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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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Sims returns to the Bengals after spending the past two years in Oakland. Sims was a third-round pick in the 2008 draft by Cincinnati and spent his first years with the Bengals. 

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