It's tough to complain too much about Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew, though clearly I'm about to do so. Consider that prior to the season he was, quite possibly, the biggest risk among the first-round running backs. Jones-Drew had a strong but uneven 2010 campaign, offseason surgery on his meniscus and a potentially bad team around him, especially when longtime starting quarterback David Garrard was unceremoniously punted to the side days before the season began.
The Jaguars are predictably losing games and scoring little, their young quarterback is struggling but ... Jones-Drew has overcome this to a degree, at least on the surface. He's tied for 11th in standard running back scoring through five weeks (with BenJarvus Green-Ellis), averaging more than 12 points per game, and is fourth in the NFL in rushing yards. However, Jones-Drew isn't scoring many touchdowns and isn't catching many passes, which is why he's not the guy we all used to really love. Now we only mostly love him.
I ranked MJD 11th at running back for Week 6 for what really isn't that difficult a game at the Pittsburgh Steelers (they rank 16th against the run), but I see the other rankers have him top 10. The bottom line is this: Is Jones-Drew still a RB1, or has he slipped some?
Perhaps the jury remains out, but I'm awfully surprised the Jaguars haven't found use for Jones-Drew in the passing game, and there's no indication they plan to, either. The lack of touchdowns I see; the team is 30th in total offense this season, though on a per-game basis the Jaguars are last, since the Cleveland Browns and St. Louis Rams just had their bye weeks. I don't see how Jones-Drew can score double-digit touchdowns this way. But with rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert ranking second-to-last among qualified quarterbacks in ESPN's new QBR statistic (only Kerry Collins has been worse), one would think the occasional screen pass would be in order. However, Jones-Drew has only 11 targets all season, none in Week 5, and seven receptions. Gabbert rarely looks in his direction (or to backup Deji Karim) unless it's a handoff, for which MJD ranks third in the league.
We in the fantasy community just love to remind unsuspecting fantasy owners that guys like Michael Turner, Cedric Benson and BenJarvus Green-Ellis are non-factors in the passing game, and how it affects overall value, but that's what Jones-Drew has become. I've seen Gabbert enough to know it's not a coincidence, either. The main reason I don't like placing Turner in my top 10, and haven't drafted him the past two seasons, is that it's always nice when a stud running back can fall back on his receiving ability.
Look, there will be games a defense stacks the line and forces a rookie quarterback to beat them downfield. Look at the New York Jets for example, as their quarterback continues to look like a rookie half the time. But Mark Sanchez has thrown more to Shonn Greene -- and a lot more to LaDainian Tomlinson -- than Jags to MJD: Greene has 12 receptions already, after catching 16 passes a year ago. Jones-Drew nabbed an average of 47 passes his first five seasons in the league, with 62 of them in 2008. Last season he caught only 34 passes in 14 games, but even that is a superior rate to his current one, and I'm sure the knee woes played a role. Jones-Drew might win a rushing title this season, but without the passing game to help, and a Turner-like touchdown total (he'll get double digits), it's time to re-evaluate him as a sure-fire top-10 guy. I don't see him getting there.
Of course, Jones-Drew is not alone among running backs surprisingly being underutilized, though; consider Adrian Peterson has been targeted the same 11 times. Hey, Donovan McNabb, you're missing out on a great weapon! I thought Frank Gore, DeAngelo Williams, Steven Jackson and Tim Hightower would be busier in the passing game, too. And who would have believed Darren Sproles, the current leader in running back targets, would have three times the number of former Saint Reggie Bush? Kind of says a lot about both players, eh?
Here are three situations I'd keep an eye on, and not only for PPR leagues.
• Denver Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno, nearly irrelevant to most, caught all three of his targets in Week 5, turning one magical Tim Tebow screen pass -- that's sarcasm -- into a touchdown. Moreno didn't get a rushing attempt in the contest. Moreno has seven targets all season, after getting 48 for the 2010 season. Perhaps Moreno's receiving work will increase with a lesser pure passer, and he'll earn more touches.
• Joseph Addai wasn't catching many passes, and Delone Carter never caught more than 11 passes in any of his four seasons at Syracuse. Donald Brown, however, can catch the ball, though the Indianapolis Colts really didn't ask him to do it much his first two seasons. Look, I'm not a fan of Brown's, and Curtis Painter has been getting the ball downfield nicely, but I want to see what happens this week. Brown should get opportunity with Addai ailing.
• I'm also not a big defender of Marshawn Lynch, but he did catch 47 passes for the 2008 Buffalo Bills. He's got more catches and targets than Seattle Seahawks teammate Justin Forsett, who's usually counted on for this type of thing. Lynch isn't a top-20 running back, but after catching four passes on six targets in Week 5, I'm interested to see if it's a trend.