For the past five or six months, we’ve been looking at generally the same rankings for Fantasy Football running backs. While the NFL Draft and free agency changed a few things, we still had a very good idea of what we thought the veterans were going to produce in 2012.
Training camps have begun though, and talent starts to shine or fade, as head coaches begin to look at whose feet they’ll be betting their futures with. We can now start to take a step back and adjust our views.
Even as you solidify your opinions, though, remember that many players have emerged from training camps as starters despite lower expectations going in, including former Broncos RB Terrell Davis and former Steelers RB Willie Parker.
Here are eight different RBs whose values are gradually changing in late July.
Fantasy Football Running Backs: Climbers
Matt Forte, RB, Chicago
Thoughts of him holding out are gone, after he signed a big four-year deal earlier this month. There’s little chance of Forte having problems like Chris Johnson did last season, once he got back into the fold, since Johnson fell out of shape and signed even later. Forte has Michael Bush to deal with in the backfield, but there’s no question he’s the most talented player on the entire team. I love him as a late-first-round pick, ahead of . Bush could take some goal-line chances, but Forte was also supposed to lose touches to Marion Barber before and that never really happened.
Rashad Jennings, RB, Jacksonville
The longer Maurice Jones-Drew holds out, the better for Jennings, who is trying to return from a painful knee injury from last season. While head coach Mike Mularkey has recently told the Florida Times-Union that Jennings is a player that has caught his eye this offseason, that could just be posturing for Jones-Drew’s contract talks. Even if Jones-Drew returns, his workload is expected to be less, with Jennings capitalizing. MJD will be back, but ideally, he would sign just before your Fantasy draft – so you could take Jennings at a discounted rate in Round 12.
David Wilson, RB, N.Y. Giants
Two-time Super Bowl winning QB Eli Manning has really been talking up the rookie tailback out of Virginia Tech.
”The fastest running back we’ve ever had … I mean this guy’s quick. He’s explosive, so that’s kind of exciting. Our running backs over the years have been that powerful, big guy. (But) with those young guys at running back, it’s all about learning protections. If all of a sudden I start changing plays, they’ve got to know exactly what they’re doing. You slowly work them in, you have a small amount of plays in a special package for them that they can get comfortable with and then you get them into the mix. So training camp will be a big help for him, getting him into live games” – Eli Manning on WFAN’s Boomer & Carton Show
Ahmad Bradshaw eclipsed Brandon Jacobs in recent years, but if Wilson can pick up the passing game and learn how to block early, he could push Bradshaw for more carries than anyone expected. As a sleeper in Round 9, Wilson is an excellent gamble.
Ronnie Hillman, RB, Denver
A smallish running back with both great burst and top-speed, Hillman is a legitimate threat for Willis McGahee’s role as the lead back in Denver. Bill Williamson of ESPN.com likes the rookie out of San Diego State a lot. “Whether or not he becomes the starter, I do think Denver will give the 5-foot-10, 190-pound Hillman a chance to play often, and to be a receiving threat out of the backfield in addition to running the ball,“ said Williamson. Hillman might not come out of the preseason with the job, since the Broncos will really be concentrating on keeping QB Peyton Manning healthy. But once he proves he can play, Hillman could be a great midseason player, taken in Round 8 or 9 of your Fantasy draft.
Fantasy Football Running Backs: Fallers
Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jacksonvile
I don’t expect Jones-Drew to hold out into the season. These days, there’s just too much money on the table to miss time. NFL players have a short window to make their money, and they can’t afford to not be on the field during that window. MJD happens to play Fantasy Football. If I see him take Jennings in any drafts, we’ll know the Jaguars are screwed! Haa!
Beanie Wells, RB, Arizona
He’ll start training camp on the PUP list after having an arthroscopic procedure on his knee in January. The oft-injured running back thinks he’ll start practicing in a few weeks as he gets ready to play in Week 1.
“I’m going to take my time. I don’t think anybody wants to see a 75-percent Beanie Wells. Everybody wants to see a 100-percent Beanie Wells and that’s what I want to give.” — Beanie Wels, Arizona Republic
The newspaper report went on to say that second-year RB Ryan Williams (knee) is at about 85 percent, although he is practicing. I’d be leery of either of these backs right now, and I wonder if the problems at tailback and quarterback are enough to make Larry Fitzgerald an overvalued wide receiver. Both running backs, in my opinion, are being drafted too high (Round 6 for Wells, Round 9 for Williams).
Jahvid Best, RB, Detroit
Remember the excitement over Best joining the Lions out of California, and all of the naysayers saying he was too fragile? Yeah, I hate it when other people are right, too. Concussions have put this season in jeopardy, and possibly the rest of his career. Dave Birkett, of the Detroit Free Press, put it in perspective for us.
Best on if he's considered his career/season might be over: "That has not crossed my mind yet."
— Dave Birkett (@davebirkett) July 27, 2012
The fact that Best had to say “yet” at the end of that statement says volumes. Obviously, there’s no bigger risk in the first seven rounds of drafts right now, and owners in keeper leagues might want to start thinking about alternatives too. Second-year RB Mikel Leshoure is getting selected in the eighth round, but who can blame everyone, considering he’s coming off an Achilles’ injury and he’s looking at a two-game suspension to start the season. He won’t start camp on the PUP list, however.
While Best might the most overvalued pick, RB Kevin Smith might be the most undervalued of the Fantasy Football running backs, being picked up in Round 13. Consider him more of a Round 10 (if not higher) running back.
Roy Helu, RB, Washington
Last season, the rookie out of Nebraska ended up with the starting gig after Tim Hightower was injured and Ryan Torain underperformed. A lot is expected out of Helu this season, especially with Hightower coming back from a torn ACL, and the sophomore is being picked up in Round 6 of most drafts, as an RB3. That’s a lot of upside for that pick, but then again, fellow second-year RB Evan Royster could also steal some touches.
Head coach Mike Shanahan will continue to be a headache for Fantasy owners, which makes me want to wait on Helu for a couple more rounds. His endurance is already a question mark and Royster saw plenty of snaps this week with the first-team offense, according to the Washington Post.
Fantasy Football running backs always seem to be moving fluidly up and down the rankings during July and August. Hopefully, you’ll end up with players on the rise, rather than the fall, come Week 1 in September.
David Gonos spent 5 years as a CBSSports.com Senior Fantasy Writer and three more years writing with SI.com. Over the past 17 years, his work has been published on NFL.com, MLB.com, FanDuel, FoxSports.com and USA Today. Since 2001, he has been tracking down the Top 50-plus Free Fantasy Football Draft Tools online. You can contact David Gonos here.