Lions' Jones faces stiff challenge

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Kevin Jones emerged as one of the more productive runners in the NFL last season. The Detroit running back recorded career bests in receptions, receiving yards and total touchdowns before he injured his foot and was forced to miss the final three weeks. Reports about his return from a surgical procedure to repair the damage varied in the offseason, but Jones is confident he will be the starter for the Lions' regular-season opener at Oakland.

The team wasn't so confident, however, so it traded for Tatum Bell and added T.J. Duckett to the mix. Jones has spent much of his time in rehabilitation sessions, meanwhile, running sprints and riding a stationary bike. But after he did some repetitions on the field last week, which included catching passes and making cuts, it appears a full-out backfield battle could be in the works. In fact, Jones is motivated by comments that Bell made that pointed to himself, not Jones, being the unquestioned starter for head coach Rod Marinelli.

"I have to deal with competing for a job against him as a competitor," Jones told the Detroit News. "But when he says, 'It is mine,' that is when I have a problem. If I was 100 percent, it would not be a question. My goal is to come back and it (being the starter) won't be an issue. I am the better back and I will be the starter."

While we tend to agree that Jones would be the starter if he were 100 percent, the fact of the matter is that he still has a lot of work to do before he's back to full health. That means being involved in the team's full-contact practices without limitations. Until that happens, fantasy owners should consider Bell the favorite to open the season as the starter and the better option in drafts. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz has praised Bell's skills and abilities, so it could be difficult for Jones to come back and take over the prominent role.

As for Jones, he should be seen as no more than a No. 3 fantasy runner and worth a middle-round selection until (and if) he returns without setbacks. A committee situation that includes Jones, Bell and Duckett could be the final scenario here when the backfield is at full strength, and that will make any of this trio a risk.

TEXANS CHANGE SCHEME TO SUIT GREEN

There are a lot of questions at the running back position heading into the 2007 fantasy football season. Will Larry Johnson end his holdout before opening day? Can Brandon Jacobs replace Tiki Barber and take over as the featured back in New York? Will Adrian Peterson unseat Chester Taylor in Minnesota?

Another fantasy conundrum surrounds Ahman Green, who signed with Houston in the offseason and takes over as the team's new featured back. The question about Green are obvious to most owners: Can he avoid long-term injuries and be productive behind a mediocre Texans offensive line at the age of 30?

Head coach Gary Kubiak believes the answer is yes, and he knows that the veteran is a critical component to their offensive success. In fact, he is a big part of the reason the team will mix a zone-blocking scheme with the gap scheme that Green was familiar with while in Green Bay. When a gap scheme was utilized in conjunction with zone blocking late last season, the Texans running game went from averaging 96.3 yards per game in the first 11 contests to an impressive 125.2 yards in the final five weeks.

That switch was part of the reason for the success of Ron Dayne, who became a fantasy stud in the second half. New offensive coordinator Mike Sherman, who was the head coach in Green Bay while Green was there, believes the switch will help Green and the team reach the next level in its ground attack.

"[Green] has patience in the gap scheme," Sherman told the Houston Chronicle. "You have to have patience on some of the runs. So he's seen a bunch of it. But he's also efficient in the zone scheme. We combined the two of them in Green Bay, and he's good at either."

At a time when more teams use backfield committees, the fact that the Texans plan to feature Green is a real positive for his overall value in fantasy football. A versatile athlete who caught 46 passes in 14 games last season, Green will be in a situation where the team will lean on him week in and week out. Dayne will also see his share of the workload, but Green will be the main man out of the backfield. That's enough to make him worth a second- or third-round selection as a No. 2 fantasy back in almost all formats.

Since he has had some injury issues in the past, however, owners who do select Green for a prominent role would be wise to also draft Dayne as insurance in the late rounds.

NEWS & NOTES

  • Willis McGahee has been impressive running in the red zone during training camp and should be the goal-line back for head coach Brian Billick this season. While that doesn't bode well for Mike Anderson, it does make McGahee that much more attractive in drafts. Behind what should be a much-improved offensive line, the former Miami Hurricane should rush for 1,200-plus yards and seven to nine touchdowns and is well worth a first- or second-round selection across the board.
  • NFL Network's Adam Schefter reports that Josh McCown, not Daunte Culpepper, is the current favorite  to open the regular season as the No. 1 quarterback in Oakland. In fact, McCown is also the favorite to start even when rookie JaMarcus Russell ends his holdout. As a result, owners should look to avoid this situation, even with a late-round flier. With two capable arms ahead of him, Russell's fantasy value seems more and more like it will be limited to keeper leagues.
  • Ernest Wilford (knee) is expected to be back in action later in the week for Jacksonville. Wilford, who has been impressive in workouts, seems close to securing a starting role for the Jaguars as both Matt Jones and Reggie Williams fall down the depth chart. At this time, Wilford and Dennis Northcutt are listed as the starter with Jones in the slot and Williams in danger of not making the 53-man roster. Owners shouldn't consider any of these wideouts outside of the late rounds.
  • Second-year wideout receiver Maurice Stovall, not Michael Clayton, is listed as the starter opposite Joey Galloway on the Buccaneers' current depth chart. Stovall has been ultra impressive in both offseason workouts and in training camp, so he should now be on the fantasy football radar as a late-round flier and potential low-end sleeper candidate. Both Clayton and veteran David Boston, who is listed behind Galloway, warrant no consideration in most fantasy football drafts.
  • Brodie Croyle will be the starting quarterback for the Chiefs in their preseason opener Saturday night in Cleveland. Veteran Damon Huard, who is competing with Croyle for the top spot, will start Aug. 16 against Miami. Head coach Herman Edwards will allow Croyle every chance to open Week 1 as the starter - he is a heavy favorite - but he still has little value in seasonal leagues. There's an outside chance the Chiefs could start Croyle along with rookies Kolby Smith and Dwayne Bowe.
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