How much more is Jonathan Stewart than "just another handcuff?"
In 2008, DeAngelo Williams was one of the more shocking fantasy MVPs in recent memory. He had never eclipsed four rushing touchdowns in a season, yet he wound up with an NFL-high 18 scores last season. His previous best rushing yardage was 707; he managed 1,518 in '08. And despite a massive increase in use (from 144 carries in '07 to 274 in '08), his yards-per-carry average actually increased, from 5.0 to 5.5.
And yet uncertainty swirls around Williams' value in 2009 more than it has around any reigning fantasy MVP in a while. That's because Jonathan Stewart (aka "The Daily Show") is still around. Stewart turned 183 carries into 833 yards (a 4.6 yards-per-carry average) in 2008 and siphoned off another 10 rushing touchdowns from Williams. The rookie back finished 24th in the league in rushing yards (Williams was third) and tied for eighth in rushing scores. Thus, Stewart was pretty darn startable in fantasy leagues throughout the year, despite coming off toe surgery just before his first NFL training camp. Combined, the Panthers' starting backfield combo ran for 2,351 yards, most by any two runners on the same team in 24 years. So we're left with the question of not only where Williams should be drafted, but also what fantasy owners should do with Stewart in '09.
I think the Williams question is pretty easily answered: The guy must be considered a top-10 back. We have him at No. 8 in our rankings, although personally I'd bump him up one spot, past LaDainian Tomlinson. Williams is still only 26 years old, he's entering his fourth NFL season, and he has perhaps the most devastating offensive line in the league blocking for him. Tackles Jordan Gross and Jeff Otah are ridiculous, and the interior of the line (Travelle Wharton, Ryan Kalil and Keydrick Vincent) is excellent at making creases. Sure, Williams comes with more risk than some rushers, in that he's not a very good bet to reach the 300-carry mark. But as long as he's healthy, he's the lead dog in this pack, and he's one of the best home run threats out there. He should be taken either late in the first round or early in the second of a 10-team draft.
What to do with Stewart is a trickier question. On the plus side, he's incredibly talented. He'd start for probably 20 teams in the NFL, and he's one of the best short-yardage backs in football, having scored in seven of his nine goal-line carries in his rookie campaign. Stewart also benefits from the same factors that make Williams attractive: The O-line is tremendous, and coach John Fox likes to run the ball. (Only two teams in the league had a heavier rushing percentage in '08.) Still, Stewart finished 28th in the league in carries in '08. If the touchdowns don't break right, we could be looking at an 800-yard back without much scoring. Can owners really justify using a player like that as a No. 2 fantasy rusher? And then there are the injuries. For the second straight camp, Stewart is battling lower-leg issues; this time it's an Achilles, which might or might not have required surgery. (The Panthers haven't commented about it.) As of this writing, Stewart had missed three straight days of practice, although the team considers the rest "precautionary."
So what is this guy? Is he merely a must-handcuff for Williams owners? If so, those owners had better plan on drafting him early. We have Stewart ranked 24th among rushers, meaning you can probably expect to see him come off the board in the fourth or fifth round. Can you really justify drafting a guy you hope you don't need to use that early? Or is Stewart a super-high-upside risk worth taking, a touchdown machine who would do a wonderful job with the starting gig if something happened to Williams?
In case you haven't heard me say it yet, my motto this year is this: Draft skill sets. Stewart is a monster to tackle, but he also runs a 4.48 40, and despite the fact that he grabbed only eight passes last year, he has pretty decent hands and could excel in a pass-catching role if the Panthers decide to use him that way. To me, he looks like a player who probably won't exceed 20 carries in any games this season (as was the case last year) but who'll be a source of high-single-digit touchdowns. And if something does happen to Williams, Stewart would be a pure No. 1 fantasy back, no questions asked.
So there are a lot of things that can break right for Stewart, and really only a couple things that can break wrong. (He could stay hurt or get unlucky with touchdowns.) To me, that seems like a risk worth taking. I'd be nervous as heck to have Stewart as a fantasy starter, but I might do it, and I'd definitely feel OK about taking him among the very first No. 3 fantasy backs selected. I think more often than not, if you draft excellent players, things tend to work out. And Jonathan Stewart is an excellent player.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com and is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner. You can find him at www.facebook.com/writerboy.