Clinton Portis is currently being drafted as the 12th running back in ESPN drafts. Is that too low? Or is it too high?
Clinton Portis was a beast in the first half of 2008: 944 rushing yards and seven scores, which put him among the league leaders in both categories. Unfortunately, in the season's final eight games, Portis battled an MCL injury and a decimated Redskins offensive line, managed only 281 yards on just 98 carries and didn't have a single run of more than 15 yards. He's still only 28 years old, but he leads NFL rushers in carries over the past two seasons by a wide margin, and is fifth among all active rushers in career carries. In other words: He's a ripened 28.
So which guy is Portis: the first-half star (when he was healthy) or the second-half dud (when he wasn't)? I have to admit that when I've done chats and answered e-mails over the summer about Portis, I've considered him borderline first-round material even in a 10-team fantasy draft. Simply based on talent, he is one of the 10 best backs in football, and you wouldn't consider him injury-prone. He's powerful, shifty, a terrific guy in blitz pickup, a valuable receiver and a great goal-line rusher. On multiple occasions this summer, I've been asked whether Portis should be a consideration over one of the stud wide receivers (say, Larry Fitzgerald or Andre Johnson), and I've answered that he should at least be in the conversation. But now I'm not so sure. In fact, now I think Portis has lately turned into one of the 2009 preseason's most vexing players.
From what I saw in Washington's most recent preseason game, Portis looks a little slower to the hole, and thus a little more hesitant. No, a few exhibition carries shouldn't be enough to doom a guy to the old-age home, but I think we've seen enough formerly amazing backs lose that edge in their quickness over the past, say, five years to be leery when the first signs of a slowdown rear their head. Perhaps Portis' preseason "issues" (if issues they be) are related more to the Redskins' offensive line, which has to deal with a very beaten-up Chris Samuels at left tackle (his knee is already bothering him) and no Jon Jansen around for depth. Regardless, even the staunchest Portis apologist would have a difficult time beaming with pride over how the guy has looked so far. But by the same token, I don't feel sure enough of this assessment to automatically downgrade Portis.
Then there's the Ladell Betts situation. Last week, the Washington Post reported that Betts will be both the Redskins' third-down back and the two-minute-drill back. Betts was limited by a knee injury in '08 and amassed only 61 carries for 206 yards, but now he's going to be counted on to take more carries than ever from Portis, and that could be a crippling blow to Portis owners. I can understand the impulse to take some of the load off Portis, considering how badly he wore down in the latter stages of '08, but how far will the Redskins take it? In recent preseason action, Betts was given the ball at the goal line versus the Steelers. Will we see him in that situation if the clock shows less than two minutes in the game?
To be honest, I have a hard time imagining Jim Zorn will stick to this prescription for an entire season. Where the rubber meets the road, I still think Portis is a great player, better than Betts, and more likely to get the yards -- and score -- when Washington needs it most. Yet because of the uncertainty created by what Zorn has said, I think we have to significantly downgrade Portis. It isn't so much that I'm freaked out by the notion that he might get, say, "only" 300 carries. It's where those carries might be. If Portis isn't scoring nine-plus touchdowns, as he's done in five of his seven NFL seasons, he's probably not going to be one of the league's top 10 backs. Heck, he might not even be a top-15 guy.
My mantra this summer has been "Draft skill sets." In other words, take the best players, don't fear their situations all that much, and assume that the cream usually rises to the top. But here, I think I'm about to contradict myself. Given the hints of Portis' slowing down combined with the news that Betts is set to at least open the season as co-member of a committee, I think Portis deserves a pretty severe downgrade. There's no way I'm considering him as a No. 1 fantasy rusher any longer, and I'm not sure I'd take the chance on him in the second round of my fantasy draft, either. It's possible I'll back down from that stance in the next week or two, because I'm not 100 percent sold on Zorn's supposed split. But anything earlier than, say, No. 17 or No. 18 among rushers, and I think the risk outweighs the potential reward. In other words: Yes, I think that as the No. 12 fantasy rusher in ESPN.com drafts, Portis is going significantly too high.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner. You can find him at www.facebook.com/writerboy.