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Fantasy Football 2011: Backfield battles

08.08.11 at 1:08 am ET
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Here are the key backfield battles as we see them. All of these situations are fluid and will evolve as we move through August. The lockout-shortened 2011 preseason is the most flux-ridden we’€™ve ever seen, and has created some of the most bizarre roster situations since replacement players started the 1987 season. Now that most of the big names have settled in, we can begin the business of evaluating position battles with some degree of certainty.

Cardinals: Beanie Wells vs. Ryan Williams

The Cardinals were nice enough to thin the field a little by moving Tim Hightower to Washington. That makes the Cardinals backfield a little more appetizing. Arizona may now be able to give both Wells and Williams enough playing time for both to be viable fantasy options. As things stand, Wells is the starter, which is to be expected. We’€™re interested to see how these two perform in camp and in preseason. Both players have injury concerns and both have ball security issues — though we see Wells as being the bigger culprit in both areas. The bottom line here is that both men have good ability and both could be solid fantasy options if the touches are there. We like Williams a little better, but expecting a lot from him early in the season might be a mistake. As we’€™ve said ad nauseam, the lockout had made this is a tough year for rookies.

Redskins: Ryan Torain vs. Roy Helu

There are other backs in the mix as well, but we think it comes down to these two. Torain is already nursing an injury, and we are loathe to use a valuable pick on him given his history of missing time. Of course, Torain is a talent and he has upside in Mike Shanahan‘€™s system, but we are higher on Helu. The rookie’€™s upside in this offense, based on our scouting, is through the roof. This backfield could have flux throughout the season, and we’€™ll be keeping tabs on it throughout the preseason. If Helu somehow gets the job before Week 1, he will shoot up our rankings.

Saints: Mark Ingram vs. Pierre Thomas

We like Ingram a whole lot in the Saints’€™ offense, but Pierre Thomas is not a player to dismiss. He’€™s been beating out big names for a few years now. The only real knock we have on Thomas, apart from a lack of speed, is that he’€™s been hurt too much. He should be healthy by the time we kick off in 2011, but he has not held up well when given a big workload. Ingram is also a back who lacks home run potential, but who should be able to use his multifaceted skill set to excel in Sean Payton‘€™s offense. Now, factor in the arrival of Darren Sproles, who was given a contract that rivals and even surpasses Thomas’€™ new deal, and you have a backfield that is deep in talent and diversity.

So, how do we value these players?  We see Sproles as having very little value outside of deep PPR formats. As for Thomas and Ingram, we lean towards Ingram, but can easily envision an even-split between the two. Payton has always used a deep in-game rotation with his backs, and unless one back severely out-performs the other, we doubt that Payton will change his ways. For this reason, we project both backs conservatively. In 12-team performance leagues, we see Ingram as a light RB2 and Thomas as a solid RB3. Both have some upside at that level, but we’€™d definitely go Ingram over Thomas if given the option. We doubt that coach Payton will provide much clarity on this prior to the season, but we’€™ll be listening in case he does.

Packers: Ryan Grant vs. James Starks

Our love for Starks is well known, but Grant is No. 1 on the depth chart, and the Packers also added some some solid rookie talent. This is not the barren wasteland that Starks took control of at the end of 2010. This is now a competitive backfield. Our feeling on the Packers’€™ backs is that Grant and Starks will both play, and we wouldn’€™t count out rookies Alexander Green out of Hawaii or Brandon Saine out of Ohio State. In that Grant will cost the most in drafts, we are more likely to target Starks as a fourth or fifth back that has starter’€™s upside rather than counting on Grant to start. We’€™re very interested to get a good look at these guys in preseason. We see Grant as being limited, so if any back looks particularly strong, that could signal a coming sea change.

Patriots: BenJarvus Green-Ellis vs. Shane Vereen vs. Stevan Ridley

We are one of the very few fantasy outlets that was talking about BenJarvus last August, but it seemed clear to us at that time that the New England backfield was filled with paper tigers until you got to the Law Firm. We felt strongly that Green-Ellis would be the last back standing and we made some hay drafting to that conviction. This year, BJGE has tougher competition. Gone are fragile Fred Taylor and the perpetually underachieving Laurence Maroney. Insert in their place two of the top 10 backs in last year’€™s draft. And factor in Danny Woodhead‘€™s role, which we expect will continue to some degree. Now we have a back with the same upside, but with a slightly problematic floor. Bill Belichick will do whatever he thinks will help him win.

To that end, we think Green-Ellis, with his solid ball security and businesslike approach, is likely to hang on to his job for now. Another contributing factor is that the rookies have had limited exposure to the Patriots’€™ offense after they were drafted. The problem is that this could turn into a full-blown committee backfield as the season progresses. For this reason, we see risk in drafting the Law Firm as one of your starters. If you do, you’€™ll need to build depth behind him. We’€™ll be watching closely to determine which back is the best to draft as a hedge if you take Green-Ellis as your starter.

Cowboys: Felix Jones vs. Demarco Murray

The edge goes to the vet in this battle, but with Jones’€™ injury history, you have to worry what might happen if Murray gets in there at some point and goes off.  Both backs have a lot to offer and we expect both to have significant roles … Tashard Choice could be a factor too. Further solidifying Jones’€™ current hold on the top spot is Murray’€™s hamstring injury, which could sideline him for a few weeks.

Bills: Fred Jackson vs. C.J. Spiller

This is a classic battle. You have the moderately-compensated veteran vs. the high-salaried top 10 draft pick. In 2010, Jackson, the veteran, completely outplayed Spiller, the rookie. If 2010 was the only factor, this would not even be a position battle. Of course, there is a lot more to consider than just last season’€™s performances. Spiller was picked by the new regime and we’€™re not sure if they are willing to keep him in a role that screams ‘€œbust.’€ On the other hand, they need to win games and Jackson, when we last saw the Bills, was the back more likely to help in that regard. For now, we’€™re leaning strongly toward Jackson. We do expect Spiller to have a bigger role. He could even gain flex value without becoming the starter. We’€™ll see how Spiller looks in preseason and go from there.

Lions: Jahvid Best vs. Mikel Leshoure

Both players offer totally different strengths, and this twosome has the look of a tandem backfield. If this comes to pass, Leshoure should ultimately prove more valuable for fantasy, and Best could end up being better suited for PPR formats. For now, Best is the starter, but that’€™s to be expected. The HC is not going to anoint an unseen rookie as his starter — he’€™s going to make him earn it. In the final analysis, this backfield will not be about who starts as much as it will be about who plays on the goal line. Best is currently being drafted around the sixth round while the rookie is lasting until around the ninth or 10th. For our money, Best is a bit overrated right now and we’€™d be more likely to go after Leshoure as a reserve than to go after Best as a starter.

Colts: Joseph Addai vs. Delone Carter vs. Donald Brown

This backfield reeks of fantasy frustration. We’€™re interested in Delone Carter for sure, but being in the Indy backfield is all about protecting Peyton Manning, and we’€™re not sure that the rookie will be up to the task out of the box. Of course, if he is, he could have a big impact. We like him far better as a ball carrier than either Addai or Brown. If he impresses in camp and can be trusted to protect Manning on early downs, he could end up having a big role. Donald Brown is still there, but he is unlikely to change his station very much at this point. This is a situation to really watch closely in camp.

We’€™ll be back later this week with some position battles at receiver. Be sure to check us out at Rotobahn.com.

Read More: 2011 Fantasy Football, Beanie Wells, BenJarvus Green Ellis, Roy Helu
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