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2011 Draft Prep: Hedging your bets on Mendenhall

Senior Fantasy Writer
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Rashard Mendenhall is going to be good this year. He's just not going to be great. And if you have the chance to draft Isaac Redman with a late-round pick, you should plan on doing so.

Back in February, when the Steelers were set to play the Packers in Super Bowl XLV, I researched running backs who make it all the way to the final game of the season. You can see the results of that research with the interactive visualization below, and it could be a long year for Mendenhall.

The prediction here is he will struggle in 2011.

You see, running backs who played in the Super Bowl the past five seasons haven't exactly fared well the next year. The Packers don't have anything to worry about since they used a backfield by committee following Ryan Grant's ankle injury in Week 1, but Mendenhall could suffer a breakdown. And the reason could be his workload from 2010.

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Over the past five years there were 25 running backs who were significant contributors in helping their teams reach the Super Bowl. Of those 25, 12 saw a decrease in Fantasy points the following season and two did not play again (Jerome Bettis and Reuben Droughns).

In looking at the 10 starters, seven saw a decrease in Fantasy points the following season (Pierre Thomas, Joseph Addai, Willie Parker, Edgerrin James, Laurence Maroney, Thomas Jones and Shaun Alexander). And five suffered significant injuries (Thomas, Reggie Bush, Addai, Maroney and Alexander). Four of the running backs who saw an increase in Fantasy points the following season were injury replacements (Donald Brown, Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk and Maurice Morris).

The biggest reason for Super Bowl running backs seeing a decrease in production the next year is likely wear and tear. On top of all their carries during the regular season, they get as many as four games worth of additional touches. There were 11 running backs who played in the Super Bowl over the past five seasons that had at least 50 touches in the postseason. For Alexander, he had 370 carries in the regular season in 2005 and then 60 carries in the playoffs. No wonder he couldn't make it through 2006.

Mendenhall had 412 touches last year (385 carries and 27 catches) over 19 games, including 61 carries and four catches in the playoffs. Since he runs between the tackles and thrives on contact, that kind of workload catches up to running backs quickly.

Now, in his defense, he's only 24 and has just two years of work as a starter under his belt, so his body hasn't been beaten up too much in his career. The NFL lockout also helped him with a lack of work in the offseason. He has a favorable schedule this year and the Steelers will feature him at the goal line. He had 1,273 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns last year in the regular season.

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But if you look at Mendenhall's overall body of work from last year, it can be a little deceiving. He had just four games with more than 100 rushing yards, and two of them came when Ben Roethlisberger was suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the NFL's code of conduct policy.

Keep in mind that he had seven games with at least 22 carries and 11 games with at least 18 carries, so the Steelers tried to force feed him the ball. And if you look at his stats with Roethlisberger and without, he averaged 102.8 rush yards when his starting quarterback was suspended and just 72.8 in the 15 games when Roethlisberger was active, including the postseason.

The Steelers also continue to open up the passing game – Roethlisberger has averaged at least 32 pass attempts a game in each of the past two seasons – and they have a dynamic receiving corps with Mike Wallace, Hines Ward and Antonio Brown. The more they throw, the less likely Mendenhall is to rack up stats.

When looking at Mendenhall on Draft Day – he's being drafted at No. 16 overall (Round 2) as the No. 9 running back – he should be taken as a starter because for stretches of the season he will play well. A good comparison is Michael Turner from 2009. He had a heavy workload with 376 carries in 2008, but in 2009 he suffered an ankle injury and played in just 11 games. He still managed 871 yards and 10 touchdowns.

We can definitely see Mendenhall having plenty of positive moments, but there could also be a time where he's resting or out, based on Super Bowl history. And that's where Redman comes in.

If you can draft him with a late-round pick – his Average Draft Position is No. 158 overall (Round 13) – you could be getting a sleeper with plenty of upside. Because if Mendenhall struggles as previous running backs who played in the Super Bowl have recently, then the backup for the Steelers could be a great Fantasy running back this year.

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us via Twitter @CBSFantasyFB . You can also follow Jamey at @JameyEisenberg and on Facebook .

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