Challenge Contests — by Justin Eleff
The wheat from the chaff at ... running back (1 of 2)
Posted Jul. 29 at 03:02 AM
I lied -- or told a half-truth, anyway. Last week I said we’d move from quarterbacks to running backs in this column -- and that’s true; we do that below -- but I also suggested we’d finish with the new position this week.
Turns out I had it too easy a week ago. After concluding that passing average probably isn’t worth planning around, I had no problem getting the QBs worth owning in points-based challenge games and those worth owning in categories-based games combined into one list of ratings. Only a handful of guys had to be rated separately depending on the type of challenge you decide to enter.
Not so here and now. This column won’t converge into one Pick ’Em section at the end. Instead I’m writing about Points RBs and Categories RBs as if they were players at two different positions -- and that means writing about running backs twice, this week and next. Just too much to say otherwise.
Here you want accumulation, of numbers of all kinds. Yards and touchdowns, and not just rushing yards and touchdowns, either. And therein lies the rub, as Shakespeare nearly wrote. That’s the reason we’ll do this twice; the most productive yards-from-scrimmage RBs are usually the best ones to own in Points games, but often not in Categories games. I’ll do more to explain that paradox next week.
For present purposes, just think bulk. You want an old-fashioned, ball-in-his-hands for three downs and four quarters, do-everything workhorse feature back. Only, in most challenges, you want six of them.
It isn’t hard to spot the very best of those guys these days; they’re a vanishing breed, so it isn’t like you’re picking from 32 different players in identical roles. And it isn’t hard to spot the best likely bargains among the candidates, either -- that’s simply a function of finding guys like Knowshon Moreno (DEN) and Derrick Ward (TB), who are taking the lead-back mantle for the first time in 2009.
What I suppose I’m driving at is that there isn’t as much drama at the position as there used to be in Points games. A limited number of candidates pares down to a uniform core of 6 or 7 or even 8 backs most challenge teams will own; you make your money here with the decisions that round out the stable of 10 or 11 backs who will open the year on your squad. (That’s based on a roster with 6 active RB slots and a healthy-sized bench, fairly standard across Points games.)
Making those last decisions requires finesse, but you needn’t rely on your wits alone; here, have mine as well:
(The following ratings work the same way now as they did a week ago; check the QBs column for details; 10, which I didn’t explain then, means it’s not quite impossible that the player could help you, all factors considered.)
Matt Forte -- he’s cheap, or nearly cheap; the coaching staff used him like an old-time full-time back in 2008; he produced a metric ton; now the offense should be meaningfully better.
Chris Johnson -- dream legs, dream hands, not fully priced and with LenDale White the only thing working against him -- gimme.
Steve Slaton -- a hair less expensive than C.J. some places, and basically the same player in terms of my expectations for 2009 -- again, gimme.
Maurice Jones-Drew -- I worry that the line will break down again, and based on 2008 David Garrard is not nearly good enough to keep defenses honest if it does, but Jack Del Rio loves head-knocking football and has welded his own hot seat to J-D’s helmet; put it this way: given his salaries, J-D’s certain to be among the five most widely-owned RBs in every Points game; that’s not wrong, but have a Plan B just in case.
Michael Turner -- catches no passes, but his surrounding circumstances are the exact complement to Jones-Drew’s -- the line is getting better, and Matt Ryan is good enough to keep defenses honest; also: Turner is generally cheaper, so maybe their placement here should be reversed, catching-no-passes be damned.
Knowshon Moreno -- ordinarily I put zero stock in the preseason, but occasionally a Randy Moss makes August nearly as exciting as September; I’m not saying Moreno is THAT guy, but I am saying that five weeks from now he’ll either be at 100 or down around 25; also: I’m a Gator grad, and several times this Bulldog made my tongue wag.
Derrick Ward -- loses something to every back north of him in these ratings based on the offense around him (Ward may have the better line, but Jones-Drew has a better QB in Garrard, which is saying something), but otherwise Ward has the same chance to succeed as Michael Turner did a year ago -- at least in Points games, where Turner’s edge in raw rushing ability (evident even in his SD days) is cancelled out by Ward’s better hands.
Adrian Peterson -- two years in it’s pretty clear we’ll need new superlatives before A.D. is through, but, superlatives aside, he’s gotten too expensive for his previous britches; note the qualification there -- it’s not that he won’t earn his new salaries, it’s just that he’ll have to step his numbers up to do so; I believe that will happen, so the only question is whether you can fit him under whatever salary cap you’re working with.
Ronnie Brown -- price is right, hands are OK, Ricky Williams is finally old even considering the light workload; if the Wildcat doesn’t work as well in Year 2 that might actually be a good thing, forcing the Fins back into a traditional running game that would feature Brown extensively; then again, he figures to feature even if the Wildcat is improved.
Steven Jackson -- has few if any of the most common flaws -- he’s not sharing time, he catches the ball beautifully, his QB is functional, the line should at least be better and he’s expensive but not prohibitively so; I note that there are only 9 backs above him here, so if you go strictly by my ratings you will have Jackson at least on your taxi squad in most Points games; I note also that you could do a lot worse (than Jackson, I mean, and not necessarily than my ratings).
DeAngelo Williams -- can nose ahead to 50 or even 75 with the right preseason, but you’d have to see the right things from both Williams and Jonathan Stewart; I won’t join my bolder brethren in predicting that Stewart will out-earn Williams in 2009 -- not coming off the ridiculous run of games Williams had down the stretch -- but the potential for that to happen is realest in Points games, where Stewart’s heavy workload around the goal-line could turn into an equalizer.
Larry Johnson -- didn’t stand a chance as long as KC trotted out the likes of Brodie Croyle and even stat monster Tyler Thigpen, but at a youngish 29 and lining up behind Matt Cassel, I’m willing (if not quite ready) to believe again.
Ryan Grant -- Green Bay figures to be improved, and Grant was quietly very good down the stretch in 2008, posting 847 combined yards and 4 of his 5 TDs in 9 games after a Week 8 bye; he loses points (no pun intended but there it is) for catching a measly 18 passes in 16 games, but makes a safe-if-limited choice at his salaries.
Clinton Portis -- priced just a touch high, but he earns it lots of weeks and will surely earn it in lots of weeks in 2009; where Larry Johnson is less expensive I see no good reason to own Portis instead.
Marion Barber -- here’s the rare case in which I may tout one player in Points games and a different player in the same backfield in Categories games; Barber is not so much workhorse as plowhorse, an average-killing bit-by-bit gainer who should bounce back to double-digit TDs in 2009; Felix Jones is the more explosive cat; the main questions about both relate to the ultimate division of labor.
Willie Parker -- the injury discount makes FWP a distinct possibility, especially because Rashard Mendenhall doesn’t look remotely capable of displacing him; Parker is fast and everything, but nothing special -- and remember that the Steelers’ line was rightly maligned for much of 2008.
Brandon Jacobs -- better in real life than a bunch of others with the same rating, but not a great player in Points games; lack of receiving production, combined with frequent shuffling of backs, means he has to put up another 15 rushing scores to earn his salaries; not impossible, of course, but hardly a sure thing.
Beanie Wells -- no meaningful way to rate him just yet; unlike with Moreno, Wells’ college career left me clueless, but he rockets way up the list if he can play a little; there is no better spot in football for a rookie RB.
Marshawn Lynch -- hard to imagine a player I’d be less excited to own after he opened his career with back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons; note that Lynch got fewer carries in Year 2 even though he played 2 more games; note also that this was offset by vastly more receptions (47 to 18); salaries are fair in the abstract but likely high given the declining line; I don’t believe it can be overstated how much Jason Peters will be missed.
Frank Gore -- good or possibly great back, but way too near the top of the salary lists to be a factor under most presently-conceivable scenarios.
Willis McGahee -- cheap salaries, but then he’s earned them; the guy couldn’t out-produce Le’Ron McClain, who’s built so much like a fullback that the Ravens have now made him one; I won’t write separately about Ray Rice, because I wouldn’t rate him any differently than McGahee if he stumbled into the job.
Darren McFadden -- I still believe, but my belief is bumping up against a firmer belief that special backs show it immediately; DMC did in Game 2, not Game 1, and then not again; besides, he could be special and still not special enough to overcome JaMarcus Russell; the 40 is on blind faith, the bottom of the list on everything else.
Kevin Smith -- say it’s unfair after Smith played very well as a rookie, but I refuse to call him even with McFadden; that probably means I won’t own either of them, which means, in Smith’s case, I won’t own the lead back on the sequel to the worst team in history, which now starts either Daunte Culpepper or a not-quite-can’t-miss rookie at QB; pretty sure I can live with that.
Brian Westbrook -- I’ve counted him out before and ended up owning him the same season, but the injury news ain’t so hot, and he’ll be 30 on September 2, and he’s expensive; a great Points player in his prime, but this is almost certainly not that.
Jonathan Stewart -- not as a pure backup to Williams in CAR, but if he’s the full-time scorer Stewart is cheap enough that part-time work between the twenties could still pay; track both players closely as their roles shake out.
Pierre Thomas / Reggie Bush -- flip the proverbial coin, as (for comparable salary dollars) Thomas will out-rush Bush and Bush out-receive Thomas; or, you know, own neither.
Ahmad Bradshaw -- immediately viable in the Derrick Ward role in Categories games, and probably a must-own for the 3 or 4 weeks Jacobs will inevitably miss; no to start, but move him to 75 if Jacobs pulls a muscle, 100 if he tears something.
Darren Sproles -- cheap enough that he shoots to 100 if LaDainian Tomlinson is all-the-way finished; not to get all sentimental, but I’m hoping not to own Sproles.
LenDale White -- call him fat, but he isn’t as fat as he used to be, and he’s a far sight tougher than Ron Dayne; I’m banking heavily on Chris Johnson -- I want him in pretty much any format, including my draft leagues -- but wouldn’t hesitate on White if C.J. hurt himself.
Shonn Greene -- has no job at present, and nearly every rookie quarterback is an invitation to defenses to stack the box against the run, but (a) Thomas Jones is out of favor and on his way out of the job Greene doesn’t presently have; (b) Matt Ryan, at least, proves there are exceptions to every rule; and (c) Mark Sanchez and Greene would be working together behind a nasty line, stacked box or no.
Felix Jones -- with a full-time gig, absolutely yes; for now, not in these games.
Donald Brown -- the line in Indy has not been good for several years; I don’t doubt that Brown is at least comparable in talent to Joe Addai, but he’ll have to be outstanding to overcome both Addai’s incumbency and the line’s inadequacy; he goes here, 25 rating points ahead of Addai, solely on the chance that he is indeed outstanding.
Fred Jackson -- somewhat explosive backup to Lynch in BUF; excellent hands; one injury -- or arrest; this is Marshawn Lynch we’re talking about -- from being a talented, unchallenged feature back, albeit behind a dreadful line.
Ladell Betts -- I hear rumblings that Betts is a savvy play in 2009; maybe as a handcuff in draft leagues, but lead dog Portis is just 27 (28 on September 1) and has played all 16 games in four of his seven seasons, 15 in another.
LaDainian Tomlinson -- could never be a 0, but at these approximations of his old salaries he’s painfully close; c’mon, man -- show us.
Joseph Addai -- salaries way high relative to talent; likely challenge coming from Brown.
Cedric Benson -- you could’ve made a lot of money a year ago, betting me that I’d ever write his name again after 2008; double or nothing?
Julius Jones -- seldom has a very cheap back with a full-time job struck me as so blah a choice; Seattle in 2009 is the new Oakland: there’s no there there.
Thomas Jones -- salaries are sky-high (for him) because he scored 15 combined TDs after just 2 in 2007, but chalk that up to the Plexiglass Principle and do not bet on anything close to a repeat -- not from a soon-to-be 31-year-old back who hacked off his new coaching staff by griping about money, essentially daring them to trade up and draft Greene.
Jamal Lewis -- finally turns 30 on August 26, and it’ll be an old 30; those odds have been beaten before, and recently, but Cleveland in 2009 is not the place and time for unshakable optimism.
Laurence Maroney -- his big break came Week 1 when Tom Brady went down -- the one circumstance that might have made Maroney a superstar -- so naturally he then hurt himself; it just ain’t happening, ever, not with Bill Belichick’s unwavering devotion to every RB on his roster at once; Maroney’s name appears here, but he stands in for all of the other Pats backs as well; blame Belichick for this era of by-committee rushing attacks.
Posted by ANDY RICHARDSON | Jul. 29 at 04:30 AM
My worry with Derrick Ward is the assumption that he'll catch a lot of passes this season. His 41 receptions last year only prove he's a better pass catcher than Brandon Jacobs, but what if Earnest Graham gets those snaps? Graham did catch 49 passes just two years ago.
Posted by JUSTIN ELEFF | Jul. 29 at 08:50 AM
I know Graham's still out there, but I'm just not worried about Ward. He looks furious on the field. He's been waiting for a bigger chance; the Bucs gave him big bucks and he immediately bought a house and started working out at team HQ. He'll get his numbers even if Graham comes in on 3rd down. I think a lot - and I mean a LOT - of the team's 1st and 2nd down passes will wind up as dumpoffs to Ward or Winslow. Kills both of them for Categories games, but Ward makes his money in Points unless Graham features ahead of him.
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