Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Tons of touchdowns?
A boatload of rushing yards?
Jacksonville Jaguars halfback Maurice Jones-Drew seems to have the whole package. The 27-year-old found the end zone 11 times and blew up for a career- high 1,606 yards on the ground last season.
That's top fantasy running back material, right?
Sorry, Howie Mandel. No deal.
As breathtakingly fabulous as MJD appears on paper, he's not my guy this season.
For starters, Jones-Drew led the league in rushing yards last season.
For most sane individuals, that would be incentive to draft Jones-Drew with one of the first couple of picks. I prefer to look at the bigger picture though.
See, since 2008, nobody has won the NFL's rushing title two seasons in a row. The last to accomplish this achievement was LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006 and 2007.
In that time, no runner who led the league in rushing yards has gone on to finish better than fourth the following season.
I don't see Jones-Drew bucking that trend in 2012.
To make matters worse, Jones-Drew is holding out. In the past, that's been a guaranteed recipe for disaster in fantasy football.
Talented running backs Stephen Jackson and Larry Johnson have both gone the holdout route in recent years without having much success.
Johnson's career was never the same after he held out. After arriving at camp late in 2007, the two-time Pro Bowler was only healthy enough to compete in eight games for the Chiefs.
Even when Johnson was on the field, his production wasn't what you'd call "fantasy worthy." After stockpiling 1,789 yards and 17 TD a season earlier, Johnson limped to just 559 yards and three scores in the year of his holdout.
Jackson of the St. Louis Rams suffered a similar fate after his holdout in 2008. He missed a career-high four games that season while dealing with an injured thigh.
Jackson wasn't the first Rams running back to try holding out. Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson's holdout in 1985 didn't end until just before the second week of the regular season. Dickerson fell 871 yards short of the mark he reached his previous season when he ran the rock for an astonishing 2,105 yards on 379 carries. The Southern Methodist product also saw his yards per carry average fall from 5.6 to just 4.2 after playing hooky from training camp.
Sure there are a few outliers here and there: Shaun Alexander (1,880 yards, 27 TD in 2005) and Emmitt Smith (1,486 yds, 9 TD in 1993) both enjoyed impressive seasons after holding out. But for the most part, players who receive fewer reps in training camp tend to struggle during the regular season. Kind of lends credence to the phrase, "practice makes perfect" that we all took for granted as kids.
So if MJD isn't the answer, who is?
Well let's find out. Since 2003, eight different rushers have led the league in yards. On average, these running backs finished between fifth and sixth in the NFL in rushing yards the season before leading the league. I didn't include Arian Foster in this calculation because he virtually came out of nowhere to earn the rushing crown in 2010 (Foster finished 70th in yards on the ground a season earlier).
If this formula holds true in 2012, the league's leading rusher should be either Foster (fifth in the NFL with 1,224 yards rushing in 2011) or Frank Gore, who came in sixth with 1,211 yards for the San Francisco 49ers last season.
Foster would have had an excellent shot at overtaking Jones-Drew for the rushing title had he been healthy last season (an injured hamstring limited him to just 13 games) so obviously he's a smart fantasy selection.
But let's take a look at the more daring option of the two for a moment. Gore's contributions helped carry the 49ers to within minutes of an NFC title last January and since entering the league in 2005, few backs have been as consistently productive as the former Miami Hurricane. Gore has surpassed the 1,000-yard threshold five times over his last six seasons and it probably would have been a perfect six for six if he had played a full season in 2010 (Gore missed five games with a broken hip).
Maybe he's not as flashy or outspoken as Chris Johnson and some of the league's other premier backs, but Gore is a solid performer with excellent size (217 pounds) and terrific instincts.
Fantasy Football Calculator indicates that unproven youngsters like Tampa Bay's Doug Martin and Cleveland halfback Trent Richardson are being taken ahead of Gore in most fantasy drafts and I'm having a hard time comprehending why that is the case.
Remember, last season only two teams in the NFL handed the ball off more frequently than the 49ers did and quarterback Alex Smith has never thrown more than 445 passes in a single season (19 QBs attempted more passes than Smith did in 2011). The presence of wideouts Randy Moss and Mario Manningham could alter that mindset slightly, but this is still a run-first offense with Gore as the focal point.
Fantasy owners also need to get over this illogical fear of drafting running backs in their late 20s. Sure Gore has already played in 100 NFL games but I don't see any gray hairs.
Lots of older backs have had success in this league. Curtis Martin's best season as a professional came at age 31 when he sprinted for just under 1,700 yards as a New York Jet in 2004. Barry Sanders was the same age as Gore (29) when he had his best season (2,053 yards, 11 TD in 1997) and Alexander, Priest Holmes and Tomlinson were all 28 when they led the league in yards.
Right now Jones-Drew holds an average draft position of 13.0 on Fantasy Football Calculator compared to 41.9 for Gore but don't be surprised if the veteran closes that gap by season's end.
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