By now you’ve seen fantasy rankings for the upcoming season. You’ve know where the majority of players are likely to be drafted. It’s tempting to use these as a guide. Be careful: just as there are undervalued players available, there are others whose price is much higher than their worth. For each back listed below, I give several alternative currently being drafted behind the risky pick.
Chris Johnson – Tennessee Titans – Round One
I want to be wrong about Chris Johnson. I want him to recapture the magic of 2009. But I’ve watched every carry by Johnson over the past two years and I don’t see that happening. Too many factors are working against him. His offensive line is one of the worst in the league. There are no holes to run through. They more often act as a wall impeding his progress. Additionally, Munchak uses a scheme that is not friendly to Johnson’s skill set. He is often used as a power back, which leads to a lot of two yard gains, where a bigger back could have plowed through for four or five. There’s a lot of pulling guards with Johnson following. This takes CJ2K’s greatest attribute, speed, out of the picture. It doesn’t matter how fast you are if you have to stay behind a guard. If Chris Johnson could get into space, he could produce big hits, but the Titans no longer know how to make that happen.
Another problem is Johnson himself. You may have heard it opined that Johnson was looking for the homerun too much. That may have been true in 2010, but last season, the opposite was true. He followed his blockers. He ran his plays. But when you have a poor line and a small running back, this doesn’t produce much. Too often, Johnson followed a broken play into a linebacker for one yard and a cloud of dust. He rarely tried to bounce outside. When he did, he usually found that side of his lone collapsed and a defensive end standing in his path. And while he still has the speed, it looks like Johnson has lost some of his acceleration. He no longer has either the physicality or the mentality that he had on 2009. Could some of these factors be corrected? Yes, and he could easily finish the season in the top six or seven. But fixing all of the problems is not a likely scenario. I’d take a chance in the second round, but I fear that 2011 Chris Johnson is here to stay. Better choices: Maurice Jones-Drew, Darren McFadden
Trent Richardson – Cleveland Browns – Round Two
I don’t often attempt to evaluate future pros by their college achievements. As much as everyone likes to pontificate on the subject, it is one on which NFL general managers, assisted by scouting staffs, are often completely wrong about. I do think Trent Richardson was more impressive in the Alabama offense and I do think he will make a good pro in the long term, but when I prognosticate on the fantasy futures of NFL rookies, I focus on the situation they are arriving in. For Richardson, this is not a good one. Last season, the Cleveland running backs scored four touchdowns, combined. Richardson is probably more talented than any of them and he will improve the team average of 3.7 ypc, but the lack of touchdowns can’t be blamed entirely on the backs. The offensive line was a bottom ten unit as was the defense. The passing game contributed little. Regardless of how good Richardson turns out to be, the parts of the Browns that are returning will not help him to score touchdowns, at least not in his rookie year. Better Choices: DeMarco Murray, Jamaal Charles.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis – Cincinnati Bengals – Round Six
Green-Ellis will learn a very old lesson this year. It is much easier to run the ball when a quarterback like Tom Brady is stretching the defense. Stopping the run for most Patriot opponents was an afterthought, and Green-Ellis took advantage of the situation to produce acceptable but unimpressive numbers. On a per carry basis, he(3.7) was less effective than Stevan Ridley(5.1) and Danny Woodhead(4.6). On the basis of his Patriot career BenJarvus Green-Ellis is simply not that good. Think he’ll do better running behind Cincinnati’s subpar offensive line? I don’t. I find it unlikely that he even holds onto the starting job with Bernard Scott behind him. Scott was unimpressive last season but he showed promise in 2010. He is a real fantasy sleeper and I like his chances to start eventually. I would certainly rather draft Scott in the last round than use a sixth rounder on Green-Ellis. Better Choices: Willis McGahee, Beanie Wells.
Darren Sproles – New Orleans Saints – Round Three/Four
I believe that Sproles will be the biggest casualty of the Sean Payton fiasco. It was Payton’s offensive mind that created the home run situations where Sproles earned his points last season. Without him, I’m not sure if an unconventional back like Sproles will produce what fantasy owners require from a starting back. Even with Payton, it was unlikely that Sproles would have repeated his 2011 performance this year. Sproles is dynamic, but it is difficult as a fantasy owner to put faith in a running back who averages five carries per game. When you count on big plays, you cannot expect consistency. I never expect the spectacular to repeat itself. Sproles was due for a letdown in 2012. Without Payton, designing 75-yard screen plays, the place Sproles occupies in fantasy football rankings has to be further questioned. Better Choices: Michael Turner, Frank Gore
Doug Martin – Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Round Five
People are pumped about these rookie backs this year. I may have seen less of Martin than I have Richardson but I have seen just as much of the Bucs offense and I know this is not a great running team. The Bucs aren’t good at much of anything and there will not be that many total carries. There will likely be very few goal line carries and I’m pretty sure that Legarrette Blount will be the beneficiary of most of them. I think it’s crazy to assume this will be anything other than a time split. So Martin is an unknown commodity, splitting carries on a bad offense and he’s not the goal line guy. I will pass. Better choices: Shonn Greene, Willis McGahee
Roy Helu – Washington Redskins – Round Seven/Stevan Ridley – New England Patriots – Round Nine
You have faith that either of these guys will be the lead back. You’re sure that Helu will get more carries than Tim Hightower or Evan Royster or some guy that we have not yet heard of. You believe that you can predict which Patriot running back will get the most carries in a single game, let alone an entire year. If the above describes you, then you are a bolder man than I. I could see Shane Vereen or Joseph Addai taking over at some point this season. I know Danny Woodhead will have some role. I fear that all four backs will have big days, and drafting any of them is playing fantasy roulette. I would certainly take a a chance on one in the last few rounds but not before that. Similarly, I would take Helu if he dropped a few additional rounds. He’s the lead candidate to be the guy in Washington. I just don’t trust that he will be.