Thirty-two teams, 32 burning fantasy questions. Throughout the preseason, we put one of these questions to an ESPN.com analyst for an in-depth look at the most interesting, perplexing or dumbfounding fantasy facet of each NFL team. Be sure to check out all 32 questions.
What does Cedric Benson's starting role mean to his value, and to his team?
As the fourth pick in the 2005 NFL draft, it's put-up or shut-up time for Cedric Benson. He's watched Thomas Jones rush for 2,500 yards and 15 touchdowns the past two seasons, and yearned for the chance to be that lead back. Now that Jones has flown to the Jets, it leaves all the pressure on Benson to perform like the starting running back he was selected to be. Fantasy owners and Bears fans alike need to know, however, if that's what we're going to see.
Let's put it this way: You're going to have to draft him as the undisputed starter he is. Although he's full of promise, it means you might have to select him a little earlier than you want to. There are no guarantees on Benson.
Benson has not proven to be the kind of running back who breaks tackles and turns ordinary plays into long runs. Oh, he could turn out just fine, but we haven't seen it yet. Benson averaged 4.1 yards per carry in each of his first two seasons, and last year was enough of a sample size -- even as a backup to Jones he cracked the top 35 in rushing attempts. Benson is not going to be a receiving threat; he caught nine passes his first two seasons, and didn't do much pass-catching in college at Texas either. So it all comes down to whether the increased opportunity will result in the stats fantasy owners need from a No. 2 running back.
Basically, what you see is what you get with this guy. He's a big, strong body coming at you with speed, capable of avoiding tackles and getting into the open field, but not showing much at the NFL level so far except the ability to hold on to the football and score from short range. Benson can blame a lack of playing time for his ordinary statistics, but those days are over.
With Jones gone, Benson's workload will double, at least. The Bears are clearly a running team, in both philosophy and personnel, and Benson could see more than 300 carries. Last year only four teams ran the ball more often than the Bears, a defensive-oriented team that needs to rely on ball control and not its quarterback, whoever it may be. Just based on the extra touches alone, Benson could become a fantasy star because of his scoring opportunities.
It's not unreasonable to expect Benson to exceed 20 carries per game, which would make a 1,200-yard rushing season likely and probably get him into double-digits in touchdowns. Although Benson gets ranked at No. 17 in ESPN's running back rankings, that could be viewed as not aggressive enough. How many running backs get into the end zone more than 10 times? Last season only nine running backs reached that figure in touchdown runs, and only five of those backs needed more than 250 carries to achieve that mark. Is Benson better off not being overworked, staying healthy and being used as a Marion Barber type? Think about the body type Benson and Barber share, their ability to avoid fumbles and the fact neither has been exposed at the NFL level. Barber still shares the stage with another running back. Benson does not.
The point can be made that Benson was in the right role last season, but just wasn't utilized enough. The Bears don't have much competition for him now. Adrian Peterson (the one who has been in the league five years, not the Vikings' rookie) has averaged 4.7 yards per rush in his career, and broke two of his six catches last season for more than 20 yards. That's a small sample size, but Peterson certainly looks like the guy who will play on third downs, and get a chance to catch the ball. Benson isn't exactly known for his blocking prowess, either. Is it possible Peterson is given more than 100 carries this season so Benson doesn't get worn down? It sure is. And if Benson does not step up with increased production, it's hard to figure how the Bears will make up for the loss of Jones. It's not like the teams wants Rex Grossman throwing more, or the defense can play much better than it has the past few seasons.
Overall I like Benson as a breakout type, though it's tough to give him sleeper status. Everyone in fantasy football knows about him already. With any running back health is always an issue, and have yet to see Benson go from start to finish in games, and in the cold of December, as a 20-carry player. That will change in 2007, and we'll finally get to judge the player who warranted a top pick in the NFL draft only three seasons ago. He's surely a top-20 running back for fantasy drafts, but there are just as many questions about moving up draft lists as there would be going the other direction.