RB rankings: L.T. untouchable at No. 1
Michael Harmon / FOXSports.com
It's the sports fan's favorite hyphenated word in May.
No, it's not inter-league, as in inter-league play that we'll witness in Major League Baseball this week. Rather, it's mini-camp, our firsts look at NFL squads for the 2007 season.
I know, training camp is still 10 weeks away, but it's never too early to start projecting our fantasy heroes for the coming season. Last week, I offered my first take on the quarterback position, which caused a bit of a stir. This week, I would expect no different, as the running backs take center stage.
To no one's surprise, all-world San Diego tailback LaDainian Tomlinson leads the way. But where does your favorite back rank? Let's take a look.
1. LaDainian Tomlinson, San Diego Chargers
What word best describes Tomlinson's 2006 season? Obliteration. Yes, Tomlinson ran over opposing defenses for 1,815 yards and set a new single-season record with 28 rushing touchdowns. It marked the first time in his career that Tomlinson led the league in either category, but he's ranked in the top 10 in both for six consecutive seasons (top six in rushing touchdowns each year).
The Chargers' high-flying offense returns virtually intact, and the continued maturation of Philip Rivers can only enhance Tomlinson's effectiveness. He's averaged 408 touches per season and most importantly for fantasy owners, does not miss time. Tomlinson has missed only one game in his six-year career.
2. Steven Jackson, St. Louis Rams
With Marshall Faulk sidelined by injury, Jackson stepped into the fantasy spotlight. He responded in a big way in Scott Linehan's attack, racking up 2,334 total yards and 16 total touchdowns. Jackson was held to fewer than 96 total yards in a game only once last season, a 57-yard effort against the Panthers in Week 11.
Jackson averaged 27.25 touches with 5.6 receptions per contest (90 total). It's that versatility that boosts Jackson to the second spot in my rankings for this year. He rushed for 100 yards six times and finished with 100 receiving yards three times. Jackson also scored 16 times in the final 13 games of the season, including four consecutive multi-touchdown games to end the year.
3. Larry Johnson, Kansas City Chiefs
Larry Johnson had his ups and downs in 2006, but the Kansas City offense has some sizable question marks heading into 2007. (Dilip Vishwanat / Getty Images)
Following his breakout 2005 half-season, Johnson raced to the top of fantasy boards in 2006 and did not disappoint. Certainly, there were a few frustrating weeks for fantasy owners (Weeks 5 & 6 in particular, when he rushed for only 62 total yards), but he still contributed 11 100-yard rushing games and one 100-yard receiving effort with 19 total touchdowns.
The fact that Johnson has racked up 826 touches in the past two seasons is a tad disconcerting, but in truth, that number isn't much higher than LaDainian Tomlinson's efforts. There are two bigger issues to be considered on draft day. First, untested second-year quarterback Brodie Croyle appears to be the top option in Kansas City, as Trent Green's status is still unclear. Second, the offensive line has lost two of its anchors in the past two off-seasons and needs to find its identity.
4. Shaun Alexander, Seattle Seahawks
Blame the "jinx." Blame the offensive line. Whichever theory you subscribe to, the facts are there. Alexander broke his foot and was limited to 10 games and 896 rushing yards in 2006 following his then-record breaking efforts of 2005. The loss of All-Pro lineman Steve Hutchinson certainly impacted the effectiveness of the running game, and Alexander failed to reach the century mark in eight of his ten games played.
His injury-shortened season snapped a streak of five consecutive 1,000-yard campaigns with double-digit rushing touchdowns. Things seemed to click for Alexander and his line down the stretch, and he ran well in the playoffs. Mike Holmgren dismissed recent comments about his the health of his foot, and Alexander is expected to resume his normal workload in Seattle. The trade of Darrell Jackson and a mostly unproven receiving corps puts the onus on Alexander and the line to get it done.
5. Frank Gore, San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers handed the reins to Gore before the 2006 season and he never looked back. The speedy third-year back is a threat to break one on every carry and will most certainly be an integral part of the San Francisco attack this season. Gore rushed for a stellar 5.4-yard per carry average (second only to Maurice Jones-Drew among running backs) and scored nine total touchdowns.
Gore topped 100 rushing yards nine times, including eight efforts over 120 yards with only sporadic help from the passing game. That should change this year with the addition of Darrell Jackson to the receiving corps. His addition to tight end Vernon Davis (and if the 49ers can catch lightning in a bottle with Ashley Lelie) will help Alex Smith's progression and open the field even more for Gore.
6. Joseph Addai, Indianapolis Colts
While the Colts would like to continue the dual back system that earned them a ring, Addai enters mini-camps without an obvious running mate. As such, his stock is sky-high as we drift into the summer months.
Addai excelled in a limited role alongside Dominic Rhodes, and demonstrated his big-game potential when given the opportunity (four touchdowns in Week 12 against Philadelphia). He averaged an impressive 4.8 yards per carry and reached the vaunted 1,000-yard mark for the year in spite of averaging only 14.1 carries per game. His ability to pick up the tough yards makes him a favorite of Tony Dungy, and the losses on defense portend to a need to score points in buckets once again.
7. Rudi Johnson, Cincinnati Bengals
Johnson isn't the sexiest pick among the top running backs to come off of the board, but he perennially ranks among the most productive. He has rushed for more than 1,300 yards in three consecutive seasons, and scored 12 touchdowns in each of those campaigns.
While Carson Palmer, Chad Johnson and company receive the press and highlight films, Johnson quietly picks up the tough yards keeps the chains moving. He has played in every game of the past three seasons, offering the durability often lacking at the tailback position.
8. Laurence Maroney, New England Patriots
Maroney's stock rises with the loss of Corey Dillon, but concern about the status of his shoulder remains. At this juncture, it's presumed that Maroney will be ready to go full-tilt once training camp opens. As such, he assumes a lofty ranking in the re-tooled and potentially explosive Patriots offense. Maroney averaged 4.3 yards per carry and rushed for 745 yards on the year in spite of the fact that he never reached 20 carries in a game.
The potential is certainly there for Maroney to rise to elite status this season. Dillon scored 13 touchdowns in the efficient New England attack. While the additions of Donte Stallworth and Randy Moss will certainly pad Tom Brady's passing touchdowns, there's no question that the running game will benefit as well.
9. Willie Parker, Pittsburgh Steelers
Parker entered the 2006 season with several players in competition for the goal-line work previously tended to by Jerome Bettis. He quickly assumed that role himself and rolled to a 16-touchdown season. Parker had a carry of at least 15 yards in 11 different games and racked up an impressive 1,494 rushing yards in spite of rushing for fewer than 60 yards on six occasions.
The recent signing of Kevan Barlow should not be presumed as a threat to Parker's workload at this time. Rather, it's the introduction of a more spread attack under Mike Tomlin that means bigger things for the passing game and players such as Heath Miller and Hines Ward in the red zone. With that said, Parker's game-breaking ability makes him a strong pick in the middle of the first round.
10. Brian Westbrook, Philadelphia Eagles
Even though the Eagles have multiple options at running back, Brian Westbrook should still see the majority of carries. (Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)
After years of working in multi-back sets, Westbrook served as the primary ball carrier in Philadelphia during the 2006 season. He carried the ball 239 times in 14 games (he missed Week 4 and only carried the ball once in the season finale) and still amassed 77 receptions. In fact, Andy Reid's heavy reliance on Westbrook resulted in his first Top 10 appearance in rushing yardage (1,217) and yards from scrimmage (1,916).
His workload figures to be similar in 2007. The addition of Tony Hunt offers an inside alternative if the oft-injured Correll Buckhalter is unable to return to action, but he's unlikely to take on a heavy workload early. Buckhalter will remain a top option in the passing game, as he's averaged 70.3 receptions in the past three seasons. There's always some concern about injuries with Westbrook, but few backs are as productive when he's sound.
11. Willis McGahee, Baltimore Ravens
McGahee narrowly missed recording his third consecutive 1,000-yard season, finishing the year with 990 in spite of missing three games. Struggles in the Buffalo offense resulted in a 3.8-yard per carry average for the second consecutive year, and McGahee faltered in a number of short-yardage situations.
His move to Baltimore puts him in a more dynamic offense with more weapons and a more imposing offensive line. A big push from Jonathan Ogden up front will spring the speedy McGahee for long gains, something that the Buffalo front was unable to do last year.
12. Travis Henry, Denver Broncos
I'll save the analysis of the brilliance of the Denver system for another column down the road. Trust me on this one. The system works.
Henry was impressive in his efforts for the Titans last year, averaging 4.5 yards per carry with seven touchdowns. Some detractors point to his age as a negative. They neglect to factor in that Henry has carried the ball a total of 452 times over the past three seasons.
Mike Bell figures to eat into his carries, which lowers the ceiling on his production to some degree. But, as we've seen in years past (most recently with the Bells last year), multiple backs can thrive in this system. If Jay Cutler progresses as expected, there will be ample goal-line touches.
13. Ronnie Brown, Miami Dolphins
The hire of Cam Cameron as head coach in Miami is certainly encouraging, as the team looks to take full advantage of Brown's abilities. Brown reached the 1,000-yard mark in spite of struggles on the offensive line and at quarterback and the fact that he missed three games. Cameron is looking to stabilize the unit and reverse the fortunes of Nick Saban's tenure.
As the team grapples with the health of Daunte Culpepper and the possible addition of Trent Green, Brown's workload appears to be on the rise. Cameron worked to spread the field in San Diego, but it was still reliant on frequent touches from his back. With more continuity in the offensive set, there's no reason to doubt Brown can deliver on his potential.
14. Clinton Portis, Washington Redskins
Portis's streak of four consecutive seasons with at least 1,300 rushing yards (three 1,500-yard campaigns) came to an end in 2006 as a result of a shoulder injury that required off-season surgery. Portis scored seven touchdowns in the eight games in which he appeared last year, but certainly was slowed by the injury sustained in the season opener.
The big question related to Portis's 2007 fortunes is how Joe Gibbs will utilize breakout star Ladell Betts. Given the success of two-back systems across the league in 2006, one would think that Gibbs will give Betts 8-to-10 touches per game, particularly as the team promotes the development of Jason Campbell. Even with a lower number of carries, I still expect Portis to produce at a high level this year and reach double-digit touchdowns.
15. Reggie Bush, New Orleans Saints
Fantasy owners were ready to jump off of the Reggie Bush bandwagon at midseason given his status as a decoy in the Saints' attack. As the season progressed, the tandem of Bush and Deuce McAllister became an impressive 1-2 punch and his workload increased tremendously. Bush averaged 81.69 total yards per game and accounted for 88 receptions and eight total touchdowns.