Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Heading towards the first week of NFL exhibition games, its important to know what to watch for as you stare at the television screen. Don't just watch the game as a fan, watch it with purpose.
Before we arrive at our fantasy draft in a couple of weeks, we need to know who is healthy and ready to go and who is playing hurt. We must evaluate who is winning the position battles and who will be the backup.
Today we're going to help by giving you a list of a dozen items to watch for at the running back position.
Rashard Mendenhall, Pittsburgh - The Steelers best talent may be at the receiving position, but their philosophy has always been as a run-first team. If healthy, Mendenhall is that guy, but he's just seven months into his recovery from an ACL injury. In a confusing statement, Mendenhall says he's "right on schedule, but then said "there is no timetable for his return." Isaac Redman figures to be the team's primary back in the first half of the season, but Mendenhall could certainly be back for the second half and the fantasy playoffs. Don't expect to see Mendenhall on the field, so your assignment is to see how well Redman runs and whether he can play at Mendenhall's level.
Darren McFadden, Oakland - Sixteen games from McFadden, who has averaged 121.6 ypg from scrimmage over the past two seasons, would go a long way to bringing you a fantasy title. But of course, McFadden has never played in more than 13 games in any of his four NFL seasons. He is the ultimate in high-risk, high- reward selection. Any preseason injury would be enough to send me looking elsewhere for a running back in the first round (fantasyfootballcalculator.com ADP 9.9).
Ryan Mathews, San Diego - A huge jump in production is expected for Chargers running back Ryan Mathews. He put up 1,546 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns last season and with touchdown-stealing Mike Tolbert out of town experts expect Mathews to garner a majority of those red zone scores. The key, however, is whether Mathews can take the additional pounding. He's only managed to start 22 of 32 games over his first two seasons in the league and played hurt in many of them. A healthy Mathews could be top-four at his position.
Jahvid Best, Detroit - Best is still not cleared to practice because of his continuing concussion problems. At this point, Best probably can be reduced to a late-round gamble as he doesn't appear to be close to ready to play football. Pay attention to Kevin Smith and see if he is worthy of starter status.
Adrian Peterson, Minnesota - Most people think "All Day" will be in uniform on Opening Day, but many question whether Peterson or Toby Gerhart will be the starter. It would be nice to see Peterson take some hits before we spend a late second round pick on him (ADP 18.9).
Jamaal Charles vs. Peyton Hillis, Kansas City - The Chiefs figure to let Hillis take the constant pounding and use Charles in a lesser role to try and keep him healthy. Something similar to the split between Thomas Jones (245-896-6) and Charles (230-1,467-5) in 2010. If true, both will have solid fantasy value, but it would be best to see the distribution of carries in a live game.
DeMarco Murray vs. Felix Jones, Dallas - For four weeks last season, from Weeks 7-10, Murray was the best running back in fantasy football. The question is whether the injury-prone running back will hold up for 16 games of pounding and how much work a healthy Felix Jones will take from him.
Matt Forte vs. Michael Bush, Chicago - Forte has been an excellent running back in PPR leagues, averaging 55.5 receptions per season. But the addition of Bush, a 6-feet-1, 245 lbs back, figures to take away short yardage runs including at the goal line.
DeAngelo Williams vs. Jonathan Stewart vs. Mike Tolbert, Carolina - Williams and Stewart were already keeping each other from fantasy greatness. Then along came Cam Newton in 2011 grabbing 14 rushing touchdowns from the backs. Tolbert, who scored 21 times over the past two seasons in San Diego, adds more confusion to the backfield makeup.
Doug Martin vs. LeGarrette Blount, Tampa Bay - In the offseason it appeared that the rookie Martin would be a "workhorse" back who could play every down. However, Blount has been very good in early training camp, appears to have worked his way back into the game plan.
Beanie Wells vs. Ryan Williams, Arizona - Last year, before Williams went down with a season-ending patellar tendon injury, he was set to grab a significant portion of the work from Wells. Wells went on to produce nicely last season with a career-best 1,047 yards and 10 touchdowns. Neither is healthy yet, but we need to know how coach Ken Whisenhunt plans to use them to know their fantasy value.
Roy Helu vs. Evan Royster vs. Tim Hightower, Washington - Don't bother. No one can figure out what coach Mike Shanahan is going to do with his running backs. My advice is to stay away and let it be someone else's headache.
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