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Tier 5 Running Backs
David M. Dorey
September 1, 2004

Following up on the Tier 5 Receiver article, there is a similar (and yet very different) sort of review you should be doing when you reach those most optimism-provoking yet scary of all creatures - the non-starting running back.

When considering receivers, the primary consideration for determining a player to having "upside" is their development as a receiver and the situation they are in for their team. With running backs, there are certainly a few that may develop into a starting role during the season (Domanick Davis, Rudi Johnson being 2003 examples) but even with those there is almost always one inescapable commonality to them. They get a shot because of injury to the starters. A position that regularly demands that players run towards full-speed collisions with mammoth defensive linemen or downright nasty linebackers is bound to make a player miss a game or two.

Of the highest scoring 24 running backs last year, only 12 managed to play a full 16 games. Of the top 50, there were only 22 that managed to be on the field every game and that does not even count when they played at less than 100% or were not the actual primary ball carrier in that game. Injuries are a reality with running backs and also an opportunity for you.

Also noteworthy is the style of rushing offense a team uses. If it is a "running-back-by-committee" approach, chances are even getting the player that moves into the starting lineup will not yield major points regardless if he is talented or not. While ability is an obvious key factor, just as important for success is opportunity and the surrounding offense. Running backs are like the Marines of gridiron wars. They are the first in and the first to go down. And just like the Marines, just because one goes down does not mean the fight is going to get any easier for the defense.

After the starting running backs are gone and you are looking at establishing some depth, the same sort of review should be done for your runners as was discussed in the Tier 5 Receivers article. Consider the four types of back-ups.

Handcuffs - These are the back-up players that either have demonstrated the ability to do big things when they have opportunity or are in a situation where the likelihood they get opportunity is greater than most. These are the players that you should heavily consider as insurance for your higher picks or as "steal" material you can sit on and hope for bad things to happen (to other players) or have trade material for the guy who should have taken him. There is a good chance you get nothing this year though.

Upsiders - These are "sleepers", the guys I feel have the best chance to turn in the big surprise year. . It is probably NOT MOST likely to happen or they would not be in this tier but they are in a situation that with just the right conditions and talents to have that wonderful shot at of doing something special. These are the guys with some shot of eventually turning into fantasy starters that might make a difference.

Safe Players - These are the guys that should figure into the game plans and will start and end the season in the same place. The sort of player that never kills you and never really makes a difference. They are safe. Players like 3rd down backs or back-end RBBC guys. There is no shame in a safe player, it's pretty smart and necessary if you have drafted some riskier players with your starters. If you stocked all your depth with risky upsiders, you might end up with nothing when you need them. It is not unheard of for one of these to turn in a surprise year but that is not what you are really drafting them for anyway.

Roster Fodder - The players that I consider "fodder" are all the rest. They do not appear to have the upside that warrants them as a good calculated risk and they are not safe plays either. They are Roster Fodder. They are back-up running backs that may good some good press from practice or even the kind word by a coach but the chances they will rise to a big role is too remote to consider as much more than just names on your roster. They lack the upside due to talent and/or situation and they are not considered safe.

Like with Tier 5 receivers, sifting through this level of running backs is one of the greatest joys in fantasy football research. Likely one of the sources of greatest disagreement as well. Rankings are arranged by "most likely" projections for most but given the role of injuries, "most likely" could not happen most the time. Getting your sleeper here can make a huge difference to your team and chances are that it happened thanks to unforeseeable circumstances. You do not need to bring that up when crowing about landing your sleeper, however.

There is one way that I measure drafts in the past few years and I call it the Kevin Faulk Factor. When Kevin Faulk is taken, it should be a sign that there are likely no upside running backs remaining. Faulk is a player that always gets numbers and they are almost always pretty small. He plays a classic third-down role. He will not be anything more and nothing less. He is the ultimate safe player of recent years - will get you something and will never get you enough to make a difference. You realize that going in. He is the draft night cuckoo-bird that pops out and says "it's later than you think".

For a more comprehensive look, I am dipping into our current Tier 4 for a few players worth mentioning.

Handcuffs

I am not necessarily a big fan of stealing back-ups from other teams, unless I happen to like that back-up (and therefore will do it every time). If I have the primary back, I am looking longer at these guys and might steal from the top half of the list.

TIER 5 Handcuffs (in order of importance)
Stephen Jackson STL There is no way you should take Marshall Faulk and miss out on Jackson - the best rookie RB in the draft and heir to the Faulk fortune. If someone waits on him, there is no reason why you should not make them pay the price.
William Green CLE Green was a starter last year and appears most likely to back-up Suggs, but it is not crystal clear that is the guaranteed case. He can get the job done if Suggs falters or gets hurt anyway.
Ron Dayne NYG I personally would never touch him, but if you have Barber this has to be a consideration for insurance purposes.
Willis McGahee BUF McGahee has generated excitement but Henry is still the starter. Possibly the most talented back-up RB in the league if he remains healthy.
De'shaun Foster CAR Taken a hit in value with fumbles and lack-luster performance lately, but Stephen Davis owners would be wise to grab him.
Tony Hollings HOU Hollings is like McGahee-lite, with a somewhat similar situation but a likely less durable RB ahead of him in Domanick Davis. While McGahee is expected to start at some time, some where, you cannot rely on that 100% for Hollings.
Dominic Rhodes IND If you have Edge, you need Rhodes. But not as "stealable" to for the rest of the league since Edge has been fairly durable and appears to be getting stronger each year.
LaMont Jordan NYJ This is the mandatory handcuff for Curtis Martin that never has paid any dividends.
Najeh Davenport GB Just insurance for Ahman Green, but a valued player for GB and would be big in that offense if he had to start. Tony Fisher would figure in a little at that time though.
Greg Jones JAX Whether or not you believe in Fred Taylor, you should always believe in his back-up
Maurice Morris SEA Like Jordan, the talented back-up who has been worthless but necessary.
Musa Smith BAL If Lewis is on trial and misses time, The Ravens want Musa to be the man but Chester Taylor has actually looked better lately.
Ladell Betts WAS A developing backfield for the Skins, Betts is the front runner of the group that include Rock Cartwright and Sultan McCullough. May not even be the #2 when you need him though.

Upsiders

These are the players that could surprise and a few could be very nice additions to your team. You could argue that they are all handcuff players, but their value as an upside player exceeds the value of a handcuff situation. I would consider these players regardless of who my primary backs were.

TIER 5 Upsiders (in order of importance)
Julius Jones DAL While the acquisition of Eddie George dumped his value, the reality is that George only has a one year contract and might prove to be little more than a very nice, solid back-up player if Jones catches fire. He should really be considered a starter given his schedule and potential opportunity.
Tatum Bell DEN Like Jones, Bell is equally promising but has Griffin and even Hearst to work past. The broken finger in the summer delayed his development but that might just mean a later round steal you could pull off. He was drafted higher than any other Denver RB in the past decade.
Chris Perry CIN The third back taken in the draft played great in college and is behind Rudi Johnson who is also playing a one year contract out. Dillon took the job from Ki-jana Carter and it could happen here as well. There is a reason why the Bengals spent such a high pick on a RB.
Troy Hambrick ARI Oh yeah, Emmitt for a full 16 games. There may be no ARZ RB worth owning this year but if there was one, Hambrick has the best chance and it is not all that good.
Onterrio Smith MIN Out for the first four games, but when he returns he'll have a chance with Bennett always fragile.
Justin Fargas OAK Maybe Wheatley has a complete rebirth in the NFL or maybe he really is a mediocre 32 year old.
Reno Mahe PHI Westbrook is not Mr. Durability and Mahe is now the closest thing they have to Westbrook.
Mewelde Moore MIN Rookie will eventually replace Moe Williams by plan, could surprise.
Sammy Morris MIA Minor in MIA? All year? Hard to believe. Almost as hard as thinking Morris will do anything.
Anthony Thomas CHI Right back in the wrong offense but it looks like they are keeping him. If Jones goes down, it is possible though even with Jones out it is no lock Thomas will be the replacement.
Chester Taylor BAL Everyone likes Musa Smith to back-up Lewis but Taylor has held his own this summer.

Safe Players

The only way that I would consider these players is if I only had two RB's that were certain to start and needed to ensure that I had at least something for when their bye week happens. I see no reason for more than one of these players but ample reasons why one would make sense.

TIER 5 Safe Players (in alphabetical order)
Richie Anderson DAL Third down guy in Dallas. George and Jones may trade off who is the primary but there is no question who the #3 - that does get used - will be.
Moe Williams MIN Some could stick him in upside and likely be right. He was a safe player last year that was a bonanza for the first part of the season. Always safe, sometimes even better than that.
Kevin Faulk NE As noted, should always have some points... a few points.
Jerome Bettis PIT Bettis is a safe play because the PIT offense does not rely on only one player. His age and balding tires means he has no upside, but he is not without value.
Michael Pittman TB Pittman always manages to do something in TB, but never commands a starting FF spot.
Mike Alstott TB See above. A bit more risky from age and injury history

Roster Fodder (worth ranking anyway)

We're just filling out rosters here.

TIER 5 Roster Fodder (in alphabetical order)
Emmitt Smith ARI Incredible to think that the most productive RB of all-time is still a starter and yet considered by most to be untouchable. There is just no reason to believe he will last the whole season or be productive while he is there.
Josh Scobey ARI Who knows, maybe Denny Green starts running through the depth charts to look like he is trying to improve
Damien Anderson ARI Ditto, one step farther back on the depth charts.
Garrison Hearst DEN He is a backup in DEN and he will be drafted, but he is not the present in DEN and he is not the future in DEN and I would not want to rely on him nor hold much expectations.
Shawn Bryson DET He probably would be a safe player but Pinner may end up horning in on his scant action anyway.
Tony Fisher GB #3 in GB does matter, just not very much
Larry Johnson KC Supposed to be the heir to Priest but so far not even an average altar boy.
Derrick Blaylock KC The scrub that looks better than the pedigree above, but how can you count on it?
Fred Russell MIA Optimist Only apply.
Cedric Cobbs NE Rookie behind Dillon who can get hurt. But has not shown much in the complicated NE offense.
Zack Crockett OAK Prefers the Beatle's rendition of "Yesterday". Not a feature of new offense so far.
Amos Zereoue OAK Might end up a safe player if Turner uses him consistently as a third-down player.
Dorsey Levens PHI Just another stop near the end of the line.
Antowain Smith TEN If Brown is injured, he might get some work but unlikely to be productive.

And there is the sort of considerations you should give your running backs. Who you chose and why should be directly influenced by what players you already have on your roster. You must have three running backs that are certain to get numbers and if you only have two - take a safe player. If you have a lot riding on a high draft pick - look for his backup before someone steals him. And above all, whether it is a handcuff or upside guy, make sure you give your roster some room to grow during the season.

And above all, try to limit how may Roster Fodders you end up with. You only need one spot to open up to go get a free agent, no need to look at the guys all year long.