Is it fait accompli that MJD is a top-five fantasy back?
"You are The One, Neo. You see, you may have spent the last few years looking for me, but I have spent my entire life looking for you." -- "The Matrix"
Is Maurice Jones-Drew The One? After he spent the past few years in tandem with Fred Taylor in the Jacksonville backfield, apparently the Jaguars believe he is. They severed ties with Taylor and have decided to go down the rabbit hole, putting all their faith in MJD.
Just like Neo, Jones-Drew isn't fully prepared to believe it. Ask Jones-Drew about his role as the "only" Jaguars back, and you'll meet plenty of resistance. He'll be quick to point out that Greg Jones, Montell Owens and Alvin Pearman still are around, along with Chauncey Washington and rookie Rashad Jennings. As he told the Florida Times-Union, "We're just going to try to keep it going and have fun." But as far as Jack Del Rio is concerned, Jones-Drew is The One. "That's Maurice's spot, and he'll start as the one guy," the coach told ESPN.com.
For fantasy owners, the problem is that Del Rio is right. MJD is The One -- the only one on this offense. He's the only option at running back, and with a receiving corps that currently consists of aging veteran Torry Holt and a bunch of interchangeable Agent Smiths (Mike Walker, Mike Thomas, Jarett Dillard and Tiquan Underwood), the Jaguars have even taken to splitting MJD out wide so they can better utilize his pass-catching ability without him catching the ball exclusively over the middle out of the backfield. It's simply too much for one football player to take on, and while we certainly are not rooting for him to fail, there are just too many things that can go wrong for us to blindly elevate Jones-Drew into the top five.
Look at MJD's performance in 2008 with and without Taylor. Before Taylor tore thumb ligaments at the end of the year, which put an end to his season after Week 14, the two backs evenly split carries -- Taylor had 143 carries for 556 yards (3.9 yards per carry) and Jones-Drew had 142 carries for 607 yards (4.3 yards per carry). Now, some people are projecting that with Taylor out of the mix, we can simply double MJD's production for the season and call it a day. However, a closer look at what happened over the last three weeks of last season makes that a foolish proposition.
Although it's a relatively small sample size, these three games all featured MJD as The One. Using this performance as a guide, rather than expecting a 1,600-yard season on the ground, perhaps 1,100 yards would be more in the ballpark. And that's assuming Jones-Drew stays injury free (after all, he's only 5-foot-7 and 208 pounds) and remains fresh all season after all those extra touches.
Since Del Rio fully expects Jones-Drew to get the bulk of the carries this season but also has a soft spot for Jones, there's a very real possibility Del Rio could attempt to gradually turn Jones into the "old MJD," working him in for a couple of series each game to spell Jones-Drew, as well as inserting him near the goal line to take the abuse from in close. If so, Jones-Drew might not see paydirt nearly as much as he has in the past, which also will lower the ceiling on his potential fantasy value.
Now listen very carefully. I'm not saying he can't do it. I'm not saying his kung-fu isn't imminently better than that of say, Derrick Ward, who is attempting to make a similar jump from a timeshare to full-time ownership of the football. But his skill set is very similar to those of Frank Gore, Steven Jackson, LaDainian Tomlinson and Brian Westbrook, all veterans who have graced the top five in the past. In addition, there's Steve Slaton and Matt Forte, who don't have nearly as long a track record but did prove last season that they could indeed carry an offense on their own.
If you're willing to cede the top two running back spots to Adrian Peterson and Michael Turner, you've still got an awful lot of people vying for the remaining three spots, and none of them is likely to get as much individual game planning as MJD. After all, this Jacksonville offense isn't exactly what one would call reloaded.
Is MJD The One? He could be, but by no means is it a done deal. So which pill are you going to take, my friend -- the red or the blue? The choice is entirely up to you.
"I'm trying to free your mind, Neo. But I can only show you the door. You're the one that has to walk through it."
AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.