Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Running back by committee.
There, I said them. The four scariest words in fantasy football.
I told you guys to pick a running back first about ten times in my columns the past couple weeks but I know not all of you listened.
Don't worry. You're not the first fantasy owner to be tempted by Cam Newton's dancing feet or Calvin Johnson's super-adhesive freak hands. But if you did take the creative liberty of selecting non-running backs in the first few rounds, you probably had to settle for guys like Mark Ingram and Ronnie Hillman to fill out your fantasy backfield.
Hillman and Ingram are acceptable bye week plays but not players you can trust on a week-to-week basis.
That's not to say they aren't talented. Hillman showed plenty of potential as a rookie and Ingram is a former Heisman Trophy winner.
But Denver and New Orleans are not suitable environments for fantasy success because both teams use the dreaded running back by committee approach.
Pittsburgh's half back trio of Isaac Redman, Felix Jones and LaRod Stephens- Howling is just as frustrating.
But I wouldn't be doing my job if I just left it at that. No, this running back by committee conundrum is a mystery worth solving. So let's roll up our sleeves and sort this puppy out.
Denver: Two backs just weren't enough for the Broncos. This year's running back entourage rolls three deep.
Out of the three, Knowshon Moreno definitely holds the edge in experience. Hillman could multiply his career carries (85) by seven and still not have as many as Moreno (604 rushes in four NFL seasons). Meanwhile, Wisconsin rookie Montee Ball's career stat line is still a blank slate.
Moreno is also the largest of the bunch at 220 pounds, making him a prime candidate for goal line duty. In fantasy, that's always significant.
But then again, the Broncos wouldn't have drafted Ball in the second round if they trusted Moreno to be the lead back. At age 26, Moreno has probably already peaked.
For what it's worth, Hillman rushed for the most yards during the preseason (91) while Moreno held the highest per carry average (5.1 yards per rush).
The player to own?
I think it's Ball. He's not a burner like Hillman (4.42 40-yard dash) or Moreno (4.5) but with an FBS record 77 rushing touchdowns in college, Ball definitely has upside. He scuffled a bit in the preseason (just 3.2 yards per carry) but so does everyone. Peyton Manning said that Ball would "play a lot" this season and I'm taking his word for it.
New Orleans: This is how screwy things got in the Big Easy last year. Only three teams attempted fewer rushes (370) than the Saints and no player had more than 156 touches.
Forty of those carries left the building when Chris Ivory was traded to the Jets this past offseason. That leaves New Orleans with a backfield of Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles.
Ingram is the closest thing the Saints have to a traditional back. His 602 rushing yards and five touchdowns led the team last season.
2012 was supposed to be Ingram's breakout year. Instead he finished with the same number of touchdowns (five) he had in 2011. Even his per carry average stayed the same (3.9 both years).
Thomas and Sproles, on the other hand, are PPR dynamos who carry the ball sparingly. Since 2011, those two have combined for 1,882 rushing yards on just 350 carries (5.3 yards per carry).
The player to own?
Ingram will get the most carries but Sproles is clearly the best fantasy option. His 667 receiving yards were easily the most by an NFL running back in 2012. He's a fourth or fifth-rounder and could even go late in the first round in PPR leagues.
Pittsburgh: Once the go-to guy in Pittsburgh's run-heavy scheme, Rashard Mendenhall fell off the map because of injuries. He's now a member of the Arizona Cardinals.
Jonathan Dwyer has also moved on (the Steelers cut him on Saturday) and rookie Le'Veon Bell won't be available for the first handful of games because of a foot injury. Now the running back workload will be shared amongst Felix Jones, LaRod Stephens-Howling and Isaac Redman.
Call it the island of misfit halfbacks.
Jones is a familiar name to fantasy owners. In 2010, he made waves by rushing for 800 yards while hauling in another 450 as a receiver. Still, he's never rushed for more than three touchdowns in a single season.
Stephens-Howling was on the radar for a few weeks last year thanks to a pair of 100-yard games. He returned to fantasy obscurity shortly after by totaling just 45 yards in his final six contests.
Redman is powerfully built at 230 pounds and he knows the lay of the land having carried the ball 272 times for Pittsburgh over the last three seasons. With that said, it's pretty hard to get excited about a guy who averaged just 3.7 yards per carry a season ago.
The player to own?
None of the above. If Bell can return to the field relatively soon (some reports suggest he could be back in about a month) he's the clear-cut No. 1. In the mean time, the Steelers will have to go with the hot hand. Or maybe the lukewarm hand.
Thankfully, running back committees rarely stand the test of time. More often than not, someone emerges from the pack and bullies their way to lead back status. Hopefully that will be the case in Denver, New Orleans and Pittsburgh this season.