Thirty-two teams, 32 burning fantasy questions. Throughout the preseason, we put one of these questions to an ESPN.com analyst for an in-depth look at the most interesting, perplexing or dumbfounding fantasy facet of each NFL team. Be sure to check out all 32 questions.
Does Travis Henry really deserve to be a top-10 fantasy draft selection?
According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Travis Henry, 28, "has fathered nine children by nine women in at least four Southern states" and has been "ordered by various judges to provide child support for seven of them." The talented runner has just one more kid to go, and he'll be able to field an entire offense to play around him. Maybe that would convince Broncos coach Mike Shanahan to give Henry most of Denver's carries ... and therefore not wreck Henry's fantasy value by using a legion of other backs.
Yes, when it comes to Henry, playing time will be the key variable in his 2007 fantasy football value. Shanahan hasn't used a plow-horse primary back since he saw what overuse did to Terrell Davis; since TD carried it 392 times in 1998 (his last full season as a starter, at age 26), Shanahan hasn't had another single back eclipse 300, which in some fantasy owners' minds makes him the devil, tantalizing prospective owners with a run-friendly offensive scheme, yet limiting the returns with seemingly random benchings while some backup du jour racks up 150 yards and three scores.
Take the average of these seasons, and you get a 257-carry year. Henry amassed 270 last year with Tennessee (in 14 games), and while he produced fine numbers, he was by no means a top-10 back. This has to give us pause.
Playing time aside, Henry is clearly the most talented runner on the Denver roster, and he'll provide definite fantasy value in 2007. Running behind a poor offensive line last season, he averaged 4.5 yards per carry and was a punishing, physical presence on an offense that needed one. Now he moves to what has consistently been the best rushing offense in football: Denver has been a top-10 run team in each of the last five seasons and was a top-five team for the four years leading up to 2006's eighth-place finish. Henry's a decisive, one-cut back who should match well with the zone blocking for which the Broncos are justifiably so famous. What got Tatum Bell kicked out of Mile High was his soft-shoe tendencies ... he likes to dance when he gets near the line, and that doesn't play in Shanny's system.
However, there are injury questions. Henry sprained his knee in a preseason game a couple weeks back and hasn't seen time since, though the Broncos maintain he'll be ready for Week 1. He also battled turf toe and ankle issues throughout '06, and he had ankle and drug-suspension issues in '05. But he's never missed significant time due to injury (the drug suspension is another story...), so I don't consider Henry any more of an injury risk than your standard NFL back who gets into an average of 20 car crashes on Sundays.
But that's really the lingering question with Henry, isn't it? Whether or not he gets 20 carries per game? I have to say, I'm skeptical. Shanahan told the Rocky Mountain News last month that he'd "like one guy who gets 2,000 yards, like TD," but that's July talk. I think Shanny falls in love with his own ability to sniff out running talent and likes to give his primary carriers rest. Add to this the fact that Henry's no threat in the passing game (he caught 18 passes for 78 yards last season and has only eclipsed 28 catches once in his career), and you can easily discern the outlines of roles for other backs, like Mike Bell, Cecil Sapp and maybe even undrafted rookie Selvin Young (if he makes the team). Bell has been out this preseason with an injured shoulder, so Sapp looks like the early handcuff to Henry, but that's part of the Bronco madness: there will rarely be a consistent handcuff from week to week or, better stated, platoons can spontaneously generate and vanish on a weekly basis. In '06, Tatum Bell led Denver in carries in 11 weeks, while Mike Bell led in five, and Tatum carried it 20 or more times in a game just four times, while Mike did it once. I know neither of those guys is Travis Henry, but I can't help but feel this is at least partly ingrained into the way the Broncos do business.
Listen, Henry is a definite fantasy starter. He'll be a really good red-zone threat (Denver split 23 goal-line carries between the Bells last year), and he'll eclipse 1,000 yards. But I'm just too wary of Shanahan's rotation tendencies to erase the question marks that keep Henry out of my top 10. You'll ask me to name 10 backs whose combination of health, opportunity and talent I like better than Henry's, and I give you: LaDainian Tomlinson, Steven Jackson, Larry Johnson, Frank Gore, Willie Parker, Joseph Addai, Laurence Maroney, Brian Westbrook, Shaun Alexander and Rudi Johnson. Henry doesn't come much later than those guys; he's got fantastic upside and should be fun to watch in Denver. Draft him and hope I'm wrong about his usage pattern. For me, in a 12-team league, he makes a good late first-round pick, and a steal as a No. 2 running back.