Drafting Your Fantasy Running Backs: The Details to Consider in 2008

If breaking down the details for this year’s fantasy running backs doesn’t make you want to take LaDainian Tomlinson first overall in your re-draft league, I don’t know what will. Seriously, people.

When you’re talking fantasy running backs, what separates the vets from the noobs is consideration of a few minor factors beyond how high-powered a running back’s offense was last year and where the running back ranks on cheat sheets this season. Looking at the slight details like what defenses they face, contract lengths and ages can help you make the call between two closely-ranked RBs in your draft.

Let’s jump into how these factors will affect some top fantasy running backs this season with some good ol’ plus or minus analysis — and we go with negative first around these parts.

The Age Old Rule

First, let’s talk age. When you’re an old running back, you’re like a hot potato. No one wants to get stuck holding you when you crack.

Fantasy Football Toolbox told all with a list of all the running backs age 29 or older. There won’t be any pluses in this category, so we will have Big/Mini shades of Minus — a very scientific method, fingers crossed.

For fantasy’s sake, here’s who is getting to be old bones:

BIG Minus –

  • Warrick Dunn – Tampa Bay: I know you thought he was a spring chicken.
  • Ahman Green – Houston Texans: His knees show his age like the rings in a tree trunk.
  • LaMont Jordan – Oakland Raiders: Age and injury have punched Jordan’s ticket out of Oakland.
  • Thomas Jones – New York Jets: Things could go either way for Jones in 2008 with a new O-line.
  • Ricky Williams – Miami Dolphins: It’s hard to make a comeback with just a couple of years left in the tank.
  • Deuce McAllister – New Orleans Saints: Coming off injury AND old. Not pretty. “Little Deuce” Aaron Stecker (32) isn’t getting younger for the Saints either.
  • The New England Trio: Heath Evans, Kevin Faulk and Sammy Morris – New England Patriots: Most of New England’s backfield is over 30. The Patriots can get production out of the old guys, but these guys have got to be breaking down this year. Maybe they will remember that they have Laurence Maroney.

Mini Minus –

  • Jamal Lewis – Cleveland Browns: I think he was reborn when he became a Brown because he certainly did his owners right last year.
  • Fred Taylor – Jacksonville Jaguars: Everyone keeps calling for Maurice Jones-Drew, but Taylor seems to find gas in the tank.
  • Edgerrin James – Arizona Cardinals: Old with flashes of youth still left.
  • Brian Westbrook – Philadelphia Eagles: Only 28 but backup is Correll Buckhalter (29). No wonder the Eagles wanted Lorenzo Booker, a spry 24, from Miami.

Strength of Schedules: Running into Brick Walls

NFL.com’s Michael Fabiano ranked the rushing schedules of fantasy running backs last week while we were just sitting around chatting about the free agents of 2009, which is the next section.

Fantasy Football Xtreme’s Smitty also put together a strength of schedule analysis earlier this offseason, showing L.T. is the set to be at the top in 2008.

Pouring out a little link love for my homies, Fantasy Football Librarian noted that Fabiano’s breakdown makes Laurence Maroney look pretty favorable, and Football Jabber singled out the top and bottom five teams. Frank Gore has his work cut out for him, and no one in Houston’s backfield has it easy this year.

Here’s who’ll be hurting on and who’ll be hurting from run defenses this year:

Minus –

  • Frank Gore – San Francisco 49ers: Even if he isn’t the focus of the offense, he will still be the focus of the defense. It’s not looking good. I might go Tom Brady over Gore in the first round, but I’m not totally quitting on him yet.
  • Brandon Jacobs – New York Giants: Long road back to the top against some of the best defenses out there at stopping the run. Giants will have to keep it dynamic in the run game to say ahead.
  • Edgerrin James – Arizona Cardinals: Notch Edge down another point for this one.
  • Ahman Green (and friends) – Houston Texans: No one will have an easy time running for Houston. With a pack of inconsistent backs, I’d avoid them all in your drafts this year.
  • Jamal Lewis – Cleveland Browns: Age AND a schedule full of stacked run defenses. That hurts.
  • Julius Jones – Seattle Seahawks: Jones can’t improve his stock much in Seattle against the best in the biz of stopping him.
  • Marion Barber and Felix Jones – Dallas Cowboys: A huge offense makes this a minor point. Does this stat mean they will throw more? PLUS to Romo if that’s the case.

Plus +

  • LaDainian Tomlinson – San Diego Chargers: You couldn’t really ask for much more than L.T. having the best schedule of any RB. For the most part, Tomlinson will be running against the bottom-of-the-barrel run defenses.
  • Laurence Maroney – New England Patriots: Will the Patriots use him with the easiest rushing defense schedule? I think they might just let Brady throw all day again, but he could run easy when they let him.
  • Thomas Jones – New York Jets: If his new O-line can block for him, Jones has it free and clear this season.
  • Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams – Miami Dolphins: Two bounce backs is possible. My money’s on Brown more than Ricky.
  • Travis Henry – Denver Broncos: Easy street should win him some points with Shanny.
  • Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush – New Orleans Saints: The Saints offense is in line for a big year. Bush is the probably the better back to snag.
  • Marshawn Lynch – Buffalo Bills: The second-best rookie of 2008 gets forgotten at times, but he should have a nice 2008 season with an easy rushing schedule and an improved offense. I’m high on this kid and owned him last year.
  • Larry Johnson – Kansas City Chiefs: Rebounds abound? Maybe. Johnson has an easy schedule to redeem himself for last year.
  • Michael Turner – Atlanta Falcons: All that postseason hype won’t weigh down Turner much in Atlanta when he faces mostly low-end or middle-of-the-pack run defenses. In an offense based off the run this year, Turner could be more productive than people think.

Freebirds in Free Agency of 2009

Who’s looking to bust a move? Running backs who have a payday coming are always more likely to impress, but those who just got paid can be slowed by their wallets.

Plus +

  • Steven Jackson – St. Louis Rams: The big man might get money before the season, but if not, stay out of his way.
  • Brandon Jacobs – New York Giants: He’s got his work cut out for him, but boy, he wants to work.
  • Ricky Williams – Miami Dolphins: The “Freebird” title of this section was purely unintentional — I promise. Ricky probably has to make enough money over the next two years to rebuild his straw hut in a foreign country and smoke away the pain…That might not be very much though.

Minus –

  • Marion Barber – Dallas Cowboys: Likely to have just signed a major deal by the time the season starts even though he is a free agent now. Hopefully, money won’t weigh him down like it did Shaun Alexander.

In Closing

When it’s all said and done, these three factors paint a picture for who looks better than they might have beforehand and worse now than ever before. Some older backs may make nice RB2s, but don’t fall for drafting them as RB1s again this season.

Ricky Williams is still risky, but he has a lot going in his favor. Ronnie Brown is the more dependable guy to have for Miami, but Ricky cold be a good value pick. On the other hand, Marion Barber might have two strikes against him going into the season. Jamal Lewis looks like a player to avoid in the worst way possible.

Take all these factors into your noggin this offseason and remember to factor them in when you are choosing between two running backs in your draft. Upside is hard to find with running backs since the RBBCs are forming everywhere in the league, but make sure you get the most out of your running back picks. Don’t get stuck making the wrong call. Some rookies with young legs might be worth betting on over solid veterans.

Let me echo this again: L.T. looks good overlooking the age effect. In my mind, these factors put him clearly up there in the No. 1 overall spot. Take him first in your re-draft leagues, and call me in the morning.

Agree, disagree or explode in the comments below.

Week 12 Pick Ups: Still a few turkeys out there

I know it’s a holiday, but it’s also the best time to get a jump on the other teams by grabbing the best players off the waiver wire. If you don’t have any injuries–you must have signed that contract with Satan, but regardless, there is fresh blood and starters running around the NFL.

Here are the people worth taking.

Kolby Smith, RB Kansas City Chiefs
With no LJ and no Priest, Smith will have to carry this team for them to have a prayer.

Heath Evans and Kyle Eckel, RB New England Patriots
The Patriot running backs rotate weekly. With Maroney and Faulk going down with injuries last week, we could see the hand-offs going to Evans or Eckel this week. Keep an eye on the injury rep–wait, it’s the Patriots. Just guess…or play Eckel if you have to pick one to take a chance since he gets most of the garbage carries for TDs. General rule of thumb is not to trust Patriot RBs.

Matt Schaub, QB Houston Texans
If no one has him, you should. Schaub has a hot playoff schedule and his best receiving option–Andre Johnson–back to save his season.

Chris Brown, RB Tennessee Titans
Chris Henry has withdrawn his appeal to serve out a four-game suspension, so Brown will get the majority of the carries outside of LenDale White (which is a pretty small area) this season. He might not be the best play with more teams attacking the Titans run game, but if you need a RB, he might still be out there on the wire.

Ted Ginn, Jr., WR Miami Dolphins
New QB John Beck seems to like throwing to Ginn. If Ginn continues to perform, he might be worth snagging for a late playoff support. Watch how he does this week against a rough Pittsburgh team.

Ronald Curry, Oakland Raiders
Best game of the season in week 11. He could get better…or worse. Watch the QB situation and see if his trend continues upwards.

Ricky Williams, RB Miami Dolphins
Ricky, Ricky, Ricky. He’s back from “on high” but Cameron is being tight-lipped about what role he will play. He is worth snagging if you have a roster spot and may split carries with Jesse Chatman against the Steelers. You have to think the Dolphins will at least want to show other teams what he can do so that they can deal him at the end of this season, but don’t expect him to be able to do much more than Chatman can with these Dolphins.

Vinny Testaverde, QB Carolina Panthers
This old guy just doesn’t quit. He won the starting job again this week from Carr–not hard–and has a nice match up against the Saints who just let Houston play shooting range on their secondary.

Andre Hall, RB Denver Broncos
It’s Shanny, he has been a fantasy column darling a few times already this year, he scored a long TD on Monday and Selvin Young might still be banged up. There’s your reasoning.

Maybe avoid these…

Rex Grossman, QB Chicago Bears
Grossman is still the starter. If you have ever won the lottery, take your chance with him, but remember he could always resort back to the bad decision maker he is deep inside–it’s his inner child. He plays the Denver Broncos, and they have some pretty good corners.

Reuben Droughns/Derrick Ward, RB New York Giants
Whoever fills in for Brandon Jacobs will at least be a starting RB, but they play the Vikings. Find a better sub if you got one.

Michael Pittman, RB Tampa Bay Buccaneers
He exists somewhere behind Graham. Carries should increase, and you could bank on Graham getting injured if you are desperate. There are probably better options.

LJ Smith, TE Philadelphia Eagles
He’s back and performing like his un-injured self, but his QB Donovan McNabb may be out for quite awhile. LJ might not be feelin’ Feeley and the potential for QB controversy to end the season with Kolb waiting in Eagles’ wings.

Joey Harrington, QB Atlanta Falcons
Yeah, he’s starting. So what? He’s JOEY HARRINGTON. He might lead them to a win, or he might blow it all away.

Have a great turkey day everybody! Enjoy watching Romo, Favre and Manning put on a gunslinger show while gorging yourself. Don’t worry about getting fat, fantasy football prowess will soon become a factor in good looks.