Fantasy Football '09: Breaking Down The Running Backs

Evan PettyCorrespondent IAugust 8, 2009

It's that time again.

Fantasy football 2009 edition is upon us, and that means one thing: draft preparation. Throughout my three part series I will highlight quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers, to give you an advantage when you click, walk, or for some of you: stumble into your fantasy draft.

There is nowhere better to start than at the foundation: the running backs.

Below I will run over the "tiers" of running backs and then identify some good/bad values heading into draft day.

*Rankings based on one point every 10 rushing/receiving yards, six points for a touchdown, and negative two points for a lost fumble. Also based on HEAD TO HEAD LEAGUES.

The First Tier

Adrian Peterson

AP is the top player on the majority of draft boards heading into 2009.  He showed everyone last year that he is capable of enduring a 16 game season and showed some consistency in doing so—scoring double digits in 11 weeks, with only one week with less than six points.  '"All Day" also didn't have as many big runs as in his rookie year, but still put up numbers worthy of a top running back.  Some of that is luck, some isn't; regardless, expect Peterson to put up consistent numbers with a few huge weeks sprinkled in now and then.  It also doesn't hurt that he averaged almost 18 ppg vs. the NFC North last season.

The Second Tier

Michael Turner

I'm putting Turner into the second tier mainly because I am not sold on the Falcons this year.  Their offense has the potential to blossom beyond what it was last year.  Don't underestimate what a great tight end does to improve the running game.  As we see with Gates in San Diego, Witten in Dallas, etc.—a tight end that is a threat to catch passes can open up the running game—a luxury Michael Turner now has with the acquisition of Tony Gonzalez.  I'm just not prepared to put him in the same tier as Peterson now because of a tougher schedule in '09 mixed with durability questions.  Also take notice to how the Roddy White situation plays out leading up to the season-opener.  White is vital to stretching the field and letting the Falcons run the ball.  I would not be surprised in the least if Turner outperforms Peterson, but the risk is just big enough to put him in the second tier.  

Maurice Jones-Drew

With Fred Taylor finally out of his shadow, MoJo is poised to have his biggest fantasy season of his short career.  While the burden of being an every down back could weigh heavily on the little man's shoulders, there is no denying his production in his career with limited carries.  The difference between Jones-Drew and someone like Derrick Ward or Michael Turner last year is that he has proven to be a reliable fantasy back, before he steps into the featured role.  Take Jones-Drew as a top-4 back, and be confident he will continue to produce, but also have some room for upside.

Matt Forte

Last year in his rookie season, Matt showed that being a big time consistent running back is his forte.  While averaging over 14 points a game, the standard deviation of his game log was a minuscule 4.71.  He recorded seven or more fantasy points in all 16 games last year, and with an improved offense in Chicago, look for Forte to improve in his second season.  The Bears also face the weakest schedule in the NFL in '09 so look for them to be up in a lot of games, which could lead to a lot of carries for Forte.  

The Third Tier:

Chris Johnson

Any running back that plays in the type of offense Tennessee runs always warrants first round consideration.  Coming off an impressive rookie year, Johnson is looking to make even larger strides in his sophomore year.  The third tier is where you will find many of the big value backs as well as the disappointments this year.  While Johnson is a great talent, his 10.6 ppg vs. divisional foes last year is worrisome to me.  All three of those teams were poor against the run, and looked to improve in the off season which could make life tougher for CJ.  I also don't think that the Titans will be as successful as last season, which could lead to more passing in '09. Johnson is very talented, but only begin to consider him late in the first round moving into the early part of the second.

LaDanian Tomlinson

Out of every highly ranked running back, Tomlinson is the one that seems to be deviating the most among mock drafts.  Some people feel as if he is worthy of a pick in the middle of the first round, and others think he is a second rounder.  While I'm not willing to put Tomlinson in that second tier, I think he is a very reliable play out of the stocked third tier. While he doesn't have the upside of a Chris Johnson, he is not nearly as likely to have a flop season—which is what I look for when I pick early in the draft.  One third of LT's schedule consists of Denver, KC, and Oakland; he averaged nearly 16 points a pop vs. these three divisional opponents last year.  With San Diego poised to dominate the seemingly defensively challenged AFC West, Tomlinson should have plenty of opportunity to score.  With Antonio Gates' health a question mark coming into the year, look for LT to increase his touchdown total from last year.  For owners looking to get a steady running back, target LT in the late first round.

Steve Slaton

The man I like to call "The Roadrunner" was slightly overshadowed by other fantastic rookie running backs dispersed throughout the NFL in 2008.  Heading into fantasy drafts, I love Slaton's value.  He led all running backs in 2008 with 19.5 ppg vs. divisional opponents, and that included a Tennessee team who at the time had the best run stopper in the NFL—Albert Haynsworth.  Houston's offense is a juggernaut and Slaton has worked hard to put on weight in the offseason while keeping his speed.  If Slaton falls to the bottom of the first round, don't pass him up.

Steven Jackson

Every year, Jackson seems to be highly touted, and every year he seems to disappoint. Many mock drafts have him going in the top five picks.  While I don't mind him being seen as a top five running back, I would pull the trigger on a top wide receiver before I take Jackson.  The entire West coast is allergic to run defense—as the NFC West is also horrendous against the run—which is a good thing for Jackson. The Rams helped their O-Line in the draft as well.  The production isn't the problem for Jackson, it's his health.  If you decide to spend a first round pick on him, be prepared to use a mid round pick on a quality third running back that can fill in for games Jackson is banged up for.  

Frank Gore

In a way, "The Inconvenient Truth" reminds me a lot of Jackson.  He is a back that is very versatile and will rack up a lot of yards in every game.  However, he is also injury-prone and plays on a team where his involvement is unknown week to week for various reasons. His schedule is very favorable, and the 49ers are a sleeper in that division this year.  Gore joins the extremely long list of the "ya, ya, but..." list of running backs.  Target in the late first round, but take a top receiver over him.

Brandon Jacobs

Here we go again.  Another running back at the end of the first round that has all the talent, but can't stay healthy.  Out of all the running backs on that "ya, ya, but..." list I just mentioned, I like Jacobs the most.  He has the privilege of facing the AFC West this year, and the Giants are always going to give him the ball when he is healthy.  With Ward gone, Jacobs is going to feel more pressure to stay healthy.  If he is going to take this into account when he plays in 2009, is unsure.  With so many questions at running back around fantasy, I think Jacobs is good value anywhere after about the sixth or seventh pick.

Marion Barber III/Clinton Portis/Brian Westbrook

Hate to be redundant, but all three of these backs are in the same boat as Jacobs, Jackson, and Gore.  That makes it a clean sweep for the NFC East.  This trio has actually only missed five games over the last two seasons, but they also had many games where they were not 100 percent and drove owners crazy as to whether or not to play them *cough* Marion Barber's toe *cough*.  Of these three, I like them in the order of how they are displayed.  Barber should get more red zone opportunities with Owens out of the equation.  Portis is probably the safest bet of the three, and Westbrook is a shaky pick as he gets older, but at this point I don't see what separates him from anyone else in this tier.  

DeAngelo Williams

The enigma of fantasy drafts in 2009.  D-Will is my player profile for running backs.

A couple of days ago my dad and I were watching a re-run of the show Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader? while waiting on dinner.  This lady who was attempting to get her PhD in neuroscience was rolling, and had only needed to use one of her three “cheats” (lifelines for those of you who aren’t avid fans of the show) to successfully win $500,000.  Before the million dollar question, contestants can see the topic, but if they choose to see the question, they must answer.  A correct answer nets them $1 million, but they drop down to $25,000 if incorrect. 

For a little background, she had already declared U.S. History “one of her best subjects,” and when it flashed up as the topic, she decided to roll the dice and go for the million instead of walking away with her 500K. 

At this point, my dad and I just shook our heads.

As you may have guessed, she was presented with some ridiculous question about a pilot breaking the sound barrier that no middle school student would not have known.  She lost $475,000 and that safari she began planning out in her head after the $100,000 question. 

So, you may ask, how does this relate to DeAngelo Williams?

The name of the game is calculated risk.

That lady went into the million dollar question blind, and she got burned for it.  It was a horrendous financial decision.  Even if she had answered correctly, it doesn’t change the fact that it was a terrible financial decision. 

Using an early pick on DeAngelo Williams is not a smart value decision. 

He has shown flashes of brilliance, yes.  But essentially, you are picking blindly and in the first round at that. 

With a first round pick, I want something predictable, something stable, something to build around. 

I want to walk away knowing I have $500,000 and then try to hit the jackpot on a $2 scratch ticket. 

One thing that I have learned from playing fantasy football is that a first round pick can’t win you a championship- but it can certainly lose one for you. 

By picking DeAngelo Williams early in your draft, you are banking on the idea that he will repeat his last season.  If he does, you’re in good shape—because he will have performed like a first round draft pick.  You are no further ahead of the game, or no further behind. 

That said, if he comes back down to earth, you have a steep hill to climb in getting your roster back up to even par.  Even if you proceed to hit a sleeper or two later in the draft, you are still now just getting back to the level you should be at that point in the draft.  If you win $500,000 on a scratch ticket, you are just back to where you should be and it is never a good idea to be dependent on winning a scratch ticket.

The point is that Williams is a case of high risk with little reward.  In fact, there is no first round pick that could possibly be a high risk, high reward type of player because first round picks already have the expectation to carry your team.

Let someone else take Williams with their first round pick.  If he works out, so be it.  If he doesn’t, than that’s just one less competitor you are going to have to worry about in your league. 

There's my DeAngelo Williams rant for the day.

That rounds out the first three tiers of running backs heading into the 2009 season. 

Last year was the year of the rookies and young running backs exploding on the scene. While I think there will be a fair share of young guns coming into the spotlight this year, I am expecting a big of a "turn back the clocks" season.  

I find the third tier of running backs very intriguing because of all the players that were once very high first rounders that will be available in the late first/early second round.  

Tomlinson, Jackson, Gore, Jacobs, Barber, Portis, Westbrook.  

Out of this group, whichever backs are able to stay healthy will prove to be huge value at the end of the first round. 

With this year's crop of running backs being as reliable as Brett Favre retirement story, it may be smart to address other needs with a player who is more reliable, and then target one of these seven in the second round.  

Personally, I would rather take a risk the health of Marion Barber in the second round than risk that Chris Johnson or DeAngelo Williams will be a one year wonder in the first.

It is all about assessing where the drop-off points are at certain positions.  For the running backs, I think that after AP, Turner, Jones-Drew, and Forte there is a significant enough drop-off where the owner picking fifth should pick a receiver.  If you find yourself taking another position early in the draft, you will need to target guys in the later rounds that could give you good value.  

Here are some guys that could get you great value in the mid-late rounds:

Joseph Addai

I love Addai coming into 2009.  Obviously it is too early to make a very accurate projection with Donald Brown looming on the depth chart; however, I think Brown's presence will motivate Addai and lead to him having a very nice year.  He has always been extremely consistent in that Colt's offense, and averaged 17.5 ppg vs. the division in an abbreviated 2009.  I really think that Addai will be at least a number two fantasy back this year, assuming he wins the job, and gets a significant amount of carries.  If you're looking for top 15 production in the later rounds, Addai is your guy.

Jerious Norwood

I've deemed him "Lightning in a Bottle" for his ability to take any play and turn it into a big play.  With a late round pick you could catch lightning in a bottle this year with Jerious.  I have always been a fan of the back that can consistently get me double digits, as opposed to guys like Norwood who will have more of a boom or bust type game each week.  That said, with Michael Turner having carried the ball 376 times last season, he very well could go down in his second year as a starter.  Playing sparingly, Norwood has been effective when on the field.  This pick would be completely based on whether Turner gets injured or not, but if he does go down and Norwood gets the bulk of the carries, watch out.  

Ryan Grant

With so many questions among the upper echelon of running backs this year, some owners will be very pleased to grab one back, and a couple great receivers or quarterback with their first four or five picks.  If they choose this path, Grant could be a quality buy in the middle rounds.  He failed to meet the unjustified expectations he faced heading into 2008, but showed signs of breaking out towards the end of the season.  Grant is someone who I consider very safe as a number two running back. With so many potential busts at the top of the rankings, Grant could slowly and steadily climb his way up the ranks this year.

Cedric Benson

The Bengals feature one of the best arms behind center as well as probably the fastest receiving core in the NFL.  That means they will stretch the field tremendously, which is very inviting for Benson's bruising running style.  Benson was rejuvenated in Cincinnati last season but lost carries simply because they got down in so many ballgames.  I think that will change this year as the Bengals say they are ready to compete for a division title. Benson is another sturdy value pick in the middle rounds.  

Derrick Ward

Similar situation to Michael Turner a year ago, Ward brings his gaudy ypc numbers to a featured role in Tampa Bay.  The Bucs have always been a team to run the ball, but keep an eye on how many carries Ward expects to get vs. Earnest Graham.  I'm not going to go crazy for Ward, but if you can snag him after about pick 30 he could repay you with first round production.  

Leon Washington

Similar to Norwood, Washington is a little back who can make big plays when he gets the chance.  He showed some flashes of brilliance in all three aspects of the game (special teams, receiving, and rushing) towards the end of last year.  With that momentum, he should be more involved this year and even has the potential to step into a starting role if the aging Thomas Jones goes down with an injury.  Washington is one of the best backups in the NFL, and warrants a draft pick in the later rounds as someone who could bring back huge rewards.

Raiders/Chiefs Running Back Situation

Aside from San Diego, the AFC West looks downright awful on paper, but I'm convinced that there can't be three teams that lose 13 games each.  I don't love Moreno because there is always that one guy in your fantasy league that salivates over a sexy rookie and pushes the value way up, not to mention he is in a crowded backfield in Denver. 

That leaves the Chiefs and the Raiders.  

Keep an eye on both of these situations throughout the preseason.  If Larry Johnson comes back motivated and committed, he could have sleeper written all over him.  The same goes for whoever wins the starting job in Oakland.  Obviously McFadden has the most value with his upside, but don't overlook collegiate star Michael Bush.  If he wins the job, he could have a breakout year.

While those are some guys who will transcend expectations this year, stay away from these running backs:

Thomas Jones

Jones will turn 31 later this month, and has shouldered a lot of carries in his career.  Don't be fooled by his breakout year in 2008.  He played a soft schedule that included the AFC West.  With the possibility of a rookie QB under center, defenses will make Jones their number one priority.  Mix this with Leon Washington breathing down his neck on the depth chart makes Jones someone you should absolutely stay away from.  

Ronnie Brown

Like Jones, Brown had the opportunity to play the AFC West last year.  He also scored half of his TD's in one game against the New England Patriots, and he scored double digit fantasy points in only six games the entire year.  The Dolphins have the toughest schedule in the NFL this year, and teams will be more prepared for their wildcat formation.  Expect the Dolphins to struggle this year, and Brown to follow suit.

With many backfields unresolved now, keep a close eye on teams heading into the season.  

For years, it had been an unwritten rule to take running backs with your first two picks. With the questionable production at the top, don't be afraid to stray away from that conventional wisdom if the situation fits the mold.

Stay posted for my breakdown of quarterbacks, wide receivers, and possibly a mock draft.  I will also try to publish something before each week highlighting some advice for the given week.


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