With the NFC running back committees out of the way, it’s time to turn our attention the AFC platoons. The worst offenders – namely the Lions, Saints, and Redskins – are all in the NFC, so I’m going to broaden my definition of “committee” so I can talk about some of the more interesting back-up running backs in the AFC. Let’s get started!
The Incumbent: Fred Jackson (ADP: 30.9*)
I wonder if a superstitious friend or family member told Fred Jackson to “break a leg” before his Week 11 game against the Dolphins last season because that’s what exactly he did. Before the injury, Jackson was cruising to a top-10 fantasy finish with 1377 total yards and 6 touchdowns. He’s looked fine so far in the preseason and is being drafted as a low-end RB1 or high-end RB2.
The Challenger: C.J. Spiller (103.3)
In the six games after Jackson broke his leg, C.J. Spiller broke out. In that time, Spiller amassed 633 total yards (105.5 YPG) and 5 TDs on 5.2 yards per carry.
Both running backs proved they could handle a feature role last year, so it will be interesting to see how they handle splitting time. At this point, Jackson seems to be the official starter and he was more slightly more impressive in 2011. On the other hand, Spiller is going so much later in drafts that he’s probably the better value. This feels like the second coming of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.
The Incumbent: Willis McGahee (63.8)
To be honest, I almost didn’t include the Broncos in this list because McGahee didn’t do anything to lose his starting job**. He’s being drafted as a low-end #2 or high end #3 running back. At the very least, he should retain goal-line duties for Denver, barring injury.
The Challenger: Ronnie Hillman (144.5)
Still, if McGahee regresses based on his age and 2011 workload, Hillman could create a serious running back controversy going forward. Furthermore, if Peyton Manning’s lack of arm strength proves to be a real problem, Hillman’s ability to catch passes out of the backfield will boost his value to the Broncos and his fantasy owners.
The Dark Horses: Lance Ball & Knowshon Moreno
These two are your standard depth-chart fillers, hoping to gain a foothold if McGahee or Hillman slips up.
John Fox has been a RBBC pioneer since his time with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart in Carolina, so all of these backs will see some action this season. With that said, I choose Hillman from the group because I don’t expect everything to go right for McGahee two seasons in a row. The incumbent will still have some value as the goal-line back, but I’d rather pass on him and take an upside flyer on Hillman much later in the draft.
The Incumbent: Donald Brown (92.7)
Brown is currently the only Colts running back that even shows up in the ADP results used in this piece. He’s the clear starter for a team with a terrible defense, a bad offensive line, and a rookie quarterback, so it’s safe to say that his upside is somewhat limited.
The Challengers: Mewelde Moore & Delone Carter
Neither of these two are healthy and both will likely miss the start of the season.
The Dark Horse: Vick Ballard
Ballard has ascended to #2 on the Indy depth chart because Moore and Carter can’t get on the field. He’s been no worse than Donald Brown in the Colts’ preseason games.
Brown is the rusher you want, but Ballard is worth a late round flyer in deep leagues.
The Incumbent: Maurice Jones-Drew (14.8)
The Jones-Drew soap opera plays on in Jacksonville. He’s already been ruled out as the Week 1 starter and the Jags have indicated they don’t plan to trade him either. If he does rejoin the team, it’s unclear if he would reassume the starting role or not.
The Challenger: Rashad Jennings (108.4)
The ADP listed here for Jennings is misleading. He’s shot up draft boards since being named the starter for opening day and is typically being picked somewhere between the 4th and 7th rounds. Jennings played well in 2010, but missed all of 2011 with a knee sprain. All that time off should mean fresh legs for the 2012 season.
The Dark Horse: Montell Owens
He isn’t on the fake football radar, but if MJD continues to hold out, Owens will be the backup to Jennings to start the season.
The Jags have made it apparent they’re ready to move on with Jennings as their number one rusher. I expect MJD to report eventually, but there’s no telling how out of shape he’ll be or if he’ll be made the starter again. I’m drafting Jennings with confidence and avoiding MJD.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Incumbent: Jamaal Charles (23.1)
Confession time: I’m a Jamaal Charles fan. I touted him like a crazy person last season as the third overall pick behind AP and Ray Rice. After drafting him in as many leagues possible, he tore up his ACL and my heart in his second game of the season. He’s still one of the most talented backs in the league, but the Chiefs replaced last year’s mostly inept challenger, Thomas Jones, with a more formidable challenger for this season.
The Challenger: Peyton Hillis (86.0)
Hillis averaged 3.6 yards per carry in an injury-plagued 2011 campaign for the Browns. Now he’s lined up to be the plodding change-of-pace and goal-line back in Kansas City
Charles derailed an unhealthy number of my fantasy teams last season, but I’m back on board in 2012. Still, Hillis is one of the more valuable backups in the NFL. He could score a gaggle of touchdowns ala Jerome Bettis while having a lot of value as a premier handcuff.
The Incumbent: Reggie Bush (59.5)
Bush silenced many of his critics last season by rushing for over 1000 yards and nearly eclipsing 300 yards receiving. The Dolphins aren’t exactly trotting out a corps of elite wide receivers this season, so they will continue to lean on Bush’s playmaking ability in a big way.
The Challengers: Daniel Thomas (130.6) & Lamar Miller
Thomas was disappointing in his injury-riddled rookie year. So disappointing, in fact, that Miami drafted another running back this offseason in Lamar Miller.
The Dark Horse: Steve Slaton
The Dolphins are reportedly dangling Slaton in trade talks with the Redskins, so it’s safe to say he’s not especially important in the scope of this committee.
Miller and Thomas limit each other’s upside. Reggie Bush is the guy I want here, but I worry about his workload going forward. If I’m speculating on one of his backups, I prefer Miller because the Dolphins wouldn’t have drafted him if they were confident that Daniel Thomas could carry the load.
New England Patriots
The Incumbents: Stevan Ridley (79.5), Shane Vereen (151.2), & Danny Woodhead
The battle for carries in New England boils down to Ridley and Vereen. Ridley is more of a pure rusher, while Vereen is more skilled in the passing game. Woodhead is the premier Patriots pass-catching back, but he’s mostly a change-of-pace option in an offense already loaded with receiving weapons. Meanwhile, now that BenJarvus Green-Ellis is gone, the current Patriot who scored the most rushing touchdowns in 2011 is Tom Brady.
This situation is a mess, but Ridley has the best shot at taking over the BJGE role and scoring double-digit TDs this season. Vereen is a nice handcuff, but he’s already having trouble staying healthy in the preseason.
New York Jets
The Incumbent: Shonn Greene (77.4)
Greene might be the most untalented feature back in the NFL. Still, carries are carries and he gained over 1000 yards rushing last season. There are times when drafting a player like Shonn Greene is necessary, but do what you can to avoid those situations.
The Challengers: Bilal Powell & Joe McKnight
McKnight hurt his hamstring in the Jets’ final preseason game, so Powell is the favorite to assume the #2 job behind Greene.
The Jets offense is generally a stay-away for me. I would begrudgingly draft Greene if my team’s needs absolutely demanded it, but the way I draft (prioritizing RBs over everything else) keeps me out of those scenarios
The Incumbent: Rashard Mendenhall (119.2)
Mendy is still recovering from a torn ACL suffered at the end of last season, but the Steelers have removed him from the PUP list. Despite making the active roster, he’s not slated to return to game action until October at the earliest.
The Challengers: Isaac Redman (94.4) & Jonathan Dwyer (146.2)
Redman had the leg up in this race, but a hip injury opened the door for Dwyer to make a splash in the preseason. Dwyer seized his opportunity with an average of 5.25 yards per carry over 28 carries.
The Dark Horse: Chris Rainey
Whatever hype Rainey received when Redman got hurt has evaporated since Dwyer showcased his abilities with the first team in preseason.
Err towards the healthy option and draft Dwyer. He’s been productive and you can draft him later than both Mendenhall and Redman.
The AFC teams without running back committees include the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Houston Texans, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers, and Tennessee Titans. Considering that the Jets, Colts, and Dolphins aren’t true committees, the AFC is certainly the kinder conference to fantasy owners. Keep that in mind when you choose between NFC- and AFC-only leagues next season.
*The ADP values listed in this piece are the averaged values from ESPN, Yahoo, and Fantasy Football Calculator, taken from FantasyPros.com on August 31st.
**To be really honest, I accidentally included the Broncos in my NFC Breakdown yesterday. Here it is again, in case you missed it.