Holdouts would impact fantasy value for top backs

Posted July 12, 2012 @ 3 p.m.
Posted By Arthur Arkush

As running backs like Ray Rice, Matt Forté and even Maurice Jones-Drew find out the hard way that the value of their position in the eyes of NFL executives isn’t what it used to be, a ripple effect could also be felt in fantasy draft rooms later this summer.

Rice and Forté, both of whom are lobbying for long-term extensions as they enter the final year of their rookie deals, were slapped with the franchise tag this offseason. Meanwhile, Jones-Drew wants to maximize his remaining years by ripping up his current deal that has two years remaining. The bottom line is that none of the three running backs are likely to receive new contracts prior to this season, making it possible that all three could be no-shows when training camps open later this month.

The question fantasy players must answer is: What impact would these do-it-all backs’ potential absences have when it comes time to stack draft boards?

If Chris Johnson’s 2011 campaign taught us anything, it’s that the impact should be significant.

Like Johnson, who held out of Titans’ camp last summer before receiving one of the richest contracts for a running back in NFL history, Rice, Jones-Drew and Forté are already behind the eight ball. The Bears and Jaguars, respectively, have new offenses to install and the lack of participation from their franchise backs throughout the offseason must be taken into consideration.

And even though Rice is returning to a familiar offense in Baltimore, it is hard to discount the time it takes for players to get into football shape when they have not been practicing with their clubs during the offseason. Poor conditioning was the biggest contributor to Johnson’s underwhelming ’11 season, in which he missed all of training camp and the first three weeks of the preseason before putting forth the lowest output of his impressive career.

That is just one example, of course, and there are certainly exceptions.

Jones-Drew, after sitting out all of training camp last summer while nursing a balky knee, rumbled his way to the NFL rushing title and a league-leading 47.7 percent of his team’s total offense a season ago.

Still, Round One of a fantasy draft is all about finding a sure thing, the biggest building block of your club’s foundation. I have a hard time considering any of these players a sure thing to put up first-round production if they partake in lengthy holdouts. In particular, Jones-Drew and Forté, not only because it takes time to get up to speed on the nuances of a new scheme, but because they have hungry and capable backups who can fill the bill. The Bears wisely signed Michael Bush as an insurance policy this offseason; the Jaguars will welcome back Rashad Jennings, who looked like a greater fantasy commodity than just a Jones-Drew handcuff in 2010 before sitting out all of last season after undergoing knee surgery.

I’m on record as saying that Aaron Rodgers is a no-brainer as the top pick over Arian Foster because there is much lower risk in taking the ultraconsistent Rodgers than the often-nicked Foster. I would also be inclined to nab Drew Brees, whose potential holdout doesn't concern me as much because QBs don’t rely on conditioning the way backs do and he could operate the Saints' up-tempo offense in his sleep, over this trio. The names of Tom Brady and Calvin Johnson are also more likey to be called on than these three on Draft Day — and those are just non-RBs.

Foster, Johnson, LeSean McCoy and perhaps even Ryan Mathews are looking more enticing at the moment than this trio, which is incredibly talented but also could be an incredible risk in Round One.