NFL Week 1 hot-button topics
Longshot RB Alfred Morris looks like the best bet to start for the Redskins
Maurice Jones-Drew is back, but he's carrying some issues and big risks
The lack of a solid ground game may reduce key Jets to waiver wire fodder
For months we've been slicing and dicing every morsel of available football information to better understand how the 2012 season might play out. We've debated some of the most pressing issues on the planet (e.g. Tebow vs. Sanchez), ranked and re-ranked players ad nauseam, watched as teams like the Ravens and Falcons take to hurry-up offenses, and scrutinized countless plays in meaningless exhibition games in which virtually nobody on the field at the time will be making their living as an NFL player. However with all of the attention we (fantasy football writers, owners, and enthusiasts) have paid to a single subject, on the threshold of the regular season there are still things that neither we nor anyone else really knows.
Here are three of the hot-button topics that we hope come into clearer focus as a result of Week 1.
1. Who is the lead running back in Washington?
This has been a question since Mike Shanahan arrived in the nation's capital in 2010, and Washington's brain trust is keeping the Skins' starter for Game 1 a secret of national importance up until game time. A master of messing with fantasy owners dating to the days of Mike Anderson, Tatum Bell and Selvin Young in Denver, Shanahan went on the record as recently as Saturday to declare that he would love to have a primary, every-down back, but admitted what we've been saying all along during this offseason: "These days, those guys are hard to find."
The release of Tim Hightower, who at the start of training camp was the de facto favorite to start, came as a surprise to many, but it does clear up this hazy picture a touch.
The remaining candidates are second-year man Roy Helu, the team's leading rusher last season who rebounded from a bout of soreness in both Achilles' tendons to run for 90 yards and score two touchdowns in Washington's preseason finale against the Bucs. However, that performance has to be taken with a grain of salt because 63 of those yards and both scores came in the second-half against a bunch of guys who eventually got their walking papers after being unable to crack a Tampa Bay defense that's in need of vast improvement.
Another second-year man, Evan Royster, is also right in the mix, having started that final preseason game after missing the one prior with a knee injury. Royster averaged 5.9 yards per carry in limited action as a rookie, including back-to-back 100-yard games against the Vikings (132 yards on 19 carries) and Eagles (113 on 20 runs).
However, the man who did not play against Tampa Bay and has been seen as the longest shot all along, Alfred Morris, a sixth-round rookie from Florida Atlantic, may have the best shot at becoming the workhorse back Shanahan has coveted since Terrell Davis in Denver.
Morris ran all over the Colts in his final preseason tune-up, racking up 107 yards and a score on just 14 carries, and he sat along with the rest of the starters for the finale, a good sign for those who took a chance on him. The 5'9", 219-pound tailback ran for 3,506 yards and 27 TDs in three seasons at FAU, and finished the preseason fourth among all runners, with 195 yards, despite playing in only three games. His game is played between the tackles, with a quick burst and superior vision, making him well suited for the Shanahan zone-blocking scheme. Although he doesn't have breakaway speed once in the clear, Morris is a good blocker who was seen by some as a fullback candidate, which will endear him to his quarterbacks.
For me, going into Week 1 against the Saints, Morris is the 'Skins back to own. Of course we'll have to wait to see who Shanahan actually sends out for his team's first series of the season.
2. What to do about Maurice Jones-Drew?
The long national crisis surrounding the 38-day holdout of arguably the league's top pure running back is over as MJD reported to Jaguars camp sans new contract. Bowing to the negotiating skills of automotive bumper-tycoon, Shad Khan, MJD is now facing an uncertain future. He steps into the unenviable role as backup for Rashad Jennings, albeit for likely a very short time, and will likely experience a rash of small injuries. That creates a worst-case scenario for fantasy owners.
First you can't really be confident in MJD's Week 1 performance, given that Jennings was a star in the preseason. Second, how long will it take for MJD to re-claim his top spot? Third, will his likely injuries cause him to miss parts of games, thus killing your chances for that particular week? If you take out an insurance policy by drafting Jennings, when (aside from Week 1) will you feel confident playing him? And even worse, will you feel confident enough in MJD's long-term outlook for 2012 to cut ties with Jennings when roster spaces are needed during bye weeks?
For me it's simple. You can be a big Maurice Jones-Drew supporter, but at this point, with no preseason action and his unhappiness about not getting a new contract, if I haven't drafted yet, it would be impossible to stake my season on him. It's just too much of a risk.
3. Will the Jets starters score a touchdown in 2012?
We've heard enough about the Tebow vs. Sanchez saga and how hard both players have been working, but something just isn't right with the Jets offense.
Over the past two seasons, offensive coordinator Tony Sparano's former team, the Dolphins, placed fourth from the bottom in touchdowns scored from scrimmage, having crossed the goal line a mere 56 times, ahead of only the more-famously offense-challenged Rams (43), Browns (46) and Cardinals (52). Yes, the Jets have better skill personnel than the Dolphins virtually across the board, except at the most key position in Sparano's attack: running back.
You can bet that he would much rather see Reggie Bush taking handoffs from Sanchez than anyone he has in his current backfield situation. Unless the Jets can mount a strong running game -- and I'm not sure the stable of Shonn Greene, Joe McKnight, Bilal Powell and a limited Tebow is up to the task -- the likes of Santonio Holmes, Dustin Keller and whichever quarterback plays could all be reduced to waiver wire fodder.
Ask David Sabino your fantasy football questions all season on Twitter @SI_DavidSabino. Some of the best will be used as part of his weekly column.
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