C.J. Spiller: Rex Brown/Getty Images
Before sitting down to write today's NFL-addled Clicks, I enjoyed a lively debate with fellow SI.com guru Jeff Ritter, as we tried to guess, then rank, the best free-agent tailbacks for this winter -- LaDainian Tomlinson, Brian Westbrook, Darren Sproles, Thomas Jones, Chester Taylor, Marshawn Lynch. Now, obviously, Buffalo hasn't said boo about Lynch's fate for 2010 and beyond; we're simply reading the tea leaves with a club that has already boosted Fred Jackson to Alpha Dog and should explore a Marshawn trade for draft-day picks. But the other five RBs will almost certainly be available for new teams around March 5 and, as a result, will be grappling for limited starting spots around the NFL.
Regardless of where LT, Westbrook, Jones, Sproles and Chester sign in March, they should be worried about what'll happen in April, if their new club corrals running back C.J. Spiller in the NFL draft. This isn't a southern bias at play here, and I have zero ties to Clemson University (unless you count transposing letters to fit my last name) ... but I believe Spiller could be the next wunderkind back and will perform admirably on the fantasy scene in 2010 -- assuming he doesn't encounter a logjam on the depth chart. Here's why:
1. Spiller's college stats portend NFL greatness: As a matter of comparison, Spiller posted three straight seasons of 34 catches or more at Clemson (2007-09), an accomplishment that Ray Rice and Matt Forte -- two of the NFL's best rushing-receiving backs -- never fulfilled at Rutgers and Tulane, respectively. Spiller also amassed 10 or more touchdowns in three seasons with the Tigers, something Chris Johnson only pulled off once in four years at East Carolina. Spiller also demonstrated amazing consistency in college, averaging at 5.3 yards per carry from 2006-09, and reeling off 19 rushes of 25-plus yards at Clemson. In other words, he's a home-run threat with Barry Sanders-like numbers on a per-carry basis.
2. Spiller posted a better NFL Combine 40-yard dash than Adrian Peterson: The numbers don't lie, kids. Spiller produced a 4.37 time, whereas Peterson ran a 4.4-flat three years ago at Indy's RCA Dome (an imperceptibly faster surface than the Colts' current home, Lucas Oil Stadium).
3. Spiller has a full-time body with part-time legs: For three seasons, Spiller split the Clemson touches with James Davis (now with the Browns); and then in 2009 -- his only year without a complementary back -- Spiller totaled 248 touches, which seems like a lot until you realize the Tigers played 14 games. And at 5-foot-11, 196 pounds, Spiller has the requisite size to be a workhorse back at the next level, if necessary.
4. The 'Eye Test' never lies: This one's really simple. Just take a look at this video and tell me Spiller doesn't have the physical tools, along with uncanny running instincts, to make an immediate impact in the NFL. If this were the SI.com Fantasy Football Preview for 2010 (coming this summer to bookstores everywhere) ... he'd be a lead-pipe cinch for 1,017 total yards/6 TDs as a rookie.
One last thing: By my count, four franchises (Lions, Patriots, Redskins, Chargers) might entertain the notion of cleaning house at the tailback spot before the season begins ... indicating that only New England (No. 22) and San Diego (No. 28) have a realistic chance of going RB in Round 1. But if Spiller should slip to Detroit and Washington for Round 2 (both clubs have top-5 picks in Round 1), we're talking a draft-day steal of Frank Gore-like proportions.
If the 49ers are seriously thinking about signing Sproles and subsequently dumping or demoting second-year back Glen Coffee, I would strongly urge the Redskins, Patriots, Lions, Texans, Chargers or Buccaneers to make an all-out effort to land Coffee -- the 2009 Heisman IF he would've stayed at Alabama (HA!). At the risk of territorial oversimplification, Coffee is a living, breathing clone of Gore and would be an instant candidate for 1,200 rushing yards as any team's No. 1 tailback this year. Just my two cents.
Here's how the Free Agent Six (Lynch included) would generally rank in fantasyland next year:
1. Chester Taylor (possible destination: Lions, Redskins, Bills, Chiefs)
2. Darren Sproles (Chiefs, Eagles, Packers, Steelers, Patriots)
3. Thomas Jones (Patriots, Eagles, Vikings, Steelers, Browns)
4. LaDainain Tomlinson (Vikings, Patriots, Lions)
5. Marshawn Lynch (Chargers, Lions, Browns, Eagles, Packers)
6. Brian Westbrook (Vikings, Redskins, Chiefs)
Here are the fastest receivers (sub-4.5 40s) and tailbacks (sub-4.51) at the 2010 Combine:
1. Jacoby Ford, Clemson -- 4.28
2. Taylor Price, Ohio -- 4.41
3. Emmanuel Sanders, Southern Methodist -- 4.41
4. Golden Tate, Notre Dame -- 4.42
5. Brandon Banks, Kansas State -- 4.43
6. Kyle Williams, Arizona State -- 4.43
7. Marcus Easley, Connecticut -- 4.46
8. Andre Roberts, Citadel -- 4.46
9. Brandon Long, Louisville -- 4.46
10. Carlton Mitchell, South Florida -- 4.49
1. Jahvid Best, California -- 4.35
2. C.J. Spiller, Clemson -- 4.37
3. Ben Tate, Auburn -- 4.43
4. Ryan Mathews, Fresno State -- 4.45
5. Joe McKnight, USC -- 4.47
6. Montario Hardesty, Tennessee -- 4.49
7. James Starks, Buffalo -- 4.50
... And here are the NFL Combine's fastest WR/RB 40s since 1999:
1. Rondel Melendez, Eastern Kentucky -- 4.24 (1999)
2. Jerome Mathis, Hampton -- 4.28 (2005)
2b. Jacoby Ford, Clemson -- 4.28 (2010)
3. Yamon Figurs, Kansas State -- 4.30 (2007)
4. Aaron Lockett, Kansas State -- 4.31 (2002)
4b. Santana Moss, Miami -- 4.31 (2001)
6. Troy Williamson, South Carolina -- 4.32 (2005)
6b. Chad Jackson, Florida -- 4.32 (2006)
6c. Jason Hill, Washington State -- 4.32 (2007)
9. Carlos Francis, Texas Tech -- 4.33 (2004)
9b. Karsten Bailey, Auburn -- 4.33 (1999)
9c. Chris Chambers, Wisconsin -- 4.33 (2001)
12. Tyrone Calico, Middle Tennessee State -- 4.34 (2003)
1. Chris Johnson, East Carolina -- 4.24 (2008)
2. Jay Hinton, Morgan State -- 4.29 (1999)
3. Darren McFadden, Arkansas -- 4.33 (2008)
4. Jahvid Best, California -- 4.35 (2010)
5. C.J. Spiller, Clemson -- 4.37 (2010)
6. Chris Henry, Arizona -- 4.40 (2007)
6b. Adrian Peterson, Oklahoma -- 4.40 (2007)
Verdict: Outside of Santana Moss and Chris Chambers, is there anyone else on the WR list worth mentioning? At least the running backs have an excellent shot at NFL stardom -- especially with Spiller and Best leading the way.
Over the next five months, fantasy owners will be overwhelmed with (accurate) propaganda supporting Chris Johnson's candidacy for the No. 1 pick in standard-scoring leagues; and for the most part, it'll be good advice to heed for the August drafts. However, there are still a few rock-solid reasons -- six, actually -- to consider Adrian Peterson for the top spot on draft day:
1. The numbers only tell part of the story. Everyone knows Peterson made a quantum leap in total touchdowns from 2009 (18) to '08 (10). But very few fantasy owners probably realize that AP's yards-per-touch ratio jumped to 5.21 -- up from 4.91 in '08 -- even though he finished with 66 fewer total yards on the season.
2. Peterson has finally become in a vital cog in the passing game. Thanks to Brett Favre and Brad Childress, AP experienced a monumental jump in receptions. How much? His 43 catches in 2009 exceeded his combined total (40) from 2007-08. Perish the thought: Peterson may have the capacity for 55-60 catches someday -- adding to his allure in Points Per Reception leagues. (On the downside, he only has one career TD reception -- off his very first pro catch back in '07.)
3. Without a doubt, Chris Johnson has the higher upside ... but if you're looking for a lead-pipe cinch for 1,850 total yards and 17 touchdowns in any given year -- for at least the next five seasons -- Peterson's your man!
4. If Brett Favre retires at season's end ... Peterson's touches will most definitely go up about 6-8 percent. And with more touches comes more opportunities for breakaway runs like these.
5. If Favre returns to Minnesota in 2010 ... tell me you wouldn't rubber-stamp a repeat of 1,819 total yards and 18 touchdowns, leaving yourself more time to focus on the crucial swing picks of Round 2 (No. 24) and Round 3 (No. 25). In other words, as great as Tennessee's Johnson should be this decade, he hasn't fully earned the bankability for 1,800-2,000 yards yet. And before laughing that off, just remember that Steven Jackson hasn't really emulated his out-of-this-world success from 2006 (2,334 total yards, 16 TDs).
6. Let's be honest: Money talks. Whether Peterson and the Vikings carve out an extension this summer or midway through next season, rest assured that a highly lucrative deal is coming Adrian's way ... perhaps making him the highest-paid non-QB in the league. As a good-faith gesture for getting all that do-re-mi before his current contract expires in a few years, Peterson will certainly bring his A+-game to the table this fall.
Verdict: The above arguments only work for standard-scoring and TD-only leagues. For PPR leagues, Chris Johnson is the redoubtable choice for No. 1 overall ... while AP could even be usurpred by Ray Rice, Maurice Jones-Drew, Andre Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald or Steven Jackson at the No. 2 spot.
Whom would you rather have in 2010 ... Matt Schaub or Donovan McNabb?
Jeff Ritter: It's a battle of two guys with virtually the same preseason ranking. I'll give the nod to Schaub, who finally showed what he can do when healthy for a full season. We're talking top-5 production, in the form of 4,770 passing yards and 29 TDs. McNabb had a nice season in 2009, but I don't see him as a top-tier QB anymore, even if he stays upright for 16 games (never a given). Schaub's the easy choice here.
Jay Clemons: Schaub may be the better pure passer at this point, but there's no way I'm taking him over McNabb come August -- when push comes to shove. McNabb, who'll be 34 next fall, remains a major benefactor of Andy Reid's peerless offensive vision, Marty Mornhinweg's exceptional play-calling and the immense pass-catching potential of DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Jason Avant, Brent Celek, LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles or C.J. Spiller. One more thing: If ANY team has the cojones to open a game with 20 straight passes next season ... it'll be the progressive Eagles. Advantage: McNabb. Barely.
With the Combine on the brain, here's our revised list of fantasyland's top rookies in 2010:
1. RB C.J. Spiller, Clemson
2. WR Golden Tate, Notre Dame (could have Maclin-like breakout)
3. WR Dez Bryant, Oklahoma State
4. QB Sam Bradford, Oklahoma (assuming he's starting for Rams/Bills by Week 7)
5. RB Jahvid Best, California
6. WR Arrelious Benn, Illinois
7. WR Taylor Price, Ohio (looked great in the Indy workouts -- awesome, really)
8. RB Jonathan Dwyer, Georgia Tech (a classic workhorse back, in theory)
9. WR Brandon LaFell, LSU
10. WR Jacoby Ford, Clemson
11. QB Jimmy Clausen, Notre Dame (assuming he's starting for Bills/Rams by Week 10)
12. TE Aaron Hernandez, Florida
13. WR Dezmon Briscoe, Kansas
14. RB Ryan Mathews, Fresno State
15. WR Demaryius Thomas, Georgia Tech
16. TE Rob Gronkowski, Arizona
17. WR Eric Decker, Minnesota (would rank higher if not hindered by Lisfranc injury)
18. TE Ed Dickson, Oregon
19. RB Charles Scott, LSU
20. TE Dorin Dickerson, Pitt (this year's Combine version of Mike Mamula -- is that a good or bad thing?)
Speaking of receivers, here's our way-too-early listing of the top 25 WRs in 2010:
1. Andre Johnson, Texans
2. Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals
3. Greg Jennings, Packers
4. Anquan Boldin, Cardinals (?)
5. Vincent Jackson, Chargers
6. Reggie Wayne, Colts
7. Marques Colston, Saints
8. DeSean Jackson, Eagles
9. Brandon Marshall, Broncos (?)
10. Sidney Rice, Vikings
11. Miles Austin, Cowboys
12. Randy Moss, Patriots
13. Roddy White, Falcons
14. Calvin Johnson, Lions
15. Michael Crabtree, 49ers
16. Chad Ochocino, Bengals
17. Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs
18. Steve Smith, Panthers
19. Mike Sims-Walker, Jaguars
20. Kenny Britt, Titans
21. Jerricho Cotchery, Jets
22. Antonio Bryant, Buccaneers (?)
23. Percy Harvin, Vikings
24. Robert Meachem, Saints
25. Devon Aromashodu, Bears
Back by popular demand, we've decided to admit at least one lucky Fantasy Clicks reader into the SI.com & Friends fantasy baseball league. Beginning today and ending March 21, we'll be accepting short-essay submissions (limit 1-2 paragaphs, please) for the final slot in our small, but prestigious league (kind of like George Costanza). The requirements are simple: Outside of having reliable computer access for Draft Day (either March 31 or April 1), you must demonstrate passion for fantasy baseball (hence, the short essay) and derive regular pleasure from posting humorous retorts on our league message board.
One last thing: It certainly helps to be comfortable with accepting or declining blockbuster trade proposals during the graveyard-shift period of 2-6 a.m. -- the bewitching hours for all the Atlanta-based SI.com employees. You can also hit me up on Twitter for this contest ... although it'll be hard to meet the above requirements in 140 characters or less. Good luck!