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06 Jul 2005
by Aaron Schatz
With minicamps now over, NFL coaches and reporters finally get to take a vacation until the end of July. But there's no break for fervent NFL fans, because the fantasy football season is just beginning.
Dozens of fantasy football magazines have just hit newsstands, while numerous websites have stepped up advertising to prospective players. Each one promises to give a leg up on the competition with the most accurate list of which players will gain the most yards and score the most touchdowns in 2005. No position is more important in fantasy football than running back, so this is where accurate projection of player improvement and decline is most important.
Almost every forecaster expects the list of 2005's top running backs to be a mix of the top names from 2003 and 2004, despite the fact that there is substantial turnover on the list of the NFL's top rushers nearly every season. And a phalanx of promising youngsters means that this season, turnover is even more likely.
Only once in the past seven seasons (2003) have more than five running backs made the top ten in rushing yards for two straight years. During the period from 1999-2004, only seven backs appeared in the top ten for three consecutive seasons, and only three of those backs -- Marshall Faulk, Clinton Portis, and LaDainian Tomlinson -- appeared in the top eight for three consecutive seasons.
Why so much change? Significant injuries are common at all NFL positions, but running backs are more likely to be injured the more they carry the ball. And of course, the players with the most carries usually gain the most yards. The effect builds up over multiple seasons, which is why running backs peak earlier than any other and generally stay at their peak for a shorter period of time, ending around age 28.
New names among the NFL's top running backs are generally younger players on the rise. But last year was a significant exception. When 2003's top five running backs all fell out of 2004's top five, the five backs that replaced them each had at least five years of experience. In the past 20 years, only six players have set a career high with at least 1250 rushing yards at age 29 or older, and half of these seasons came last year: Curtis Martin of the Jets, Tiki Barber of the Giants, and Corey Dillon of the Patriots.
All three are now in their thirties, as is another running back who many are projecting among this year's league leaders, Priest Holmes of Kansas City. But only 19 times since 1978 has a running back in his thirties appeared among the NFL's top ten rushers.
These trends need not worry Giants fans, as Barber just turned 30, and his 2004 total of 322 carries was a reasonable eighth in the NFL. But Jets fans beware: Martin, more than any other runner, is poised for a fall. He didn't just break records in yards and carries for a running back over age 30; he shattered them. 371 carries at age 31 will probably lead to nagging injuries that will trouble Martin all season, limiting his effectiveness compared to years past. The Jets made their best move of the off-season when they signed free agent Derrick Blaylock to provide an experienced (but still young) backup as an insurance policy for their aging star.
When the leading rushers of 2004 decline, the leading rushers of 2003 are not likely to return to prominence. Baltimore's Jamal Lewis was overused with 387 carries that season, and has battled injuries since, while Ahman Green watched Green Bay's two best offensive linemen leave in free agency.
Who will replace these veterans in the NFL's rushing elite? According to projections from our forthcoming book Pro Football Prospectus 2005, four young running backs should finish among this year's top ten runners (barring major injury):
Domanick Davis, Houston: Davis emerged as the Texans' starter midway through his rookie season, but last year he spent the first two months struggling with a sprained ankle and then a bruised thigh. In Weeks 1-8, he averaged just 2.9 yards per carry and only scored three touchdowns. But in the last nine weeks of the year, finally healthy, he averaged 4.5 yards per carry, 99 yards per game, and scored ten touchdowns. The Texans play in a division where the Titans and Colts struggle to stop the run, and they get to play the weak NFC West as well.
Julius Jones, Dallas: Last year Dallas coach Bill Parcells held Jones out of the lineup for the first half of the season so the rookie could work on picking up blitzes and learning the intricacies of the NFL game. After he finally entered the starting lineup in Week 11, he was a workhorse, averaging 115 yards and a touchdown per game with at least 20 carries in all seven his starts and at least 80 yards in six of them. Improvements to the Dallas defense should lead to more games where Parcells repeatedly hands the ball to Jones late to grind time off the clock.
Correction: Parcells held Jones out of the starting lineup for the first two games .so the rookie could work on picking up blitzes and learning the intricacies of the NFL game. In limited action in Week 2, he broke his shoulder, and that injury cost him half his season. However, it is unlikely that injury cost Jones more than a couple weeks as the starter, because Parcells, at least publicly, stated that Jones was not ready to be an NFL starter.
Kevin Jones, Detroit: Jones is another young running back who was significantly hobbled by injury in the first half of 2004, a high ankle sprain that kept him to just six carries during a four-week period from mid-September to mid-October. Once he was healthy at mid-season, he blossomed. 911 of his 1,133 yards came in the final eight weeks, an average of 114 per game. Jones overcame mediocre Detroit blocking by maximizing every opportunity he had in the open field -- no other running back gained a higher percentage of his yards on double-digit runs -- so any small improvement in Detroit's offensive line this season will see its effect on Jones's numbers magnified. A passing game featuring Detroit's last three first-round draft picks will also keep defenses from stacking the line against Jones.
Willis McGahee, Buffalo: McGahee is the one young back who is being touted by most magazines as one of this season's top runners. He averaged 88 yards per game last year after taking over as Buffalo's starter in Week 6, and he should improve now that his infamous 2003 Fiesta Bowl knee injury is a year further in the past. But the Buffalo line must overcome the loss of left tackle Jonas Jennings, who signed with San Francisco in free agency. Last year, McGahee averaged 6.0 yards on runs left end or left tackle, 3.8 yards on all other runs.
These four young running backs have both talent and opportunity, but there are numerous young running backs who have the talent to join them if circumstances change slightly. Second-year back Steven Jackson averaged 5.0 yards per carry for the Rams last year and would be projected to finish among this year's top ten rushers, except that the Rams still plan on giving veteran Marshall Faulk significant carries to keep Jackson fresh. Tatum Bell of Denver averaged 5.3 yards per carry in 2004, but while he will probably start, he will lose carries to other members of the crowded Broncos backfield. Miami rookie Ronnie Brown finished eleventh in my rushing projections -- until it became clear that Ricky Williams would return and share the load for the Dolphins.
|TOP TEN RUSHERS, 2004||PROJECTED TOP TEN RUSHERS, 2005*|
|Curtis Martin||NYJ||1697||Kevin Jones||DET||1605|
|Shaun Alexander||SEA||1696||Julius Jones||DAL||1584|
|Corey Dillon||NE||1635||Shaun Alexander||SEA||1547|
|Edgerrin James||IND||1548||LaDainian Tomlinson||SD||1532|
|Tiki Barber||NYG||1518||Willis McGahee||BUF||1505|
|Rudi Johnson||CIN||1454||Rudi Johnson||CIN||1485|
|LaDainian Tomlinson||SD||1335||Tiki Barber||NYG||1474|
|Clinton Portis||WAS||1315||Clinton Portis||WAS||1466|
|Reuben Droughns||DEN||1240||Domanick Davis||HOU||1429|
|Fred Taylor||JAC||1224||Edgerrin James||IND||1412|
*Based on the KUBIAK projection system from Pro Football Prospectus 2005, available in early August. Click here to find out more about our book; click here to find out how you can get our fantasy projections in a spreadsheet before the book hits stores. Note: Top projected rushers are not necessarily top projected running backs for fantasy purposes.
This article appeared in Friday's edition of the New York Sun.
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