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Surviving Platoons

Posted: Wednesday August 15, 2007 11:27AM; Updated: Wednesday August 15, 2007 6:02PM
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San Diego Chargers' LaDainian Tomlinson.
San Diego Chargers' LaDainian Tomlinson.
Peter Read Miller/SI
Fantasy Football: 2007 Preview
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By Adam Duerson and Andrew Lawrence

Running back rotations are more popular than ever. They keep rushers fresh, defenses guessing -- and fantasy owners tearing their hair out. Marion Barber, sharing time with Julius Jones in dallas, picks up two touchdowns one week, then has two rushes for minus-one yard the next. It's no way to live. here's a breakdown of how all 32 teams are divvying up the rushing labors, so that you can avoid headaches and draft backs you can count on.

One and Done

Clear-cut stars make for no-brainer choices

STEELERS: New offensive coordinator Bruce Arians says of Willie Parker, "I don't want him on the bench unless he's tired." That's good news for fantasy owners. The 209-pound Parker will give up some carries to 247-pound Najeh Davenport -- but not necessarily at the goal line. Parker had 10 touchdown runs from inside the five last year; Davenport had one. Carey Davis, a third-year player from Illinois, is the front-runner for the third spot.

Projected split: PARKER, 80%; DAVENPORT, 15%; DAVIS, 5%

BEARS: With the departure of Thomas Jones to the Jets, Cedric Benson will get the chance to carry the load the way he did at Texas -- but has yet to do in two NFL seasons. Here's a promising sign: In camp Benson showed previously untapped ability as a receiver. Backup Adrian Peterson, despite averaging 4.7 yards over his five-year career, should see only spot duty, while Garrett Wolfe, a speedy third-round pick out of Northern Illinois, isn't expected to play a significant role in the rotation.

Projected split: BENSON, 80%; PETERSON, 12%; WOLFE, 8%

49ERS: The coaching staff hopes to limit Frank Gore to just 25 touches a game this season, but they may have trouble doing it, given what he means to their offense. A broken right hand, which he suffered early in training camp, might limit the third-year player early, but over the season Gore -- the best thing to happen to San Francisco in years -- is still a lock to dominate the ball. Second-year man Michael Robinson, the converted Penn State quarterback, will come in to provide a different look.

Projected split: GORE, 90%; ROBINSON, 10%

CHARGERS: Michael Turner gained 6.3 yards per carry as a backup in 2006 and could start on most teams. But he's stuck behind LaDainian Tomlinson, who set the NFL TD mark last year with 31. Sure, there has been talk that new coach Norv Turner will implement a two-back set, but that's just talk. As for an injury that might open the door for Turner, LT hasn't missed a game for health reasons in his six seasons.

Projected split: TOMLINSON, 85%; TURNER, 15%

CHIEFS: In 2006 Larry Johnson set the NFL record for carries with 416 and had the highest percentage of rushes (88.5) among his team's backs in the AFC. Should Johnson settle the contract dispute that has kept him out of training camp, he will near those heights again; the rest of the touches will go to fifth-round pick Kolby Smith, a perimeter runner out of Louisville, and burner Michael Bennett. Priest Holmes, attempting to return from a neck injury at 33, would be more of a factor if this were 2003.

Projected split: JOHNSON, 75%; SMITH, 15%; BENNETT, 10%

EAGLES: It hasn't been a platoon system as much as coach Andy Reid's pass-first philosophy that has held down Brian Westbrook's attempts. But Reid discovered the virtues of the running game last year after QB Donovan McNabb's season-ending injury in Game 10, and Westbrook, 27, should get more work than ever. Correll Buckhalter is a clear backup. If there's a wild card, it's third-round choice Tony Hunt from Penn State, a strong inside runner who could be a candidate for goal line carries.

Projected split: WESTBROOK, 85%; BUCKHALTER, 12%; HUNT, 3%

COLTS: As the backup to Dominic Rhodes in 2006, Joseph Addai became the first rusher to surpass 1,000 yards without starting a single game. Now Rhodes is in Oakland, and Addai is the only back on the Indianapolis roster with an NFL carry. Coach Tony Dungy will again feature two backs, but this time Addai is the clear No. 1, and DeDe Dorsey, a special teams player in '06, is his wingman. Rookies Kenton Keith of New Mexico State and Luke Lawton from McNeese State will fight for scraps.

Projected split: ADDAI, 70%; DORSEY, 25%; KEITH/LAWTON, 5%

SEAHAWKS: Shaun Alexander will be 30 this season and had a broken left foot last year, but that's not going to stop coach Mike Holmgren from giving him the ball 350 times this season -- his average number of rushing attempts between 2003 and '05. When healthy, Alexander has been a model of consistency; even his capable understudy, Maurice Morris, would probably choose Shaun for his fantasy team.

Projected split: ALEXANDER, 80%; MORRIS, 20%

CARDINALS: New coach Ken Whisenhunt is committed to running the ball, and his offense could generate as many as 500 team carries -- Arizona's 2006 total of 419 was 26th in the league. Edgerrin James should get about 300 of those attempts, but if the ground game moves the chains the way the former Steelers coordinator envisions, backups Marcel Shipp and J.J. Arrington will get plenty of chances too.

Projected split: JAMES, 60%; SHIPP, 25%; ARRINGTON, 15%

RAVENS: In an effort to keep new acquisition Willis McGahee fresh -- Brian Billick usually gives his lead backs in the neighborhood of 300 carries -- the Ravens coach will distribute the workload among Musa Smith and, in short-yardage situations, Mike Anderson. Still, McGahee is so good on sweeps, he'll remain the runner of choice in the red zone. Also, he's the best receiver of the bunch.

Projected split: MCGAHEE, 75%; SMITH, 15%; ANDERSON, 10%

BROWNS: A Jamal Lewis fan would explain the running back's decline in Baltimore by pointing out that he lacked a fullback and split carries with Chester Taylor for two years. Here Lewis won't have to share the rock much, and he'll get blocking from the talented Lawrence Vickers. Even if Lewis struggles, he won't likely lose many touches to fourth-year back Jason Wright, who hasn't made much of his limited opportunities.

Projected split: LEWIS, 80%; WRIGHT, 10%; VICKERS, 10%

DOLPHINS: Cam Cameron was never one to spread carries around when he was in San Diego, where he served as offensive coordinator from 2002 to '06. In Miami, the rookie coach will ask Ronnie Brown to fill the LaDainian Tomlinson role, which should result in 400 carries and 40 receptions for the third-year back. Cameron will deploy small-but-quick rookie Lorenzo Booker, a third-round pick from Florida State, in a relief role, much as he used Michael Turner while he was with the Chargers.

Projected split: BROWN, 80%; BOOKER, 20%

BENGALS: Since Corey Dillon left Cincinnati three years ago, Rudi Johnson has been the man, getting 87% of the RB carries. The Bengals had hoped to mix it up more this year after finishing 26th in rushing in 2006, but a preseason ACL injury to second-round pick Kenny Irons has complicated those plans. Veteran Kenny Watson will still get third-down work, while practice-squadder Quincy Wilson now seems the likely option for the third slot.

Projected split: JOHNSON, 75%; OTHERS, 25%

RAMS: Steven Jackson proved last year that he's a genuine workhorse, carrying the ball 346 times, catching 90 passes, scoring 16 TDs and missing only part of one game. This year coach Scott Linehan will ask Jackson to shoulder much the same load; expect Brian Leonard, a second-round pick out of Rutgers, to be used primarily as a blocker and pass catcher in two-back sets, spelling Jackson only on rare occasions.

Projected split: JACKSON, 90%; LEONARD, 10%

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