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While You Were Sleeping: Running Backs

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My fellow fantasy football comrades,

It has been too long since we last spoke. Much has happened since the Green Bay Packers defeated the Pittsburgh  Steelers in the Super Bowl in February. Revolutions have broken out in the Middle East, America’s greatest villain has finally been defeated and the greatest action hero of the 1980's had this year’s biggest scandal.

Since the lockout began, much of the news has been negative. A great deal of the drama took place in courtrooms and the 2011-12 season seemed farther and farther away. Recently, though, the news has taken a more positive spin as nearly all media outlets have been reporting that a new Collective Bargaining Agreement deal might be only weeks away.

This can only mean one thing. It’s time to start thinking about fantasy football again. And this year is special, more special than most seasons. This is the season where owners will have a chance to steal a title from their fellow owners. The lockout has been dragging on for so long that many fantasy football owners have become complacent and understandably so, there just hasn’t been that much real news lately.

Think about the exponential growth in the popularity of fantasy football over the last couple years. Owners have become accustomed to the never ending season: Super Bowl, free agency, draft, organized team activities, training camp, preseason, regular season. The last labor stoppage was more than 20 years ago, and while fantasy football was definitely around then it certainly wasn’t as popular as it is now.

This is a new situation. I submit to you that a large section of owners have been sleeping. And there’s no telling when they’ll wake up. This represents an unparalleled opportunity for the more crafty and prepared owners to win a title this year just because they were awake taking notes while the rest of their fellow owners were caught napping.

This article on running backs represents the first of a series of articles meant to get owners up to speed on what’s been happening in the last couple weeks since the lockout began. In the coming weeks we’ll talk about quarterbacks, wide receivers and finally tight ends. I’ll rank the Top 10 at each position and then then list the best sleepers and busts.

Before we get started, I should mention one last thing. It’s the beginning of July. The football season, hopefully, will begin in September. Free agency has yet to happen. Training camp seems years away. We don’t even know how many preseason games we’ll get based on the new agreement. There is much that will happen, which can and will drastically alter the fantasy landscape. These rankings and predictions are based on information that could change rapidly in the coming weeks. This isn’t a final rankings. It is only a starting point, my friends.

Top 10 Fantasy Running Backs

1) Adrian Peterson - When you have the number one overall pick in the draft, you want someone that’s reliable and can carry your team for an entire season. Peterson has proven year after year that he can be relied on to do just that. When you’ve gone six straight seasons of 1,600 total yards, you’ve earned the trust of owners. While the quarterback situation is sketchy at best in Minnesota, Peterson has conclusively shown that poor quarterback play (Brett Favre, Tavaris Jackson last year) does not limit his fantasy production. He’s as safe a bet as you can get in this draft and someone who is starting to make the case that he’s the best fantasy player of the last decade.

2) Arian Foster/3) Chris Johnson - It’s a tough choice to put Foster over Johnson. With this high of a pick, owners are usually going to favor the safer choice and there’s no doubt that Johnson has a track record while Foster only has one incredible season to bring to the table. Here are a couple things to think about in regards to this debate.

A) There’s no one whose going to be hurt more by the lockout than rookie quarterbacks, who will lack the preparation and practice that rookie quarterbacks desperately need. So newly drafted Jake Locker is unlikely to make an early impact. The Tennessee Titans have a very shaky quarterback situation and an aging Kerry Collins is not the answer. With the lack of consistent quarterback play, defenses stacked the line against Johnson, which severely affected his numbers during the season.

On the other hand, Foster’s quarterback situation in Houston is a model of stability. Longtime fantasy stud Matt Schaub continues to lead the Texans’ high-scoring offense, also helping create potential fantasy points for Foster in the passing game. If we’re talking about which offense is better: Houston or Tennessee … it’s not even close.

B) Johnson’s final 2010 numbers are misleading. He was largely absent in five games last season for fantasy owners. Five games! In five games last season he rushed for less than 60 yards. That’s incredibly bad production. Most fantasy seasons are 13 games, and five disappointing games doomed many a Johnson owner. Believe me, I should know. I had him last year.

C) Finally, Johnson is a prime candidate this year to have a holdout. This is a fluid situation and much could change but as of right now, all signs point to Johnson holding out for a better contract, which he most assuredly deserves. Worst case scenario - if his contract is not resolved come draft time, I would feel that it’s a no brainer to pick Foster over him.

We’ve spent a lot of time talking about why Johnson shouldn’t be the second pick. Now it’s time to focus our attention on why Foster should be No. 2. Foster had an incredible masterpiece of a season last year. Foster’s numbers are unreal: 2,200 total yards and 18 touchdowns.

By far, Foster had the best season of any fantasy running back last season. We’re talking about a guy who through 17 games last season only had one bad game (against the New York Giants at a time when the Giants’ defense was in midseason form). Compare that number to Johnson’s five-game run of disappointing games last year and you begin to see how Foster is a much safer and reliable option.

But everybody already knows by now how great of a season Foster had last year. The real concern is whether Foster can duplicate last season’s success. Let’s briefly look at the main concerns about Foster going into the new season.

A) The Ben Tate Factor

One year ago, the Texans spent a high draft pick on Tate and everyone presumed that he would become the Texans’ lead running back. Of course, everyone but Foster. Tate, someone who had been lauded as a leading sleeper in numerous outdated fantasy magazines, quickly fizzled out with a poor showing in training camps and the preseason, culminating in a season-ending injury suffered during the preseason.

Tate is now fully healthy and ready to make some kind of impact. The fact that Houston paid so much for him definitely leads one to believe that the Texans wouldn’t just let him ride on the bench for an entire season. I have to tell you, my friends, I’m not buying it.

Coach Gary Kubiak has never been accused of being loyal to his running backs, but Foster’s season last year was so magnificent that it’s impossible for Kubiak to ignore it. Reports have come out over the summer to support this theory. New Texans offensive coordinator Rick Dennison has already come out and praised Foster and proclaimed his as their “No. 1 guy.”

Dennison went on further to say in that interview that he would give the ball to Tate only “a couple times” a game and then see how things “go from there.” Far from a ringing recommendation and eons away from any kind of committee/time share arrangement. Certainly training camp and the preseason will bring further clarity to this situation, but as things stand right now Tate should not be viewed as a negative factor in regards to Foster’s draft value.

B) Foster had Offseason Surgery

It’s true that Foster had minor arthroscopic surgery on his right knee last February but he’s fully recovered. The surgery was one that would typically take three weeks to recover from. The surgery was four months ago. Foster is fine. This is just another red herring that owners might use to convince themselves to try and take Johnson over Foster.

C) Foster is a One-Year Wonder

This is the fear the keeps many owners up at night. Can Foster deliver two years in a row or will he be a one-year wonder? This upcoming draft certainly has a one-year wonder in it in the early rounds but his name is Peyton Hillis not  Foster. So why is Hillis a one-year wonder and Foster is not?

Both running backs seemingly came out of nowhere and were the biggest values in fantasy football last season. Owners should be justifiably weary of spending a high draft pick on a player that had little-to-no resume before last season.

The difference between the two backs is simple and it comes down to one word: Situation. Both the Texans and the Cleveland Browns spent high draft picks last year on running backs. When the Browns drafted Montario Hardesty last year they had high hopes for him, just like the Texans had for Tate.

The difference is the Browns still want a now healthy Hardesty deep in the mix, and their coach has already gone on record that he’s taking the dreaded running back by committee approach this season. As stated above, the Texans have taken the opposite approach as the Browns and this greatly lessens the risk of drafting a one-year wonder.

Conclusion

Johnson’s a fantasy football legend and he’s worthy of an early-round pick. Both Johnson and Foster would be a great addition to any fantasy team but as things stand now, Foster has a decisive edge in upside.

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