Gregg Rosenthal

Tiers of Heaven

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Tiers of Heaven: RBs

Friday, August 17, 2007

Any chowderhead can decide whether they want to draft Ronnie Brown or Willis McGahee. The difficult decisions on draft day come when you must decide between your running back of choice and an elite receiver like Marvin Harrison. Rotoworld's Tiers of Heaven will help you make those decisions.

Cheat sheets aren't always enough. Cheat sheets often don't see the big picture, and they aren't flexible enough to adapt to each draft. Establishing tiers at each position is the essential component of Rotoworld's overall draft strategy. By separating similar-value players into small groups, an owner can establish a loose game plan before the draft. Then as the draft goes to hell, the tiers will help maximize value as the rounds go by.

Imagine you are in round seven of your draft. Chiefs TE Tony Gonzalez is the highest player on your board, and you still have a hole at tight end. It looks like a no brainer. Looking at your tiers, however, you notice that a crowded gang of tight ends in Gonzo's tier remain on the board: Chris Cooley, Vernon Davis, Jeremy Shockey, Alge Crumpler, and Kellen Winslow.

You check your running back tiers and notice that LenDale White is the last running back standing from your fifth tier. You don't necessarily need another running back, but choosing White maximizes value. There is almost certain to be a similarly valued tight end to Gonzalez available with your next pick.

Now before I get to the running back preview, I've got some bad news. While the running back tiers of heaven is included below, the rest of the positions are exclusively in our online draft guide.

This isn't part of an overall plan to make Rotoworld a premium site, rather a way to reward those subscribers of our draft guide. Frankly, it's not a decision I would make on my own because I love to get content out there, but cooler business heads prevailed.

The draft guide will have the can't miss Tiers of Heaven updated continuously, but also everything else you'll need to make your fantasy football draft a success, including with 40+ strategy articles, 600 player profiles, customizable cheat sheets and much more.

So check out the draft guide and if it isn't what you expected, we'll have no problems refunding your money. We're confident you'll find it the best draft guide available. And if you aren't interested, enjoy the daily free news, draft analysis columns, videos, and blog posts we will be cranking out for you all season long.

Running Backs

The proliferation of running back committees will attract a lot attention this season. But it's not a new trend, just a reversal to the norm in the NFL after a brief run of 335-carry, 1400-yard monsters that we enjoyed earlier this decade. And for every team adding a committee this year (Minnesota, Oakland, Green Bay), there is another headed towards a primary running back system (Indianapolis, New England, Chicago, Denver).

Players flying solo will come at a premium this season. There will be a cut-off regarding truly elite options somewhere around the top-15 backs. The amount of committees means quality fantasy options will slip further, increasing the depth at the position. I can't remember a season in recent years where young likely starting running backs like Julius Jones, LenDale White, LaMont Jordan, and DeShaun Foster were all falling out of the top 60-80 picks. There will be players who get consistent carries available in your middle rounds.

As always, plan for injuries and a busted pick. They will happen. While your opponents are complaining about bad luck, you'll have quality options on the bench. Let's go.

Tier One – LaDainian Tomlinson, Steven Jackson, Frank Gore

You don't really need us to tell you to draft Tomlinson first, right?

The number two pick, on the other hand, should be a subject of great debate. Larry Johnson is noticeable by his absence in this tier, and we'll get to him later. Jackson and Gore get a big edge because they are less likely to get hurt. Gore's hand injury shouldn't affect his draft status. Jackson and Gore's total yardage was already in the top four, and they aren't likely to see their touches decline much. Jackson gets the edge for the number two spot because the Rams offense is superior to San Francisco's. Stick Gore on the Chargers, though, and he'd win the league MVP. He's that talented.

Tier Two – Joseph Addai, Larry Johnson, Willie Parker, Brian Westbrook, Rudi Johnson, Shaun Alexander, Reggie Bush, Laurence Maroney, Travis Henry

Johnson's holdout is not a concern. His record-setting number of carries last year and the collapsing team around him is. The history of running backs in the season after they get 370 carries is nasty and overwhelming. He would defy all odds by playing 16 games. The shaky quarterback, wide receiver, and offensive line situation in Kansas City creates even more risk. We don't want to a top-five pick to be so risky. Rotoworld had LJ ranked fourth for much of the summer, but it was a case of hedging our bets. I polled our staff and none of our writers would actually draft him ahead of Addai, so he was moved this week.

We had such a big drop-off after Westbrook that we could break this into two tiers. In the end, we'd still draft all the players listed above before our top quarterback (Peyton Manning) or wide receiver (Chad Johnson), so it doesn't matter. Westbrook has proven he can handle a bigger workload and will be a force in leagues than count receptions. Parker and Addai will get all their teams' carries and are in their prime. Addai has a complete game. There is almost no downside to him on a bulletproof Colts offense, so he gets the nod as the top of the tier. Avoiding busts is more important than finding sleepers, and Addai isn't going to be a bust.

Rudi Johnson is a reasonably safe bet as a primary option on an explosive offense, especially after Kenny Irons' injury. We project him to have 50 more touches than Shaun Alexander because of the aging Seahawks' injury risk and pass-catching deficiencies. Alexander's touchdowns should make up for it. Bush's talent and receiving skills should win out despite having fewer carries. He's a younger Westbrook. Maroney and Henry have slightly more risk, but will get the ball consistently for productive running games.

These are every-week starters in any format.

Tier Three – Willis McGahee, Ronnie Brown, Brandon Jacobs

Tiny tier here, but it's for a reason. These three are the only other running backs we'd take ahead of the elite (top 8) wide receivers in rounds two and three. They don't have great competition for carries, and they are in their prime.

Ronnie Brown has the game to be a RB1, but does he have the offensive line? He's a solid RB2. Willis McGahee is moving to a slightly better offense, but hasn't showed much as a pro. He will pile up touches, though, if healthy. Brandon Jacobs is perhaps our favorite value at running back in drafts because he'll score. He will last until the third or fourth round in nearly any league, but we give him a second round value.

Ideally, you could grab an elite WR1 in round two, and still pick Jacobs up in round three or four. Consider yourself strong at running back if you draft two running backs in the first three tiers. If not, depth will be a greater priority.

Tier Four - Maurice Jones-Drew, Carnell Williams, Cedric Benson, Thomas Jones, Clinton Portis, Edgerrin James, Marshawn Lynch, Adrian Peterson

Second and third-round RB2s are among the riskiest picks on the board. You can take one of the many safe elite wide receiver picks and plug them in every week, or you can take a chance with some these guys. Half will be disappointments; the other half will be on fantasy championship squads. The risk factor is why we'd prefer to grab these running backs for value in rounds three and four – if possible.

Cedric Benson has the job to himself in Chicago, but has to prove he can withstand the punishment. Maurice Jones-Drew will need an injury from Fred Taylor to fulfill his potential. If Taylor was hurt, MoJo would be a top-five player. But he's simply not likely to score as much as last season. Honestly, I don't know what to do with Portis. He's the ultimate boom-or-bust pick this season. His ceiling is sky-high, but the injury concerns grow every day. He's looking like a fourth-round gamble.

Williams has the opportunity and talent to be a serious value. Don't discount the injuries and Bruce Gradkowski effect from last season. Jones and James will give you workmanlike production each week, although their 'ceilings' are a bit lower than some young guys. Marshawn Lynch and Adrian Peterson are explosive rookies playing on poor offenses. They will have to share the ball with teammates more than you'll like.

Most of these players should be fantasy starters, but they could be benched for a RB3 depending on the matchup. There isn't a huge drop-off to the next tier. If you don't get a RB2 from this group, you need to load up on players from the tier below.

Tier Five: Jerious Norwood, Deuce McAllister, DeAngelo Williams, Julius Jones, Ahman Green, Marion Barber, LenDale White, LaMont Jordan, Fred Taylor, Chester Taylor, Brandon Jackson, Ladell Betts

These are great fantasy reserves (RB3s), but we wouldn't draft them ahead of most second wideouts. The fact that such young, promising players (Norwood, White, Williams) and proven point-scorers (McAllister, Barber, both Taylors, Green) will be available so late is a sign of depth this season. It won't be hard to find a quality third runner. These players will go between rounds four-through-seven.

McAllister and Taylor are veterans coming off good seasons, which could push their price tags too high. They are splitting carries with younger, explosive options. LaMont Jordan is a talented player who will come at a massive discount this year. His early-season value rose tremendously with news that Michael Bush is still in recovery mode and Dominic Rhodes will be suspended four games. But a committee is probably coming. We are in wait-and-see mode with the Dallas backfield, but Julius Jones should remain the starter. The roles in the red zone may not be so defined with Bill Parcells gone. Don't expect Barber to repeat his touchdown numbers.

Norwood's emerging stock soared with the news that Warrick Dunn needed another back surgery. Dunn will return, but Norwood should lead the Falcons in yards this year. Betts' value continues to rise as Clinton Portis stays on the sidelines.

Williams has Brian Westbrook-like skills, but his touches may be inconsistent because of DeShaun Foster, who remains the starter. Ahman Green would be slightly undervalued here if he stays healthy, but he's joining a poor offense and his performance is fading fast. Brandon Jackson looks likely to start for the Packers, but a committee appears inevitable when Vernand Morency gets healthy. Jackson's camp has been inconsistent. Chester Taylor is now in a committee with Adrian Peterson, but he'll still be the man on passing downs. LenDale White's slow climb up our rankings will continue when he locks up the starting job. He has the highest ceiling in this tier.

Drafting three players from the top five tiers keeps you on pace at running back. Drafting four gets you well ahead of the game.

Tier Six: Jamal Lewis, DeShaun Foster, Tatum Bell, Kevin Jones, Vernand Morency, Mike Bell

Foster and Lewis have defined roles, but limited skills and poor recent history. They have both been subject to a lot of puff pieces this offseason, but there's no reason to think they'll suddenly improve. Jones is probably headed for the PUP list and his value will continue to fall if that happens. Tatum Bell will be a placeholder until Jones is ready. When Jones is healthy, there may not be enough carries for both players to have value - Mike Martz doesn't like to run. We'd stay away from both. Morency is likely to be overvalued because he's hurt and will only split carries when he returns. Mike Bell would be an every-week starter if Travis Henry was hurt, and has more stand-alone value than your average handcuff.

Be wary of drafting most of this group too early. For the most part, they should be projected as useful reserves. Great RB4s, poor third running backs.

Tier Seven: Leon Washington, Michael Turner, Ron Dayne, Warrick Dunn, Chris Brown

Leon Washington will get more touches than most backups in New York. Michael Turner has extra value for Tomlinson owners and would be an every-week starter if healthy. Dunn and Brown have a chance to start, but are more likely to fill third-down roles. Ron Dayne has some stand-alone value as a possible short-yardage back in Houston, in addition to being a backup to an injury-risk veteran.
These are your high ceiling backups and your lower-potential committee partners. That makes them fun boom-or-bust RB4s to take in the latter portions of your draft. Get at least four running backs from the top seven tiers.

Tier Eight: Brian Leonard, Michael Pittman, Adrian Peterson, Lorenzo Booker, Reuben Droughns, Sammy Morris, Najeh Davenport, Maurice Morris, DeDe Dorsey, Dominic Rhodes, T.J. Duckett

"Handcuffs" we like. For the newbies out there, "handcuffs" are backup running backs to attach to your starter. They are far more valuable to you than to other owners. Rhodes is a special case, but do you really want a committee partner on a bad offense that is suspended for four games? Duckett has extra value in touchdown only leagues. Leonard and Dorsey are unknowns, but they are backups on high-octane offenses. Davenport, both Morris', and Droughns are serviceable veterans with defined roles.
A lot of these teams will go committee if the starter gets hurt, so we wouldn't reach too early for anyone. These should only be taken towards the end of your draft.

Tier Nine: Kenny Watson, Marcel Shipp, Anthony Thomas, Tony Hunt, Correll Buckhalter, Michael Bennett, Chris Henry, Musa Smith, Kevin Faulk, Michael Robinson, Kolby Smith, Michael Bush, Garrett Wolfe

These guys are on the radar. Fliers. They probably should get drafted in deep leagues, and they only need a positive spike in news to be worth a pick in 12-by-15 leagues. They are shots in the dark, but have a long way to go to before entering your lineup.
Watson could be a valuable handcuff to Rudi Johnson, but the situation is uncertain. Marcel Shipp has a shot for goal line carries in Arizona. Thomas may be the lesser half of a committee in Buffalo. Bennett and Smith will vie for work if Larry Johnson breaks down.

* If you liked this kind of analysis, you'll love the rest of the Tiers of Heaven article and more on the Fantasy Football Draft Guide. Click here to check it out.

Gregg Rosenthal has directed Rotoworld's football content since 2003. He co-hosts the NBC Fantasy Fix and covers the NFL for and Catch him on Twitter.
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