BACKBEAT

Late starts and lagging conditioning make this the year of the runner
August 28, 2011

The noted philosopher Knute Rockne once said, "The qualifications for a lineman are to be big and dumb. To be a back, you only have to be dumb." That's not true in today's NFL, where being a back requires, among other things, intelligence, quickness and the conditioning to survive pile-ons by behemoth linemen and head-on collisions with wrecking-ball linebackers.

Despite the hazards of the job, running backs as a whole are surprisingly durable and productive, making them the most consistent source of fantasy points from week to week. With that in mind, SI is declaring this The Year of the Fantasy Running Back and suggesting every fantasy owner draft at least six ballcarriers in his first 10 picks.

Why? The lack of off-season work means that the critical timing between quarterbacks and receivers will be slower to jell. At the same time, offensive lines will need time to hone their coordination in picking up blitzes and stunts. That will be especially true where rookies and free agents are working their way into the lineup. In response, teams are likely to rely more on the running game. This should present more opportunities for backs, especially early in the season.

But there's another reason to stock up on running backs. The intense preparation and training that allows runners to survive weekly poundings was also disrupted by the lockout. Now come abbreviated camps. In order to make up for lost time, coaches are giving backs more reps in practice and preseason games, which increases the odds of a serious injury at worst and at the least will leave a lot of backs more dinged up than normal on opening day. Already team trainers are busy tending to a rash of strains, pulls and tears.

At the same time, those offensive lines that are struggling in pass protection most likely are not quite up to snuff with their running schemes either. More missed assignments along the line lead to more violent collisions between backs and onrushing defenders, both on carries and in pass protection.

All this intensive use and increased wear and tear on runners means that attrition rates will be high. Draft as many running backs as you can, and hedge top picks by selecting their backups or time-share mates whenever possible. If you draft LeSean McCoy, protect yourself by also targeting teammate Ronnie Brown. Can't choose between DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart? Take both. And don't be beaten to the punch in doing so.

Which brings us to the next question: Which backs should you draft? Most experts recommend the Vikings' Adrian Peterson, Titans' Chris Johnson and Texans' Arian Foster, but the right man is the Chiefs' Jamaal Charles. Both Peterson and Johnson begin the year behind injury-prone quarterbacks who are backed up by rookies, meaning that they're one unblocked linebacker from seeing a steady diet of eight--in-the-box defenses. Foster will most likely see fewer touches as the highly touted Ben Tate returns from injury.

Charles, on the other hand, was the NFL's second-leading rusher in 2010 and topped all backs with an average of 6.4 yards per attempt—while not even leading his team in carries. Despite the addition of receivers Steve Breaston and Jonathan Baldwin to supplement Dwayne Bowe, the Chiefs will remain a run-first team after topping the league in rushing yards and attempts last year, making the multidimensional Charles the No. 1 back.

Elsewhere, take a look at Jahvid Best. Although he played in all 16 games as a rookie, he was plagued by turf toe for most of the year. Now fully healed and backed up by the less than electric Jerome Harrison, Mike Bell and Aaron Brown, Best is set to take his place among the top backs. He should blow the doors off his 555-rushing- and 487-receiving-yard totals in 2010.

In the end, it may feel weird to draft six backs in the first 10 rounds, at the expense of wide receivers. But that position is easier to fill from a normally well-stocked waiver wire. Let's put it this way: Having an equal mix of receivers and backs will make you traditional and dumb; having a few extra backs will make you a winner.

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OLYMPICS

GYMNASTICS SHOWDOWN

FANTASY LAND

CRAZY TALK

Five off-the-wall fantasy predictions for this season.

1) Josh Freeman and Mike Williams will combine for more TDs than they did last year, and both will make the Pro Bowl.

2) Following two years away from the NFL, Plaxico Burress will step in and have better numbers than the man he replaced, Braylon Edwards.

3) Playing with Tom Brady, Chad Ochocinco will not only be a usable fantasy entity but also a no-brainer every-week starter, à la Randy Moss.

4) Despite coach John Harbaugh's insistence that he won't, Ricky Williams will end up taking significant fantasy value away from Ray Rice.

5) You will be hard-pressed to find a Dolphin to stick into your lineup on a weekly basis, including Brandon Marshall.

BUSTS

1. PEYTON MANNING, QB

Colts A healthy Manning (right) is going to get his fantasy numbers, but the cloud of mystery surrounding his status following off-season neck surgery and his complete no-show for the preseason mean that fantasy players should tread lightly.

2. RYAN TORAIN, RB

Redskins The knock on him is that he's often injured, and except for a few big games last season, he's done little to dispel the notion. Now Tim Hightower has been anointed an every-down back by Mike Shanahan, leaving little room for Torain.

3. TONY GONZALEZ, TE

Falcons Except for an occasional score and first down, Gonzalez will see his already declining statistics fall even further. For the first time during his Falcons tenure, there are two receivers, Roddy White and Julio Jones, more worthy of Matt Ryan's attention.

4. BENJARVUS GREEN-ELLIS, RB

Patriots He distanced himself from the Patriots' herd of runners last season by gaining 1,008 yards and scoring 13 touchdowns, but the team drafted two backs last spring (Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley), both of whom will cut into his productivity.

5. SIDNEY RICE, WR

Seahawks One year removed from hip surgery that sidelined him for most of 2010, Rice finds himself as a No. 1 receiver again. Unfortunately the Seahawks promise to have one of the league's weaker offenses, and his quarterback will most likely be Tarvaris Jackson.

SLEEPERS

1. MIKE TOLBERT, RB

Chargers While everyone is wasting an early pick on Ryan Mathews, you can swoop in and grab San Diego's more valuable back. Last season Tolbert (right) out-rushed the oft-injured Mathews and outscored him 11 TDs to seven. Thus far in camp he has been every bit as good.

2. MARIO MANNINGHAM, WR

Giants He steps into the spot vacated by the departure of Steve Smith. Manningham's already healthy numbers (944 yards, nine touchdowns in '10) will only get better with him in a position that netted Smith more than six catches per game over the past two seasons.

3. MIKE SIMS-WALKER, WR

Rams Sam Bradford never had a go-to, big-play receiver last year. Enter Sims-Walker, who fell below the radar with a subpar 2010. He's only 26, and his knack for scoring touchdowns (14 over the last two seasons) makes him an excellent mid- to late-round grab.

4. KYLE ORTON, QB

Broncos He was supposed to have been traded to clear room for Tim Tebow, but Orton has proved tough to move or beat out. Last year he was fourth in the NFL with 281 passing yards per game, more than Aaron Rodgers, Michael Vick or Tom Brady.

5. GREG OLSEN, TE

Panthers Mike Martz's offense was tight end purgatory, but now Olsen will play for coordination Rob Chudzinski, a fellow Miami Hurricane TE who will make Olsen a playmaker for the passing-challenged Panthers and a top 10 performer at the position.

PHOTOJAMIE SQUIRE/GETTY IMAGES (CHARLES)CHARLES IN CHARGE The Chiefs' fourth-year back figures to get enough touches in 2011 to make him a promising No. 1 pick. PHOTOBOB ROSATO (OCHOCINCO) PHOTOJOE ROBBINS/GETTY IMAGES (BEST)MANE MAN Best's stock went up when second-round pick Mikel Leshoure went down with a torn Achilles; he should get the lion's share of the carries in the Detroit backfield. PHOTOJOHN BIEVER (MANNING) PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH (TOLBERT)

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)