Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
The ability to correctly evaluate NFL running backs is usually the key to a good fantasy team. Unfortunately, this year seems like it's going to be a tough process. Here's why.
The best running back in football, Ladainian Tomlinson, turns 29-years-old and is coming off a knee injury in last year's playoffs. We all know that running backs have a short "shelf-life" and age 30 is usually when we start to see a decline in production.
Minnesota's second-year player Adrian Peterson might be the second-best back, but his running style leaves him prone to injury as his college career showed us.
And it doesn't get much easier as we look at last year's Top-10.
Of last year's Top-10 preseason running backs, five runners missed more than three regular season games (Steven Jackson, Larry Johnson, Shaun Alexander, Rudi Johnson and Laurence Maroney). Two, Tomlinson and Willie Parker missed most or all of the playoffs.
Only three of the 2007 preseason Top-10 (Tomlinson, Brian Westbrook and Parker) finished in the top-10 in rushing and all three played in at least 15 regular season games.
What this should tell you is obvious, to put up the desired rushing totals, one has to actually be ON the field. With that in mind we must be vigilant in watching mini camps, training camp and exhibition games for any signs that our targeted running backs may not be healthy.
It is hard enough for backs to stay healthy during the entire season, so if they are already starting the campaign at less than 100% we must downgrade them significantly in our rankings. It's the same with missing training camp due to a contract holdout. How many times have we seen a running back hold and come to camp just before the season begins, only to get injured because he was not in playing shape?
A perfect example of this can be seen in Larry Johnson's 2007 season. He didn't sign a contract extension until August 21st and played just three downs in the final exhibition game. He had less than 90 combined yards rushing and receiving in the team's first three games and suffered a hamstring injury on September 27th. Finally in "game shape" he posted three 100-yard rushing games before another injury (broken foot) ended his season.
Now we must look at those running backs who we think will take either a step up or down in performance. This is where your preseason research will make the difference. Knowing whether a player will go to the next level because he has finally learned the system or are in a new system under a new coach or will get more opportunities or simply has a better offense around him could net you a great player at a bargain price.
Will 2007 sensation Ryan Grant have as much room to run with Rodgers at the helm as when Favre was spreading the defense all over the field?
What will Frank Gore do under new offensive coordinator Mike Martz, who we all know loves to throw the ball?
With Julius Jones in Seattle and essentially replaced by rookies Felix Jones and Tashard Choice, how many more touches will Marion Barber (204 rushes, 44 receptions in 2007) get in 2008? How much better will that make Barber or will he tire with the additional work?
The next key to evaluating running backs is how and where to plug in rookie running backs. Most times there are half-a-dozen or more backs with star "talent" coming out of the college ranks, but it is their ability to get enough carries that makes the difference.
In the 2007 NFL Draft, 24 running backs were drafted, from Darren McFadden of Arkansas by the Oakland Raiders fifth overall to Allen Patrick of Oklahoma in the seventh round.
If 1995 sixth-round pick Terrell Davis has taught us anything, it should be that a star running back doesn't have to be the first overall choice. Davis got the opportunity in his first year and behind Mike Shanahan's blocking scheme he ran for 1,117 yards and seven TDs in his rookie year.
This year's crop of first-year running backs included five first round picks, but only two of them will likely get enough carries to be "fantasy worthy." (Of course in keeper leagues you must ignore first-year opportunities and look at long-term potential).
Darren McFadden should get the bulk of the carries in Oakland as long as he stays healthy. Jonathon Stewart, again if healthy and that is an unknown after off-season toe surgery, should become the primary ball carrier in Carolina. Unfortunately for Felix Jones, Rashard Mendenhall and Chris Johnson they have Marion Barber, Willie Parker and LenDale White in front of them.
Checking the 2007 lower selections we find runners who may get a better opportunity than some first-rounders. Kevin Smith (Detroit), Matt Forte (Chicago) and Steve Slaton (Houston) might have to watched carefully.
So you are ready to draft right? Not yet.
Don't forget to evaluate a running back's ability to catch the ball out of the backfield like Westbrook (90 receptions, 771 yards, 5 touchdowns), strength of schedule (when a team is ahead they run more) and change at quarterback or offensive line (Brett Favre's ability to stretch the defense versus Aaron Rodgers' ability).
Hey, if it were easy anyone could do it!