- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 24, 2003

The Fool has visions of running backs plowing through his head, which can mean only one thing: It’s time for Fantasy Football.

Why just running backs, you ask? Simple. The men who take handoffs have separated themselves from the rest of the fantasy pack. This year’s crop of backs has more fantasy potential than any in recent memory. So unless you have a Joe Homer (you know, that Cowboys fan who always would select Troy Aikman in the first round) in your league, you shouldn’t see anything but running backs drafted among the first seven to nine picks.

Of course, it helps that most of the quarterbacks you would have snatched early in previous seasons come in with question marks. Peyton Manning throws as many interceptions as touchdowns. Kurt Warner is coming off an injury-plagued and awful season. Donovan McNabb’s Eagles added no significant offensive talent and appear primed for a step back. Michael Vick — the vogue top quarterback pick for much of the summer — broke a leg last weekend and will miss the first few weeks. And Jeff Garcia has that mysterious back pain.

And who drafts wideouts that early? Only players who don’t want to win their league.

Running backs on the rise

Travis Henry, Buffalo Bills: In his first season as a full-time starter, Henry rushed for 1,438 yards and scored 13 touchdowns. That’s tough to beat, and he should only get better this season. Buffalo has committed itself to controlling the game by running the ball — in part thanks to the departure of free agent wide receiver Peerless Price. And Henry has a lot to prove, considering his team drafted injured Miami Hurricanes tailback Willis McGahee in the first round. McGahee won’t play this season, but he looms as a potential threat to Henry’s playing time and pride. Expect a blockbuster season from the 24-year-old back.

Clinton Portis, Denver Broncos: Since coach Mike Shanahan’s arrival in Denver, Broncos backs seemingly always produce. Portis, last year’s offensive rookie of the year, rushed for 1,508 yards and 15 touchdowns and should only improve with a year under his belt. Keep this in mind: Those numbers came during a season in which he started only 12 games. With a new quarterback and aging wideouts, the Broncos could rely on their young back even more this season.

Fred Taylor, Jacksonville Jaguars: He’s long been a punch line in fantasy football circles, but Taylor seems poised to take his game back to the elite level. His problems since his spectacular rookie season (1,223 yards and 14 touchdowns in 12 starts) have centered around injuries, but last year the former Florida speedster started 16 games for the first time in his five seasons. Adding to his value this year is the departure of goal-line back Stacey Mack, who had nine rushing touchdowns for Jacksonville in each of the last two seasons. Taylor should get those goal line carries now that Mack is in Houston, meaning he could rack up double-digit touchdowns for the first time since 2000 if all goes well. But, of course, you always need Fred Taylor insurance if you draft the former Gator; this year that role goes to rookie LaBrandon Toefield.

On the decline

Marshall Faulk, St. Louis Rams

Faulk may put up decent numbers in the recharged Rams attack, but they will never again approach the loftiness of his 2000 and 2001 campaigns. Last year he broke down physically and started only 10 games, some of which he hobbled through. If you draft the 30-year-old, make sure you have a trusty backup.

Curtis Martin, New York Jets: Those tires have a lot of miles on them. Martin hasn’t missed a game since 1998 and is the truest definition of a workhorse running back, but his productivity slipped dramatically last season. Martin rushed for 1,094 yards and seven touchdowns. Plus, the Jets have a young backup, former Maryland star LaMont Jordan, primed to step in whenever Martin finally steps aside. If Martin, now 30, stumbles or gets injured, Jordan could take over the Jets’ tailback gig for good.

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