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Fantasy Debate: Maurice Jones-Drew vs. Chris Johnson

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A RB off an injury or a RB mired in inconsistency. Which is the better 2013 options? Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Running backs, running backs, running backs. There you have it. There is the 2013 draft plan for the early rounds of your highly anticipated fantasy football draft. With the tremendous amount of depth and the wide receiver and quarterback positions, grabbing two beefy running backs early makes perfect sense and will still afford fantasy teams the ability to pick up a solid quarterback and assemble a respectable crew of wide receivers in the middle rounds. Now that we have this plan of attack established, which running backs will make this plan work as efficiently as possible? The first round is so heavily stocked with big game running backs, that little thought it needed and selections generally come down to preference. Once the second round rolls around, the pickings get much slimmer, and the running back debates can get heated. Two running backs that could be staring you square in the eyes at the back half of the second round are our old friends Maurice Jones-Drew and Chris Johnson. So, which old timer (in running back terms) should you pair with Jamaal Charles or C.J. Spiller? Let’s dig in and find out.

According to ADP data from fantasypros.com, which combines average draft positions of three popular mock draft sites, both Jones-Drew and Johnson are being selected in the 20th-21st overall range. Both have plenty of mileage on them and are somewhat risky selections, but their track records show that they can be counted on and have been flat out fantasy forces in the past. So, just how do we select which running back will rake in the most fantasy points in 2013? Since flipping a coin isn’t very scientific and I am sure you aren’t within reach of a roulette table, let’s check out how each of our two backs stack up in terms of competition, risk, and the prospects of their team’s offense.

Competition

Both Maurice Jones-Drew and Chris Johnson have newly revamped backup situations for the 2013 season. Tennessee started their offseason by signing everyone’s favorite slug, Shonn Greene, to a three-year, $10 million contract. Greene is quite the plodder and doesn’t offer much excitement, but should be an upgrade behind Johnson when compared to the years of Javon Ringer and Jamie Harper backing up the artist formerly known as CJ2K. Johnson is still undoubtedly the lead dog but does have a somewhat formidable backup at the moment.

Jacksonville also cleaned house behind their top rusher over the 2013 offseason and had good reason to do so. With MJD missing 10 games, the Jaguars front office was subjected to watching the circus of Rashad Jennings, Montell Owens and Jalen Parmele run for a combined 635 yards on 3.47 yards per carry over the course of the season. The Jaguars backfield looks vastly different now, and includes Justin Forsett and college quarterback Denard Robinson. Both Forsett and Robinson have interesting skill sets and should provide a better boost to the Jacksonville rushing attack should MJD go down again, but neither is remotely close to posing a risk to MJD’s workload.

Risk

What both of these former top flight backs possess is the potential to tank in the 2013 season. Jones-Drew is coming off the dreaded Lisfranc surgery and played only six games in 2012. While the Jaguars star runner has always been durable (only missed three games in the previous six seasons), he is still questionable for the start of training camp this summer and also has potential legal action looming after punching a security guard at a night club in May. Johnson is also not without his warts, as his last two seasons have been healthy, but quite the roller coaster ride for fantasy owners. Although his annual totals have been respectable (1,047 rushing yards in 2011 and 1,243 in 2012), Johnson has registered 18 games over the past two seasons where he totaled less than 60 yards rushing, which illustrates his highly publicized “boom or bust” potential

Team Offense

Jacksonville and Tennessee are both teams that struggled on offense in 2012 and have unproven quarterbacks leading the way. Tennessee was 26th in the NFL in yards per game last season (313.1 ypg) and was led by the always inaccurate and often injured Jake Locker. While the Titans should have a formidable set of receivers with the maturation of Kendall Wright and the addition of rookie Justin Hunter, the development of Locker will be the key to making defenses respect the air game and give Johnson more room to use his incredible speed.

Jacksonville was a flat out mess on offense last year, finishing 29th in the NFL in yards per game in 2012 (299.3 ypg) and watching Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne throw for a combined 20 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. Unfortunately for Jones-Drew, and Jaguars fans, the 2013 Jacksonville offense doesn’t look considerably different and is still relying on Gabbert to emerge as at least an average NFL quarterback. Throw in the four-game suspension for top receiver Justin Blackmon and the Jags will be at the bottom of the NFL in total offense once again.

Overall, fantasy owners can look back with fondness at the 2009 and 2010 seasons when both Jones-Drew and Johnson were lead dogs in the realm of fantasy running backs, but they both provide considerable risk now that the calendar has flipped to 2013. However, the debate between these two backs for this season isn’t close. Chris Johnson’s collection of baggage heading into the 2013 season looks like a small piece of carry-on luggage compared to that of Maurice Jones-Drew, which would cost over $200 in overweight bag fees. The potential “tank factor” for Jones-Drew and his injured foot is far higher than Johnson’s, and heavily outweighs the impact of weeks where Johnson takes 14 carries for 24 yards. When the timer on your second round pick is quickly dwindling, spend your selection on Chris Johnson and leave Maurice Jones-Drew and his baggage on the tarmac.