Here lies the running back/running back theory
If that were the inscription on the tombstone of the 2007 fantasy football season, it would be fitting. If there ever was a year to stray from the oft-repeated "you have to get running backs in the first rounds" strategy, this was it.
Of the top 20 running backs taken in ESPN.com drafts this summer, only five (LaDainian Tomlinson, Brian Westbrook, Joseph Addai, Willis McGahee and Clinton Portis) finished in the top 35 in scoring. Larry Johnson, Rudi Johnson, Shaun Alexander and Reggie Bush were among the biggest busts in the game, and Steven Jackson and Ronnie Brown missed significant portions of the season.
The contrast between 2006 and '07 was stark. Twenty-two running backs rushed for more than 1,000 yards last year, and only 17 did so this year. Six runners scored at least 15 touchdowns last year, while only two did so this year.
Meanwhile, quarterbacks and wide receivers more than picked up the slack for their stuck-in-the-mud brethren. Tom Brady was the story of the season, as his 356 fantasy points were 74 points more than those of the No. 2 guy (Tomlinson). Seventy-four points is what Rudi Johnson contributed all year or, to look at it another way, Ahman Green with a side order of Brandon Jackson. Brady (50 TD passes) and teammate Randy Moss (23 TD receptions) both set new records, but those weren't the only numbers of historical significance.
Tony Romo was one of seven quarterbacks to throw for 4,000 yards, breaking the previous record of six. Six wide receivers caught at least 100 passes, the second-largest number in NFL history. In 1995, seven receivers caught at least 100 passes (plus running back Larry Centers). Romo's 36 touchdown passes were the second-highest total in the past three seasons. Terrell Owens caught 15 of those scoring passes, and Owens joined Moss and Cleveland's Braylon Edwards as the second trio of wide receivers to score 15-plus touchdowns in the a season. The first was Cris Carter (17), Carl Pickens (17) and Jerry Rice (15), also in 1995. Edwards' quarterback, waiver-wire wonder Derek Anderson, threw 28 touchdown passes. Eight quarterbacks threw at least 28 touchdown passes; in 2002, Brady led the NFL with 28. At tight end, Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten and Kellen Winslow all topped the 1,000-yard mark, only the second time in league history that three tight ends accomplished the feat.
We could go on and on with the superlatives for quarterbacks and receivers, but I don't want to completely alienate everyone who went Shaun Alexander/Cedric Benson or Larry Johnson/Travis Henry in the first two rounds. That will happen a few hundred words from now.
Waiver-wire running backs reign supreme
In the late rounds of fantasy drafts, most owners try to snap up backup running backs with any semblance of upside. Countless picks were wasted on the likes of Mike Bell, Michael Turner, Michael Bennett, Mike Anderson and even some guys not named Michael or Mike. And still, Ryan Grant, Earnest Graham and Justin Fargas managed to fall through the cracks. Even in the 16-team "man's league" that Matthew Berry and I forced podcast producer Jay Soderberg to play in, none of those three was drafted. Grant burst on the scene with 104 rushing yards in Week 8 and had four more 100-yard games while scoring seven touchdowns. Graham showed a lot more horsepower than the injured Cadillac Williams, rushing for 898 yards and 10 touchdowns (and catching 49 passes), despite not making his first start until Week 6. Fargas vaulted ahead of LaMont Jordan and Dominic Rhodes on the depth chart and rushed for more than 135 yards in three games before going down with the inevitable season-ending injury in Week 15. Handcuffing your studs didn't pay dividends this year, but handcuffing your questionable running backs with third- or fourth-string guys sure did.
We know nothing
It was a bad year to be the first person to draft well, just about everything. LaDainian Tomlinson was drafted as the No. 1 running back and finished as the No. 1 runner, but he was alone on an island. Consensus No. 1 quarterback Peyton Manning finished third at the position, a distant 91 points behind Brady. No. 1 wide receiver Steve Smith ranked 15th in receiver scoring. No. 1 tight end Antonio Gates ranked second, but given the fact that he was taken, on average, 15 picks before the No. 2 tight end, he didn't provide much bang for the buck. The Ravens were the first defense off the board but finished 23rd in scoring, reason No. 138 you never draft a defense before the final few rounds. ESPN-commercial star Adam Vinatieri was the No. 1 kicker drafted but finished 15th in scoring. Vinatieri kicked only three field goals of 40-plus yards all season and actually scored negative fantasy points in Week 10, reason No. 261 you never draft a kicker before the final few rounds.
(Note: This list is hardly exhaustive. In the interest of brevity, I selected only four players for each of the three key positions.)
Jay Cutler, QB, Broncos:
Although it was a disappointing season in Denver, Cutler wasn't the culprit. The second-year quarterback finished with just fewer than 3,500 passing yards to go with 20 touchdown passes and a quarterback rating of 88.1. Those are numbers that Philip Rivers would be proud of.
Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Steelers:
Big Ben was drafted as a big-time passer, but in the first three seasons of his career, he acquired the dreaded label of caretaker. That happens when you average less than 1.3 touchdown passes per game, as Roethlisberger did in his first 41 games in the NFL. He turned it up a notch or seven in his fourth season, averaging 2.1 scoring strikes per game.
Donovan McNabb, QB, Eagles:
What do Kerry Collins, Mark Brunell and Rex Grossman have in common? All of them have thrown 20 touchdown passes in at least one of the past three seasons, something that cannot be said of McNabb. And consider this: Since 2001, McNabb has thrown 20 touchdown passes in a season just once. That might be OK if he were still a force on the ground, but he's not. McNabb had just 10 touchdown runs in the past five seasons, including (or not including; it's the same, really) none this season.
Marc Bulger, QB, Rams:
The Rams were hit especially hard by the injury bug this season, but that doesn't completely explain away the fact that Bulger set career lows (by wide margins) in completion percentage, yards per attempt and quarterback rating while throwing only 11 touchdown passes against 15 interceptions. Bulger has taken a beating the past few years; that, combined with the natural regression of his aging wide receivers, might conspire to permanently knock him from the ranks of the elite fantasy quarterbacks.
Jamal Lewis, RB, Browns:
You know how they say it takes two years to fully recover from a major knee injury? Well, perhaps it takes two years to fully recover from a stint in federal prison. Lewis averaged 3.3 and 3.6 yards per carry in 2005 and 2006, respectively, and was left for dead by most fantasy owners. In his first season in Cleveland, Lewis averaged 4.4 yards per carry on his way to more than 1,500 total yards and 11 touchdowns.
DeAngelo Williams, RB, Panthers:
We got a sneak peak at the future in Week 17, as Williams rushed for 121 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries. He averaged 5.0 yards per carry this season, as opposed to 3.5 yards per carry for DeShaun Foster. Barring an unforeseen event -- like Tim Biakabutuka rising from the ashes -- Williams will be the starting tailback in Carolina next season.
Reggie Bush, RB, Saints:
Count me among those who thought Bush was headed for a breakout campaign in his sophomore season, one of my worst calls since I said, "Sure, Matthew. We can discuss my sisters on the podcast." After averaging 3.6 yards per carry and 8.4 yards per reception as a rookie, Bush improved to 3.7 YPC but saw a disastrous drop to 5.5 YPR. He simply hasn't learned to get upfield as quickly as possible, and after 28 games, it's fair to wonder if he ever will.
Rudi Johnson, RB, Bengals:
I truly feel sorry for anyone who drafted Johnson in the top 10 this summer. After three straight seasons with more than 1,300 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns, he looked like one of the safest picks on the board. This year, not only did Johnson rival Cedric Benson for the coveted title of "worst running back in the NFL," he was severely out-played by a journeyman. Did more than 1,000 carries in a three-year span (2004-06) simply wear him out? Time will tell, but Johnson went from being a no-brainer first-round pick to a borderline third-rounder.
Santonio Holmes, WR, Steelers:
The former Buckeye appeared to be on his way to a 1,200-yard, 10-touchdown season before suffering a high ankle sprain that cost him two games and limited him in two others. Still, Holmes finished his second season with 942 yards and eight touchdowns, and is a top-20 receiver who could deliver top-10 numbers in 2008.
Brandon Marshall, WR, Broncos:
Quick quiz. Name the wide receiver who ranked immediately ahead of Marshall in average draft position this season. You can check this page for the answer, or I can just tell you: Devin Hester. That should give you an idea of how Marshall was viewed coming into 2007, a season in which he finished with 102 catches for 1,325 yards and seven touchdowns.
Marvin Harrison, WR, Colts:
At 35 years old, Harrison might have reached the end of the line. He missed 11 games with a knee injury and scored only one touchdown in the five games that he did play. A legitimate candidate to be the first receiver off the board in 2007 fantasy drafts, Harrison might not crack the top 20 next season.
Darrell Jackson, WR, 49ers:
Jackson wasn't locked up in Alcatraz for most of the season; it just seemed like it. Sure, Alex D. Smith, Trent Dilfer, Shaun Hill and Chris Weinke (what, Brandon Doman wasn't available?) had something to do with it, but DJ doesn't escape blame. Ranked 19th in average draft position at wide receiver this year, he failed to crack the top 65 in wide receiver scoring.
(ESPN standard scoring)
Tom Brady, 38 fantasy points (Week 7)
Carson Palmer, 37 (Week 2)
Brady, 35 (Week 8)
Tony Romo, 34 (Week 1), Brady, 34 (Week 11)
Adrian Peterson, 46 (Week 9)
LaDainian Tomlinson, 44 (Week 6)
Brian Westbrook, 40 (Week 3); Peterson, 40 (Week 6); Ronnie Brown, 40 (Week 3)
Terrell Owens, 41 (Week 11)
Kevin Curtis, 40 (Week 3)
Randy Moss, 36 (Week 11)
Steve Smith, 33 (Week 2)
Benjamin Watson, 23 (Week 5)
Tony Gonzalez, 22 (Week 6); Antonio Gates, 22 (Week 12)
Gates, 21 (Week 8)
Dallas Clark, 19 (Week 4, Week 16)
Rob Bironas, 29 (Week 7)
Kris Brown 23 (Week 5)
Team Defenses/Special Teams
Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 28 (Week 15)
My "Fantasy Football Now" cohort Erik Kuselias thinks Andre Johnson will be a top-five fantasy receiver in 2008. Johnson trailed only Randy Moss and Terrell Owens on a per-game basis, but I'm not sure I trust him to stay healthy. He missed seven games this year, and a calf problem plagued him for almost all of the 2005 season.
Reggie Williams scored 10 touchdowns on only 38 receptions this season. According to our good friends at the Elias Sports Bureau, only one receiver has scored 10 touchdowns while catching fewer than 38 passes since 1978: Seattle's Daryl Turner, who pulled off the trick in both the 1984 and '85 seasons.
Among running backs with at least 100 carries this season, Jerious Norwood led the way with a 6.0 yards-per-carry average. I'm not as high on him as a lot of my colleagues, but he deserves a shot to show what he can do in an expanded role.
Speaking of Taylor, he's on the short list of running backs who could be sleepers if they end up on other teams in 2008. Michael Turner is another obvious name. You know who else could be interesting? Traditional Ravitz punching bag Julius Jones. He'll leave Dallas as a free agent, and I can see him having success if he ends up in a featured role in Houston or Detroit.
Vince Young might have set a new standard for passing futility this season. In 15 games, he had only nine touchdown passes. Quinn Gray, Josh McCown, Chris Redman, Damon Huard and Brian Griese all threw more touchdown passes in limited action. Young scored only 12 touchdowns total, only four more than Devin Hester, for crying out loud.
The Sports Guy probably would say Shaun Alexander struggled this year because of the giant fork sticking out of his back. Sticking with the food theme, do you remember that scene in "Christmas Vacation" where Clark Griswold cuts into the turkey and it explodes to reveal nothing inside? That's Alexander.
Laurence Maroney scored 55 points in the final three games of the season. It's just too bad that the 52 points he scored in the first 13 games cost most of his owners any shot at a championship.
I'm pretty sure Todd Heap is listed as questionable for Week 1 of the 2008 season.
Last but not least, Cedric Benson. I guess I shouldn't hate on the guy. After all, he made me look smart, which is more than I can say for Tony Romo or Randy Moss. And in honor of the new year, I'll resolve to be nicer to Benson in 2008
Nah. It's too much fun. Marion Jones would be a better option as the starting tailback for the Bears, with or without the juice.
Early 2008 Rankings
Tom Brady -- As long as Randy Moss returns, he'll be good for at least 35 touchdown passes.
Peyton Manning -- 4,000 yards and 31 touchdowns is pretty good for a "down" year.
Tony Romo -- It's tempting to put him ahead of Manning, but remember that Terrell Owens is 34.
Drew Brees -- After a slow start, he threw 27 touchdown passes in the final 12 games.
Ben Roethlisberger -- I don't completely trust him. In truth, I'd probably draft another position before taking him here.
Carson Palmer -- I think he will bounce back. And when you're "bouncing back" from 4,100 yards and 22 touchdowns, you've got some upside.
Derek Anderson -- I'm building in just a bit of skepticism. After all, he had five touchdown passes and six interceptions in the final four games.
Brett Favre -- If he comes back, there's little reason to expect a dropoff.
Jay Cutler -- I'm expecting 3,700 yards and 25 touchdowns.
Toughest omission: David Garrard
LaDainian Tomlinson -- Don't even think twice.
Brian Westbrook -- Did you know he's missed only two games the past two years?
Joseph Addai -- 15 touchdowns in his first year as a starter. Hopefully he'll be in better shape next year.
Adrian Peterson -- Here's what gives me pause. He was held to five or fewer points in four of his last six games.
Steven Jackson -- In the last eight games, he had 933 total yards and five touchdowns.
Marion Barber -- He's scored 28 touchdowns the past two years, and Julius Jones will not be back in Dallas.
Frank Gore -- He tallied 836 total yards in the final six games. He'll bounce back.
Larry Johnson -- How late can you let him slide? In a three-game stretch in the middle of the season, he scored 57 points.
Clinton Portis -- Only four running backs scored more fantasy points this season.
Ronnie Brown -- Tough call, but he was the No. 1 back when he went down.
Toughest omissions: Marshawn Lynch, Willis McGahee, Jamal Lewis
Randy Moss -- Assuming he returns to New England.
Terrell Owens -- Can he stay out of the off-the-field news for a second year in a row?
Reggie Wayne -- He proved he could be an elite fantasy player with or without Marvin Harrison.
Braylon Edwards -- You can trust this breakout.
Marques Colston -- The sequel was better than the original.
Larry Fitzgerald -- Ultra consistent. He scored seven or more points in an unbelievable 13 games.
T.J. Houshmandzadeh -- Much more consistent than Ocho Cinco.
Chad Johnson -- The only receiver in the NFL to score 25-plus points three times.
Torry Holt -- Not quite over the hill, but might be slipping.
Toughest omissions: Brandon Marshall, Wes Welker, Andre Johnson
Nate Ravitz is an editor and analyst for ESPN.com Fantasy.