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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.

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

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Player News
Reggie Wayne not participating in Thursday practice
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(12:02 pm ET) Colts veteran wideout Reggie Wayne, who is still completing a recovery from knee surgery, has been kept out of Thursday practice. It remains to be seen if he plays Saturday against the Saints. Chuck Pagano had expressed confidence that he would, but has not ruled out having Wayne inactive for the game.

Report: Neck injury likely to end career of DeVonte Holloman
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(11:49 am ET) Jason Garrett has told that the examination of a neck injury sustained in the Saturday preseason game by Cowboys second-year linebacker DeVonte Holloman revealed a condition that will probably end his career, per ESPN.

Holloman, who was also sidelined for seven games last season with a neck problem, started two games in 2013 and managed 14 tackles, 12 assists and two sacks.


James Ruffin let go by Tampa Bay
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(11:42 am ET) The Buccaneers have waived defensive and James Ruffin.

The 27-year-old Ruffin has yet to record any stats in the NFL. He played briefly for Cincinnati in 2010.


Coach to Jerry Hughes: "You don't have to play on this team"
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(11:39 am ET) Bills defensive end Jerry Hughes earned the wrath of Doug Marrone in Thursday practice. The coach also lambasted his entire team.

"You don't have to play on this team," Marrone told Hughes, per the Buffalo News. He then told all the players to "get your (stuff) together."


Hamstring issue still sidelines Steven Jackson on Thursday
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(11:32 am ET) Falcons veteran running back Steven Jackson remains out of practice Thursday. He has been nursing a hamstring injury, but is still on target to be ready for the regular season opener against New Orleans.

Brian Cushing working way back into regular role
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(11:27 am ET) Texans inside linebacker Brian Cushing, who lost 20 regular season games to injury over the last two seasons, is receiving increased practice time lately.

Cushing remains uncertain if he will be allowed to play Saturday night against Denver. If not, he will participate in the regular-season opener against Washington, according to the Houston Chronicle.

"For the most part, I've been practicing a good amount," he said. "I'm excited to be back out there. Any game-time situation, obviously, I want to play and play a good amount, but that's not up to me. That's up to the coaches."

Cushing has proven productive when healthy. He has averaged nearly eight tackles a game throughout his career.


Two key Cowboys back in action Thursday
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(11:13 am ET) Both quarterback Tony Romo was back in pads and linebacker Rolando McClain returned to Cowboys practice Thursday after missing the Wednesday session. Romo is set to play Saturday against Miami in the third exhibition game. McClain had been dealing with muscle cramps.

"He has some things that have sidetracked him here for a day or two," Jason Garrett told the Dallas News about McClain. "But obviously, being out at practice playing play after play, day after day matters."


Sammy Watkins inching forward in return from rib ailment
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(11:05 am ET) Bills rookie wide receiver Sammy Watkins has made progress in his recovery from a minor rib injury. He participated in route-running at Thursday practicing for the first time in three days, per WGR.

Pierre Thomas bracing for, but not accepting, decreased role
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(10:57 am ET) Pierre Thomas was already among the most productive pass-catchers out of the backfield in the NFL heading into this season. But the veteran Saints back sees that role increasing.

Thomas also anticipates being used more as a blocker with Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson expected to have their playing time increased. But Thomas is also not ready to give up too many reps as a runner. He rushed for 549 yards on 147 yards a year ago in a career-high nine starts while snagging 77 passes for 513 yards.

"I know my role is going to change a whole lot this year," he told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "I'm going to do more pass protection and route running. I'm improving my route running game. I'm stll going to be running the ball too. I've got a few changes here and there.

"...The coaches are not just going to put me down and sit me down on the side. Like I said, these guys are my friends and my teammates but they're going to have to outwork me. They're going to have to put me on the bench and that's going to be hard to do."


Da'Quan Bowers warned by coach about his absence
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(10:44 am ET) Buccaneers defensive tackle Da'Quan Bowers is not just nursing a groin strain, but now he must think about the warning of Lovie Smith that threatens his starting job.

"I think every day you don't practice, you're hurting your chances," Smith told the Tampa Tribune. "And we've seen enough to like Da'Quan a lot. But all the reps that he's not getting, someone else is getting them.

"The best way to beat your competition sometimes is just to stay on the field. You can't get Wally Pipp'd. Da'Quan is trying to get back, and again I think he has a future in the league, whether it be as a defensive end or a third-down rush-guy inside."

Bowers lost playing time and production in each of the last two years.


 
 
 
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