Draft preview: Running back surprises

Draft preview: Running back surprises

Published May. 24, 2011 1:00 a.m. ET

It’s never too early to start assessing the fantasy landscape for the 2011 season. Across the NFL, teams have shifted away from the single-back attack and now employ two or sometimes three running backs to do the job. It’s the football equivalent of managing a major league bullpen, and playing percentages in passing situations or short-yardage opportunities.

This year, the number of workhorse running backs decreases yet again, and workloads will be split across the NFL. In this piece, I’m targeting a number of running backs who I believe will outperform their early draft slots.

Ryan Grant, Green Bay

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’ postseason run to glory. He’ll be on the minds of many owners entering draft rooms this summer.

I wouldn’t discount Grant, who returns from the Week 1 ankle injury that sent him to injured reserve. 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 (Jackson will be a free agent), but the veteran Grant gets the first crack in camp.

Shonn Greene, New York Jets

So, the 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). Greene then amassed 52 yards on nine carries in the AFC Championship Game against the Steelers.

Tomlinson has spoken about playing in a reduced role this offseason. 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 Greene playing in this system behind this offensive line.

Bernard Scott, Cincinnati

The Bengals are entering a year of transition. Will the Bengals complete their offensive overhaul by allowing Cedric Benson to sign away once free agency begins? Or, will the team commit the dollars necessary to retain Benson’s services?

Either way, I’m anticipating that Scott begins to assume a larger role in this offense. The third-year back from Abilene Christian has averaged 4.6 yards per carry in limited opportunities and has demonstrated some aptitude as a receiver out of the backfield (had 11 receptions in 2010). I understand the thought process of keeping a steady veteran tailback behind Andy Dalton (if he’s the guy), but the track record of Cincinnati management suggests that an all-around shift may occur.

Knowshon Moreno, Denver

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.

He’s 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.

I’m interested to see the Broncos’ reboot under John Fox. The huge question, obviously, is whether the team can become even marginally effective on defense. That, in turn, changes the complexion of the offense and puts Moreno in position to shine.

Mike Goodson, Carolina

The Panthers face myriad questions in the first year of Ron Rivera’s regime. DeAngelo Williams is a free agent, and top wideout Steve Smith has spoken openly of his desire to get traded.

If Williams changes scenery, Goodson would step back into the No. 2 hole behind Jonathan Stewart. He excelled in place of the injured Williams for the hapless Panthers last season. Goodson averaged 4.4 yards per carry (103 attempts) with three touchdowns and caught 40 passes.

Jeff Otah returns to anchor the offensive line, and I suspect that Rivera’s offense is run-heavy as Cam Newton gets comfortable under center. There’s no question that Stewart assumes the No. 1 role and dominates at the goal line, but Goodson’s aptitude as a receiver (Stewart has only 34 career receptions) puts him in play.

DeMarco Murray, Dallas

The selection of Murray likely signals the end of Marion Barber’s tenure in Dallas. Murray offers a tremendous power and speed combination to the table alongside Felix Jones. He amassed 1,808 total yards and 20 touchdowns in his senior season at Oklahoma. 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.

Mikel Leshoure, Detroit

I abhor the use of the old “Thunder and Lightning” cliché to describe two-back systems. However, that term aptly describes the dual-back attack to be deployed by Detroit in 2011. Jahvid Best is a beast on the edge with breakaway speed. Leshoure has great burst at the second level, but he’s a fantastic runner between the tackles with a nose for the goal line. Owners can anticipate an equitable share of the workload with Leshoure taking the all-important goal-line touches. Who isn’t excited to watch the Lions coming into 2011?

Roy Helu, Washington

Helu represents a roll of the proverbial dice in the often murky Shanahan backfield. Ryan Torain and Keiland Williams are the incumbents, but Helu has the size, speed and all-around ability to overtake them in camp. He operated in the right college scheme (more than 3,400 rushing yards) with breakaway speed (4.42-second 40-yard dash) and the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. Essentially, he takes the best of Torain and Williams and combines them.

Mark Ingram, New Orleans

The Saints have employed a multi-back approach for years, and I don’t suspect that that changes in 2011. However, high-priced veteran Reggie Bush is unlikely to return to the fray, leaving Ingram to share touches with Pierre Thomas (and possibly Christopher Ivory). Ingram assumes a huge workload immediately between the tackles with Thomas shifting into the pass-catching, change-of-pace option.

Daniel Thomas, Miami

Thomas is destined to take on a sizable role as a rookie. For now, it’s just a question of whether Ronnie Brown or Ricky Williams is eating into his workload. Thomas ran wild for Kansas State in 2010, amassing nearly 1,600 rushing yards with 19 touchdowns on 298 attempts. He’ll be the cornerstone of the running attack in support of Chad Henne.

Ryan Williams, Arizona

Injuries, inconsistent play and a mountain of fumbles by incumbents Chris “Beanie” Wells and Tim Hightower necessitated the Cardinals’ selection of Williams. He rumbled for 1,655 yards with 21 touchdowns in 2009 before a hamstring injury derailed his 2010 campaign.

The Cardinals aren’t done tinkering with the offense, as a new quarterback is expected to join the squad following the lockout. Williams will have the opportunity to supplant Wells, the former first-round selection, in training camp.