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2011 Draft Prep: Running backs to target late

Senior Fantasy Writer
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Everyone knows that having good running backs is a key to success in Fantasy Football. Everyone also knows who Adrian Peterson and Arian Foster are and how good they can be for owners, and everyone knows about the good "value" picks at running back starting in Round 4.

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But it's the goal of every Fantasy owner to strike gold at running back with a pick in the middle rounds or later. Who among us wouldn't have jumped at the chance to snare Peyton Hillis or LeGarrette Blount last year if we knew in advance that they'd play such huge roles in Fantasy leagues?

Think about what it took for Hillis, Blount, Foster and every single other out-of-nowhere running back to become a productive Fantasy player. Someone in front of them on the depth chart either got hurt or didn't produce to expectations, and the coaches made a change.

Predicting injuries isn't exactly easy to do (well, unless we're talking about older running backs), but predicting poor performance is something we can do.

With a strict focus on finding running backs that can be found in the middle rounds or later, let's review some possible backups who might become starters before the end of 2011.

Starter Why he might struggle Primary backup
Joseph Addai Missed eight games last year, topped 70 rush yards seven times in last three seasons. Donald Brown
Cedric Benson Benson played first 16-game season ever in 2010, might see defenses hone in on him. Bernard Scott
Jahvid Best Injury prone; struggled with turf toe last year and concussion this year. Maurice Morris
Ryan Grant Coming off ankle injury, not having strong summer, could split reps to start year. James Starks
Peyton Hillis Hurt hamstring, back early on in camp. Running style leads to injuries (see Dec. 2010). Montario Hardesty
Darren McFadden Has history of foot/toe injuries, hurt his eye in camp. Might see defenses hone in on him. Michael Bush
Daniel Thomas Averaging 3.17 yards per carry in preseason, has struggled at goal line. Reggie Bush
Beanie Wells Has injury history. Has had one career 100-yard game and one career 20-carry game. LaRod Stephens-Howling
DeAngelo Williams Finished last two seasons on IR. Has eight TDs in last 19 games after totaling 20 in 2008. Jonathan Stewart

Of these running backs, Stewart and Michael Bush are the most likely to be picked before the late-round fliers begin to go. They carry good value as backups but can't be counted on weekly to put up good numbers. Think Round 9 or 10 on them. Reggie Bush and James Starks are pretty decent choices to go next, potentially in the same rounds as Stewart and Bush, with Hardesty the only other backup to find his way onto rosters in the vast majority of leagues.

If there's one guy to break the bank on, it's Starks. Sources in Packers camp say he's been very impressive and has shown flashes of being an improved runner and receiver this summer. Talk of Grant's decline hasn't come without a comparison to Starks, and it seems like the two are close to sharing touches this year. That would make Starks desirable as soon as Round 10 or 11.

The backup running backs listed above are being drafted based on their upside despite their respective roles. But what about running backs who simply have good value on Draft Day? In these instances, players who will play and have potential to put up some good stats in favorable matchups are available -- and we don't have to wait for someone else to get hurt or play bad to reap the rewards (though a jump to the starting lineup never hurts).

Tim Hightower, Redskins
Average Draft Position: 99.3 (Round 9)
It would be a shock if Hightower didn't start for the Redskins after his incredible preseason (170 rush yards on 25 carries with runs for 37 and 58 yards). His primary competition for the job is Ryan Torain, who has yet to take a preseason snap after a broken hand sidelined him. In reality, Hightower could produce like a Top-20 running back so long as he holds onto the football and nails his goal-line chances as he did most of the time in Arizona. He's an absolute steal in Round 9 and might play like a running back drafted in Round 5! Expect him to come off the board somewhere in-between.

Willis McGahee, Broncos
Draft Average: 114.3 (Round 10)
McGahee has three touchdowns in his first three preseason games in Denver, overshadowing his weak rushing average (2.82). Judging by how the Broncos have been using him, he might be this year's most prolific touchdown vulture, making him a decent one-week replacement option. And with Knowshon Moreno a year removed from missing a little time with a hamstring problem, there very well could be some weeks where the Broncos' run-heavy offense leans on McGahee. Not a lot of risk to take with an 10th-round pick.

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DeMarco Murray, Cowboys
Draft Average: 145.2 (Round 13)
Rare is the running back that plays sparingly, if at all, in the preseason but still finds a niche with the offense in the regular season. Murray could be that guy. Felix Jones is the no-doubt starter but Murray could reprise Marion Barber's old role as the physical rusher. Plus, Jones has had some injury issues over his short career. Despite missing the start of preseason with a hamstring strain, Murray should be a factor at some point this season.

Javon Ringer, Titans
Draft Average: 145.5 (Round 13)
Chris Johnson's holdout appears to be far from over, which breathes life into Ringer's Fantasy value. He's sidelined with a minor hip injury but is expected to be OK for the season, and he should be effective in place of Johnson. Where Ringer gets tripped up is in sharing carries; rookie Jamie Harper has carved out a role in the run game by virtue of his eye-opening preseason (touchdown in every game). He's more of a bullying inside runner and doesn't have very good speed, but he'll do enough to take some work off of Ringer. Both of these guys are early-season running back replacements, namely if you drafted Johnson.

Jason Snelling, Falcons
Draft Average: 153.8 (Round 13)
Everyone has fallen asleep on Snelling. Not only is he being missed in plenty of drafts, but the entire NFL passed on him this offseason, leading to his return to the Falcons in a backup role. All Snelling has done is total five touchdowns in each of the last two seasons with over 600 total yards last year and over 850 total in 2009. Michael Turner is always susceptible to injury, and while he's far from losing his job as the Falcons' top back, the coaches won't resist using Snelling if they think Turner needs some rest. He's worth stashing on benches.

Pierre Thomas, Saints
Draft Average: 110.0 (Round 10)
Mark Ingram has taken the Saints' ground game by storm, but he hasn't sent Thomas to the bench. Thomas is still in the mix for New Orleans and could provide some good yardage totals while splitting reps with Ingram. Where there's a divide is at the goal line, where Thomas could be used but Ingram will probably dominate. But for a guy who will still see around 10 touches a game and would be a huge asset if Ingram struggles or gets hurt, Round 10 is a fine time to add Thomas to Fantasy benches.

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Player News
Gavin Escobar a threat to Jason Witten?
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(1:13 am ET) Cowboys rookie tight end Gavin Escobar, who entered the day with just four catches all season, wasn't highly targeted Week 7 against the Giants, but he made the three targets he did get count, scoring two touchdowns, including one on an impressive 26-yard grab between two defenders in the third quarter.

In all, he had three catches for 65 yards -- numbers that would be easier to overlook if not for the two touchdowns and the fact that fellow tight end Jason Witten, to this point a mainstay in Fantasy, had only two catches for 27 yards. And it's not like he and quarterback Tony Romo were just failing to connect. Witten was targeted only twice the whole game.

Witten's production hasn't been up to his usual standards this season -- in seven games, he's averaging 3.3 catches for 38.0 yards -- but just based on their history together, you figured Romo would have a need for him sooner or later. Now with the emergence of Escobar, it's no longer so clear.

Escobar himself isn't worth adding except in deep leagues of 16 teams or more that don't have enough tight ends to go around. In those formats, he's the new Timothy Wright. But in leagues of 12 teams or fewer, Witten may be on the outs. He deserves a couple more weeks given his history, but keep an eye out for the next big thing at the position.


Larry Donnell here to stay?
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(12:55 am ET) After catching just one pass in his previous two games combined, Giants tight end Larry Donnell got back on track Week 7 at Dallas, catching seven passes for a season-high 90 yards.

Considering it was the Giants' first game without star wide receiver Victor Cruz, Donnell was expected to play a bigger role in the passing game, but a resurgence of this magnitude should remind us all how he came to be owned in 83 percent of Fantasy leagues in the first place. Over the first four weeks, he averaged 6.3 catches for 59 yards, scoring four touchdowns.

One potential pitfall for Donnell is that he lost two fumbles in Week 7, giving him three fumbles lost for the season, but with so few tight ends capable of his kind of production in a given week, the Giants would have to suggest his playing time is in jeopardy for me to pass on Donnell in Fantasy.

His production fell when rookie wide receiver Odell Beckham entered the mix in Week 4. Now that Cruz is out of the mix, Donnell's production figures to rise again.


Odell Beckham shows he's worth adding
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(12:42 am ET) Only three games into his career, Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham has emerged as one of quarterback Eli Manning's favorite red-zone targets, which is especially good news with another one of his favorite red-zone targets, Victor Cruz, lost for the season with a knee injury.

Beckham didn't have a lot of chances Week 7 at Dallas, but he made the most of the ones he got, scoring on catches of 9 and 5 yards. In all, he had four catches for 34 yards. His six targets were third-most on the team, behind wide receiver Rueben Randle's nine and tight end Larry Donnell's seven.

The six targets were a season high for Beckham. He has yet to catch more than four passes for more than 44 yards, but because he keeps getting looks in the end zone, he's worth adding in Fantasy even if it's just to stash him on your bench until you're ready to put your trust in him.


An encouraging performance for Eli Manning
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(12:34 am ET) Playing his first game without star wide receiver Victor Cruz, who's out for the season with a torn patella tendon, Giants quarterback Eli Manning still managed to bounce back from arguably his worst game of the season with one of his best Week 7 at Dallas, completing 21 of 33 passes for 248 yards and three touchdowns.

It was his fifth game in six with multiple touchdown passes and his second with at least three. And he did it against a defense that had generally kept quarterbacks out of the end zone, recording nearly as many interceptions (seven) as it had allowed touchdown passes (eight) prior to Week 7.

Though two of his touchdown passes went to rookie wide receiver Odell Beckham, who wasn't even available to him the first four weeks, Manning did a nice job of spreading the ball around. None of the touchdowns went to his two leading receivers, Larry Donnell and Rueben Randle.

Judging by this performance, Manning knows how to make use of the weapons the Giants have and doesn't need Cruz to remain successful in Fantasy. His bad games can be really bad, but his good games have been frequent enough for you to give him another shot when he returns from a bye Week 9 against Indianapolis.


Andre Holmes comes back down to earth
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(12:26 am ET) Raiders wide receiver Andre Holmes, who blew up for 121 yards and two touchdowns Week 6 against San Diego, took a long time to get going Week 7 against Arizona, catching his first pass about midway through the fourth quarter. Not surprisingly, he finished with just three catches for 34 yards. 

It's not like he was invisible before then. He nearly had a great catch on a long pass along the sidelines in the second quarter, but it was ruled incomplete. He did have only two targets apart from his three receptions, though.

Clearly, it was a disappointing showing, but it's not like quarterback Derek Carr forgot about him. Only James Jones and Darren McFadden had more targets, tying for the team lead with eight. Holmes spent much of the game covered by Patrick Peterson, who remains one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL. Holmes still has incredible play-making ability and will have better days.

But this performance shows why you can't trust him on an every-week basis yet. His matchup Week 8 against Cleveland is another tricky one because of cornerback Joe Haden, who has struggled at times this season but limited the Jaguars' Cecil Shorts to three catches for 12 yards in Week 7. You might want to leave Holmes on your bench for this one.


49ers' Phil Dawson makes 1-of-2 field-goal attempts in Week 7
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(12:22 am ET) 49ers knicker Phil Dawson made only one of his two field-goal attempts in Week 7, adding two extra points in his team's 42-17 loss to the Broncos.

Dawson couldn't deliver from 51 yards out in the first quarter, pushing the attempt wide left, but was true from 22 yards out in the second quarter. He's 13 of 16 on field-goal attempts this season but had been 10-for-10 in his previous three games coming into Week 7. The 49ers have a bye in Week 8 before facing the Rams the following week.


49ers TE Vernon Davis catches two passes in Week 7 loss
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(12:20 am ET) 49ers tight end Vernon Davis caught just two of his five targets for 21 yards in his team's 42-17 loss to the Broncos in Week 7.

Davis was coming off an ugly Week 6 performance in which he dropped two passes, and he didn't fare much better in the team's blowout loss against the Broncos. He has 14 receptions for 142 yards and two touchdowns heading into the team's Week 8 bye. The 49ers will face the Rams after the week off.


49ers WR Michael Crabtree held to 27 yards in Week 7 loss
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(12:16 am ET) 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree caught four of his seven targets for just 27 yards in his team's 42-17 loss to the Broncos in Week 7.

While the 49ers averaged 11.1 yards per reception as a team Sunday, top options Crabtree (6.8 YPC) and Anquan Boldin (7.1 YPC) could find no room to work, leading to disappointing performances despite the offense dialing up 46 passes in the loss. Crabtree hasn't topped 50 yards in any of his last four games, and he owns 32 receptions, 322 yards and three touchdowns in seven games this year. The 49ers have a bye in Week 8 before facing the Rams the following week.


Anquan Boldin catches seven passes in 49ers' Week 7 loss
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(12:13 am ET) 49ers wide receiver Anquan Boldin caught seven of his 10 targets for 50 yards in his team's 42-17 loss to the Broncos in Week 7.

Boldin had at least one bad drop in the game and was unable to find much room to work downfield. He came into the week average 12.4 yards per reception but managed just 7.1 YPC against the Broncos. Boldin has collected 39 receptions for 447 yards and one touchdown in seven games. The 49ers have a bye in Week 8 before facing the Rams the following week.


49ers WR Steve Johnson scores touchdown in Week 7 loss
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(12:10 am ET) 49ers wide receiver Steve Johnson caught five passes for a team-high 79 yards and one touchdown in his team's 42-17 loss to the Broncos in Week 7.

Johnson hauled in a four-yard score in the back of the end zone with only 11 seconds left in the first half to send the 49ers into halftime with a 21-10 deficit. The Broncos took over from there, scoring three touchdowns in the third quarter. Johnson has reached the end zone in three of his last four games, and he's up to 25 receptions, 315 yards and three scores on the season. The 49ers have a bye in Week 8 before facing the Rams the following week.


 
 
 
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