Though I can't shake the image of him sitting on the sideline in the AFC Title Game, looking remarkably like Han Solo at the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back, it would be crazy to suggest that LaDainian Tomlinson belongs anywhere but at the top of the list of running backs for the 2008 season. If you land the first pick in your draft take LT and enjoy the best feeling in fantasy -- not having to worry.
I’ve read a bunch of theories on why Tomlinson will have a big year, everything from “motivated to prove himself after the Pats game” to “no Michael Turner to steal carries”. Look, the only reason he’s going to have a big year is because he always does. He’ll rush for around 1,500 yards, catch somewhere in the 60-70 pass range and find the end zone at least 15 times. It’s the easiest pick in the draft. Here is a look at the rest of the list (not a list of every back in the league, but you probably knew that).
2. Brian Westbrook
Westbrook kicks off a group of four backs that I feel have to be viewed as top six or seven overall picks in any draft. And since it’s a group of four I guess I’ll have to compare each to a main character on Sex and The City. Kidding (though Westbrook does have a Charlotte vibe. Charlotte Rae, I mean). The truth is that Westbrook is good for 2,000 yards of total offense and has appeared to shake that injury-prone label. I think he’s closer to being the top back than he is to being ranked third.
3. Adrian Peterson
I have some reservations about this guy. First, though, a positive. If you asked me which RB has the best chance to run for 2,000 yards this season, I would say Peterson without hesitation. He is, when healthy, unstoppable. Three questions for me linger. 1. Can he stay healthy? 2. Will he catch more passes this season (only 19 in 2007)? 3. What about the Chester Taylor factor?
4. Joseph Addai
You just get the feeling that this guy will be in the first round of drafts for the next 10 years, right? The Colts do a good job of giving him enough carries to keep fantasy owners happy without wearing Addai out for the long run. I keep waiting for him to catch 70 passes in a season. Think the Pats would like a mulligan? I’m actually not so sure.
5. Steven Jackson
The fact that he hasn’t reported to camp yet is a good thing for fantasy owners. Nothing positive ever happens when a top player is on the field in the preseason. With the Rams O-Line looking porous again, I expect Bulger to check-down to Jackson often. A repeat of 2006 (90 catches) is quite possible. Doesn’t it seem strange that Jackson is only 25? Feels like he’s been around forever.
6. Marion Barber
“Well, there we’re in kind of a gray area.”
Thanks to Frank and Irwin for introducing us to the unknown. We’ve arrived at the point (already!) where every back carries some baggage. Take Barber. A TD machine for the NFC’s top offense. Julius Jones is gone (Seattle) so Marion is ready to assume the full-time number one duties, right? Well, kind of. Problem is that the ‘Boys used a first-rounder on Felix Jones, the (you guessed it) back out of Arkansas. I still like Barber for 1,100 yards and 12-14 TDs.
7. Marshawn Lynch
A clear-cut number one back for a team on the rise, (they could win 10 games with a few breaks, right)? Lynch should continue to improve in his sophomore season with the Bills. Another youngster who needs to prove that he can catch the ball, but (unlike Peterson) at least Lynch was a reliable receiving option at the college level. Wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see this guy go for 1,500 yards this season. I like Barber a little more if only because he plays for a team that scored 203 more points than the Bills last season (an extra 34 TDs).
8. Frank Gore
Do you trust Mike Martz? Can Gore produce for Martz as Marshall Faulk did, or will he just become a non-factor as the Niners throw the ball 45 times a game? The former Rams coach is saying all the right things so far, and it’s frankly hard to believe that a guy with the skill of Gore would be ignored. The Niners offense in 2007 had an inept passing game, leaving opposing defenses to focus solely on Gore. The back still managed to rush for 1,100 yards and haul in 53 passes. Those numbers should improve in 2008.
9. Larry Johnson
While it’s fun to watch Herman Edwards go 4-12, just remember this: one more of those seasons and we’ll have to watch him on TV every Sunday on the CBS, or (please don’t let this happen) ESPN pre-game show. A lot is made about how worn out Johnson was by the Chiefs in 2006 (league-record 416 rushes) but take that year away and he really hasn’t been worked much. Remember, he spent his first two seasons backing up Priest Holmes. And he was the starter at Penn State for only one season. This could be the swing pick of most drafts. You are looking at a player who was the first pick in many leagues two years ago (and no worse than second last year) possibly falling out of the first round. If you are at pick number 10 in the first round and LJ is still on the board you have to take him, don’t you? The upside is just too high to ignore.
10. Clinton Portis
I was tempted to round out the Top 10 with Ryan Grant but decided to stick with a known quantity. Portis has played in all 16 games three times in his career. His average totals for those seasons? A robust 1,429 yards rushing and 12 TDs. Actually a pretty underrated player, he’s the one guy who has proven to be more than just a Shanahan product.
Outside the Top 10:
Ryan Grant basically played at the level of a 2,000-yard rusher in the second half of last season. Can he put up a similar season with a first-year starter under center?... Michael Turner could be a top-five fantasy back or he could be splitting carries with Jerious Norwood by Week 10. He’s really the great mystery of the draft to me. If you could ever guarantee me that Turner would get 300 carries this season I would have put him right after Steven Jackson on the list. Of course, 300 carries is 72 more than he has posted in his four years in the NFL… Maurice Jones-Drew is the perfect example of a 2008 running back. Here is a guy who has averaged 5.1 yards per carry in his first two seasons with 22 total rushing scores. He can catch the ball (43-catch average) and has played in 31 of 32 games. So why isn’t he a first-rounder? Because the platoon system was in full effect in Jacksonville as Fred Taylor had 223 carries to Jones-Drew’s 167. I would think that won’t change much this season, though Taylor is always an injury risk.
Two veteran backs I don’t like this season are Willis McGahee and Jamal Lewis. McGahee had his knee scoped last week and claims he’ll be ready for the opener. I don’t think I could use a second or third round pick on a player who had knee surgery in the same month as the draft. If you do pick McGahee make sure you get Ray Rice later on. He’s played very well in the preseason and many believe that the Ravens will move him into the top role this season… I know that Lewis bounced back last season but I can’t shake his efforts from the previous two seasons (3.5 yard per carry). Again, I just think he’s not worth where you’ll have to take him…I touched on Laurence Maroney in my blog Monday. He’ll be a terrific play in some weeks, a frustrating one in others …Davin Joseph, the superb right guard for the Bucs, will miss two months with a broken right foot. That is not good news for Earnest Graham, who was a nice surprise for Tampa Bay last season after assuming full-time duties halfway through the campaign. Graham clicked with Jeff Garcia and could catch 75 passes this season.
Quick, who leads all active players in career rushing yards? The answer is Edgerrin James, who passed the 1,000-yard mark for the seventh time last season. His days as a top-five back are long gone, but he can be a still be a solid flex option … One of the bizarre developments of the 2007 season was Brandon Jacobs inability to find the end zone. In 2005 and 2006 he rushed for 16 total TDs on just 134 carries. In 2007 he got the rock on 202 occasions and rushed for only four scores. Could be a fluke, but there are too many other candidates (Ahmad Bradshaw, Derrick Ward) stealing carries to make Jacobs a weekly option … Rookies, rookies. My blog on Monday also discussed Matt Forté, my pick for Rookie of the Year. He’s got the lead spot in that backfield and will catch a ton of passes from Kyle Orton … Chris Johnson, Jonathan Stewart and Rashard Mendenhall are all looking at spilt roles in 2008 … The year’s most-hyped rookie, Darren McFadden, will be treated with kid gloves by Oakland. There isn’t a reason to give him any more than 150 carries this season, especially with Justin Fargas coming off a career year (1,009 yards)…Speaking of hype, what to do with Reggie Bush? If you are in a PPR league, he has obviously has significant value. Will he prove to be an every-down back in Year Three?