Johnson's release opens up backfield for Perry

August, 30, 2008
08/30/08
5:51
PM ET
For a brief moment, we again liked what we saw of Rudi Johnson. That was about a week into training camp -- it's been a steady downfall since.

After an injury-plagued, disappointing 2007 season, Johnson came into training camp in great shape and injury-free. He took snaps with the first unit. Then his hamstring problems resurfaced and lingered. By the time he was ready to return, at least to some level, the writing was on the wall. Rumored to be a cut victim for about a week, Johnson was released by the Bengals on Saturday, leaving Chris Perry and Kenny Watson to assume the running back duties in Cincinnati.

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Funny (or not) how quickly things change in a season. At this time last year, Johnson was a top-25 pick in fantasy as a consistent back who had had at least 1,300 rushing yards and exactly 12 touchdowns for three straight seasons. Now he's unemployed.

But don't expect that to last long. Look around the NFL and you'll see a lot of shaky running back situations. And by situations, I mean the running back by committee approach that has become vogue in the NFL. There are a lot of teams out there that could use a power back who has proven to be consistent in a short-yardage, workhorse role.

So Johnson's release from Cincy doesn't mean the end of his fantasy value, only that that value won't come from the Bengals. If anything, this release, and what I assume will be an eventual signing, might even help his fantasy value. He could be given a short-yardage role on a team that likes to run the ball more. We're not telling you to move him up on your rankings, but don't wipe off Johnson's name in black marker, either.

Before this transpired, we had Johnson ranked 71st overall and 31st among running backs. Seem too high? No way. Like I said, he has shown what he's capable of when he gets the opportunity. But I see him dropping to somewhere in the mid-90s or 100s in our Top 200 and right around the Rashard Mendenhall/Jerious Norwood range among running backs. In other words, clear backups who could be relative nonfactors or who could step up and make an impact if the situation arises.

In Johnson's case, the risks are his chronic hamstring troubles and the situation he's in now, but there has to be talent left in that 28-year-old body. Obviously I'm expecting him to be scooped up, and my ranking of him reflects that I don't think his hamstring is worse than the Bengals have let on. We'll have to watch for that in the aftermath. The bigger news, however, is what this does for Perry and Watson. Can they combine to make the Bengals' backfield a productive one?

Chris PerryFrank Victores/US PresswireFantasy owners have been hot after Chris Perry; they should be doubly so now.
Yes they can, but the fact that they'll probably split it, and because we have our doubts as to whether either of them could handle the job by himself, hurts their fantasy value.

Perry hasn't played in an NFL regular-season game since November 2006; he missed all of 2007 because of ankle and leg fractures. And before that, he was more of a third-down back. But be careful not to write him off so quickly. He has been looking healthy and running well in camp and had moved from third to first on the team's running back depth chart by midcamp. As for the third-down responsibilities, he doesn't really have the build or skill set of a third-down back; he just played there because he was new to the league, and that was Johnson's deficiency. There's where he helped the team the most. In essence, we've never seen for sure whether Perry can handle the workload and be successful as a primary back.

Sure, Perry might not be a great blocker, and we can't speak to his past injuries, but he's a 6-foot, 224-pounder still in the prime of his career, and he's starting for an offense that should score plenty of points. He entered today ranked 133rd overall in our Top 200, and he should be moved up to the range Johnson was in before being released, somewhere just inside the top 70. The way he's looking in camp, and as many opportunities as it now appears he'll get (I'm guessing 60 percent of the team's carries, plus some catches), he deserves to be taken before the true middle rounds.

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As for Watson, who ran for 763 yards and scored seven touchdowns last season, he'll serve as the backup but probably will get a good 20-30 percent of the team's carries. He averaged more than 4 yards per carry last season and has more of the third-down-back skills. Should another injury to Perry force Watson into the starting role, he's someone who we know can flourish as the starter. But for now, fantasy owners should view him more as a fourth RB to be targeted just past the midway point of a draft.

Were he assured an even split with Perry in the backfield, maybe we'd consider him earlier. But right now he looks like the clear backup, and he should be regarded as such. We currently have him ranked No. 114 overall and 44th among running backs. I think that bumps up some, maybe to around No. 104 or 105 overall, but not to the point that fantasy owners need to circle him on their rankings sheet as a must-have.

Ex-Colt DeDe Dorsey is also part of the mix and likely will get a few carries per game, but he's far too raw to expect much from him.

Brendan Roberts is a contributing writer/editor for ESPN Fantasy.

Brendan Roberts is a contributing writer/editor for ESPN Fantasy. He has been covering fantasy sports as an editor and writer for more than eight years and was awarded the Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year award in 2006 from the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. Roberts can be read in both the fantasy baseball and football areas at ESPN.com.

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