Challenge Contests — by Justin Eleff
HELL ON WHEELS REVISITED: This year we do better at picking RBs to own in the challenge games.
Posted Jul. 17 at 09:28 AM
Ian Allan, our resident guru and (why not?) high priest, had it more than right when he said 2006 would be the year of the RBBC. (That’s running-back-by-committee for the uninitiated and/or forgetful.) There were weeks when I couldn’t start six backs I knew would shoulder a full load.
In ramping up for this year’s challenge games, then, unlike with the truncated approach I took to running down the quarterbacks, runners get full treatment. We’ll go alphabetically and thus start with the AFC.
First, though, remember that there’s a big difference between Roto- and points-style scoring. Where rushing and receiving averages count as separate categories, RBs can do considerable harm in addition to considerable good. So where a given player leans heavily one way or the other, I tend to focus on that above all else. Almost any true full-time back can make hay in a typical points game, where a team that sticks to the run despite ghastly results (see Baltimore, for instance, just below, where 476 rushing attempts in 2006 fell just outside the NFL’s top ten) is serving your purposes if not its own.
So, yes, there is a decided Roto bias to these blurbs. Picking points game RBs is hardly rocket science: You own LaDainian Tomlinson with the five cheapest full-timers whose teams are likely to win, and you spend bigger money elsewhere.
Away we go.
So The U was right to want to start Frank Gore ahead of Willis McGahee after all. Maybe the injury took away more of his ability than we wanted to believe; maybe the ability was oversold in the first place. Whatever, I fail to see how 3.8 yards per rush and half a dozen touchdowns per season translate into stardom in the new gig. I keep reading that Baltimore’s line is worlds better than Buffalo’s. That’s Baltimore: 476 attempts, 1,637 yards (3.4 average), 11 TDs. And Buffalo: 420, 1,552 (3.7), 9.
Don’t misunderstand: I love the additions of Derrick Dockery and Marshawn Lynch. With those two alone, the ground game in Buffalo is starting to show a snarl that’s been absent for years. But Dick Jauron is vanilla as they come -- he may be the second-whitest man on the planet after Alex Trebek -- and snarling ain’t enough when a defense knows the run is coming.
Rudi Johnson has been perfectly consistent for almost four full years now, and an in-the-bank 1,300-plus rushing yards and 12 TDs is nice enough. And at just over a catch per game he’ll hardly move your receiving average -- again, nice enough. But check the splits: More carries in the 4th quarter of games (85) than the 2nd quarter (79) says the team often uses him to kill clock, which means he came by his 3.8 yards per carry honestly, which means he will move your rushing average considerably. In the wrong direction.
3.5 yards per carry for two years says Jamal Lewis is finished at all of 28 years old … or the line in Baltimore plays much worse than its reputation would suggest. Problem: Say you think it’s the latter (and, again, I do). Is the line in Cleveland much better?
Mike Shanahan can get 1,025 rushing yards out of a turf-toed Tatum Bell. Mike Shanahan can also get Terrell Davis out of the endgame of the NFL Draft. When Mike Shanahan goes shopping for a back, then, and handpicks a 28-year-old with three 1,200-plus yard seasons in his past, you plan on making that back a part of your challenge present and future. Travis Henry, 2007: 1,520 combined yards and 12 TDs.
The picture of Samkon Gado on his ESPN player page (check it out, shoulders up around ear level) says it better than I can. Does that look like a running back? Does anyone on this roster?
Subject to the caveat I hinted at a couple of weeks ago -- that I see the Colts playing from behind in a lot of games in 2007, which will certainly cut at his carries -- Joseph Addai is a fine play as kind of a Diet Edge.
Maurice Jones-Drew makes for the second-toughest call in the AFC -- and maybe overall -- after the Jets’ Thomas Jones. J-D went for 5.7 yards per carry in 2006, Fred Taylor for 5.0. What that says to me is not that the O-line is incredible but that the whole running game has some comeuppance coming. I’ll be surprised if Taylor repeats even half of his 1,146 rushing yards -- 30-something backs have a way of disappearing, and the injury history here argues against an exception to the rule -- but I’m just not fully sold on J-D’s talent. Maybe that’s crazy, but then it ain’t like you’re getting him cheap, especially where rushing average counts as a category …
On top of everything else, Larry Johnson averages 10.6 yards per catch for his career. So you know he’ll see the ball 400-plus times in 2007, maybe (again) 450-plus times, and you know he won’t hurt you no matter how he sees it. Let Herm Edwards run him into an early retirement; in challenge games you own him until the day he sends his papers to the League.
Trent Green’s offense will surely look different than Daunte Culpepper and Joey Harrington’s did. So maybe Ronnie Brown will finally show the form the Fins expected when they spent the second overall pick on him a couple of years ago. (And he did break 1,000 yards in 2006, albeit just barely.) My general rule, though: A great back makes for a different look on offense, not the other way around. This is an average player on a lucky-if-it’s-better-than-average team. You can’t own everyone.
I took Laurence Maroney in the 5th round of my office draft last year. My top RB was Frank Gore (3rd round), and I figured between Maroney and Michael Turner (later, I think 9th round) I’d have a second stud to go with him. Didn’t work. I’ll say this, though, and I’d stake another draft on it: Maroney is a clear first round talent, first half of first round in most leagues. If he lasts for 15 games (OK: no sure thing) he’ll win a lot of leagues in 2007. With Travis Henry and Larry Johnson (and Joe Addai?), the third (fourth?) absolute must in the AFC.
NEW YORK JETS
The toughest call among all backs in 2007. Thomas Jones finally finds himself in an unquestioned starring role after working back from draft disappointment to (dare I say it?) consistent 1,200-yard stud. Does that mean he’s done working, set to disappoint again? Does he have a full feature year in him at 29? Will this line hold up against a rough-and-tougher schedule? I’m inclined to leave him off to start, but I’ve answered similar questions the same way before and I’ve been wrong many times. Watch closely.
They scored 5 rushing TDs as a team in ’06, and even those went to three different players. Lane Kiffin could be the next Chuck Knox (Running Lane instead of Ground Chuck), but the personnel would still be -- what’s the word? -- crap.
Fast Willie Parker just had a whole season to match his Super Bowl performance against the Seahawks, and Mike Tomlin -- as I’ve already written -- seems like the type to favor the ground game. OK, so Parker is maxing out at last year’s 21 carries per game, and Ben Roethlisberger will be much better in 2007. At 80% of last year’s numbers he slips all the way to 1,373 combined yards and 13 (!) TDs -- still enough until an injury says otherwise.
You can never go far wrong with LaDainian Tomlinson, and the last time I avoided a player because he couldn’t possibly repeat his career year was 2003, when Priest Holmes followed 1,615 rushing yards and 24 total TDs with 1,420 and 27. That said, Tomlinson is now fully priced in the challenges, and Philip Rivers (and, by extension, Antonio Gates and Vincent Jackson) will take at least some of his thunder. I’m something like 70/30 in favor of carrying him to start the year, but note: I’d be 100/0 in favor of cheapo Michael Turner if the MVP happened to strain a hamstring in the preseason.
As with Atlanta, this is not RBBC but BFBC: backfield-by-committee. The most conservative projections will have Vince Young taking 700 rushing yards for himself, and without a true stud for a running mate (or a line that grinds bones to make its bread) that’s too many.
The NFC next week.
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