Football players still looking for work in mid-August really can't be too choosy, but if new Green Bay Packers running back Cedric Benson was looking for a place where he could produce statistics similar to what he accomplished the past few seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals, and be on a winning team, he might have actually picked the right place. Of course, Benson's goal when he signed with the perennially contending Packers probably had more to do with finding a job and potentially performing in January (and February) than making fantasy owners pleased, but it's possible everyone can win here.
We all know that for the Packers it all starts with awesome quarterback Aaron Rodgers and his many receiving weapons. While the running game wasn't much of a factor last season, that could certainly have been due to a lack of faith in the unexciting running back corps. Benson is no superstar -- not by any means. But he is capable of providing draft-worthy statistics, as only 22 running backs provided more standard fantasy points last season. While some simply presume Benson enters a timeshare with underwhelming James Starks, I look at the glass half-full and wonder if perhaps Packers coach Mike McCarthy sees something else.
Anyone remember Ryan Grant? No, not the 2011 version that was a shell of his former self, but the 2007-2009 version that was more than competent for, again, a pass-first, Rodgers-led (for two of those seasons) team? Benson, as plodding as he appears to look most of the time, averaged 1,143 rushing yards and six touchdowns the past three seasons.
Grant produced consecutive 1,200-yard rushing seasons in 2008 and '09, before serious leg injuries ruined his 2010 and certainly appeared to restrict him last season, when rushing duties were shared. Grant, who is currently a free agent (making the fact that he was bypassed for Benson even more interesting), averaged 297 rushing attempts in those two seasons. And before that, as a rookie in 2007, he averaged 5.1 yards per carry and scored eight touchdowns. Frankly, I think Benson has an interesting opportunity here to be ... like the old Ryan Grant.
That's not worth a ton in fantasy football, but it certainly does matter. Grant in his prime was better than Benson, but the sheer volume of rushing attempts (the result of little backfield competition) and goal-line chances helped form his numbers. Similarly, Benson doesn't have to be a great player to either earn carries or produce fantasy value, which is why he enters my top 35 running backs immediately, someone I'd consider near Round 8 of a standard draft, and certainly ahead of Starks. Frankly, being only top 35 is a bargain and I'm likely to move him up the next few weeks; a year ago at this time, Benson, for all his warts, was a seventh-round choice in 2011 ADP and 26th among running backs, one spot after ... Grant.
It's certainly possible the pass-heavy Packers don't give Benson or Starks considerable work, blunting the individual statistical value of each. Perhaps Hawaii product Alex Green, recovering from an ACL tear, becomes a factor as well. Yes, the Benson signing could have merely been for depth. Or he could be getting 275-plus carries this season. For all the talk about Starks, and his draft status has certainly been bolstered by the offense around him, his regular-season career consists of one touchdown and nary a 100-yard rushing performance. Benson is a workhorse who topped 100 rushing yards three times last season and scored six touchdowns.
McCarthy probably didn't tip his hand when he told reporters Benson "has played in a one-back system the past three years. And it's clearly evident that we've evolved more to a one-back system as a starting point for the way we play." Now, a one-back system can be shared by multiple running backs, but I expect Benson to be the top option and Starks to fight for a reserve role. The Packers needed an upgrade at running back, and say what you will about Benson, but he's been consistent and reliable the past few seasons. Like Ryan Grant used to be.