2014: Year of the Injury-Prone Running Back Comeback?

– Following Carolina’s 28-16 win over Kansas City in a nationally televised preseason game Sunday night, Panthers coach Ron Rivera and Center Ryan Khalil had some high praise for running back Jonathan Stewart. The six-year veteran ran for 26 yards and two touchdowns on just four carries, prompting Rivera to say the Carolina offense can be “dynamic” if Stewart can remain healthy. Khalil added to that, “When he does get back out there you realize why he is so special and why you keep giving him chances to come back.”

Health has always been the biggest issue for Stewart, particularly over the last two seasons where he’s played in just 15 of a possible 32 games. On top of the missed time, the oft-injured runner hasn’t been himself even when on the field. Since 2012, J-Stew has totaled a mere 516 rushing yards and one touchdown on 141 carries (3.7 yards/rush). On Sunday he certainly looked fully recovered from the ankle issues and torn MCL that plagued him in 2013, as well as the pulled hamstring he had been battling early in training camp.

I’d like to take you on a quick trip down memory lane if I may. It’s the year 2004 and I am a high school junior in the Seattle area. My team had a Saturday afternoon game the next day, so on Friday night I took the opportunity to watch one of the top-rated running back recruits in the country to see what all the fuss was about. That back was a senior for Timberline High School named Jonathan Stewart, and he was on the verge of becoming Washington prep football’s career rushing leader. On that night, Stewart rushed for 422 yards and nine touchdowns against Centralia High School. It was easily the most dominant performance I had ever seen. Stewart was a man among boys; it almost wasn’t fair for him to be playing high school football. If he was any less than the 5-10 235 pounds he is now, it wasn’t by much. His legs were like tree trunks; the way people used to talk about Earl Campbell. They simply could not tackle the guy-and at times looked as if they didn’t want to. The Oregon commit had an elite blend of power (28 reps of 225 at combine) and speed (4.46 official 40 time) like you only see in All-Pros, and every aspect of his uncanny ability was on display that evening. Stewart did end up breaking the state rushing record, finishing with 7,755 yards for his career in addition to 105 touchdowns. The All-American never had less than 9.0 yards per carry in a season; in fact, three of four years in high school his YPC was 10.5 or better.

Jonathan Stewart went on to have a stellar three-year college career in Eugene as well, foregoing his final year of eligibility to enter the draft. In the 2008 NFL Draft, the Panthers selected him with the 13th overall pick in the draft. Even though they had spent a first round pick at the position in 2006 on DeAngelo Williams, Carolina couldn’t resist. The prospects of pairing the shifty Williams with the powerful Stewart and forming the best 1-2 punch in football were just too tantalizing. For a while, the results were fantastic. They had the best backfield duo in football, actually becoming the first pair of teammates to rush for 1,100 yards in the same season in 2009. Stewart himself rushed for 1,969 yards and 20 touchdowns in his first two seasons in the league, scoring 10 times on the ground in each year. In his first four seasons, he totaled 3,500 yards rushing. The seventh-year pro also set the franchise record for rush yards in a single game with 206 yards at the Meadowlands vs the Giants in December 2009.

Unfortunately, the injuries started to pop up more and more frequently. Despite a long history of ankle problems, Stewart had only missed two games total in his first four seasons. Over the last two, he’s been sidelined for 17. What you can’t lose sight of here is that it’s not too late. This isn’t one of those “what if” stories quite yet. Just 27 years old, Jonathan Stewart may finally be ready to be the workhorse for Carolina. DeAngelo Williams, now 31, has clearly lost a step. Williams is the better receiver, so he will likely be the third down back in 2014. But I would anticipate Stewart being the primary ballcarrier and goal line back, making him the significantly better fantasy option in that backfield. He’s younger, his legs are fresher, and he just brings more to the table at this time. With an ADP hovering just above 200 and rankings of 196th overall/44th among running backs, Stewart represents great value in fantasy drafts right now. That’s the beauty of not being able to stay healthy for a couple years-nobody has confidence that you can, and those durability concerns are priced in. If the pick doesn’t pan out, it costs you nothing; if it hits, you’re a genius. Playing alongside Cam Newton creates a bevy of running lanes for the RBs because defenses have to account for Cam’s rushing ability. And with Carolina’s receiving core being decimated this offseason, they will be leaning heavily on the running game this year. Take J-Stew with a late-round flier instead of that kicker you were going to waste a draft pick on. If he can stay healthy, you’ll be happy you did.

– Injured Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (quad) did not practice Wednesday, while running back Montee Ball (appendix) was able to take part in individual drills along with getting some 7-on-7 work in with the Denver starters. Ball is returning from the emergency appendectomy a couple weeks ago. With Ball’s return to practice Tuesday and increased participation Wednesday, the second-year man out of Wisconsin seems to be taking positive steps toward being ready for week one. On the other end of the spectrum, Emmanuel Sanders hasn’t practiced since last Thursday and was unable to go last Sunday against the 49ers after recording no catches in 20 snaps vs Seattle in the preseason opener. After signing a three-year, $15 million contract with Denver in free agency, many tabbed Sanders as a potential breakout candidate for 2014 (myself included). The assumption was he would step in where departed WR Eric Decker left off in that high-scoring offense, making him a sure-fire WR2/3 in fantasy lineups. With this quad injury continuing to flare up and the continued emergence of second round pick Cody Latimer in his absence, it no longer seems like such a sure thing.

The Browns finally settled the most intriguing position battle of the preseason, choosing Brian Hoyer as their starting quarterback for the season opener against Pittsburgh. Enigmatic rookie Johnny Manziel will have to wait to become Cleveland’s 21st different starting quarterback since 1999. The move was somewhat surprising only insofar as the timing of the announcement. Coach Mike Pettine maintained all along the goal was to decide on a starter before the third preseason game. However, the Browns head coach told reporters yesterday during a conference call he was not yet ready to make a decision. Obviously the hope was that one of the two signal callers would’ve separate themselves by this time, similar to the way Russell Wilson did in 2012 for the Seahawks. That certainly was not the case here. In the event that neither player stood out as the clear-cut best option, it was expected the team would go with the veteran Hoyer. “He was the clear leader from the beginning,” Pettine said in a statement. “We’ve maintained all along that if it was close, I would prefer to go with the more experienced player. Brian has done a great job in the meeting rooms and with his teammates on the practice field and in the locker room”. The sixth year pro was 3-0 as the starter last year before tearing his ACL in an October game against Buffalo. While this competition obviously didn’t bring out the best in Hoyer, it would appear he also didn’t play poorly enough to lose the job.

I’m not sure either player has looked much like a guy ready to be a starting quarterback in the NFL based on preseason game action thus far. Through two games, Hoyer is 8/20 for 108 yards (a paltry 5.4 yards per attempt) and Manziel is 14/27 for 128 yards (an even worse 4.7 YPA) and the only touchdown pass thrown by either. While the play was uninspiring to say the least, one positive is that there wasn’t a single interception thrown between them. After watching the game at Washington on Monday night, it was quite clear Cleveland had to make a choice soon. Because of splitting reps between the two quarterbacks, the timing and rhythm of the offense could not have been more off. There were several miscommunications, failures in pass protection, and just downright poor passes. Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel were both completely out of sync with their receivers all night long. On the offensive side of the ball, the Browns were flat out hard to watch at times. Oddly enough, both quarterbacks were considerably worse in the second game than they were in Detroit the week before. Make no mistake, neither delivered a great performance against the Lions; but Monday was borderline dreadful.

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For fantasy purposes, Cleveland’s decision to go with Hoyer is somewhat of a disappointment. The man they call Johnny Football was really the only Browns QB worth owning in standard leagues-mainly because of his rushing ability. The 21-year old gave us an idea of what he can do outside of the pocket with six carries for 27 yards against the Lions in limited action during the first exhibition game. Manziel, the 22nd overall pick in the draft, rushed for a total of 2,169 yards and 30 touchdowns in just two seasons in College Station on top of 7,820 yards and 63 scores through the air. You might recall his 229-yard rushing output (a bowl game record by a quarterback) in the 2013 Cotton Bowl victory over Oklahoma to cap off his Heisman-winning 2012 season. Starting Brian Hoyer may give Cleveland the best chance to win early in the year, but Manziel definitely has the brighter fantasy outlook. While Johnny Football will drop off draft boards in light of this news, fantasy owners would be wise to keep him on waiver wire watch lists. It is a relative certainty the rookie will start at some point this season. Barring injury or disastrously poor play, Hoyer will likely get a month or two to hang onto the job. If the 28-year old journeyman doesn’t have the team winning after four to eight games, the Pettine won’t hesitate to give Johnny Manziel the nod. When he does get his opportunity to play, Manziel is absolutely worth grabbing off the waiver wire because of that upside. Remember Tim Tebow circa 2011?

– In Atlanta, running back Steven Jackson (hamstring) did some work off to the side on Wednesday. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, coach Mike Smith expects the 31-year old to be ready for the season opener against the Saints. Jackson has missed almost all of training camp and both preseason games thus far with the same injury that forced him out of four games and parts of two others last season. Unfortunately, even if he is able to make it back by week one, he will be running behind a line that is now minus a key cog. Left Tackle Sam Baker suffered a torn right patella tendon in the Falcons second preseason game this past Saturday night against Houston. Oddly enough, the same injury to his left knee ended his 2013 season after just four games. Rookie first round pick Jake Matthews out of Texas A&M figures to slide over to the left tackle spot to fill the void. The offensive line wasn’t exactly an area of strength last year, as Matt Ryan was sacked 44 times and the run game struggled severely. Steven Jackson is coming off career lows in games played (12), rushing yards (543), and yards per carry (3.5). At this point you have to wonder if the age, workload, and numerous soft-tissue injuries over the years have taken their toll. On the plus side, he won’t cost you a second round pick in fantasy drafts as he did last year.

– Speaking of injury-prone running backs…in a shocking development, Darren McFadden has played two preseason games and has yet to sustain an injury. The Raiders runner has looked solid in those outings, totaling 50 yards and a score on nine carries (good for 5.6 yards per tote). Head Coach Dennis Allen agrees, “Darren is running the ball as well as I’ve seen him run it since I’ve been here. I think part of that is that he’s remained healthy throughout the offseason and training camp…there haven’t been any kinds of nicks or nagging little deals that have slowed him down.” Color me crazy, but I think this just might be the year McFadden actually stays healthy. And if that’s the case, I foresee Maurice Jones-Drew serving as the secondary option/change-of-pace back to McFadden as the season goes on; as I’ve always been a firm believer that talent wins out in these position battles. While his teammate has started each of the two preseason contests, McFadden has certainly looked like the better back thus far. He is just a far more explosive player than 29-year old MJD is at this point in their careers. Ever since the 2012 LisFranc injury, the former Jaguar lacks his prior quickness and burst. Jones-Drew may be going considerably higher in drafts, but DMC is the player I’d rather have given their respective price tags. The Raiders have listed their running backs as co-starters, and Allen has maintained since they signed MJD in free agency they will be splitting time in that Oakland backfield in 2014. And maybe it will work out that way; but, if I were Dennis Allen, I know who I would give the lion’s share of the carries to.

In your fantasy league, Darren McFadden could literally be on every team’s “Do Not Draft” list. This is what finally makes McFadden a strong value. As we all know, talent has never been the issue for Raiders running back. The Raiders drafted the former Arkansas Razorback fourth overall in 2008 for a reason: freakish natural ability. The man we call RUN DMC is 6-1 218 pounds of raw athleticism, he runs the 40-yard dash in 4.33 seconds and has a standing broad jump of 10-8. As we all know, however, McFadden just flat out cannot stay on the field. To say his injury history is well-documented might be one of the biggest understatements of the summer. Fine, he’s brittle (missing 29 total games in six professional seasons). Yeah, he’s averaged 3.3 yards per carry each of the last two seasons. Sure, he’s in a timeshare with Maurice Jones-Drew. But I’ll take him on my team any day of the week at his current ADP. Why, you ask? Because of the value-being ranked 181st overall/40th at the position means he costs you next to nothing.

Darren McFadden still offers huge upside given the talent, and you can draft him with a late round flier at this point. It could be one of the biggest steals in fantasy drafts this season. The seventh-year back has flashed his potential throughout his career, which is probably what makes his inability to stay on the field that much more infuriating. We all know what McFadden could be if it ever came together during a 16-game season. In 2010, his best season as a pro, he was nothing short of remarkable with 1,157 rush yards and 507 receiving yards to go along with 10 total touchdowns in just 13 games played. The following year DMC crushed us all, playing in a career-low seven games when he was a consensus top-five selection in fantasy drafts. He was stellar through six games (averaging over 100 ypg with 610 rush yards and five total TDs on 5.4 ypc), but suffered a LisFranc injury in the seventh game that knocked him out for the rest of the season. We have all learned the hard way with the 26-year old runner that you just can’t trust him to be in the Raiders lineup (or yours) on a weekly basis.

But what if McFadden was your RB5, where you don’t have to trust him week in and week out? Well, that will be the case this season. With his explosiveness, Darren McFadden is a game changer. He has that rare ability to singlehandedly win your fantasy week. Any time he touches the ball it could go to the house. If you don’t remember that game against Jacksonville in December 2010, I suggest making a quick trip to YouTube. McFadden was truly Run DMC that day with 16 carries for 123 yards and two touchdowns to go along with three grabs for 86 yards and a touch through the air. Among those 209 total yards and three TDs were a jaw-dropping 67-yard TD reception and a ridiculous 51-yard TD run. The big game potential is there. Scoring opportunities will be there, as he will be the team’s goal-line back. If you need a running back late in the draft, don’t be scared to take Darren McFadden. He bet on himself by signing a one-year deal to return to the Raiders; likewise, fantasy owners can bet on him one more time as well. At the very least, he could serve as a great bye week fill-in.

– It would appear Colin Kaepernick’s foot injury last year was far more serious than we knew at the time. The 49ers quarterback told the Sacramento Bee he had a chipped bone on his forefoot and a ruptured capsule in the ball of his foot. Kaepernick suffered the injury during the week two blowout loss to Seattle on Sunday Night Football, but continued to play with the ailment all season long. He said at the time it was no big deal, at times even joking that the injury was just a hangnail. “Never said anything about it because you’re a football player, you play through pain”, Kaepernick told reporters. “Unless you’re being carted off, you should be on the field. If it’s something you can play through, that’s what you do”. You would have to believe the young signal caller gained a world of respect in the locker room by doing so.

Colin Kaepernick finished 11th among quarterbacks in fantasy points in 2013 playing with that foot injury and only attempting 26 passes per game (second-fewest in the NFL). Currently ranked 74th overall and 11th at the position, I view the 26-year old as one of the best quarterback values in fantasy drafts this year. On top of his own health, his favorite target Michael Crabtree has fully recovered from the torn Achilles and will be at his disposal for the entire season. Kaepernick averaged 21.25 fantasy ppg in the eight games (includes three playoff games) with Crabtree. In seven of those eight contests, Kap scored 19 or more fantasy points and was third in the NFL in total QBR from week 13 on (76.9). The fourth year quarterback is also third overall since 2012 with a QBR of 69.6, behind only Manning and Rodgers. San Francisco has also upgraded the talent at the skill positions around him, adding wideouts Brandon Lloyd and Stevie Johnson this offseason.

With Frank Gore, 31, only getting older, the 49ers figure to rely much more heavily on their young franchise quarterback. Not only is Gore AARP-eligible, but the defense will likely slip a bit in 2014. Their defense has been nothing short of elite for the past three seasons, leading to many low-scoring affairs. Losing key players like Carlos Rodgers and Donte Whitner (not to mention the injury to Navarro Bowman) means more passing attempts, scoring opportunities, and potential shootouts. Coach Jim Harbaugh has run a ball-control type offense and effectively kept the training wheels on Colin Kaepernick for a couple years now. That is about to change. San Fran signed Kaepernick to a six-year, $126 million extension this offseason-that team is ready to put their fate in his hands.

Colin Kaepernick is built very much in the same mold as Cam Newton, standing 6-5 233 pounds and possessing 4.53 speed. How could we forget his 181 rushing yards against the Packers in his first ever postseason start, setting an NFL single-game rushing record by a quarterback. Games like those are possible on any given Sunday with a player like this. And because of his size and strength, that rushing ability comes with a much lower risk of injury than say, Robert Griffin III. Any time the 49ers go spread personnel, teams are terrified of running man to man because of Kap’s mobility. To guard against being shredded on the ground, defenses will drop back in zone where the reads are much simpler. A smart, well-coached guy like him (scored 37 on the Wonderlic and has one of the best offensive minds in the league, Jim Harbaugh, at his disposal) will pick those zone schemes apart. Kaepernick’s 937 rushing yards and nine rushing touchdowns in the last two years combined are fantastic, but could be even greater in a wide open offense. Those rushing totals give him the rare combination of huge upside and a very safe floor. For that reason, the former second round pick will be on quite a few of my teams this season. Honestly, Kaepernick’s 2013 numbers should be viewed as his floor. A realistic ceiling for him could be somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,000 passing yards, 32 pass TD, 10 INT to go along with 600 rushing yards and eight scores on the ground. Correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s 376 points in standard scoring; Peyton Manning finished with 406 last year. I could live with that.