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Offseason Movement: RBs
A Fantasy Perspective

I have made the comment before that running backs are to fantasy football what cash is in real life – they are currency that is accepted just about anywhere you go and the possessor of said resource will be a popular person if he/she has enough of it to pass around. And so it goes with RBs, who have generally earned their reputation as the most important position in fantasy football and the one position at which owners will never be convinced they have enough depth.

The trick becomes not to fall for the counterfeit bills, as nearly half the RBs that are scooped up in the first two rounds of most drafts will underperform. That said, the temptation to draft them (as well as their importance to the fantasy team) is so pivotal to winning each week, most owners take the chance and draft them high anyway. Some of the better value at the position can come in the form of offseason movement and rookies, where the role of the player (and projected fantasy impact) cannot really be compared to anything they have done previously, unless of course, they are making the switch from similar running system to similar running system.

This offseason was a wild one at the RB position, as a handful of former fantasy stalwarts were traded or headed for greener pastures, setting the table for some good value to be had in the middle rounds of upcoming drafts as owners try to imagine what kind of impact four players who have combined for six Pro Bowl appearances will have on their new team.

With veteran RBs in new places, I like to predict their impact by using some of the following as a barometer:

  1. How is his offensive line – an upgrade or a downgrade from their previous stop?
  2. Is he leaving a system suited/not suited for their strengths for one that is suited/not suited for their strengths?
  3. Is he getting an upgrade at offensive coordinator?
  4. How much more/less work will he get in the passing game?
  5. Will he be the main man in the backfield?

At just about every position, a below-the-radar (and sometimes undrafted) player gets “it” for a season and goes from waiver wire hopeful to the final piece in your run for a fantasy title. This position is no different. Last season was a pretty fair season for the position in that regard, as Maurice Jones-Drew, Ladell Betts and Marion Barber all emerged from late round or undrafted obscurity to second-half starters on teams that fell victim to the disappointment of LaMont Jordan or Reuben Droughns. In 2005, backs like Steven Jackson, Willie Parker and Droughns were solid late-round or undrafted pickups. Running back is the one position in fantasy where it is generally accepted to roll the dice on a rookie performer if he will likely fall into the guidelines above. So, one can imagine that most owners will have no problems selecting a veteran back if his only potential downside is that he switched teams.

All that being said, there are a few RBs making the move this season who fall under the guidelines mentioned in the preceding paragraphs. In order of projected fantasy impact, let’s take a look the RBs who switched teams this offseason and their chances for fantasy success…

Travis Henry
(From TEN to DEN)
Remember how the fantasy world was all abuzz when Edgerrin James left Indianapolis to get paid in Arizona prior to last season? There was one key element missing from that move to guarantee James’ status as a top 10 fantasy RB – a noteworthy offensive line. Enter Henry, who left Tennessee to get rich in Denver, which just happens to be the place where mere mortal RBs can be transformed into legit fantasy #2 RBs (sometimes even if they are sharing time) and above-average RBs can turn make a run at the elite fantasy rushers. Henry, despite a few shortcomings, falls into the latter category. Fantasy owners who have written off Bronco RBs over the past few years because of HC Mike Shanahan’s apparent dislike of fantasy football (or maybe the fact he had RBs with limited abilities, you make the call…) should now be able to recapture the feeling they had back in 2003 when Clinton Portis averaged 5.5 yards/carry, running for a total of 1,591 yards and 14 scores in 13 games in his last season in Denver. Henry is no Portis, but he is the best thing they have had in the backfield since.

One really has to pry deep to find a solid reason why Henry will not deliver a top five RB-type of season. It would be hard to imagine that even Shanahan – fantasy football public enemy #1 – would do the unthinkable and not give Henry 80% of the rushing work after tossing $12 M in guaranteed money his way. And while the Broncos’ offensive line has aged in some places and lost a bit in talent in others, it is still one of the finest units in the league, more than capable of executing the cut-blocking, zone scheme they have for so long. And whatever talent downgrade the front five has suffered over the years, the signing of one of the league’s best blocking TEs (Daniel Graham) should be just another reason to be very optimistic about the former Titan and Bill runner. Add in the deep threat that Javon Walker provides and the continued maturation of second-year starting QB Jay Cutler along with what should be a formidable defense (that will keep the game close thereby allowing the running game to do its job) and fantasy owners have just about every reason to pick Henry within the first five picks of any draft this summer. If he does have a shortcoming, he can get dinged up from time to time due to his physical style (thus a late-round handcuff pick for backup Mike Bell is necessary), but Henry has been pretty good at fighting through the nagging injuries in his career. A top five finish at his position is likely for Henry, with 1,500 yards and 15 scores very possible for the 28-year-old RB, barring injury.

Using the checklist in the opening, let’s review:

  1. Offensive line upgrade – Yes
  2. System change, good or bad – Good
  3. Upgrade in OC – Draw
  4. More work in the passing game – Slightly more
  5. Main man in backfield – Yes

Willis McGahee
(From BUF to BAL)
How appropriate that Henry be paired with McGahee yet again? However, this time, Henry should have the upper hand after losing his job to McGahee just two seasons ago. Fortunately for the Bills, they addressed their offensive line after a few years of letting it mostly fall apart. Unfortunately for Buffalo, they tired of McGahee the same year they decided to address a weak offensive line. However, it is possible that while his blocking may not improve in his move from New York to Maryland, McGahee may improve as a fantasy option. How? The Ravens’ defense. Rare will be the time the Ravens will not be able to ride McGahee 20-25 times per game and a couple more times through the air. If McGahee is able to average 4.1 yards/carry this season after Jamal Lewis was able to maintain a 4.3 yards/carry average over his seven-year Raven career and he (McGahee) is able to maintain the workload that Lewis assumed after HC Brian Billick assumed the play-calling duties last season, McGahee is in line for 1400+ yards rushing and 13 TDs!

While that total is certainly reachable, let’s return to the offensive line, one of the few units on the Ravens’ team that is merely average. Future Hall of Fame LT Jonathan Ogden is nearing the end of his remarkable career, however, he is not quite as dominating as he once was. While Chris Chester and Ben Grubbs should eventually team up to give Baltimore a formidable inside duo and LG Jason Brown, C Mike Flynn and RT Adam Terry are all serviceable, they do not exactly inspire visions of a dominating line this season either. No matter what, the Ravens cannot afford injuries up front as they possess very little proven depth. That being said, McGahee will likely be given as many carries as he can handle, so he is a great candidate to serve as a low-end #1 RB or very high-end #2 option. Those owners who value weekly consistency from their RBs should not be disappointed with McGahee in 2007. Sure, he is likely to have 2-3 monster games, but his value will come from the number of touches he will see each week, leading to a high number of 80-100 total-yard performances. Begin expectations for the 25-year-old at 1,200 rushing yards and 10 scores. He should be able to hit those numbers without the weekly rollercoaster ride that some other high picks at RB sometimes provide.

  1. Offensive line upgrade – Slight upgrade
  2. System change, good or bad – Slight upgrade
  3. Upgrade in OC – Draw
  4. More work in the passing game – Slightly more
  5. Main man in backfield – Yes

Thomas Jones
(From CHI to NYJ)
One may be surprised that the Jets gave their running backs the tenth-most carries (426) in the NFL last year, leading to the seventh-highest total of rushing scores (15). The downside to that? It was split four ways with Kevan Barlow, Cedric Houston and Leon Washington all taking shots at the starting gig at one time or another. (Heck, even Derrick Blaylock got a couple starts at the beginning of the season.) New York apparently thought enough was enough and swapped places in the second round of this spring’s draft with the Chicago Bears to acquire the 28-year-old Jones, who after carrying the “brittle” tag early in his career, has played 14, 15 and 16 regular season games in each of his last three seasons, collecting over 2,800 yards of total offense and 15 TDs over the last two campaigns, all with the eager Cedric Benson in waiting and stealing touches.

So the question becomes…with Jones the only show in town, will he put up #1 RB numbers? Well, for starters, the scatback Washington will take some reps from him, especially on passing downs. The second pitfall is that the schedule will be tougher for the Jets than last season’s. In the first quarter of the slate last season, the Jets faced three of the five teams that gave up the most points to RBs. This time around, their first three opponents (New England, Baltimore, Miami) all finished among the top 10 teams in allowing the fewest points to the position and none of those teams figure to forget how to play the run anytime soon. The schedule eases up a bit after that but hammers him after the Week 10 bye week, handing him Pittsburgh, Dallas, Miami and New England during the time most owners will want their #2 RB helping their team push for a title. Lastly, G Pete Kendall could not be more displeased with the way the Jets are handling his contract, thus, one should figure the line will be slightly less effective.

All in all, New York should represent an upgrade in offensive talent and play-calling for Jones from his days in the Windy City but those advantages will likely be counterbalanced by the likely absence of Kendall and the tougher schedule. Jones should be a solid mid-#2 RB prospect who comes pretty close to matching his totals over the last two seasons (around 300 carries, 1400 total yards and 7-8 scores. However, his production will likely be inconsistent from week to week. He will be an ideal buy-low player after three weeks and an excellent sell-high candidate before his bye week.

  1. Offensive line upgrade – Draw
  2. System change, good or bad – Good
  3. Upgrade in OC – Slight upgrade
  4. More work in the passing game – About the same
  5. Main man in backfield – Yes

Ahman Green
(From GB to HOU)
Let him have it…Green was an idiot for not doing whatever he could to sign in Denver, even if it meant taking the veteran’s minimum. Not only did he pass up his last chance at putting a ring on his finger, but he also didn’t help appreciably increase his chances at piling up solid numbers over what figures to be the last 2-3 years of a solid career. Or did he?

Green turned 30 over the winter, the age at which many propose that RBs are at or nearing the downhill slope of their career. However, I prefer to use the 2000-carry mark as a barometer for breakdown, give 100-200 carries one way or the other. This gives Green potentially one more solid season of production, as he is at 1871 rushes heading into his tenth season. He remains a solid receiver who will have next to no adjustment period despite switching teams, as he has a solid rapport with Texans new play-caller Mike Sherman after working under him for several years in Green Bay. Additionally, the zone blocking scheme that Houston runs is something that Green also got a taste of last season as the Packers made the transition in 2006. And Green still has plenty of his trademark open-field speed, breaking a 70-yard TD run against Miami – the third time in four years he has broke a scoring run of at least 70 yards.

The downside to Green is that he does get dinged up given his physical running style. That aside, he leaves a run-blocking line in the NFC North for a line that should be much better than the injured unit Houston was forced to send out late last season. With some offseason tweaking, the Texans’ OL depth is better than it has ever been in franchise history and with a quick decision-maker in Matt Schaub under center, down-and-distance situations will be favorable more often than they ever were with David Carr. As it is with most teams, having their offensive line healthy all season would help Green produce one more very serviceable fantasy season for his owners. While Green’s numbers won’t rival that of Domanick Williams (formerly Domanick Davis) from a few years ago, he will make for a great #3 RB or a low-end #2 option when he posts numbers in the 1,300 total yard neighborhood with 6-8 scores.

  1. Offensive line upgrade – Draw
  2. System change, good or bad – Draw
  3. Upgrade in OC – Slight upgrade
  4. More work in the passing game – About the same
  5. Main man in backfield – Yes

Jamal Lewis
(From BAL to CLE)
It was a no-brainer that Lewis was leaving an average situation for a bad situation when he initially signed with the rival Browns. Then, a funny thing happened...Cleveland got a much-needed talent infusion. Four days before the Lewis signing became official, the Browns inked G-T Eric Steinbach – a Pro Bowl talent from their in-state rival, the Cincinnati Bengals. In April, they landed the top OL in the draft in T Joe Thomas. Finally, reports surfaced a few weeks ago that last season’s prized signing, G-C LeCharles Bentley, may be able to return at some point this season after knee surgery that was threatening his ability to ever return to the field. That is a lot of money, talent and potential for domination up front to infuse an offense with that has sorely lacked anything resembling consistency. With Braylon Edwards, Joe Jurevicius and Kellen Winslow manning the other skill positions, Lewis’ chances to make good on the one-year contract he signed in March look better now than it did when he first left Baltimore.

That said, Lewis will have two obstacles to face as a Brown that will hinder his ability to show he is a young 29 (years of age). While he is quite familiar with carrying the offense from his many years with merely average play at QB in Baltimore, the Browns do not have anything close to the defense the Ravens have possessed throughout most of his career, meaning he will need to do a lot of his damage early in games. However, he will be seen by most owners as merely a #3 fantasy RB candidate given the Browns’ struggles on offense for most of their re-existence, something many owners can take advantage of as Jason Wright and Jerome Harrison do not figure to steal a lot of carries from him. The potential is there for Lewis to perform at a #2 RB level (especially if the defense takes the next step), assuming his new line meshes quickly and stays healthy. Cleveland will be improved on both sides of the ball from last year and Lewis figures to have no challengers for his job, so the opportunity to eclipse 300 carries is there. Figure Lewis will find a way to at least match his 3.6 yards/carry from 2006 behind a lesser line in Baltimore and there is reason to believe Lewis can muster another 1000+ yard season with 6-7 TDs a possibility. That puts him into solid #3 RB territory – if not a low-tier #2 RB if his owners choose to address other positions early on. The eight-year veteran may be frustrating to own some weeks (two matchups apiece vs. the Ravens and Steelers not to mention contests against tough rushing defenses like the Patriots and Dolphins appear to be rough spots for him). But if things go Cleveland’s way for once and everyone returns/stays healthy, Lewis could surprise.

  1. Offensive line upgrade – Upgrade (potentially, assuming Bentley makes it all the way back)
  2. System change, good or bad – Bad
  3. Upgrade in OC – Draw
  4. More work in the passing game – Negligible
  5. Main man in backfield – Yes

Tatum Bell
(From DEN to DET)
Bell is the one back on this list so far that no one can say for sure will be fantasy relevant (the main man) or not (Kevin Jones’ caddy). Unfortunately, all we have at this point is those ultra-reliable offseason reports (detect a hint of sarcasm?) which state that Jones is ahead of schedule in his return from a painful Lisfranc foot injury while Bell is wowing his teammates with his impressive speed and showing good hands. Now this writer remembers while he was in Denver, Bell supposedly didn’t have one of those traits…but I digress.

So, best case scenario for Bell first. Jones takes the entire season to recover from his severe foot injury, allowing Bell the opportunity to cruise past fellow offseason acquisition Doug Duckett and the rest of the Lions backfield recovering from injuries (Jones, Shawn Bryson and Brian Calhoun). In that scenario, Bell would assume most of the work in between the 10s with Duckett getting most of the short-yardage love. But there is reason to be weary of Bell as anything more than a mid-#3 fantasy RB, even in that scenario. The o-line will be improved over last season but six games against defenses that should rate anywhere from pretty decent (Green Bay) to pretty good run defenses (Minnesota, Chicago) will stifle Bell in nearly half of his games. Add to that Duckett’s presence and there is reason to believe Bell will top five scores.

Now the best-case scenario for the Lions and Jones. The early reports on Jones turn out to be true and he returns to the team in good shape midway through training camp. With regular three-wide sets that will keep no more than seven defenders in the box, Jones will be able to make a living as an all-purpose threat like he did in 2006 by using his inside power and good hands. Bell would be relegated to a series or two per half – if that – allowing Jones to get a needed rest from time to time. Bell will play no matter what, but only time will tell if that time will be as the bellcow in OC Mike Martz’s offense or as the back that gives Jones a periodic rest. As such, projections could range anywhere from 100 touches to over 300 touches. Either way, though, he will not enjoy the same success in Motown as he did last season in Denver.

  1. Offensive line upgrade – Downgrade
  2. System change, good or bad – Bad
  3. Upgrade in OC – Upgrade in aggressiveness, downgrade for Bell’s style
  4. More work in the passing game – Doubtful
  5. Main man in backfield – TBD

Dominic Rhodes
(From IND to OAK)
Someone is not staying around too long in the Raider backfield. My guess is that somebody will be LaMont Jordan after the season. Since Rhodes was signed after Lane Kiffin was named the coach, he will stay despite a four-game suspension to open 2007. Rookie Michael Bush is a bigger, faster version of Jordan who may or may not see the field as he continues his recovery from a broken leg last fall at Louisville. Given USC’s recent history, it may be a fair assumption that Kiffin favors the committee approach in the backfield (Reggie Bush-LenDale White, Justin Fargas-Sultan McCullough are the most recent examples) and Rhodes’ signing suggest that trend will continue as he transitions to the pro game.

The sad thing for Rhodes is that he would be a low-end #3 RB option even if he had the job all to himself in Oakland. Thus, it is hard to justify a pick on him, especially considering the situation he is going into plus his suspension to open his Raider career.

  1. Offensive line upgrade – Downgrade
  2. System change, good or bad – Bad
  3. Upgrade in OC – Downgrade
  4. More work in the passing game – Doubtful
  5. Main man in backfield – Likely part of RBBC with LaMont Jordan

The following are a few more notable free agent acquisitions at running back this offseason. However, each was brought on to their respective teams strictly as a reserve, and you should not consider selecting any of them on draft day unless you are doing so for handcuffing purposes or if the starter falls to serious injury at some point in training camp…

Reuben Droughns
(From CLE to NYG)
*Unlike most of my fantasy brethren, I like Droughns as insurance behind Brandon Jacobs, so long as Ahmad Bradshaw fulfills the promise that I believe he has as does The Gut Check. In games that the Giants just want to maul opponents using the ground game, sending Droughns in after Jacobs seems a worthwhile strategy. If I drafted Jacobs, I would certainly consider a last-round selection of Droughns although I am not crazy about the left side of the New York offensive line.

T.J. Duckett
(From WAS to DET)
*If Duckett ran with some of the toughness inside that former teammate Warrick Dunn does, Duckett could have been Jacobs before Jacobs knew he was Jacobs (follow me so far?). Since it looks unlikely that he will ever gain the mentality he needs to be the inside runner he could be, he will likely continue to watch backs like Kevin Jones and Tatum Bell from the sideline, only to be used when his coaches think his 250-pound frame will be of benefit on short-yardage situations. The best prospects for Duckett’s fantasy success are tied with Tatum Bell. If Jones misses a significant part of the season, Duckett may be used to vulture short TD runs. If Jones is healthy, a lot of special teams duty is likely ahead for the six-year vet.