Important Assessment: Yards Per Attempt
Few fantasy football leagues reward or punish a player for his yards per attempt, so when you prepare for a season, you may overlook a running back's rushing yards per attempt. This is, in my opinion, a mistake: I look to yards per carry as a major tool in assessing running backs.
A running back with high yards per attempt has explosive ability. You're trying to project who will be good in the coming year, and so past yards per attempt can tell you who has the potential to be elite. It's not a total number: a running back with few carries could have great yards per carry (small sample size, beneficial situations), but in general, a running back with great yards per carry on 200+ carries is probably great.
I'm scared of running backs who, in a particular season, have a lot of yards and touchdowns but poor yards per attempt. Such a running back needs too much to go his way to repeat such a season: lots of carries, lots of goal-line attempts, consistent help from his team's passing game to pick up first downs, and help from the team overall to build leads or at least keep games close.
Monster Running Backs
You don't win the Hazelweird Trophy without a Monster Season running back on your roster. You need to have a running back that's going to consistently score your team points from week to week, and who will also explode for multi-touchdown games.
There are five running backs from whom anything less than a Monster Season would be a disappointment: Ladanian Tomlinson, Adrian Peterson, Steven Jackson, Brian Westbrook, and Joseph Addai. You draft one of those players expecting a Monster Season, and if you don't get it, you're probably going to have a lousy year. But there are some other running backs that I expect a Monster Season from.
It strikes me how similar Barber is to Joseph Addai. They are both young, explosive running backs in very good pass-first offenses. They will each have a ton of scoring opportunities (20 TDs is a distinct possibility), and while neither will rush for 1,500 yards, you should expect at least 1,500 yards from scrimmage. Barber was my first pick (#10) in the Hazelweird League.
I'm not sure there is a ceiling on Gore's total yards: I expect Gore to have 2,000+ yards from scrimmage. But his career high for touchdowns is nine, and he plays in a lousy offense. If you draft Gore, you should hope for well over 2,000 total yards, but you should be ecstatic if you get as many as 12 touchdowns.
He's a running back on a great team with an easy schedule. The Patriots are still going to have an amazing offense, but I expect a major balancing out between passing and rushing touchdowns. Last year the Pats passed for 50 TDs and rushed for 17. They ranked #1 in the league in passing yards, and #13 in rushing yards. And Maroney was dealing with injuries last season, and had a lot of good running games in the latter part of the year. My only concern is how the Patriots will use him. Will they give somebody else goal-line carries? Will he still be a non-factor as a receiver? But Maroney definitely has the potential for a Monster Season.
Disappointments in Waiting
Here are some running backs that I see disappointing owners hoping for a Monster Season.
For some reason I can't get Cadillac Williams out of my mind. He has solid though not spectacular rookie year production, which pushes him into the top two rounds of the next year's draft. And we know how that story ended.
I should like everything about him. But here's what I can't get over: in four years in Washington, Portis has averaged 3.97 yards per carry in the regular season and post-season. That's just around average. It wouldn't make me think Portis is ready for a Monster Season, and it makes me think he'll be dependent on his team's success for production. Of course, even with that average and with an up and down team, Portis has produced, so he will not be a complete dud. He just won't have a Monster Season.
I think it's over. I could be wrong, but I'm not going to be the one to risk using a high pick on him: 416 carries in 2007 may have destroyed him. It was a fun couple of years, though. On this prediction, though, I think if I'm wrong, I'll be very, very wrong.
These guys aren't sleepers by any means, but I'll call them "Monster Season Sleepers." People think well enough to draft them as starters, but they probably don't expect a Monster Season. I think it's possible.
Two key facts excite me about Jacobs. First, last season he averaged 91.7 yards rushing per game (Adrian Peterson led the league with 95.8 yards per game). Second, he has been a goal-line back in the past. He also averaged 5.0 yards per attempt in the regular season, and plays in an offensive system that has been very beneficial to running backs (under Tom Coughlin, the Giants have ranked 11th, 6th, 7th, and 4th in rushing yards). I picked him with the first pick of the fourth round in the Hazelweird League.
Fantasy owners have probably gotten a little weary of McGahee, and see him as an "He is what he is" sort of player. I think he has one Monster Season in him. It could be this season, with Cam Cameron as the Ravens' offensive coordinator.
I didn't want to just provide position rankings here--I thought I'd provide my thoughts on particular running backs and some points for discussion. Now it's your turn: do you have any feelings (good or bad) about any fantasy running backs this season?