As the old George Bernard Shaw saying goes, "Youth is wasted on the young," and let's make it clear: In running back years, Edgerrin James is not young. One of these years he's liable to go all Shaun Alexander or Curtis Martin on us and act his age -- without warning -- and help torpedo your fantasy football season.
Actually, he can't do that. Oh sure, he will suffer some decline in performance as time goes on, and maybe one day soon hit the proverbial wall, but since nobody actually seems to rely on the guy as a key performer in the first place anymore -- at least based on where he's getting drafted -- he can't torpedo anything. He can, however, help you more than you think. Most owners don't realize this until they suddenly plug him into their lineups by, oh Week 2.
James reached that not-so-magic age of 30 on Aug. 1, and we've been so conditioned to fear this age for running backs, it becomes the anchor on an affected player's draft rank. James ran for 1,222 yards last season and scored seven touchdowns. He was actually a top-10 running back in standard leagues, and he didn't miss a game. OK, so he's not a first-round running back, and let's not confuse consistency and durability with that tantalizing Adrian Peterson upside, but still, this is a productive player you're avoiding so you can draft, among others
• Two tight ends, including Antonio Gates, who has a serious toe problem and could miss September games
• Six quarterbacks, including Carson Palmer, who had nine games with zero or one touchdown
• And 13 wide receivers, including a 27-year-old slot guy who has one big season on his résumé. Hey, I like Wes Welker and all, but over a 1,200-yard running back? Do people just dislike James?
Well, at least you're not drafting Santonio Holmes over James. Then I would have really flipped out. Holmes is going No. 46 overall, three spots later. That's just crazy!
The famed author Shaw wasn't talking about guys like James in his youth statement, anyway, although we can certainly spin that argument to why fantasy owners should not count on rookies. With James, fantasy owners always seem to look for reasons why he can't put up numbers for another season, and he merely continues to prove the naysayers incorrect.
To boot, I don't know how many times during the 2007 season I had people ask me about Marcel Shipp taking over the goal-line carries for the Cardinals. You know how many times Shipp scored in 2007? It was once, one time, when James had carried on three of the previous six plays in a late-November game. I wouldn't call that a change in goal-line hierarchy, since Shipp carried the ball only twice the rest of the year. It's a rather large fallacy that James was regularly replaced in goal-line situations by the Cardinals, and there's little reason to expect a change this season, based on personnel and James' effectiveness.
Shipp has since been released, after getting all of 15 carries in 2007, and the hot newcomer on the scene is fifth-round draft pick Tim Hightower, from Richmond. The Cardinals do like Hightower -- as they should -- and maybe in a year fantasy owners will need to know the name. This power back scored 20 touchdowns as a senior and ran for nearly 2,000 yards. But he's not James, and he's not likely to make much impact as a rookie.
I would say more fantasy owners are worried about James suddenly breaking down than they are about either a change in offensive philosophy or someone from the depth chart supplanting him, but I'm not particularly worried about any of these things. While James does have quite a bit of mileage on his tires -- the 13th-most carries in NFL history and more receptions than Cris Collinsworth, Otis Taylor and all but 150 players ever -- he didn't show any signs of slowing down in 2007.
It wasn't for lack of trying. James carried the ball 324 times, good -- or bad, if you view it as a harbinger of doom -- for second-most in the league. Clinton Portis ran the ball one more time to lead the league. James was very popular, and he also caught 24 passes. His rushing attempts are close to past seasons, and I don't consider competition to change this in 2008. James doesn't catch as many passes as he used to, but treat this as a by-product of the team that boasts a pair of All-Pro-caliber wide receivers. Plus, we'd prefer he concentrate on the ground game anyway.
James isn't the same player he used to be; we have to admit that. His longest carry went for 27 yards, so he's not a breakaway runner, but then again, Joseph Addai didn't break a run longer than 23 yards. The longest runs for LenDale White and Earnest Graham were 28 yards. Addai is a top-5 pick in pretty much all formats. He's not the same player as James, but grinding it out at 4 yards per carry doesn't always have to be viewed as a negative.
It's always dangerous to draft for the upcoming season based on previous numbers because, obviously, you're not getting those stats. Situations change, injuries happen, and some players just perform at a higher or lower level because of myriad reasons. James has been pretty consistent through the years, and it is unlikely second-year coach Ken Whisenhunt is going to mess with his running back arrangement. He'll monitor his "old" running back's usage like any wise coach would.
James seems like a really safe third-round pick to me, a guy who can be your No. 2 running back and deliver valuable numbers, and if you acquire him later than that, consider it a steal. Sure, his best years are behind him, and all -- well, some -- bets are off in keeper formats, but that doesn't mean this year can't be a solid one for him. Youth may be wasted on the young, but as Sasha Azevedo said, "Maturity is the fine line between life and experience." Unless something drastically changes from 2007 -- and there's no indication that is the case -- James still brings maturity to your fantasy team, and at a cheaper cost than most.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. You can e-mail him here.