Challenge Contests — by Justin Eleff
Pick 'Em: Running Backs
Posted Aug. 20 at 01:46 AM
Over the last few seasons, we've had fewer and fewer decisions to make at running back in the national challenge games. Only a small fraction of all NFL teams are still relying on one every-down back, grinding out a ground game with sheer repetition. The Bengals made a star of Cedric Benson last year by giving him more than 23 carries per game. So few players get that kind of use that we have to own most if not all of them.
The only other thing that needs to be said to introduce this week's rundown is that running back is the one position at which the two main kinds of challenges – those built around categories-based and points-based scoring – work most differently. RBs' receiving abilities are crucial to their value in both kinds of games, but in opposite ways. Details below, obviously.
Hey, and do check me out on Twitter: twitter.com/FantasyIndexJE. Nineteen followers can't be wrong.
Fanball's Football Challenge remains our model categories game. All player salaries appearing in this section come from that game, in which you own six active running backs who control two stat categories – rushing yards and rushing average (yards per carry) – more or less by themselves. That much is straightforward, as is the contribution your RBs make to another category: total scoring. Of course you want backs who pile up touchdowns.
The rub lies in the final two categories your RBs affect: receiving yards and receiving average (yards per reception). Running backs who catch a lot of passes add to your team's receiving yards, which is good, but almost always do so in a way that drives down your receiving average. In other words, they can hurt you just as much as they help.
Say your team has a total of 11,500 receiving yards that have come over a total of 920 receptions – an average of 12.5 yards per reception. Those were generally solid numbers last year; they were worth (very) roughly 2,500 overall points for the yards and 2,600 overall points for the average.
Now say you make no changes other than to add Ray Rice. He caught 78 passes for 702 yards in 2009, which pushes your total yards to 12,202, but at so few yards per reception that your average drops to 12.23. Those new numbers were worth roughly 3,000 overall points for the yards (a gain of 500 points) but only 1,950 overall points for the average (a loss of 650 points). That's a significant net loss – and it will only get worse if you add other pass-catching backs along with Rice.
Mind you, beggars cannot choose freely, and it may have been impossible to compete last season without Rice and his $660 salary. But this year that salary is $2360. Why pay an extra $1700 for a player who may harm your team? Exactly: No reason at all.
The following are the RBs I'm considering in this year's Football Challenge, grouped generally by salary (in descending order) but with a few departures to match up like players, or players in like circumstances:
Chris Johnson ($3230)
Adrian Peterson ($2850)
I keep going back and forth at the top, first convincing myself that 2010 is Peterson's year to be the No. 1 fantasy back, then that Johnson will retain the ranking by sheer force of will. We can probably treat them as equals in every respect except salary, so Peterson wins.
But with few playable RBs in this game this season – especially from this salary level down to less than half as much – I may let the top two fight it out on my roster. Some years I want to carry 11 or even 12 RBs; this year I'm leaning toward 9 at the start. However short a list of candidates I draw up, both Johnson and Peterson will be on it.
Maurice Jones-Drew ($2430)
Ray Rice ($2360)
Frank Gore ($2240)
I tipped my hand by making an example of Rice in the intro, and Jones-Drew and Gore are only one rung below him as receivers, but I won't quite say that it's wrong to own any of these three. Instead I'll say: (a) tread carefully – I certainly wouldn't own more than one of them; and (b) I wouldn't own any of them before Johnson or Peterson. If the higher salaries are too high, make room. If the higher salaries are still too high, decide which of these three will have the best season and bite only that bullet. I like Gore.
Michael Turner ($2100)
At this salary, and with this amount of motivation (reports have him champing at the bit for the season to start), Turner is right there with Kevin Kolb and Jermichael Finley as the Football Challenge's most obvious plays. Bulk carries at a very healthy rushing average, bulk touchdowns, few receptions (although the Falcons are trying to get him more involved in this season's passing game). You try to win without him. Not me.
Steven Jackson ($1940)
The Rams' offense has a real chance to be worse in 2010 than it was in 2009 – when Jackson scored 4 touchdowns and caught 51 passes for a pathetic 322 yards. Listed here only out of respect. He's much, much better than he may get to show for the duration of his prime.
Jamaal Charles ($1600)
Felix Jones ($1350)
Ahmad Bradshaw ($1120)
Our first departure from strict salary order creates a group of similar players in what appear to be very similar situations. Jones is my favorite of the three, but I might own all of them with the full-time work they aren't likely to get.
Strange happenings in Kansas City, where the team seems to view Thomas Jones as a pure RB, Charles as a RB/WR and Dexter McCluster as a WR/RB. Charles may go wanting for carries until Jones breaks down or the coaches decide Charles is simply the far better player. In any event, I can't see owning any of them (I have no interest in Jones; I mean that I can't see owning Charles or McCluster) until the roles settle.
Jones and Bradshaw are both outstanding, Jones perhaps the most explosive player in the league, Bradshaw not far behind him except that Jones can leave everyone far behind him. But Marion Barber and Brandon Jacobs may keep them from getting enough touches to earn this year's salaries.
Worth noting: Jones, as you may have read elsewhere, actually outweighs Barber now. If he still has all of his burst (impossible to judge through two preseason games), he has a strong case for heavier use even while Barber is healthy.
Also worth nothing: Watching Jacobs run, I sometimes wonder how anyone ever tackles him. He's just enormous, and he's quicker than a body that size has any business being – but that makes him a danger to himself. Jacobs running full-speed into a tackle is like a car crashing, every time, half a dozen or more times per game. He will hurt himself, and Bradshaw will be worth owning at least for the time he misses.
Possibly too cute: You could roster Bradshaw at the start of the season and hope the inevitable injury hits Jacobs early. That could be the best way to play their situation, as (unless the injury is a season-ender) it may not be worth burning a purchase for only a few weeks of full-time carries.
Rashard Mendenhall ($1450)
Cedric Benson ($1370)
A dying breed: undisputed full-time running backs toward the middle of the Football Challenge's salary list. Benson has at least three advantages on Mendenhall in addition to his very slightly lower price: One, he won't catch quite as many passes. Two, defenses won't be able to key on him to nearly the same extent for the first few weeks (while Ben Roethlisberger serves his suspension). Three, he just looks like the better player. That last one settles things – and I really worry about Mendenhall's rushing and receiving averages in Roethlisberger's absence.
Beanie Wells ($1220)
Shonn Greene ($1160)
Knowshon Moreno ($1150)
Justin Forsett ($1000)
A living breed: running backs with multiple question marks – including one at the end of "how much work will he get" – toward the middle of the Football Challenge's salary list. Greene is far and away the best play among these four, and Moreno is a definite no until you see him sprinting after his hamstring heals. Wells and Forsett? Even if Wells takes over the goal-line work in Arizona and Forsett holds off the other challengers in Seattle, I'm worried. Lousy lines, lousy passing games, maybe lousy defenses that put their teams into throw-only mode late in games …
I'm carrying Greene and probably none of the others.
Jerome Harrison ($1010)
Montario Hardesty ($900)
Another living breed: the cheat-game cheapo.
You say: But Cleveland isn't part of this year's cheat game; the Thursday opener is Minnesota at New Orleans.
I say: But Cleveland opens at Tampa Bay (32nd against the run in 2009) and vs. Kansas City (31st). We can't get any closer to knowing how games will go without actually watching them before the entry deadline. Same concept as with actual cheat-game cheapos; if there's a clear lead back in Cleveland – and Harrison looks pretty likely – I'll own him to use him in Weeks 1 and 2, then maybe discard him come Week 3.
Jahvid Best ($1000)
Ryan Mathews ($1000)
C.J. Spiller ($1000)
One last living breed, by design of the game: the $1000 first-rounder. I like Spiller best by far as a player, Mathews best by far as part of a system.
Rooting for the Bills does not blind me to the fact that nearly everything about the team = suck, but it also does not invalidate my observation that Spiller does things other players can't.
Cadillac Williams ($850)
Arian Foster ($760)
Rumor has the Bucs on the verge of dumping Derrick Ward, and injury dumped Ben Tate last weekend. So Williams and Foster now find themselves in two-not-three-man backfields.
Williams has the path of less resistance to full-time work, as Earnest Graham, now 30, is a full season removed from his last real action at tailback. (I assume Kareem Huggins is just a flavor of the week, although I suppose that could be wrong.) Graham was mostly a blocker last season; he got 14 carries in his 13 games. But Williams is not the player he was before his knee injuries. He hasn't reached 4.0 yards per carry since his rookie season (2005).
Foster is a better bet – assuming, that is, that he holds off Steve Slaton for the Texans' lead duties. Foster is probably more explosive than Williams (I say probably because he clocked embarrassingly slow 40 times as he worked through the draft process in 2009), and he has two other things working for him that Williams lacks: One, Slaton's fumbles. Two, Houston's passing game. Foster will see few stacked fronts this season; his two-game chance as the feature back last year yielded 216 yards at 5.5 per carry. Even splitting work with Slaton, Foster could earn his $760.
Who isn't here?
Tashard Choice ($830), fighting for scraps as the No. 3 in Dallas, looks pretty good for a jobless back, but there are two I like better. Namely:
Bernard Scott ($750)
Javon Ringer ($600)
Neither Scott nor Ringer is remotely playable under present circumstances, and the thing that would make either of them playable – an injury to the first-teamer ahead of him – would do the same for a lot of other guys. I've only listed them to get their names into the column. They're very good players, but neither looks likely to get as much work as Felix Jones and Ahmad Bradshaw did a year ago. Pity.
Not much to say regarding how these games work. Running backs get 1 point per 10 rushing or receiving yards, 6 points per rushing, receiving or return touchdown. If that sounds familiar, it should. Most non-PPR office leagues use the same scheme.
So all of the considerations in play at your typical draft or auction are in play here as well. No longer are we worried about balance across categories or yards per touch; here every yard gained is good.
The biggest change from last section to this one, therefore, is that Michael Turner, Cedric Benson and other RBs who won't be heavily involved in their teams' passing games are no longer worth a premium to us. In fact, they start out with ground to make up.
The following are the RBs I'm considering in Fanball's points games, again grouped generally by salary but with a few departures:
Chris Johnson ($6050)
Adrian Peterson ($5550)
The only question that matters here is whether you can afford these guys. They're far and away the favorites to lead all RBs in points, and paying for the leaders at RB makes more sense (as detailed in my last column) than paying for the leaders even at the higher-scoring QB position. I've written previously that I hope we won't have to own Johnson at this year's salaries, but behind the scenes I've been proceeding as if we will indeed have to. I'm trying to clear the salary room that would allow me to have Johnson active in Week 1 (vs. Oakland, 29th against the run in 2009). I'll keep trying; pencil both Johnson and Peterson onto your rosters somewhere.
Maurice Jones-Drew ($4830)
Frank Gore ($4350)
Ray Rice ($4330)
Bad teams not only score less often than good ones, but they run less often. Good teams tend to keep the ball on the ground in the fourth quarter; bad ones tend to take to the air in desperation. I expect Gore and Rice to be much busier in fourth quarters this season than Jones-Drew, and considering that they're meaningfully cheaper anyway, I see no reason to go against them if I'm leaving one of these three off of my rosters.
As to which of Gore and Rice I like better for points purposes, call it an exact tossup. I'd take Gore first if both were healthy and I needed a player to win me one real game, but I like Baltimore's line better pending the early returns on this year's 49ers first-rounders, and I like Baltimore's passing game better pending the latest returns on Alex Smith. The deciding factor would be Gore's usual fragility, except that the challenges make it easy to cover for injuries. And San Francisco should have the easier schedule in 2010.
Steven Jackson ($4170)
Again, respect only.
Michael Turner ($4130)
Turner doesn't really belong with Jones-Drew, Gore or Rice, because they all catch a lot of passes – but he's the best runner of the bunch, and all reports have him driven to return to the level he reached in 2008. If he isn't the favorite to lead the NFL in rushing TDs, the list of favorites may simply be fouled up.
Cedric Benson ($3230)
Rashard Mendenhall ($3140)
Again, there just aren't many guys like this anymore: lead backs in little danger of sharing carries, and for prices only a tick higher than what you have to spend on your average roster spot. Benson and Mendenhall also have the benefit of playing for decent-or-better teams, and remember that the points games generally award players 3 bonus points per team win.
I like Benson better as a player, and with Ben Roethlisberger on the sidelines for a quarter of the season I like Cincinnati better as a team – but Roethlisberger's absence could mean significantly more work for Mendenhall early on. So call them even, but start with Mendenhall if you only start with one of the two.
Jamaal Charles ($3030)
Listed here because he becomes attractive in a hurry if Thomas Jones hurts himself or the coaching staff comes to its senses. You know Charles ran for a ton of yards beginning in Week 10 last year, but note that he also has good hands. A full workload would be just that for him. As I wrote above, however, we'll have to figure out the Jones / Charles / Dexter McCluster mix before buying in.
Jerome Harrison ($2630)
Montario Hardesty ($1800)
Same story as in the Football Challenge; a clear leader between Harrison and Hardesty would be an automatic two-week starter to open the season. The Browns could even win both games.
Knowshon Moreno ($2620)
Too bad about the hamstring; I might have owned Moreno if I had any confidence that he'd be on the field at the start of the season. As disappointing as he was a year ago, he still averaged 84 total yards per game beginning in Week 10 – and that only figures to increase when he's healthy in 2010, as the Broncos clearly want him to be their main back (until Tim Tebow takes over inside the five).
Beanie Wells ($2270)
Felix Jones ($2150)
LeSean McCoy ($2130)
Shonn Greene ($2080)
Jahvid Best ($2000)
Ryan Mathews ($2000)
C.J. Spiller ($2000)
Wells' salary is not so far north of $2000 that he ought to be considered separately, but it is true that enough $270 hits eventually force you to cut salary where you don't want to. So he starts at a disadvantage. Jones, McCoy, Greene and Mathews play for the best teams, and Greene and Mathews figure to get heavier work than Jones and McCoy (unless LaDainian Tomlinson steals work from Greene, and even as spry as he looked at times on Monday, I just don't think he can).
Mathews will make my opening rosters for sure, as the one player who combines a salary in this range with nearly guaranteed full-time play and frequent team wins. My next choice among the seven listed here is either Greene or Spiller, with Jones trailing as long as Marion Barber muddies his waters. I'd take Wells before McCoy strictly on talent, but Arizona may have the same problem I see in Carolina: quarterbacking so poor that the running game will necessarily suffer. (By Brett Favre's reasoning, doesn't Kurt Warner owe it to Larry Fitzgerald to play one more season?)
McCoy and Best are listed only to avoid grumbling from those of you who really like one or the other of them. I don't.
Cadillac Williams ($1870)
Justin Forsett ($1620)
Similar situations for these two. Both figure to get the clear majority of their teams' work, but that work will be done with substandard support from the respective passing games, and for teams that lose more often than they win. You not only lose the touches lost to Earnest Graham or Kareem Huggins and Julius Jones or Leon Washington; you lose the more regular win bonuses that Greene and Mathews will get, and you also lose to whatever extent those two outplay these two. Unless I see more from Forsett over the next couple of preseason games (Williams' die is cast), I'm looking elsewhere.
Ahmad Bradshaw ($1770)
Bernard Scott ($1110)
Javon Ringer ($1020)
I haven't grouped Bradshaw with Felix Jones here, unlike nearly every other time I've written about them in the past thirteen months, because I view them differently in points games this year. Jones could possibly get enough work to hold a spot on some winning rosters at $2150. Bradshaw is only worthwhile as a full-timer – that is, after Brandon Jacobs is confirmed to be out for several games. Again: Such confirmation will come eventually.
Injuries to Cedric Benson and Chris Johnson are less inevitable (which isn't to say that they won't happen; Benson has never played 16 games in a season), so Scott and Ringer are purely wait-and-see for now. The only guy near their salaries who can be owned to start the year is:
Arian Foster ($1170)
I won't use Foster every week – not until he's clearly separated himself from Steve Slaton in the Texans' pecking order – but a salary this low has its uses when you're in a pinch, even if you happen to spot-start Foster in a week when Slaton gets hot and thus gets the majority of the touches. Put it this way: If Foster is the difference between being able to use Chris Johnson occasionally and not being able to use him, I guess we own Foster.
All of this could look silly soon. Slaton could fumble his way to Siberia, or Foster could suffer the same injury that felled Ben Tate. But for this week, here we are.
And for next week, wide receivers.
Posted by MARK MALONEY | Aug. 21 at 01:35 AM
Well done. I'm buying the idea of mid-range QB's to allow both CJ and Peterson. Also not buying into Best on my roster; even after watching him destroy the Gophers last year, I don't think you're going to see any consistency from him or the Detroit Offense this year. Also good point on MJD - he's not going to do much for you in the 4th quarter of most games. I really like Gore there (and Rice will be 90% owned at least), but will be prepared for injuries. Keep it coming...
Posted by Carlos Jackson | Aug. 21 at 07:07 AM
Good job Justin. I also like the mid-range QB's to get both CJ and Peterson. I already have Turner on my team and still looking in on Gore. But I still not going to make the lineup final until after the cheat game Thursday night. Man you are making this easy bro. I might can challenge the top one hundred for the first time ever. I look in on the FC forum from time to time and again those guys are just playing around. I also know those guys in the forum are reading your work so you are not doing this for your health. Keep going man I love it. Oh by the way, good job on DC baseball number 2 overall man thats great. I am playing myself and I am no way up there. I am around 845 0verall but thats the best I have ever been in baseball. I would like for you one day look at my team and see what I can do. Anything to help me out that will be cool. My team is King Jackson league #91. Thanks man
Posted by JUSTIN ELEFF | Aug. 21 at 10:25 AM
Mark: I figure the key with Best will be discipline. I can see him having a huge game in Week 1 (at CHI), and remember: the best running backs almost always have a big game in either their first- or second-ever games. So he'll fit the profile, and we'll have to stay the course and remember that Weeks 2-3-4 are against rock-solid run defenses. Best-case is that he does have the big week, a bunch of teams buy him and we're up a purchase on the field while he slumps till Week 5 (vs. STL) at least.
Posted by JUSTIN ELEFF | Aug. 21 at 10:47 AM
Carlos: Thanks for the kind words. We'll get you higher up the standings eventually, I promise. In baseball, I'm pushing as hard as I can in the DC, really trying to win so the pressure will be off for football. (Also, because I could really use the $50K right about now.) I've been close in a lot of games before, but this is my best chance yet, as I've managed to hold a purchase back - my biggest failing in the past. Looking at your team, there isn't too much you've done wrong. Brennan Boesch was obviously a buy-high mistake; I'm sure you knew he wouldn't keep up the pace he'd set, but he's just been deadweight since you pulled the trigger. One easy fix for next year: Carry at least one and probably two more SPs. Shuffling them is key to doing well in four different categories - home teams win more often than road teams, most pitchers produce meaningfully better ratios at home, and having more SPs on the roster means more two-start weeks and thus more Ks. Get a little lucky on the hitters, too (this wasn't a good year to get stuck using an expensive catcher), and you're right there.
Posted by JUSTIN ELEFF | Aug. 21 at 10:52 AM
Carlos: Also, buy Gene McCaffrey's Wise Guy Baseball (wiseguybaseball.com). What I do here with the Fanball football games, Gene does with the DC and other baseball games - only better.
Posted by KEVIN WEAKLAND | Aug. 21 at 03:40 PM
hmmmm didn't MJD production really tail off during the last quarter of the season last year??? I don't see him as the number 3 RB.
Posted by JUSTIN ELEFF | Aug. 21 at 04:28 PM
Kevin: I'm worried you may have misread something. I don't think any of us see J-D as the No. 3 back either. The dollar values above were assigned to the players as "salaries" by the organizers of various national contests; they are what they are. But if you read my analysis, you should understand that I don't think J-D is worth his salaries in any of the contests.
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