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For release July 19, and thereafter

Here's a news flash for all of you fantasy football fanatics already gearing up for the NFL season: Perennial stars Larry Johnson and Shaun Alexander could be in for major dropoffs.

Yes, the pair at the center of last year's heated argument over who should be selected with the first pick of your fantasy draft is looking awfully questionable for 2007.

How can this happen to these steady touchdown machines? What can possibly be wrong with these surefire top picks?

Don't blame me. Blame history, which shows that, during the past 20 years, declining stats are a certainty for running backs who carry the ball too much or start getting old.

For Johnson, the big question is whether he'll even play. He's locked in a bitter contract dispute with the Kansas City Chiefs and may hold out. But even if he signs in time for training camp next week, his outlook is gloomy because of his workload.

Johnson set the NFL record for carries last year with 416, while piling up nearly 1,800 yards and 17 touchdowns. It's kind of a macho record to have, but it also spells trouble.

Only two other backs have posted 400-carry seasons during the past 20 years, and both struggled later. Jamal Anderson ran 410 times for 1,846 yards in 1998, and he missed 14 games with an injury the next year. Eddie George ran 403 times for 1,509 yards in 2000, but the next season didn't even reach 1,000 yards.

Johnson's workload is even more troubling when you consider he's averaged 376 carries the past two seasons - more than Earl Campbell ever did and not far behind Ricky Williams in their most heavily used back-to-back years.

How much wear and tear is that over two seasons?

Only three other backs have averaged so many carries since 1987. Denver's Terrell Davis averaged 380 in 1997-1998, and after that missed 28 games in his final three unproductive seasons. Edgerrin James averaged 378 his first two seasons, then missed 10 games the next. Williams averaged 388 carries in 2002-2003, then retired from the Dolphins for the next season.

Even getting close to that figure for one season has brutal consequences. During the past 20 years, 16 backs have carried 370 times or more. All were worse the next season, usually drastically. Their yardage fell by an average of 800, their TDs dropped by an average of nine, and they missed an average of four games.

Only one back has gotten better after so many carries since the NFL went to 16 games in 1978. Eric Dickerson carried 390 times as a Rams rookie in 1983, and the next year his yardage went up by 297 yards to 2,105.

Can Johnson buck the trend? Can he do what Dickerson did, only against much larger and faster defenders? Maybe, considering his freakish performances the past few years. But even if he holds up, what's his outlook in this offense?

His quarterback will be Brodie Croyle or Damon Huard, inviting defenses to stack up to stop the run. And Will Shields' retirement weakens a line that was already on the decline, as Johnson's yards per carry dipped from 5.2 in 2005 to 4.3 last year.

As for Alexander, he has also suffered from overuse while piling up averages of 1,500 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns the five seasons before last.

As the 2005 MVP, he ran for 1,880 yards and 27 scores. But it took him - you guessed it - 370 carries, so naturally he got hurt in 2006. And his stats dropped by 984 yards and 20 TDs.

Even more worrisome is that Alexander is getting older. In August, he turns 30 - an age when it's awfully hard to be one of the league's top runners.

Only 11 players 30 or older have cracked the top 10 in rushing yardage for a season in the last 20 years. (If the math is getting a little thick here, I'll spell it out: 189 of the most productive 200 runners were under 30.)

Maybe Alexander's good enough to overcome that trend, but last year showed signs of breaking down. Even before his broken foot knocked him out for six weeks, Alexander averaged 2.9 yards a carry in the opening three games.

When he came back from the injury, he wound up with a respectable 896 yards. But a closer look shows two good games (201 yards against Green Bay, 140 against San Diego) and eight marginal-to-crummy ones by his standards.

The Seahawks and Alexander emphasize he's fine, that it's no big deal that his left foot still may have a small crack. (I'm no doctor, but give me the guy with uncracked feet every time.)

All that said, it's important not to get carried away with Alexander's flaws. He never missed a game before last year. And you could argue that he's a young 30, having played sparingly as a rookie. Plus, the very few 30-year-olds to finish in the top 10 have done so in several recent seasons.

So it's by no means the end for Alexander, who along with Johnson should still be a first-round picks.

It's just the end for them as the top few players to draft.

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