Fantastic Voyage: Running back rankings '06
By Dave Gladow
(July 19, 2006) -- To catch or not to catch ... that is the question. That's the question that matters most when evaluating running backs anyway, and it's something fantasy players have to pay special attention to as they prepare for their drafts.
Receiving totals put up by running backs can have a tremendous impact on how your team does. For instance, if you owned Brian Westbrook in 2005 and were unlucky enough to be in a league that didn't give credit for running back receiving totals, then Westbrook was a total dud for you with 617 rushing yards and three touchdowns. If, however, you owned him in a league that gave you credit for his receiving skills, then you prospered to the tune of an additional 61 receptions for 616 yards and four touchdowns (for a total of 1,233 yards and seven scores). Keep in mind that this was over 12 games, so imagine the kind of impact he could have had over a full season.
Brian Westbrook's receiving totals will reward attentive owners.
That's the Marshall Faulk effect that NFL.com's Pat Kirwan detailed in a recent column about the NFL's most influential players. Faulk revolutionized the game and put a premium on running backs with receiving skills -- for the NFL game, and for the fantasy football game. Runners who give you a receiving boost can provide you the sort of edge that confounds your opponents and propels you to victory.
Is it the single most important thing about a running back? Of course not, but don't make the mistake of thinking that it doesn't affect the rankings, either. LaDainian Tomlinson has largely been considered the top running back in fantasy football in recent years, but after his receiving totals dipped last year, he has fallen into a dead heat with Larry Johnson and Shaun Alexander for that title.
Likewise, a guy like Rudi Johnson doesn't get rated as high as he could be, mainly because he has Chris Perry eating into his reception totals on third down. And while Westbrook is a great player, few people would rate him as high as even a third-rounder without his receiving totals boosting him up.
For realism's sake, I've chosen to factor in receiving numbers in my running back rankings listed here. So definitely keep receptions on the brain as you look over the second set of Fantastic Voyage rankings (we looked at the quarterbacks last week). If your league doesn't factor in receiving totals, make a note of how that would affect the makeup of the early rounds. Chances are, it would affect things quite a bit.
And the most important thing to remember is how fluid the running back rankings can be. In the majority of leagues, running back is far and away the most important position, and any changes in depth charts around the NFL can have a major impact on how a guy is ranked. For instance, what happens if Joseph Addai impresses in training camp and wins the Colts' starting job? Obviously, he becomes much more valuable and Dominick Rhodes loses value. Use some common sense folks, and monitor how things develop in the preseason. In the meantime, this list should provide you with a good starting point.
'06 RB RANKINGS
1. L. Johnson (KC) 3
2. S. Alexander (SEA) 5
3. L. Tomlinson (SD) 3
4. T. Barber (NYG) 4
5. C. Portis (WAS) 5
6. L. Jordan (OAK) 3
7. R. Johnson (CIN) 5
8. E. James (ARI) 9
9. D. Davis (HOU) 5
10. B. Westbrook (PHI) 9
11. S. Jackson (STL) 7
12. C. Williams (TB) 4
13. T. Bell (DEN) 4
14. C. Dillon (NE) 6
15. W. Dunn (ATL) 5
16. W. McGahee (BUF) 8
17. R. Brown (MIA) 8
18. W. Parker (PIT) 4
19. J. Jones (DAL) 3
20. J. Lewis (BAL) 7
21. R. Droughns (CLE) 6
22. D. Williams (CAR) 9
23. R. Bush (NO) 7
24. K. Jones (DET) 8
25. C. Brown (TEN) 7
26. F. Taylor (JAC) 6
27. T. Jones (CHI) 7
28. P. Holmes (KC) 3
29. D. Rhodes (IND) 6
30. C. Benson (CHI) 7
31. C. Taylor (MIN) 6
32. D. Foster (CAR) 9
33. C. Martin (NYJ) 9
34. D. McAllister (NO) 7
35. A. Green (GB) 6
36. R. Dayne (DEN) 4
37. S. Gado (GB) 6
38. M. Barber (DAL) 3
39. M. Moore (MIN) 6
40. M. Anderson (BAL) 7
41. D. Staley (PIT) 4
42. F. Gore (SF) 7
43. G. Jones (JAC) 6
44. T. Duckett (ATL) 5
45. J. Addai (IND) 6
46. M. Pittman (TB) 4
47. K. Barlow (SF) 7
48. C. Perry (CIN) 5
49. L. Maroney (NE) 6
50. S. Hicks (SF) 7
51. L. Washington (NYJ) 9
52. M. Alstott (TB) 4
53. M. Turner (SD) 3
54. B. Jacobs (NYG) 4
55. C. Humes (PIT) 4
56. M. Faulk (STL) 7
57. C. Houston (NYJ) 9
58. T. Henry (TEN) 7
59. J. Arrington (ARI) 9
60. B. Calhoun (DET) 8
61. L. White (TEN) 7
62. A. Smith (HOU) 5
63. L. Betts (WAS) 8
64. K. Faulk (NE) 6
65. M. Bennett (NO) 7
66. R. Moats (PHI) 9
The "Big Three" are clearly Larry Johnson, Alexander and Tomlinson. Everyone is in love with Johnson right now, and while nothing is ever a sure thing, based on his projections for a whole year, he could have a truly special season (he would have cleared 2,000 yards easy if he had started every game in '05). Alexander is an elite player, but fans can expect his numbers to drop a bit. The Chargers are talking about boosting Tomlinson's receiving totals back up, but it's all talk until the season gets here.
The top of the first round should also include runners Tiki Barber, Clinton Portis and LaMont Jordan. Portis is a phenomenal talent, but until he shows an ability to catch the ball, he should not be drafted any higher than fourth or fifth overall. He ranks just below Barber, who continues to outperform expectations every year, and right above Jordan, who was remarkably consistent and productive in '05.
There's definitely a drop in quality at this point, so if you're drafting seventh in a standard league, you may want to move up or down. Rudi Johnson is probably the best option here, even with Perry breathing down his neck, because of his productivity. And with Carson Palmer on the mend, the Bengals may lean on him a little more in '06 as well. Edgerrin James, who I loved last year, joins Arizona, a team that couldn't run to save its life in '05. He should be OK, if only because he's sure to nab tons of receptions and is the clear No. 1 guy in the desert.
Domanick Davis, in an injury-shortened, disappointing season, still achieved 1,313 total yards. With help on the line and at receiver, he could rebound big in '06 (if he stays healthy). Health is also a question for Westbrook, but he always puts up great numbers when in the lineup. And Steven Jackson is a player all the experts are high on -- presumably because of the coaching change in St. Louis. He definitely has the potential to run for more than the 1,046 yards he put up last year.
Cadillac Williams' great rookie season puts him right up there with Jackson at the division point of Rounds 1 and 2. Tatum Bell has expressed dissatisfaction with the RB situation in Denver, so I downgraded him a bit. Still, remember that he had 921 yards as a backup last year, and is the favorite to start in 2006.
Corey Dillon and Willis McGahee are two players who disappointed greatly in 2005, so their rankings have taken a hit. Each has the potential to bounce back though. Warrick Dunn probably doesn't get enough credit for what he does, and while he'll likely never have elite touchdown totals, he is a solid No. 2. Behind those three in the rankings is Ronnie Brown, who could come on with a big season in Ricky Williams' absence, but will have to prove he's capable of carrying the load.
Willie Parker, Julius Jones and Jamal Lewis all had issues staying in the lineup in '05, and they all have talented backups waiting to steal carries away in '06. They are all clearly risk/reward types.
Reuben Droughns is a nice player, but he doesn't have the upside of some of the runners ahead of him. The two rookies with the greatest chance to make an immediate impact are DeAngelo Williams and Reggie Bush, though it's important to watch rookies in the preseason to see how they adjust to the pro game. Finally, Kevin Jones is still a talented guy who faces little competition for the starting role in Detroit, and he could also benefit from the presence of new offensive coordinator Mike Martz.
Here's where things really start to get interesting. Who's to say whether DeShaun Foster can finally make a major-league impact, if Fred Taylor can stay healthy or who will win the derby for playing time in Chicago? From here on out, there are questions galore, and trying to sort it all out at this early stage is akin to someone predicting who will win the Super Bowl in 2009. It's ridiculous, but seeing as how I love being ridiculous, I'm going to take a shot at it.
Health is always an issue, but Fred Taylor is a great No. 3 running back.
Fighting though injuries and competitors for playing time, Chris Brown has still rushed for 1,918 yards in two seasons. He's the favorite in Tennessee until someone unseats him. Taylor is still extremely capable and the clear No. 1 guy in Jacksonville, but injury concerns dictate he be no more than a No. 3 back for most teams.
Thomas Jones took advantage of Cedric Benson's holdout last season, and while Benson is sure to get more carries in 2006, Jones still has slightly higher value at this point due to his receiving ability. If Priest Holmes comes back, he'll be a tremendous backup to Larry Johnson, but that is still very much in question. He is the one guy on this list most likely to be downgraded significantly, so watch his situation closely.
Rhodes has shown an ability to get the job done before, so it seems reasonable he could hold off Addai -- at least in the short term. Chester Taylor has been named the early favorite in Minnesota. He ranks just above Foster (watch to see if he gets passed over by Williams in the preseason), and Curtis Martin, who is breaking down but is still better than anyone else the Jets have right now
Two veterans who were lost in 2005 to injury and face stiff competition in 2006 come up next in the rankings. Deuce McAllister's timetable for a return is still in question, and he figures to lose most of his catches to Bush in any case -- that gives Bush an early fantasy edge. It also remains to be seen how effective Ahman Green can be coming back from injury, though his fit in the Green Bay offense seems to be better than Samkon Gado's. Gado is the healthiest back the Packers have though, so he should get some touches.
Ron Dayne is going to be a nice option as the top backup (and possible starter?) in Denver. The same can be said for the likes of Marion Barber, Mewelde Moore and Mike Anderson in Dallas, Minnesota and Baltimore, respectively.
Reports differ widely on how much of a factor Duce Staley will be in Pittsburgh, so for now, peg him as the top backup to Parker. Frank Gore had a nice rookie season in San Francisco (4.8 yards per carry), and since the team showed a reliance on the run in '05, he could be a nice sleeper pick as the favorite to be the 49ers' top rusher.
Backups who can grab significant touches dominate the rest of the rankings.
T.J. Duckett will be a good backup -- particularly for Warrick Dunn owners.
Greg Jones, T.J. Duckett and Michael Pittman have all gotten it done when pressed into service, and all three figure to have a good chance at playing time once again. Addai, as discussed earlier, has a chance to grab the starter's job in Indy, though that could come later rather than sooner.
Kevan Barlow may still be the starter in San Francisco, so he definitely merits attention. Behind him, Maurice Hicks is strictly a backup, but he's a nice pickup in return yardage leagues. Perry and Laurence Maroney are extremely talented backups who figure to get some time at least.
Some of the other top backups available at this point include Leon Washington, Mike Alstott, Michael Turner, Brandon Jacobs, Cedric Humes and Marshall Faulk (provided he doesn't retire). Other runners you might want to consider in the late rounds are Cedric Houston, Travis Henry, J.J. Arrington, Brian Calhoun, LenDale White, Antowain Smith, Ladell Betts, Kevin Faulk, Michael Bennett and Ryan Moats.
We're looking for questions and anecdotes that can both help and entertain. Send to firstname.lastname@example.org, and you might see your name in print right here on NFL.com!
Thanks to everyone who wrote, and while not everything can be addressed, here are some of the more pertinent and interesting questions this week.
Do you think Tennessee tight end Ben Troupe will be an every-week starting tight end in fantasy football this year?
-- Rick B.
I currently have him ranked 12th among tight ends, so yeah, he would rate as a starter (though just barely). He is a great, great player, but the quarterback situation there could hurt him. So keep your expectations in check and don't reach for him, but also know that he could be a guy who explodes.
I liked your comment (in last week's Anecdote Alley ) about IHOP. I've been a huge fan of that restaurant chain for several years now. Until now, we've had no IHOPs in Central Ohio. But I was just informed two days ago that IHOP is planning to locate 17 new stores in our area sometime soon. There's no better place than IHOP to get an awesome breakfast at a decent price!
-- Kurt F.
I don't want to turn this into an IHOP love fest, but I do enjoy it when I can connect with the readers on some level -- even if it is about breakfast and not football. Here's a good question for folks out there: Which restaurant chain provides the best "fantasy value" for the consumer? And what is the restaurant equivalent of Larry Johnson (i.e., who's the top dog out there)? If there are any interesting or funny answers, I'll print 'em next week in Anecdote Alley.
Is the "Marshall Faulk rule" back?
For about three years right at the turn of the millennium, there was no greater fantasy football asset than Marshall Faulk (though Kurt Warner and Peyton Manning were close).
Marshall Faulk had an impact on fantasy football that few players will ever be able to achieve.
We talked briefly about the reasons above, but regardless of how he put up his numbers, he still dominated like no other. I can remember vividly how, in my league, whoever happened to draft the guy was basically crowned champion at the beginning of the year, because he would, in fact, win the league. It became a rule of thumb: Marshall Faulk equaled a fantasy football championship.
Few other players have enjoyed such a status over the past 15 years. Emmitt Smith was an early example. Terrell Davis and Priest Holmes were more recent examples, but none of them had the statistically dominant longevity of Faulk.
The newest threat to take over Faulk's mantle appears to be Larry Johnson -- who has the inherent advantage Holmes did with the Chiefs' line blocking for him. He would have annihilated the 2,000-yard barrier with 16 starts last year, and he just has that special look about him.
I'm not quite ready to anoint him yet, though. For one thing, he still has to prove himself as being far and away the top player in fantasy, which he hasn't done yet. But more importantly, that line that gives him such an edge is getting plenty old. It's entirely likely that his production will drop as the line begins to break down.
Will we institute the "Larry Johnson rule" in the coming years? It remains to be seen, but it's certainly fun to speculate.