Last season, many fantasy players, including myself, thought Travis Henry was going to stabilize Denver's running game. After reviving his career in Tennessee, Henry seemed like the perfect fit for the Broncos, a physical runner with good vision who hits holes quickly.
All seemed good early on, as Henry led the NFL in rushing during the first four games of the 2007 season. From that point on, though, injuries limited his production, and off-field distractions didn't help, either. From Week 5 on, Henry did not rush for more than 65 yards in a game. He also missed four games and did not carry the ball at all in the season finale against Minnesota. He finished with only 691 yards and four touchdowns, then worked out a restructured contract with the Broncos during the offseason.
Yet the road to the 2008 season is already looking bumpy for Henry, and there is still speculation that his job is not safe in Denver. A pulled hamstring has forced Henry to miss the first week of the Broncos' passing camp. Coach Mike Shanahan is hoping Henry can return for team camp on Monday, but he didn't sound fully confident after talking to the Denver Post.
"With those hamstrings, you don't know how long it's going to take," Shanahan said.
The Broncos aren't taking any chances, though, and have reached an agreement with veteran running back Michael Pittman. Meanwhile, Selvin Young, who emerged as an adequate fantasy option when Henry was out last season, continues to run with the first-team offense and is making some loud proclamations while Henry sits out.
Taking firm hold of the No. 1 running back job won't be enough for Young, who still has to work to officially earn the top spot on the depth chart. According to the Denver Post, Young has set a goal of 2,000 rushing yards for the 2008 season. Pretty lofty aspirations for a guy who carried the ball more than 20 times just once in his rookie season, with only two 100-yard games in eight starts.
"I'd like for him to prove that to me," Shanahan told the Denver Post. "And he could very well do it. There's a big difference from your first year to your second year."
Savvy fantasy owners are used to hearing a lot of bold statements and hyperbole during early practices. So of course, you have to take anything Young says only half-seriously, if that much. It is more realistic for him to beat out Henry or share some time with him. Pittman also figures into the picture, and you can't forget about rookie Ryan Torain, either. Young is brimming with confidence as he runs with the first team.
"The key to [reaching 2,000 yards] to me is staying healthy," Young told the Post. "It's not like I said something to get a laugh or to smile or to get people to pay attention to me. It's something I believe is in me."
Well, sorry, Selvin, but I laughed when I first heard it and so will a lot of other fantasy owners and NFL fans. What is clear is that the Broncos no longer have confidence that Henry can be the full-time standout running back they hoped he could be. At the least, Young has a strong chance to supplant him as the team's top running back after he showed flashes of promise during his first NFL season. He's using the early practices as a chance to get a leg up on the other contenders for playing time.
"It's more of an opportunity to get the game plan learned like the back of my hand," Young told the Post. "It gives me an advantage in getting ahead on offense and also gives me an advantage to jump ahead on my goals."
No matter what Young's goals are, fantasy players should brace themselves for yet another season of confusion regarding the Denver running backs. All we know for sure is that anyone who shows a tendency to fumble the ball stands a serious chance of getting his playing time reduced. Shanahan has always been more interested in reliability even if it's from more than one ball carrier. Fumblin used to be a big problem for Henry, but he has mostly curbed it in recent years.
If Henry can get back into form soon, he'll have a chance to prove he can rebound from last season, but even if he can avoid injuries for the most part, it's hard to envision him carrying a full load. Shanahan won't want to overwork him, Young will demand approximately 10 carries per game and Pittman will also surely be featured in some passing situations.
There can't be a lot of confidence in Henry, though, and the situation could easily develop into a time-share between Young and Pittman if health problems continue to plague Henry, or the Broncos simply get rid of him, which would not be a shocker. Andre Hall really doesn't figure into the picture even as an emergency option, because Torain has upside and could emerge as a major sleeper if Denver must turn to an unproven running back, which has happened so many times before.
So how should you approach the Denver running backs on draft day? Avoid Henry until you have at least three other running backs on your roster, because the best you can hope for is that he stays healthy and scores a decent amount of touchdowns. Young is a good pick late in the fourth round, as he is very likely to emerge as the starter and one certainly cannot count on Henry to avoid injuries and off-field issues. Pittman should be strictly drafted as a late-round backup, because it would be difficult to envision him becoming a featured back, even in an emergency role. Grab Torain in the final rounds and stash him away, because as we have seen many times before, any Denver running back can get an opportunity for quality playing time at any time.
Brad (Albuquerque):I have a question about my keepers in a 10-team league. It's a relatively standard league, with points rewarded for certain ranges of catches. A hybrid point-per-reception league, if you will. I'm of the old school that starts off with your team with two RBs. However, I think it may be time to shy away from this philosophy and I'm not sure who to keep for my team this year. It's only one player, but oh-so-important. Who should I keep from David Garrard, Willie Parker, Earnest Graham, Brandon Jacobs, Braylon Edwards, or Steve Smith.
Engel: Even in standard leagues, the days of grabbing two running backs in the first two rounds as a rule are gone, because many players at the position have proved to be unreliable in recent years and so many owners seem to be tabbing productive running backs after the third round and into the middle rounds. So it now becomes a goal of grabbing the best players available in each round while focusing on building the core of your starting lineup in the first five rounds or so. In a league that places an emphasis on receiving, many running backs lose even more value in relation to top wide receivers. You don't have a single running back on your roster who strikes me as an all-around standout for rushing and receiving purposes, and I would not keep any of them nor Garrard over the two top-level wide receivers you can keep. So it comes down to a decision between Smith and Edwards. I choose Edwards, who has arrived as a fantasy superstar and has his best years ahead of him. Smith won't be as consistently explosive anymore, especially if Jake Delhomme cannot avoid injuries.
Adam (Spokane, Wash.): I know you are not a big fan of Larry Johnson heading into the season and most of your reasons seem legitimate. So my question is, do I keep Larry Johnson or Michael Turner? The kicker is that Larry Johnson has been my keeper the last two years and you can only keep a player three years in our league. So this would be the last year I could keep Johnson but would be the first year I would be keeping Turner.
Engel: Thanks for the support, Adam. Lots of factors contributed to Johnson's downfall this past season, and even if he stays healthy in 2008, a possibly reduced workload and very shaky supporting cast make him a risk. Don't waste that third year on him. Turner also has a questionable supporting cast, but the Falcons are building in a positive direction. Even if he is inconsistent in his first season with the Falcons, you'll get some good outings from him, and his second and third years with your team should be even better as Atlanta evolves on offense. Johnson is damaged goods with not a whole lot of upside left, while Turner may be entering the best years of his career, so he is the one you should keep.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.