DeAngelo Williams (34)
When it comes to fantasy football, the NFC South—home to the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers—is where many fantasy owners will look to draft a quarterback, i.e., Drew Brees, Cam Newton or Matt Ryan, or a wide receiver the likes of Vincent Jackson, Julio Jones, Steve Smith or Roddy White, but you may want to take a second look at the division when selecting your team's first or second running back.
In addition to impacting real football results, running backs are the kings of fantasy football, and picking the right players to fill out your fantasy backfield can make the difference between winning and losing on a consistent basis.
Carolina had the NFL's third-leading rushing attack in 2011, gaining 150.5 yards per game on the ground. And the Falcons' Michael Turner was third in the NFL with 1,340 yards on 301 carries while New Orleans' Darren Sproles was the best pass-catching back in the league.
Though the NFC South will never be mistaken for the old Black & Blue division in the NFC North or the NFC East of the 1980s, the NFL's southeastern division is home to several of the league's most talented and accomplished running backs. There are at least a handful who you will want to consider to round out your fantasy team.
Here is a look at the top five fantasy football running backs in the NFC South, along with their fantasy rankings according to FantasyAlarm.com. All of the statistics used in this article were found through ESPN.com's NFL statistics page.
LeGarrette Blount (27)
Tampa Bay's LeGarrette Blount is a big, bruising back who conjures up images of the San Francisco 49ers' Brandon Jacobs, only with better feet.
Blount first erupted onto the national scene at the University of Oregon when he sucker-punched Boise State defensive end Byron Hout after the opening game of the 2009 season.
Blount was initially suspended for the remainder of his final collegiate season, opening the door for LaMichael James' star to shine for the Ducks, before being reinstated for Oregon's last three regular season games of the season and the 2010 Rose Bowl.
However, Blount rebounded nicely in his rookie season with the Buccaneers, gaining 1,007 yards on 201 carries, and he showed his agility with a perfect hurdle over an Arizona Cardinals defender on one of the best runs of the 2010 NFL season.
Though he ran for just 781 yards for a struggling Tampa Bay team in 2011, the Buccaneers' offense should open up a lot in 2012 with the addition of wide receiver Vincent Jackson, paving the way for more open running lanes and less "stacking the box" against the Bucs' offense.
Blount is not likely to be picked in the first few rounds of your fantasy draft, but he is a safe option as a mid-round selection.
Rushing: 195 carries, 4.6 yards per attempt, 897 yards, 8 TDs
Receiving: 12 catches, 7.5 yards per catch, 90 yards receiving, 0 TDs
Totals: 207 touches, 4.8 yards per touch, 987 total yards, 8 TDs
Fantasy Alarm: Not ranked in Top 30
Jonathan Stewart (28)
Jonathan Stewart, who is entering the final season of his five-year contract with the Carolina Panthers, had the best all-around season of his four-year NFL career in 2011 in terms of total yards from scrimmage.
Though he was forced to split carries with DeAngelo Williams and Cam Newton in arguably the NFL's most talented backfield, Stewart averaged a career-best 5.4 yards per carry and had a career-high 47 catches in 2011.
Stewart gained 761 yards on 142 carries and added 413 yards receiving last season.
I am projecting both Panthers backs to eclipse 1,000 yards again in 2012 as Cam Newton's carries drop below 100 in his sophomore season.
As Williams' sidekick in the Panthers' "Double Trouble" running back duo—one of only six tandem runners to each gain over 1,000 yards in the same season as they did in 2009—Stewart would be a first-round pick in most fantasy drafts if he were his team's lone featured back.
He is definitely a player you want to handcuff to Williams if you have the opportunity to do so as a third running-back option.
Rushing: 180 carries, 5.6 yards per attempt, 1,008 yards, 8 TDs
Receiving: 32 catches, 8.5 yards per catch, 272 yards receiving, 0 TD
Totals: 212 touches, 6.0 yards per touch, 1,280 total yards, 8 TDs
Fantasy Alarm: Ranked 29th
Darren Sproles (43)
New Orleans' Darren Sproles is one of the NFL's shiftiest backs and a legitimate threat to be a top-five player in total yards from scrimmage, especially playing with Drew Brees. The pair connected on 86 passes for 710 yards and seven touchdowns through the air in 2011.
Sproles also averaged an eye-popping 6.9 yards per carry on 87 attempts last season, good enough for 603 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
The Saints spread their rushing attempts out between Mark Ingram (122 carries), Pierre Thomas (110 carries), Chris Ivory (79 carries) and Sproles in 2011, with Sproles making the most of his opportunities.
At 5'6" and 190 pounds, Sproles is built like a smaller Barry Sanders—Sanders, arguably the best runner in NFL history, is 5'8"—and he has moves that are reminiscent of the former Detroit Lions' greatest player.
Sproles played the combo-back role better last season than Reggie Bush ever did in New Orleans, and if the Saints can find a way to put the ball in his hands at least 200 times this season, he could eclipse 1,500 total yards from scrimmage.
I am projecting slightly less than 1,500 total yards for Sproles, who should be considered a late second-round or early third-round pick in most fantasy drafts.
Rushing: 90 carries, 6.2 yards per attempt, 558 yards, 1 TD
Receiving: 88 catches, 10.5 yards per catch, 924 yards receiving, 8 TDs
Totals: 178 touches, 8.2 yards per touch, 1,482 total yards, 9 TDs
Fantasy Alarm: Not ranked in Top 30
DeAngelo Williams (34)
DeAngelo Williams plays the leading role in the Carolina Panthers' "Double Trouble" backfield and he is perhaps the least known and most underrated of the great running backs in the NFL.
Williams rushed for a career-high 1,515 yards in 2008 and followed it up with 1,117 yards in 2009.
Injuries depleted his 2010 rushing totals when he only played in six games, but he rebounded for 836 yards on just 154 carries in 2011 as he split opportunities to tote the rock with Jonathan Stewart (142 carries) and Cam Newton (126 carries).
That is good for an average of 1,154 rushing yards in each of his last three complete seasons, and the $43-million man is not showing any signs of slowing down entering his seventh NFL season.
Williams and Stewart should each get more carries this season with the Panthers' offense committing to the running game and with Newton running the ball on about 30 fewer designed quarterback runs this season.
Despite the fact that he plays in a true combo-backfield, Williams is worthy of a No. 2 running back selection for your fantasy team, especially if he is available late in the second round or early in the third-round.
Rushing: 215 carries, 5.5 yards per attempt, 1,182 yards, 12 TDs
Receiving: 12 catches, 8.0 yards per catch, 96 yards receiving, 1 TD
Totals: 227 touches, 6.0 yards per touch, 1,278 total yards, 13 TDs
Fantasy Alarm: Ranked 26th
Michael Turner (33)
Michael Turner defines the term "workhorse running back."
All legs and shoulder pads, the powerfully built Turner has been among the NFL leaders in rushing attempts in each of his last three complete seasons, totaling 376 carries in 2008, 334 carries in 2010, and 301 carries in 2011.
He had 178 carries in 2009 when he only played in 11 games, and that was his only sub-1,000 yard season since joining the Falcons four years ago.
Though his total rushing yards and attempts have dropped each season since he finished second in the NFL behind Adrian Peterson with 1,699 yards on the ground in 2008, he has remained one of the league's toughest tackles and he will continue to do so in 2012.
Turner's rushing totals in 2010 and 2011 were 1,371 yards and 1,340 yards, respectively.
I expect the downward trend in carries and rushing yards to continue for Turner in 2012 as the Falcons beef up their passing attack with Matt Ryan hoisting it up towards Roddy White and Julio Jones at an unprecedented pace.
However, Turner remains the Falcons decided featured back ahead of Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling and he is worth selecting late in the first round or early in the second round of your fantasy football draft.
Rushing: 295 carries, 4.4 yards per attempt, 1,298 yards, 14 TDs
Receiving: 12 catches, 7.5 yards per catch, 90 yards receiving, 0 TD
Totals: 227 touches, 6.0 yards per touch, 1,388 total yards, 14 TDs
Fantasy Alarm: Ranked 11th
Jimmy Grappone is a Featured Columnist covering the NFL and the Carolina Panthers for Bleacher Report since 2008.
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