David Dorey's Running Back Sleepers
J.J. Arrington, ARI – Arrington may have fallen to the second round, but there’s little doubt he will be the starter in Arizona and a perfect fit for the scheme of Denny Green that emphasizes both rushing and receiving from the backfield. Arrington was the fastest back at the NFL combine and comes off leading the nation last year with 2018 rushing yards while at CAL. He fell because he is a little smaller than ideal but he’s always showed to be more than a defense can handle. He’s a great pickup that falls to late third round in most drafts.
Larry Johnson, KC – Johnson will start the year behind Priest Holmes and he could, with unprecedented bad luck, end up there as well. But Holmes has been very injury prone and the plan is to use him less. That means Johnson has some value in every game and if Holmes does go down to injury, Larry will merely continue the incredible pace of last season when he scored ten times in the final five games while exceeding 100 yards in each. Risk – to be sure. Reward – even more attractive.
Eric Shelton, CAR – Shelton was drafted with the 2.22 pick and goes to a team that has DeShaun “Give me a few weeks” Foster and Stephen “not ready yet” Davis ahead of him on the depth chart. This is the same offense that made a star of fullback Nick Goings last year. He won’t start the year as the primary back, but if history serves, he’ll be ending it as a savior for the fantasy team that selected him.
David Dorey's Running Back Bust
Tatum Bell, DEN – Bell is slated to be the starting tailback in Denver so far but what does that really mean on a team that also has Mike Anderson, Maurice Clarett, Ron Dayne and Quentin Griffin? Add in Bell has been less than durable already and the situation is ripe for disappointment. Even if he starts the season with some good games, that’s no guarantee he will still be there later in the season. Denver also hits a brutal mid-season stretch of games starting in week 5 – WAS, NE, @NYG, PHI and with NYJ, BAL and BUF left to play.
Philip Gentles' Running Back Sleepers
Travis Henry, TEN – The health of Titans RB Chris Brown was and still is a major team concern so head coach Jeff Fisher went out this off-season and acquired Travis Henry from the Bills. As a backup Henry would have still been a valuable player to stash on your bench but Fisher has made it clear that Henry will split the carries with Brown and if that hold’s true he could serve as a decent bye-week filler. Obviously the big pay off is if Brown misses several games because of injury. At that point Henry would become an every-week fantasy starter. Lets not forget that Henry had a couple of big seasons as a Bill (1,438 and 15 total TDs in ’02 and 1356 and 10 total TDs in ’03) and he is more than capable of being an every-down back.
LaBrandon Toefield, JAC – The Jaguars were actually on the verge of acquiring Travis Henry from the Bills before the Titans but the deal couldn’t be completed. But why were they trying to bring in another established runner? Because the injury status of current starter Fred Taylor remains a big question mark. Taylor, who had major knee surgery in the off-season, has not recovered as quickly as the team had hoped and while he is practicing on a limited basis the team’s medical staff hasn’t cleared him for team workouts and they just doesn’t know when he will be ready to play. Labrandon Toefield has benefited the most from Taylor’s knee problem as he has taken all the reps with the first-team. Toefield isn’t a flashy runner but he’s quick and at 5’11 and 230 pounds he’s big enough to be a successful inside runner. And for those of you worrying about Greg Jones, the former Florida State Seminole has been moved to fullback. So if Taylor remains a no-go when the regular season begins look for Toefield to get a bulk of the carries.
Philip Gentles' Running Back Bust
Chris Brown, TEN – Brown is a flashy, explosive, big-play running back who is loaded with talent and potential but he has an upright running style that lends itself to injury. I’ve got to give the young guy credit, he played through several bad ankles and hamstrings and tried to work past his turf toe problem but that toe injury got the best of him last year and it kept him sidelined for a good portion of the season. Brown has already dealt with and recovered off-season ankle surgery and a broken hand but unfortunately his toe remains a problem and according to several team officials they expect it to be an issue this year. Brown will now have to share carries with Travis Henry which diminishes his value but when you consider the chance of him missing several games to injury it does make him a draft-day risk so I suggest you stay away from him altogether.
Mike Courter's Running Back Sleepers
Michael Bennett, MIN – The fifth year back has all the ingredients to re-emerge in 2005 after numerous injury-filled frustrations of the past few years. Health struggles and a resulting attitude problem limited him to seven starts last season and allowed stable mates Onterrio Smith and Mewelde Moore to raise their game and steal carries. Despite the arrival of rookie Ciatric Fason into the mix, Bennett, entering the final year of his contract, showed up in great shape to camp and will begin the season as the unquestioned starter in a new run-oriented, Moss-less offense thanks to Onterrio Smith being zapped for a full year suspension by the Whizzenator.
Travis Henry, TEN – Any Chris Brown owners from last year who suffered through those scattered moments of brilliance in a season-long battle with his injury demons realizes that the door of opportunity swings wide open for Henry to return home to the scene of a storied college career at Tennessee. The Titans know that whereas Brown, who’s averaged five missed starts during his first two seasons, will most likely never win the battle of the brittle, Henry has played through injuries effectively throughout his NFL career, including a grueling stretch at the end of the 2003 season where he played with a hairline fracture in his leg. In his four seasons Henry has rushed for 3,849 yards and 27 scores and he’ll be playing this season with a Smoky Mountain-sized chip on his shoulder to prove Buffalo wrong.
JJ Arrington, ARI – The rookie runner from Cal might have the best playing time scenario of any of the much heralded running back draft class of 2005. There is virtually no veteran competition outside of injury-prone Marcel Shipp combined with a young and rapidly improving offensive line that added veteran Steeler RT Oliver Ross to balance massive Leonard Davis on the left side. The passing game will improve with veteran Kurt Warner throwing to one of the best group of young receivers featuring Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald. The strong offensive line and above average air cover will create a comfort zone for the rookie back similar to how the Steelers strong running game and stingy defense provided the incubator for Ben Roethlisberger to blossom successfully in his rookie campaign.
Mike Courter's Running Back Bust
Tatum Bell, DEN – If Mike Shanahan were sold on the second year back as his de facto starter why would he draft Maurice Clarett in the third round this year and add free agent Ron Dayne to an already crowded group that still retains veterans Mike Anderson and Quentin Griffin after a 2004 rookie season that saw the explosive Bell average 5.3 yards per carry? Because Bell is the Rocky Mountain version of the Titans Chris Brown, he teases you with his 4.3 breakaway speed and then misses half the season with an assortment of nagging injuries.
Paul Sandy's Running Back Sleepers
Michael Bennett, MIN – A lot of fantasy owners have had fun at Bennett’s expense lately. The speedy running back hasn’t been able to stay healthy for the last two seasons. It’s caused his value to plummet in fantasy drafts and auctions. If you can get him in the fifth round or later, he’s well worth the risk. The Vikings are expected to rely more on the running game this season. Bennett still possesses world-class sprinter speed—he trained with is old track coach this offseason—and remains a homerun threat.
Jerome Bettis, PIT – Try as they might, the Steelers can’t seem to find a running back to replace Jerome Bettis. Last year it was supposed to be Duce Staley. The year before, Amos Zereoue was getting all the attention. But neither running back was able to stay healthy or provide the intensity of “the Bus.” Bettis just won’t go away and fantasy owners shouldn’t shy away. Pittsburgh led the league in rushing last year and their plan of attack isn’t likely to change much in 2004. Don’t pass up your chance to spend a mid or late round pick on one of the 12-15 running backs who have a legitimate shot at 12+ touchdowns this season.
Frank Gore, SF – Late last season, Kevan Barlow got his wish. The 49ers handed him the starting tailback spot, a role he’d never been able to wrestle away from Garrison Hearst. Barlow flopped. Some may argue that it was more a product of poor talent surrounding him rather than Barlow’s own lack of ability. In either case, the 49ers grew tired of Barlow’s act and benched him on a few occasions. If he stumbles out of the gates this year, don’t be surprised to see San Francisco see what they have in rookie Frank Gore—a University of Miami alum who has a world of talent but a lengthy injury history.
Paul Sandy's Running Back Bust
Tatum Bell, DEN – It’s not that I don’t like Bell. It’s that I hate Mike Shanahan. Well, hate is a strong word, but no other coach in the NFL has been as unreadable and unpredictable as Shanahan over the last decade. He goes through running backs faster than Ron Dayne goes through a free buffet. My advice is let someone else try to psychoanalyze Shanahan this year.
Joe Levit's Running Back Sleepers
Frank Gore, SF – At times in his college career, Gore was playing ahead of Clinton Portis and Willis McGahee. That, and the fact that new 49ers head coach Mike Nolan selected him in the third round of the draft this year despite a history of having blown both knees, shows just how much talent this guy shows when he is healthy. The bottom line is that Kevan Barlow had his chance and blew it. Gore will get the majority of the team’s carries by week ten.
Carnell Williams, TB – Williams was hand-picked by Gruden to be his new multi-talented running back. He got into camp on time (unlike Benson or Brown) and will prove to be a valuable second back for fantasy squads this season. In this quick-hit offense, his gliding running style and soft hands will serve him well.
Correll Buckhalter, PHI – Has Buck actually bypassed his annual flirtation with a knee disaster? If so, look for him to be a true value player on draft day. Westbrook can’t do it all in the backfield and Buckhalter has always garnered carries when he had been healthy. Since TO and McNabb are sparring verbally, and Pinkston is now down for the count, expect the team to rely on the run more heavily in 2005, meaning a healthy dose of Buckhalter.
Joe Levit's Running Back Bust
Domanick Davis, HOU – Although he can be productive over four-week spans of time, Davis gets hurt too often to rely on him as your top back. Don’t be surprised to see Vernand Morency get some carries as a rookie, either as a complementary player, or as a fill-in when, not if, Davis has to sit.
Brent Clement's Running Back Sleepers
Lamont Jordan, OAK – Jordan is no longer the backup tailback to Curtis Martin in NY, as he finally gets his shot as a featured back, in Oakland. Though the Raiders will have to throw it 40-45 times a game to stay competitive, Jordan should run wild when given the rock. Moss and Porter’s presence alone should leave the middle of the field wide open for Jordan to catch dump off passes and create havoc on opposing defenses.
Carnell Williams, TB – Williams has the talent to put up huge fantasy stats his rookie season, and with Pittman as the only viable competition, should get the opportunity to do just that. Williams is an excellent receiver out of the backfield and has breakaway speed to take any play to the house. Williams is also a tough runner inside and should not lose goal line carries like other backs of his size.
Tatum Bell, DEN – Bell has the potential to be a top 5 running back, and is playing in the perfect place to pull off the feat. He showed flashes of greatness as a rookie, but will have to stop coughing up the rock, and ditch the injury bug, that hindered his rookie season. Denver has many options if Bell is not motivated, and Mike Anderson is taking full advantage of his chance to be the lead back, but Bell should win the job and put up monster numbers this season.
Brent Clement's Running Back Bust
Willis McGahee, BUF – McGahee is one of the best young runners in the NFL, and has proven to be completely healed from his injury at the University of Miami. But the question will be quarterback J.P. Losman, and his ability to make defense’s honest with the passing game. If he struggles, teams will use eight and nine man fronts just waiting for McGahee to take the holdoff. Releasing Bledsoe most likely will hurt McGahee the most, and owners drafting him in the top 5 will regret it by November.
Todd Gray's Running Back Sleepers
Kevan Barlow, SF – Three reasons why Barlow can return to somewhere near his 2003 form when he rushed for 5.1 yards per carry: the offensive line should be better, new running backs coach Bishop Harris has Barlow feeling confident again and this season there is serious competition for the job in rookie Frank Gore. Sure, Barlow crippled myriad fantasy teams in ’04 (I speak from experience), but rumor has it that he is in great shape and on the same page as the rest of the team as the ’05 season nears.
Tatum Bell, DEN – Bell currently isn’t No. 1 on the Broncos’ depth chart at RB, but his speed and agility are too great for him to be ignored for long. Meanwhile, currently-slated No. 1 RB Mike Anderson – despite his short-yardage prowess – is limited in this regard. Head coach Mike Shanahan is a near lock to produce at least one quality fantasy RB, if not two, and my money is on Bell.
Mewelde Moore, MIN – Just how long has it been since the Vikings have had a true long-term go-to RB? This season may be different. Onterrio Smith is suspended for the duration of the campaign, and if Michael Bennett isn’t an injury waiting to happen then no one is. That leaves Moore, who proved himself in limited time last year by rushing for 182, 187 and 168 yards in consecutive games, also tacking on 24 receptions over that same span of time.
Todd Gray's Running Back Bust
Chris Brown, TEN – This slot would go to Michael Bennett if I hadn’t previously anointed him a bust by virtue of listing Mewelde Moore as a prime sleeper. It’s becoming abundantly clear that Brown cannot stay healthy, and this season Travis Henry is waiting in the wings to take over the job for good. Meanwhile, Brown – entering his third NFL season – has already endured numerous bouts of turf toe, a strained ankle, a strained hamstring and a broken right hand. What’s next?
Dennis Leonard's Running Back Sleeper
Mike Anderson, DEN – The Broncos’ backfield is muddled. Again. While Tatum Bell is everyone’s presumptive starter, it’s actually sixth year “Marine” Mike Anderson who has been taking reps with the first team in camp. Mix in Quentin Griffin, Ron Dayne, Maurice Clarett, and Coach Mike Shanahan and things get more complex. However, there is a solid chance Anderson becomes the Bronco’s #1 tailback at some point this season.
Anderson is the only current Bronco to rush for over 1,000 yards in a season. He has a 4.5 career average yards per carry (second best to Bell) and scored 24 touchdowns in 626 career carries, giving him a 3.83% TD-to-carry ratio (again, second to Bell). Interestingly, Anderson has never had a fumble (9 in 626 carries) recovered by an opposing defense. Those unfamiliar with Anderson’s early history should note the following:
- He set an NFL single-game rookie record in 2000 with 251 rushing yards – 6 th highest in NFL history;
- 2000 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year with 1,487 rushing yards – 6 th highest in NFL history;
- Has already earned a place in the Broncos’ rushing records: 7 th most career rushing attempts; 7 th most total rushing yards (2,808); 7 th most rushing TDs;
- Came out of the University of Utah averaging 102.4 yards per carry – best in the school’s history, at the time.
The Broncos have recently demonstrated: (1) the coaching staff prefers to use one primary running back; and (2) they won’t hesitate to change who that back is during the season, though usually only in response to injuries. Assuming Anderson doesn’t outright walk out of camp with the starting gig, he should be should be considered the only current, serious contender to the starting running back position when and if Bell gets hurt.
While there is risk given Anderson’s season-ending injury last year, and the crowded Denver backfield, his upside is spectacular relative to his average draft position. Virtually every recent Bronco running back has succeeded behind Denver’s renowned offensive line. For a player who can typically be drafted in the 10 th round or later in a 12-team league, or had cheap at auction, Anderson is a legitimate sleeper and should also be considered a “must handcuff” for Tatum Bell owners.
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