Draft preview: Running back flops

Running back. Running back. Running back.

The top of the old fantasy football draft board was easy and predictable. Running backs flew off the board in rapid succession, and rarely did a wide receiver or quarterback crack the first two rounds.

Even in standard leagues, that tradition has been cast aside in 2011. Top options at the other skill positions have invaded the backend of the first round. The dearth of dominant contributors at those positions, and the proliferation of dual-back situations have muddied the waters and added an element of intrigue in the opening rounds.

Where are your lines of demarcation on your positional ranking sheets?

In this piece, I’m going down the negative vibe once again. I’m holding several of the game’s elite running backs up to the microscope, and I’m searching for cracks. They’re all still top selections, but owners need to be mindful of potential downside.

Arian Foster, Houston

I know. You’re already cocking your fist and shouting angry, hateful words at me. Stand down for a moment, please. I love the scheme. I love the player. I love the offensive makeup of this squad.

Let me explain why Foster makes the list.

The Texans have shifted their mentality, to some degree, coming into the 2011 season. Wade Phillips was hired to lead the defense. Say what you will about Phillips’ run as a head coach in Dallas or his “Aww, shucks” demeanor at times. The man can coach defense. After hiring Phillips, the team drafted defensive player after defensive player in the NFL Draft back in April, and there are rumblings that additional pieces will be secured following the lockout.

To that end, I’m expecting a less frenetic pace from Houston games in 2011. The wide-open, run-and-gun style of the past several seasons may be a thing of the past. Additionally, there remains the possibility that last season’s second-round pick, Ben Tate, works into the mix to some degree. I’m not anticipating that Tate assumes a large portion of the workload, but he’s on the radar. I’m more concerned about the change in philosophy in what is a pivotal year for Gary Kubiak.

Steven Jackson, St. Louis

I probably like Jackson more than most as the 2011 season approaches. He’ll receive more support from the passing games than he’s seen in ages as Sam Bradford comes into his own.

However, I would be foolish to ignore the 751 touches that Jackson has amassed during the past two seasons in this context. Jackson will turn 28 in July and has already logged 2,205 touches in his seven-year NFL career.

Prior to the start of free agency, there’s no obvious candidate on the roster to cut into Jackson’s workload. As such, Jackson figures to amass another massive workload in 2011. The question is whether this heretofore consistent and durable tailback (he did miss a total of eight games in the 2007 and 2008 seasons) can hit the 300-touch threshold again.

 

Peyton Hillis, Cleveland

I couldn’t put this list together without including Hillis following his fantastic breakthrough 2010 season. The former seventh-round pick from Arkansas climbed to the top of the depth chart following a series of injuries in the Cleveland backfield and never looked back. Hillis earned more than 1,600 total yards and 13 touchdowns for the pesky Browns.

It does have to be acknowledged that Hillis failed to score in his final five games of the season. He was shut down altogether by the Ravens and Steelers in Weeks 16 and 17. Hillis will benefit from a more balanced offense orchestrated by second-year starter Colt McCoy and will remain a primary target in the passing game (he caught 61 passes in 2010).

I’m still fearful about the adjustments made by the defenses of the AFC North, and the possibility that Montario Hardesty works into the equation after missing the entire 2010 season. Hillis rates as a high-RB2 in my early assessment of the 2011 landscape.

Michael Turner, Atlanta

I needed to circle back to one of the NFC favorites for this entry. Longtime readers of my work here know of my affinity for the fireplug from Northern Illinois. The seventh-year tailback toiled as a backup to LaDainian Tomlinson for years in San Diego and racked up few miles. As such, he wasn’t tracking on the mileage counter in the same fashion as his colleagues.

Turner became one of the league’s top workhorses upon arriving in Atlanta. Since joining the Falcons, Turner has amassed 911 touches. Any thoughts of "low mileage" went to the wayside in a hurry. Fantasy owners are now pondering whether Turner hits the proverbial wall at age 28 after compiling such a large number of touches in the past three years.

Atlanta selected Jacquizz Rodgers in the fifth round of the NFL Draft. He’ll spell Turner and serve as a pass-catching option out of the backfield, provided that he can get up to speed on blocking assignments.

Frank Gore, San Francisco

Gore posted a fantastic opening to the 2010 season. He amassed 1,300 total yards and five touchdowns in 11 games before sustaining his season-ending hip injury.

The 49ers are a very interesting team under first-year coach Jim Harbaugh. The quarterback situation will be settled once there’s a training camp (Alex Smith presumably returns), but the other pieces are in place. Michael Crabtree and Josh Morgan join Vernon Davis in the receiving corps, and the offensive line will have another season to gel. Remember, the 49ers started two rookies on the line last season.

The big question (other than at QB) concerns Gore’s ability to get back into action at a high level. He has completed only one of his six NFL seasons.

The potential is there for Gore to post a huge return to the field. He’s averaged 1,450 total yards and 7.3 total touchdowns during his career as well as 45 receptions. The potential for a Comeback Player of the Year-type campaign is there. But, owners assume sizable risk with Gore’s selection.

 

Darren McFadden, Oakland

This list is littered with some of my favorite players to watch, and McFadden is no exception. His explosiveness in the open field is well-chronicled, and the Raiders have ranked among the league’s top rushing units in the past several seasons. In 2010, McFadden also added 47 receptions out of the backfield to rank second on the team. I don’t suspect that much changes in the Hue Jackson era.

However, I do have to recognize McFadden’s injury history during this evaluation process. He’s missed 10 games during his three-year career and has been on the injury report for countless others. Additionally, the Raiders have several other running backs in the mix, and I suspect that Jackson works a multi-back system to keep McFadden fresh and healthy. Michael Bush is a restricted free agent, but the team added Taiwan Jones from Eastern Washington in the fourth round of this year’s draft to take Bush’s place should he depart. Lest we forget, fullback Marcel Reece (a converted tight end) also logged 55 touches in 2010.

Will McFadden stay healthy and pile up the touches and yards? Will he prove to be a bargain at the back-end of the first round?

Cedric Benson, Cincinnati

The Bengals are at a crossroads in the franchise’s history. Andy Dalton has been drafted as the successor, perhaps immediately, to Carson Palmer under center. Rookie A.J. Green, Jerome Simpson, Jermaine Gresham and Andre Caldwell lead a new-look receiving corps and, as of this moment, Benson is a free agent.

The Bengals have spoken of re-signing Benson as the first priority following the lockout. He’s operated as a workhorse in the past two seasons for Cincinnati, amassing a total of 667 touches. If Benson does return, will they bring him back as the sole option in the backfield? Or, will Benson operate in a more equitable workload split alongside Bernard Scott, who averaged 4.9 yards per carry in limited work last season? I suspect that the latter is the case and therefore shift Benson down the draft board.

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