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Five Running Backs with Enticing Upside
Derek Aiken
August 21, 2006

Don’t the mistake of thinking that this is some type of “sleeper” article. Four of the top five backs listed in this article are likely ranked in the top 25-30 of your running back rankings. In your draft, all five of these guys will be taken before the draft is even close to being over. What makes these five players so enticing, is that they are likely to significantly outperform their draft position, some by multiple rounds.

No running back in this article is likely listed in the Top 15 of running backs, but they are likely to end the season there. Steal these five guys in your draft. In fantasy football, especially at the running back position, depth is so important because injuries occur so frequently.

Frank Gore

All that you heard about this preseason was about the competition for the starting running back position in San Francisco. What competition? Frank Gore ran away with the job. While Gore was absolutely spectacular in the preseason, Kevan Barlow was his usual, injured, disappointing self. All of which culminated in Barlow being shipped to the Jets for a 2007 draft pick, sending a strong statement as to how the 49ers view Gore’s abilities. Make no mistake, this trade greatly increases Gore’s stock for this season.

With the trade, there is now no question that Frank Gore will be the starting running back for San Francisco, and will get the lion’s share of the carries in 2006. While “Starting Running Back for the San Francisco 49ers” is hardly as prestigious of a fantasy title as it used to be (Craig, Watters, Hearst are gone) Gore is a very viable option for the 2006 fantasy season.

Despite very limited action in his 2005 rookie season (127 rushing attempts), Gore performed extremely well with 608 yards, 3 TD’s, 15 catches for 131 yards. Any rookie that can average 4.8 per carry behind San Francisco’s offensive line, certainly has my attention. With the starting job firmly in his grasp, expect much bigger things out of Gore in 2006.

With the arrival of free agent Larry Allen and a full workload in 2006, it is not unreasonable to believe that Gore is capable of gaining 1,300 yards and 9-10 touchdowns. These numbers are not at all outrageous, but would put him firmly in the Top 10-15 running backs in production.

Not bad for a running back who is placed in the 3rd-4th tier of fantasy running backs.

Don’t have any caution about Gore’s ability, talent and production, but there are two caveats to drafting Frank Gore for your fantasy team. First, durability is a concern with Gore. He missed time last year with various ailments, including a shoulder injury that required off-season surgery. While playing college football at Miami, Gore suffered two horrific knee injuries that gave birth to the careers of Clinton Portis and Edgerrin James. A good friend of mine is a huge Hurricanes fan and swears that Gore isn’t the back that he used to be, which is scary because he’s still very good. This makes Maurice Hicks an imperative handcuff for any Gore owners.

Hicks is not exactly a superstar, but definitely has some talent and could become a viable flex option, if Gore is injured and has to miss time. In his two seasons in San Francisco, Hicks has had some modest success. Hicks has had 155 attempts for 670 yards, 5 TD’s and 28 catches for 201 yards. Hicks is built more to be a 3rd down back, but could be a serviceable fill-in at the running back position. In fantasy football, any starting running back has value, and there’s a great chance that Gore may get hurt and Hicks could wind-up as the starter at some point this season.

The second caveat is that Gore shouldn’t be counted-on to fill you RB1 or RB2 roles. His history of injuries is too great and his ability to stay healthy is far too big of a question mark to be counted on to fill that large of a role. The ideal role for Gore is as a RB3 who can be used on bye weeks, in case of injuries, against a favorable match-up (he has plenty of them in the NFC West) or as trade bait.

Gore should be very good in 2006 and is a great value pick.

Reuben Droughns

The most dependable running back on this list. Droughns is consistently ranked anywhere between 15-20 for running backs and has the ability to exceed the production of some of the bigger names ahead of him.

While the starting running back for Cleveland may not sound that great, fantasy football only scores points for stats, not prestige. Truth is that Droughns has been very good in each of the last two seasons and looks to be even better in 2006. Droughns has very little competition for carries. William Green epitomizes the first round bust and Lee Suggs can’t stay on the field. Rookie Jerome Harrisson is having a phenomenal preseason, but should serve in more of a 3rd down and change-of-pace back in 2006, and won’t threaten Droughns carries.

In 2004, Droughns became Denver’s featured back and put-up very respectable numbers with 1,481 total yards and 8 touchdowns, which promptly earned him a trade to Cleveland. Despite being banished to fantasy Siberia, Droughns performed well in Cleveland with 1,601 total yards, but only 2 touchdowns.

Expect bigger things from Droughns in 2006. His yardage numbers are likely to spike, but not by that much. Droughns is running well, but his role in the receiving game may diminish as a result of rookie Jerome Harrisson’s surprising success. More importantly, the offense is much more talented in 2006, than it was in 2005.

Charlie Frye has had another year to mature and is an upgrade from Trent Dilfer. Kellen Winslow is healthy, Braylon Edwards is expected back ahead of schedule, the reliable Joe Jurevicious has been added to the offense, and Dennis Northcutt is a dangerous slot receiver. Defenses won’t be able to key solely on Droughns. Most importantly, Romeo Crennell has improved the Cleveland defense and the Browns are less likely to be playing from behind this year. That means more rushing touchdowns for Droughns in 2006.

While he may have only been a starting tailback for the last two seasons, Droughns was starting at fullback for the previous two seasons in Denver. Droughns has been as durable as almost any other back in the NFL. In his only four seasons as a starter, Droughns has missed only one game. That is the type of consistency and durability that you need at the running back position.

So what will Droughns role be on your fantasy team in 2006? There are two ways to look at that question. Droughns is likely to be about the 15th RB off-the-board. That means that you probably will have already taken your starting two RB’s. Droughns makes for an excellent flex, or can be used as trade bait when somebody else’s running back gets hurt. The other way to look at Droughns in 2006 is that, instead of using a 2nd round pick on another RB, you could use that pick to snag an elite quarterback or wide receiver.

Droughns has an excellent chance to outperform players like LaMont Jordan, Kevin Jones, Brian Westbrook and Willie Parker, and can be had three rounds later.

Droughns has been running with authority in this preseason. He is running the ball hard and punishing defenders. Two years ago, he was one of the best free agent pick-ups out there. Last year, he was one of the more underrated backs in the game, playing in Cleveland will do that to a back. This year, he takes a step forward and establishes himself as a Top 12 fantasy running back.

Warrick Dunn

Warrick Dunn and Tiki Barber have more in common than the fact that they were both drafted in 1995 and that they are both talented, but undersized, running backs. The other thing that they have in common is that both, due to their size, have been vastly underrated by fantasy owners. Thanks to his elite 2005 season, Barber has finally started to shake that reputation and is now being projected as a top five back for the 2006 season. Dunn isn’t so lucky.

Despite being incredibly productive in his 10 NFL seasons, especially the last two, Dunn is still ranked in the 20’s for fantasy running backs. For this reason, Dunn represents an excellent value pick for drafters this year.

In 2005, Dunn recorded 1,636 total yards and 5 total touchdowns. The year before he had an even more impressive 1,400 total yards and 11 total touchdowns. Despite so much success, Dunn is often a forgotten commodity among the most dependable fantasy backs and can usually be drafted several rounds after his more heralded colleagues.

Before we go any further, it should be noted that Dunn’s greatest value is in leagues that reward running backs with points for receptions and receiving yards. Although most leagues do so, if your league doesn’t reward such things, Dunn is a depth player instead of a starter. But again, this isn’t most leagues.

Despite having he reputation of being undersized Dunn, much like Barber, has been remarkably durable. He has only missed 10 games in 10 NFL seasons and hasn’t missed a single game in the last two seasons. Dunn is a player that you can count on to contribute to your team each week.

While he is probably not at his best value as RB2, he can be a serviceable #2 for your team and allow you to take an elite player at another position, instead of a less productive running back. Dunn is also an excellent option as a flex player. It takes more for a receiver to get the ball, than a running back so, from that standpoint, Dunn is a safer flex option than a receiver of equal value.

Also important to note is that nothing has changed for Dunn in 2006. Same quarterback, offensive line and receivers as last year. This stability should prevent his production from dropping-off due to any intangibles.

Some may take Dunn’s age (31) as a caution sign, but Dunn is elusive and not the type of back that absorbs an excessive amount of punishment. In fact, Dunn’s last two seasons have been his most productive since his 2000 season.

While other owners take a chance on players like Jamal Lewis, Corey Dillon or Julius Jones, Dunn is a much safer and proven option for 2006. He represents an excellent flex option, emergency RB2, trade bait, or value pick. Don’t make the mistake of underrating him and let some other owner reap the rewards.

Chester Taylor

Even though he has never had a 1,000 yard season, Taylor is one of the backs to watch in 2006.  After four years of playing second fiddle to Jamal Lewis, Taylor has finally landed a starting role in Minnesota.

Many of the publications that you read like to talk about how much competition Taylor will have for the starting job in Minnesota, but that is not necessarily the truth. Onterrio Smith had a ton of talent, but too many issues and is gone. That leaves Mewelde Moore and Ciatrick Fason as the competition.

Mewelde Moore has played well when Michael Bennett got hurt, but has proved himself to be more a 3rd down back than a three-down back. He is particularly talented in the receiving game, but will not threaten Chester Taylor for carries. He’s a great handcuff for Taylor owners, but that’s about it. That leaves Ciatrick Fason, who has talent, but has never contributed in the NFL and won’t take carries away from Taylor.

And then there is Tony Richardson, one of the best fullbacks in the NFL today, maybe only 2nd to Lorenzo Neal. He has helped make stars out of Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson and will do the same for Taylor in 2006. Not to say he will have a Holmes or Johnson year, but Tony Richardson clearing a path is always a very good thing.

During his five seasons in Baltimore, even though his opportunities were very limited, Taylor was very productive when called upon. In 2005, Taylor had 487 yards rushing on only 117 attempts and 41 receptions for 292 yards and 2 touchdowns. While Taylor will never be a goal-line threat, he is capable of posting outstanding yardage numbers. In his five NFL seasons, Taylor has posted averages of 3.7, 4.4, 4.5 and 4.2 yards per carry.

Brad Childress, a disciple of Andy Reid, enters his first year as Minnesota’s head coach. While this may concern some, given Reid’s penchant for the pass, don’t expect Childress to bring that aspect of the game with him to Minnesota. Childress has even come out and said that he expects Taylor to carry the ball more than 20 times per game. If he stays healthy and gets those carries, he will produce.

Taylor will represent a nice value pick for owners searching for a back, after the bigger names are off the board. While he should be drafted as a flex, Taylor has the ability and is in a perfect situation to become a very good RB2.

While there has been some buzz around Taylor, he still isn’t likely to be drafted among the Top 15 fantasy backs. Don’t be surprised if Taylor seizes his opportunity to shine and winds up as a Top 10 fantasy back in 2006. If he stays healthy, expect 1,500 total yards and 7-8 touchdowns in 2006.

Laurence Maroney

Expect big things from this kid in 2006. In fact, the Offensive Rookie of the Year race will likely be between Maroney and Deangelo Williams. The Patriots did well to draft the Minnesota standout in the first round of the 2005 NFL draft. So well, even Peyton Manning was impressed with the kid.

While Maroney is currently ranked in the 30’s in most cheat sheets, expect him to greatly outperform that ranking by the end of this season. Maroney has been absolutely dominant in the preseason and is in a great situation in New England. Maroney will be playing on a great team, with a great line, without the pressure of immediately stepping-in and becoming the #1 back.

Maroney is one of those players that you shouldn’t expect success from in Week 1, but is likely to become a key contributor as the season progresses. By the time that the fantasy playoffs roll around, Maroney should either be the clear #1 back in New England, or have his role expanded to the point that he is a viable starting option at running back or flex.

Corey Dillon is 31 years old and has 10 NFL seasons under his belt. While he has had some impressive accomplishments, Dillon is clearly on the decline of his career. Since he’s not an elusive back, Dillon has taken a great deal of punishment in the last 10 seasons and is declining more rapidly than backs like Barber or Dunn.

In 2005, the tread on the tires became abundantly clear. Dillon missed four games and exceeded the 100 yard mark in only two of his twelve games. In eight of those games, he totaled less than 70 yards rushing. About the only place that Dillon was impressive in 2005 was the goal line with 12 rushing touchdowns.

What should you expect in 2006? Expect a situation similar to that of the Steelers in 2005, with Maroney handling most of the work and Dillon taking over short-yardage duties. In Pittsburgh last year, Willie Parker got all of he yards and Jerome Bettis got all of the touchdowns. In everything but touchdown-only leagues, this makes Maroney a lot more valuable than Dillon. While this may not become the situation in Week 1, expect it to happen sooner than later.

Maroney isn’t exactly a secret, but many aren’t expecting him to be as productive as he should be in 2006. You will need to take him by the middle rounds, because he won’t be there at the end. Don’t depend on him to be in your starting lineup, but draft him knowing that he will be shortly. He is a particularly good draft pick for those owners that look ahead to the playoff run, instead of just what will happen in Week 1.

What all of these backs have in common is that their performance is likely to exceed their projected performance this season. Some of them will be drafted and go right to the bench and others will contribute immediately. However, all should be a nice component to your championship run and provide invaluable depth at the most violent and injury-prone position in any professional sport. If you draft these guys, you are going to have some pleasant surprises in 2006.