Michael Turner has waited years for this opportunity to be a prime-time running back. After dominating in college, he sat behind LaDainian Tomlinson in the pros, picked up 5.5 yards per carry when he did get chances, made highlight reels and tantalized fantasy owners -- and when he had the chance to go to a team desperate for a new starting running back, Turner didn't hesitate to join the woebegone Atlanta Falcons.
Do you really think it matters who hands the football to him, as long as it happens 300 times?
This is a critical season for the Falcons, as they aim to move on from the stench of 2007, when the signature player ended up in federal prison and might as well have dragged the hopes and dreams of a franchise with him. Quarterback play was terrible, there was no running game, and wait … wasn't Roddy White pretty good?
He was. And he will be again. Turner will be good, too. Therein lies the point: that while the Falcons might struggle for wins and acceptance as they start a new era, yards will be gained, points will be scored, fantasy weapons will be cultivated, no matter how erratic the quarterback play might be.
For most of the Michael Vick years, the Falcons were one of the top rushing teams in the league, though it's a bit misleading if you're looking for reasons to like Turner. Vick was the difference between the Falcons being a top rushing team and in the middle of the pack. However, it's not just the players who are new to the franchise, but the people running it as well. The running game will certainly be emphasized, but the quarterback won't be gaining hundreds of yards and showing up on "SportsCenter" for what he does with his legs. The Falcons haven't produced a 300-carry running back since Jamal Anderson began to get burned out in 1998 (410 carries, wow!), but Turner looks like he should get there.
As for White, he's coming off his breakout campaign, catching 83 passes for 1,202 yards, and scoring six touchdowns. He didn't seem to be held back by Vick's replacements, did he?
Fantasy owners can find reasons to avoid Turner and White as top-20 options at their respective positions, but I don't find the excuses terribly valid. Yes, Turner's never been the top guy before. He has 228 carries in four seasons, never more than 80 in one year, so how will he hold up to punishment? He caught 11 passes in that span, so will playing time be compromised? There might not be competition for the top spot with Jerious Norwood, but there could be a timeshare. As for White, who has already proven himself, I see even less of an issue, since quarterback play was shoddy in 2007 and he managed to overcome it.
Chris Redman finally settled in as the Falcons' starting quarterback toward the end of last season, but it doesn't appear as if he'll be the starter to begin the season. That role has already been won by rookie Matt Ryan. Ryan is the future and possibly the savior of this franchise, but he'd certainly be at more risk of hurting the weapons around him. That said, I still wouldn't shy away from Turner and White.
There's one other variable that could affect Turner, and it's the aforementioned Norwood. New offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey won't necessarily use the explosive Norwood the way the previous regime did, but one definitely has to question why Norwood didn't get more love this past season, when Warrick Dunn was the main ball carrier. Turner has all the attributes a power back needs, there's very little mileage on his tires and he's the one getting the big money. I'd bet Norwood is mostly relegated to obvious passing downs, or in blowout games when abusing Turner would seem egregious.
I rarely blame quarterbacks, even the ones who rank near the bottom of the league, for running backs failing to produce. If the running back has a worthy line, he can put up numbers. Look at the Vikings, for example, as rookie Adrian Peterson was a monster despite Tarvaris Jackson often getting in his own way. Sure, the Vikings have a superior offensive line to what the Falcons boast, but the quarterback wasn't the problem. The wide receivers were held back in Minnesota, but again, if White managed to have his breakout season with Joey Harrington accounting for more than two-thirds of the passes, I think Redman is an upgrade.
Overall I like Turner and White to each be valued starters in fantasy each week, but would be cautious of Norwood as a fantasy asset. Just don't blame the quarterback play for Norwood's playing-time problem; look at the emerging Turner for proof.
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 Writer's Association. You can e-mail him here.