Eric Mack
Friday November 11th, 2011

If you have been paying attention of late, it is a tough life an NFL running back leads. And it can be a short one. Curse you, fantasy football architects!

Couldn't you have made this volatile position a bit less important to our fantasy teams? Did you have to make it so paramount to success?

Well, in every challenge there lies opportunity, and perhaps this is where we can turn a dire situation into a desirous one. Where there is a banged-up back -- or just a veteran with a lot of wear and tear -- now is the time to lock up his potential placeholder. Yes, there are still plenty out there to be gobbled up in your league.

They likely were the players drafted late and cut when byes started punching holes in our fantasy lineups weeks ago.

The bye weeks are almost done -- just four teams sit out next week -- so roster flexibility is in our favor again. Instead of stashing a marginal guy you likely won't start over your studs in fantasy crunch time, let's get you stashing a bunch of current nobodies that could be game-changers if the starter above them gets hurt.

Dump those backup kickers, secondary defenses and three-catches-a-week receivers and tight ends. Heck, if you have a top 10 QB, do away with rostering any backup at that position. You won't use them here.

You could use another starting running back, if not in your lineup than as trade bait for someone else's.

We have already seen how much of an impact DeMarco Murray, Roy Helu and Michael Bush can be for us: Hardly owned backups turned must-start gems. It won't end there with the backs heading to the trainer's room.

It never seems to end -- curse you again fantasy football architects!

This Weekend Fantasy Watch List for Week 10 -- which is already underway thanks to the opening of the Thursday night slate -- centers around the backs who's hardly owned backups could become championship clinchers. We'll first list the back carrying the warning tag and the backup you need to gobble up before it is too late.

Look out for: 1. Frank Gore, 49ers

You don't need a Ph.D. to understand the various maladies of Gore's career. He is an ACL surgery survivor and has played 16 games just once in his six-year career. He has played every one of the eight 49ers games thus far this season, but he is dealing with a sore ankle and just two backs with decidedly less talent under them on their depth chart (Adrian Peterson and Maurice Jones-Drew) have had more than Gore's 159 carries.

In this pass-happy modern-day NFL, our fantasy backs sometimes struggle to get 10 carries a game. Gore is averaging around 20.

It is because these 49ers are built and playing like a throwback. They don't sling it around the field. They run and stop the run, as football was intended.

This makes having whoever is carrying the load for the 49ers very important to have, and start, in fantasy.

So you must have: 1b. Kendall Hunter, 49ers (44 percent owned)

Hunter is undersized at 5-feet-7, 199 pounds and not an everyday back, but he is going to be lightning in a bottle if (or, most likely when?) Gore goes down. Also, the 49ers are running away with the NFC West, so might the 49ers look to limit Gore's beating to 10 times a game and allow Hunter to keep Gore fresh for the postseason?

Either way, Hunter is going to be a big factor in fantasy like fellow rookies Murray and Helu have already become.

Look out for: 2. Michael Turner, Falcons

Similar in age as Gore, 28 (Turner is 29), the Falcons' ground-and-pound frontman hasn't had the same serious injury woes. He has played all 16 games three of the past four seasons.

Yes, that shows Turner is durable, but it also shows his injuries just haven't come yet. No one in world history has escaped Father Time.

But, he does have a ton of carries and mileage on those thick legs. Only two backs -- A.P. and Chris Johnson (how's that working out?) -- have more carries in the past three seasons than Turner. At some point those legs got to give.

The Falcons are a team that likes to start with the running game -- and figure to do so at home in a crucial matchup with the Saints this Sunday -- so having their starting back in your fantasy lineup will be a must just like the 49ers'.

So you must have: 2b. Jacquizz Rodgers, Falcons (7 percent owned)

Rodgers is such a piece of genius, he should be leading this story. Like Hunter, Rodgers is an undersized (5-feet-6, 196 pounds) rookie but lightning quick and poised to take over for an aged veteran back in an offense built like an '80s version: Run first, and maybe run second and third.

It is amazing to see the low ownership on Rodgers. Jamaal Charles (17 percent), Tim Hightower (14 percent) and Earnest Graham (8 percent) are all owned in more CBSSports.com leagues than Rodgers. That is just ridiculous; those players are out for the year!

Those scrubs you had to swallow hard to put in your lineup during the bye season just have to be cut for the promise of lightning (in a bottle) like Rodgers.

Look out for: 3. Arian Foster, Texans

Foster has turned an injury-plagued start into a fantasy MVP campaign all over again.

Despite the missed time, Foster is behind only four backs (all mentioned above) in rushing attempts. If you count his 27 receptions, only Matt Forte and A.P. have more touches to date. Neither of those guys has sat out a game, much less two full ones and parts of others.

Foster might have the best backup fantasy RB in the league behind him, but he has still broken the 30-carry barrier twice and the 25-carry barrier three in his past six games. That just doesn't happen in the modern NFL. Foster's body is getting hit, a lot. And like the 49ers, the Texans are well-positioned for the postseason and need to be giving him some time off eventually.

So you must have: 3b. Ben Tate, Texans (90 percent owned)

Yes, we know: Tate is already owned and starting in your league. There is more than one way to skin a cat -- or win a fantasy league. Trade for Tate.

There is no way anyone is going to give up Foster now, short of a king's ransom. You won't be able to fill out a viable fantasy postseason lineup after any deal you would have to make to get Foster.

Ah, but perhaps you can get Tate for something reasonable. And Tate has proved to be a useful starter for leagues even as Foster's sidekick.

Sell your Tate trade partner on the fact the Texans have a bye in Week 11 and Tate is not going to be as useful to them with Foster 100 percent.

Look out for: 4. LeSean McCoy, Eagles

McCoy has been a revelation for the sad-sacked (sacked Michael Vick, literally) Eagles. He has been the highest-scoring RB. He has the most rushing yards, the most touchdowns and is a dangerous pass receiver in a still-potent offense.

Only five RBs have had more carries to date than McCoy. Although McCoy is young enough to absorb the punishment and heal quickly from it, you still need to expect the worst with someone so critical and productive in that offense.

The best part about McCoy's breakthrough is his backup is someone no one wants. Heck, the Eagles didn't even want him. They dealt him to the Lions but had to take him back because Jerome Harrison was found to have a brain tumor.

So you must have: 4b. Ronnie Brown, Eagles (13 percent owned)

Brown's ownership is at a season low. He even scored a touchdown last week and it didn't jump his ownership even one percentage point.

With the bye weeks over, now is the time to get him back on your reserves. Heck, he is an immediate must-add.

Brown has been a pariah since that dumb goal-line fumble, which looked more like a throw back to nobody (actually the other team) on third down. That momentary lapse in judgment is our benefit. We can now get a potential gem back for nothing.

Brown has just two touches in the past five weeks! But we should not forget he had a TD last week and McCoy has been ridden hard thus far this season. If Brown gets the keys, he immediately becomes a must-start in all leagues.

Look out for: 5. Matt Forte, Bears

A.P. (with six others) might have more rushing attempts, and McCoy might have more rushing yards (and fantasy points), but no one has more receptions, receiving yards and total touches than Forte. He is the Bears offense.

No player gets a larger chunk of the game plan than Forte does with Mike Martz's scheme. It makes him arguably the most valuable non-quarterback of any of the postseason contenders.

Clearly, his fantasy owners wouldn't want to stomach a lineup without him in it. The workload suggests we eventually will.

So you must have: 5b. Marion Barber, Bears (50 percent owned)

It is becoming less and less lost on fantasy owners that the Barbarian has scored in four of his past five games. Backs like that shouldn't be available in half of fantasy's leagues, yet he still is, and that is after a 20 percent uptick in the past few.

Barber is healthy and spelling Forte more of late. If he has to take over full time, he is entirely capable of handling the load and scoring big-time for fantasy owners.

Get him back on your roster. He is 28 years old and has a lot fewer carries on him than Gore or Turner, who are about the same age.

6. Fred Jackson, Bills

6b. C.J. Spiller, Bills (34 percent owned)

Yes, we understand how worthless Spiller has been -- just two carries in the past four weeks. But we shouldn't have to remind you how important Jackson has been to fantasy owners and the Bills. Jackson is among the leader in touches to date and if he needs Spiller to take a game for him, Spiller can be valuable.

7. Ray Rice, Ravens

7b. Ricky Williams, Ravens (27 percent owned)

Rice is in Gore's situation: A ground-pounder that is critical to his teams weekly game plan. Williams is old and maybe even washed up, but if he has to carry the load, he can score. The Ravens just won't do without a running game. It is their bread and butter.

8. Shonn Greene, Jets

8b. LaDainian Tomlinson, Joe McKnight and Bilal Powell, Jets (74, 4 and 0 percent owned)

Greene is one player on this list that might not need injury to lose his job. He just hasn't taken to the role like we have seen in postseasons past. L.T. is old and better suited for his new role and McKnight is an underachiever who might never reach his potential, so that is why we also list Powell here. He is a real long shot, but the Jets are Ravens and 49ers-like in their commitment to the run.

9. Ahmad Bradshaw, Giants

9b. Brandon Jacobs, D.J. Ware and Da'Rel Scott, Giants (96, 19 and 1 percent owned)

The Giants want to be a running team, they just haven't proven to be any good at it to date. Bradshaw has a re-broken foot, Jacobs looks like a slower (and bigger) target than ever and Ware just hasn't looked like a threat. That is where the speedy rookie Scott comes in. He could be the next Bradshaw and the Giants could unleash him on the best run defense in the NFL (San Francisco) this weekend.

10. Adrian Peterson, Vikings

10b. Toby Gerhart, Vikings (11 percent owned)

With all the talk about A.P.'s carries and overall touches, we would be remiss if we didn't mention his backup in this discussion -- even if the Vikings offense behind rookie QB Christian Ponder would probably be awful without A.P. Gerhart got a season-high five carries in the Vikes' last game, so the team is already putting us on warning he could emerge if something happens to A.P.

The list doesn't end here, and not all these starters are going to get banged up. But we have learned in recent weeks how often it can happen to crucial backs like Darren McFadden, Steven Jackson, Bradshaw, Peyton Hillis, Mark Ingram, Felix Jones, Joseph Addai, Montario Hardesty, LeGarrette Blount, Charles, Hightower and Graham.

Some more potential post-bye RB stashes include: Javon Ringer, TEN (62 percent owned); Chris Ogbonnaya, CLE (59 percent); Delone Carter, IND (59), Bernard Scott, CIN (34); Isaac Redman, PIT (32); Danny Woodhead, NE (29); Donald Brown, IND (26); Cadillac Williams, STL (25); Stevan Ridley, NE (22); Deji Karim, JAC (11) and Taiwan Jones, OAK (5).

In these crucial weeks of the fantasy season, you don't want to be stuck playing a washed-up has-been like Thomas Jones at the pivotal RB or flex spots.

Eric Mack writes fantasy for SI.com, including the Start 'Em, Sit 'Em, the Weekend Fantasy Watch List and his Sunday night staple: Fantasy Football Fast Forward. If you need a further clarification on lineups this week hit him up on Twitter. You can mock him, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice @EricMackFantasy.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.