After taking a looking at the AFC backfields in this space last week, here's a team-by-team breakdown of the running back situations across the NFC heading into Week 7.
Arizona - It's been tough sledding this season for Beanie Wells, who has amassed just 39 carries in three games since returning from late summer knee surgery. The second-year back is fresh off of the Cards' bye in Week 6, but is facing an underrated Seattle run defense (2.9 YPC) that has ranked second in the NFL by allowing just 70.4 YPG. The underlying concerns I have with Wells are two-fold. One, he still isn't catching passes (two for 11 yards this season) even though the Cards were praising his improvement in that facet of his game during the offseason. Second, opposing defenses may stack the box to stop the run and force undrafted rookie quarterback Max Hall to beat them with his arm. Even if Hall turns out to be the team's long-term answer at quarterback, growing pains are to be expected.
The silver lining is this. If Wells' pass-catching skills have in fact improved, he could be on the receiving end of a lot of short passes from Hall as the team adjusts its game plan. Tim Hightower still exists, but he was faded out of the game plan in a big way against the Chargers and Saints before last week's bye, getting just 11 carries and failing to catch a pass between those contests. Maybe in the right deal, I'd take a buy-low flyer on Wells because of his pedigree and a favorable matchup against the Bucs on the slate for Week 8, but the trip to Seattle doesn't scream must-start.
Seattle - Marshawn Lynch ground out 44 yards and a score on 17 carries in his Seahawks debut in Week 6 and while 2.6 YPC is a disappointing per-carry mark, don't forget that the Bears are one of the league's better run defenses this year (3.5 YPC, third in the NFL at 84.0 YPG) and that he took seven more carries than my August man-crush Justin Forsett. Both backs have a good matchup in Week 7 when the Seahawks host the Cards, facing an Arizona defense that is allowing 4.3 YPC and currently ranked 29th against the run at 140.8 YPG. Even if a 2:1 split in carries favoring Lynch develops, Forsett still has occasional spot start value as a flex option given his upside (4.6 YPC) and both runners should be strongly considered against Arizona in Weeks 7 and 10, as well as against the Bucs in Week 16.
St. Louis - There's really not much to say here. Look at the Rams' Week 6 box score – Jackson ran 29 times for 109 yards and a touchdown, the rest of the team's running backs put up the same number of fantasy points as I did from the bleachers at Lambeau Field last Sunday. Jackson's stranglehold on the carries in the St. Louis backfield is by far the most one-back dominated situation in the entire league this season. Even Chris Johnson yields a few carries to Javon Ringer each week, but Jackson isn't coughing up anything unless he suffers an injury.
San Francisco - Come to think of it, the NFC West this season reminds me of the news team fight in Anchorman (sorry, no link, there doesn't seem to be a quality version posted anywhere). I'm still not 100 percent that the Niners are dead, but if they go to Carolina without a pulse for an early Sunday kickoff, that may finally be enough to begin throwing shovels of dirt their way. I didn't like Gore as the No. 5 overall player behind the first four running backs off the board on draft day (I advocated Turner and a desire to own Rashard Mendenhall over Gore instead). Thus far, he's been the most targeted running back in the NFL (50, thanks Alex Smith!) while ranking second at his position in receiving yards (284) and hauling in a pair of TD catches. This is proof that taking a step back in the running game (down to 4.1 YPC from 4.9 last season) can easily be overcome by catching a high volume of passes and not having to share the rock with Anthony Dixon or Brian Westbrook.
Atlanta – The difference between Michael Turner and Rashard Mendenhall this season has been four touchdowns. Yes, Mendenhall has already gone through his bye week, but the yards from scrimmage totals are tight (537-516 favoring Mendenhall) and that's with Turner leaving the Arizona game in Week 2 very early due to injury. The Cards were tackling like a Rick Moranis coached team in that game and Turner could have easily rung up another 70-plus yards and a score or two had he remained in the game. If you're worried about making the playoffs and need to make a deal for a potential upgrade at running back, Turner makes more sense than the Jags' Maurice Jones-Drew as a potential trade target.
Carolina – Jonathan Stewart has gone from 1,000-yard rusher to the side of your milk carton in a mere five games. Is there any value left to salvage here? There should be, even though he hasn't picked up 10 carries in a game yet this season. DeAngelo Williams has been a disappointment this season as well, and you can point the finger at terrible quarterback play and a depleted receiving corps giving the Panthers nothing to keep opposing defenses honest with through the air. After Matt Moore took over for Jake Delhomme for the final five games last season, Stewart ran wild down the stretch while Williams was sidelined with an injury. Stewart ran for 589 yards and found the end zone five times during that span. When you look at the Carolina offense, there really hasn't been that much change since then. Even when Williams and Stewart are both healthy and limited to 15-20 (Williams) and 10-15 (Stewart) carries each, they've proven to be valuable fantasy options because the Panthers are built to be a ground-heavy attack.
New Orleans – Will we ever see Pierre Thomas again? Not in Week 7, meaning Chris Ivory will get another opportunity to carry the mail for Who Dat nation. Save for a nice second half against Minnesota in the season opener, Thomas wasn't exactly an unstoppable force on the ground (3.2 YPC) before suffering an ankle injury. Eventually Reggie Bush will return, but that shouldn't hurt Ivory's value all that much considering that he's caught just one pass in four games this season. Meanwhile, Thomas could get Mike Bell'd for the second straight season if Ivory can shake his case of fumblitis and continue gobbling up yardage at a healthy clip.
Tampa Bay – Kareem Huggins is now down for the count (torn ACL), Cadillac Williams appears to be running on fumes, and the Bucs have already had their bye week. For those owners in deeper leagues where starting backs are difficult to come by, LeGarrette Blount is a good speculative pickup. With a measily 2.5 YPC, Williams is now just as likely to be demoted as he is to suffer another injury and while the Earnest Graham experiment worked once before, that doesn't necessarily mean that the Bucs will roll with him as a feature back again. Blount's chances to play a prominent role could hinge on his ability to pick up the team's blocking schemes, as that may be the only element of Williams' skill set enabling him to keep the starting gig right now.
Dallas – The Cowboys have played their way into a theme song with their 1-4 start. It looks like head coach Wade Phillips makes an appearance in there as the fellow with the pointed hat. Regardless of who is taking the first snap of the game at running back, Felix Jones appears to have fully displaced Marion Barber as the Cowboys' primary back over the last two weeks. Barber has 19 touches (16 carries, three receptions) to Jones' 43 (29 carries, 14 receptions) and even though MB3 has the potential to continue seeing his chances inside the red zone, he's not even a must-start option as a flex in 12-team leagues anymore because of his diminishing role. Putting the Grimace and beat-up lawn gnome barbs aside, Dallas at home in a must-win situation should be able to pull out their second win of the season against the Giants on Monday night. However, this is a tough enough matchup to keep Barber on the pine (in a small enough league, I'm on the side that believes he belongs on the waiver wire) and to weigh your alternatives with Jones in more shallow formats. The Giants are giving up just 3.5 YPC this season along with 92.8 YPG (seventh in the NFL).
New York – Ahmad Bradshaw is ninth in the NFL in fantasy points among running backs (non-PPR scoring) despite having Brandon Jacobs in position to swipe four touchdowns all inside of six yards this season. Thus far, he's made up for the lost scoring chances by getting significantly more touches from scrimmage, averaging more than 18 carries per game while also catching 14 passes. The only real concern here is health, as the oft-injured back is on pace to shatter his career high in season carries with 293. Schedule-wise, the Giants don't have any brutal matchups where you'd seriously consider benching him, so his ability to finish the year as a top-10 RB will hinge on his ability to stay on the field and out of the trainer's room.
Washington – Clinton Portis remains sidelined by a Grade 3 groin separation and while the initial timetable offered was four-to-six weeks, there's really no guarantee that he makes it back to 100 percent health this season. Ryan Torain has been a nice pickup for fantasy owners since taking over the starting job and his 100-yard, two-TD game against the Colts in Week 6 shows that he can run well against a bad run defense – at the very least. Torain also chipped away effectively against the Eagles in Week 4 before a quiet showing against Green Bay in Week 5. Since coming into the league in 2008, Torain has been sidelined by a Lisfranc sprain in his right foot (which required surgery), a dislocated elbow and a torn ACL. He was also spotted in the Redskins' locker room with his knee heavily wrapped Monday, but Torain was able to practice enough this week to ease concern about his Week 7 status. In any case, he sounds like the type of player you should probably handcuff, right? This is where Keiland Williams comes in as an intriguing speculative pickup.
Philadelphia - It's somewhat hard to believe that LeSean McCoy ranks third in fantasy points at running back this season (non-PPR) when you consider how much the Eagles love the pass. McCoy's ability to work as a receiver out of the backfield have gone a long way toward helping his cause (239 receiving yards), but the real answer here is that McCoy gashed the Lions for three scores in Week 2 and that has inflated his points total for the season. That's not to say he isn't going to be a great value for those who grabbed him in the fourth or fifth round on draft day, however, as McCoy ranks fourth among running backs and receivers in yards from scrimmage (668). The acquisition of Jerome Harrison for Mike Bell puts an interesting wrinkle in the depth behind him, but it will likely take a McCoy injury to make Harrison a prominent part of the weekly gameplan as long as the second-year back continues to chug along at a 4.8 YPC clip.
Chicago – I'll take Starting Running Backs Who Were Given Eight Carries Last Week for 400, please. For the most part, Matt Forte looks much more like the versatile rookie he was in 2008 than the injured, lackluster back of 2009, showing the burst necessary to break off long touchdown runs. There are still flaws here, however, and the greatest of them is an offensive line that isn't exactly having a good year protecting Jay Cutler or opening up running lines. Forte is averaging 3.9 YPC and is fourth in the NFL in fantasy points scored at his position (non-PPR), but it has been feast or famine for Forte owners this season. Inconsistent production looks to be the trend going forward with Forte, as he's got an excellent matchup coming back from the bye at Buffalo in Week 9, and one more crack at the Lions in Week 13 before a very rough patch in the final three games with the Vikings, Jets and Packers beginning in Week 15. Since Chester Taylor hasn't been much of a factor, Forte shouldn't burn owners quite as badly as he did in Week 3 with 4.3 points against the Packers or Week 4 with 3.3 against the Giants, but you shouldn't expect a third 30-point game from him either.
Detroit – There's definite risk in being tricked by a small sample size that you see in person, but Jahvid Best was unable to make sharp cuts in the Lions game I watched most closely following his turf toe injury. He was silenced by the Giants in Week 6 and the bye really couldn't have come at a better time for the rookie running back, as he's currently on a four-game scoreless streak while averaging less than 7.0 fantasy points per game during that span. If you've got an opportunity to capitalize on a sell-high deal while he's still showing numbers that suggest he's a top-10 back, move him now.
Green Bay – The Packers haven't shown much confidence in Jackson as their starting running back, giving him a shade less than 10 carries per game since he became their No. 1 option in Week 2. James Starks returned to practice this week after opening the year on the PUP list, but he doesn't appear to be ready to make an impact just yet. For now, Jackson will continue to get the majority of the carries, but John Kuhn figures to get the carries in the red zone where Jackson has touched the ball just once over the last three games. His 4.6 YPC average suggests that the coaching staff should consider being more proactive about calling plays that suit his running style, but that seems unlikely at this point. To make matters worse for Jackson owners, Kuhn and quarterback Aaron Rodgers remain more likely to get the rushing attempts at the goal line.
Minnesota – On a per-game basis, Adrian Peterson has matched Chris Johnson's production thus far (17.9 FP/G). In addition to giving fantasy owners elite production, Peterson has done it with consistent weekly output and delivering at least 10 points each week through his first five games. It's funny to think that there were concerns in July and August about Toby Gerhart threatening Peterson's goal-line carries, especially since he hasn't even registered a carry inside of the red zone while running the ball just 10 times this season.