Can you count on Brandon Jacobs as your No. 1 running back?
Haven't you seen the ESPN.com "Follow Your Sports: Fantasy Football" commercial yet? (If you haven't, click here to watch it.) When Jacobs makes his appearance, it clearly reads "Round 1."
I'm a company man, and I think we all can agree that Round 1 clearly equates with "No. 1 fantasy running back." So there's your answer, in one word: Yes.
OK, I kid. There's a little more to the debate than the mere one-word affirmative. Still, they often say there's a hint of truth in jest, and there's a reason Jacobs was tabbed a Round 1 pick in the commercial. It's because he's worthy of it.
Fantasy football, first and foremost, is about one thing: touchdowns, touchdowns and more touchdowns. Jacobs is about as stable in that category as any running back in the game; only two players had more scores on goal-line plays (within an opponent's 10-yard line) in 2008: Michael Turner (14 scores in 36 tries) and LenDale White (14 of 28). Jacobs had 13 in his 29 chances despite missing three games last season.
Those three missed games are what Jacobs' critics will point to as reason to doubt his 2009 prospects. I'm not about to shove his health history under the carpet; the guy has missed eight games combined the past two seasons. That's a fact. Still, when I pick my fantasy football studs, I'll always take the one with the monstrous per-game statistics who misses a contest or two over the one who plays in all 16 games yet less often tallies you a week-winning point total. In other words, you won't convince me that Thomas Jones is the better fantasy player just because he has played in every game the past two seasons.
Jacobs managed 190 fantasy points in 13 games in 2008, 12th-most among running backs, and 139 in 11 games the season before that. Scale those per-game numbers to a full 16-game season, and he'd have been a 219-point fantasy performer, a number that would have ranked him sixth in 2008. Scale only his 2008 numbers to a full 16-game season, and he'd have been a 234-point performer and ranked third.
Here's the other thing working in Jacobs' favor: Although Giants fans might fret over the breakup of the "Earth, Wind and Fire" combination the team employed at running back last season, with "Wind" (Derrick Ward) now residing in Tampa Bay, Jacobs should see an increased number of touches.
Ward had been responsible for 31.6 percent of the team's total rushing attempts the past two seasons combined, and 36.3 percent (182 of 502) in 2008 alone. That's a good 150 rushing attempts up for grabs in this backfield, and although some will go to third-year player Danny Ware, chances are that the vast majority will fall in the hands of Jacobs and his primary backup, Ahmad Bradshaw.
Jacobs carried the football on 43.6 percent of the Giants' total rushing attempts (219 of 502) in 2008, the ninth-lowest percentage for any team's leader in the category. The eight teams that ranked behind Jacobs and New York either employed committees to some degree (Arizona, Baltimore, Indianapolis and New England), had significant injury issues (Denver, New Orleans and Tampa Bay) or had a starter who, frankly, wasn't that good (Seattle). In other words, the Giants made it a clear plan to rein in their starter's workload right from the start, the benefit today being that he's fresher than your typical 27-year-old with less competition for carries.
"Fresher" might even be an understatement; Jacobs has only 555 career carries on his 27-year-old legs. Most players his age are already past 1,000, and the team does, again, have a reliable backup in Bradshaw to do just enough to ease the strain on Jacobs, who tends to take a pounding with all that goal-line work.
But it's not only a matter of age, career workload and thinned-out competition that stacks in Jacobs' favor. The schedule also provides him more of an advantage than he's being given credit for in early drafts.
Consider that last season the Giants' interconference games were against the AFC North, a division that includes Baltimore and Pittsburgh and their brutal run defenses. This season, their rotation shifts to the AFC West, which is a significant difference; Denver, Kansas City and Oakland each averaged at least 140 rushing yards allowed per game and surrendered 20-plus rushing scores in 2008. AFC North teams as a whole on average allowed 108.4 rushing yards per game, 3.9 yards per carry and 0.7 rushing touchdowns per game in 2008, while AFC West teams had 141.8, 4.7 and 1.3 numbers in those categories.
Even if you argue that the team's interdivision NFC schedule shifts from the West to the South, helping balance the schedule factor, consider that in 2008, only the Rams qualified as a truly brutal run defense among NFC West foes. The NFC South defenses, by comparison, all ranked as more middling. It's a net gain; between the loss of the Rams and the addition of the Broncos, Chiefs and Raiders, the Giants stand to face at least two additional soft matchups in 2009 compared to their schedule of a year ago.
And none of that addresses the best part about picking Jacobs this season: He's a No. 1-caliber running back, but that doesn't mean he's being drafted like one. Although in the commercial we're urging fantasy owners to treat Jacobs like a first-rounder, he's comfortably sliding in with a 15.5 ESPN live draft position (15th overall), meaning he's a clear early-to-mid second-rounder. You're getting a top back, but you're not paying a top-back's expected draft price, partially because of the immense value of the top tier of wide receivers this season.
I wouldn't advise picking Jacobs without at least making an attempt to nab his handcuff, Bradshaw, in the middle rounds. After all, even the most optimistic Jacobs owner must realize he's a risk to miss a game every now and then because of the physical nature of his role, leaving Bradshaw to run wild as the starter in those weeks. But although you'll probably spend second- and seventh-round picks to handcuff the two, you'll be getting clear first-round value out of the combination if not out of Jacobs alone this season.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a Fantasy Sports Writers Association award-winning fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.