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Friday, October 12, 2012
Questionable backfield situations

By Christopher Harris
ESPN.com

This week on the Fantasy Underground podcast (also available on iTunes), Field Yates and I discussed film on Chris Johnson, Reggie Bush, Demaryius Thomas, Philip Rivers, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Kendall Wright, Rueben Randle, Domenik Hixon and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' D/ST. So you won't find discussions of them here. Here are 10 other topics of interest:

Christopher Harris' Hard Count

Five in depth:

1. Green Bay Packers' backfield: Cedric Benson is out at least eight weeks with a Lisfranc injury; he's on the Packers' "designated to return" injured reserve list, but there's no guarantee he'll be back. In his absence, Green Bay is left with a veritable Island of Misfit Toys in its backfield. I already had preconceived notions about Alex Green, James Starks and Brandon Saine, so I tried to erase my memories and go back and watch film on them to decide what each might bring to the table.

Rookie tape on Green is Sasquatch-rare: He had a few nondescript carries in the final minutes of a blowout win last year, caught a screen in the two-minute drill before halftime the following week, then tore his ACL on a kickoff return two weeks later. But Green did get a long look after Benson hurt his foot last week. His first three runs were shotgun draws of varying success, as Green pretty much got what was blocked. His fourth carry was an I-formation handoff where Green didn't show great instincts, missing a cutback lane and gaining 1 yard. On his next three carries, he lost a combined 5 yards due to bad blocking and tripping over his own feet. But things were much better on his two fourth-quarter carries, first a cutback gain of 5, then his much-highlighted 41-yard run where he cut away from defenders on all three levels and flashed his 4.45-second 40-yard-dash speed. The rest of Green's day may have been so-so, but that run showed his upside. He was also an accomplished pass-catcher at Hawaii, although he had only one target Sunday. Overall it wasn't a great performance, but that one big run is tantalizing.

James Starks
James Starks has yet to play this season, but don't discount him as the possible lead back in Green Bay.

Meanwhile, I feel as though Starks already has gone through two bouts of revisionist history in his three-year career. First there was the legend that he was the driving force behind Green Bay's Super Bowl run in '10 and that he was ready to bust out in a massive way in '11 as a result. (The truth is that Starks was very good in a wild-card win against the Philadelphia Eagles that postseason but was mediocre thereafter.) But now after a so-so '11 season, it seems as though we're ready to dismiss this kid as just another plodder with no upside. But his tape from last season is unequivocal: He's got real talent. He's a 6-foot-2, 220-pound rusher who can move and cut hard and who's almost shockingly athletic for a man his size. I'm thinking of a Week 4 screen against the Denver Broncos where he chipped a defensive end, took the dump pass, went hard around the right side, cut hard to make one man miss, delivered a big hit and almost spun to the ground but caught himself and kept going for 5 more yards. I'm not saying he always brought the best instincts last season (his short-yardage performance, for example, often left something to be desired), but at his best, Starks is not a pedestrian player. What got him in the doghouse in favor of a burned-out Ryan Grant last year was his pass protection, which still may be a problem, and I can't speak to how badly his turf toe might still be bothering him. But if he's healthy and blocks well enough, Starks is a legit option.

As for Saine? Meh. In limited action late in '11, his best quality was that he injected more life into the offense than Grant. His tape shows him to be a bit happy-footed, not a hard cutter, a little bit out of control and unbalanced. Of course, that was his rookie season, and Saine had 28 total regular-season touches, so I can't absolutely dismiss him. But of these three guys, he seems to offer the least raw ability.

So how will this go? I think Green and Starks represent a fascinating thunder-lightning combo. Starks might not be at 100 percent (either in turf toe health or conditioning), but remember that Green is coming off a torn ACL. Mike McCarthy says he's going with the "hot hand," and it's mighty tough to predict who that'll wind up being. Plus, against the Houston Texans' run defense this week, you might just wait anyway. Longer term, Starks fits the model of a banger, Green of a quicker pass-catcher. But remember that John Kuhn is still around, and he's probably the best bet of all to lead the team in rushing touchdowns.

2. Arizona Cardinals' backfield: There's less to say about the candidates to inherit the backfield job from the injured Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams. LaRod Stephens-Howling, William Powell and Alfonso Smith probably will all get chances, so again I tried to clear my mind and simply watch tape. Unfortunately, in the case of Powell and Smith, there isn't much to watch.

LaRod Stephens-Howling
LaRod Stephens-Howling can be dangerous in the open field, but can he handle an every-down role?

In his four years as an NFL player, LSH has never eclipsed 56 touches from scrimmage in a season, and setting aside a 21-carry emergency performance as the starting running back in Week 17 last year, his eight carries (for minus-14 yards) back in Week 3 of this year represented his most single-game carries. But hey, this is an emergency, so I watched the Week 17 tape. First and foremost, it showed what you'd expect: This is a little dude. (LSH is generously listed at 5-foot-7 and 185 pounds; the height might be right, but I'm not so sure about the weight.) His quickness is unquestioned, and he's a pinballing little runner with great balance. When he got a goal-line opportunity, the Cardinals pitched it to him left and watched him get swarmed under for no gain; they had to bring in Chester Taylor (remember him?) to pound in the touchdown. Listen, if Darren Sproles and Danny Woodhead can get regular pro carries, so can Stephens-Howling. But make no mistake: That's what this looks like. He can make you miss, but when you hit him, he's going down, and he's not much use in short yardage. He's an elite kickoff returner, but I'm not fooled by those 21 carries in Week 17: Seven of them came in overtime. This is nobody's idea of a feature back.

Powell had 23 career carries at Kansas State behind Daniel Thomas and predictably went undrafted in '11; the Cardinals signed him as a camp body then cut him, but signed him again this past winter. Playing against mostly third-stringers late in preseason games, Powell played well and wound up leading the NFL in preseason rushing yards (often a dubious distinction). But he beat out Smith on the depth chart, and when Wells and Williams went down, Powell got a few cracks, specifically eight. In Week 4 against the Miami Dolphins, he got stuffed on a carry, got laid-out on a badly executed 2-yard screen, showed little burst with an available hole on a 2-yard carry, caught a little flare for 4 yards and, most impressively, nearly broke the opening kickoff of overtime for a touchdown. Against the St. Louis Rams in Week 5, he was a little better playing in a two-minute drill, with a 7-yard carry and a few catches, but then he took a blow to the head and left the game. In other words: He's basically shown nothing in the regular season yet.

As for Smith? He had a few moments of fantasy relevance last year when Wells was a surprise inactive in Week 3 and Smith was given 20 touches from scrimmage. He did a pretty good job. He had some nice short runs in a close game against a good Seahawks run defense. But he didn't make anyone miss, and he doesn't have great speed; he pretty much got whatever was blocked, which is what you'd expect of any RB lining up in an NFL uniform. (I mean, what does a "terrible" NFL RB look like? Most of them can run hard straight ahead until they meet a defender. What separates the good ones is what they do then.) What's most telling about Smith is even after his starring role that week, he never got more than five carries in a game the rest of the season.

So what should we expect? I think Stephens-Howling is the only one here who actually has an above-average RB skill, although he missed each of the past two weeks with a hip injury. And he's really small. On their respective game tape, Powell and Smith looked interchangeable to me, but I'm willing to give Powell more of a pass because he's got only a few NFL plays under his belt. This week, against what's been an awful Buffalo Bills defense, it seems to me that Powell makes the best desperation play if you're looking for a rushing touchdown, but LSH will probably lead the backfield in yards from scrimmage. The overall point, however, is that the Cardinals' O-line has been so dreadful that it's hard to get overly excited about anyone in this prospective platoon.

3. Indianapolis Colts' backfield: In the short term, this may actually be the place where the most fantasy value can be found, both because the Colts have come out and named Vick Ballard their Week 6 starter, and because Indy plays the New York Jets, who've been softer than a kitten's belly against the run lately. But what has Ballard looked like on tape so far this year?

The fifth-round rookie out of Mississippi State has strictly been a changeup artist through four games, with 4, 6, 5 and 6 carries (and one catch). As I just watched all 22 of these touches in rapid succession, my temptation is to tell you that Ballard is just another guy. I saw him get the edge in two of 21 totes -- once against the Chicago Bears, once against the Packers -- and otherwise he did a lot of furious smashing into holes that mostly weren't there (which isn't really his fault). The fact is, though, that as with Powell, Ballard maybe deserves the benefit of the doubt in what looks like a tasty matchup, because this body of work wasn't enough to prove much of anything.

But I will say this: When I let the tape keep running and saw some subsequent plays from the injured Donald Brown (who had a knee scope and is out two or three games), the difference was obvious. Brown may not have good instincts or be a tough inside runner, but he's electric getting to the outside compared to Ballard. You can see an obvious difference in speed and cutting ability. Ballard won't fulfill all of what Brown's absence entails.

That's why Mewelde Moore will get plenty of looks on passing downs, and it's why Moore could be a desperation play this week in point-per-reception leagues. It also likely means the '12 regular-season debut of Delone Carter, a fire plug whom Ballard resembles a bit. Carter famously flamed out when given early-season chances in '11 and quickly fell behind Ballard on the depth chart this past summer, but he should be active for his second game of '12 on Sunday. He's announced as the backup and won't be usable in any fantasy leagues, but it's not beyond the realm of possibility that he could break through and be someone we're talking about Monday.

4. Pass-blocking rates for tight ends: In an ideal world, you'd like your fantasy tight end to run a pass pattern every time his quarterback drops back. After all, you don't get fantasy points for pancake blocks. While that desire isn't realistic, it's interesting to note which tight ends have done the most pass-blocking this season. Pro Football Focus tracks this. Here's a list of the 20 highest-drafted tight ends this summer, and how they've performed thus far:

Obviously, there isn't a linear relationship between the number of times a tight end executes a pass pattern and how many fantasy points he scores. But it's darned alarming to see Gronkowski blocking nearly as frequently as Heath Miller, whom we "criticize" for being "too complete" a tight end, and not presenting himself as a frequent target to his QB because he's such a good blocker. Last season, Gronk's number was 10.7 percent!

What else stands out? Gresham, a preferred sleeper for some, really does block an awful lot, and Celek is asked to block on pass plays more than any other tight end in the league other than Kellen Davis. I suppose it's impressive that Celek has been able to manage a top-10 season thus far given how relatively infrequently he runs patterns, but a closer look at his game log shows that he's exceeded four catches just once this season and hasn't exceeded six targets since Week 2. I'd argue those relying on Celek as their fantasy starter may be barking up the wrong tree, or at least that they'd be wise to hope for a change in Celek's deployment.

At the other end of the spectrum, it's unsurprising to see Gonzalez and Gates barely pass-blocking at all, although of course those two wily veterans are having dramatically different seasons thus far. Cook could be an interesting candidate here; he had a season-high eight targets and five catches last week in Matt Hasselbeck's first start of the season, and Hass made a point of mentioning that he should've looked Cook's way more in Week 5. He's not a fantasy starter either right now, but the way the Tennessee Titans deploy him is as more of a wideout. Finally, Witten, who once upon a time was considered a Miller-esque jack-of-all-trades who posted a couple of 15-plus-percent seasons in the mid-2000s, now almost looks like a WR himself. Of course, the trade-off of having Witten out in a pass pattern so frequently is one fewer blocker to protect Tony Romo, which can tend to be reflected in stuff like five-interception games.

5. Dinkety-dunkety: Christian Ponder looks like an enticing bye-week fill-in, facing a Washington Redskins secondary that's been top-10 for fantasy QBs to score against. And he may very well be. But I didn't put him in my top-15 QBs this week because unless he has a ton of attempts or he runs in a TD (a possibility, as he had a rushing TD in Week 3), his upside appears low. Why? Last week I looked at the shot-takers, who throw it down the field at a higher rate than their compatriots. (Granted, the Cam Newton-to-Steve Smith downfield connection about which I was curious didn't manifest in Week 5, but not for lack of trying: Smith had four catches on a whopping 13 targets.) This week, let's look at the QBs who take the fewest shots:

There are a few takeaways. Stafford was a dink-and-dunker last season, too, but he and Calvin Johnson hooked up deep enough to make everyone forget. Rodgers and Manning may not fire a ton of deep passes, but when they do, their accuracy is above-average. (As, apparently, is 2012's version of Alex Smith.) Even with Brandon Lloyd in the fold, Brady isn't firing it deep much at all (heck, Rob Gronkowski leads Lloyd in targets that travel more than 30 yards in the air, 3-to-2). But look at Ponder, and ponder. Sheesh.

I suppose having only seven of 158 attempts travel more than 20 yards in the air (and having all seven of those travel between 21 and 30 yards) is partly explicable. Jerome Simpson is the team's only burner at WR, and he was suspended for three games and now is battling a back problem. Still, the fewest shots taken in the league? This isn't only a personnel issue. It's about a renewed (and thankful) emphasis on Percy Harvin on short stuff. And it's about playing a close-to-the-vest offensive game. (The Minnesota Vikings have featured the league's seventh-run-heaviest offensive mix of '12 thus far.) You can't deduce a one-to-one relationship between passing it downfield and fantasy glory (see also: Brady, Tom, circa 2011), but it puts pressure on the QB to produce a lot of long drives and a lot of aerial scoring plays to achieve fantasy excellence. Without that, Ponder's upside is capped.

Five in brief

6. The Ryan Mathews Saga continues: Sunday night against the New Orleans Saints, Norv Turner was as good (or bad) as his word: Jackie Battle was right back out there as his starting running back to begin the game. Insert fantasy nation's palm slapping forehead in 3 … 2 … 1. … Battle played the first two series in their entirety, getting four touches, whereupon Mathews finally saw the field, and anyone with a pulse and two eyeballs noticed a difference. In today's column, I've talked about your Vick Ballards and your William Powells and your James Starkses, and when you watch tape on those guys you want to find something, anything to differentiate them, because you know they're pro football players and they definitely have talent, but they just kind of blend together. Then Mathews and his 220-pound frame hits a hole, and it's no joke. Battle didn't get another touch the rest of the night. However, when push came to shove late in the game, and the San Diego Chargers were in hurry-up, was Mathews in? Nope, it was Ronnie Brown. This is nutso. Norv, you are nutso. Mathews can catch the heck out of the ball, and he's a legit playmaker. Battle and Brown aren't. As I said last week, this should not be a Mike Tolbert situation in San Diego. I'm still very bullish on Mathews (at least until he gets hurt again). Start him with impunity.

7. What does Aaron Hernandez's return mean for Wes Welker? This is a major topic, and I wish I had enough to say to warrant including it in the "in depth" portion of this week's Hard Count. Unfortunately, the New England Patriots are Fort Knox when it comes to personnel information, and their game plans are just as mysterious. Who could've predicted that Welker would take a backseat to both Hernandez and Julian Edelman in Weeks 1 and 2? Since Hernandez injured his ankle, Welker has 35 catches for 470 yards! I don't know how you mess with that kind of production, and when I ranked New England's receivers this week, I left Welker higher than Brandon Lloyd. (They are 12th and 19th on my WR list, respectively.) But would it truly shock anyone if Welker gets four targets versus the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday? You just never know what you're going to get. If I own Welker, I'm putting him in my lineup until I see a game where he's phased out of the action again, and then I'll decide whether to change things. Incidentally, I'll be awfully interested to see whether Seattle's "12th Man" crowd noise gets in the way of the Pats running that crazily up-tempo University of Oregon style attack with which they buried the Broncos on Sunday. I can't believe Tom Brady will be able to communicate so perfectly and so quickly as he did at home, but I'll be fascinated to watch and find out.

8. Andre Johnson gets a downgrade: AJ is somehow tied for 30th in fantasy points among wide receivers. If you'd told anyone that before the season, he'd have nodded sagely and expressed his regrets that Johnson had gotten injured again. In fact, AJ is mostly healthy (he has a sore groin, but it's not nearly enough to limit his playing time) and simply isn't seeing many targets. His 31 targets currently tie him for 37th in the NFL among wideouts! Worriers would point to the fact that Johnson has two red zone targets all year (he scored on one of them), but that's not out of line with last year, when AJ caught four of eight red zone targets (albeit in seven games). More red zone looks would be nice -- Arian Foster has 29 red zone carries and three red zone targets himself -- but Johnson's best game is the longer stuff, and the Houston Texans simply aren't calling the longer stuff right now. I hate using an NFL team's schedule as my fall-back argument, but the fact that the Texans have played the Dolphins, Jacksonville Jaguars, Broncos, Titans and Jets probably has something to do with this. I'm plugging Johnson right back into my fantasy lineup against the Packers on Sunday under the assumption that Green Bay will put up points, requiring Houston to do more than milk the clock with its running game.

9. Cam Newton gets more bad news: Newton's Week 5 performance was troubling, to say the least. He went 12-of-29 for 141 yards with seven carries for 42 yards and a couple of utterly dunderheaded plays. The Carolina Panthers get a bye in Week 6 to lick their wounds, but they received terrible news Wednesday: Their starting center, Ryan Kalil, is out for the season with a Lisfranc injury. I'll not be so bold as to say I've got a top-10 list of centers in my hip pocket, but everyone I trust when it comes to O-line evaluation says that in his career, Kalil has been one of the best. (To be fair, however, Pro Football Focus has graded Kalil as its 27th-best center so far this season, which actually could explain part of why the Carolina offense has struggled.) The Panthers will move starting RG Geoff Hangartner to the middle and rotate a couple of backups at right guard, news that Newton, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart most assuredly did not need. Can I tell you that this is a reason to bail out on Newton and trade him for dimes on the dollar? No. Certainly teams have overcome injured O-linemen in the past and could very well do so here. But it adds one more element of uncertainty into an offense that looked like it would sail smoothly into the future. This running game has scuffled at times, and all Newton needs now are protection questions.

10. The highly resistible force meets the easily movable object: Earlier in this column, I intimated that the Cardinals getting a chance to play against the Bills' defense would be a boon to Arizona's skill players, even the ones you'd never heard of until a couple of days ago. After all, Buffalo became the first team since 1950 to allow 550-plus yards from scrimmage in back-to-back weeks. Then again, isn't this the same Cardinals offensive line that got Kevin Kolb sacked an ungodly nine times last Thursday night? And isn't it the same group that's "helped" its running backs to a combined 63.4 rushing yards per game and a league-worst 2.7 yards per carry? What makes us believe that this execrable offense can take advantage of this appalling defense? I haven't done research on this phenomenon; anecdotally, I can recall times when the bad defense stepped forward, and I can remember games when the bad offense finally got on track. In this case, with the Bills missing their second pass-rusher, Mark Anderson, because of a bad knee (and with Mario Williams stuck on 1.5 sacks), I'm betting on the offense. I put Larry Fitzgerald at the tippity-top of my WR list and made Andre Roberts a highly usable No. 3 receiver, and even inserted Kolb into my top-15 QBs, which made me feel slightly dirty. If these guys can't accomplish anything against this defense? Boy, that 4-0 start will start to feel like an awfully long time ago.