Faceoff: RB Most Likely To Rebound
Clayton Gray: Every year, there are players that bounce back after a single poor season. Which normally good running back is most likely to rebound in 2011?
Jason Wood: The first back that comes to mind is DeAngelo Williams. We don't know where he's going to play, but I am confident that wherever he lands it'll be as the primary ball carrier. Now that he's healthy, I think he could be a stellar fantasy RB1 that costs you RB2 or RB3 money. Beyond Williams, I'm inclined to say Ryan Grant. The Packers really haven't added anyone that poses a significant threat to his touches, and Brandon Jackson appears set to test free agency.
Mark Wimer: Jason mentions two of my favorite "upside potential" running backs in DeAngelo Williams and Ryan Grant - both guys seem positioned to post strong 2011 seasons.
I'd add Jonathan Stewart to the list - the Panthers' offense was just dreadful during 2010. Jeff Otah was unable to ever take the field at RT (which really hampered the Panthers' rushing attack), and a completely underwhelming QB started the bulk of the games - Jimmy Clausen - teams just stacked the line and dared Carolina to throw last year, which Clausen couldn't do effectively at all. Stewart dropped off from 10 rushing TDs in 2008 and 2009 to two TDs last year (178/770/2 rushing and 8/103/1 receiving). With Otah (hopefully) back on the field, an improved throwing arm at QB in Cam Newton, and DeAngelo Williams perhaps departing for a big free-agent paycheck during the upcoming free-for-all in the delayed free-agency period, Stewart is likely to greatly surpass last season's poor showing. He is reported to be more healthy entering 2011 than at any point earlier in his pro career (he was bothered by nagging ankle/Achilles tendon issues from 2008-2010, which have apparently finally been corrected surgically).
Also, while Shonn Greene did improve on his rookie season (he posted 185/766/2 rushing in his second campaign, and also snagged 16 receptions for 120 yards after having zero catches as a rookie), Greene definitely under-performed last year regarding most folks' expectations for him. Now that he has been anointed the lead back in the stable, with LaDainian Tomlinson stepping into the third-down, change of pace role, I like Greene to post numbers much better than last season's disappointing results.
Jeff Pasquino: Great question and two solid candidates thrown out here by Jason. I love Grant's upside because he has done it before and he was 100% and ready to go in December. The only reason he didn't return to action was that the Packers were devastated by the injury bug (yet still won the Super Bowl) and needed the roster space, so Grant was put on the IR. I don't believe in James Starks so I think that Grant will be the main man again for the Packers.
One other player to kep an eye on is Marshawn Lynch. If the Seahawks do not go out and add more RBs to their backfield in free agency, Lynch will have every chance to post solid numbers for a Seattle team that is rebuilding their offense and the offensive line. Lynch had two Quality Starts in December last year and a memorable run against the Saints in the postseason to remind everyone just how explosive he can be. Lynch could easily be a feature back for Seattle, a team that is still figuring out their QB situation so they will certainly be relying on a ground game for a significant part of their offense.
Sigmund Bloom: I have to second the calls on DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, assuming the two aren't both on the Panthers roster at the beginning of the season. Ryan Grant should be the most valuable Packers RB to own, but that backfield could easily end up split three, or even four ways, making it tough to rely on any back week-to-week.
The other best candidates are much younger backs - Knowshon Moreno, Ryan Mathews, and Jahvid Best - meaning few if any of them will come with the discount that a player usually carries after a poor season. My favorite of the three is Best, whose explosiveness should come into play even more as the Lions offense has even more weapons to spread defenses out this year. Best looked like a future top 10 fantasy back early in 2010 before turf toe on both feet robbed him of his burst. This year, rookie Mikel LeShoure should do a lot of the dirty work, keeping Best in mint condition to run around and away from defenders all season.
Matt Waldman: Williams, Stewart, and Lynch were mentioned and I'm going to mention these guys in more detail in a forthcoming Gut Check column. I will agree with Bloom that Mathews is the guy to watch. Norv Turner wanted to get Mathews 250-300 carries last year, but the rookie got hurt and never really got healthy. This impacted his development on several levels. Although Mike Tolbert was excellent for the Chargers, he's not in the same class as Mathews as an all-around runner. Mathews just needs to stay healthy to maximize his skills. It's the same way other backs looked better than Ricky Williams when the Heisman winner sprained his ankle in the opening game of his career against the Panthers and then stayed banged up most of the year and didn't look like the same back we saw at Texas.
When I watched Mathews in San Diego last year, I saw him show that trademark balance, burst, and some of his agility. He's going to get better at reading defensive tendencies pre- and post-snap the more he plays. But here's one stat I read from a blogger last week that is very interesting, Ryan Mathews led the NFL last year in rushing TDs of greater than five yards with seven scores. That tops Arian Foster, Chris Johnson, and anyone else else you would first consider for that category. Plus, the blogger points out that Mathews did it on 158 carries - half the amount it took for Maurice Jones-Drew to achieve one less than the rookie.