August means helmets and pads in the NFL. It also marks the busiest month of the fantasy football season. Those of you considering the Upside Down Strategy as a draft day approach, here's my updated takes on running backs heading into camp. Soon I will be unveiling at least one draft day counterpunch strategy for those wish to adopt the Upside Down approach, but wish to remain more flexible to value at running back that may be too good to ignore in the early rounds.
All Average Draft Position (ADP) references are from Fantasy Football Calculator's website as of late July.
Ray Rice: The Ravens inked a deal with Rice and Baltimore's meal ticket is still in his prime on an offense that has a solid, but not great, NFL quarterback. Anthony Allen is the backup at this point. He's a second-year runner from Georgia Tech with size and some quickness. He can catch the ball. However, I'm not convinced he has the feet or vision to produce as a starter if called upon. Rookie Bernard Pierce has a lot to prove as a pass protector and he was not impressive this spring.
Monitor whatever chances Bobby Rainey earns in practice. The undrafted free agent is a long shot due to his draft status, but I thought he was a better prospect than Pierce or Allen. I'm sharing this with you because I wouldn't be surprised if the Ravens opt to sign a veteran free agent by late August. Allen and Rainey can be had as near-free agents in fantasy leagues at this stage so if you're obsessed with obtaining a handcuff to an elite runner, Rice might not be the safest choice at this point. However, I still think he's the safest bet for fantasy owners this year.
Arian Foster: Ben Tate looks strong in this Texans offense and I think Houston's backfield is the closest to a Priest Holmes-Larry Johnson situation that we've seen since the Chiefs duo was the fantasy tandem to select. Tate is worth a mid-round pick (see below) if you tab Foster as your early exception. In fact, there will be games this year where starting both players won't hurt your box score. This is the "safest" fantasy play.
LeSean McCoy: McCoy might be the most talented back of the three in this group. I also expect DeSean McCoy and Jeremy Maclin to rebound in 2012 and that means more big plays in the passing game. This could shorten drives and mean fewer touches for McCoy. Not enough to ignore him with your early pick, but the reason why he's No.3 on my list. If seventh-round pick Bryce Brown (see below) continues to look like the player that rivaled Trent Richardson when he was a freshman at Tennessee, McCoy will also be a safer fantasy pick than Ray Rice if you want a player with a talent backing him. However, I'm not vaulting McCoy over Rice until the backup situation becomes clearer. It is important to state that the four backs on the Eagles' depth chart are more talented that most of the Ravens backs.
Special Early-Round Consideration
1.07 Ryan Mathews: If you've been reading this column for at least a couple of years then you know that I'm a big fan of Mathews' skills, but I have had guarded confidence about his approach to being a professional. Mathews wasn't in shape when he arrived at Chargers camp last year, but still pieced together enough games to serve most fantasy owners well. After watching Yahoo! Writer Doug Farrar's interview of Mathews with trainer Travelle Gaines, I believe the Chargers running back has matured enough to perform to his talent level from wire to wire. I think he's one of the safer picks in this draft this year.
Early Round Counterpunch
I will be writing more about a Counterpunch strategy for the Upside Down style in the coming weeks. One big part of this alternative is recognizing opportunities for big value at the running back position in the early rounds and remaining to flexible enough to pick one of the players below and then substitute a receiver, tight end or quarterback choice in round five. As a result, you wait until the sixth round to begin your block of backs.
Based on the backs currently going off the board in the fifth round, I think this counterpunch packs a wallop. In fact, if you can get two of these three runners, I suggest taking them and substituting your fifth and sixth rounds with non-runners.
2.03 DeMarco Murray: There is still a lot of distrust of Murray because of the injury factor from his days at Oklahoma and last year's broken ankle. The funny thing is that Murray has never torn a knee ligament; doesn't have chronic shoulder, neck, or back issues; and there is no documented history of serial concussions. I just listed 90 percent of the "serious injuries" that make a back a worrisome health risk.
Murray's injuries were breaks, sprains, and muscle issues. I'll take the chance on Murray in the early second round because I'd place him in a similar class as Ryan Mathews: a near-elite runner with the dual skills of grinding out tough yardage and generating big plays in space. If Murray is available in the second round, maybe even the end of the first round depending on the league structure and available talent, I'm taking him.
3.03 Marshawn Lynch: If news breaks that Lynch will not be facing suspension this year, I expect the Seahawks' runner to see his ADP rebound to the late first, early-second. Lynch is every bit the talent of Mathews and Murray and if fantasy owners are slow to recognize that suspension won't be imminent; Lynch is a terrific value in the third round.
However, it is likely that Lynch's legal-professional status will remain murky and it will keep his value depressed. Taking Lynch before there is any strong analysis hinting that the Seahawks runner will be off the hook for 2012 will be a moderate risk. I still think his ADP value is based on a round subtracted from his first-round pre-arrest status per potential game suspended. In other words, if he misses two games, he's a third-round value. If he missed four, he's a fifth-round value. I expect no more than three games if he's found guilty.
Lynch is a player that I believe is a worthwhile risk-reward until there is definitive news one way or the other. The key is waiting until at least the third round to take him. If falls to 3.03 or later, he's worth the risk. I'd personally wait until the fourth round and if he's there, I'd jump on it. If not, no worries.
3.04 Darren Sproles: The Saints runner is the poster boy for the "One-Year Wonder," theory that we all have for fantasy players. He lacks the physical dimensions of a feature back, he's in a pass-first offense, he has never been a reliable fantasy starter prior to 2011, and top prospect Mark Ingram is regarded as a back waiting in the wings to take the job. All of these things actually work in Sproles favor.
His size/speed/balance make him difficult to tackle and a big-play waiting to happen. His pass-first offense isn't going to chance much unless Drew Brees gets hurt. Therefore, Sproles is a better match for the position of lead runner in the Saints offense than Mark Ingram, who is also still recovering from his second knee surgery in a few years. Let other people worry about Sproles being a one-year wonder. If he's available in the second or third round, I have no qualms about taking him. Even if I picked one of the first-round exceptions or Demarco Murray, Sproles will be a must-have if he's available this low.
Classic Upside Down Prospects (Picks 5-10) Counterpunch Replacements
Replacement options for Willis McGahee (5.12)
WR Antonio Brown (6.01) TE Vernon Davis (6.02) TE Aaron Hernandez (6.05) A quarterback named Manning (5.12 or 6.05)
I consider McGahee an upside down pick in the sense that his ADP is higher than his likely contribution to the Broncos. I think Ronnie Hillman (10.04) is likely to finish the year as the more valuable back. In my eyes, McGahee is more of a 10th-round value at a fifth-round price.
If I can get McGahee and Hillman as a "Five and Ten" package deal, fine. However, if I land one of my Counterpunch running backs then I'd rather risk losing McGahee to land one of the values listed above. I believe Brown's value will not differ much from Mike Wallace by year's end. Vernon Davis will finally have the benefit of a great deep threat forcing defenses to play him at a disadvantage. If Hernandez stayed healthy last year, Rob Gronkowski's 2011 fantasy season remains great, but not the superlative it was. In fact, Hernandez was initially more impressive before he hurt his knee. He finished the season strong, too.
Either of the Manning brothers represents good value here. Neither may earn top-five production, but I'm confident both will provide steady, No.1 fantasy scoring at the position in 12-team leagues. Both teams are better equipped to throw the football and I believe the running game is more of a productive complement than the primary mode of end zone transportation. I'd take Peyton Manning first, but settling for Eli Manning is not really fair to call a "consolation prize."
Replacement options for Roy Helu (6.05)
Brown (see above) Davis or Hernandez (see above) The Manning brothers (see above) WR Eric Decker (6.05)
Depending who is writing about Roy Helu, he's an underrated starter capable of replicating his impressive moments as a rookie on a larger scale, or he benefited from solid Redskins line play and is no lock to repeat in 2012. I've always been on the latter end of the spectrum. It also sounds like Mike Shanahan and the Redskins believe Helu didn't do enough to maximize what was open along the offensive line.
In Helu's favor, the Redskins runners could benefit immensely from the threat of Robert Griffin's deep arm and fast legs. Just think of Mike Vick and LeSean McCoy on the stretch play. Some of these exchanges occur so far past the hash, it looks more like a successful screen pass than a run. We might see the same with Griffin.
However, I have to temper my enthusiasm. Mike Shanahan hasn't had a rock-solid, wire-to-wire fantasy starter at running back since Mike Anderson, and I'm not sold on Helu as anything more than a good backup. Evan Royster is a more talented between the tackles runner although not as athletically gifted. Tim Hightower is the best back on the roster when healthy. This makes Helu an easy choice for me to cross off my list and opt for the players mentioned above.
This includes Eric Decker. DeMaryius Thomas might be the more prolific receiver in the big-play department by season's end, but I have long advocated taking Decker for his skills as a route runner, pass catcher, and underrated ball carrier in space. When the pads go on, and hitting starts, I know that Decker will be where Peyton Manning wants him. He's the safest pick among the Broncos wide receivers. At 6.05, I think Decker is a potential No.2 fantasy starter at the position.
Replacement options for James Starks (6.09)
Brown (see above) Davis or Hernandez (see above) The Manning brothers (see above) WR Eric Decker (6.05) WR Reggie Wayne (7.04) WR Randy Moss (7.10)
I see James Starks the way I believe some people mistakenly see Roy Helu. Starks has more physical upside than my peers describe. He hasn't shown it as readily at Green Bay as he did at the University of Buffalo. However, I have seen flashes of short-area quickness and power that is impressive. I think he could have a Ricky Watters-type career in the right situation.
Right now, Green Bay doesn't seem like that kind of situation. I also agree with those detractors of Starks' fantasy upside when they cite the promise of Alex Green. I think Green Bay will be a backfield committee this year, but Green will pose a serious challenge for playing time as his knee gets healthy and Starks better blow people away this year to solidify his role. I think the appeal of the alternate options above is to great to take that chance on Starks.
While Reggie Wayne is listed ahead of Randy Moss when it comes to ADP, I would seriously consider Moss as his equal or greater value. I also expect Moss' value to rise into August. Projecting him as a substitution for a sixth-round back makes sense in this regard.
However, Wayne remains the safer play because I have more confidence in Andrew Luck's skills than Alex Smith. I expect Wayne to have a resurgent fantasy effort in 2012 with Luck under center. These two players make their living with precision and smarts. Wayne didn't have that complement at quarterback last year.
Despite having more confidence in Luck, it doesn't mean I'm steadfastly down on Smith. There were enough good things to see from Smith that I'm willing to take a chance on Randy Moss – especially if he's slated as my No.3 receiver or a flex-play at this point of the draft. Moss is the best deep threat in the history of the NFL and the original "Freak," which places him in that category of player like Rod Woodson, Brett Favre, or Deion Sanders. Until they've clearly slowed down physically, you take the chance on them.
Moss didn't slow down two years ago. He gave up. If that offends your sensibilities of what a football player is supposed to do in the NFL, I understand. However, the key work here is "fantasy," and turning your nose up at Moss in the seventh round is like refusing to scratch off a free lottery ticket with a $50 million payoff because you don't agree with lotteries. Get off the high horse.
Replacement options for Jahvid Best (6.12)
WR Reggie Wayne (7.04) WR Randy Moss (7.10) WR Denarius Moore (7.11) WR Titus Young (8.08) QB Jay Cutler (8.11) QB Ben Roethlisberger (8.11)
I love his talent the most of the running backs that begin this block, but I like his situation the least. He still isn't cleared to practice, but Mikel Leshoure and his rehabbed Achilles', and multiple run-ins with drug enforcement, is ready to run. If that's enough not to urge caution with Best, I don't know what is.
I expect Best either gets cleared for camp within the next week or two and the team takes it easy on him, keeping his ADP stable during the early portion of the month, or he isn't cleared and his ADP plummets. If Best's ADP remains stable then Moss, Wayne, and even Denarius Moore and Best's teammate Titus Young are all great options. They offer wide receiver depth or mid-round starter talent if you opt for any of my counterpunch running backs early.
Young was dominant in OTAs and if he continues to play to his potential, he could be a 1000-yard contributor with the crazy advantage of playing opposite Calvin Johnson. Young's skill after the catch, willingness to go over the middle, and field-stretching speed make him a player that the Seahawks GM compared to DeSean Jackson at the 2011 Senior Bowl. Moore will start, and with a full offseason of work with Carson Palmer, there are high expectations that he'll be a 1000-yard producer.
Here's another good spot for quarterback if you miss on one of the Manning brothers or just don't like the value. Some of my colleagues believe Jay Cutler will be in a run-first offense. I can only presume that they associate Mike Tice with the Minnesota team that had Chester Taylor run for 1300 yards.
Tice is a disciple of Don Coryell's offensive philosophy. Former Vikings offensive coordinator Scott Linehan credits Tice's heavy involvement with the offense Linehan and Minnesota fielded with Daunte Culpepper throwing to Cris Carter and Randy Moss. Certainly, the talent earns a significant amount of credit for the production, but Jay Cutler was a top-five fantasy quarterback with Mike Shanahan and he'll be throwing to Brandon Marshall, his primary receiver from those days.
Sometimes one plus one actually equals two.
Pittsburgh will continue to evolve into a high-octane passing offense with the addition of Todd Haley as the offensive coordinator. The Steelers have the weapons at wide receiver and tight end to accumulate 3800 yards just from four players: Mike Wallace, Aaron Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, and Heath Miller. Yes, I said Heath Miller, who will have a good chance of being freed from the purgatory of being chained to the offensive line as a check-down option now that the Steelers have upgraded its guards. Roethlisberger has top-6 upside with top-12 downside. Good dividends for 8.11.
Classic Upside down Prospects (Picks 5-10)
Players with an asterisk are priority options I'm targeting. If you can land at least four of these players, I like their odds of producing as fantasy starters.
Donald Brown* (7.04): Brown demonstrated flashes of the talent that the Colts saw when they made him the heir-apparent to Joseph Addai a few years ago. Quick, patient, and stronger than he looks, Brown was often a bright spot for an offense enduring a dismal season. I liked what I saw from Brown when it came to finding space on the perimeter when holes inside were closed. Although Delone Carter has the talent to become as good or better between the tackles and rookie Vick Ballard is an all-around back with versatility, Brown is the most explosive of the three. I believe this is Brown's job to lose and I like the bones of the Indianapolis passing game enough to believe that the Colts could field a 1200-yard rusher from its lead back if he stays healthy.
Ben Tate* (7.06): Tate has been decisive, powerful, and explosive. The first component was something I was initially skeptical of when I watched him at Auburn. Now I see a player with Larry Johnson's skills. If you draft Arian Foster, Tate is well worth 7.06. If C.J. Spiller, Peyton Hillis, and Jonathan Stewart are gone before Tate, snatch the Texans' reserve runner even if you don't have Foster. He's the type of back working in concert with an offensive line that can deliver 1000 yards in 8 games.
C.J. Spiller (7.07): Spiller is a Fred Jackson injury away from carrying the load, but he's also more likely than Ben Tate to earn a significant role regardless of Jackson's health. I think Spiller lacks RB1 upside this year, but I wouldn't be shocked if he's a low-end RB2.
Peyton Hillis* (7.09): Kansas City wants to give its backs 500 carries. It means in a perfect world that one back is getting no more than 300 of those touches. Which back would you give 300 touches, an explosive back coming off an ACL tear or a human tank? I'm betting this is a 250-250 situation, at best with anything more lopsided as a split going to Hillis. Keep in mind that I'm a huge fan of Charles' talent, too.
Jonathan Stewart (7.12): Nothing to add from the last piece.
Stevan Ridley (8.01): The addition of fullback Tony Fiammetta, who apparently looks healthy enough to make an impact, could help the running game. However, I'm still a bigger fan of Shane Vereen and skeptical we'll see a grind-it-out power game on a consistent basis. This remains a cloudy backfield. Ridley is worth a pick, but I'll hope that he falls further than his ADP.
DeAngelo Williams (8.10): Same as it ever was.
Toby Gerhart (8.11): Prove me wrong Peterson. I hope you do.
Michael Bush (9.03): Forte's deal coming before camp makes Bush nothing more than a Jonathan Stewart / DeAngelo Williams / Ben Tate type. He is still valuable this late, but nothing more than insurance.
Ryan Williams (9.06): I'm intrigued with Williams' progress with returning from his tendon injury. With Chris Wells still on the PUP list, Williams has the talent to become the lead back in Arizona. I have no hesitation about adding him to my roster at this point. If he looks good early on, he might even earn a priority grade for this list.
LeGarrette Blount (9.12): I love the reports that Blount is working hard. I consider him the fantasy football equivalent of what Michael Bush was to Darren McFadden in Oakland. I think there's a good argument to be made that the burden of proof is on rookie Doug Martin that he can contribute at the NFL level. I think he will, but if you pick Blount as a hedge against it during Martin's rookie year I think you have a good argument. As I've been saying, Blount is at least a second-round talent at the position. If he continues working with the right attitude, he'll be in the mix.
Ronnie Hillman* (10.04): I've been writing about Hillman on Twitter since his junior year. If he earns significant time, he has the skills to bust the door down that says "feature back." He will be the explosive component to the Broncos ground game and with Peyton Manning at the helm those opportunities will be there.
Jacquizz Rodgers (11.05): I still think Michael Turner earns 250 carries and most of the red zone touches, but Rodgers is a great handcuff because of his versatility. Just don't be disappointed when Jason Snelling earns the goal line touches if Turner gets hurt.
Tim Hightower (11.06): Hightower and second-year free agent acquisition Evan Royster are the value picks of the Redskins backfield depth chart.
Isaiah Pead (12.05): As a Jeff Fisher fan, I'm tempted to add Steven Jackson as an early-round priority because I know the Rams will let Jackson be the Eddie George of this offense. If this is the case, I actually think Pead has more upside than Rodgers or possibly Ronnie Hillman despite the fact I think both Rodgers and Hillman are more refined talents between the tackles.
Shane Vereen (13.05): Speed, quickness, balance, and excellent receiving skills are the hallmarks of Vereen's game. If there is a back that I believe can get the Patriots to stick with one runner in 80 percent of its looks, Vereen is that guy. I'm just not counting on it to happen. At 13.05, I don't need to, either.
Kevin Smith (13.08): Unless you're stubborn about your own views of Kevin Smith's talents when you watched him in college football then his return engagement with the Lions was no lie. He's a starter talent when healthy. Can he stay healthy? Will the rest of the Lions' talent backfield stay healthy? Lots of questions, but one thing you should ask is whether Smith can produce.
Rashad Jennings* (13.10): Jennings will continue to creep up draft boards the longer Maurice Jones-Drew stays away from camp. The longer he does, the more likely I believe he'll be out of football shape. If there's anyone with the attitude to avoid that issue, it's Jones-Drew, but it's not like he can replicate contact away from camp. Jennings is a starter talent in a situation with enhanced odds to get that opportunity. He also has some of the best hands on the team, according to former coach Jack Del Rio.
Bryce Brown* (no ADP data): The Eagles coaching staff says Brown has small back skills in a big back body. I broke that down here. If Brown doesn't have too much rust to shake off, he's a better talent than Dion Lewis or Chris Polk – and I think both of those backs are good enough to contribute in an NFL starting lineup. Brown would have been one of my top-five backs in the 2012 Rookie Scouting Portfolio if his career lasted longer than his freshman year and he looked as good. I drafted him this spring in almost every dynasty league I'm in. If LeSean McCoy gets hurt, Brown has the skills to do what Demarco Murray did in Dallas after Felix Jones underwhelmed.
As always, feel free to provide comments or suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.