Gut Check #224
By Matt Waldman
July 20th, 2011

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

Dangerous Plays - Running Backs

This month, I'm writing about players who are the fantasy football equivalent of a cliff that isn't safe for base-jumping, but less cautious people are still taking the leap. Last week, I profiled a signal caller whose 2010 stats were good, but I think too many fantasy owners expect too much too soon. This week, I'm profiling running backs that present more risk than reward at their current ADP. I call this series "Dangerous Plays."

2010 Review

Last year's "Dangerous Plays" at running back were Steven Jackson (1.09), Shonn Greene (2.01), Ronnie Brown (4.07), and Brandon Jacobs (5.11).

Jackson wasn't a horrible value at 1.09, ranking 14th overall in fantasy production at the position. However, fantasy owners could have taken Matt Forte, LeSean McCoy Darren McFadden, and Jamaal Charles later and received equal to better value. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Peyton Hillis, and Arian Foster makes that list a healthy seven runners with lower ADPs heading into the draft with similar or better production than Jackson at 1.09.

Shonn Greene was the easy mark on last year's list. The way Rex Ryan talked about Ladainian Tomlinson made it reasonably clear that at best, Greene was splitting time with the future Hall of Famer. As the 37th-ranked fantasy runner in 2010, the list of backs that outperformed this one-dimensional, second-year runner is too long to mention.

Ronnie Brown has always had the ability, but he once again split time with Ricky Williams, who was nearly as productive as Brown and did it with fewer opportunities. The Dolphins also continued to lean too hard on an offensive fad as part of its ground game for a year longer than everyone else. There were a lot of players at other positions with far greater value than Brown.

Brandon Jacobs turned out to be a good value in 2010, performing as the 22nd-ranked fantasy runner. However, Ahmad Bradshaw was going later than Jacobs at the time I wrote last year's piece. Depending on your league scoring, Bradshaw was a fantasy RB1. If my wife were here to see me typing this, she'd tell you that I'm giving you the I-told-you-so look.

2011 Dangerous Plays at RB

Note: Average draft position data is from Fantasy Football Calculator's reports on July 17.

RB Maurice Jones-Drew - ADP 1.10

Better Risks

  • WR Calvin Johnson 1.11
  • WR Roddy White 1.11
  • QB Mike Vick 1.11
  • RB Michael Turner 2.02
  • QB Aaron Rodgers 2.03
  • WR Hakeem Nicks 2.04
  • RB Matt Forte 2.10
  • It pains me to place Jones-Drew on this list. Playing on a bum knee last year, the heart of the Jacksonville offense was still the 12th-ranked fantasy runner in a lot of leagues. Coming off his second-straight, 1300-yard season and only 0.1 yard per carry off his 2009 4.5 YPC, the only major difference in Jones-Drew's performance was his touchdown totals - down by a total of 9 from the year prior.

    The big issue is the knee injury Jones-Drew played through last year. Combine that with an offseason surgery and a promising reserve back like Rashad Jennings and Jones-Drew might have already seen his best days. However, I'm equally concerned about Jennings' promise as I am the knee injury.

    A completely healthy Jones-Drew is the better runner - no contest. However, Jennings is no slouch. He has good size and speed, and his hands are terrific for a receiver out of the backfield. The only reason he transferred from Pitt to Liberty was to be closer to his ailing father. With a current ADP of 12.12, he's could be on the list of best value RBs in 2011 drafts.

    I'm going to give Jones-Drew the equivalent of an "Amber Alert." If you are drafting late in the summer and you have a chance to get more information, he might be worth a pick in the late-first or early-second round. Regardless of whether you pick Jones-Drew, the smart play is to grab Jennings a couple of rounds earlier than his ADP.

    Personally, there are too many high-target, big-play receivers and stud QBs available in this area of the draft for me to consider Jones-Drew. Even if I were bent on taking a runner, Matt Forte and Michael Turner are two backs with equally strong opportunities to shine and with fewer injury concerns. They are even attractive picks for me because there's a good chance I could get one of these elite quarterbacks or receivers first.

    RB Shonn Greene - ADP 4.02

    Better Risks

  • WR Marques Colston 4.05
  • WR Jeremy Maclin 4.06
  • WR Dez Bryant 4.09
  • TE Dallas Clark 4.09
  • RB Jonathan Stewart 4.10
  • WR Brandon Lloyd 4.10
  • QB Tony Romo 5.02
  • RB DeAngelo Williams 5.02
  • WR Santonio Holmes 5.07
  • I wish I could say, "I don't get it," when it comes to Greene, but I do. He's a big, young back, drafted early in 2009 by a contender with a strong offensive line and a defensive-minded head coach. At the end of his rookie year, Greene showed enough to get fans excited about the Jets hooking that bell cow up to the plow in 2010.

    Then came Ladainian Tomlinson.

    Or, as my daughter says, "Kind of, but not really."

    Tomlinson was good and he played with the intensity and focus that one should expect from a veteran. However, it was Greene who got the first crack at the lead spot in this Jets backfield and he blew it. He made mistakes and at times appeared sluggish.

    Fast forward to the 2011 NFL Draft and Rex Ryan and GM Mike Tannenbaum were high-fiving each other in the war room when the Jets announced Louisville RB Bilal Powell as its 4th-round pick. Tannenbaum called Powell a three-down back and, as my No. 3 RB in the 2011 Rookie Scouting Portfolio, I couldn't agree more. Powell is a rugged, downhill runner with speed, aggressiveness, and smarts.

    If Greene doesn't come into 2011 training camp on fire, I wouldn't be at all surprised if Powell isn't at least a loud whisper of the summer session that could become a profound statement on the playing field by Thanksgiving. I'm not buying Joe McKnight. Bart Scott might be, but there's a reason he plays linebacker and doesn't coach offensive skill players.

    At the end of my deeper drafts I'm jumping on Powell and ignoring Greene because he's just not versatile enough a player for me to take him over better runners like Stewart and Williams who are likely to be split into two lead backs for different teams. Then I can still have a shot at a Lloyd or Holmes a round later - two high-total receivers who could perform as well as Colston, Maclin, Bryant, and Clark. In fact, I'd pick all of these players over Greene because I don't see Greene as the next Michael Turner numbers-wise. He's more on par with a Michael Bush - a runner than finished 10 spots ahead of Greene in 2010.

    RB Ryan Grant - ADP 5.07

    Better Risks

  • RB Jonathan Stewart 4.10
  • RB DeAngelo Williams 4.02
  • WR Santonio Holmes 5.07
  • TE Jason Witten 5.08
  • RB Mark Ingram 5.11
  • QB Matt Schaub 5.12
  • WR Austin Collie 6.02
  • I won't go into a lot of detail about Grant, the history of the Green Bay Packer organization's approach with its running backs, or James Starks. I did a lot of that last week. As a runner, Grant is a bigger, less agile Chester Taylor: a good player, but not a special runner. Bottom line, I expect Ryan Grant to earn about 200-220 carries, tally 800-950 yards, and score 5-6 touchdowns. That's nice for a back splitting time, which is what I believe will happen when the 2011 season is said and done.

    I think that the once-conjoined tandem of Stewart and Williams has a lot more upside as separate entities, and they are worth their ADP. I'd much prefer Stewart and follow up with Ingram as a potential all-value, 1-2 punch at RB than taking a chance on Grant. Or, I'd reach for Ingram or Witten and still feel ecstatic with any of the players that are still there on my list. Ironically, the riskiest players on my list of better values are the two players with the greatest upside: Ingram and Collie.

    RB BenJarvus Green Ellis - ADP 6.03

    Better Risks

  • WR Austin Collie (6.02)
  • WR Percy Harvin (6.10)
  • RB Marshawn Lynch (6.11)
  • QB Ben Roethlisberger (7.02)
  • RB Joseph Addai (7.03)
  • Unless rookie Shane Vereen gets hurt or fails to catch on quickly, Green-Ellis is another fantasy football "Amber Alert." The Patriots didn't draft Vereen and Steven Ridley to keep Green-Ellis as the lead back - at least not long term. I don't think Ridley is the immediate threat to Green-Ellis' touches because the LSU runner needs to develop more patience. If he does, he has more athleticism than Green-Ellis with potential to run with equal downhill determination. He's just not as savvy a player, which is really what makes Green-Ellis, Chester Taylor, and Tashard Choice valuable contributors to good teams.

    The real threat is Shane Vereen. Here's a back with game-breaking quickness and agility, but he's very capable of playing with a downhill mentality despite being more of a cutback runner at Cal. Vereen is probably the last of the consecutive line of NFL-caliber contributors from Berkeley that began with Marshawn Lynch, Justin Forsett, and Jahvid Best. I think Vereen could have a better career than Best despite lacking Bests' explosiveness and vision because he's a bigger back who will get the chance to demonstrate that he can handle lead-back punishment.

    As Sigmund Bloom noted on Twitter, Pats beat writer Mike Reiss believes Vereen is one of two rookies most likely to make an immediate impact for New England in 2011. If this turns out to be the case, Vereen's ADP of 12.08 makes him a far better value than taking Green-Ellis at 6.03. Green-Ellis earned 1,008 yards and 13 scores last year, ranking him in the top 15 among fantasy runners. But I believe those totals were his absolute upside. In contrast, Austin Collie, Percy Harvin, Marshawn Lynch, Ben Roethlisberger, and Joseph Addai all have equal upside with less downside from the standpoint of competing for touches.

    RB Ryan Torain ADP 7.01

    Better Risks

  • QB Ben Roethlisberger (7.02)
  • RB Joseph Addai (7.03)
  • TE Jimmy Graham (7.03)
  • QB Josh Freeman (7.10)
  • WR Steve Smith (8.02)
  • WR Santana Moss (8.11)
  • WR Mike Williams (9.01)
  • RB James Starks (9.04)
  • I can envision Torain posting BenJarvus Green-Ellis-like stats from 2011 if everything comes together for the Redskins. But that's an "if," that's even too esoteric for this yoga-practicing, bike-commuting, longhaired fantasy football writer. Torain is not an all-around back and until Mike Shanahan decides he has one, its less risk to take more versatile backs like Joseph Addai or James Starks in this range of the draft. A more optimal strategy is to target one of the high-upside tight ends still on the board after the proven commodities (Gates, Clark, Finley, Witten, Davis) are gone.

    Personally, the three receivers offer the most value to me. I could see the benefit to drafting receivers, a quarterback and/or tight end in the first 3-4 rounds; landing Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams, and/or Mark Ingram in the next 2-3 rounds; and then targeting one of these receivers or backs for additional depth with upside.

    Sounds like the makings of a strategy.

    Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to waldman@footballguys.com.

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