There has been a clear and concise shift in the value of running backs in recent seasons, as NFL teams have leaned less on one featured runner and more on backfield committees.
As a result, it's important to keep close tabs on the position as a whole during an offseason that has seen quite a bit of free-agent movement.
Over the past two weeks, a number of NFL backfields have seen drastic alterations. The most obvious example comes in Seattle, where the Seahawks have added Julius Jones and T.J. Duckett and appear set to release Shaun Alexander. Wherever he lands, Alexander's stock will be at an all-time low in all drafts.
He's been prone to injuries and a serious bust for owners since a 2005 season that saw him record 1,880 rushing yards and what was an NFL record 28 total touchdowns. It's clear that his time as an elite fantasy option is over.
While a committee situation is likely with some combination of Alexander, Jones, Duckett and Maurice Morris in Seattle, I look for Jones to emerge as the starter. He will make starter-type money ($5.5 million) next season and possesses by far the most upside, so his value in fantasy land is on the verge of an immense increase across the board.
Jones, who continues to recover from a torn ACL, will no doubt have his share of suitors if and when he returns to 100 percent. I wouldn't expect him to be seen as more than a No. 2 back wherever he lands, however, so his value in fantasy circles takes a serious hit.
The Lions have re-signed Tatum Bell, who is the current in-house favorite to start, but Brian Calhoun will also be in the mix if he's able to compete coming off an injured knee. Reports have indicated the team could also add veteran Michael Pittman, and Lions President/CEO Matt Millen could also look to target a back in what is a 2008 draft class rich with runners. Due the failures and inconsistencies of Bell at the NFL level and the uncertain status of Calhoun, I wouldn't lean on either in a prominent role on fantasy teams.
In fact, I don't think the running back that will emerge as the best fantasy option is even on the Detroit roster right now.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers also have a bit of an unsettled backfield situation, as the team added veteran Warrick Dunn with a two-year, $6 million contract. The 33 year old will serve as a change-of-pace back behind Earnest Graham, who loses some of his fantasy luster with Dunn now in the backfield mix. Graham was one of the best free-agent additions of the 2007 season, but Dunn is certain to take away opportunities on passing downs. That will limit Graham's numbers as a receiver, which were part of his overall fantasy appeal.
The X-factor in the Buccaneers backfield is Cadillac Williams. There have been reports that there is concern within the Tampa Bay organization that his career is over due to a torn patellar tendon sustained last season. In fact, the Orlando Sentinel states that it's considered a "longshot" for Williams to be on the field in time for Week 1.
However, the former Auburn runner has a different opinion.
"Oh yeah, no doubt," Williams told the St. Petersburg Times when asked if he can be back for the 2008 season. "I definitely have a great shot. I feel good about it."
Dr. James Andrews, who repaired Williams' damaged right knee, said it was a nine to 12 month ailment, but the Tampa runner hopes to be back in time for training camp.
"Me personally, I'd love to be ready for training camp," he said. "Ready for opening day. Of course, that's my goal. But at the same time, we've got to be smart with it."
Whatever the result, this is a situation that fantasy footballers should monitor in the weeks to come.
"Chris fits what we're doing," Kubiak told the Houston Chronicle "He's had some injury issues, but we think if we handle Chris and Ahman (Green) right, they can be very productive."
Kubiak points to a split backfield with Brown and Green, who had knee issues for most of last season, but neither of these runners should be relied on in fantasy land. In fact, I think the dark horse in this competition is Chris Taylor, who has worked hard to recover from an injured knee of his own and has earned praise from Kubiak and his coaches. The Indiana product is a very nice fit for the team's zone-blocking scheme and could sneak his way up the Texans' depth chart if he has an impressive training camp and preseason.
Based on the situations in Seattle, Detroit, Tampa Bay, Houston and others around the league, more than half of NFL teams are set to utilize multiple runners in their backfield headed into the 2008 season. There are also a number of prominent backs (Larry Johnson, Ronnie Brown, Deuce McAlister headline the list) that will come back from serious injuries.
With more questions than answers at the position, owners will have to adjust their draft strategies. Featured runners like LaDainian Tomlinson, Adrian Peterson and Steven Jackson remain ultra-valuable, but taking chances on questionable players and situations in the earlier rounds will no longer be considered a viable option.