“Past performance does not guarantee future results.”
No kidding, right? Football junkies such as myself have long comprehended
the wisdom in that little caveat emptor, fastening our fantasy hopes
and dreams to NFL players whose performance often fluctuates wildly
from one year (or even one game) to the next. Nevertheless, this
knowledge never stops us from bravely predicting the unpredictable
come every August.
In that spirit, I’ve attempted to handicap the future performance
of the game’s elite, fool’s errand though it may be.
I’ll examine the reigning top 10 running backs, and take a
stab at determining who is likely to maintain that status, and who
is bound to disappoint, in 2011. I’ll use as my guide the
lessons we may have learned from the dropout class of 2010. Sound
like a plan? Let’s do this.
Note: All rankings are based on FFToday’s default standard
Missed the Cut in 2010 (8 of 10):
M. Jones-Drew, R. Rice, F. Gore, T. Jones, R. Williams, R. Grant,
S. Jackson, and J. Addai
In case you hadn’t noticed, the running back position in the
NFL can be a bit of a gristmill. Seven of the top 10 rock-toters
in 2008 failed to achieve that status again in 2009. Eight more
missed the mark in 2010. In fact, only Adrian Peterson has managed
to rank among the top 10 backs in each of the past three seasons.
If you’re scoring at home, that’s a heckuva lot of turnover
at the most critical position in fantasy.
Historically, health (or the lack thereof) has been the primary
reason a running back fails to match production year-over-year.
That was certainly the case for half of the dropouts last season.
Jones-Drew missed his final two contests, but still finished
in the top 12. Add a couple of MJD-ish games to his tally and he’d
have easily been a top 10 returnee. Frank
Gore was clipping along at his usual pace (around 80 yards per
contest) when he was felled by a fractured hip in a Week 12 tilt
with Arizona. Ryan
Grant’s season ended almost before it began when he injured
his right ankle in Week 1. Joseph
Addai suffered a severe neck/shoulder injury just as he was
starting to gain steam midway through the campaign. None of these
men are particularly old and Addai was even re-signed by the Colts,
a rarity for that organization (see Marshall Faulk and Edgerrin
James). Rebounds can probably be expected. Nevertheless, it isn’t
difficult to see why the life of an NFL running back is often nasty,
brutish, and short.
None of the other four dropouts, on the other hand, missed significant
time in 2010. And by “significant,” I mean any. Ray
Rice was a 20-yard scamper away from reclaiming his status but
missed the mark despite 53 more carries. He also continued to yield
McGahee much of the time. Thomas
Jones moved from Gotham to the plains and saw his carries drop
from 331 to 245 as he split time almost equally with the younger
Williams again shared the Miami stage but ceded the leading
man role to Ronnie Brown, losing almost 100 carries in the exchange.
Jackson, of these final four, had the spotlight all to himself,
though suiting up for a crummy St. Louis squad often playing from
behind definitely took its toll on his bottom line.
Clearly, forecasting the performance of NFL running backs can be
problematic at best. Add to that a burgeoning trend toward job-sharing
and…well, it’s become almost maddening. Since 2007,
the league’s leader in carries has averaged 348 totes. In
the preceding seven seasons (2000 through 2006), that average was
roughly 384. Moreover, fewer and fewer backs are reaching the 300-carry
threshold, let alone the 400-carry workload guys like Larry Johnson
(2006) and Eddie George (2000) took on within the past decade. With
more bodies in the mix, it’s going to be awfully difficult
to handicap who will emerge on a year-in, year-out basis.
Most Likely to Fall in 2011:
The Bears’ main man hasn’t missed a game
in his first three seasons and has been a top 10 performer in two
of those. He’s averaged well over 1,000-yards on the ground and
caught at least 50 passes each year. A durable, productive, and
versatile youngster sure doesn’t seem to fit the profile of top
10 tumbler. Nevertheless, there are concerns.
First, Chicago’s run to the NFC Championship game in 2010
was made in spite, and not because of, its offensive production.
In fact, the stat geeks over at Football Outsiders ranked the Bears’
offense 28th in the league using their go-to metric, DVOA (Defense-Adjusted
Value Over Average). Forte was good and Jay Cutler wasn’t
terrible so the onus for this lowly ranking falls squarely on an
offensive line that didn’t protect the latter and didn’t
open a lot of holes for the former. While that certainly speaks
to Forte’s inherent run-to-daylight abilities, it also means
he’s not getting a lot of help.
Second, the line was not significantly upgraded and, quite possibly,
got worse during the offseason. Olin Kreutz was allowed to walk
and will no longer be manning the all-important center position.
His former linemates have been reshuffled and it’s anybody’s
guess whether they’ll succeed at their new positions.
Finally, the Bears brought in Marion Barber III to, ostensibly,
do what Chester Taylor couldn’t last year (effectively relieve
some of Forte’s burden). I’m dubious he’ll be
able to provide much more production but there is the possibility
he’ll be used strategically on short-yardage plays or, worse
yet, near the goal line. Forte doesn’t score a lot to begin
with so fewer opportunities in the red zone would likely bump him
out of the top 10.
Atlanta rode “The Burner” like a rented
mule back in 2008 (376 carries), much to the delight of fantasy
owners everywhere (1699 yds and 17 scores). Alas, the cost of this
workload was only deferred as he broke down halfway through 2009
and ended up logging fewer than half as many carries in an injury-shortened
campaign. Coaching staffs have apparently taken notice (including
Atlanta’s) because, though Turner’s carries were curtailed in 2010
(334), he still led the league.
Riding Turner may be a thing of the past
for the Falcons.
There’s reason to believe they will be again this season,
maybe even more so. Jason Snelling, a very capable complement, was
retained. Additionally, the Falcons added Jacquizz Rodgers, a smaller,
more dynamic change of pace option, in the draft this past April.
Clearly, Mike Smith and company are bound and determined not to
abuse their meal ticket in 2011.
Further, and more significantly, the Falcons’ brain trust
learned a valuable lesson in the 2010 playoffs. To boot, they weren’t
going to be able to beat the Green Bay’s, Philly’s,
and New England’s of the world by playing solid defense and
keep-away on offense. The defense is mandatory, yes, but the offense
needed to become more dynamic and more versatile in order to keep
up with the Joneses. Thus, the Falcons added…a Jones. Literally.
And boy did Julio come at a steep price. You don’t trade away
two first-round picks, a third-rounder, and two more fourth-rounders
unless you’re intending to diversify your offense in a big
way. Suffice it to say there will probably be more aerial action,
and less ground-pounding, on display at the Georgia Dome this season.
You think Houston Nutt ever wonders how
he managed to lose four games at Arkansas in 2006 despite having
three future NFL starters in his backfield? I know the Hogs faithful
sure do. McFadden, aka Run DMC, was the undisputed cream of the
crop back then but has been lately eclipsed by his unsung former
Hillis, in the NFL. This despite the fact he finally put it
all together in 2010, topping the 1,000-yard mark and hitting paydirt
ten times. Many are expecting even more production in 2011 but there
appear to be two good reasons the former Razorback may struggle
to reclaim that lofty status. Stop me if this starts to sound familiar.
First, McFadden has yet to string together sixteen straight games
as a professional. Actually, he’s never played more than 13
in a season due to turf toe, a balky knee, and a bad hammy, in order.
Sure, running backs get hurt. We’ve established that. This
could be the year he goes wire-to-wire, though, and…wait,
he’s hurt again? Already? Granted, a fractured orbital bone
is unlikely to keep the Raiders’ meal ticket out of action
come September but it’s at least concerning we’re forced
to consider his health before this, his fourth season, even gets
off the ground.
Second, McFadden’s inability to stay healthy has created opportunities
for his running mate, Michael Bush, to gain a foothold as option
1B in the Oakland offense. Bush was actually drafted one year earlier
but didn’t play a down his rookie season due to a broken leg
suffered at Louisville. Despite the inauspicious debut, Bush has
rebounded to carve out a nice, little niche as McFadden’s
counterpart and/or replacement, proving in several career starts
he can carry the load when necessary. He’s also the more likely
of the Oakland backs to garner carries near the goal line, as evidenced
by his eight rushing TDs in 2010 (to McFadden’s seven).
Next: Wide Receivers