Salsa dancing sensation Victor Cruz first put his name on the NFL and fantasy radar with a sensational 2010 preseason performance. Cruz would score 3 touchdowns against the cross town rival New York Jets on a Monday night in August, and finish the preseason with nearly 300 receiving yards and 4 touchdowns. After starting the 2010 regular season without a catch in the first three games, Cruz would injure a hamstring and be placed on the season ending injured reserve list. So much for preseason success being a barometer for how a player may perform when the real games begin. What a difference a year can make. Cruz would catch a modest 6 balls during the 2011 preseason before exploding for over 80 receptions, 1500 yards, and 9 touchdowns in his second season in New York. Watching preseason football has become valuable again, there is hope as we sit through fourth quarter action filled with names we've never of and countless penalties. Finally, after years of drafting, then waiting for the likes of Thomas Clayton, Selvin Young, Dane Looker and Jesse Chatman to live up to their preseason performances we had our knight in shining armor in Victor Cruz. Riding the high feelings that Victor has filled me with, I have decided to find the next big thing at the running back position by pouring over the last two preseason box scores.
Take the 2010 preseason for example, where the names of Arian Foster , Ryan Mathews and Chris Ivory can be found in the top 10 rushing totals. OK, that is a bit disingenuous as Mathews was a first round draft pick that much was expected from, while Foster and Ivory would both benefit from the players in front of them suffering injuries. In Fosters case, he would end the season as the number one running back in the league, and no longer a secret name to stash on our draft boards. Ivory will be 4th on the Saints depth chart heading into 2012 once Mark Ingram returns from injury, and could be released or traded.
Looking at some of the other top ten preseason running backs of 2010 there are a few names that are worth taking a closer look at. Anthony Dixon, he would see his touches drop by more than 40 from 2010 to last season, and Kendall Hunter has passed him on the depth chart. Dixon may fight to even keep his roster spot if San Francisco drafts a running back in April. Next up is Cedric Peerman of Cincinnati, who averaged over 6 yards per carry and scored 3 touchdowns in preseason action. That seems promising as some fantasy pundits have been talking Peerman up the last couple of seasons; maybe he is the next Victor Cruz of running backs. Nope, Peerman has managed to garner 3 total touches in both 2010 and 2011 regular seasons for Cincinnati. Jackie Battle was a preseason stud for the Chiefs in 2010, and did manage to have a hot streak midway through last season after Jamaal Charles was lost for the season. A career back up, Battle is entering his 6th season in 2012 and is a free agent looking to sign on with a team that will give him more touches. Considering Kansas City steadily decreased his carries as the season progressed last year, it does not look good for Battle to have success with a new team.
The final two names of note from the list of 2010 preseason running backs are Isaac Redman and Javon Ringer. Due to the Chris Johnson hold out and early season struggles, Ringer saw a career high in touches last season with 87. Unfortunately, he averaged a pedestrian 3.1 yards per carry and scored only one touchdown to go with 28 receptions for 187 yards. Ringer has a lot of tread on his tires from his workload during his days at Michigan State; while he is a capable running back, he does not excel at any one facet of the game. Isaac Redman will enter the 2012 season with an opportunity to be the number one running back in Pittsburgh while Rashard Mendenhall rehabs from his knee injury. Redman averaged 4.4 yards on 110 carries last season with 18 receptions for another 78 yards as the primary handcuff to Mendenhall. The addition of Todd Haley as offensive coordinator for the Steelers will mean that Redman will get plenty of chances to tote the rock. Haley will look to reestablish the ground and pound attack in the steel city and Redman can reap the benefits of the scheme change. Unfortunately, it is common knowledge that Redman is in line to be a number one running back in 2012 and fantasy owners will have him ranked accordingly, eliminating the chance of a surprise breakout season.
So, we are forced to look at the preseason stars of the 2011 campaign to find a golden needle in the haystack. Kendall Hunter led all rushers with 231 yards and a touchdown, but was drafted to be the heir apparent to Frank Gore and is well known in both the NFL and fantasy world. Roy Helu also starred in the preseason for the Redskins and if you took him late in last season's fantasy draft, you reaped the rewards. Playing for Mike Shanahan, Helu is no lock to enter 2012 as the primary back in Washington as 'skeletor' loves to shuffle his backfield rotation.
It is necessary to dig even deeper to find that, out of the blue, zero to hero, unknown running back to be our Victor Cruz. Perhaps it could be Armond Smith , the speedster from Union (KY) College, signed by the Browns as a non drafted free agent prior to last season. Smith averaged over 6 yards a carry and scored 2 touchdowns on 31 rushing attempts in the 2011 preseason for Cleveland. Could this be our guy? Nope, 3 carries for a total of two yards in the regular season before being signed to the practice squad in October to make room for Chris Ogbonnaya. Former Georgia Tech stand out Jonathan Dwyer has graced the preseason list of top rushers for the last two seasons. Dwyer had a big game in week five against the Titans last season, with over 100 yards, highlighted by a 76 yard run, only to return to obscurity before finishing the year on injured reserve with a broken foot. Entering the final year of his contract, it is now or never for Dwyer (who has the opportunity to be the number two back in Pittsburgh). Dwyer must stay healthy and produce, or risk losing his roster spot altogether. Jamie Harper of Tennessee is a candidate to make a splash in 2012 should Chris Johnson go down with an injury. The speedy Harper will already be a third down option, and could unseat Javon Ringer as the primary back up to Johnson. Kahlil Bell finished the 2011 season as the starting running back for the Chicago Bears and performed admirably. Playing in place of the injured Matt Forte, Bell amassed more than 440 yards and scored once while filling in for the Bears. A restricted free agent in 2012, look for Bell to resign with Chicago and remain the number two back to Forte, not exactly a recipe for being a stud producer.
That brings us to Da'Rel Scott , the 7th round pick out of Maryland in 2011 for the New York Giants. Scott emerged in the preseason with over 200 yards on only 14 carries, including a spectacular 97 yard touchdown scamper. With Brandon Jacobs likely departing in free agency, the door is open for Scott to become the new wing man to Ahmad Bradshaw . Bradshaw has also been known to miss a game or two each season, and Scott could see ample opportunity to break out in 2012. Scott only had 7 total offensive touches last season and is flying way under the radar heading into 2012. He is our man! Look for lightning to strike twice for the New York Giants, with Da'Rel Scott emerging as a NFL and more importantly, a fantasy star next season