BY DAVID KOMER
Jonathan Stewart: Nick Laham/Getty Images
So what does a fantasy GM do when there's only one NFL starting spot and two equally talented backs are stuck in a marriage of stat cannibalizing?
Well, two things actually. First, look no further than the Carolina Panthers backfield situation, and two, handle with care.
Projected preseason top-20 pick DeAngelo Williams' production is tied to teammate and fourth-/fifth-rounder Jonathan Stewart, and vice versa. Last season the pair were the sixth 1,000-yard rushing duo in NFL history, creating a fun media guide entry for this season but also a pretty big asterisk next to both names for this year's fantasy draft board.
A season ago, Williams was a surefire first-rounder coming off a super-human 1,515 rushing yards, 20-touchdown season in 2008 (and looking like the player former Carolina back DeShaun Foster should have been, once upon a season). But in '09, a slow start was highlighted by not hitting the 80-yard rushing mark until Week 6 (!). At the close of last year, injuries -- resulting in 13 games played -- and Stewart's emergence reduced him to a mere mortal 1,117 rushing and 7 scores, making him fantasy football's captain of the all-disappointment team.
Stewart was the late mid-rounder last season that most had on their radar. But after an offseason injury, his early season stats were as laughable as his almost-namesake on Comedy Central, and many owners dropped him after the first month. He didn't score until Week 5 and finally hit 100 yards in Week 6, but closed out the year on a tear while Williams sat out injured, finishing with a similar 1,133 rushing yards and 11 TDs. Per carry, they were almost identical, with Stewart getting 5.2 yards per carry on 221 attempts and Williams going for 5.1 on 216.
Complicating this year?s expectations is that for the brief time both backs were healthy last year, Stewart had double-digit carries, splitting the workload.
This season my gut is telling me to target Stewart as a fourth to fifth rounder and pass on Williams. DeAngelo has been slotted in most mocks fitting in around No. 13 overall to No. 19. My advice: ignore him and let someone else roll the second-round dice. Should he slip to the late third round, think about pulling the trigger. He's a nice RB2 but to make a time-share back a second or early third round pick is hard to justify.
Both backs are well-suited to be second or third starting fantasy options, but remember that 1,000-yard rushing duos are rarer than Detroit Lions' playoff wins for a reason. It's hard to feature two blue chip backs equally, and asking for back-to-back rushing success (with a hopefully improved passing game sans Jake Delhomme) might be too much.
I'd rather take my chances on the bigger, younger, goal-line option in Stewart, who will come at a cheaper price.
Usually when a coach or GM botches a draft pick, the "staying true to the board" and draft slot excuse is in play. But in fantasy football terms, it's actually a valid war room tool. For me, plotting out every pick for the first round or two sets my mind at ease on draft day. I've found that a reach at the top of the draft can send me spiraling into more reaches, resulting in chasing good money after bad. With that said, here is, step-for-step, my first round road map for each draft slot.
1) RB Adrian Peterson -- I'll take purple reign all day, You can't beat an average of nearly 1,500 yards and 13.6 touchdowns per year and now there's no Chester Taylor to take carries and third downs. Toby Gerhart might swipe a goal-line carry or two, though.
2) RB Chris Johnson -- Simply a matter of choice here as the former bullet-fast ECU Pirate went nuclear in '09. It's a coin-flip for the top spot.
3) RB Maurice Jones-Drew -- Finally shook off the departed Fred Taylor in a time share and hit new highs across the board including nearly 1,800 yards and 16 TDs. His ceiling remains pretty high, especially for a conservative, run-first Jaguars team.
4) RB Frank Gore -- Missed a couple games due to injury but will be complimented by a 49ers passing game ready to break out in a division with defenses lacking.
5) RB Michael Turner -- Workhorse back should bounce back. Despite injury-plagued '09, scored 10 TDs in 11 games.
6) RB Ray Rice -- Taken as high as No. 2 in multiple mock drafts I've seen (hopefully not just by 12-year old cranks on their parents' computer), I'm a little more down on him. It's hard to knock 2,000 combined yards of production, but easy to knock 7 rushing TDs and goal-line duties that likely again, won't be his.
7) WR Andre Johnson -- The best receiver available, hands down. With a (finally) healthy Matt Schaub, Johnson is just starting to scratch the surface. If Schaub can stay dialed in and a consistent running game ever takes hold, watch out.
8) QB Drew Brees -- Many mocks may have him at the start to the middle of the second round, but where else are you going to get his stat production and fantasy consistency? You don't want to risk him not being there in the second if you're picking in the late first round.
9) QB Aaron Rodgers -- See No. 8 above; either could go as high as No. 7 for me. These are value picks.
10) RB Rashard Mendenhall -- The Steelers will lean on him early while a certain QB sits out suspended. The third-year back showed what he could do by coming on last year as the lead runner once Willie Parker went out injured (again).
Since there are a few leagues I play in with 12 teams, here's a couple of bonus slots that I'd use in a 12-team draft.
11) WR Randy Moss -- The Patriots' passing attack will still be potent, and Moss has at least one more good year left in him.
12) RB Shonn Greene -- Not crazy about him, but the potential is there for him to be a beast and this is a slot I can live with. Greene might be a revelation or might be revolting, depending on what he does in his first chance as the entrenched starter.
Notables missing: RB Steven Jackson (rookie QB, putrid team), WR Reggie Wayne (a ground rule double, but not a home run pick who's slowing down a little), WR Larry Fitzgerald (QB situation murky, second wideout downgraded with Anquan Boldin gone).
When using the flex position, as many leagues allow, there's one fantasy football golden rule (besides not drinking on draft day): always go running back. The flex spot allows for a third back or a third/fourth receiver depending on league rules. I love a good receiver as much as the next fantasy-land GM, but unless one has a dearth of great pass catchers, an average starting running back will almost certainly be more reliable than a lot of good receivers.
Backs get more carries, and often more catches, not to mention goal-line chances. While a good receiver may touch the ball 4-6 times and maybe get targeted once or twice in the red zone, the percentages don't lie.
In one 10-team league I run, we've had a free-form formation rule for at least 11 of 17 years. In that span, not one four-receiver, one-back, run-and-shoot team has ever won the Fantasy Bowl. About half of the teams that did win used a three-back attack, while the rest used the standard three-wide, two back pro set.
Running backs can be shut down every bit as much as receivers, but will see a heavier workload and will find a way to get points. And an extra set of legs will almost always beat an extra pair of hands, six ways to Sunday.