of touches as a running back with Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas at the ready, but he’s going to catch 6-8 passes and give you YAC. Look for Sproles to approach 100 total yards on Sunday with a score.
Robert Turbin at ARI
Analysis: As of this writing, Marshawn Lynch’s availability for this game remains in question. That puts Turbin on the radar as a potential beast against the Cardinals. He’s a stout runner with a nose for the goal line. Russell Wilson’s ability to roll the pocket and make plays with his legs may force defenders to over-pursue and create huge lanes for Turbin.
DeAngelo Williams at TB
Analysis: Jonathan Stewart is off crutches, but his availability for Week 1 is a huge question mark. His ankle injury may force him out of the opener, thereby affording Williams a much larger workload alongside Mike Tolbert. Obviously, goal-line touches remain few for Williams with Tolbert and Newton, the best goal-line option of 2011, at the ready. However, he continues to be a big-play candidate, and Newton’s development as a passer will open up lanes for him.
Shonn Greene vs. BUF
Analysis: My allegiance to the Big 10 occasionally clouds my vision. I assure you that Greene’s attendance of Iowa does not do so here. I have been stomping my feet in support of the Buffalo defense in every forum possible this preseason, but I do believe that the Jets can run the ball. Pass protection is a whole other matter against Williams, Anderson and company. Greene remains a high-carry option and a solid, albeit unspectacular, RB2. I know. Tebow will run at the goal line.
Michael Bush vs. IND
Analysis: Of course, I join the chorus of anxious fans wringing their hands over the presence of Michael Bush, another in a long line of goal-line backs paired with Forte. Both find the end zone this week. Start Bush in your Flex spot with an expected 10-12 touches, at a minimum, as the Bears grind out a home win.
Kevin Smith vs. STL
Analysis: He’s the last man at the party. Mikel Leshoure is serving his suspension and Jahvid Best remains on the PUP list. Smith has been slowed by an ankle injury himself, so this is a lukewarm endorsement against the Rams. He averaged 76 total yards in seven games last season and can catch the ball out of the backfield. As a result, he warrants consideration as a back-end RB2 or Flex slot.
Stevan Ridley at TEN
Analysis: Bill Belichick is referred to as Mike Shanahan’s understudy in the “How should I mess with fantasy owners and defensive coordinators this week?” category when pondering his backfield. That’s normally the case, but I feel fairly confident that Ridley posts 15-20 touches against the Titans this week. Ridley averaged 5.1 yards per carry in limited work as a rookie last season, and TD vulture BenJarvus Green-Ellis has departed for Cincinnati. It’s possible that he never sees a meaningful “fantasy-wise” carry this week as Brady spreads out his receiving corps, but the potential in this offense is immense.
Ronnie Brown at OAK
Analysis: I don’t expect Ryan Mathews and his broken clavicle to hit the field on Monday night. As a result, Brown steps into the starting role against the Raiders, a unit that has struggled against the run in recent history (136.1 yards allowed per game in 2011). Brown is hardly an overwhelming option, but he’s a sneaky low-end RB2 with a full workload. I do fear Le’Ron McClain pilfering his goal-line love.
Donald Brown at CHI
Analysis: Brown represents a low-end RB2 option for owners this week. The Bears’ efforts to quash Andrew Luck’s debut may lead to several long runs on draw plays and some work as a hot receiver out of the backfield.
Frank Gore at GB
Analysis: I appreciate that the 49ers want to run the ball for Jim Harbaugh. However, there are a handful of running backs at the ready to do so, and I’m fearful of a workload split between Gore, Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James and Anthony Dixon. Brandon Jacobs will be a nightmare for you in future weeks.
Additionally, Gore’s absence from the passing game in 2011 is concerning. Ceding those reps to Hunter, James and company lowers the veteran back’s ceiling markedly.
Finally, B.J. Raji returned to practice and will be ready to hold down the middle of the Green Bay defensive line. Running between the tackles, as much as I love the San Francisco offensive line, will be a tall order this week.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis at BAL
Analysis: You can’t run on Haloti Ngata. You can try, but it is not advisable. The Ravens ranked second against the run last season in Chuck Pagano’s defense, surrendering 92.6 yards per game. He’s a low-end RB2 at best, as you hold out hope for a goal-line touch.
Chris “Beanie” Wells vs. SEA
Analysis: You’d be hard-pressed to do a search on Seahawks news and not stumble upon myriad references to this rising defense. Seattle allowed 3.8 yards per carry and 112.3 yards per game last season. Wells didn’t face them last year, and finds himself in a workload split with Ryan Williams. The fourth-year back from Ohio State might get a goal-line shot in the mix, but I’m not anticipating a huge performance here.
Rashad Jennings at MIN
Analysis: Jennings was a hot commodity one week ago. Then, Maurice Jones-Drew agreed to return to work after I made a passionate speech during my FOX Sports Radio show. Jones-Drew’s potential availability as a third-down and, therefore, a goal-line option puts Jennings back in a Flex spot at best for Week 1. The Vikings ranked 11th against the run (107 yards allowed per game) last season despite receiving zero support from the secondary.