When it comes to running backs, it's all about mitigating injury risk. Know who you're drafting, what the injury risks are, why those risks may or may not exist, and who the appropriate handcuffs are. Sprinkle in a little luck (everyone needs it in fantasy football), and you've got the recipe for fantasy success.
Unlike the quarterbacks we discussed last week (link to QB article), just about all of this year's top running backs dealt with injuries a season ago. In fact, of the perceived "Big 5" backs this year, none come worry free. It's the toll of being a 350-plus touch workhorse in the NFL, but it's also the workload that makes a player a fantasy superstar. We'll go over some of the risks for this year's fantasy studs below as well as injuries to other primary backs around the league. Learn the risks and plan accordingly. And if you're only going to read one fantasy football column this summer ..
LaDainian Tomlinson, San Diego Chargers: Consistency has defined Tomlinson's career. In seven years he's missed just one game. Perhaps that's why it was so strange, and worrisome, to see Tomlinson sidelined by a torn MCL in the playoffs. The injury did not require surgery, but Tomlinson will be 29 heading into this season and he's averaged over 400 touches per year in his seven season in the league. Running backs typically come back fine from torn MCLs, and we know Tomlinson won't be taxed (if he even plays) in the preseason. His lateral movement has been fine in offseason workouts and now in camp. Tomlinson is likely motivated to silence critics that questioned his toughness and commitment in the playoffs. If I have the No. 1 pick, I'm going with consistency. I'm going with Tomlinson, despite this gut feeling I have that this is the year he's not going to be Mr. Consistent.
Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings: He started just nine games, missed two completely, and still finished second in the league in rushing last season. As a rookie. Peterson could easily be the top running back in football this season, but it's too hard to ignore the injury issues that have plagued him since college. The two games Peterson missed were due to a torn LCL in his right knee, and his production noticeably slipped in his final four games after coming back from the injury. Ask yourself: Did an amazing rookie year do enough answer all the injury questions Peterson had coming into the NFL? If you say yes, then grab AP and run with him. If you remain unconvinced, you're not alone. The silver lining is that Chester Taylor is the clear handcuff and can be relied on as a steady performer should the need arise. He is a must for any Peterson owner.
Steven Jackson, St. Louis Rams: There is a ton to like about Jackson in '08. He's in a contract year in a weak defensive division and has a new offensive coordinator in Al Saunders who wants to get him even more involved in the team's passing game. Jackson might be the prototypical running back, but even he comes with some risks. He missed four games last year with back spasms, although the treatment he underwent is generally associated with something more. The Rams didn't report any disc issues, but we always try to tread carefully when it comes to back problems. They have a tendency to linger. Given his production over the second half (728 yards in 8 games) and an extended offseason of rest (thanks to his contract holdout), Jackson appears to be worth a top 3 or 4 pick.
Joseph Addai, Indianapolis Colts: Questions remain about Addai's durability over the course of an entire season. A look at last year's stats reveal a major dip in Addai's production after the Colts' Week 9 loss to the Patriots. From Week 10-17, Addai ran for more than 50 yards just three times with a high of 72. Granted, the Colts rested him in the season's final weeks, but Addai sorely needed the time off. Neck, back, shoulder and chest injuries slowed Addai at different times throughout the season, although none of the injuries were or are considered serious. He missed just one game (against Tampa when Kenton Keith ran for 120 yards and 2 scores -- this system works, folks), but Addai has never been a workhorse throughout his college or NFL career. He may one day be a 330-carry guy, but there's a reason the Colts brought Dominic Rhodes back. Addai will get some rest here and there. However, he's also turning into a goal-line beast and is very productive in the passing game. There's always the risk that he gets a lot of rest late in the season, but Addai's injury concerns are not big enough to knock him out of the top five at the position.
Brian Westbrook, Philadelphia Eagles: There may not be a running back in football that's more important to his team than Westbrook. Last year Westbrook led the NFL in yards from scrimmage with 2,104 and also established a career high in carries with 278 and receptions with 90. The best news is that Westbrook seems to be getting better and healthier with age. The Eagles and Westbrook have finally found the right formula to keeping him healthy by knowing how much to work him and when to just let him take time off during the week. Plus, Westbrook's role as a receiver keeps him from taking the same pounding as other running backs against opposing defenses. There are still risks with Westbrook, who has never played a full 16 game season, but the 15 he's played each of the last two years are good enough to make him a top five back.
Frank Gore, San Francisco 49ers: Gore played much of last season through a high ankle sprain that limited his workload and his productivity. While he only missed one game, Gore could never shake the injury as it clearly derailed what many expected would be a huge season. In fact, Gore carried the ball 16 or fewer times on nine different occasions. The good news is that for a guy who has a somewhat lengthy injury history, the ankle was the only thing that slowed Gore in '07. Add Mike Martz to the equation, and Gore could be the league's most productive pass catcher out of the backfield not named Brian Westbrook. That should also help protect Gore from harder hits. Thanks to Martz, he'll also be protected from a huge workload of carries. (You really think Martz will start giving a back 20 plus carries on a regular basis?) That's good from an injury standpoint, but bad on the production side.
Larry Johnson, Kansas City Chiefs: Doesn't it seem like Johnson has a lot of wear on his tries? His well-publicized NFL record of 416 carries in '06, along with the foot fracture that ended his season after eight games a year ago, make Johnson seem even older than 28. However, Johnson hasn't even been a feature back in the NFL for three full seasons, so perhaps last year's injury was a chance for him to just get some much needed rest. That's the glass half-full view. The other side of the equation suggests Johnson is an old 28 due to the workload of two-plus years, has a bad offensive line, an even worse QB, and now will be thrown right back into the fire of 25-30 carries per game negating the rest a recovery from the injured foot. The offensively challenged Chiefs will need Johnson to carry them once again, and while he appears to have fully recovered from the foot injury, it's almost impossible to see him getting a healthy 330 plus carries. Just make sure you're prepared to add either Kolby Smith or Jamaal Charles as well.
Clinton Portis, Washington Redskins: For the first time in three years, Portis entered camp without any major injury concerns. That doesn't mean a guy who has suffered significant knee, shoulder, and hand injuries in the last two years is a perfect symbol of health, but Portis did play all 16 games a year ago. New Head Coach Jim Zorn is ready to make Portis the focal point of the offense, so that means more pass-catching opportunities for a guy that set a career high with 47 receptions last season. It also means less pass protection for Portis -- a good thing given his injury history. Ledell Betts is still a must as a handcuff, but the fact that Portis rendered Betts relatively useless last year is a good sign going forward Portis owners going forward. This is also one of the few handcuff opportunities where you're almost guaranteed a productive running back when/if the starter (Portis) gets hurt.
Jamal Lewis, Cleveland Browns: I bring up Lewis here as more of a tribute to what he did a year ago than to warn you of potential injuries. Nagging injuries and just poor play led to a three year decline and ultimately the end of Lewis' run in Baltimore. His move to Cleveland was seen as a stopgap measure as the Browns looked for their back of the future. But 300 carries and 1,300 yards later, Lewis is not only relevant again, but could be poised for an even better year. Don't expect the world of Lewis as his 2,100 career carries raise a concern, but he's still a year away from 30, will run behind one of the game's best young lines, and has only missed six games in the last six years (with four of those coming in '04).
Brandon Jacobs, New York Giants: Despite missing five games and leaving two early due to injuries, Jacobs still managed to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark in '07. The knee and hamstring issue that forced him to the sidelines at times last year are a reminder that Jacobs' big frame and bruising style may lead to similar ailments in '08. The Giants will certainly try to limit that wear and tear by using Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw in the backfield as well, but Jacobs remains a beast around the goal line. Plus, with Jacobs entering a contract year, he may be more inclined to "play through" some bumps and bruises this season.
Laurence Maroney, New England Patriots: While the Patriots' offense was setting records last year, Maroney disappointed owners by missing three games, rushing for less than 850 yards, and catching just four passes. Maroney struggled to recover from offseason shoulder surgery, so he's at least healthier this time around. However, he hasn't been a feature back since high school, and the Patriots aren't going to turn into the Vikings or Chiefs any time soon. Maroney will certainly see softer defensive fronts, and he has shown he can put together big games if given the carries, but durability and the possibility of a light workload remain a big concern.
Ronnie Brown, Miami Dolphins: Brown was on pace for a monster season before tearing an ACL in Week 7 last year. In addition to running the football, he had become a receiving threat on screens and dump-offs for the Dolphins struggling quarterbacks. From a recovery standpoint, Brown has looked fine, but for a back who relies more on speed than power, don't expect an immediate return to form. Brown is surrounded by a terrible offense with a young line that will need time to develop. It would be foolish to write him off as a top contributor in coming years, but the Dolphins will be cautious with his workload this season -- he can help them much more if he's fully healthy down the road. I'd mention Ricky Williams as a handcuff, but Ricky and the word handcuff leads this discussion into an entirely different direction.
Willie Parker could go from stud to dud. The Steelers RB has recovered from a fractured fibula, but with rookie Rashard Mendenhall in the fold, don't expect Parker to see many carries in the red zone. In fact, Parker has been dropped so far on most boards, his yardage totals make actually make him a nice buy-low type... Panthers' rookie Jonathan Stewart had toe surgery in March, but has looked fine in camp where he is already working s the team's primary goal line back... Deuce McAllister came back from an ACL repair in '06 and had a fantastic year as the Saints' primary goal line and between-the-tackles rushing threat. Temper expectations a bit, but it's a feat he could repeat again as a nice No. 3 back ... Willis McGahee reportedly showed up at the Ravens' camp a bit out of shape and now has had some issues with his left knee. He should still be considered a top No. 2 back, but just make sure you grab Ray Rice at some point as well ... He's been healthy in camp, is still just 28, plays in a high-powered offense, and remains his team's unquestioned starter at this point. Yes, folks, Rudi Johnson could be an outstanding value this year if you can grab him in the fourth round.