The rundown on top backs

Am I boring you by dwelling on the obvious? Or am I failing to address your most pressing questions by reaching for the obscure?

These are questions I ask when writing about fantasy sports, and never more so than during the run-up to football draft season. Fantasy football has become so popular and so widely covered that it's hard to decide what the audience wants. There are hundreds of thousands of casual players, who fall into office leagues and really do want to know whether to pick Steven Jackson or Larry Johnson No. 2 overall. But then there are thousands more hard-core fantasy fans who want detailed analysis of fifth-string wide receivers.


What's a columnist to do?

Well, I'm going to avoid the ranking format this year because that invariably leads to too many words wasted on the best, most reliable players. Instead, I'll go through the three major offensive positions over the next three weeks and share thoughts on figures of interest - well known and obscure. Let's start with the glamour position of our game: running back.


I've been amazed by the range of opinions on the Seattle Seahawks' Shaun Alexander. Some owners look at his run of touchdowns late last season and think he'll bounce back to near-2005 form. They're picking him as high as fourth overall. Others see a 30-year-old with a worn-down body running behind a deteriorating line. I fall in the second camp and think it's ridiculous to take Alexander when talents such as Brian Westbrook and Willie Parker remain on the board. Remember, the first rule of drafting running backs is to avoid players on the down slope, because that slope often steepens in a hurry.

Of the possible first-round backs, the Denver Broncos' Travis Henry also seems to inspire divergent opinions. I heard ESPN's John Clayton predict that 1,500 yards would be a low-water mark, given Denver's offensive schemes and Henry's durability as a power runner. Others fear Mike Shanahan's propensity for rotating backs and Henry's history of violating the league's drug policy. I like Henry as a late-first-round pick because I think the Denver line will help him avoid the no-gain carries that hurt him in Tennessee. But I wouldn't reach past Parker or Westbrook to take him higher.

I spoke with a colleague who drafted last weekend, and we agreed that late in the first round is a nice place to pick this year. In his league, for example, the owner picking 12th snagged Laurence Maroney and then Reggie Bush with the first pick in the next round. I could see Maroney picking up 1,500 total yards and 12 touchdowns, and Bush is incredibly valuable in leagues that offer points for receptions. On the other hand, I'd hate to pick fourth, because then I'd have to consider Johnson and might end up with a less exciting back such as Clinton Portis or Willis McGahee in the second.

Don't take that as a slap at McGahee. He should be better than Jamal Lewis and could easily amass 1,500 yards and 10 touchdowns. He just doesn't carry the whiff of greater possibility that makes Maroney and Bush so enticing.

Many owners saw great potential in former Auburn teammates Ronnie Brown and Carnell "Cadillac" Williams last season. Both went in the first round of most drafts. Both disappointed. But I see post-hype, breakout potential in Brown, who is with the Miami Dolphins. He wasn't that bad last year, and the Miami line can't get any worse. I expect numbers similar to those of Portis and McGahee, and you might get Brown a few spots lower. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Williams had a much worse 2006, but I like him as a third-round pick this year, because Tampa Bay faces a slate of weak running defenses.

I understand why many drafters favor Thomas Jones over Cedric Benson. After all, the veteran outplayed the would-be phenom in direct competition for the Chicago Bears' tailback job. But with Jones with the New York Jets, I expect them to produce fairly similar numbers this season. And with runners, I lean toward the younger guy. Benson doesn't have much wear on him and could take a serious leap forward. With Jones, what we've seen is what you'll get this year. Either is a reasonable second back, but Benson could produce like a lead fantasy runner.

A reader asked me the other day if I'd be comfortable with the New York Giants' Brandon Jacobs as a second running back. I absolutely would, as Jacobs is going a bit low in drafts I've seen. He's not likely to replicate Tiki Barber's yardage totals, but he should clear 1,000 yards rushing, and we know he can score. A possible 10 touchdowns from a third-round pick is nothing to sneeze at.

The folks at Pro Football Prospectus have tabbed the Atlanta Falcons' Jerious Norwood as one of the leading breakout candidates in the NFL, and I agree. You have to love his yards-per-carry average, and though he might never become a workhorse, he could help fantasy teams the same way Tatum Bell did in 2005.


Among the backs trapped in platoon situations, I like the Dallas Cowboys' Marion Barber. He's better than Julius Jones, and we know the Cowboys trust him more near the end zone, so he could be an outstanding third back or even a decent second on a team with strong receivers.

As for players I'd avoid, Jamal Lewis and Edgerrin James fall into the old-and-battered-runner zone. Both should get the ball enough to be useful, but some owners are still picking them in the middle of the second round. That's crazy because the history of NFL runners says they're more likely to be done as viable starters than to recapture past glory.