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2012 Draft Prep: RBs with breakdown potential

Senior Fantasy Writer
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For several years we've done some serious studying on when a running back will break down. We began on our mission because we thought it was myth that a running back who turned 30 was suddenly ripe for disaster. That proved to be the case -- it is a myth. The number of career carries combined with a consistent heavy workload over a period of time along with the impact of major leg injuries better signaled when a back would slow down, not his age.

But the criteria could be changing. As you probably know, there's a major change in how teams view running backs across the league. They are bailing out on them much sooner than they used to for fear of catching runners with no tread left on their proverbial tires. So in the past we'd see several backs with well over 2,000 career carries but now there is only one back -- Steven Jackson -- over that threshold. Willis McGahee is second closest with 1,901 carries (this includes the postseason).

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So the new "warning level" on career carries should definitely come down, and perhaps receptions should play a role. Granted, a catch and a carry don't quite wear on a running back the same way since there's a little less bumping on a reception than on a carry between the tackles. But work is work.

The "warning level" on number of years shouldering the workload should also come down. Hardly any running backs get eight straight seasons with at least 250 carries per year -- again Jackson is the only guy closest to that mark after seven years in a row with a big total.

Major injuries to running backs remain relevant for obvious reasons.

So here's the latest theory on when a running back could be due to break down:

• The number of consistent heavy workload seasons are basically irrelevant. If a player regularly gets 250 carries per season, it's just part of the total number of carries he gets. We're throwing out that part.

• Major injuries, especially lower-body injuries, matter and speed up the slow-down process.

• Wear and tear based on the total number of touches is still a major factor. Carries count as normal, but the total amount of receptions divided by three will be added to the number of carries to create a total "touch evaluation number." The thinking here is that on average a running back suffers the same amount of wear and tear on three receptions as he does one carry. Because running backs are catching the ball a little more often than in the past, this part of the study will be subject to change in the future, but for now it's at least easy enough to make sense of. Running backs whose total evaluation number is at least 2,100 will be considered at-risk for a breakdown. For a back with a major injury, their at-risk number is more like 1,900.

We strongly feel age has nothing to do with when a back is set to slow down. To prove it, we've included some 29-year old runners in this year's study. Based on our criteria, some of them have at least two seasons left before any sort of regression in production takes place.

Career carries Career rec. Total evaluation # Major injury Week 1 age
Cedric Benson 1,595 113 1,633   29 (30 in Dec.)
Ronnie Brown 1,199 190 1,262 30
Frank Gore 1,682 300 1,782 29
Fred Jackson 1,367 244 1,448   31
Steven Jackson 2,157 372 2,281   29
Brandon Jacobs 1,198 88 1,227   30
Willis McGahee 1,901 186 1,963 30
Darren Sproles 389 267 478   29
Michael Turner 1,506 54 1,524   30
DeAngelo Williams 1,008 135 1,053   29

Steven Jackson sticks out like a sore thumb on the list. It bears repeating that he's the only active player in the NFL with 2,000-plus carries and is turning 30 next July. And if he stays healthy he'll also top 2,400 career carries this season, which is our old warning level for workhorse backs to break down. I ran into Jackson this summer and he looked nothing like a worn down old football player, so he deserves the benefit of the doubt this season. It's next season where I could see him sputtering.

Willis McGahee is another risk, but that's nothing new for him. After a major knee injury ended his college career, McGahee missed his rookie season and has generally been considered an injury concern every year. But he's been productive in six of his nine seasons. The Broncos drafted Ronnie Hillman with the idea of infusing him in the Denver offense but he's missed plenty of camp with hamstring issues. McGahee continues to plow right along. He should still be effective in his 10th NFL season.

Fred Jackson's number might look a little confusing. He has 817 career carries in the NFL but had another 550 in the United Indoor Football League. Should they count the same as NFL carries? We think so -- while the players in the UIFL aren't the same kind of hard hitters as in the NFL, there is no out of bounds, so he got hit on every single carry. It counts.

Looking ahead

Because our study is breaking some new ground we thought we'd take a gander at running backs who are starting to accumulate carries and be considered for the study in a few seasons. These are not guys to worry about breaking down because of their career workloads but rather just to keep your eyes on starting this season.

Career carries Career rec. Total evaluation # Major injury Week 1 age
Matt Forte 1,056 236 1,135   26
Chris Johnson 1,198 195 1,263   26
Maurice Jones-Drew 1,498 285 1,593   27
Marshawn Lynch 1,160 143 1,208   26
Adrian Peterson 1,477 140 1,524 27
Ray Rice 1,063 279 1,156   25

Perhaps the names who aren't on this list are the ones Fantasy owners should feel better about. Arian Foster (710 carries, 135 catches), LeSean McCoy (652 carries, 171 catches), Darren McFadden (553 carries, 116 catches), Ahmad Bradshaw (811 carries, 129 catches), Jamaal Charles (508 carries, 118 catches) and BenJarvus Green-Ellis (557 carries, 31 catches) are all established veterans without a heavy history of work. It never hurts to target fresher running backs since the chances of them slowing aren't as high as those who have already put in the time.

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
Sammy Watkins risky in Week 1
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(1:25 am ET) The Bills haven't had a bonafide No. 1 receiver since the days of Jim Kelly to Andre Reed, but rookie Sammy Watkins has the talent to be their best wide receiver since the franchise's Super Bowl era. Sure, Eric Moulds, Lee Evans and Stevie Johnson were fine, but with the right quarterback, Watkins can be special.

Unfortunately, Watkins will be catching passes from second-year signal caller EJ Manuel. The team seems to have little confidence in Manuel being the answer at quarterback just one year after drafting him in the first round. Kyle Orton was pulled out of retirement and handed a pricy one-year deal, and one can easily picture the scenario where he's starting games for the team in November and December.

Will Manuel respond to the job-security threat with elevated play? His best shot is to feed his star rookie early and often. Bears cornerback Charles Tillman has made a career off shutting down No. 1 receivers, but he's not the same player at 33 as he was at 25. While he was a plus in coverage as recently as 2012, Tillman struggled on the field between injuries last year. If Watkins had a top-16 quarterback delivering the ball, I'd like him for a big game in Week 1. As it is, Fantasy owners would be best holding off on starting Watkins until the quarterback situation plays itself out for better or for worse.


Fred Jackson may have trouble finding running room in Week 1
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(1:04 am ET) Bills running back Fred Jackson will face a Bears team in Week 1 that did a terrible job at defending the run last season. However, his Week 1 success may not be as pre-ordained as that of running mate, C.J. Spiller.

Unlike Spiller, Jackson does much of his work without the benefit of big plays, grinding out his numbers by taking what the defense gives rather than providing a home-run threat on any down. While most of the members of the Bears back seven that was responsible for surrendering so many big plays has returned, the team has overhauled the defense line, signing three new defensive ends and drafting two rotational defensive tackles.

Two of those free-agent additions are Lamarr Houston and Willie Young, the two players that graded out as the best 4-3 defensive ends in run stop percentage last season, per Pro Football Focus. With those two players in tow and second-round draft pick Ego Ferguson taking up space in the middle, Jackson could have difficulty converting on short-yardage or goal-line situations.

It's also fair to wonder how many long scoring drives the Bills will be able to put together if Jackson and the offensive line can't stymie the line's potentially improved rush defense. EJ Manuel hasn't done enough at this point in his career to trust his ability to pick defenses apart with his arm. If the Bills have trouble finding the red zone, Jackson could wind up being a Week 1 Flex option Fantasy owners come to regret.


C.J. Spiller could ride big plays to productive Week 1
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(12:39 am ET) Bills running back C.J. Spiller has feasted on big plays ever since emerging as a Fantasy weapon. In 2012, he was third in the league in breakaway percentage, a statistic tracked by Pro Football Focus that determines how much of a player's rushing yardage total is accrued on plays of at least 15 yards. Spiller topped the league in the category last season. Clearly, if he can find a seam, he has the ability to wrea havoc on a defense.

Spiller will be squaring off with the Bears on Sunday. Last season, the Bears turned in by far the worst run defense performance in the league. They surrendered 2,583 rushing yards and 5.3 yards per rush, both marks placing them last in the league. They overhauled the defensive line in the offseason as a result, drafting two rotational defensive tackles and signing three defensive ends.

But if those players can't keep Spiller bottled up at the line all game, he's a threat to break a long touchdown or two. While the Bears run defense was obviously porous as a unit, the back seven was particularly offensive, ranking last in Football Outsiders' second-level yardage and open-field yardage statistics. The Bears didn't do much to upgrade those two levels of the defense either, meaning plenty of broken tackles and long gains are there for the taking if Spiller can find a little daylight. He's a trustworthy RB2 in Week 1 and a must-use in any Flex conversations.


EJ Manuel will look to conquer road woes Sunday
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(12:20 am ET) Bills quarterback EJ Manuel endured what could at best be described as an uneven rookie season last year. Going 4-6 as a starter, Manuel particularly struggled on the road, where he turned in poor performances against the Jets, Browns, Steelers and Buccaneers before turning in a quality performance against the Jaguars in Week 14, his last game of the season.

Manuel opens this season on the road as well, heading to Soldier Field to take on the Bears Sunday. He'll be facing a new-look Chicago defensive line, rebuilt after the Bears defense struggled to generate a pass rush last season. Whether that pass rush can be effective could be the key to Manuel's success; the quarterback averaged 6.9 yards per attempt when under no pressure last season, but just 5.0 yards per attempt when faced with pressure.

Is there a good reason to start Manuel in Week 1? Not really. Every Fantasy team should be looking at a healthy roster heading into the beginning of the season, and there are anywhere from 14 to 20 QBs worth using over Manuel no matter the matchup. But a good performance in an unfavorable environment against a potentially improved pass rush would go a long way towards making the second-year player Fantasy relevant in 2014.


Patriots claim Don Jones off waivers
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(9/1/2014) The Patriots have been awarded safety Don Jones on waivers from the Dolphins and waived offensive lineman Chris Barker in a corresponding move.

The Patriots will likely be looking for some extra insight on their Week 1 opponent after bringing the former Dolphin into the fold. The move leaves the Patriots with six safeties on the roster.


Jets release Ellis Lankster, re-sign A.J. Edds
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(9/1/2014) The Jets released cornerback Ellis Lankster and re-signed inside linebacker A.J. Edds Monday.

Report: Chris Conte to start if medically cleared
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(9/1/2014) Bears safety Chris Conte will be the team's starting free safety in Sunday's season opener against the Bills, provided he's medically cleared to play, ESPN reports.

Conte has been locked in a position battle with rookie Brock Vereen, and despite suffering a concussion during the team's third preseason game, he's done enough to be named the starter. It wouldn't be surprising to see Vereen overtake Conte in the starting lineup, with the latter grading out as a below-average starter, according to ProFootballFocus.com, who particularly struggles in run support.


Report: Raiders going with Derek Carr over Matt Schaub
by Larry Hartstein | CBSSports.com
(9/1/2014) Raiders players have been told the team will start rookie Derek Carr over veteran Matt Schaub at quarterback, reports Fox Sports. Carr threw three touchdown passes in last Thursday's preseason finale while Schaub has battled elbow problems.

Oakland opens the season Sunday at the Jets.


Emmanuel Sanders a strong flex option Week 1
by Larry Hartstein | CBSSports.com
(9/1/2014) Assuming Wes Welker returns from his concussion and plays Week 1, teammate Emmanuel Sanders still will be a strong flex option. Colts-Broncos is a guaranteed shootout -- the over/under is a whopping 55, highest on the board -- and Peyton Manning can support three productive Fantasy receivers with ease.

Plus, Manning has taken a liking to Sanders. When Sanders debuted in the third preseason game, the duo hooked up for 67- and 29-yard touchdowns in the first half.

"You just throw it as far as you can, and it's hard to outthrow that guy," Manning told the team's website.

Sanders finished with five catches for 128 yards on eight first-half targets, doing most of that before Welker got concussed. Sanders was not 100 percent for that game; he had just come back from a quad injury.

Now Sanders, who started building chemistry with Manning at informal Duke University workouts, "looks ready for the big stage," the website said.

"Peyton puts it on the money," Sanders said. "He takes pride in throwing the perfect football. He takes pride in being perfect all around, in general. He makes my job easy."

Manning is going to help Sanders reach a level he has not hit before, starting Sunday night.

Redskins complete practice squad
by Larry Hartstein | CBSSports.com
(9/1/2014) The Redskins filled out their 10-man practice squad by signing safety Akeem Davis and linebacker Chaz Sutton, reports the Washington Post.

 
 
 
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