Targeting the proper handcuffs and complements for every backfield can win a fantasy football league. Some ground games are straightforward, like the Houston Texans' Arian Foster-Ben Tate hierarchy. Some, however, require digging and forecasting.
Long shot: Anthony Dixon
San Fran will let Alex Smith throw more, but they're run-first. Objective: Keep 29-year-old Gore fresh coming off the second biggest tote workload (282) and ground yardage total (1,211) in his career in only his second 16-game campaign.
Meet his suddenly crowded supporting cast. Jacobs, if he makes the team, would be a thunder option, including around the goal line. He inherits a better offensive line for north-south bruisers, but he's 30 and a slow-down risk.
Hunter ranks as the closest thing to a Gore handcuff. Despite questions about his build, he showed last year he could rove between the tackles thanks to his strong lower body. The explosive James is built almost like Hunter and will compete with him for third-down work; the rook has shown weaker interior running or pass blocking, though Jim Harbaugh could favor him because, while with Oregon, James tore up coach's Stanford Cardinal.
Even with the crowd, this year's Gore could yield a solid return if you can nab him as an RB2 in, say, the fourth round, acknowledging the typical injury and performance risks. The backups rank merely as final-round fliers.
Long shot: Alfred Morris
The poster child for running back roulette, the vindictive Mike Shanahan likes to shuffle the inhabitants of his zone-blocking scheme.
Hightower, on paper, is Shanny's perfect back, with his one-cut style, stable pass blocking and veteran presence. Of course, his No. 1 place on the preseason depth chart hides his dull running, all things equal, and he's recovering from a tear of the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
Royster looks like the best back in camp, and he's an optimal combo of fresh legs, fit and familiarity, despite being a second-year guy. Unfortunately, his second gear isn't prominent, either. Helu has the highest ceiling, but the coaching staff worries that he can't carry a full workload or protect franchise QB Robert Griffin III.
Though he's technically the No. 1, Hightower is hardly a safe choice in anything before your last few rounds. Royster would start gaining more hype with successful tune-up games. Snagging him as an RB5 would be fine. Helu still might be overvalued in many circles - notably PPRs - but increasing negativity could lower his price.
Latching on to an option from here is all about timing; at any point during the year, the best commodity might be on your league's waiver wire and worth a tuck-away. Unscrambling this backfield might be a tad easier if you're drafting later this month. Of course, it's more likely to be a puzzle throughout the season.
Stewart or Williams could be the lead back for many other squads. While this is a dream backfield for the Panthers, it's a nightmare for fantasy players, especially since Rob Chudzinski has cultivated a formidable passing attack. As if the presence of Tolbert, Ryan Mathews' vulture last year, wasn't enough to jeopardize the goal line chances for the top two backs, remember, Cam Newton, despite his ability to open up the ground game for others, takes the snaps and controls things near the end zone.
The authoritative J-Stew is also quite elusive, and he's far and away the better PPR option of the two, considering his utility on passing downs. Much of Williams' production comes on big plays, which combined with the "many mouths" situation makes him less predictable.
This is quite the hot-hand situation, which will leave you out in the cold if you consider Stewart and Williams anything more than RB3s on draft day. Ideally, they're handcuffed, but if you own both you'll spend plenty of time wondering whether it's acceptable to play both instead of choosing one. You're better off building up your backfield with three options and then taking a chance on landing one of these two, just for the lotto ticket that would occur if the other gets hurt.
About Tim Heaney
Tim's work has been featured by USA Today/Sports Weekly, among numerous outlets, and recognized as a finalist in the Fantasy Sports Writers Association awards. The Boston University alum, who competes in the prestigious LABR and Tout Wars, has won numerous industry leagues in both baseball and football.
He appears frequently, including every Sunday, on Sirius XM Fantasy Sports Radio, as well as every Wednesday on 1570 AM WNST in Baltimore.
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