Running backs used to be the lifeblood of fantasy football. But with the increase in backfield committees around the league, finding true featured backs and reliable players to lean on at the position has become difficult.
That makes it even more important than ever to keep close tabs on the offseason movement that affects running backs. With the NFL Scouting Combine in full swing, free agency next on tap and the NFL Draft just around the corner, we'll soon start to see the construction (or re-construction) of numerous ground attacks.
Here's our look at the 12 backfields to monitor heading into next season.
Fred Jackson proved to be a better running back than Marshawn Lynch last season, both on the field and in fantasy football. In fact, he was a real superstar while Lynch was serving his three-game suspension. Rumors have Lynch on the trading block, but new coach Chan Gailey might want to use both backs as a 1-2 punch in 2010. Regardless, I'd target Jackson ahead of Lynch. If Lynch is moved during the offseason, I'd take Jackson as high as the third or fourth round as a No. 2 fantasy back.
There won't be any changes to the Panthers backfield in the offseason, as DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart will once again make up a strong combination. But both of these talented runners are coming off surgical procedures. Williams had a minor clean-up on his foot, while Stewart underwent an Achilles operation. Barring setbacks, I still see Williams as the top fantasy option of the two and worth a first- or second-round pick, with Stewart seeing enough carries to be productive as well.
The release of Jamal Lewis has opened the door for Jerome Harrison to take over the top spot on the depth chart. He showed flashes of brilliance at the end of last season, breaking Jim Brown's single-game franchise rushing record while finishing the final three weeks as the top-scoring fantasy back on NFL.com. Still, there are questions about Harrison's ability to be a true featured option over a full season. If the Browns add a power back as a compliment, it would damage Harrison's value for 2010 and beyond.
Reports out of Dallas indicate that Felix Jones, not Marion Barber, could open next season as the team's No. 1 running back. Other reports suggest that Tashard Choice will see an increase in carries as well, so Barber could lose work to two backs rather than one. While he'll remain the lead runner inside the 10-yard line, Barber's value is on the decline. Jones could wind up being the best fantasy option, but he needs to avoid injuries in order to make a consistently positive impact for fantasy leaguers.
The Lions have some major questions in their backfield, as Kevin Smith is coming off reconstructive knee surgery that ended his 2009 season. Reports out of Detroit suggest that along with the knee operation, Smith was also dealing with shoulder troubles as well. With his status for Week 1 in question at this point in time, the Lions are almost certain to add another runner in the offseason. With veteran Maurice Morris also in the mix, we could be looking another backfield committee square in the face.
The Texans backfield is in a current state of limbo. Steve Slaton failed to duplicate his rookie success last season, and he's also coming off neck surgery. Arian Foster showed signs of potential, but he's not a true featured back. The team will no doubt make adding a running back a priority during the offseason, so a sleeper could emerge that isn't yet on the roster. Of course, the addition of a specialized, power back could mean that fantasy leaguers will have to deal with yet another shared backfield.
New York Jets
The decision to release or retain Thomas Jones is going to have a major impact on how fantasy values develop in the Jets backfield. If Jones remains with the team, he'll share carries with Shonn Greene and Leon Washington. If the Jets release him, Greene will instantly become a top-10 fantasy back across the board. Washington, who's coming off a serious leg injury, would fill in as a change-of-pace, third-down back. We should know the fate of Jones - and the value of all three runners - in the weeks to come.
The imminent release of Brian Westbrook has created an opportunity for LeSean McCoy to step into a more prominent role. While he still needs to improve on certain aspects of his game, McCoy has similar tools to Westbrook and should be seen as a viable No. 1 fantasy back in 2010. Of course, the Eagles will also use Leonard Weaver in short-yardage and goal-line situations. Another runner will also be added into the mix (Chester Taylor has been mentioned) as well, so McCoy should post good, but not great, numbers.
San Diego Chargers
The Chargers have released LaDainian Tomlinson and won't use their franchise tag on Darren Sproles, so this backfield has a lot of questions that still need to be answered. If Sproles decides to test the free-agent waters, the Chargers would be left with Michael Bennett as their lone signed running back. Regardless, the Bolts are almost certain to focus on the position in the NFL Draft. The new addition would likely be paired with Sproles or another back, creating a committee situation. This is a backfield to watch.
The Seahawks utilized the combination of Julius Jones and Justin Forsett down the stretch last season, but neither back has the tools to be a true featured option. By all indications, the team will look to improve its backfield in April's Draft, with Clemson's C.J. Spiller being a potential first-round target. New coach Pete Carroll had a knack for using committees while at USC, and chances are we'll see the same thing happen in Seattle. Spiller could be the best option if he lands with the team.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Cadillac Williams, to the surprise of many experts, came back from multiple knee injuries to re-emerge as the Buccaneers top running back last season. He's slated to become a restricted free agent during the offseason, though, so there could be a changing of the guard. Derrick Ward remains in the mix, and Earnest Graham still has two years left on his contract. If all three backs remain, Williams will be the best of the bunch but a risk due to prior injuries and the threat of a full-blown backfield committee.
The presence of coach Mike Shanahan used to be a real positive for the fantasy value of running backs, but he failed to produce a reliable runner in his final three years in Denver. Clinton Portis remains the top option in the Redskins backfield, but he's already starting to show signs of breaking down and no longer appears capable of handling a featured role. I'd expect the team to add another back, whether it's via trade, free agency or in the draft, to pair with Portis and compete for carries.