Despite concerns about their durability, the Houston Texans' Steve Slaton and the Tennessee Titans' Chris Johnson ran circles around the fantasy football universe, providing some of the biggest value gains from 2008 drafts. In this pick 'em season, these two carriers often go within a few selections or dollars of each other, if not back-to-back, in most processes.
Which second-year back has the best shot to repeat his rookie accolades? If you're staring down both of these shifty tailbacks, which do you grab?
Who will challenge Slaton in Houston's backfield?
- Last year Slaton scored in half of Houston's games and topped 100 total yards nine times - the latter happening in each of their final five contests. His 4.8 yards-per-tote average and 50 receptions (at least three in nine games) make him a point-per-reception league darling, especially since many of his one-point additions were cheap dumpoffs.
- Houston's zone-blocking scheme should continue to accentuate Slaton's one-cut-and-go quickness. Their dangerous offense, when all of its components are healthy, should have a relatively easy time marching downfield.
- Despite improving its front seven, Houston's defense still needs some work, meaning the offense should air it out often. Slaton's involvement in the passing game should continue to take up a bunch of his time and stats.
- Slaton led all running backs with 77 red zone plays last year. As the 2008 season wore on and the Texans trusted the smaller Slaton more often, Houston utilized him a combined 34 times inside the 20 over the final five contests.
- Slaton added some muscle in the offseason to gain a sturdier physical base for short-yardage (ahem, goal line) situations. It should also help the 5-foot-9, 215-pound back stay healthy.
- The Texans' AFC South opponents carry the sieve-like Indianapolis Colts run defense and the Jacksonville Jaguars' underwhelming unit; Slaton will also twice face a Tennessee Titans squad that was recently neutered of defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth.
- Slaton is more agile than fast. His new bulkier frame may cause him to lose a fraction of his quickness. This won't guarantee a decline in performance, but it may slightly alter his style of play and the upfield product of his cuts.
- Slaton averaged fewer than four yards per carry seven times last year.
- The O-line overachieved a bit last year; they're not a physically talented group, and it's uncertain whether they can maintain their in-game recognition and ability to utilize the system.
- Though it could be looked at as a positive in keeping Slaton fresh, the Texans are trying to find a consistent complement back in a group that includes Chris Brown, Ryan Moats and Arian Foster. This isn't an attractive group in terms of fantasy accolades, but their presence alone signals Houston may decrease Slaton's touches.
- How would the offense survive if Houston's potent but frequently injured quarterback Matt Schaub succumbs to another injury?
- In this era of backfield splits, it's comforting to know that Johnson's workload will at minimum be shared with the husky LenDale White. You know what you're getting in this run-happy offense.
- Johnson, holder of the fastest official 40-yard dash time, has a clear edge on Slaton in raw speed. Tennessee reportedly may take more advantage of this by lining Johnson up in the slot on passing plays to increase his touches.
- The timeshare couldn't stop Johnson from running off 1,228 yards (along with 260 receiving) in his rookie campaign. He makes the most of his touches. Like Slaton, Johnson contributes amply in the receptions column, having caught at least two passes in each of his games last year; he also had at least three catches in nine contests.
- "Every Coach's Dream" will run behind and around one of the league's premier front quintets.
- He worked with a personal trainer in the offseason in order to better maintain his weight. Johnson trimmed down from 200 pounds to 194 during his rookie campaign and believed he lost some strength as a result; he's making an attempt to stay at the same weight for the entire season.
- Despite his concerns over playing strength, Johnson maintained a 4.9 yards-per-carry average in each half-season.
- Johnson will have the same luxury as Slaton when it comes to schedule; Houston's run D is much worse than Tennessee's.
Johnson's 100-yard games last year came against some weak opponents
- Johnson's four 100-yard rushing games last year came against the Cincinnati Bengals, Kansas City Chiefs, Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns - not too much resistance there.
- It's tough to say Johnson will receive much more than the 39 red zone utilizations he was tabbed for in '08. In fact, White was tied for the league lead with 21 touches inside the 5.
- Will Tennessee's defense allow the Titans to control the clock as often as they did last year? Tennessee may be forced to throw a bit more to catch up.
- Are opposing defenses going to respect quarterback Kerry Collins or "future Hall of Famer" Vince Young? Most teams will go into Titans games anticipating a heavy dose of ground work.
- If the Titans can successfully implement the passing game, they might use newly signed deep threat Nate Washington more often to take some big-play schemes out of Johnson's fantasy hands.
Both of these runners command first-round picks, with Slaton and Johnson nearly averaging the same pick number in standard performance; Johnson usually goes several picks sooner in PPR. This year Slaton probably has more fantasy value to lose than Johnson because Houston may try to employ a second back more frequently. Johnson is at minimum lined up for a similar time share with White behind a much better group of hogs.
On the other hand, Slaton has the environmental advantage; we favor Houston's multifaceted offense. Tennessee's ball movement has a longer way to go to become more dynamic.
Winner: We give a slight edge to Slaton because of his more frequent action in the red zone, which probably won't take a big hit. You can't put too much stock into one of Slaton's slew of backups swiping many goal line touches. If you have to "settle" for Johnson, though, you shouldn't cry about it.
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 competes in Tout Wars and LABR and has won several industry leagues in both baseball and football.
During baseball and football season, hear him every Wednesday on 1570 AM WNST in Baltimore. On Thursdays, he visits 106.1 FM WMTI in New Orleans and Sirius XM Fantasy Sports Radio, where he often crashes other shows, as well.
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