Old Faces in New Places: Running Backs

The NFL views running backs as disposable; if you need proof, look no further than at least three top-20 fantasy backs from last season switching jerseys since the calendar turned to 2013. Mix in a handful of other recognizable names finding new homes in the offseason and the potential lack of a first-round back in this draft class won’t make a big dent in most fantasy draft plans.

Steven Jackson, Falcons

Steven Jackson played out the string in St. Louis last season, wrapping up a nine-year Rams run with an eighth straight 1,000-yard season—and a sixth consecutive year with single-digit touchdowns. In combo scoring systems Jackson and the guy he’s replacing, Michael Turner, provided roughly the same amount of fantasy production; Jackson was yardage-heavy, while Turner made his money at the goal line.

So the gut reaction is to assume that you plug the younger (by 17 months) Jackson into the Atlanta offense and touchdowns are sure to follow. Makes sense; even after he had shed the speed that earned him the “Burner” moniker, Turner turned his role in the Falcons’ offense into double-digit touchdowns each of his five years in Atlanta. However, there are a couple caveats before you simply add a half-dozen touchdowns to Jackson’s bottom line and pencil him in as an RB1.

For starters, despite being younger than Turner Jackson is himself crossing into the forbidden running back territory beyond the age of 30; he’ll hit that milestone as training camps open in July. Both Jackson and Turner came to the NFL via the 2004 Draft, yet Jackson has logged significantly more miles: 756 carries and 1,093 touches over their respective nine NFL seasons.

Then there’s the assumption that Jackson will receive an upgrade in running room moving from St. Louis to Atlanta, but the numbers don’t necessarily bear that out: according to Football Outsiders, the Rams bested the Falcons in both adjusted yards per carry (4.07 to 3.87) and running back yards (4.30 to 3.69). Pro Football Focus’s more subjective rankings have the Falcons (15th) ahead of the Rams (26th), but the bottom line is that Jackson’s relocation isn’t a no-brainer upgrade in blocking.

Where there is an definite upgrade is in goal line opportunity, so Jackson’s value in TD-heavy scoring systems gets the expected shot. He’ll also bring more to the table as a receiver than Turner ever did, though Jacquizz Rodgers will horn in on some of that action as well. Jackson’s projected touchdowns should offset the anticipated drop in yardage, leaving him a solid RB2 candidate across the board.

Reggie Bush, Lions

Reggie Bush comes off a career-high 227 rushing attempts—in fact, his only two NFL seasons with more than 200 carries have come in the past two years—but his days as a full-fledged feature back are likely behind him. The plan is for Detroit to field a backfield committee with Mikel Leshoure handling the between the tackles work and Bush filling the role vacated by Jahvid Best’s absence.

This isn’t necessarily bad news for Bush’s fantasy value, however. Even when he was the Dolphins’ primary ball-carrier Bush couldn’t manage more than a half-dozen rushing touchdowns; his best fantasy campaigns came when he was catching 50-plus balls a year, something he hasn’t done since 2008. However, the Lions have indicated they want Bush to have 60-80 receptions this year, high numbers but realistic given Detroit’s penchant for throwing the football.

Fantasy owners have never drafted Bush as a touchdown guy, and with the Lions’ RBBC he’s not in danger of recording his first double-digit TD campaign. But the lighter usage, especially in an offense as spread across the field as Detroit’s, should yield high yards-per-carry average and more explosive plays a la Best. And the upside in PPR leagues of a 60-80-catch back—numbers that would have ranked him among the top three backs in receptions last year—make Bush an intriguing fantasy RB2 candidate heading into 2013.

Mike Goodson, Jets

If you’re looking for your deep running back sleeper, Mike Goodson is your guy. He’s been a backup in Carolina and Oakland, but when given the chance to carry the ball he’s been productive: two career games with 20-plus carries, 100-plus yards in each of them. Last year, despite being in the enviable position of backing up oft-injured Darren McFadden, Goodson had just one game of double-digit carries—and predictably he produced, turning 13 carries into a season-high 89 yards.

Now Goodson lands in New York, where they like (or perhaps with Mark Sanchez at quarterback, need) to run the ball; the Jets ranked sixth in rushing attempts last season. Heck, the Jets gave Shonn Greene 250-plus carries each of the past two seasons, which he barely turned into 1,000 yards each year. Football Outsiders ranks the Jets’offensive line fifth in adjusted line yards, and if Greene can carve out four yards a carry you have to like Goodson’s chances given his 4.58 career yards per carry mark—and 6.3 average last season behind a struggling Oakland line.

Goodson is expected to be the starter ahead of Bilal Powell and Joe McKnight. If he is in fact able to secure Greene’s volume of carries—which Greene turned into 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns, good enough to rank 23rd among running backs in fantasy scoring—then Goodson is a bargain waiting to be found.

Rashard Mendenhall, Cardinals

Former first-round pick Rashard Mendenhall was mostly a disappointment in Pittsburgh, yet he still put up seasons of 1,108 and 1,273 yards as the starter and was on his way to a third straight 1,000-yard campaign in 2011 before a knee injury ended his season. It’s no coincidence that his offensive coordinator during this span was Bruce Arians, who now coaches the Arizona Cardinals—where Mendenhall landed this offseason.

After taking the Arizona job Arians gushed over Ryan Williams, the Cardinals’ oft-injured incumbent back. However, Williams has only managed to see the field five times in two NFL seasons so he’s hardly to be trusted. Mendenhall was not on the Adrian Peterson rehab plan in coming back from his torn ACL, but by the time training camp starts he’ll be 20 months removed from the injury—plenty of time for a mere mortal to return to form.

Arians clearly trusts Mendenhall, given the 43 starts and 794 carries he gave him during his three seasons as a starter in Pittsburgh. So in the battle of attrition that tends to be the Arizona backfield, Mendy’s track record and history with Arians make him worthy of a fantasy flier.

Backups of note

Despite back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in New York, Shonn Greene never really claimed the Jets’ job for his own. Now he’ll offer the most dramatic change of pace in the NFL as the Titans’ alternative to Chris Johnson. Unfortunately, change-of-pace backs aren’t supposed to look like they’re running in slow motion compared to the starter… Danny Woodhead leaves the comfort of New England for a role as the pass-catching back in San Diego. Neither Mike McCoy’s Denver offenses nor Ken Whisenhunt’s Arizona attacks were known for producing big backfield pass-catchers, but with Ryan Mathews as the feature back there may be more than just third-down work available at some point… Leon Washington replaces Woodhead in New England, but in the Patriots’ crowded backfield his role is too spotty week-to-week to trust with a fantasy start—unless he takes over return duties and your league includes return-game production… Justin Forsett signed on to back up Maurice Jones-Drew in Jacksonville. Given that MJD is coming off a Lisfranc injury that scuttled his 2012 season and still isn’t happy with the same contract that led to last season’s holdout, holding the Jaguars’ backup plan isn’t a bad fantasy play... Rashad Jennings, who failed to capitalize on the aforementioned MoJo backup role last season, heads cross-country to Oakland where he’ll be Darren McFadden insurance. If Jennings had shown anything in Jacksonville he’d be an intriguing handcuff as well, but last year was so disappointing he’s hardly worth the roster spot… Another former Jones-Drew backup, Greg Jones, will fill the revolving fullback job in Houston. He’s not the pass-catcher James Casey was, nor is he the blocker Vontae Leach or Lawrence Vickers were. And he’s unlikely to wrest significant carries away from Arian Foster or Ben Tate.