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Moving the Chains: Taking Stock - AFC Edition

Derek VanRiper

Derek VanRiper

Derek is the Senior Baseball Editor for RotoWire.com, where he's been a two-time finalist for the FSWA's Baseball Writer of the Year award, and winner of the Best Football Article on the Web (2009) and Best Baseball Article on the Web (2010) awards. Derek also co-hosts RotoWire Fantasy Sports Today on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio (XM 87, Sirius 210) from 11a-2p ET on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

Week 6 is here, and it's time to evaluate things that have changed since the start of the season. This week, we'll go through team-by-team and break down running back situations across the AFC.

AFC East

Buffalo Marshawn Lynch is gone, so most data prior to the Week 5 loss to Jacksonville can be discarded. Fred Jackson had 12 carries to C.J. Spiller's five, but it's interesting to point out that both backs had two carries inside the red zone and Spiller was actually targeted twice by quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick in close as well. A few things to keep in mind. First, Jackson went over the 1,000-yard mark last season, so he should have some flex value on a week-to-week basis outside of very tough matchups. Second, Jackson averaged 6.1 YPC against the Jags and Spiller was only a hair better at 6.2. The Bills need to realize that they're a team that will benefit from running the ball 30-35 times per game with their two backs.

Miami The Dolphins are heading into Week 6 coming back from their bye. Their workload has been split nearly evenly with Ronnie Brown taking 48 carries to Ricky Williams' 43. Brown's margin in red-zone carries is only 11-7, but he remains the more valuable member of this timeshare while chugging along at 4.7 YPC. It wouldn't be surprising to see the Dolphins make an adjustment to get Brown 60-65 percent of the touches going forward, but health will remain a question mark as major injuries have derailed him in each of the last two seasons.

New England It's BenJarvus Green-Ellis' backfield now and while he has only caught one pass in the first four games, he's taken 11 red-zone carries (the same number as Adrian Peterson and Ray Rice) in an offense that can move the ball effectively against most defenses. Keep in mind that he's averaging just below 12 carries per game, so he's more of a situational RB2 than a weekly one, but Green-Ellis is on pace for eight touchdowns this season after picking up two in his first four games.

New York At first glance, LaDainian Tomlinson has singlehandedly made Shonn Greene a bust for those who grabbed him with a late first- or early second-round pick on draft day. Tomlinson's resurgence is undoubtedly a surprise to many, but Greene hasn't exactly been chopped liver so far with 4.5 YPC and 10 red-zone carries. As advertised, Greene still isn't a big part of the passing game with just two receptions in five games compared to Tomlinson's 17. Greene's name is constantly being thrown about in trade discussions and for the right price, he's still worth investing in as the Jets' offense continues to click.

AFC North

Baltimore Ray Rice is breaking out of his early-season slump and Willis McGahee hasn't done much (3.6 YPC) to merit consideration for more carries anyway. Averaging three catches per game, Rice is only on pace to catch 48 passes this season and while that is a significant disappointment for those in PPR leagues, he's been able to keep an edge over McGahee in the red-zone carries department with an 11-9 lead. Even the carries inside the five-yard line have been split evenly so far, so there's reason to believe that better numbers are on the horizon for Rice if he continues to get chances in close as he did with a pair of one-yard scores in Week 5.

Cleveland It's safe to say that the Browns really didn't want Jerome Harrison around as they drafted a running back in April and turned to a fullback as their primary ball carrier before they jettisoned him to Philadelphia in a back-for-back swap to obtain Mike Bell. Bell is a more physical runner, in the mold of surprise Peyton Hillis, but his fantasy value going forward directly correlates to Hillis' health. The wild card in the Browns' backfield is second-year player James Davis, who remains a good speculative pickup in case he's given an opportunity to start at some point later on this season. In the short term, however, you can't plug in a guy with just four carries in Week 3 to his credit in 2010.

Cincinnati Cedric Benson is one of six running backs this season currently averaging 20 or more carries per game (Chris Johnson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Rashard Mendenhall, Adrian Peterson, Darren McFadden). To say that Bernard Scott and Brian Leonard are no threat to Benson's workload is an understatement. Even though he's averaging just 3.9 YPC, getting that type of volume translates to a shade under 1,300 rushing yards over the course of a season. To borrow a phrase from a few fellow baseball writers, at-bats carries are currency.

Pittsburgh The only question surrounding Mendenhall is how will his workload be impacted by the return of Ben Roethlisberger from suspension? His efficiency was good (4.6 YPC) even without a consistent threat at quarterback and there's no reason to think that will slip going forward. Any loss of carries should be minimal, and Mendenhall's stranglehold on the red-zone carries (all 12 of them) suggests that more TDs could be on the way if Roethlisberger gets the Steelers down the field with more success than Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon have to this point. Even with just five receptions in his first four games, Mendenhall may be a top-five back at the end of the season.

AFC South

Houston This Arian Foster guy is pretty good. If your keeper decision were due today for 2011, would you keep Foster or Ray Rice? Derrick Ward took a one-yard plunge into the end zone and ran well when Foster was held out of action for violating a team rule in Week 5, but is he the handcuff that Foster owners should be rostering? Steve Slaton is averaging 4.9 YPC in limited action, but the Texans haven't even made a point to get him the ball as a receiver out of the backfield. Foster's skill set can't be denied, but he had an extensive injury history in college and you'd be wise to handicap the race for touches before an injury inflates the acquisition cost of Ward and Slaton.

Indianapolis I don't recall where I heard it, but someone suggested that the Colts would be a three-win team without Peyton Manning. That might even be a stretch, especially since they cannot run the ball effectively. Joseph Addai (3.7 YPC), Donald Brown (3.5 YPC) and Mike Hart (3.3 YPC) form a fragile trio of backs that few teams can match in terms of their lack of collective upside. For the season, the Colts have a long rush of 17 yards. The Colts' situation isn't quite as bad as the running back debacle in Denver, but it's close.

Jacksonville As Mark Stopa pointed out in his Working the Wire column this week, Karim appears to have leapfrogged Rashad Jennings as the backup to Maurice Jones-Drew. That's more of an insurance policy arrangement than a sneaky flex pickup, but MJD owners in deeper leagues would be wise to use a bench spot on Karim, at least until Jones-Drew proves that the wrist injury that limited him in Week 5 is a non-issue.

Tennessee If Javon Ringer didn't have Chris Johnson ahead of him on the depth chart, there'd probably be some hype here given his explosiveness in limited carries (19 for 119 yards) this season. He's averaging less than five carries per game, so short-term value is next to nothing, but much like Karim, Ringer is a nice handcuff option. Johnson has earned his spot as the No. 1 overall pick on most draft boards to this point, thanks to six rushing scores and a league-high 27 carries in the red zone.

AFC West

Denver In a word, abysmal. Knowshon Moreno seemed to be at less than 100 percent during the first two games of the season (2.9 YPC), but that doesn't excuse Correll Buckhalter and Laurence Maroney for their awful YPC marks. Friday marked the first time since Sept. 23 that he was able to practice on consecutive days, but it remains to be seen if he'll play and get 15-20 touches against the Jets in Week 6. It's safe to say, however, that Moreno should have a clear path to monopolize the opportunities in the Broncos' backfield given the collective failure of his replacements so far. The risk lies in the uncertainty surrounding his health and the chances of an aggravation of the hamstring injury that has bothered him since training camp.

Kansas City Following the team's Week 4 bye, the Chiefs gave Charles 16 carries against the Colts compared to just eight for Thomas Jones. If that trend holds up, Charles will have an opportunity to be a top-10 back between now and the end of the season. Even without a head coach willing to give him the ball 20-plus times per game, Charles is on pace for 1,300 rushing yards. If you can make a buy-low offer here, it's time to get that deal done because the Chiefs' only path to the playoffs even as a 3-1 team heading into Week 6 will include a heavier dose of No. 25 in the game plan.

Oakland Welcome to backfield chaos, population 2. If Darren McFadden had stayed healthy, he might be the NFL's leading rusher through five games. Let's stick to the facts McFadden didn't stay healthy and Michael Bush has shown signs of being a productive runner in his own right. Is there room for both players to co-exist and be fantasy relevant each week? Probably. The Raiders seem to be built to control the time of possession, play good defense and grind out low-scoring wins, regardless of whether it's Bruce Gradkowski or Jason Campbell at quarterback. McFadden's availability for Week 6 will likely be a game-time decision. The added chaos comes in the fact that the Raiders will have a late afternoon kickoff every week between now and their bye in Week 10 before a visit to Pittsburgh in Week 11.

San Diego Wait, so you didn't have Mike Tolbert on your cheat sheet as a late-round sleeper? With 12 carries for 11 yards against the Raiders in Week 5, there's reason to be concerned as Ryan Mathews' health continues to improve after an early-season ankle injury. I can't help but shake the feeling that Tolbert is another Earnest Graham or Le'Ron McClain, and it's hard to imagine a scenario where the Chargers don't continue to increase Mathews' workload as the season progresses. Even though the rookie has been a disappointment to those who invested an early pick (think late first- or early second-round) in him, he's still averaging 5.1 YPC and has a ton of upside in the Chargers' offense.