Bush is a RB lurking in the shadows

Ninjas are lining up in the shadows.

The number of fantasy drafts is ramping up as we run into the final two weeks of the preseason. Depth charts are starting to stabilize and many owners believe they’ve seen and read enough to boldly step into the draft room.

Others await a little more evidence from the much-anticipated third preseason contests and for a clear-cut No. 1 option to emerge (we won’t get that from a number of spots, of course).

Finally, there’s still the little matter of having a top-5 option sitting at home. His absence creates an obvious entry in this year’s “ninja” list.

I’m leaving the “sleeper” tag behind. It’s time to cause some damage from deeper draft slots.

Javon Ringer, TEN

Analysis: Ringer is a player who is starting to attract attention on draft boards despite a hip injury that has held him out of workouts. Of course, he’s being monitored primarily because starting tailback Chris Johnson remains entrenched in a holdout. Johnson is scheduled to meet with the Titans on Thursday to discuss his contract situation. If the two parties fail to come to terms, Ringer qualifies as a deep “ninja” option.

Ringer is the presumed top option to back up Johnson if he’s healthy. However, this lingering hip issue may cloud things in the Tennessee backfield. If your league is even deeper and affords you the ability to stash players away, Jamie Harper, the rookie out of Clemson may represent a veritable lottery ticket.

Shonn Greene, NYJ

Analysis: So, my man-crush and love for Greene went too far in 2010. Greene was relegated to a secondary role behind LaDainian Tomlinson for the much of the season. He topped 15 touches in only five regular season games, but the Jets leaned on him heavily in the first two rounds of the AFC Playoffs (36 carries against the Colts and Patriots combined). Greene then amassed 52 yards on nine carries in the AFC Championship Game against the Steelers.

Tomlinson is expected to take on a reduced role, though following Coachspeak is always a dangerous proposition. Greene made strides as a receiver last season with 16 receptions, but Tomlinson and second-year back Joe McKnight are more capable options out of the backfield. Still, I cannot dismiss the prospects of Greene playing in this system behind this offensive line. Owners are begrudgingly starting to move him up boards, and many owners are taking the “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” approach. You won’t be disappointed after drafting Greene late in the third round.

P.S. Go ahead and sing a few bars of the Great White classic.

Knowshon Moreno, DEN

Analysis: Fantasy owners were taunted by Moreno for several weeks during the 2010 season. He amassed ridiculous numbers between Weeks 10 and 14, a period during which he logged an average of 134.8 total yards per game with four touchdowns.

Moreno is a strong all-around player when healthy, providing huge production on the ground while excelling as a receiver (37 receptions). Questions about Moreno’s durability will push him down draft boards, as he’s been routinely snapped up in the late-third or early-fourth rounds. That five-week period demonstrates Moreno’s first-round talent.

I’m interested to see the Broncos’ reboot under John Fox. He used the run-first, defensive-minded approach to great success in Carolina for a spell, and he’ll work to install a similar structure here. Of course, that means that a second running back will be in the mix. Willis McGahee is a fantastic mid-round selection (a sleeper himself) with great upside as a touchdown vulture in this attack.

DeMarco Murray and Lonyae Miller, DAL

Analysis: The selection of Murray ended Marion Barber’s tenure in Dallas. Murray offers a tremendous power and speed combination alongside Felix Jones. He amassed 1,808 total yards and 20 touchdowns in his senior season at Oklahoma and performed admirably in the passing game. Murray caught 71 passes as well, making him a fantastic every-down tailback. At 6-feet and 213 pounds, Murray has the size to work at the goal line and physicality to block in pass protection. However, he’s been slowed by injuries in training camp. As such, Lonyae Miller has had the opportunity to make his case for a role in camp.

Longtime third option (and would-be fantasy stud if ever given a shot) Tashard Choice is rumored to be on the outs, thereby allowing Murray and Miller to become the immediate complements to Felix Jones. And, it goes without saying that Jones’ health is always a concern.

Ryan Grant, GB

Analysis: James Starks excelled as a rookie when given the chance to carry a heavy workload in place of Grant and Brandon Jackson. Starks averaged 3.9 yards per carry on 81 attempts during the Packers’ post-season run to glory. Starks remains on the minds of many owners entering draft rooms this summer, thereby shifting Grant downward.

I wouldn’t discount Grant, who returns from the Week 1 ankle injury that pushed him onto the injured reserve list. The two-time 1,200-yard back was coming off of a career year in 2009 (1,253 yards and 11 touchdowns) and ran well in the opener against Chicago prior to the injury (eight carries for 45 yards). The pieces are in place for another huge run if he’s sound. Starks will be there as the second option, but the veteran Grant gets the first crack in camp.

Roy Helu, WAS

Analysis: Helu represents a roll of the proverbial dice in the often murky Shanahan backfield. Tim Hightower (another sleeper based on his current ADP) has the reins on the top spot right now. His ball-handling issues remain a concern, particularly for a coaching staff that has the habit of rotating players to find the “hot” option. Lest we forget, Shanahan favorite Ryan Torain remains on the squad. Torain has been slowed because of a hand injury in camp, but he won’t be dismissed altogether.

Still, Helu has the size, speed and all-around ability to overtake them in camp. He operated in the right college scheme at Nebraska (over 3,400 rushing yards), possesses breakaway speed (4.42-second 40-yard dash) and has demonstrated the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. Essentially, he takes the best of Torain and Williams and combines them.

Pierre Thomas, NO

Analysis: Thomas is one of those sneakiest plays you’ll be able to make on draft day this season. The Mark Ingram hype machine continues unabated, and his early preseason efforts did nothing but add fuel to the fire.

However, though New Orleans may not be the “fifth ring of running back hell,” as I often refer to working under the Shanahans, it’s still pretty hot. Sean Payton works through his running backs and changes up the looks with regularity as well. Thomas is reportedly running at nearly 100% following ankle surgery and has the potential to steal a healthy portion of the workload.

Thomas had amassed 2,000 total yards and 20 touchdowns for Payton’s Saints during the 2008 and 2009 seasons. He’s a capable receiver (116 career receptions), thereby expanding the playbook for Payton in the red zone. Ingram may be the leader, but

Thomas is a steal as a RB3.

Reggie Bush, MIA

Analysis: The Saints are training in Oxnard, California this week. It would have been fun to watch interactions between Bush and USC fans had he remained in New Orleans, particularly just days after the whole Kardashian thing.

In any event, Bush assumes a prominent role in the backfield alongside Daniel Thomas for Chad Henne this fall. He remains a fantastic PPR option (294 receptions in 60 career games), without question. I’d like to raise a forgotten or altogether ignored stat. Bush quietly averaged 5.09 yards per carry in limited opportunities (106 carries) during his final two seasons with the Saints.

Of course, the injury question remains at the forefront of any Bush analysis. He completed just one of his five seasons in New Orleans.

Delone Carter, IND

Analysis: Carter’s name has been bandied about as a potential sleeper since his selection in the fourth round of April’s NFL Draft. The re-signing of Joseph Addai merely delays his arrival. Carter is a tough-nosed runner between the tackles and has demonstrated the ability to bounce to the outside.

He’s believed to be the leader in camp to assume the coveted goal-line glory role, and Addai’s well-chronicled injury history cannot be ignored. Carter could rise to the top spot in short order, and lingering concerns about Peyton Manning’s health (Kerry Collins was signed on Wednesday) portends to a greater reliance on the running game at the outset.

• Addai technically qualifies for this list as well, as the former top-10 selection is being drafted as a late-RB2 or RB3 option.

Mike Tolbert, SD

Analysis: I’m not going to belabor the point. Tolbert ran with power and authority for the Chargers last season. He dominates at the goal line and possesses deceptive speed. And, with Ryan Mathews’ continued issues (health, conditioning, pass-blocking), Tolbert may rise to tremendous heights again. Goal line opportunities will be frequent behind this high-octane San Diego attack.

Michael Bush, OAK

Analysis: If you draft Darren McFadden, be sure to reach back to the Oakland backfield to snag Bush before another owner swoops in to break your handcuff. Bush has averaged 4.4 yards per carry in his 376 career touches, and he excelled at the goal line in 2010 (eight touchdowns).

McFadden is an unbelievable player, without a doubt, but health issues continue to cast a shadow over him. The Raiders have myriad questions in the passing game (injuries are mounting already), but this squad ranks among the top rushing offenses year after year. I suspect that they’ll still run the ball effectively despite the losses of Tom Cable and lineman Robert Gallery.

Kendall Hunter, SF

Analysis: OK, so Hunter hasn’t eclipsed Anthony Dixon on the depth chart as of yet, but I’m putting the 5-foot-7 sparkplug on the radar. He bounces well between the tackles and has the speed to out-run defensive backs in the second level, as evidenced by his 53-yard touchdown sprint against the Raiders in the preseason.

Frank Gore returns from his hip injury and will own the vast majority of touches in Jim Harbaugh’s offense. However, Gore’s history suggests that he’ll miss at least some time because of an injury, thereby affording another player an opportunity.

Jerome Harrison, DET

Analysis: Mikel Leshoure was drafted to play the battering ram complement to speedster Jahvid Best. Leshoure didn’t even get to opening day because of an Achilles’ injury, and now Best is dealing with the after-effects of a concussion. As a result, former fantasy hero Harrison is back on the radar. He didn’t show much in his early preseason efforts for the Lions, but he currently sits in the second slot on the depth chart. The Lions will pair him with Best as the power and goal-line option.

Dexter McCluster, KC

Analysis: Todd Haley, while pondering Lil’ Wayne lyrics, declared that McCluster will move out of the slot receiver role and into the backfield. I’m envisioning a sizable number of swing passes out of the backfield with fields of green ahead for the elusive second-year man out of Mississippi. Owners in PPR leagues, and even those in standard leagues, need to be mindful of how the touches are split behind my No. 1 overall pick, Jamaal Charles. Remember, Thomas Jones struggled markedly down the stretch.

Ben Tate, HOU

Analysis: Tate started the preseason in a hole. He couldn’t stay on the practice field and questions remained about his blocking skills. Tate returned in a big way with a 95-yard effort in the second preseason game and has improved in his pass-blocking efforts. As a result, he’s back on the radar behind Arian Foster in what remains one of the league’s most explosive offensive attacks. If you make the selection of Foster in the first round, you best circle back for Tate as the handcuff. Don’t get left in the cold.

 

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