The difference between success and failure in fantasy football comes down to choices. How early should you draft a quarterback? Which Steve Smith is the better investment -- the Giants brand or the Panthers kind? Does the upside of Steelers receiver Mike Wallace outweigh the experience of his teammate Hines Ward? Should I reach for a strong defense or take a flyer on a promising running back?
In '09, I made a fatal mistake in the middle rounds of my fantasy draft. I had my eye on a second-year running back who started the year in a timeshare but was talented enough to be a feature back. I took Dallas' Felix Jones, thus bypassing Baltimore's Ray Rice. What difference did it make? Try over 1,200 total yards and five TDs.
This year, fantasy owners have another pair of second-year backs to mull over: Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy and Kansas City's Jamaal Charles. Both backs are similar in size, standing no taller than 5-foot-11, using their speed and shiftiness to make plays. Both have a relatively inexperienced quarterback in their huddle (McCoy has Kevin Kolb; Charles has Matt Cassel) and both are the most talented backs on their teams yet there are goal-line vultures lurking nearby.
If you were on the clock, say in the second or third round, which one would you draft first?
Let's start by analyzing McCoy, who has Brian Westbrook's big shadow hanging over him. Comparisons to the Eagles diminutive running back, now a free agent, are not without merit. In college at Pittsburgh, McCoy rushed for over 1,000 yards in both his freshman and sophomore seasons. He also had an uncanny nose for the end zone, scoring 36 TDs (that's one better than wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald in his Panthers underclassmen years).
As a rookie in '09, McCoy split time in the backfield with Westbrook and gained 637 yards on 155 attempts with four TDs. He also grabbed 40 receptions for 308 yards. In the red zone, McCoy led the Eagles charge with 21 attempts, gaining 71 yards and three TDs. His standout game came in Week 11 at Chicago when he finished with 99 yards and a TD on 20 attempts.
Going into '10, the big question about McCoy is if he'll have to share goal-line opportunities with bigger backs such as Mike Bell and Leonard Weaver. His value will certainly take a hit if coach Andy Reid turns back the clock to '03, when he utilized a three-headed rushing attack in Westbrook, Correll Buckhalter and Duce Staley.
Another concern about McCoy is his stamina. He only played two seasons in college and he admitted to losing steam at the end of his rookie campaign. The Eagles will need his game-breaking speed all season, especially in the Wildcat formation when backup quarterback Michael Vick takes the field.
Turning to Charles, a common comparison for him has been a poor man's C.J., referring to Tennessee's elite back Chris Johnson. Charles certainly looked the part in '09 after taking over for disgruntled veteran Larry Johnson. He finished with 1,120 yards on 190 attempts for a whopping 5.9 average and seven rushing TDs. Charles also proved useful as a receiver, amassing 40 receptions for 297 yards and a TD. Our last memory of him is a great one: 259 yards on 25 attempts and two TDs in the season finale against Denver.
Charles now finds himself in a timeshare with veteran Thomas Jones, who signed with the Chiefs after recording back-to-back seasons of over 1,300 yards and at least 13 TDs with the New York Jets. Fantasy owners cringed this past week when they heard Chiefs coach Todd Haley say he plans to ride the "hot hand" on a weekly basis.
Another interesting wrinkle is the addition of offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, who last coached in the NFL for the Patriots under Bill Belichick prior to heading Notre Dame for the past five years. What his presence in Kansas City means to Charles is a bit of a mystery, since Weis is known for utilizing a smash mouth interior running game (think Curtis Martin) rather than an outside attack. But Weis also has a reputation for maximizing every offensive weapon he has (think Kevin Faulk), and Charles is certainly the best one at his disposal.
While McCoy and Charles have a lot in common, the deciding factor on draft day should be potential. Who has the best chance to be a top-10 running back at season's end? I'm leaning toward Charles even though he'll begin the season sharing carries. Remember, Jones is old for a running back (32) and Kansas City's woeful offensive line won't create as many inside holes for him like in New York. Instead, the Chiefs will lean on Charles' outside speed to break off huge runs.
McCoy might have a bit more upside in point-per-reception leagues due to the Eagles pass-first offense but Charles is no slouch in that department either. I also like the Chiefs rushing strength of schedule, with tasty matchups against weak defenses like Buffalo in Week 8, Oakland in Week 9 and St. Louis in Week 15. Meanwhile, the Eagles face stiff tests starting in Week 1 against Green Bay and during the crucial fantasy playoffs (Dallas in Week 14 and Minnesota in Week 16).
I'm going with Charles no matter what. Yet like any good disclaimer, I'll reiterate: the choice is ultimately yours.