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Thursday, June 12, 2008
Updated: September 2, 4:00 PM ET
Running backs: Peterson and L.T. a lot closer than you think

By Christopher Harris
ESPN.com

I am old, so I remember when parachute pants were the height of fashion. It was a time when breakdancing was super-cool, and the children of suburbia were busy appropriating its cultural totems, so those big baggy nylon monstrosities were seen all over the halls of my junior high. At some point in time, however, if you didn't need to spin 720 degrees on your rear end to the "Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo" soundtrack, walking around with your junk sort of loose fell out of favor.

The same has happened with single-rusher NFL offenses.

LaDainian Tomlinson
There just aren't many plow horses like the great L.T. left.
NFL teams used to take pride in finding a plow horse-like running back and riding him for, say, three or four seasons, before the inevitable injury or fatigue took him down. But as of last season, that elite, 300-carry back was harder to find. Teams seem to have realized that they'll get a better and healthier return on their investment if they can extend a rusher's career by not running him into the ground. In fact, 2007 saw the fewest 300-carry backs since 1999. This decade, there have been double-digit 300-carry backs four times, and never had there been fewer than nine in a season. Last year, there were six: Clinton Portis, Edgerrin James, Willie Parker, LaDainian Tomlinson, Thomas Jones and LenDale White. The last time the NFL saw fewer than six 300-carry backs was 1993.

A casual look at NFL backfields heading into '08 yields relatively few situations where one man is favored to dominate his team's carries, and far more running-back-by-committee (RBBC) scenarios. Of course, injuries and ineffectiveness have a way of shaking up what we think we know in June, but any way you slice it, there are more RBBCs in the NFL right now than in recent memory.

For fantasy, this is marginally brutal. It means that after the elite running backs are drafted, life becomes something of a crapshoot. Do you dare take Earnest Graham to be your No. 2 rusher? Does the Steelers' selection of Rashard Mendenhall mean Parker's days as a full-time back are behind him? DeAngelo Williams or Jonathan Stewart? Kevin Smith or Tatum Bell? Julius Jones or T.J. Duckett?

The trend is clear, but its implications aren't. Does all this mean getting a stud, three-down rusher is more of a priority than ever? Does it mean it's smarter to spend a high pick on a sure-fire quarterback or receiver, and make up for a lack rushing star power with a whole bunch of "maybes?" Really only one thing is for certain: The good ol' days where we could advise you to take two running backs in the first two rounds of your fantasy draft no matter what are gone. Things are just too fluid these days. With that in mind, let's peruse the field.

The Elite

Running back rankings (by tier)

LaDainian Tomlinson is still the king of the running back position -- and fantasy football overall. But Minnesota's Adrian Peterson has closed that gap, and an argument could be made for him being selected first overall.

Tier 1
1. LaDainian Tomlinson, Chargers
2. Adrian Peterson, Vikings
3. Brian Westbrook, Eagles
4. Joseph Addai, Colts
5. Steven Jackson, Rams

Tier 2
6. Frank Gore, 49ers
7. Clinton Portis, Redskins
8. Marshawn Lynch, Bills

Tier 3
9. Marion Barber, Cowboys
10. Larry Johnson, Chiefs
11. Ryan Grant, Packers
12. Willie Parker, Steelers
13. Willis McGahee, Ravens
14. Jamal Lewis, Browns
15. Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars

Tier 4
16. Brandon Jacobs, Giants
17. Laurence Maroney, Patriots
18. Reggie Bush, Saints
19. Michael Turner, Falcons

20. Darren McFadden, Raiders

Tier 5
21. Thomas Jones, Jets
22. Edgerrin James, Cardinals
23. Earnest Graham, Buccaneers
24. Ronnie Brown, Dolphins
25. Fred Taylor, Jaguars
26. Selvin Young, Broncos
27. LenDale White, Titans

Tier 6
28. Jonathan Stewart, Panthers
29. Julius Jones, Seahawks
30. Matt Forte, Bears
31. Chris Perry, Bengals
32. Justin Fargas, Raiders
33. Kevin Smith, Lions
34. DeAngelo Williams, Panthers
35. Ricky Williams, Dolphins
36. Chester Taylor, Vikings

Tier 7
37. Felix Jones, Cowboys
38. Kenny Watson, Bengals
39. Deuce McAllister, Saints
40. Ahmad Bradshaw, Giants
41. Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers
42. Jerious Norwood, Falcons

Tier 8
43. Leon Washington, Jets
44. Chris Johnson, Titans
45. Ladell Betts, Redskins
46. Rudi Johnson, Bengals
47. Derrick Ward, Giants
48. Maurice Morris, Seahawks
49. LaMont Jordan, Patriots
50. Ahman Green, Texans
51. Sammy Morris, Patriots
52. Pierre Thomas, Saints
53. DeShaun Foster, 49ers
54. Brandon Jackson, Packers
55. Aaron Stecker, Saints
56. Andre Hall, Broncos

Tier 9
57. Kevin Jones, Bears
58. Ray Rice, Ravens
59. Kolby Smith, Chiefs
60. Michael Bush, Raiders
61. Dominic Rhodes, Colts
62. Michael Pittman, Broncos
63. Chris Henry, Titans
64. T.J. Duckett, Seahawks
65. Brian Leonard, Rams
66. Warrick Dunn, Buccaneers
67. Adrian Peterson, Bears
68. Mewelde Moore, Steelers
69. Ryan Torain, Broncos
70. Fred Jackson, Bills

This year there's a legitimate question at the top of the heap: With the first pick in your fantasy draft, do you take LaDainian Tomlinson or Adrian Peterson? Tomlinson suffered (for him) a letdown in 2007, losing 341 yards and 13 scores off his unbelievable '06 numbers, but he still won the rushing title and has never failed to reach double-digit rushing touchdowns in his seven-year career. However, L.T. is also coming off a torn MCL that he suffered in last year's playoffs, and this is his age-29 season, which indicates he could be close to wearing down.

Meanwhile, Peterson transmogrified into "Purple Jesus" before our eyes in '07, setting the single-game rushing record (296 yards, against the vaunted Chargers defense), and at his peak was the best running back in the game. However, Peterson also reinforced his reputation as a somewhat injury-prone player, tearing his LCL, missing two games and averaging just 2.7 yards per carry once he returned. We've still ranked Tomlinson ahead of Peterson because of his week-to-week steadiness and the fact that Chester Taylor is still in Minnesota. But the gap is shrinking.

Brian Westbrook led the league in yards from scrimmage last season, was third in rushing yards, second in touches and seventh in touchdowns. Like Tomlinson, Westbrook turns 29 this summer, which means all the hard hits could catch up to him at any time. But he's still an elite pass catcher, still has no competition for carries in Philadelphia and shook off the "injury-prone" label by playing 15 games in '07. … Joseph Addai scored 15 times in '07, including two three-touchdown games, and failed to score in just four of the 14 games in which he played meaningful minutes. While his yards-per-carry average (4.1) wasn't spectacular, Addai has shown a nose for the goal line, and the plush rushing job in Indy is all his. … Steven Jackson tore his groin in Week 3 last season and wound up missing four entire games and parts of two others. Meanwhile, the Rams' offense was submarined by injuries at nearly every position, but it figures to get back on track behind new offensive coordinator Al Saunders (and healed Hall of Fame-bound tackle Orlando Pace). Jackson is just 25 years old, and should be a beast in '08.

Not sexy, but they get the job done

For some reason, Clinton Portis doesn't get credit for a terrific '07, especially in light of what was expected of him. After all, he was coming off an '06 campaign in which he suffered injuries and lost significant time to Ladell Betts, plus he had to rush most of last season behind a line that didn't include plow horses Jon Jansen and Randy Thomas. Portis led the league in carries in '07, was third in yards from scrimmage, and set career highs with 47 catches and 389 receiving yards. Given new offensive coordinator Jim Zorn's presence in D.C. and the West Coast offense he's installing, Portis figures to have a ton of value in '08 and to be underrated in your fantasy draft.… We were ready to bury Jamal Lewis when he moved to Cleveland last year. After two subpar years in Baltimore, Lewis looked like a hesitant, reluctant runner destined for the sidelines. However, the suddenly excellent Browns offensive line (behind mammoth rookie tackle Joe Thomas) and a shockingly good pass game opened up all kinds of space for Lewis, who suddenly hit holes hard again and seemed in far better shape than he'd been in at the end of his Ravens tenure. Now Lewis has a new three-year deal, so there's always a chance he gets complacent again. But we don't think so. There's an awful lot of offensive talent on this team, and Lewis showed a solid nose for the end zone in '07. … The fantasy football maxim suggests fantasy owners shouldn't chase touchdowns. The logic is that it's not a rusher's fault if he does all the work but gets tackled on the 1-yard line, needs a blow and someone else punches it in. But is there a corresponding maxim about not chasing guys who don't produce touchdowns? Thomas Jones didn't have that bad a first year with the Jets in '07: He finished 10th in the league in rushing. However, he scored exactly once. Yikes. That made him a fantasy pariah, as did the fact that he averaged only 3.6 yards per carry. However, the Jets definitely showed they were committed to the run (Jones was fifth in the league in carries), and they signed guard Alan Faneca to open more holes. Jones turns 30 this year, which is a little scary, but the freakish lack of touchdowns has to reverse itself this season, doesn't it? … Fred Taylor has the thankless task of moving the ball between the 20s, whereupon Maurice Jones-Drew swoops in and vultures touchdowns. It's an arrangement that works for the Jaguars, and certainly means the MJD is the more valuable member of the Jacksonville backfield for fantasy purposes. But that doesn't mean you should ignore Taylor. Freddy appears fragile no more, as he has missed only one meaningful game in the last two seasons, finished ninth in rushing yards in '08 and also finished third in yards per carry (5.4). At age 32, he probably can't handle a full load anymore. The good part is: He doesn't have to.

Falling down

Larry Johnson
Larry Johnson's value has been a lightning rod for debate among fantasy owners this offseason.
Opinions on Larry Johnson will vary wildly this season, and not only because he missed the final eight games of last season because of a broken foot. Some will notice Johnson's spectacular 37 combined rushing touchdowns in 2005 and 2006 and see that he has been a full-time back only three-plus seasons, and thus will assume he's set for a return to glory. Others will worry about his foot, his attitude (LJ hasn't always been the happiest camper) and the dreadful team that surrounds him in Kansas City, including an offensive line that has gone from being one of the league's best to arguably the league's worst in two years. At our ESPN.com player rankings "summit," Johnson inspired widely varying opinion. Some folks wanted him back in his traditional top-five slot, while others thought he should be as low as 18th among rushers. Suffice it to say that LJ is no longer a no-brainer top-of-the-first-round selection, at least not until he proves he belongs there again. … Don't be fooled by the big name or the MVP credentials. Wherever Shaun Alexander winds up, he'll be a platoon guy whose heart and gumption were questioned last season. At age 31, his days as a leading man are behind him, and the Seahawks released him this spring. … The Texans swear up and down that they're ready for Ahman Green to be healthy, but after saying that, they went out and signed Chris Brown from the Titans and have a raft of other backfield options, too. Green's knee is supposedly ready for training camp, but he's so injury-prone, it's tough to see spending starter fantasy money on him. … Tatum Bell was the last man standing after the running back exodus in Detroit (T.J. Duckett and Kevin Jones are gone), but then the Lions drafted Kevin Smith, throwing the prospect of Bell as a starter out the window. That's probably for the best. Despite Bell's boast that he'll eclipse 1,500 yards and 13 touchdowns this season, he's known as a fumbler and an unreliable goal-line back. Stay away. … The Bears released Cedric Benson in June after having tired of his poor play and off-field problems, which included two alcohol-related arrests. Benson might have to deal with a suspension from the NFL at some point, but even if he finds his way back on to someone else's roster, you don't want any part of him on your fantasy team.

Opportunity Knocks

Michael Turner has stepped from LaDainian Tomlinson's shadow, and will be the man in Atlanta this fall, at least on first and second downs. On one hand, that's good news: New Falcons offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey comes from the Pittsburgh smash-mouth tradition. He'll often put two tight ends on the field and give Turner a good chance to be effective. On the other hand, it's bad news: This young offensive line is still one of the league's shakiest, and the quarterback situation will be iffy for as long as it takes Matt Ryan to get comfortable. Still, Turner figures to be the main guy in Atlanta, with Jerious Norwood acting as the team's third-down option. … With Shaun Alexander gone in Seattle, will one man step into the breach and claim fantasy glory? Julius Jones, formerly of the Cowboys, and T.J. Duckett, formerly of the Lions, should get the first chances, though Maurice Morris is still around, too. Jones signed the biggest contract, so common sense suggests the Seahawks would love him to step up and be the man, and it's possible he takes the reins early and never lets go. But Mike Holmgren has already endorsed the idea of a committee, with Duckett stealing goal-line touches. … When the Broncos released Travis Henry this spring, Selvin Young was suddenly the name on fantasy owners' lips. Going into training camp, Young looks like a clear favorite for touches in the Denver backfield. He averaged a strong 5.2 yards per carry in his rookie season, and he caught 35 passes as Henry's understudy. But beware of Mike Shanahan. A cast of relative lowlights (including Michael Pittman and Andre Hall) waits for Young to spit the bit, but watch out for talented rookie Ryan Torain, who could return from a fractured elbow around Week 7. … Warrick Dunn returns to Tampa Bay after six years in Atlanta, and for the moment he looks like the Bucs' third-down back. But this summer Jon Gruden swore that he'll use Dunn more frequently than that, and considering Earnest Graham could be a one-year wonder, Cadillac Williams is still hurt and Michael Pittman is gone, Dunn could get a chance to rekindle old glory. Of course, while his 33-year-old heart might be willing, his legs might not be.

Rookie crop

Darren McFadden
Darren McFadden will be given opportunities despite playing in a loaded Raiders backfield.
Darren McFadden has a chance to be this year's Adrian Peterson (the Vikings' version). He's an explosive eye-catcher who takes over games and occupies an opposing defense's entire focus. He'll probably be the first rookie taken in most fantasy drafts, even though his path to stardom isn't exactly clear. The Raiders also have Justin Fargas and Michael Bush as rushing possibilities. … The Bears have seen enough of Cedric Benson, which is why they drafted Matt Forte out of Tulane. Forte is already a better blocker than the unwilling Benson was, and he was the MVP of the Senior Bowl this winter. With Benson gone from the Windy City, the path to starting could be clear for Forte, who could ascend as high as the top 20 if he's a definite starter in Week 1. The Bears also signed veteran Kevin Jones earlier this summer, although his role with the team is still uncertain, especially as he continues to recover from offseason knee surgery. … Jonathan Stewart was drafted into a sticky backfield situation, as DeAngelo Williams is still in Carolina. But whereas Williams and DeShaun Foster made for a tandem marked by its lack of inside rushing, Stewart is a wide load who can handle the tough yards. In fact, he could wind up being the Panthers' back on first and second downs (and on the goal line), with Williams handling passing situations. … The rookie rusher who finds himself in the most enviable position might be Kevin Smith, last year's NCAA Division I leading runner. He has only Tatum Bell and Rudi Johnson in his way. Smith is familiar with new offensive coordinator Jim Colletto's offense, having run a variation in college, and he could be the Lions' clear starter in Week 1. … Felix Jones was McFadden's understudy at the University of Arkansas, and now he'll be Marion Barber's understudy in Dallas, but he does figure to see action right away. Jones isn't a between-the-tackles guy like Barber is. He'll be better as a receiver, a guy who splits out wide, and as a return man. … Rashard Mendenhall was a one-year star at the University of Illinois, which does beg this question: If he's worthy of being a first-round selection, why couldn't he beat out Pierre Thomas in college? Regardless, Mendenhall finds himself sharing a backfield with Willie Parker, but because "Fast Willie" had a tough time in short-yardage and goal-line situations last year, Mendenhall might be a fantasy name to know right away. … For the third consecutive season, the Titans took a running back in the first two rounds of the draft. This time it was workout warrior Chris Johnson, who seems ready to supplant Chris Henry as LenDale White's backup. Johnson is extremely fast and elusive, but he's also an upright runner who doesn't make people miss in traffic. Expect the Titans to split him out wide and try to get him the ball in space in '08. … Ryan Torain might've been a higher pick in April, but he fractured a toe in his senior season. The Broncos were glad to acquire him in the fifth round, and they view him as an inside rusher who'll move the pile and perhaps be the team's preferred goal-line back when he returns from his elbow fracture. Remember also that Mike Shanahan develops one rookie crush per training camp. Could Torain be the 2008 crush?

Unsettled situations

Is Willie Parker still "the man" in Pittsburgh? Fast Willie broke his leg in Week 16, costing him a rushing title, but he was a fantasy disappointment long before that, having scored just two touchdowns all year. Now that the Steelers have drafted Rashard Mendenhall, the backfield situation in the Steel City has grown cloudier. … Earnest Graham might be diminutive (5-foot-9) and lack top-end speed, but he's a rugged little guy who always falls forward, a trait which helped him score 10 touchdowns in '07. However, there are suddenly a lot of options in Tampa, including prodigal son Warrick Dunn. Can Graham, who has skipped OTAs and is looking for a new contract, carry the banner of being an unquestioned starter for a full season? Or is he the prototypical one-year wonder? … Darren McFadden is sure to attract the most attention, but Justin Fargas and Michael Bush are still players to consider in Oakland. Fargas posted his first 1,000-yard season and looked dominating in several games last season, while Bush is finally recovered from the broken leg that basically caused him to "redshirt" his rookie season. Bush has reportedly been a star at Raiders activities this spring, and the team now appears to have an embarrassment of riches at running back. … When Carolina jettisoned DeShaun Foster, it looked like DeAngelo Williams would finally get a chance to be the Panthers' unquestioned feature back. Alas, that didn't last long, as the team drafted Jonathan Stewart in April. Now Williams is back in a familiar position -- scrapping for carries, trying to justify his own high draft selection, and trying not to get tackled for a loss, which happens to him alarmingly often. … Rudi Johnson had a disastrous 2007, which opened the door for third-down man Kenny Watson to take a turn as the Bengals' every-down man. Watson played well (52 receptions, seven rushing touchdowns), but he didn't always excel getting tough yards. Cincy is excited about getting Chris Perry back from injury, and he is in line to start for the Bengals in Week 1. But will he be able to hold off Watson? … Pierre Thomas racked up 100 yards rushing and receiving in the season's final game last year, giving the Saints a hint of what might be coming. There's no guarantee Deuce McAllister will be at full strength -- or remain that way, if he is -- in '08, which means Reggie Bush might be in search of a new platoon mate. While Aaron Stecker had some terrific moments in '07, his skill set is too much like Bush's. That could make Thomas a better fit to be a bruising complement.

Injury concerns

Brandon Jacobs
Brandon Jacobs is a talented hulk of a running back, but he also has a history of injuries.
If Brandon Jacobs could stay healthy, he'd be a borderline top-five rusher. He's huge (6-foot-4, 264 pounds), has quick feet for his size and is no fun to tackle. But he fought knee and ankle injuries all last year, and has yet to prove he can be a feature back for an entire year. If he goes down again, Ahmad Bradshaw and/or Derrick Ward figure to benefit. … Ronnie Brown was on his way to a spectacular fantasy season in '07 -- he had 991 total yards and five scores through six-plus weeks -- when he tore an ACL. The Dolphins say they expect him to be healthy for Week 1, but that would put Brown's rehab at less than a full year, which makes him a slightly dicey proposition. Ricky Williams is still hanging around Miami, and rookie Jalen Parmele might be a third-down option early in his Dolphins career. … Rudi Johnson was a model of consistency from '04 to '06, scoring 12 times each year and always hovering in the rugged 4.0 yards-per-carry range. Last season, though, Johnson was rarely healthy because of a hamstring injury, and he lost a lot of playing time to Kenny Watson. Rudi's hammy acted up again in camp, and the 29-year-old was cut from the Bengals. He caught on with the Lions and might get into the mix there, but will his hamstring troubles allow him to be a viable fantasy option again? … Not only did Deuce McAllister tear his left ACL last year, but he also needed microfracture surgery on his right knee. While the Saints say they're convinced Deuce will be healthy to begin the year, we have major doubts. It has been five years since McAllister eclipsed 300 carries in a season, and in two of the last three years, he hasn't managed more than 93. His speed is all but gone, and it sounds to us like he's another knee injury waiting to happen. It's possible Pierre Thomas is actually a better handcuff for Reggie Bush this year.

Sleepers

With Brandon Jacobs susceptible to ankle injury and Reuben Droughns apparently out of favor with the Giants, Ahmad Bradshaw, one of the team's playoff heroes, looks like an intriguing sleeper to us. Derrick Ward should be back from his broken ankle, but it was the undrafted Bradshaw whose quickness and speed we found ourselves most impressed by in '07. And even if Jacobs stays healthy, Bradshaw has better receiving skills than any other third-down candidate on the Super Bowl champs' roster. … Leon Washington of the Jets is actually a similar player to Bradshaw, and we can't help but think he's a breakout candidate, too. Now, people have been saying this about Washington for three straight seasons, but it's worth noting the Jets' offense was more dangerous and explosive with Washington on the field in '07. Coach Eric Mangini seems to believe Washington is too small to be a full-time player, but the kid averaged five yards per carry last year. If he finally gets a real chance, the results could be intriguing. … Because of Ryan Grant's emergence in the second half of '07, Brandon Jackson is the forgotten man in Green Bay, but he shouldn't be. Yes, Jackson struggled badly with his blocking in his starts early last year, leading to his benching. But he's still a tough, powerful kid with good hands as a receiver. There's no question Grant will be the man to start the season for the Pack, and there's no reason to think he won't be effective. But don't sleep on Jackson. He looks in line to be the third-down back to begin '08, and a larger role could await him thereafter. … Kevin Jones had Lisfranc (foot) surgery in '06 and tore his ACL in '07, and the Lions decided they couldn't wait on him any longer, so they cut him this winter. But Jones reportedly wowed scouts at a workout this May, leading some media types to opine that Detroit might have made a hasty move. Jones has signed with the Bears as insurance, and you could do a lot worse with your final-round pick.

Draft strategy

As I said earlier, the mandate that you must take running backs with your first two fantasy picks no matter what is gone, maybe for good. As Tom Brady and Randy Moss proved last season, players at other positions can come out of the woodwork and flatten a whole lot of mediocre running backs who are stuck in committees or who are just, well, kind of bad. Still, don't play with fire. There's nothing worse than coming out of a fantasy draft and having Ahman Green as your No. 2 rusher. So if you go for a quarterback or wide receiver in one of the first two rounds, I still strongly advise you to wind up with your starting backfield in the first three rounds overall, or at the worst, the first four rounds. There's such a significant drop-off after the top 30 or 40 rushers, and you usually can go out and find a serviceable receiver in Round 5 or beyond. If you can avoid taking massive chances with your starting rushers, do it, though if you've got your heart set on Darren McFadden, you're probably going to have to take him as a fantasy starter. Begin taking higher-risk players in the sixth round, after you've filled in your starting group. And always try to snag as many deep-sleeper running backs as you can late in your draft(s). Heck, I don't mind if I wind up with seven or eight rushers on my team in an attempt to hit a home run late. While most of those guys won't ever wind up playing for your team, late-round rushers usually wind up being the best lottery tickets because when they hit, they pay off huge.

Auction strategy

Each fantasy auction is its own animal, so it's tough to give absolutes about how much dough you should spend on running backs. In a league that gives you $260 to spend on your players, a decent rule of thumb is that, in an average draft, if you budget between $110 and $130 for rushers, you'll probably be fine. Your starters will eat up the vast majority of that budget while your reserves and sleepers will come on the relative cheap. Now, this "median" budget I've just proposed doesn't account for the variations in strategy that occur in every fantasy football auction. If you've decided you're going to pay for one of the two elite rushers, for instance, you're probably going to have to spend upwards of $110 on one guy by himself. That could mean your running back budget will have to eclipse 50 percent of your total dollars, or it could mean you're going with a "studs-and-duds" auction strategy and you plan on spending only a couple dollars on your No. 2 rusher. However, no matter what strategy you employ, make sure you have a nice long list of potential $1 or $2 rushers for your auction's end game. As in snake drafts, I like to wind up with a preponderance of lottery-ticket running backs in an auction, because rushers who come out of left field to be significant contributors can make you a league champion.

Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner across all three of those sports. You can e-mail him here.