Fantasy football and the draft — Running back edition

Rookie running backs are the finest commodity to have in fantasy football. OK, I’ll put it this way. They have the potential to be the best commodity in fantasy football. They’re relatively free of wear and tear (except for the guys who had 1,000+ carries in college), they’re young, and you can get them cheaply in redrafts. The AUFL is my local keeper league. In the initial draft (2001), LaDainian Tomlinson was a fourth-round pick. He’s still on that team’s roster.

Everyone’s talking about the big three, and by that I mean the three running backs taken in the first five picks. It’s like fantasy footballers were in charge of the draft this year. They are the hottest players heading into 2005 from the rookie class. Quick comments on all:

Ronnie Brown, Miami Dolphins: He has very little wear and tear since he was a backup at Auburn for most of his five years there. He’s considered to be the more durable guy of the rookies, has the best hands and the best NFL body. He has relatively no competition for the starting role (Lamar Gordon is the best bet for the backup). The Dolphins’ offensive line is terrible, and whoever starts at QB is going to be one of the worst starters in the NFL. Brown may not pay immediate dividends, but he’ll be the franchise back for a long time.

Cedric Benson, Chicago Bears: Benson was a starter for four years at Texas, so he’s taken a lot of hits. He may not have the best hands and doesn’t have home-run speed but he’s the best 30-carry guy out of the group. He’s the guy the Bears want carrying the load when they get the ball with a three-point lead and they need to burn five minutes off the clock. Thomas Jones was pretty good as the starter last year but he’s not an elite back. Jones will most likely be the third-down back so don’t expect too many receptions out of Cedric. He’s the perfect back for a cold-weather team that already possesses a tough, young defense.

Cadillac Williams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Caddy was the starter at Auburn for most of his four years. He had a couple of injuries so that could be a concern. He’s a little slighter of frame than the other two guys. Williams excelled as a kick returner and receiver. Don’t expect him to do the former in Tampa Bay. Jon Gruden likes to use a lot of running backs so watch Michael Pittman to take some carries and a lot of receptions. Williams will be the feature back although he might be gradually worked into the starting role.

Who could make it the big four? J.J. Arrington. Arrington led the nation in rushing yards last year at Cal. He was the offensive star. The Cardinals took Arrington in the second round. Since Troy Hambrick and Marcel Shipp are the ‘starters’, Arrington is in an excellent situation. Look for Arrington to go in the fourth slot in most dynasty rookie drafts and to be a great back to pick up after your top two RBs are taken in redrafts.

The rest:

Eric Shelton, Carolina Panthers: He’s the heir apparent to Stephen Davis. If Davis can’t recover from microfracture knee surgery Shelton will get a lot of carries. The Panthers can’t depend on DeShaun Foster as their every-down back. He’s a great dynasty prospect and a late-round flier in redrafts.

Frank Gore, San Francisco 49ers: Most experts say that Gore was a reach. Gore’s already had two ACL surgeries. Then again so has Willis McGahee. Kevan Barlow was handed the starting job in San Fransisco last year and faltered mightily. He didn’t exactly have the best surrounding cast. Gore could have a starting gig in a couple of years. He’s practically worthless in a redraft.

Vernand Morency, Houston Texans: Did I just hear the clock strike midnight on Tony Hollings? Morency’s another one of those guys who played and failed at baseball and managed to get into college at age 22. He was a stud at Okie State and has a pretty good chance of getting significant touches in Houston. He’s not taking Domanick Davis’s job, though.

Ryan Moats, Philadelphia Eagles: Moats was a man among boys at Louisiana Tech last year. What’s interesting about this selection is that Moats is a similar runner to Brian Westbrook. Is he going to take the Dorsey Levens role this year, or is this a low-cost way to eventually push Westbrook out? That makes Moats an interesting prospect and probably move valuable in fantasy terms than the previous two guys.

Maurice Clarett, Denver Broncos: It’s official, Mike Shanahan hates fantasy football players. Last year he drove us bonkers with the Quentin Griffin/Tatum Bell/Rueben Droughns triumvirate. With Droughns gone and Griffin ACL’d, Bell looked like the clear-cut starter and a possible RB1. Then the Broncos went and reached for Clarett. This guy could be a Pro Bowler and he could, in the words of Shanahan, be working in a factory in two years. Other than Matt Jones, no other rookie has a higher upside and downside.

Marion Barber III, Dallas Cowboys: Now we’re looking at backups at best. Julius Jones is the man in Dallas. ReShard Lee isn’t the answer for the backup spot so Barber should get it. I have Julius Jones in two dynasty leagues and therefore will look to pick up Barber unless the price is too steep.

Brandon Jacobs, New York Giants: Jacobs was at Auburn for a year before realizing that he had no chance of getting significant playing time. Is he the new thunder to Tiki Barber’s lightening? After last year there are no lingering questions about Barber’s durability. Jacobs should be able to take the backup role. He’s the tallest running back in the draft.

Ciatrick Fason, Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings drafted another running back? Before the draft I thought that Fason might be the fourth-best running back in the draft. He was a star at Florida. The reason why the Vikings keep drafting running backs is twofold. First of all you can’t get enough running backs. Second, none of the backs they have are workhorse guys. Because the Vikings have a massive and talented offensive line, Fason has as good an upside as any of the second-tier backs.

Other backs include:

Alvin Pearman, Jacksonville Jaguars: Pearman might get touches because of Fred Taylor’s knee problems.

Darren Sproles, San Diego Chargers: He’ll excel as a kick returner. Don’t expect him to take over for Tomlinson or have an every-down job as a running back.

Damien Nash, Tennessee Titans: Worth a look because Chris Brown is fragile. As a Mizzou alum, I can say that Nash isn’t ready yet. He could emerge in a couple of years.

Cedric Houston, New York Jets: Pretty good running back at the new Running Back U, Tennessee. He’ll battle Derrick Blaylock for scraps in New York.

Deandra Cobb, Atlanta Falcons: Possible replacement for Warrick Dunn in a couple of years. Don’t get too excited.

Lionel Gates, Buffalo Bills: If Shaud Williams doesn’t win the backup job in Buffalo, Gates could.

Anthony Davis, Indianapolis Colts: Ask me again in a year if Edgerrin James doesn’t get a long-term deal.

Noah Herron, Pittsburgh Steelers: Jerome Bettis is one and done and Duce Staley isn’t a youngster either. Keep an eye on him.

Rookie free agents who might make a roster:

Kay-Jay Harris, Miami Dolphins
Walter Reyes, Tennessee Titans
Jesse Lumsden, Seattle Seahawks
T.A. McClendon, Atlanta Falcons
Alex Haynes, Baltimore Ravens
DeCori Birmingham, New England Patriots
Ryan Grant, New York Giants
Tyler Thompson, Dallas Cowboys
Earl Charles, New England Patriots
Derrick Wimbush, Jacksonville Jaguars
Terry Jackson, Tennessee Titans
Bobby Purify, San Fransisco 49ers

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