The first installment of dynasty duel, a practice in separating two players whose dynasty values are relatively close to one another, features two running backs that were major disappointments in their rookie seasons. Both C.J. Spiller and Mark Ingram struggled through underwhelming freshman seasons, being outplayed and outproduced by veterans who looked more comfortable and vastly more explosive. We’ll look at the two factors that rule dynasty leagues: talent and opportunity.
Talent: C.J. Spiller entered the NFL as an all-purpose threat whose ability to run between the tackles was questioned. Through his first 25 games as a pro, Spiller struggled to run between the sidelines. The east and west running style that made him an electric weapon at Clemson proved ineffective at the NFL level, as defenders often swarmed him behind the line of scrimmage and completely shut him down in the open field. The Bills often split Spiller out wide more often than they gave him carries, leaving many to wonder whether Spiller’s future was as a slot receiver. However, following Fred Jackson’s season-ending injury, the former Clemson star rebounded and put together his immense skills, looking the part of the versatile threat that many felt he would be out of college. He finished with at a robust 5.2 yards per carry and it looked as though the game slowed down considerably for him. He still has a lot to prove, especially to those owners who invested heavily in him, but the foundation for a breakout season may have been laid late in 2011.
As a former Heisman winner and offensive centerpiece for the nation’s most dominant program, Mark Ingram was a known commodity entering the league. While not an elite talent, Ingram’s well-rounded game figured to make him a feature runner, and when he landed inNew Orleans, expectations were sky high. But a foot injury and the success ofNew Orleans’ other two backs – Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas – conspired to make Ingram a mere part-time runner who failed to make a fantasy impact. Still, Ingram excelled in short-yardage situations and looked more comfortable as the year wore on. He seemed to finally have taken his game to another level before the dreaded turf toe shut him down late in the year. His ability to move the pile forward was evident throughout the year, and while he’s never going to be a three-down runner with Sproles in town, his ability to get the tough yards should help him get on the field near the goal-line and earn enough work between the 20’s to hold significant value.
Situation: While Buffalo has never been known as a fantasy hotspot, they have found a way to churn out productive fantasy runners, and the offense as a whole has looked much improved under Chan Gailey. The big obstacle is Fred Jackson, the uber-productive veteran who relegated Spiller to the bench for nearly two whole seasons. Jackson is already 31, which puts his remaining shelf-life into question, but with only 5 seasons of NFL carries under his belt he doesn’t have the wear and tear of many older backs. Jackson’s presence makes Spiller’s short-term value murky, but there’s no reason he should stand in the way of Spiller over the long haul. If Spiller can build on his strong finish in 2011, he could carve out a significant role in 2012, and given how quickly older backs can fade into oblivion, he could make a push for the feature back role.
Mark Ingram’s also mired in a backfield quagmire. Unfortunately, the aforementioned Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles still lurk, and in an offense that revolves around Drew Brees, it is generally a crapshoot as to who contributes on a weekly basis. Sproles has a well-defined role; he’s going to be in on passing downs and will be used as a unique weapon out of the backfield. Ingram’s value will really depend on whether or not he can push aside Thomas and earn the between the tackles work. Ingram is a better talent butPierrehas always been productive and is excellent in the screen game, one of the Saints’ staples. The Saints are going to score as long as Drew Brees is in town, and there’s reason Ingram cannot emerge as the feature back in that offense. With a full offseason and improved health, there is a good chance his role expands in 2012 and moving forward.
The Edge: Despite heavy competition in the backfield, Ingram looks like a prototypical workhorse back. He can move the pile, and he looked more adept in the passing game as a rookie than most people expected. His value’s taken a big hit after a sluggish rookie campaign, and many scorned owners may be willing to dump him at a reduced price. It’s the perfect time to grab a likely long-term starter on one of the league’s most explosive offenses. Those guys are hard to find at Ingram’s current price.