Three For The Show

Shaun Alexander, Larry Johnson and LaDainian Tomlinson are almost universally acknowledged to be the top three players in fantasy football. But who's first among equals? SI's own threesome argues their merits
August 27, 2006

You've just wonthe lottery. You've landed the No. 1 pick in your fantasy football draft. CallMom and Dad. Pop a bottle of champagne. But then comes the hard part: Whom doyou take--Shaun Alexander, Larry Johnson or LaDainian Tomlinson? It's a choicethat's as pleasurable as it is painful, because you have such enticing options.Luckily for you three SI experts have broken down the case for each starrunning back.

GO WITH AWINNER

Shaun Alexander
RB Seattle Seahawks

I PREFER to draftrunning backs from winning teams. Whereas even an elite back loses carries latein the game if his team is playing catch-up, a running back on a team thatplays from ahead in the second half will rack up yards running out the clock.It's no coincidence that Alexander ran for 1,880 yards and an NFL-record-tying27 touchdowns last year while playing on a Seahawks team that went 13--3. Ibelieve Seattle will be just as good in 2006, and that's why I like Alexanderas my No. 1 pick.

Most of lastyear's Super Bowl team has returned, and the players have come back hungry: Noone in that locker room believes the Seahawks should have lost to Pittsburghlast February in Detroit. I see Seattle dominating an unthreatening NFC West,and I expect Alexander in particular will benefit from four divisional gamesagainst the soft defenses of the 49ers and the Rams.

Meanwhile,Tomlinson's Chargers and Johnson's Chiefs enter the season with significantquestion marks. Kansas City will be adjusting to a new coach, Herman Edwards,and San Diego will be breaking in a new quarterback, Philip Rivers. Both thoseteams may be fine, but who knows? The Chargers are also talking about giving LTsome rest this year, so some of his 2005 carries may go to his backup. The onlyquestion mark for Alexander is the departure of Pro Bowl guard Steve Hutchinsonin free agency. But the other four Seahawks offensive line starters are back,and this veteran unit will be able to work in one new player withoutcompromising its effectiveness. Plus, Seattle has one of the league's bestfullbacks in Mack Strong.

Alexander mightnot have a cool acronym like LT or LJ, but he was league MVP last year. It'snot unimaginable that Johnson or Tomlinson will put up better numbers ifeverything falls right for them. But Alexander has less of a downside than theother two. Either he will repeat his spectacular numbers from last year, or hewill do something close to that. He's the safest choice among the elite fantasybacks. --Bill Syken

A PROVEN COMMODITY

Larry Johnson
RB Kansas City Chiefs

FOR THE RECORD,this will be the easiest story I'll ever write. The boss told Adam, Bill and methat we'd be running three essays arguing each player's case to be the No. 1pick in fantasy football. The task of deciding which writer would get whichplayer would be left to us. "I'll take Tomlinson," Adam said. Then Billsaid, "I'll take Alexander." My first thought was, How dare both ofthem pick before me? And my second was, There's still room in my league ifeither of them would like to join. What follows isn't exactly news but it mustbe said: The No. 1 pick should be Johnson, Johnson, Johnson, and all argumentsto the contrary are a bunch of spin-doctoring and misdirection.

The numbers--andfantasy football is a numbers game--prove it. Last year Johnson rushed for1,750 yards and 20 touchdowns (third in yards and second in scores), and it'slikely he would have led the league in each statistic had he started from Week1. In fact, if you extrapolate over an entire season Johnson's stats afterbecoming the Chiefs' starting back in Game 8 (1,351 yards, 16 touchdowns), youget 2,402 yards and 28 TDs, which would be the greatest rushing season in NFLhistory, by a Secretariat-at-the-Belmont margin. Critics doubt Johnson becausehe hasn't proved he can run at that pace for the whole season. The reverseargument holds more water: Defenses haven't proved they can stop him yet. Untilthey do, he's welcome on my team.

Entering hisfourth season, Johnson has fewer miles on his legs than Alexander (seventh) andTomlinson (sixth). He has no history of injuries. He's a better receiver thanAlexander, and though Tomlinson had more receptions last year (51 to 33),Johnson averaged more yards per catch (10.4 to 7.3). Moreover, Chiefs coacheshave said that Johnson, whose combined rushing-receiving yardage (2,093) wasthe highest among the Big Three, would see more snaps on passing downs thisyear, making him even more of a receiving threat.

The naysayersclaim that LJ won't be as productive now that left tackle Willie Roaf hasretired. But last year Johnson's first three starts came with an injured Roafout of the lineup. Johnson's per-game rushing average without Roaf? 150. Hisaverage with Roaf? 151.

As for Alexanderand Tomlinson, the former will be without Steve Hutchinson; the differencebetween LJ's situation and Alexander's is that LJ has a track record ofperforming without his stud lineman and Alexander doesn't. And the latterstruggled with injuries at the end of last year, averaging 3.7 yards on theground over the final four weeks.

My work here isdone. I'm off to fill two openings in my fantasy league. --Gene Menez

THE SURE THING

LaDainianTomlinson
RB San Diego Chargers

I LIVE BY onesimple rule when drafting a fantasy football team: Assume that whateveroccurred last year--especially the absurd--will not repeat itself. (Thank you,Rich Gannon, Curtis Martin, et al. for the hard lesson.) Thus, I'm reluctant tobelieve that Alexander can repeat his 27 touchdowns, especially in light of thelane-paving Steve Hutchinson's absence. And I have equal skepticism aboutJohnson's replicating the greatest eight-game stretch known to mankind,especially with an offensive line bookended by newcomers. I therefore expectTomlinson, hampered by a rib injury and held to a (for him) disappointing 1,832all-purpose yards in 2005, to bounce back as the top fantasy performer in'06.

Granted, Alexanderhas clearly hit his stride, but I like a back who'll give you catches as wellas carries, and Alexander's yearly average of 31.3 receptions leaves much to bedesired. In comparison, Tomlinson suffered a career low in 2005 when he caught51 balls. (His average is 68.4.) And my doubts about Johnson can be summed upin two words: Priest Holmes. Will the All-Pro in sheep's clothing, who wassidelined in '05, be a factor in '06? Probably not. But first picks arereserved for sure things. Tomlinson, a top four fantasy back every year since'02, remains the closest to that ideal.

Such a home run isTomlinson that his lone downside remains an iffy quarterback situation. Amongdrafters the consensus seems to be this: As goes Philip Rivers, so go LT'snumbers. But a closer look at the Tomlinson--Drew Brees era reveals thatrunning backs in Marty Schottenheimer's system have prospered (with tons ofshort dump-offs) when the long passing game has faltered. Tomlinson is a loadbearer who will happily carry the brunt of the offense while a new quarterbackdevelops. Case in point: Brees's worst season (a 67.5 passer rating in 2003)was Tomlinson's best (100 receptions and 2,370 all-purpose yards). Few havemuch faith in Rivers--which is why I have all the faith in the world inTomlinson. --Adam Duerson

PLAYER RANKINGS

Get the latest NFL news, plus ratings for all fantasyfootball positions and daily injury updates at SI.com/fantasy.

PHOTOG. NEWMAN LOWRANCE/WIREIMAGE.COM (ALEXANDER) TWO PHOTOSDAVID BERGMAN (2) PHOTOPETER BROUILLET/WIREIMAGE.COM (TOMLINSON) PHOTOFERNANDO MEDINA/WIREIMAGE.COM (SCHAUB)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)