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FANTASY FOOTBALL WEEKLY FEATURES

Running Back Watch Report - Week 1
Mike Courter
September 5, 2006
Top Ten Fantasy RB’s to own Comment
1 SEA Shaun Alexander After finishing 2006 with 28 touchdowns and 1,958 total yards (1,880 rushing) you would think the NFL’s version of the late, great Rodney Dangerfield would get some respect.  But in return for his consistent and injury-free greatness he finds himself ranked third behind Larry Johnson and LaDainian Tomlinson on many fantasy draft cheat sheets (including our very own theHuddle.com’s advisory- Yikes!).  Not on my RB Watch!  Forget the silly Madden Curse! With another cushy, NFC West-based schedule, including @ARZ in Wk 14, SF in Wk 15 and San Diego in Wk 16, and the majority of his league-best offensive line returning, Alexander is poised to reign supreme once again as the best back in fantasy football.      
2 SD LaDainian Tomlinson Tomlinson will start this season a smidge ahead of LJ because with the capable, but inexperienced Philip Rivers taking over the offense, LT will have to take on an even bigger role, especially in the passing game, boosting his fantasy value to levels not seen since 2003, in the good old days before Drew Brees became a star in his own right, amassing 2,370 total yards, 100 receptions and 17 touchdowns.  What really helps LT is that the third year signal-caller will be inexperienced, but will not have the growing pains of a typical rookie quarterback, providing Tomlinson’s fantasy stature with the perfect complement.                                                        
3 KC Larry Johnson Johnson’s awe-inspiring run in the last half of 2005 has clearly had a run-over effect on his FFL ranking this preseason.  Many fantasy participants holding the No.1 pick have put the blinders on and ignored the significant, negative shifts that have occurred in Johnson’s production paradigm, choosing rather to close their eyes and hold onto the delightful visions of last season, when Johnson pounded opposing defenses into submission with regularity, seemingly piling up 100 yard rushing and multiple touchdown games at will.  Unfortunately, there are just too many holes in the 2006 Larry Johnson argument to make him the No.1 back to start this season.  Let’s begin with the loss of starting tackles, Willie Roaf and John Welbourn, to retirement, All-Pro guard Will Shields will start the season battling a high ankle sprain, the departure of unsung, lead-blocking battering ram Tony Richardson to the Vikings (free agency) and then infuse offense-killer, new head coach Herm Edwards into the equation (there are already rumors of disgruntled player rumblings on the Chiefs offensive side of the ball coming out of training camp) and you have a strong recipe for lowered expectations.            
4 NYG Tiki Barber Averaging over 2,000 total yards and double-digit touchdowns the last two seasons, Tiki deserves the fourth spot overall to start this year.  The Giants offense, teeming with talent, will keep defenses from ganging up on Barber, who is still the No.1 option when Big Blue has the ball.  The veteran back has been so productive recently that the presence of goal line specialist Brandon Jacobs hasn’t even put a dent in Barber’s fantasy worth.       
5 IND Edgerrin James Perhaps it was his scant appearances in the Cardinals preseason games this Summer, getting two or three carries per contest or the questions abounding about the unproven Arizona offensive line, but it seemed James dropped further than he should have in many drafts.  He’ll face a bushel of soft defenses, thanks to his new divisional home, the Cardinals high-powered passing game will provide ample air cover and the new, Steve Loney-coached offensive line will perform better than expected, keeping James amongst the elite backs of the NFL for another season.                                 
6 STL Stephen Jackson This is the year.  The table is set for Jacko to seize the day.  New head coach Scott Linehan brings a welcomed, run-centric offense to St. Louis to replace the outgoing Mike Martz pass-first scheme.  With Marshall Faulk retired and Stephen Davis signed strictly as insurance, Stephen Jackson should easily record a career year and produce in the neighborhood of 1,200+ yards and double digit touchdowns for fantasy owners this season.                         
7 MIA Ronnie Brown Ricky Williams migration across the border to Canada for the 2006 season instantly signaled Brown’s meteoric rise up this Summer’s fantasy rankings.  Already a safe first round pick, Brown has been picked as high as No.4 overall in some drafts, which I believe is way too high.  With the Dolphins failing to secure any meaningful depth at the running back position (picking up Lee Suggs off the waiver wire aside), the second year back is a strong bet to breakout this year, provided he can stay healthy, which he had a hard time doing when he was splitting carries with Ricky Williams during his rookie season.  
8 CIN Rudi Johnson Solid performer that manages to stay under the radar, despite averaging 1,457 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns the last two seasons.  This season should be no different with a seemingly healthy Carson Palmer back in the driver’s seat of the Bengals high-powered offense and capable backup QB Anthony Wright on the bench to provide critical insurance should Palmer’s knee suffer a relapse.  Johnson does face a much tougher schedule in 2006 though, with out-of-division games against New England, Tampa, Carolina, San Diego and trips to Indy (Week 15) and Denver (Week 16) during fantasy playoffs.     
9 TB Cadillac Williams Caddy, despite difficulties due to various leg injuries, managed to cobble together a 1,000 yard season (1,178) in his rookie year, with six touchdowns to boot.  The entire Buccaneers offensive line from last season returns intact for 2006 and should show further improvement due to a resulting stronger chemistry and the addition talented 2006 draft picks OG Davin Joseph (1st round) and OT Jeremy Trueblood (2nd Round).                 
10 BUF Willis McGahee McGahee suffered through a difficult 2005 as the Bills, in general, melted under ex-head coach Mike Mularkey (now offensive coordinator for the Dolphins).  New head coach Dick Jauron and offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild, have installed an offense that’s much more suited to McGahee’s talents as opposed to Mularkey’s power-oriented run game between the tackles, which was not-a-good-fit for Buffalo’s offensive line personnel as well. The fourth year back had commented in July about being able to break off more long runs in Fairchild’s new offense and was true to his word this preseason with several impressive scampers down the field, making him a good bet to rebound back to his double-digit touchdown level of ’04 while getting close to 1,300 rushing yards this season.     

(Note – this listing considers the rankings of RB’s if a draft was held today)

Climbing Up The Ladder

Willie Parker (PIT) –  In his first year as a starter, Parker burst onto the fantasy scene with 1,202 yards rushing and five touchdowns (four rushing, one receiving) while suffering Jerome Bettis’ goal line carry-stealing presence in the Bus’ farewell tour last year.  Parker appears to have a substantial upside with Bill Cowher’s recent thoughts on the Steelers not replacing Bettis on the goal line with a traditional large power back.  And the Steelers have made no noises about putting veteran Duce Staley in the role, an assumption that many observer’s made when Staley appeared healthy in training camp this year.

Frank Gore (SF) – Gore looks to build on a promising rookie campaign in which he averaged nearly five yards per carry (4.8) and scored three touchdowns, mostly toward the end of last season.  Head coach Mike Nolan loves Gore so much that he traded talented, but unreliable veteran back Kevan Barlow to the New York Jets in August, officially handing Gore the keys to the ‘Niners backfield ignition.  San Francisco’s schedule is dotted with soft run defenses, including out-of-division opponents Kansas City, Oakland, Detroit, New Orleans and Green Bay, providing the second year back with a real chance to put up No. 1 running back numbers in fantasy leagues.

Corey Dillon (NE) – The 32 year old running back with plenty of city miles on the engine was everyone’s favorite whipping boy in fantasy pre-draft rankings discussions, citing the mere 730 rushing yards and feeble 3.5 yards per carry last season, despite a healthy 12 touchdowns.  Dillon appears healthy this year and looked decent in the Patriots pre-season games, while 2006 first round pick Laurence Maroney stole the show with a dazzling array of speed, power and much younger legs than Dillon.  Surprise, surprise, according to recent new reports, Maroney is listed as OUT for the regular season opener against the Buffalo Bills with an unspecified knee injury, opening the door, at least for Week One, for Dillon to receive the bulk of the work against a so-so Bills defense.

Sliding Back

Clinton Portis (WAS) – Consistently ranked as high as the fourth best RB behind Alexander, Johnson and Tomlinson, in no particular order, all that changed when Portis was a bit too zealous when tackling a Bengals defender who was returning an interception toward the Redskins goal line in Washington’s first preseason game on August 13th, separating his shoulder and creating a cloud of uncertainty about his playing status for week one of the regular season and his fantasy value for the long term of 2006.  The Redskins recent trade for big back T.J. Duckett was an ominous sign for Portis’ owners this season about how the ‘Skins view his potential for this season.  His play and health status of his shoulder in the first few weeks of the season will let fantasy owners know whether to fish or cut bait quickly on the once promising fantasy prospect.

Cedric Benson (CHI) – In July, things really looked up for Benson.  Backfield sparring partner and 2005 starter Thomas Jones was complaining loudly about his contract situation during voluntary workouts and could not stay healthy during training camp, opening the door for Benson to receive the majority of carries with the first team in practice.  Benson seemed poised to make up for the horrible, holdout-induced start to 2005, which never allowed him to find a groove and pose a serious challenge to Jones for top honors last year, but recent events seem to have conspired against him once again.  A pesky shoulder injury rose up to bite Benson in early August, effectively sidelining him for the remainder of the preseason, which allowed Jones the chance to not lose further ground to Benson while he, himself recovered from a hamstring strain.  As Benson’s luck would have it, Jones was a faster healer than the second year back and has reclaimed his starting role from last year, with the Bears paying Benson the usual lip service about “how important Cedric is to our offense” this season.

Dominic Rhodes/ Joseph Addai (IND) – Neither back has distinguished themselves enough in the preseason to claim the starter’s role for the Colts, with Rhodes averaging just 2.7 yards per carry and Addai at a mere 1.5 per tote.  Questions abound with both of options.  Since starting 10 games in 2001 in place of an injured Edgerrin James,  Rhodes has managed, count 'em, one start over the last four, injury-riddled seasons and Addai was part of a stable of part-time backs at LSU until finally capturing the starting job in his senior year.