Previously, we looked at teams that deployed running back timeshares last season. In today’s NFL, the use of multi-back systems has increased given the prevalence of injuries and the evolution of offensive schemes around the league.
For our purposes, we’ve determined the following scenario constitutes a timeshare: On a given team, two or three running backs will usually get the bulk of the carries over the course of a season. Throwing out quarterbacks and other seldom-used running options, a timeshare backfield is one in which no player receives more than 65 percent of the carries. On the other side, a single-back system is one that features a player who receives at least 65 percent of the carries.
Under those parameters, 17 NFL teams featured a single-back system last season. Of the other 15, two teams – Denver and New England – were simply too injured at the position to draw a clear conclusion, leaving 13 teams with shared backfield workloads.
Here are the 17 backs who weren’t in timeshares.
Italics denotes players who’ve been released or have changed teams.
Age is as of Week 1 of the 2009 NFL season. Players listed with a “.5” will have a birthday during the season.
Car% = The percentage of carries received on a given team. **Only includes team’s top 2-3 rushers.**
FP = fantasy points, where 10 yards (rushing or receiving) = 1 point, TD = 6 points.
FP% = The percentage of fantasy points scored compared to other backs on the same team. **Only includes team’s top 2-3 rushers.**
Of the 12 running backs in the NFL who earned 200 or more fantasy points, eight came from a single-back system (Turner, Peterson, Forte, T. Jones, Slaton, Tomlinson, Portis and Westbrook). DeAngelo Williams had a league-leading 283.6 fantasy points, despite taking just 59.7 percent of the Panthers’ carries. Maurice Jones-Drew (222.9 pts, 57.9%), Chris Johnson (209.7 pts, 55.7%) and Brandon Jacobs (202.5 pts, 46.8%) were the other three timeshare backs to crack the 200-point mark last season.
With more running backs getting a chance to carry the mail around the league, positional scarcity has been altered across the board. Some draft strategies are now suggesting that mid and late first-round picks should be used on an elite receiver, since timeshare running backs available during that part of the draft won’t significantly outproduce single-back options available a few rounds later.
With that in mind, here’s how the 17 teams that used a feature back last season currently stack up.
Chicago – Matt Forte received more than 90 percent of the Bears’ carries last season. It appeared to be the right decision, as he chalked up just over 95 percent of their fantasy points in the backfield. Kevin Jones could emerge to take on a slightly larger backup role this season, but it doesn’t seem as though an overwhelming shift is on the horizon. Forte’s opportunity to monopolize touches, in addition to his ability as a pass-catcher, has made him a top-five back on the majority of draft boards. Meanwhile, Jones’ limited opportunities confine his value to a late-round insurance pick.
Cleveland – Put nicely, Jamal Lewis has no business taking 89 percent of any team’s carries at this stage of his career. His next carry will roll the odometer over 2,400, so it’s easy to wonder if/when coach Eric Mangini will start to work in Jerome Harrison or rookie James Davis this season. Considering the circumstances, both of Lewis’ backups are worth consideration for a late-round dart, as a breakdown appears to be inevitable while the regression process continues. With just 11 percent of the touches, Harrison produced 25 percent of the Browns’ fantasy points in the backfield last season. Even if he’s deemed unable to handle the bulk of the workload, Harrison has the potential to be a useful flex player at some point if he’s deployed in a role similar to the Jets’ Leon Washington in 2008.
Green Bay – Ryan Grant was a training camp holdout last season, finally agreeing to a four-year contract about a week after the rest of the team reported. A week later, he suffered a hamstring injury, which seemed to linger and effect his explosiveness for the early part of the season. Despite finishing with more than 1,200 yards, Grant averaged just 3.9 yards per carry after posting a 5.1 mark during his first season as the feature back in 2007. He improved his production in the second half of the season, boosting his average to 4.2 yards per carry during the final eight games, but backup Brandon Jackson showed signs of being an explosive option deserving of more touches going forward. As long as he’s able to be more productive on a per carry basis again, Grant’s fantasy value can afford the loss of 40-50 more carries to Jackson. Further, Jackson hasn’t established himself as a better option at the goal-line, so Grant has an opportunity to stake his claim for those valuable carries this season.
Washington – The stance here hasn’t changed since I selected Portis as my running back bust for the 2009 RotoWire Football Magazine:
With his 28th birthday looming in September, Portis has already amassed 2,052 career carries and he’s just 798 yards away from becoming the 25th player in NFL history to rush for 10,000 yards. His overall numbers last season were excellent – 1,487 yards (4.3 YPC) and nine TDs – but a late-season fade (2.9 YPC) over the last five games could be a sign of things to come. The price tag is going to be a mid-to-late first-round pick since Portis doesn’t yield many carries to backup Ladell Betts, but the risk for a breakdown or a full season’s worth of regression is very high, especially since the production dries up fast when the odometer turns over to 10,000.
Portis took just less than 85 percent of the carries in the Washington backfield last season, but that number will eventually need to shrink if he’s going to stay fresh for a full 16-game season. If recent history is any indication, the Redskins don’t have any intentions of switching to a timeshare arrangement.
San Diego – Regardless of what happens the rest of the way, LaDainian Tomlinson goes down as one of the greatest backs of all time. A toe injury may have been the culprit for his seemingly limited explosiveness last season, but consider that he’s now 30 years old with more than 3,000 NFL touches in his illustrious career. He averaged 3.8 yards per carry last season – the lowest since his rookie year – but he still rushed for 11 scores and gained 1,536 yards from scrimmage. Ultimately, having Darren Sproles back in the picture for another year will lighten L.T.’s load – they’re not paying the speedy backup more than $6 million to sit on the bench, but Tomlinson should receive the valuable goal-line touches and take something closer to 70 percent of the backfield workload than the 82.7 percent he was given in 2008. If you’re a believer in historical trends, letting another owner take a chance on L.T. in the middle of Round 1 is the smart approach.
Atlanta – Turner had no difficulty shouldering a heavy workload for the first time in his NFL career, turning out elite value despite being drafted in the second or third round of many fantasy leagues last season. He did a significant amount of damage against very weak run defenses, but ran well enough against tougher ones to avoid red flags about his chances of repeating again in 2009. There are a few things in play here that could move Turner into the 1,400-yard range with 12-14 TD instead of the 1,699 yards and 17 scores he tallied last season. First, quarterback Matt Ryan now has a full NFL season under his belt. Second, Ryan has an All-Pro tight end in Tony Gonzalez at his disposal, increasing the likelihood of more passing in the red zone. Third, backup running back Jerious Norwood averaged 5.1 YPC last season, so the Atlanta coaching staff may give him a few more touches to slightly scale back Turner’s workload. The bottom line here is that Turner’s still a low-mileage back, and the Falcons won’t turn into the Cards overnight, so he’s a solid top-five option in non-PPR leagues.
New York Jets – Career years at age 29 are uncommon for NFL running backs, so there’s plenty of justification for the skepticism regarding Thomas Jones in 2009. Despite surpassing 1,300 yards and rushing for 13 touchdowns, the soon-to-be 30-year-old is getting a bit long in the tooth to take on 80 percent of the workload again this season. It doesn’t help his case that backup Leon Washington came on strong last season and produced nearly 35 percent of the fantasy points in the Jets’ backfield with approximately 20 percent of the touches. Both backs are upset about their contract situations, while the Jets appear to be looking at the future with their selection of Shonn Greene in April’s draft. Jones is on track to roll past the 2,000-carry mark within the first few weeks of the regular season, so a reduction in workload seems likely. Keep in mind, however, that the Jets have a good offensive line and they may be breaking in a rookie quarterback just like Atlanta was last season. Just be prepared for the possibility of Washington – or even Greene – eating into the workload.
Houston – The Texans are in position to have one of the most explosive offenses in the AFC this season, while Slaton figures to be the main cog in the backfield again after taking over the starting job last season. Undersized, but with excellent quickness and elusiveness, Slaton averaged 4.8 yards per carry last season and delivered 81.7 percent of the fantasy points for the Texans with 78.4 percent of the touches. He also caught 50 passes, so his ability to strike on screens and flares shouldn’t be underestimated. The Texans did not draft a backup for Slaton in April, while the current plan is for Chris Brown to serve as the No. 2 running back and take a few series per game to spell the second-year back. Given Brown’s injury history, it’d be surprising if Slaton didn’t take an even larger share of the workload (80-85 percent?) and finish among the league’s top backs again this season.
Minnesota – As far as insurance policies go, Chester Taylor’s proven to be a good fit for the Vikings, keeping Adrian Peterson fresh without threatening to take away a larger share of the workload. Taylor took just over 20 percent of the touches last season, using his ability as a pass-catcher and nose for the end zone (six scores) to generate 31.8 percent of the scoring. Peterson had a league-leading 1,760 yards, while there’s no reason think he can’t improve upon his 10 TDs from a year ago. There’s nothing going on in the Minnesota backfield to even consider dropping Peterson from the top of the mountain among fantasy running backs.
St. Louis – Steven Jackson struggled with injuries for the second straight season – missing four more games just as he did in 2007. Even with the missed time, Jackson eclipsed 1,000 yards for the fourth straight season, while producing elite per-game fantasy numbers on a very weak St. Louis squad. Neither Antonio Pittman (3.7 YPC) nor Kenneth Darby (4.4 YPC, 32 carries) have done enough at the NFL level to suggest they should be worked into a timeshare set up, so Jackson figures to see the big slice of pie in the St. Louis backfield again this season. The Rams are in a rebuilding phase, but Jackson was very productive behind an injury-depleted offensive line once he was healthy down the stretch last season.
San Francisco – The departure of offensive coordinator Mike Martz can only mean good things for Niners running back Frank Gore. San Francisco ranked 27th in the NFL in rushing attempts last season (397), despite having instability at quarterback before ultimately settling on Shaun Hill under center. In the backfield, Gore locked up Pacific, North Carolina and Pennsylvania Avenue as far as the touches went (75.9 percent). Primary backup DeShaun Foster did little with his opportunities and hasn’t been retained for 2009, leaving rookie Glen Coffee and converted quarterback Michael Robinson as the first two reserves behind Gore entering training camp. For a back with only 939 career NFL touches, there’s a little bit more risk here than you might think, but he’s still just 26 years old with a 4.5 YPC average in four professional seasons. With a defense-first, conservative approach under coach Mike Singletary, Gore could eclipse double-digit touchdowns for the first time in his career. You could do much worse at the end of Round 1 or beginning of Round 2 in your draft.
Detroit – If pure swagger equated to fantasy points, Kevin Smith would be a top-five pick in the majority of leagues. Playing on a bad team, with a bad offensive line, the rookie running back still managed to average 4.1 YPC and narrowly missed 1,000 yards while taking 75.8 percent of the touches. The Lions can’t possibly repeat as 0-16 doormats (can they?), and Smith finished the 2008 season with a 97.0 YPG average and three touchdown runs over the final three games, so there’s reason for optimistism. Breaking in a rookie quarterback often results in a ground-heavy attack, so Smith should get plenty of carries as the Lions look to limit the pressure on Matthew Stafford and keep their defense off the field. Free-agent addition Maurice Morris is unlikely to wrestle away a significant share of the job, so there’s little need to worry about Smith losing touches.
Philadelphia – Brian Westbrook’s nearing age 30, with nearly 2,000 career NFL touches under his belt. At 5-foot-10, the physical toll of being a feature back the last five seasons may finally bump him out of elite status. He’s expected to be ready for the start of the regular season after having surgery to remove bone fragments from his ankle. The Eagles selected LeSean McCoy in the second round of April’s draft, so it’d hardly be surprising if Westbrook’s workload is moved down into the 60-65 percent range after he took more than 75 percent of the backfield touches last season. Fewer opportunities may keep him fresh for big plays, while also prolonging his career while McCoy gets adjusted to the NFL. In short, don’t be caught off guard if the Eagles end up employing something that better resembles a timeshare this season.
Kansas City – Earlier in the offseason, it appeared as though the Chiefs might consider parting ways with Larry Johnson. That doesn’t seem to be the plan any longer, as he was running with the first-team offense during voluntary organized team activities in June. Former Arizona offensive coordinator Todd Haley is running the ship in Kansas City, but he doesn’t have anything close to the weapons the Cards do in their receiving corps, so Johnson and Jamaal Charles won’t be phased out of the offense anytime soon. On a per-carry basis, Johnson’s 4.5 yards per tote last season was his best since 2006. Charles proved to be an explosive option both on the ground and as a pass-catcher, but Johnson’s large contract and physical presence in between the tackles will give him a fair chance at rebounding into the 1,000-yard and double-digit TD levels.
Cincinnati – The Bengals’ backfield is the island of misfit toys. Cedric Benson emerged as the best option in the running game last season, but he averaged just 3.5 yards per carry and found the end zone twice in 12 games. Having a healthy Carson Palmer under center should help to keep defenses more honest and the lack of viable alternatives other than unheralded darts such as Bernard Scott means Benson could see more than 250 carries this season. That said, his past off-field issues and lack of consistent NFL success override the fact that he could see a very significant share of the touches during his second season in Cincinnati. Even with a single-back set up, there are reasons to temper your expectations or even avoid Benson altogether.
Dallas – Marion Barber took just less than two-thirds of the Cowboys’ backfield touches last season, and that was without doing much during the final five games when he was limited by a toe injury. Second-year back Felix Jones will have an expanded role in the Dallas offense this season, while offensive coordinator Jason Garrett will find creative ways to get the speedster into the open field. Without Terrell Owens in the receiving corps, Dallas’ offensive scheme could shift with more touches going to the running backs. On paper, the personnel could be as productive as Tennessee’s tandem of Chris Johnson and LenDale White, while Barber’s role should include the more valuable goal-line touches.
Buffalo – With Marshawn Lynch saddled by a three-game suspension to open the 2009 season, Fred Jackson and Dominic Rhodes are on track to open the year as the primary ball carriers. Assuming the current suspension length holds up, Lynch may be lucky to grab 65 percent of the carries for Buffalo again this season. In his first two seasons, Lynch has been victimized by an inconsistent passing attack, while the holdout of left tackle Jason Peters created instability with the blocking in front of him last season. Now that Peters is in Philadelphia, it remains to be seen how the Bills will progress without the two-time Pro Bowler. It’s worth noting, however, that Lynch has averaged more than 4.0 yards per carry in both of his NFL seasons despite the aforementioned issues, while his pass-catching skills showed signs of significant improvement in year two.