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News-Herald Assistant Sports Editor Kevin Kleps doesn’t just write headlines and stories. He also checks on his fantasy sports teams. A lot. See if the moves and news from the world of sports affect your fantasy teams.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Top fantasy football keepers: Running backs

Three rookies ranked among the top 10 fantasy running backs in 2008.

Rare? Yes.

Remarkable? Even more so when you consider Chris Johnson, Matt Forte and Steve Slaton were the fifth, sixth and 10th running backs, respectively, selected in the NFL draft last April.

That led to third-round (Forte) and middle-round (Johnson and Slaton) steals in the fake drafts last August and September.

And it’s led to owners in keeper leagues kicking themselves for taking a chance on the wrong rookie running backs — Oakland’s Darren McFadden, Dallas’ Felix Jones and Pittsburgh’s Rashard Mendenhall were all first-round picks last April — or believing the likes of LenDale White, Ahman Green or Adrian Peterson (not that Adrian Peterson) were better options than Johnson, Slaton and Forte prior to the season.

In point-per-reception leagues, Forte, Slaton and Johnson are among the top eight or 10 players overall entering 2009.

How to separate the three? Let’s break it down with our top 20 keepers at fantasy’s most important position.

1. Adrian Peterson, Vikings (age 23): If you want a back who’s going to rack up 60 or 70 catches, he’s not your guy. If you want a back who, if healthy, is going to rush for 1,800 to 2,000 yards and score 12 to 15 touchdowns, he’s the one.

2. Steve Slaton, Texans (23): He’s more explosive than Forte (Slaton averaged 4.8 yards per carry, and Forte 3.9) and doesn’t lose goal-line carries to LenDale White, as does Johnson. Choosing a back after Peterson is an extremely tough call, but I’d go with the Texan who had 1,659 total yards and 50 catches as a rookie.

3. Michael Turner, Falcons (26): Like Peterson, he won’t give you many bonus points in the receiving area. Like Peterson, he’ll run for a lot of yards and make up for it by totaling at least 16 scores.

4. Matt Forte, Bears (23): His 64 receptions led all running backs, and his 1,715 total yards and 12 touchdowns (four receiving) weren’t bad, either.

5. DeAngelo Williams, Panthers (25): His 2008 production (1,518 yards rushing, 5.5 yards per carry, 20 TDs) was every bit as surprising as the aforementioned rookies. The only drawback: He will still share carries with the promising Jonathan Stewart, the Panthers’ first-round back in 2008 who scored 10 TDs and averaged 4.6 yards per carry.

6. Chris Johnson, Texans (23): He’s the most explosive of the three rookies, but he’s also the least likely to help you in leagues that rely heavily on touchdowns. Johnson had 10 TDs last season — five fewer than White, his backfield mate.

7. Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars (23): Don’t let his 824 rushing yards fool you. Jones-Drew scored 14 TDs and caught 62 passes last season. He’ll also start next season, since Fred Taylor’s days in Jacksonville are expected to be over.

8. Marion Barber, Cowboys (25): With Julius Jones (Barber’s version of Fred Taylor) gone, last season was supposed to his best. But Barber couldn’t stay healthy, and a rookie (Tashard Choice) was the Cowboys’ best back in the second half of the season. I’d expect Barber to get back to being the TD machine owners knew and loved in 2006 and ’07.

9. Frank Gore, 49ers (25): He was injured at a bad time last season (fantasy playoff time), but don’t let that prevent you from keeping this dual threat who should get even more touches with Mike Singletary in charge.

10. Brian Westbrook, Eagles (29): You know he’s going to be beat up. You know there are going to be weeks he drives you crazy. But you also know he’s going to catch five or six passes a game and score almost a touchdown per contest.

11. Steven Jackson, Rams (25): In 2006, when he rushed for 1,528 yards, caught 90 passes for 806 yards and tallied 16 TDs, he seemed like the second coming of Marshall Faulk. Now, he’s barely a 1,000-yard rusher who’s played 12 games in each of the last two seasons. The guess for 2009: Less Faulk, more Marshawn Lynch or Ronnie Brown.

12. Brandon Jacobs, Giants (26): If he stays in New York/New Jersey, he’s a top-flight back who should reach the end zone once a game. If he leaves in free agency, his value drops.

13. Marshawn Lynch, Bills (22): His second NFL season wasn’t much better than his first. I’d prefer to start next season with Lynch as my second back, not my first.

14. Ronnie Brown, Dolphins (27): For all his promise, he still hasn’t rushed for more than 1,008 yards in a season. Next year is as good a time as any.

15. Joseph Addai, Colts (25): It’s never a good sign when Dominic Rhodes has a better year than a 2006 first-round pick whose rushing yards have decreased each of the last three seasons. Addai wasn’t even worth starting last season, but he should at least be a worthwhile No. 2 back in 2009.

16. Ryan Grant, Packers (26): Did any back have a worse 1,200-yard season? Grant scored just five touchdowns, averaged only 3.9 yards per carry and failed to rush for 70 yards seven times. That said, he was great once he assumed the starting role as a rookie in 2007 and he was hampered by injuries for the majority of ’08. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s a No. 1 back next season.

17. Clinton Portis, Redskins (27): Like Gore, he let us fans of the fake game down by being a shell of himself in the second half of the season. Eventually, his 2,052 carries in seven seasons are going to catch up with him. Will it be in 2009? If I knew the answer, I’d have drafted Forte and Slaton in the second and third rounds last year.

18. Pierre Thomas, Saints (24): Reggie Bush can’t stay healthy, and Thomas — who rushed for 266 yards, caught 11 passes for 92 yards and scored five TDs from Weeks 14 to 16 last season — is much better suited to be a featured back.

19. Kevin Smith, Lions (22): This rookie third-round pick wasn’t as productive as Forte, Slaton and Johnson, but he wasn’t McFadden, either. Smith played for the worst team in NFL history and still managed to run for 975 yards, catch 39 passes and score eight TDs. He should be a No. 2 back next season.

20. LaDainian Tomlinson, Chargers (29): How the mighty have fallen. We’ll touch on this much more in a future blog, but Tomlinson will be among the biggest question marks fantasy owners will face prior to next year. That is, unless you’re a member of the L.T.-is-finished group that is gaining believers by the day.

Deserves better: Thomas Jones had a career year with the Jets, scoring 15 touchdowns, rushing for 1,312 yards and catching 36 passes. The bad: Jones will turn 31 prior to next season, an age that generally isn’t kind to running backs, especially ones approaching 2,000 career carries.

Names to remember: Darren Sproles will be an unrestricted free agent if the Chargers don’t re-sign him, and he’s proven he’s capable of getting 15 to 20 touches and doubling as a dynamic special-teamer. With Tomlinson declining, the Chargers probably can’t afford to let him go. ... LeRon McClain is the Ravens’ best back, and at age 24, his best days should be ahead of him. He rushed for 982 yards and scored 12 TDs in 2008.

Brownie bits: After a productive 2007 season, Jamal Lewis regressed in ’08, averaging 3.6 yards per carry and scoring just four touchdowns. His days as a featured back appear to be nearing an end. Jerome Harrison is an intriguing option, but he has all of 77 carries in three seasons.

Next: Wide receivers


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