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.
How will the Fred Taylor/Maurice Jones-Drew dynamic affect each player's fantasy value?
To answer this question fairly, let's explore what the expectations were last season, what the actual production was last season, what outside factors swayed the level of performance and finally, if any of those items reasonably can be expected to change in 2007.
Maurice Jones-Drew entered the minds of fantasy owners last season as a hedge bet for the likelihood of a Fred Taylor injury. He exited it as one of the top draft-day (or waiver-wire) values of the season. After posting a season of 1,377 yards and 15 touchdowns combined rushing and receiving, there's an expectation that he will improve as he gains experience. Therefore it should come as no surprise that within an average draft, Jones-Drew is selected 21st overall.
On the other hand, Taylor entered last season as the starting running back for the Jaguars. Once known for his brittle nature, last season Taylor played in 15 of 16 games and accumulated 1,388 yards and six scores combined rushing and receiving. In an average draft, Taylor is the 64th player selected.
Of course what is left out of the preceding historical recount is the impact of the 2006 training-camp loss of short-yardage back Greg Jones. Therefore, let's look at how all three players might have performed last season if Jones had been healthy enough to contribute.
The largest adjustment that should be made to last season's stats would be the number of carries inside the five that each back could have expected. Last season Jones-Drew carried 10 times in that area while Taylor carried six. Those touches would be minimized by the inclusion of a power back like Jones. If Jones had grabbed 75 percent of those carries, and a total of 50 carries overall, he likely would have vultured six touchdowns, five of which would be from Jones-Drew.
Those adjustments result in the following production revisions:
Jones-Drew still would be a sexy pick, but borderline top 20? Let's continue with some background on each player to see if we can find something else to which we can pin our expectations.
Greg Jones (6 feet, 1 inch, 255 pounds): This wide load is ideally suited for short-yardage situations, especially now since he's recovering from his second torn ACL in three years. Expect him to be used in an H-back type role (part tailback, part fullback and part tight end). There's a good chance that he would have earned goal-line carries as he has converted over 36 percent of his career carries inside the opponent's five-yard line into touchdowns.
Maurice Jones-Drew (5-7, 212): Coming into the 2006 NFL draft, scouts praised Jones-Drew for his speed, elusiveness and open-field ability. Jones-Drew proved the scouts right. He fell to the second round of the draft over concerns about his durability, lack of size and inability to hold a block in pass protection. While he did play all 16 games last season, the other two concerns still hold in the future.
Fred Taylor (6-1, 226): The decline of Taylor has long been forecasted, but it continues to be premature as Taylor simply refuses to go away. Last season's mark of 5.0 yards per carry represents a career high and should provide all the ammunition necessary for you to stay away from betting the farm on Jones-Drew becoming the clear No. 1 back in Jacksonville.
Armed with this background, let me pose these questions:
• Is it reasonable to expect a coaching staff to decrease the role of a running back who carried 230 times for 5.0 yards per carry?
• Is it reasonable to expect a coaching staff to continue using an undersized back in short-yardage and goal-line situations when a player better built for that role is on that team?
• Is it reasonable to expect a team to have similar rushing totals from one year to the next if, in the previous year, the team played 10 of 16 games without its starting quarterback?
The answer to all three questions above should be a resounding "no." Taylor might lose some carries to Jones-Drew, but he's not going quietly into the night. The coaching staff can't afford to continue to put Jones-Drew into more physical situations when another viable option is available, especially when that option doesn't risk injury to the game-changing talents of Jones-Drew, and when that option provides a greater-than-normal level of production. Finally, the Jaguars won't be forced to run as much as Byron Leftwich, who missed 10 games last season, returns as the starting quarterback. Leftwich is a proven, capable passer, which likely means a swing of 1 to 2 percent more passing plays.
What does all of this mean? For me, it leads to only one conclusion: Jones-Drew and Taylor are apt to remain in the fantasy-owner dreaded running-back committee. Worst of all, their value might be knocked down even further by the inclusion of goal-line specialist. Is Jones-Drew still a chic pick? Not in my eyes.
Ken Daube is a senior columnist for talentedmroto.com and fantasy football expert for espn.com. You can email him at KenDaube@talentedmrroto.com