RUNNING BACKS (Part 1 of 2)

Although you never know how your draft is going to unfold and which players will be available when your pick comes up, it never hurts to get your thoughts in line regarding how you're going to view certain players. The guys I'm talking about here are those who fall into the "gray area" on draft day. They're interesting, but they're not slam-dunk choices.

Fantasy Football Draft Day Decisions is a series of articles addressing the primary fantasy positions - quarterback, running back, wide receiver and tight end. This one, which is the first of two parts, examines running backs.

Trent Richardson/Cleveland

There's no shortage of hype over Richardson who is being regarded as an RB1 and projecting to be selected before the 2nd round is over according to recent ADPs. Would you be comfortable with him as your fantasy team's lead back? I don't doubt his ability. As the 3rd overall pick in this year's draft, there's no question that the Browns did their due diligence on him and plenty of other teams would have taken him there had they had Cleveland's pick.

What I do question Richardson about is the Cleveland's ability to put him in position to rack up big fantasy points. And big points are necessary for an RB1. Last year the top 12 running backs all had over 180 fantasy points. That's a minimum of 10 TDs and 1200 total yards (6 points per TD run) depending how you balance the two.

My question about Richardson as my No. 1 back is whether a team that seems to be leaning towards starting rookie QB Brandon Weeden can generate the opportunities for the running game.  Not every TD run is a 50-yarder. A back needs his QB to engineer drives that result in close-in scoring chances. Under QBs Colt McCoy and Seneca Wallace (3 games) last year the Browns had just three TD runs of inside 10 yards. And it wasn't like everything came through the air either. Cleveland had only seven passing TDs of 10 or fewer yards. The point here is that they didn't get close very often and I question a big improvement with a rookie QB.

Bottom line: I think we'll see solid yardage numbers from Richardson this year, but I'm skeptical about a real strong TD output. He'd be great as an RB2 draftee, but there's little chance of landing him there unless you have a late first round pick and early second and go RB-RB.  

Jamaal Charles/Kansas City

The ADPs show Charles being grabbed as an RB1 in the latter part of the 2nd round. That's a pretty lofty expectation for a guy that's going to share the backfield with Peyton Hillis. Actually, of all the projected RB1s, Charles is the only one expected to split time. Since his 2011 season was wiped out early by an ACL tear, you have to go back to 2010 to get a good read on Charles. His stats were terrific. In that year we saw him pile up over 1900 total yards (1467 rushing; 468 receiving) and score 8 TDs - numbers well worthy of an RB1.

The underlying question with Charles, however, is the amount of work he'll see. In 2010 he averaged around 14 carries per game (230 total) and I would think he'll be around that mark again. Charles caught 45 passes that season and I don't see why he won't have at least that number in 2012. 45 catches isn't even three per game and I have to believe KC will work to get him the ball even more.

The one area the Chiefs will need to get better at if Charles is to deliver RB1 numbers is in the scoring department. This team had just four rushing TDs last season. The argument might be made that they suffered when starting QB Matt Cassel went out for the year with a hand injury after only 9 games. But even under Cassel, there were only three rushing scores. I really think Charles will augment that total, but I'd feel better if the offense was a little more prolific.

Bottom line: Charles will likely average at least 5 yards per carry so with 12-15 carries per game, he's going to be up around the 1100-yard mark. While I think Charles would benefit from better production from Cassel, I think he'll get his fair share of scores on his own efforts.  I think there's sufficient reason for drafting Charles as an RB1.

Fred Jackson/Buffalo

Had Jackson not gotten hurt last year (leg), he likely would have finished among the top 5 fantasy RBs. The guy was on pace for a 2000-total yard season and likely would have pushed 8-10 TDs. Jackson's fantasy dilemma this season is running mate CJ Spiller who picked up the slack in Jackson's absence. The word is that these two will share the backfield duties in 2012, but the fantasy question is how will the workload be divvied up.

Spiller's expected increased role has definitely impacted Jackson's value. He is currently being regarded as a RB2 going early in the third round. I think an RB2 should deliver 8-10 scores and be in the 1000-1200 yard range - and I think that's doable for Jackson. Although he turned 31 early this year, he's a low mileage back by NFL standards. Jackson's workload only started to increase in 2009 when he had 237 carries. He had 222 in 2010 and 170 in 10 games last season.

As effective as he has been (a career 4.6 yards per rush), I can't image his workload dipping below 15 carries per game this year. Barring injury, that should assure fantasy owners of around an 1100-yard season. Jackson is also a good receiver too and should see 40+ receptions. TD production is a bit of a concern since the Bills only had 6 ground scores inside of 10 yards last year. However, Jackson scored 6 times through 10 games in 2011 and projecting that over 16 games would put him near the 10-mark in a repeat season.

Bottom line: I'd be thrilled to get Jackson as my second back. I think there's upside here that the early ADPs aren't forecasting.

Doug Martin/Tampa Bay

There's a lot of speculation that Martin will unseat starter LeGarrettte Blount as the Bucs' featured back this season. Martin does many things well. He runs hard; is a terrific receiver; and something fantasy owners don't value as much as NFL coaches, but it's critical for playing time, he is very good in pass protection. In short, Martin has a skill set similar to Ray Rice and that has new head coach Greg Schiano very excited.

Now you can't dismiss the notion that Blount will retain his starting job or that the NFL learning curve will be steep for Martin. However, I don't see how the Bucs can afford not to have Martin on the field, even if he splits time with Blount. Don't let that comparison to Rice escape you either. Schiano coached Rice at Rutgers so he knows the value in having a back like that. While Tampa has a good receiving back in Earnest Graham, he's coming off of an Achilles tendon tear suffered around the mid-point of last season.

Bottom line: I think where the ADPs show Martin being taken (RB2; early 5th round) is very palatable. Given all the circumstances here, he's not risk-free, but then again, I think this is a guy worth gambling on.

Roy Helu/Washington

Helu's 1000+ total yard season last year coupled with a PPR-intriguing 49 catches has propelled him into the RB3 category with recent ADP's indicating that he could be available in the late 5th or early 6th round. He really didn't start to make his mark until around the midway point of last season when he caught 14 passes for 105 yards against San Francisco. Three weeks later he posted a three-game stretch of at least 130 combined rushing and receiving yards against Seattle, the Jets and New England.

There are a few things to consider when evaluating Helu for your team. As we saw last season, head coach Mike Shanahan changes his running backs as often he changes his socks. Tim Hightower began the 2011 season as the Skins' starter, but an ACL tear did him in. Ryan Torain was the leading ball carrier for four games and Evan Royster started the final two.

Hightower is expected back from his injury and there has been talk that, if healthy, he'll be the featured back here. Royster can't be dismissed from the conversation either since he ran well in his two starts (132 and 113 yards). Shanahan doesn't view Helu as an every down back either. I think we'll see Helu in the 10-15 carry per game range.

The other concern for Helu (and the other backs here) is QB Robert Griffin's legs. We know this guy likes to run and you can bet he'll steal away more than a few opportunities. Expecting Helu to improve significantly on his 3 TDs of a year ago might be wishful thinking.

Bottom line: I view Helu as a possible RB3, but I'd seriously consider others who may not have as much risk. Others that are in Helu's ADP neighborhood include Chris Wells, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Isaac Redman. Admittedly though, these other guys have their own fantasy issues to investigate.

See Dan's Draft Day Decisions: Running Back (part 2)

See Dan's Draft Day Decisions: Wide Receivers