Now it’s time to start reviewing the RBs. We could go into the battles for the backup spots since there are so many undecideds right now, but we’ll focus on the starting jobs for a couple of reasons. First, with 32 teams in the NFL and most fantasy leagues consisting of no more than 14 teams requiring no more than two starting RBs, every team should be able to play two starting RBs. Secondly, with all the injuries that occur, reviewing the backups doesn’t really help all that much since most of the time, a RB will get his shot since he’s the only healthy one left! With that in mind, here’s a preview as to which starting RB jobs may be up for grabs in the pre-season…
T.Henry/O.Gary/W.McGahee – BUF
The talk of the town in Buffalo is whether or not the Bills made the right choice in drafting Willis McGahee. No one questions McGahee’s abilities when healthy, but when that time will come again is the one major debatable point. For the ’03 season, McGahee’s uncertain status will keep Henry as the focal point of the running game. Henry’s 1,438 yards rushing and 13 TDs including six games of 125+ rushing yards in ’02 were very impressive numbers. If he didn’t fumble the ball 11 times (he lost eight of those fumbles to the opposition), then he wouldn’t even appear on this list. Olandis Gary provides a nice insurance policy. but he’s proven to be injury prone in the past as well.
Verdict: This is Henry’s job to lose. Gary will only get a shot if Henry gets hurt. McGahee may see some time late in the season, but the ’04 season will be the real test.
J.Bettis/A.Zereoue – PIT
The Bus has seen better days than the ’02 season. Bettis suffered a knee injury which restricted him to play only 12 games, but even in those games, he wasn’t 100% and his stats suffered because of it with only one game of 100+ rushing yards. On the flip side, Amos Zereoue posted more rushing yards than Bettis (762 to 666) with only six more attempts. Bettis found the end zone more often (9 TDs to Zereoue’s 4) which leads this fantasy player to think Bettis’ role will be changed to more of a short yardage back with Zereoue getting the bulk of the carries for the offense.
Verdict: Another RBBC perhaps? Maybe. Cowher loves his veterans so he’ll probably give Bettis a shot to win the job in camp but father time has caught up with the Bus and Zereoue looks ready to take hold of the wheel.
P.Holmes/L.Johnson – KC
As with most rookie RBs, Johnson won’t have an immediate impact even if Holmes cannot return to his dominant form of the past two seasons in which he combined for over 2,000 yards rushing and receiving including a gaudy 21 TDs last year. Holmes feels very confident that he’ll be 100% healthy for training camp, but his contract status is another issue. Holmes wants a new deal which would mean tearing up the existing three year contract. If Holmes is in camp with or without a new deal, you can bet he’ll be out to prove himself all over again.
Verdict: Don’t let Holmes slide past the first round. Finding a RB with his skills is rare and he should still be treated as an elite back. LJ should be thought of as in insurance policy and a low-grade one at best.
D.Staley/C.Buckhalter – PHI
The last time most people saw Correll Buckhalter’s name was when they crossed it off their RB list back in the summer of ’02 with a torn ACL. Since then, Buckhalter has had over a year to recover and Duce Staley wants a new contract and has threatened to hold out. If Buckhalter proves he’s healthy, then Staley loses his bargaining power and he may lose his starting job because of it. The Eagles also signed fullback Jon Ritchie from Oakland in the off-season, so whichever back gets the call, they’ll have some holes opened up for them.
Verdict: Look for Staley to be the starter as the Eagles aren’t likely to rest their high expectations on a RB recovering from a torn ACL. The Eagles will load up for another deep playoff run.
T.Canidate/L.Betts/K.Watson – WAS
Gone from Hog-town is Stephen Davis and trying to fill his shoes is the newly acquired Trung Canidate and two second-year players in Ladell Betts and Kenny Watson. Canidate flashed some of his potential in ’01 for the Rams when Marshall Faulk went down to an injury. His speed and receiving skills are what makes him stand out from the pack and he should fit right in to the Fun ‘N’ Gun offense of Steve Spurrier.
Verdict: Betts may be the short-yardage back, but Canidate is the one you want to draft. He hasn’t proven he can carry the load yet, but he’s worth the risk.
M.Bennett/D.Chapman/M.Williams/O.Smith – MIN
With Michael Bennett opting for surgery on his left foot injury, the Vikings starting running back job is there for the taking. Doug Chapman is the early favorite to claim the top spot with Moe Williams continuing to be the short-yardage back that just kills fantasy owners. Rookie Onterrio Smith could surprise and is worth keeping an eye on, especially is something happened to Chapman during training camp. Anyone remember a guy named Mike Anderson in 2000 when both Terrell Davis and Olandis Gary were hurt?
Verdict: Bennett may return at some point in the ’03 season, so he could throw an even bigger monkey wrench into the RB situation. Unless someone emerges from this cluster, avoid the RBBC like the plague.
W.Dunn/T.J.Duckett – ATL
I bet Dunn thought that when he left Tampa, he would finally get his shot on being the #1 RB in an offense. Then along came T.J. Duckett and Dunn starting having nightmares of Mike Alstott all over again. Dunn was the better back numbers-wise last season, but he only claimed the starting role for good after Duckett suffered a foot injury at the end of October. One thing is certain, with the addition of Peerless Price to Mike Vick’s passing arsenal, the running game will be more successful no matter who is carrying the ball since the field will be wide open.
Verdict: As much as the Falcons want Duckett to be the main man, Dunn continues to take advantage of his opportunities which makes this a tough decision. Unless one of these backs suffers another injury, don’t venture out too early on either back in your draft.
M.Pittman/T.Jones – TB
The latest NFL’er to have a brush with the law is Michael Pittman. Pittman, who was on probation from a pair of domestic abuse incidents back in ’01, allegedly rammed his Hummer into his wife’s car which also contained his son and the babysitter. Real classy, Mikey. You can bet the last thing head coach Jon Gruden wanted was a major distraction like this to open training camp. Gruden acted quickly in trading for Thomas Jones from Arizona who has shown flashes of greatness, but has never put it all together. Assuming Jones doesn’t try and attack anyone with a Hummer between now and September, TJ may find himself the starting tailback for the Super Bowl Champs.
Verdict: Pittman is in a world of trouble as he should be. He deserves whatever punishment is given and then some. From a fantasy perspective….ah who cares about the fantasy perspective. Pittman is a jerk. He’ll bring bad karma to all those that draft him. Mark my words.
E.Smith/M.Shipp – ARI
Something just seems terribly wrong about seeing Emmitt Smith putting on a Cardinals uniform. No star on his helmet? No white jersey with a blue 22 standing out like a sore thumb in the middle of 40 other Cowboys jerseys? To put things in perspective, take your memories of Walter Payton and instead of a Bears uniform, replace it with a Packers jersey. See what I mean? Something tells me, Emmitt isn’t going to last very long in Arizona. I’m not sure if it’ll be an injury or simply not having his heart in it, but I have the feeling that Emmitt’s swan song will start playing sooner rather than later. Shipp is a very capable back ready to step in and produce and will probably be the feature back by mid-season.
Verdict: Emmitt’s days of 100+ rushing yards and 2 TDs are long gone. Shipp will be a solid producer when given the opportunity. If I had to take one of them it would be Shipp. And no, I wouldn’t take him in the second round.
G.Hearst/K.Barlow – SF
Take it from a guy that has taken Kevan Barlow late each of the past two years, this guy has skills. Barlow averaged 4.7 yards per carry last year and showed some open field moves which brought back memories of Barry Sanders. Barlow’s biggest problem, Garrison Hearst won’t stop producing. Hearst came within 28 yards of a 1,000-yard rushing season which included two games of 100+ rushing yards and two games of rushing for 2 TD or more. Having a 1-2 punch like that is great from a coaches standpoint, but us fantasy players can only sit back and imagine what would happen if one of these guys got the chance to run the show by themselves.
Verdict: Barring an injury to either player (Barlow is dealing with soreness in his surgically repaired knee), look for the 49ers to continue to share the wealth which diminishes the fantasy value of both players. Hearst continues to get the majority of the carries, but Barlow is simply the more talented back. Look for Barlow to slowly receive more touches and should be the #1 guy by season’s end.
A.Thomas/A.Peterson – CHI
To say the A-Train was a disappointment last season, is similar to saying, “Ireland gets a little rain from time to time”. A gross understatement. Thomas struggled through his sophomore season posting only one game of 100+ yards rushing while averaging a mere 3.4 yards per carry when all was said and done. He was placed on the IR after week 13 with a finger injury which gave the Bears a chance take a look at some other backs. The veteran Leon Johnson got the bulk of the carries in Thomas’ absence, but he signed with the Rams in the off-season leaving 2nd year man Adrian Peterson as Thomas’ main competition. Peterson averaged 5.3 yards per carry in his limited action last season.
Verdict: Thomas should get the chance to make amends for his poor season last year assuming those five fumbles were mostly attributed to the finger injury. If Thomas continues to cough up the ball at that pace this year, It’ll be A-Pete carrying the rock for Da Bears by mid-season.
S.Mack/J.Allen/D.Davis – HOU
The Big Mack attack finally escaped the shadows of Fragile Fred Taylor in Jacksonville when Mack signed with the Houston Texans in the off-season. Houston lacked a lot of things, but the running game stood out as an area that needed improvement pronto. Mack was signed to be the #1 guy as both James Allen and Jonathan Wells will take a back seat to the newly acquired Mack. Rookie Domanick Davis has turned some heads, but Mack’s size is much more conducive to the NFL game.
Verdict: The Texans may try and get Davis involved in the offense on third down plays, but Mack should perform well with the opportunity to be the starter. Remember, he plays for the Texans so you shouldn’t pounce on Mack in the early rounds, but he’ll offer some TDs (he had 9 last season) to an owner late in your draft. You could do worse for a #2 RB.
Stay tuned for the WR/TE/K edition coming soon….