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2010 Draft Prep: Portis, Jones headed for a breakdown?

Senior Fantasy Writer
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Maybe you've noticed, maybe you haven't, but over the years we've had a thing for trying to detect when a running back breaks down before actually breaking down. Our basic theory revolves around not just a player's age but primarily their injury history and their career carry totals. The formula we created suggested to avoid LaDainian Tomlinson and Brian Westbrook in Fantasy drafts last season.

The red flags, in order of importance:

• Significant lower-body injury

• Near or over 2,400 career carries, including the postseason

• The equivalent of eight full seasons carrying the workload

• 30 years old or older

Now while we're confident in our theory, we're always looking for points of view from running backs that played a long time. Call it field study. Besides, these guys played for years and years in the NFL, taking on all sorts of punishment from running between the tackles and getting taken down on most every rep they had. They probably know a thing or two about when their bodies didn't feel right.

NFL Hall of Famer Barry Sanders, after being told our red flags for breakdowns, was a bit puzzled. After all, he's used to hearing that he left the game too soon.

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"Are you telling me I waited too long?" Sanders asked with a smile.

Coincidentally, Sanders and the two men ahead of him on the career rushing list, Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton, defied our red flags and played strong well into their 30s. They were athletic marvels who stayed in amazing shape throughout their careers and were "taken care of" by coaches and trainers off the field and by teammates on the field. In Sanders' case, he really did it without a lot of help -- Smith and Payton had massive offensive linemen for the majority of their careers. Sanders didn't -- he just had amazing speed and a knack for not getting caught. But he also credits good eating habits and knowing how to work out for his longevity.

Sanders happened to subscribe to our breakdown theory.

"There's probably a lot of truth to it," Sanders said. "From what I've seen, running backs have always had a short life span in the NFL, and then when you talk about years of really being productive, you're not talking about a lot of years for most guys. To ask your body to do what a running back does, because you touch a ball more than anybody as far as carrying the ball, and so it takes a toll and there's a breaking point."

Sanders' professional breaking point had nothing to do with his physical wellness, he said.

"I didn't really feel any different [physically]," Sanders said about his body at the end compared to the beginning and middle of his career. "For me it was more of the 'Do you really have the drive to be out here playing?' and that kind of thing."

Legendary Oilers and Titans running back Eddie George never lost his drive to play. George was the rare running back who didn't miss a game through his first eight seasons in the NFL, though he saw his production dip well before the end of his career. It just happened to be that George's first noticeably bad season came when he turned 30.

Like Sanders, George agrees with our study and says age is nothing but a number.

"I wouldn't look at the years, but you definitely look at the carries," George said. "The more carries you accumulate over a period of time, over an eight- or nine-year period, that's when you can start to see the decline. The [age] can vary.

"When you look at somebody like LaDainian Tomlinson, you can physically see that he's not the same from when he used to be. He's still productive but he's not breaking off the 60-yard runs, running through tackles, spinning out, running with that great passion that he once did. You see him now tripping over his own feet in the open field, and those are signs that he's not what he used to be. He still can get it done, don't get me wrong, but I don't think he'll be that 1,600-yard back or that 1,500-yard back that he used to be."

Who's next?

By now you know that Tomlinson is an over-the-hill back, and you can attribute the same title to Brian Westbrook. But other veteran rushers with a long, long record of toting The Duke are also potential disappointments this season.

NAME AGE AS OF
WEEK 1
MAJOR
INJURY
EIGHT-PLUS
SEASONS
NEAR/OVER
2,400 CARRIES
Ladell Betts 31     792
Correll Buckhalter 31   654
Justin Fargas 30   827
Kevin Faulk 34     927
Larry Johnson 30     1,434
Thomas Jones 32   2,400
Maurice Morris 30     739
Sammy Morris 33   689
Willie Parker 29(30 in Nov.)   1,380
Clinton Portis 29     2,246
Chester Taylor 30     1,050
Fred Taylor 34 2,620
LaDainian Tomlinson 31   2,976
Derrick Ward 30   468
Brian Westbrook 31   1,437
Ricky Williams 33   2,174

The names that should stand out on this list are Tomlinson, Thomas Jones and Clinton Portis, at least for Fantasy Football owners. Tomlinson has already seen his draft stock drop because he'll play second fiddle in New York behind Shonn Greene, and the same goes for Jones in Kansas City behind Jamaal Charles (in spite of his career year in 2009). Portis still looks like the primary ball carrier in Washington, though it cannot be ignored that the team added several running backs this offseason to ease his load, including two guys on this list, Larry Johnson and Willie Parker. Portis also didn't have leg issues last season but did miss half of 2009 with symptoms stemming from a concussion. But ultimately there is no denying in the case of any of these guys that they've taken on more than their fair share of touches and likely don't have the bodies to absorb hits like they might have in the past. When you evaluate these players on Draft Day, don't forget what you've just seen.

Additionally, sharing carries is the trend we've seen for years, and it's not going away. While it limits the total number of "20-touch" running backs available to Fantasy owners on Draft Day, it should keep running backs fresher for well into their 30s -- if they're still productive enough for the tastes of their coaches. That's what matters to NFL teams. Plus, teams like the Saints are realizing that finding good running backs doesn't require high draft picks or free-agency splurges. If it comes to pass that tandem rushing situations can be built effectively without spending valuable draft picks or cap room, the whole landscape of how running backs are evaluated, or how a breakdown is determined, will change dramatically.

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us via Twitter . You can also follow Dave at @daverichard . Do you have a question or a comment for our Fantasy staff? Drop us a line at dmfantasyfootball@cbs.com .

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Player News
Hammy limits Eric Decker to 12 snaps
by Larry Hartstein | CBSSports.com
(9:21 am ET) Jets receiver Eric Decker felt his hamstring tighten up during Monday's loss to the Bears. That's why he played just 12 snaps, none in the second half.

"When it tightens up, you can get it warmed up, loosened up, but it was at the point where it wasn't loosening up," he told The Star-Ledger.

Decker said he decided to play because of how he felt in pregame warmups. "It was a soreness and everyone has soreness -- I've played through a lot of soreness in my career so far," he said. "I felt like I wanted to give it a chance; I didn't want to sit out. I didn't do anything stupid. I pulled myself at the right time."

Decker caught his only target for 19 yards. He'll be evaluated throughout the week as the Jets prepare to face the Lions on Sunday.


Ravens to use committee approach at tight end
by Larry Hartstein | CBSSports.com
(9:10 am ET) With tight end Dennis Pitta out for the season following hip surgery, the Ravens will use a committee to replace him, reports ESPN.com. The website expects tight end Owen Daniels, fullback Kyle Juszczyk and receiver Marlon Brown to assume larger roles in Pitta's absence.

Daniels is in his ninth season with offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, and "he's also gained the trust of Joe Flacco with his toughness over the middle," the report said. But Daniels doesn't gain much separation anymore and has missed 26 games over the past five seasons, the website added.


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(9:03 am ET) Bears safety Ryan Mundy sustained a "serious stinger" Monday night against the Jets, reports ESPN.com. Mundy had an interception for a touchdown and two tackles in the win. His status for Week 4 is unclear.

Muhammad Wilkerson's injury not considered serious
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(1:03 am ET) The knee injury suffered by Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson in the fourth quarter Monday night is not believed to be serious, reports the New York Daily News. Wilkerson recorded 1.5 sacks, three quarterback hits and five tackles before leaving.

Jets DST hurt by officiating
by Larry Hartstein | CBSSports.com
(1:00 am ET) The Jets DST recorded four sacks and recovered a fumble in Monday's loss to the Bears, but should have scored a touchdown too. The score was negated by a controversial call.

Just before halftime, linebacker David Harris sacked quarterback Jay Cutler and popped the ball loose. Linebacker Demario Davis picked it up and had a clear path to the end zone. Officials, however, had blown the play dead, ruling it merely a sack.

Upon review, the play was correctly called a fumble. But the whistle wiped out the Jets' score. The Jets DST missed another opportunity in the second half when corner Antonio Allen dropped an easy interception.

The Jets host the Lions in Week 4.


Nick Folk stays busy Week 3
by Larry Hartstein | CBSSports.com
(12:48 am ET) The Jets' struggles in the red zone gave kicker Nick Folk ample opportunities Monday night. He nailed field goals of 43, 28, 22 and 42 yards and added a PAT for a 13-point night. Now 7 of 7 on field goals this year, Folk plays the Lions in Week 4.

Jets get offensive contributions
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(12:45 am ET) Several Jets made offensive contributions in the Week 3 loss to the Bears. Quarterback Michael Vick had a 3-yard run. Running back Bilal Powell carried twice for 13 yards and caught two of three targets for 6 yards.

Jets' tight ends combine for seven grabs
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(12:43 am ET) The Jets got their tight ends heavily involved Week 3 against the Bears. Rookie Jace Amaro caught three of four targets for 54 yards, Jeff Cumberland caught three of six targets for 18 yards and Zach Sudfeld had a 15-yard grab.

They'll face the Lions in Week 4.


David Nelson draws seven targets
by Larry Hartstein | CBSSports.com
(12:40 am ET) Jets receiver David Nelson was targeted seven times in Monday night's loss to the Bears, second-most on the team. Nelson managed three catches on 15 yards. He'll play the Lions in Week 4.

Greg Salas makes a 51-yard catch
by Larry Hartstein | CBSSports.com
(12:39 am ET) Jets receiver Greg Salas spun away from a defender for a 51-yard catch-and-run late in the Week 2 loss to the Bears. He finished with two catches on three targets for 56 yards. Salas plays the Lions in Week 4.

 
 
 
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