New Wave of Running Backs Taking Over

By Gene Wang
Special to
Wednesday, November 28, 2007; 6:12 PM

Fantasy owners are constantly searching for the sleeper pick, that untapped player who could change their championship fortunes. With the rash of injuries to running backs this season, Sammy Morris and Derrick Ward were among waiver wire pickups who became must-starts.

Now another group of waiver wire running backs is taking over. It's doubtful Ryan Grant, Earnest Graham or Kolby Smith were on any fantasy draft boards in August, but as the season heads into the final month, those players have become valuable additions.

Most intriguing is Grant, who was an afterthought until recently. The Packers backfield early this season was a mess, with Vernand Morency, Brandon Jackson and DeShawn Wynn in the mix.

None of those players could stay healthy, so by default Grant became the featured back. Good thing for Green Bay he did.

Grant has rushed for 467 yards over the past five games and scored two touchdowns. He has stabilized a the Packers' running game and figures to be a major contributor down the stretch, especially when the weather makes passing difficult.

Look for Grant's production to continue against the Cowboys, who will be more attentive to Brett Favre and the passing game than stopping the run. Grant should have ample running lanes in the middle of the field when Green Bay operates in a spread offense.

Out of necessity, Green Bay was a passing team over the first half of the season. But with the emergence of Grant, Favre has has been more of a threat in play-action. With that strategy in mind, the Packers could load up Grant to keep Dallas off-balance and then hit its cover-challenged secondary with deep throws.

Like Grant, Graham was buried on his team's depth chart at the beginning of the season. Then Carnell Williams injured his knee and was lost for the season, and backup Michael Pittman hurt his ankle. The Bucs added Zack Crockett and Michael Bennett, but Graham performed so well filling in that he's become entrenched as the starter.

In his last three starts, Graham has scored one touchdown in each game and amassed 301 rushing yards. He should finish the season well considering four of his final five opponents have rush defenses ranked no higher than 20th.

Smith is more of an unknown, though he got off to a fantastic start by running for a Week 12-best 150 yards and two touchdowns on 31 carries. He has a favorable schedule to close the season, including games against the Chargers (21st ranked run defense), Broncos (29th) and Jets (31st).

He is not likely to get 30-plus carries regularly, especially if Larry Johnson makes it back this season. Still Smith is a viable No. 2 back in deeper leagues based on matchup, and even if Johnson gets back on the field, Smith's strong beginning makes him a compulsory handcuff.

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