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The Weekly Gut Check Vol. 157 - Maximizing Sleeper RBs

  Posted 6/14 by Matt Waldman, Exclusive for Footballguys.com

The Weekly Gut Check examines the players, strategies and guidelines fantasy football owners use to make personnel decisions.


Part I of a series devoted to incorporating risk into your draft.

WARNING: If you are looking for the safest way to win a league, this month-long series is not the answer. However, the ideas, trends, and players mentioned here should help you with your individual approach in leagues where your peers also have a strong knowledge base. The key is how much you want to "break the rules." If "high-risk" in your daily life means taking a different way to work, and the word "reach" makes you cringe, then keep your GPS switched on, check out David Dodd's annual piece "The Perfect Draft." His well-conceived strategy should give you a good shot at a contender through by-the-book picks and depth. Consider these articles as a creative place where you see how "pushing the envelope" could work out for you and incorporate what you like/dislike accordingly.

Why go for Broke?

I don't know about you, but I can't remember the last time I didn't play in a competitive league. With the major media now fantasy friendly, the average fantasy owner is better informed. If you compete in a long-standing league where you remember scoring with newspaper box scores, then chances are your peers are pretty hardcore and they now use Average Draft Position (ADP), Value Based Drafting (VBD), and updated rankings of prominent fantasy writers.

When I first accepted invitations to join showcase leagues to compete with other fantasy football writers, I was self-conscious about how an audience of readers would perceive my drafts. If my teams were going to be on display in newsstands across the country or someone's web site, I wanted people to know that I knew how to play the game. And my teams appeared on other writer's postdraft evaluations as a "team to beat." However, when the season ended, I was at best, a first-round playoff loser.

The following year, I decided to return to my style of fantasy football. The postdraft feedback wasn't pretty. I remember lurking Shark Pool and reading a thread David Dodds posted to show the results of a draft we just completed. None of the posters even mentioned my team as a worthwhile squad. In fact, there were a few who said my team as most likely to bomb. In a sense, it was a backhanded compliment, because this reaction is common when you don't play it safe.

However, the reward was great. When the season was complete, I only lost two games on my way to a championship. It was the first of back-to-back titles in that league. Although I bombed the third year, I used a high-risk approach in the only two showcase leagues I competed in and captured three championships in two years. This validated something I had to accept about my playing style: I enjoy taking chances.

If you want a shot at winning big there is a point where you need to demonstrate some comfort with risk. It doesn't always have to entail a major strategy shift and sometimes going crazy like I do. However, I recommend you to knock it until you try it. If you decide to take the road less traveled, be prepared to begin your season with remarks like "that's crazy, it will never work," but end with congratulatory e-mails 12-16 weeks later that say "that was genius."

Where you take your risk depends on where you are most risk-tolerant; it could be somewhere during the draft, the waiver wire, a trade, or choosing your lineup. In this series, I'm going to explore ways to push the envelope with your draft strategy. I will profile a high-risk draft strategy and then discuss players who I believe could be worth incorporating into the approach. I have tried these strategies and have been successful at least once. If I'm in enough redraft leagues to give it a shot, I will try them again as a way of reporting how they work for me. In sense, I'll be the guinea pig for those of you interested in high-risk possibilities, but want to see it played out.

Maximizing Sleeper RBs

According to convention, you should use average draft position to determine a player's value and allow them to fall to you within what is considered an acceptable range. However, what if you're competing with 11 other fantasy owners with a similar knowledge base? Maybe they read the same info and frequent the same boards. You could choose to play out the string, build a team that looks logical on paper, and hope those "great values" actually pan out and become "great producers." Maybe you'll have a contender, but you passed up on three to five players who could have made your team dominant, but you were too consumed with following conventional wisdom.

A play-it-safe strategy will help a fantasy owner avoid risks that could hurt them, but it also eliminates ideas that deviate from the norm that could also significantly help them. Most fantasy owners don't have the fortitude to be that aggressive, because they fear one of two things: not building a team that looks good to them on paper and getting subjected to ridicule for your approach.

However, I'm not espousing you pick kickers and team defenses before skill players. I'm asking you to develop an expertise at accurately identifying sleeper RBs and using them as the linchpin for building your team. The risk is high, but the approach allows a fantasy owner to have a greater chance at the elite players at the other positions during the first five to seven rounds of his draft.

If you choose wisely, you have a great shot at building a dominant starting lineup. You will have to hit a few bull's eyes in order to succeed, which naturally means this strategy has a higher difficulty of execution. If you identify mid-round backs that succeed, you'll have the pick of the litter at other positions.

The typical fantasy league starting line up incorporates 1 QB, 2 RBs, 3 WRs, and 1 TE. From a Value Based Drafting perspective, running back predominates as the position of choice during the first 15-17 picks in a draft. There's a good logic there, but there is more annual turnover with RB rankings than any position in fantasy football. I showed this chart based on data from 2004-2008 in my piece on RB Workloads, but it applies once again:

Three-year Avg. 
Avg. Pct. 
Avg. # Players
Top 12 Turnover
61%
7.3
Top 24 Turnover
47%
11.3
Rookies in Top 12
19%
2.3
Rookies in Top 24
14%
3.3
Three Yrs in Top 12
14%
1.7
Three Yrs in Top 24
24%
5.7

Think about what this chart indicates. We know that the running back position is the most valuable in the majority of fantasy leagues. You should also know it is the least stable position when it comes to year-to-year consistency of performance. On average, nearly two-thirds of the RBs in the top 12 one year were not there the next and the turnover in the top 24 is high enough that you can build a team with a significant advantage at QB, WR, and TE by properly identifying and targeting mid-to-late round RB sleepers who will provide top-24 production as your slated starters. It's a risky strategy, but so is counting on your No. 1 back picked among the first 12 players to be among the 39% who will remain in the top 12 or the near equivalent of a coin flip for the top 24.

If you're competing in a league where most owners select two backs within the first three rounds, in theory it could make sense to capitalize on the best receiving and tight end talent, especially if you identify the lesser-valued RBs who far out-produce their draft spot. Between 2006-2008, an average of 19.33 receivers remained in the Top 36 at their position for consecutive seasons. Fifty-three percent had a two-year run in the Top 24 and Top 12, respectively. An average for 14.67 receivers remained in the fantasy Top 36 for three consecutive seasons, that's over twice the amount of backs that remained fantasy starters. More promising odds, don't you think?

Another argument in favor of targeting receivers earlier is that the best fantasy WRs has a higher percentage of consistency than any offensive fantasy position. I refer to consistency as a high frequency of exceeding a minimum level of fantasy point production, not standard deviation-based formulas. Although still changeable, you can see there is more stability at the WR position.

The TE position has similar consistency. Jason Witten, Tony Gonzalez, and Antonio Gates have been three of the top six TEs from 2004 through 2008 and at least one, if not all three, were in the top three every year. That should be enough to tell you if you target one of the stud receiving TEs, you'll be in good shape. There's a good argument that Witten and Gonzalez could see a decline in production because of T.O. leaving Dallas and Gonzalez leaving Kansas City, but I don't agree with the logic. Roy Williams may not produce as well as Owens, but he'll be good enough to help Witten avoid more bracketed coverage than he saw in the past. Gonzalez may be in a new system in Atlanta, but he's with a good, young QB and that's something he's lacked for a few years in Kansas City and it didn't hurt him. The offensive system change is also an overblown concern. Gonzalez changed systems in the past and was still successful.

However, I would consider a top echelon quarterback before an elite TE. Granted, the top performing QBs tend to be more changeable and the fantasy point gap among the position isn't usually as great as it is among runners. Yet, there are three reasonable candidates with a strong shot to perform among the top three. Peyton Manning has been a top-six performer for five straight years and shows no signs of slowing down. Drew Brees has been at or near the top three times, despite his surrounding talent still on the rise. I also expect Tom Brady to rebound in an offense stacked with talent, as long as his knee is ready to go.

The "turn" (spots 9-12 or 1-3) is a place where you can logically consider a higher risk strategy. At spots 9-12, you can disguise this high-risk strategy to the less observant owners in your league in the early rounds because your turns will mimic the average draft position of the top WRs and QBs on the board. On the other hand, when using this strategy on the opposite turn (spots 1-3), you obviously need to be thick-skinned and prepared to handle the ridicule coming your way when you don't select RBs early. It's also not the best scenario when you have the pick of (nearly) any back you wish. However, there is a decent variation I'll profile later.

First, I'll profile the sleeper candidates I recommend based on their talent, situation, and ADP. Then, I'll use a combination of current ADP data Footballguys compiled from various sources to create a series of 12-team league mock drafts with the first 12 of 18 rounds completed.

2009 Sleeper RB Candidates

We all know the term sleeper no longer has the same meaning it did when newspaper box scores were still a viable and timely way to get fantasy information. But some players have undeniable talent that fantasy owners lose sight of due to factors that include injuries, players ahead of them on the depth chart with a modicum of talent, or at least decent knowledge of the offense and a bigger contract. The position this occurs with the most dramatic effect is running back.

Off the top of my head, here are seven players in recent seasons whose talents were easy to see when they were on the field, but it took longer (due to the player in parenthesis) than a season for them to enjoy fantasy success:

  • Priest Holmes (Jamal Lewis)
  • Deuce McAllister (Ricky Williams)
  • Larry Johnson (Priest Holmes)
  • DeAngelo Williams (DeShaun Foster)
  • Frank Gore (Kevan Barlow)
  • Brandon Jacobs (Tiki Barber)
  • Brian Westbrook (Duce Staley)
  • Steven Jackson (Marshall Faulk)

These players all turned out to be the heir apparent, but I read numerous takes at the time that DeAngelo Williams, Frank Gore, Brandon Jacobs, and Brian Westbrook were not locks to be their team's future bell cow back. The great Priest Holmes' move to Kansas City wasn't seen as a major shift in the fantasy landscape - there were many who thought Tony Richardson was the sneaky good fantasy pick and Holmes would be a Kevin Faulk-like, complementary back.

Which backs have a reasonably good chance to producer starter worthy numbers in 2009 after seeing limited time on the field in 2008? Here are my nine plus a rookie, and in parenthesis their recent ADP after 1215 drafts at Fantasy Football Calculator from 5/26 through 6/1 and 98 qualifying drafts courtesy of mockdraftcentral.com from 5/23 through 6/2. The table shows the ADP, the earliest the player was picked and the latest. The order I have these 10 backs listed is based on a combination of how much I like their breakout potential and how well their ADP has potential to make each a player a match for this high-risk strategy:

Player
Fantasy Calculator Mocks
Mock Draft Central Mocks
ADP
High
Low
ADP
High
Low
Ray Rice
9.09
6.06
13.12
12.06
7.02
ND
Rashard Mendenhall
8.04
6.07
12.09
8.06
7.06
10.07
Fred Taylor
12.12
8.12
15.12
9.09
8.01
12.03
Felix Jones
7.04
5.03
9.10
7.03
5.03
7.09
Donald Brown
8.01
5.08
10.04
7.05
5.03
8.06
Cedric Benson
6.09
4.12
8.08
6.07
4.12
7.08
LenDale White
6.11
4.11
8.12
6.04
4.06
7.05
Julius Jones
8.03
5.12
10.07
9.12
7.03
12.06
Willis McGahee
8.10
6.01
11.08
7.06
5.09
8.08
Laurence Maroney
11.10
8.01
15.08
12.11
7.08
ND

Right now, you may be looking at these 10 backs and be terrified at the prospect of leading off with two of them as your starters. In June, I would agree with you. But two months from now, it's quite possible we'll see half of these players in situations that appear more promising and their ADP will still be low enough to consider them great value.

One of the reasons I chose these player is they have a late, sixth-round selection average as their absolute high end at this point and this will help you stay a few steps ahead of your competition. What I mean is you might want to draft these players a round or two earlier than their ADP. Reach? In today's fantasy football savvy environment this might be known as "insanity," but there is a reason for the cliché there's a fine line between genius and insanity. I'd also argue that once something becomes conventional wisdom it's no longer wise.

As it stands today, Cedric Benson, LenDale White, and Felix Jones have the highest average draft position among the backs on this list and they all fall somewhere in the middle to the bottom of the list in terms of how much I like them. This is because their value will need to hold steady for a fantasy owner to draft them a round earlier than their current ADP to insure they at least get three WRs, and an elite QB before making the selection. Plus, I think Felix Jones only presents elite-quality upside of the three.

In a 12-team redraft league, Mendenhall, Rice, and Taylor's ADPs make them good bargains because I believe they have No. 1 RB upside. If these ADPs remain stable through mid-August you have more room to draft these players earlier than your competition will rate them. Funny enough, the players I listed near the top of the table who I think have No. 1 RB potential could be drafted AFTER you pick the RBs lower on this list who have a higher ADP, but in my opinion, No. 2 RB potential.

Confusing? To keep it simple, if you can manage to target four of the top six backs in this table between rounds six through nine, I believe at least two of these players have a good chance to give you No. 1 and No. 2 quality RB production at a huge bargain. If you're willing to take the risk and wait to load up your backfield in the mid-rounds, the potential rewards are excellent. Here's my take on each player and my recommended approach for this draft strategy:

Ray Rice

(Availability rounds 9-12; highest round 6.11)

I consider myself a pretty fair connoisseur of RB talent. Ray Rice is a highly talented prospect that quickly fell below the radar of most redraft fantasy owners this year when he disappeared into the mix of the Baltimore Ravens backfield and crop of highly productive rookies during the 2008 season. To be fair, fantasy owners aren't overlooking him. They safely regard him as a back with upside they can select in the second half of a draft, and, depending on how much he pans out, what they will get ranges from nice depth to an absolute steal. I believe Rice will be an absolute steal for several fantasy owners, because purely from the standpoint of skill between the tackles, Rice has the most potential.

At Rutgers, Rice was one of the biggest workhorse backs in college football and he demonstrated the patience and skill to move the chains week after week. He's a strong back who is built low to the ground and he can make it difficult for defenders to spot him between the tackles. Once he makes contact with a defender, he understands how to drive his legs to maximize his gains.

Rice's trademark in college was his stamina. Everyone likes to talk about a player's timed speed, but as we saw in a show like Spike's 4th and Long, it's one thing to run a 4.4 40 after a warm-up, it's completely different to run a 4.4 40 after taking a beating for 45 minutes. In college, Ray Rice had the stamina to play the same speed in the fourth quarter as he did in the first quarter. Rice showed some of that burst during his rookie year, but it wasn't consistently there in the fourth quarter. An NFL insider I spoke with last year said you can always tell a player has the favor of the coaching staff when he's used extensively in the fourth quarter.

Last year, Rice wasn't a fourth-quarter player. This year the Baltimoreravens.com quoted coach John Harbaugh with this to say about the second-year runner. "He is a little bigger, and he's actually learner, bigger, faster, quicker. He really practiced hard. And he's in great shape. He looks good."

QB Joe Flacco says in the same web site report, "Ray improved immensely during the season last year, and then he ended up getting a little banged up and he couldn't play the last three or four games. But Ray's going to make huge improvements. And you can already see that out there. Again, today he probably feels the same way I do - a lot more comfortable with what he doing. And his job is to get in there and do what he does and help out the other guys."

These quotes should tell you that Ray Rice now understands what he needed to do to get the stamina he needed to be as quick, strong, and fast in the fourth quarter of NFL games as he was in the NCAA. Considering Le'Ron McClain is slated to play FB and has added extra weight and Willis McGahee is in the final year of his contract, Rice has a very good shot to start in 2009. It doesn't hurt that he's been taking most of his reps with the first-team offense, although part of the reason he is has to do with McGahee rehabbing his ankle.

Still the writing is on the wall that it is Rice's job to win this year. He quietly posted 727 yards from scrimmage as a rookie in a three-headed, tail back rotation for a team that would love to continue to play ball control to complement its tough defense. I think the long-term future of this backfield will be Ray Rice and rookie Cedric Peerman, a highly underrated runner from Virginia but this year, Rice is the best bet to see enough carries to be in at least an RBBC with McGahee. If Rice continues to look like the best back on the field in Baltimore's training camp, coach Harbaugh will have no problem using him that way.

High-risk recommendation: John Harbaugh has already stated he believes in Rice's every-down potential and with Willis McGahee in his final year, I believe we'll see a changing of the guard this year if the Ravens truly believe what they say. Although his ADP is lower than that of players below him on this list (Felix Jones, Rashard Mendenhall), I expect Rice's ADP to rise, as the preseason gets under way and skeptical fantasy owners begin to see true indications of what I'm projecting. In terms of ADP, the hope is Harbaugh and the Ravens remain tightlipped about the halfback position to keep his value depressed early in the preseason and the announcement of the starting lineup comes after most owners hold their drafts. As long as Rice continues to get good press without any depth chart pronouncements, acquiring him should pay dividends.

Rashard Mendenhall

(Availability rounds 8-12; highest round 6.09)

I believe the 2008 RB class had some of the best runners I've evaluated in the four years I've been studying film. Mendenhall took a little longer to win me over because I initially had a difficult time judging his speed and decision-making in the spread offense. However, the Illinois back is a very physical player with excellent burst and hands. He's a great fit for the Pittsburgh Steelers because he's capable of breaking a big play and wearing down an opposing defense in the second half of a game.

Willie Parker has been a good runner for the Steelers, but the overachieving speedster from North Carolina has been criticized in the past for his deficiencies as a short yardage back. Last year he had a combined seven carries for 18 yards with no scores on 3rd and 4th down carries. In contrast, a player like Adrian Peterson had 31 carries for 192 yards and four scores. Michael Turner, another bell cow back, had 20 carries for 84 yards and three scores. Even the diminutive Maurice Jones-Drew behind a makeshift offensive line had 27 attempts or 100 yards. Mendenhall with his combo of speed and power has a prime opportunity to be both the short yardage back and the first and second down runner in Pittsburgh this year.

The second-year pro's two deficiencies as a rookie heading to the NFL was his penchant for carrying the ball too far from his body and pass blocking. If Mendenhall corrects these two issues he has shown enough skill as a runner to be make Willie Parker a valuable insurance policy for the Steelers. Parker has already indicated that he wants to remain a Steeler, knowing that his time as a starter in Pittsburgh is ending sooner than later. This team-first attitude will also make the offense's transition to Mendenhall easier.

It's highly possible the best-case scenario for Mendenhall is to split time with Parker in 2009 and this could make him an unpredictable fantasy option. Mini camp reports have been glowing about Mendenhall this spring and if he can carry his performance into training camp and the preseason, the Steelers could easily rationalize Parker's demotion as a way to keep him fresh for the playoff run and Mendenhall is built more to survive the pounding of the 16-week schedule. Think about the Ravens-Titans Divisional match up last January: the guy with the freshest legs on the field appeared to be Chris Johnson, who was ripping the Ravens defense until he got hurt. Some of that freshness might be attributed to Johnson sharing a workload with LenDale White. True or false, it is a valid perception and if Mendenhall gets into the game and performs to his potential, Parker could wind up more like Jerious Norwood to Mendenhall's version of Michael Turner.

High-risk recommendation: Many fantasy owners will shy away from Mendenhall because they will harp on his penchant to fumble the ball late in the 2008 preseason and his trash-talking text exchange with Ray Rice that resulted in Ray Lewis laying the smack down and breaking the rookie's shoulder. That's good for you if you're looking for a player who has the skills, and pretty good odds to capture the lead back role on a run-oriented team, to gain 1300 yards and double-digit scores that you can draft after most of the projected fantasy No. 1 and No. 2 backs are off the board.

Fred Taylor

(Availability rounds 10-14; highest round 8.00)

The fact of even considering a 34-year-old RB as a major cog in a fantasy lineup is high-risk. However, a funny thing happens when view the stats of players who had a career illustrious enough to play a twelfth season in the NFL - they're pretty good.

A Sample of Recent RBs and Their 12th NFL Season

Player
Team
Year
G
Rush Att
Rush Yds
Rush Tds
Rec Yd
Rec Td
FF Pts
John Riggins
was
1983
15
375
1347
24
29
0
281.6
Walter Payton
chi
1986
16
321
1333
8
382
3
237.5
Ottis Anderson
nyg
1989
16
325
1023
14
268
0
213.1
Marcus Allen
kan
1993
16
206
764
12
238
3
190.2
Jerome Bettis
pit
2004
15
250
941
13
46
0
176.7
Franco Harris
pit
1983
16
279
1007
5
278
2
170.5
Emmitt Smith
dal
2001
14
261
1021
3
116
0
131.7
Warrick Dunn
tam
2008
15
186
786
2
330
0
123.6
Earnest Byner
cle
1995
16
115
432
2
494
2
116.6
Tony Dorsett
den
1988
16
181
703
5
122
0
112.5
Marshall Faulk
ram
2005
16
65
292
0
291
1
64.3
Thurman Thomas
buf
1999
5
36
152
0
37
1
24.9
James Brooks
cle
1992
4
13
38
0
-1
0
3.7
James Brooks
tam
1992
2
5
6
0
0
0
0.6


SI.com's Peter King makes the point in a February column that Bill Belichick has succeeded with older players like Antowain Smith and Corey Dillon and that a combo of Taylor and Sammy Morris could have that similar blueprint. The only problem is Smith was only in the fifth year of his career in 2001 when he helped the Pats win their first Super Bowl. Dillon is a bit more of a compelling argument because he worked in New England from years eight through 10 of his career, scoring double-digit TDs each season. However, we want to look at those rare backs that played more than a decade.

This list doesn't include every runner that played at least 12 seasons in the NFL, but it's a healthy sample since there are so few. Based on physical ability alone, I would argue that Fred Taylor was every bit as talented as any player on this list. You could argue that Taylor's skills diminished quickly because as King mentions, he averaged only 3.9 yards per carry last year. However, then how do you justify Maurice Jones-Drew's dip to 4.2 yards per attempt? Is one the result of an offensive line left in a shambles due to injuries and the other age? I don't think so. From 2003-2007, Taylor averaged 4.7 yards per carry and both he and his offensive line remained reasonably healthy during that span.

Riggins, Anderson, and Allen all had seasons with reduced carry counts leading to their 12th year and if you include the other players who comprise the top eight on this list, none of them had chronic injuries or deteriorating physical conditions. A healthy Fred Taylor has a chance to have a year or two of excellent production in an offense with a larger workload and a great passing game. Taylor hasn't had the benefit of a passing game this good since Mark Brunell, Jimmy Smith, and Keenan McCardell were AFC favorites in the late 90s.

Taylor was the 18th ranked back in 2006 and 2007, despite sharing time with Maurice Jones-Drew. If Bill Belichick has truly lost his faith in Laurence Maroney, the only back whose talent approaches Taylor's, Taylor has a great opportunity to get 220-270 carries in New England. If this happens, fantasy owners could get at least a No. 2 quality fantasy back available in rounds 10-14 of drafts.

High-risk recommendation: If Taylor's ADP continues to hover in the same range as it is in June, I would suggest drafting Taylor no later than round seven as your team's projected No. 2 RB. If his ADP increases where his ADP is close to the range of rounds 8-12, I would consider him in round six if you grabbed three strong receivers and an elite QB in the first four rounds.

Felix Jones

(Availability rounds 6-8; highest round 5.02)

The "other" rookie back from Arkansas only got touches in five games last year, but he produced at least 12 fantasy points in three of them although never earning more than 10 touches in any contest. That's what you call big-play potential. I thought Jones was a better all-around prospect at RB than his more heralded Razorback teammate Darren McFadden. Jones demonstrated more polish as a between the tackles runner. He ran with better balance, pad level, and patience.

Marion Barber III is still the lead back for the Cowboys and deservedly so. Barber is a tough, versatile runner with a great nose for the red zone. However, I think the Cowboys offense will be borrowing a page from the Giants playbook this year because they have discovered they possess three strong runners on their depth chart and the team performs better when Tony Romo isn't forced to be the full-time offensive savior. Barber averaged well over four yards per carry and had double-digit scores in 2006-2007 when Julius Jones took a bulk of the carries. In 2008, Barber only had 34 more carries than he did in 2007 but his YPC dipped by more than a yard and he missed a game due to injury. His hard-charging style does concern some that he might be best used in a committee approach and I find it difficult to believe the Cowboys won't try to get Felix Jones at least 150 carries in 2009 if Barber is healthy.

In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if it's a more even split between Barber and Jones and we see Jones earn closer to 200 carries, especially with the T.O. lobby eliminated from the equation. Cowboys' owner Jerry Jones has told the media he expects Jones to get a significant share of the carries. At this point, the second-year runner has enough promise to risk drafting him as your No. 2 RB in an offense I expect to emphasize the run. If Barber gets hurt, then Jones has the ability to be a top-12 candidate for fantasy consideration. A preseason injury to Barber will likely cause Jones' ADP to skyrocket unless the Cowboys do enough talking about Tashard Choice to keep Jones' value within the range of rounds four to six. Either way, Jones has enough size and between the tackles skills to draw comparisons to a young Clinton Portis. With or without Barber in the Dallas backfield, Jones should get 12-15 touches per game and that just might be enough to make him a sneaky good fantasy starter. Risky, but viable…

High-risk recommendation: I expect a 45/40/15 split for Barber/Jones/Choice, which means Jones has a good chance to be a top-24 RB. Because his current ADP shows a lot of fantasy owners agree that he has excellent upside, you'll want to consider him as one of the first No. 2 RBs on your list or you'll risk losing out on him otherwise. You won't want to draft him any earlier than the sixth round. However, because this is within the range of his current ADP, you need to make sure you're all right with acquiring the RBs below him on this list if someone nabs him ahead of you.

Donald Brown

(Availability rounds 7-9; highest round 5.03)

The Colts' first-round pick didn't get selected that high to wait a few years for an opportunity. Based on the fact Edgerrin James and Joseph Addai were selected in round one and started as rookies, I have to believe that Donald Brown wasn't selected this high to even sit on the bench. Bill Polian is still one of the better GMs in the business and he was the same front office head who drafted a versatile, fluid runner for the Bills by the name of Thurman Thomas. Donald Brown reminds me a little of Thomas because of his vision, acceleration, and agility.

I thought Joseph Addai was a fine back when he graduated from LSU, but his injury problems in college have resurfaced in the NFL. The third-year starter for the Colts is a good receiver and excellent blocker. Barring a slow recovery to offseason knee surgery to clean up lose particles in Addai's knee, Brown will need to improve his pass protection skills to take the job outright from the veteran.

However, when I consider the combination of Brown's well regarded work ethic, his ability to be the offense on a one-dimensional college squad, and his competition for the starting job has shown a propensity for injury, I think Brown's chances to at least split time and produce starter-quality numbers for a fantasy roster are good. Sure, you have to draft him reasonably high, but considering I have ranked four players ahead of Brown on this high-risk, target list and their ADPs are lower, then you just have to draft Brown with the mindset that you're getting your projected back up before your projected starters. It's counterintuitive, but then again so is Brown's ADP when he hasn't officially nailed down a starting role and no one seems to be flinching about that point.

High-Risk Recommendation: As you'll see with the mock where my team had a slot in the middle portion of the draft, I picked Brown a round earlier than his current ADP, but as my third back after two starters. This is due to the fact that Brown is a rookie and a healthy Addai is formidable obstacle. I still have him ranked even with a back like Cedric Benson who's track record in the NFL has been uninspiring, but the change of scenery and flashes of production have me feeling Benson is much like Brown, a rookie with an opportunity to play in a healthy, productive offense. The difference is that I believe Brown has the maturity out of the gate to be a major producer as a rookie. Benson is just figuring it out and it might be too little, too late.

Cedric Benson

(Availability rounds 5-7; highest round 4.12)

Cedric Benson had an immature outlook about being a pro athlete when he came out of school. It should be no surprise; we can't expect every guy in his early 20s who has been given the star treatment to take a mature approach to his first full-time job. Otherwise, I'd be willing to wager a certain number of chief executive officers and politicians out of Ivy League schools would have never made it where they are today.

Garrison Hearst was a back I got a chance to observe in college. Hearst was the kind of person at Georgia where some of his teammates would roll their eyes when you asked them where he was during media sessions after practice because Hearst was frequently late. He also had other behavior that could be best described as self-absorbed, such as spending more time carving things into his desk than participating in class. It doesn't make Hearst a bad guy, but I'd speculate was a factor in his less than stellar start in Arizona. Buddy Ryan didn't kiss Hearst's behind when he arrived in Arizona and I think it was a slow realization that things were no longer going to be as easy as it was in the past. Hearst eventually showed the maturity to become a productive player and it helped him marshal the fortitude to have one of the greatest comebacks from career threatening injury that the NFL as seen.

There's no question Cedric Benson has the physical skills to be a starter in the NFL, but something has been missing. He had a tearful postdraft interview on ESPN that made him seem ill prepared to handle the scrutiny that comes with a public career and his off the field behavior proved this was the case early on. A 747-yard season last year doesn't prove much, especially with a 3.5 YPC average, but I'm willing to take my chances with Benson as a placeholder, No. 2 RB for this high-risk approach because the Bengals offense lacked a lot of punch without Chad Johnson and a healthy Carson Palmer. With these two offensive leaders healthy for 2009, Benson has a chance to find bigger rushing lanes against teams other than inferior defensive units like the 2008 versions of Cleveland and Kansas City.

High-Risk Recommendation: Unless rookie Bernard Scott has a blazing preseason, which is a possibility for the talented rookie, Benson will at least be a two-down starter in a Cincinnati offense that should regain its dynamic passing attack. I think that makes Benson's upside at 250 carries, which could make him an effective No. 2 RB. At worst, I think he's a cheap and effective back for the first month of the season. Unless this strategy strikes out on half the backs on this list, there's a good shot you'll finish the season with two worthwhile starting backs. Benson should hold down the fort if nothing else.

LenDale White

(Availability rounds 6-7; highest round 4.11)

White is a back few people like, but they are happy to draft him within a vary narrow range in the mid-rounds because he plays behind a run-based offense and he scored double-digit touchdowns in 2008. I have never been a fan of White because I didn't think he show the consistent effort to maximize his innate skills as a runner. This was evident in college to the close observer, but it was clearly exposed when he reached the NFL.

White got a wake up call after fumbling late in the AFC Divisional Playoffs versus the Ravens. Apparently, he's taken the correct approach in response: he got into much better shape and he's looking quicker in mini camp and OTAs. If White can prove he's upped his initial quickness and stamina, he could be a real bull in the 4th quarter of games - something the Titans expected from him at USC. What they got instead was a decent goal line back who averaged less than four yards per carry because he lacked the conditioning to consistently get through the hole quickly and decisively. If this changes, White could make the Titans' season easier than expected.

Everyone expects Chris Johnson to be the star in this offense, and rightly so, but I think a confluence of events maximized Johnson's value in 2008: great defensive line play spearheaded by Albert Haynesworth that allowed the defense to be aggressive second and third down; a healthy offensive line clearing holes for the ground game; a Vince Young injury that led to the team opting for a more mature, decisive Kerry Collins; and LenDale White's lackluster play between the 20s. In 2009, I believe Johnson might have a tough time getting as many carries because the defense will have to cope with the loss of Haynesworth and that makes it easier for opposing offenses to find mismatches when they aren't committing 20-25 percent of their offensive manpower to stopping the All-Pro DT. The result will be higher scoring games where Tennessee may have to play from behind and throw the ball. This should help Johnson's reception total, but I think Johnson's injury in the second half of the Ravens game is a good example why the Titans would love nothing more than to have a reason to give the ball at least 15 times per game to White.

High-risk recommendation: I think White will at least be good enough to produce like he did last year because he's clearly the guy the Titans want to use at the goal line. White was the 20th-ranked fantasy back last season because of his high TD total. An in-shape White should earn another four to five carries per game, which should get him into the range of 240-250 attempts in 2009. An in-shape White should also be quick enough to average at least four yards per carry behind this Tennessee line. I'd say a back with good potential for double digit scores and a reasonable shot at 1000 yards is worthwhile to acquire in rounds six or seven with this strategy as your No. 2 RB, don't you? I think White is about even with Benson because I think he's in a better run offense, but Benson has first dibs on locking up the starting job for his team and White doesn't.

Julius Jones

(Availability rounds 7-9; highest round 5.12)

As RB fantasy starters go, Jones is like the last kid picked on the playground for a team. Jones has good speed and quickness and his first season in Seattle was hampered by significant injuries to the Seahawks passing game that limited Jones potential. At the same time, great backs generally play better than Jones even in this situation.

However, we're not expecting Jones to be an elite player, just a decent one. With Matt Hasselbeck, Deion Branch, and Nate Burleson healthy, Jones should see better down and distance opportunities to earn some decent gains. Like Benson and White, Jones should start but he'll need to show he's a late bloomer along the lines of his older brother Thomas to prove he's more than an average starter.

High-risk recommendation: Despite the fact I think he's an average back, a healthy Seattle passing attack makes Jones a reasonable gamble if he drops past round seven and you have two or three backs higher on this list. You should at least acquire a bye-week/injury sub with upside.

Willis McGahee

(Availability rounds 6-8; highest round 5.09)

McGahee comes into Ravens camp as the lame duck, No. 1 back on the depth chart. Coach John Harbaugh already thinks Ray Rice has enough skill to be a feature back. One theory is the Ravens will "run McGahee into the ground" because McGahee will be auditioning for a payday with a new team in 2010. My question about this theory is, who is going to make McGahee, who will be a six-year vet with decent, but not breathtaking production, a starter in a league filled with younger backs that demonstrate a far better work ethic? I guess it only takes one team to make an offer, but I believe teams will no longer perceive McGahee as a full-time starter next year. They may say "he's a starting-quality back," but that's different than saying, "he's a player we can build around." Contributor? Yes. Build around? No way.

The Ravens took Le'Ron McClain, their best runner in 2008, and moved him back to fullback and drafted a quality prospect in Cedric Peerman whom they expect to contribute on special teams. That leaves the ball in the hands of McGahee and Rice. I believe this means the Ravens are more confident in Rice's improvement than they are McGahee. My theory is teams like Baltimore start the player who gives them the best chance to win, not start the player who they can "use up" and not worry about hurting their long-term plans at the position.

If McGahee proves he's the best player, then he's definitely worth a pick where the current ADP says he's available. If he stays healthy and plays inspired football, he's capable of being a No. 1 RB in fantasy leagues. However, I believe the only reason McGahee gets a full-time role is if his RBBC co-starter Rice gets hurt. Otherwise, expect a timeshare that's split down the middle, if not favoring Rice.

High-risk recommendation: As with Jones, McGahee is worth a pick after round seven where he's a reasonable bargain even with this high-risk approach. Rice may not have earned the job yet, but I believe he's the player to beat in this backfield situation. McGahee makes a worthwhile handcuff if you get Rice where I prescribed.

Laurence Maroney

(Availability rounds 10-13; highest round 8.03)

Sitting fourth on the Patriots' depth chart this spring, Maroney is likely at his all-time low as a fantasy performer. He's perceived as a player whose development has regressed and he cannot stay healthy. Shoulder injuries are worrisome when they have to do with the ligaments and tendons, because the pounding a runner takes can turn these types of injuries into chronic issues. Fortunately for Maroney, he suffered a break and there shouldn't be many worries about his long-term health.

When it comes to talent, only Fred Taylor in his prime is a better runner than Maroney on New England's depth chart. Maroney has breakaway speed and he is supremely skillful making lateral cuts on the move. After averaging well over four yards per carry in his first two seasons with the Patriots, Maroney seemed destined to become a fantasy force.

However, New England has no qualms about using a committee approach with their runners. The Patriots acquired longtime Jacksonville standout Fred Taylor, who is expected to be the lead back in their committee. Kevin Faulk, a Bill Belichick favorite, is the football equivalent of a utility infielder in baseball (Anyone remember Jerry Royster? That's Kevin Faulk on the diamond) and Sammy Morris has that 'tweener versatility to be effective both as a HB and FB. Even BenJarvus Green-Ellis was effective in the Pats system. Maroney's placement at fourth on the depth chart sends a clear message that the fourth-year back has to prove something in order to earn his way back into the good graces of the coaching staff.

High-risk recommendation: Although the packed depth chart doesn't make Maroney as promising a prospect to be used for this strategy, he's still worth monitoring because depth charts can mean very little in preseason football - especially in New England where providing anything worthwhile to the general media is last on this organization's list. If Maroney plays like he's capable, he's as talented as a Ray Rice or Rashard Mendenhall. The key is to watch and wait for any indications Maroney will get his chance. Right now, I think he's too much of a long shot to incorporate into this high-risk strategy but a lot can change in eight to 12 weeks. If reports out of Pats camp indicate he'll split time with Taylor, he becomes a late-round handcuff with upside.

Using the Sleeper RB Strategy

The first example will be the first 12 rounds of an 18-round draft where I picked at spot 11. I used my rankings to pick this team.

Picking From the 11-Spot

Rnd
Team 1
Team 2
Team 3
Team 4
Team 5
Team 6
1
A. Peterson
M. Turner
MJD
M. Forte
Ch. Johnson
D. Williams
2
R. White
S. Smith
T. Brady
G. Jennings
R. Wayne
C. Portis
3
P. Manning
A. Boldin
M. Colston
K. Smith
R. Brown
D. Bowe
4
K. Moreno
D. McFadden
R. Bush
V. Jackson
K. Warner
B. Edwards
5
A. Gates
T. Gonzalez
A. Bryant
P. Rivers
S. Holmes
J. Stewart
6
C. Wells
L. Coles
W. Parker
A. Gonzalez
L. White
J. Cotchery
7
D. Avery
T. Romo
K. Winslow
C. Cooley
M. Crabtree
D. McNabb
8
D. Mason
E. Graham
K. Walter
W. McGahee
D. Hester
D. Driver
9
C. Taylor
S. Breaston
T. Ginn
C. Chambers
Steelers D
J. Carlson
10
Ravens D
M. Bush
J. Norwood
T. Hightower
M. Schaub
Giants D
11
J. Maclin
M. Clayton
K. Curtis
Vikings D
Ri. Williams
J. Charles
12
K. Orton
T. Edwards
E. Manning
P. Crayton
Ha. Nicks
E. Bennett
Rnd
Team 7
Team 8
Team 9
Team 10
Team 11
Team 12
1
S. Jackson
L. Fitzgerald
F. Gore
B. Westbrook
A. Johnson
LT
2
B. Jacobs
M. Barber
D. Brees
R. Moss
Ca. Johnson
S. Slaton
3
B. Marshall
R. Grant
M. Lynch
T. Owens
C. Ochocinco
T.J. Housh
4
J. Witten
T. Jones
R. Williams
P. Thomas
A. Rodgers
W. Welker
5
D. Jackson
E. Royal
J. Addai
L. Johnson
D. Clark
S. Holmes
6
H. Ward
B. Berrian
L. Moore
S. Moss
C. Benson
D. Ward
7
J. Lewis
F. Jones
D. Brown
L. McCoy
J. Jones
D. Sproles
8
J. Cutler
K. Walter
T. Holt
O. Daniels
R. Mendenhall
G. Olsen
9
P, Harvin
L. Washington
F. Jackson
D. McNabb
R. Rice
C. Palmer
10
A. Bradshaw
J. Gage
D. Keller
D. Hixon
F. Taylor
D. Branch
11
Eagles D
D. Garrard
M. Muham.
Titans D
L. Maroney
B. Roeth
12
M. Hasselbeck
T. Scheffler
Z. Miller
S. Greene
M. Walker
S. Smith NYG


Based on the composite ADP, I had a pretty easy time getting the backs although only three teams employed the typical, RB-RB approach in the first two rounds. Even with a lot of quarterbacks and receivers going off the board early, I was able to acquire strong starters at WR, QB, and TE and get six of the 10 backs on my list in the range I desired. Even if Mendenhall, Rice, and/or Taylor don't become starters, I have at least two starters in Benson and Jones, and potentially (though a long shot) a third in Maroney. However, if I'm right about Mendenhall or Rice becoming the clear-cut starter on teams that like to run and play tough defense, I could have an elite RB paired with what I think are three top-12 receivers and be tough to beat.

The downside is with all the teams picking quarterbacks earlier, I missed out on Manning, Brees, and Brady. However, it didn't ruin my strategy, because I have high expectations for Aaron Rodgers. If you don't like Rodgers enough to pick him that early, you could have easily taken Jason Witten, Antonio Gates, or Tony Gonzalez in round four and follow up with Tony Romo, Donovan McNabb, or Jay Cutler in Round 5. Another variation of this strategy is to wait on a QB and target value picks like Palmer, Hasselbeck, Garrard, and Edwards. Then select a top rookie like Knowshon Moreno or pick a TE a round earlier with the hope an RB like Larry Johnson comes back to you. This modification might suit owners who just can't stomach the risk of going solely with the RB options from Round 6 through Round 10.

Numero Uno

Rnd
Team 1
Team 2
Team 3
Team 4
Team 5
Team 6
1
A. Peterson
M. Turner
MJD
M. Forte
Ch. Johnson
D. Williams
2
R. White
S. Smith
T. Brady
A. Johnson
R. Wayne
A. Johnson
3
A. Boldin
P. Manning
M. Colston
K. Smith
R. Brown
R. Grant
4
A Bryant
K. Moreno
R. Bush
C. Ochocinco
V. Jackson
K. Warner
5
A. Gates
T. Gonzalez
S. Holmes
T. Romo
D. Jackson
J. Stewart
6
D. McNabb
T. Holt
L. Coles
A. Gonzalez
L. White
J. Cotchery
7
C. Benson
D. McFadden
K. Winslow
C. Cooley
M. Crabtree
D. Driver
8
R. Mendenhall
T. Ginn
J. Jones
W. McGahee
D. Sproles
D. Avery
9
R. Rice
C. Chambers
P. Harvin
Steelers D
J. Carlson
S.Breaston
10
F. Taylor
M. Bush
J. Norwood
M. Clayton
B. Roeth
T. Scheffler
11
Vikings D
Eagles D
K. Curtis
J. Charles
RI Williams
Titans D
12
M. Walker
K. Orton
Chargers D
N. Burleson
Pats D
E. Manning
Rnd
Team 7
Team 8
Team 9
Team 10
Team 11
Team 12
1
S. Jackson
L. Fitzgerald
F. Gore
B. Westbrook
LT
S. Slaton
2
C. Portis
B. Jacobs
M. Barber
D. Brees
R. Moss
Ca. Johnson
3
D. Bowe
B. Marshall
T. Owens
T.J. Housh
A. Rodgers
W. Welker
4
P. Rivers
P. Thomas
B. Edwards
J. Witten
M. Lynch
R. Williams
5
E. Royal
S. Moss
L. Moore
L. Johnson
J. Addai
D. Ward
6
D. Clark
C. Wells
F. Jones
H. Ward
B. Berrian
L. Evans
7
J. Lewis
J. Cutler
G. Olsen
L. McCoy
K. Walter
W. Parker
8
D. Hester
O. Daniels
C. Palmer
D. Mason
D. Brown
M. Ryan
9
D. Branch
L. Washington
D. Hixon
J. Gage
F. Jackson
D.Keller
10
J. Maclin
T. Hightower
Ravens D
A. Bradshaw
Z. Miller
Giants D
11
S. Greene
D. Garrard
S. Smith NYG
Jets D
L. Maroney
E. Bennett
12
Bears D
T. Scheffler
M. Muhammad
P. Crayton
H. Nicks
S. Morris


When you have one of the first three slots in the draft, I personally wouldn't take the high-risk approach. I think it's difficult to justify not taking the top player off the board. In my rankings I have MJD atop the heap, but I'm using Peterson here because most people rate him as the No. 1 overall pick. Notice that the receivers are good, but I think only Boldin and White have what it takes to be top-12 players and I don't think they stand out among the competitions' depth charts enough to have a great advantage. However, the team still has the appearance of a contender and if one of the backs drafted between 8-10 performs at least like a No. 2 RB it could be a favorite. I might also consider another WR over McNabb and wait for Garrard or Edwards as my QB when I got to Round 11.

Using the Sleeper RB Strategy in the middle (Picks 4-8)

Rnd
Team 1
Team 2
Team 3
Team 4
Team 5
Team 6
1
A. Peterson
M. Turner
MJD
M. Forte
Ch. Johnson
D. Williams
2
R. White
S. Smith
T. Brady
R. Wayne
G. Jennings
D. Brees
3
P. Manning
A. Boldin
M. Colston
D. Bowe
K. Smith
R. Brown
4
T. Jones
M. Lynch
R. Bush
K. Moreno
T. Gonzalez
V. Jackson
5
A. Bryant
D. McFadden
Ochocinco
P. Thomas
D. Jackson
J. Stewart
6
M. Ryan
L. Coles
H. Ward
B. Berrian
L. White
L. Evans
7
K. Winslow
J. Cutler
C. Cooley
M. Schaub
J. Cotchery
D. Driver
8
R. Rice
M. Crabtree
J. Jones
W. McGahee
M. Cassell
B. Roeth.
9
P. Harvin
T. Ginn
Steelers D
O. Daniels
J. Carlson
C. Chambers
10
C. Taylor
M. Bush
J. Norwood
M. Clayton
M. Crabtree
J. Shockey
11
Vikings D
F. Jackson
K. Curtis
J. Charles
S. Smith NYG
Eagles D
12
S. Greene
J. Morgan
M. Walker
T. Edwards
K. Orton
N. Burleson
Rnd
Team 7
Team 8
Team 9
Team 10
Team 11
Team 12
1
L. Fitzgerald
S. Jackson
F. Gore
Westbrook
LT
S. Slaton
2
R. Moss
Ca. Johnson
C. Portis
B. Jacobs
M. Barber
A. Johnson
3
T. Owens
B. Marshall
W. Welker
T.J. Housh
A. Rodgers
R. Grant
4
K. Warner
P. Rivers
A. Gates
J. Witten
B. Edwards
R. Williams
5
L. Johnson
S. Holmes
L. Moore
T. Romo
J. Addai
D. Ward
6
C. Benson
C. Wells
D. McNabb
S. Moss
D. Clark
E. Royal
7
D. Brown
G. Olsen
T. Holt
L. McCoy
K. Walter
W. Parker
8
Mendenhall
D. Avery
J. Lewis
D. Mason
F. Jones
C. Palmer
9
F. Taylor
L. Washington
S. Breaston
J. Gage
Giants D
D.Keller
10
T. Scheffler
D. Hixon
J. Maclin
A. Bradshaw
Z. Miller
Ravens D
11
E. Bennett
Titans D
L. Maroney
D. Garrard
H. Nicks
S. Morris
12
Bears D
E. Manning
Pats D
Jets D
E. Manning
M. Muhammad


Picking from the middle gives you a lot of directions to take. I could have gone with Drew Brees in round two, but I saw it was pretty easy to land three receivers with elite potential and still get Kurt Warner. The best tight ends were off the board in this draft, so I decided to start early with my block of mid-round backs instead. I feel confident I landed at least two starting quality runners during the first half of the season and potentially two others (Brown and Mendenhall) who could be excellent down the stretch. If the sleepers were correctly pinpointed, this could be a dominant line up.

Note: Obviously, ADPs will change as the preseason gets underway and new runners will become more viable high-risk options to use with this strategy. Next week, I'll profile more unusual draft strategies that try to get you around some of the fate-based outcomes with more conventional approaches.