Rudi Johnson entered last season as a top-10 draft pick, a productive back who would get you 12 touchdowns a season and a handful of 100-yard games. Sure, he didn't catch many passes, but he was a safe if unspectacular fantasy bet who just kept putting up numbers.
However, that safe bet was anything but once he injured his hamstring in Week 3 -- Johnson never looked the same after that. The injury kept him out of five games completely, and he struggled in most of the contests in which he did play, averaging 2.9 yards per carry. Meanwhile, backup Kenny Watson stepped in with seven rushing TDs and 52 receptions out of the backfield. Even when Watson and Johnson shared time, it seemed like Watson was the more consistent back (he averaged 4.3 yards per carry).
But can we just write off 2007 as a lost season because of injury? Can he be one of those veterans who is under-drafted because of his injuries but eventually takes many people by surprise (much like Jamal Lewis last year)?
On the plus side, he had at least 88 yards in two of his final four games of 2007 and had a three-game TD streak during that stretch. Also, the passing game is still the centerpiece of the Bengals' offense, so it's not like defenses will be keying on him, not when you have to worry about Carson Palmer, Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. In fact, the passing game should help open things up for the ground game.
Johnson also underwent a vigorous offseason training regimen and added some extra weight to get his body back in shape for the hard pounding of the season, which is crucial for someone who likes to run between the tackles.
Still, the Bengals are relying on Johnson to be the No. 1 back when the season starts. Of course, they'd also like to see him in game action during the preseason to be sure he's in good health. Unfortunately, all that offseason training and a strong start to training camp couldn't stop Johnson from suffering another hamstring injury that kept him out of the preseason opener. While he said the injury was mild, it's still not a good way to start the comeback.
In the meantime, the Bengals look to have a couple of options ready to step in for Johnson. In addition to Watson, the team is also taking a long look at former first-round pick Chris Perry, who missed all of 2007 because of leg and ankle injuries. Like Watson, Perry has contributed in the past as a pass-catching back while waiting for his chance to potentially become the featured runner.
In the preseason opener, Perry rushed 11 times for 42 yards, while Watson had six carries for 29 yards. Both had a couple of good runs, inspiring more confidence in them should Johnson continue to be plagued by injuries. Their strong play might also inspire Johnson to get back on the field to make sure he really is the No. 1 guy. Johnson has a lot to prove this season, especially with both Perry and Watson making their mark early in the preseason.
Since it doesn't appear the Bengals are going to a pure committee system just yet, Johnson still has plenty of fantasy value, provided his body can hold up, which is a big if at this point. He's going to get the bulk of the carries, especially at the goal line, although he still won't get many catches. That's the job of Perry and possibly Watson. While those two could also steal a few more carries this season, their presence could also keep Johnson fresher. That in turn might help improve Johnson's yards-per-carry average.
Guys like Jamal Lewis and Fred Taylor were drafted in similar places last year and brought plenty of value to fantasy owners after being written off by many, partly because of their age. Johnson owners can only hope for the same this year. If he can stay healthy, Johnson might be able to match the 12 TDs he scored each year from 2004-2006. While he may end up closer to 1,100-1,200 yards rushing instead of 1,400, that's still enough to be very useful in fantasy. His days as a fantasy superstar are probably over -- and most running backs don't have long shelf lives as elite players -- but keep your expectations reasonable and Johnson will be helpful.
James Quintong is an editor for ESPN Fantasy Games.