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Saturday, August 20, 2011
Williams injury opens up Beanie carries

By Christopher Harris
ESPN.com

Last year, the Arizona Cardinals waited until the end of the preseason to jettison Matt Leinart, then spent the entire 2010 season casting around for a decent quarterback. This year, they foisted Tim Hightower onto the Washington Redskins much earlier in the calendar year, but alas, they've fared no better with their depth chart. Now their running back corps is down to a skeleton crew, because rookie Ryan Williams is likely out for the season with what head coach Ken Whisenhunt said was a ruptured patellar tendon.

Things were crowded in that Cardinals' backfield for a little while. Hightower and Beanie Wells were already on the depth chart, LaRod Stephens-Howling was a third-down candidate and one of the best kickoff return artists in the league, and then the team drafted Williams with the 38th pick in April's draft. In order to clear space for Williams, a former Virginia Tech star, the team traded away Hightower, setting up what looked like a two-headed monster: Wells and Williams. And now that Williams is apparently done, all that's left standing is Beanie.

Obviously, that won't literally be the case once Week 1 rolls around. The Cardinals will find one or more rushers to throw into the mix, perhaps a veteran like Brian Westbrook or Clinton Portis, perhaps a training camp casualty from another franchise. But whomever they sign, that player won't be nearly the threat to Wells' touches that Williams would've been. As bad as the news is for the Cardinals and their fans, it's a positive development for Beanie's fantasy stock. We moved him from 31st in our ESPN.com group RB ranks to 24th. If he stays healthy, Wells looks like a lock to get 250-plus touches from scrimmage, and he'll almost certainly be the goal-line back, too.

But of course, that's the rub when it comes to Beanie. He came out of Ohio State with a reputation for letting bumps and bruises bother him too much, and he didn't win many fantasy friends in '10 by hobbling around with a damaged knee. It wasn't so much that he hurt himself toward the end of the preseason; that cartilage injury required surgery, so it was no doubt legit. But Wells was, in the minds of some, slow to return from the procedure, and then looked slow to the hole when he started playing again, plus missed two more games as the same knee swelled once more. It's unfair to sit here in my cushy office where no 250-pounders are bearing down on me and trying to break my body. But it's fair to say there are toughness questions when it comes to Wells. (And please remember, I've been a big Beanie supporter throughout his NFL career.)

So now that's probably what it comes down to. Do you believe Beanie can stay healthy? If you do, he belongs among the top 20 fantasy running backs. Kevin Kolb gives the passing game at least some legitimacy again, and Larry Fitzgerald will distract a defense with the best of them. A clear No. 1 NFL back who's likely to be his own TD vulture is tempting. But the reason we're not ranking Wells that high is simply because of the injury risk. Taking him to be your No. 2 RB in a 10-team league is either going to work out exceedingly well for you, or very badly indeed.

Christopher Harris is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy.