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How to Tab Value Running Backs
Joe Levit
July 26, 2007

We all know that running backs are the engine that drives the vast majority of championship game winners to victory. Oak-tree thick thighs act as pistons on the field, churning out yardage and touchdowns. These players can sometimes win you a contest single-handedly. With this understanding firmly in place, it remains paramount for fantasy owners to find those few running backs each year who represent a huge value.

It doesn’t matter whether the back you take is a third rounder who runs like a first-round back, or if he is a mid-round pick that can act as your second fantasy back. The point is to acquire a running back for a bargain that will help your team win.

Let me provide a real-life scenario as an example. Last year I targeted Frank Gore as one of my value picks. I was the only expert out of 12 to rank him as a top-15 fantasy running back last year in Fantasy Football Draftbook Magazine. I went out and got him in both of my experts’ leagues. In the Sports Illustrated (SI.com) league I took Gore in the third round once it was determined that he would be the sole starter for the 49ers. Unfortunately, in that league he was not enough to overcome a dearth of talented receivers and the aversion Tiki Barber seemed to show for crossing the goal line last year.

But in the Draftbook Experts League, which commenced earlier in the summer before Kevan Barlow was released, I took Gore in the fifth round and ended up winning that league. Since I selected the disappointing Ronnie Brown in the first round of that draft and came back in round two with Kevin Jones (who I traded early on for Antonio Bryant of all people), obviously Gore played a huge role in my success. Just as clearly, Gore was a bargain in both drafts. He performed like a first-round pick. But, he was a better bargain in the league that drafted earlier, when the risk was greater that he might be part of a committee.

So how did I decide to target Gore in my fantasy drafts in the first place? He fit two of the criteria I look for in value picks at his position – Pedigree and Surprising Stats.

Gore has always been a terrific running back. He hasn’t always been healthy. At one time or another, he was starting ahead of both Clinton Portis and Willis McGahee at the University of Miami. That’s pretty heady company. It means he was considered by the coaches there to be a better back than either of them. Perhaps 2006 was simply the season Gore’s health allowed him to bear out that evaluation.

Gore also logged some surprising statistics in 2005, before his breakout season. He sported a 4.8-yard average, which ranked very high among running backs in the league. He also had a long run of 72 yards, which once again ranked high against the league’s other running backs. To me, that showed Gore can produce nice yardage consistently, and also break free for big gains. Interestingly, he improved his yards-per-carry to 5.4 in his second season, when he had many more carries, and equaled his long run of 72 yards. Other statistical categories to mind concerning running backs include a high ratio of touchdowns to carries (think players like Marion Barber and Maurice Jones-Drew) and the number of receptions the player can grab in a season.

Does this mean that you will always pounce on the right player if you account for specific criteria? No, of course not. There are simply too many variables at play. For instance, I also targeted LenDale White in the middle round of my draft and he was a complete bust. However, if you follow these principles you will hit on value tailbacks more often than you would otherwise, increasing the likelihood that you will get to and go far in your league playoffs.

Below are six small case studies of other things I look for to find value at the running back position. Each back listed is a player I feel is currently undervalued by the majority of fantasy owners, and is someone who could play a prominent role in creating fantasy winners this year. See if you agree with my assessments.

Case Study: Rookie Opportunity
Player: Marshawn Lynch

The chance to shine right away is as important as pure talent when evaluating rookie running backs. Adrian Peterson is considered by many to be the best rookie running back in 2007. But, he will platoon with Chester Taylor in Minnesota this season, lowering the ceiling for his statistics. In contrast, Lynch is being handed the starting job and is expected to contribute big things in Buffalo immediately. Lynch is being drafted later than he should be right now, and his chance to catch a lot of passes for the Bills makes him even more attractive.

Case Study: Coaching Change Favors Runner
Player: Edgerrin James

James wrapped up the 2006 season with some nice games after a mostly sub par campaign. He will be able to continue some of that success this season because the team made changes to help him. New head coach Ken Whisenhunt is committed to running the ball more often. Russ Grimm, the new line coach, will get more production and protection out of his offensive linemen. The team even drafted a star tackle with the fifth pick in the draft. Things are set up for James to rebound nicely for fantasy owners.

Case Study: Player Enters Better System
Player: Travis Henry

Henry is a tough runner, who has had to make a lot happen on his own in Buffalo and Tennessee. Now with the Broncos, he can run behind a line that routinely makes average running backs look very good. Imagine what can happen with a back that is above average to begin with.

Case Study: Injury Risk
Player: Kevin Jones

Mike Martz was using Jones in every phase of the game when Jones got hurt last year. He had been a very lucrative selection for owners who acquired him further down in a draft. The Lions brought in Tatum Bell and T.J. Duckett to start this 2007 season if Jones cannot. Take a risk on Jones since you can get him in the middle rounds this year and reap some sweet rewards if he solves the foot problem.

Case Study: Unappreciated
Player: Thomas Jones

Quite honestly I don’t know what the Chicago Bears were thinking when they let Jones get away from them in the off-season. He started his career very slowly so a lot of people still don’t believe in him. That’s a mistake. Behind young, improving Jets linemen, Jones is going to pay off handsomely for fantasy owners with a full-time gig of his own.

Case Study: Down-Year Denouement
Player: Cadillac Williams

This is also known simply as “Buy Low.” Many owners, who know he only scored one touchdown in 2006, are ignoring Williams, a consensus first-round fantasy running back as recently as last season. With a better quarterback in place this year (Jeff Garcia in for Bruce Gradkowski) and improved play from the line, Williams has a chance to be a steal as an owner’s third back. This is the kind of pick that might allow you to trade a top running back for a top wide receiver at some point and seriously upgrade your overall team.

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