We didn’t have him ranked that high in our Fantasy Football Rankings 2011, expecting NFL free agent signings to change the landscape of fantasy football. There were more than enough NFL rumors going around that either Tim Hightower or Beanie Wells could still be traded and that the NFL free agency would mean a shift in the backfield for Arizona.
When reviewing the Cardinals in our 2011 NFL predictions, we looked at the situation and determined there was a true sleeper candidate in Arizona. A big part of anyone’s fantasy football draft strategy is to find that sleeper that will take them over the top, and we here at The Sports Cannon think we may have just found your 2011 version of Peyton Hillis.
Everyone loves a rookie running back. I still have Adrian Peterson on my roster in multiple leagues after drafting him his rookie year in 2007. For every Adrian Peterson, however, there are more than enough Donald Brown's out there. The trick to figuring out which rookie running back is going to succeed in the NFL is all about figuring out the system they are playing in.
For instance, right now Cardinals’ rookie Ryan Williams is being drafted in the early part of the ninth round, behind running backs like Reggie Bush, Michael Bush and James Starks. On the flip side, rookie Mark Ingram is being drafted in the fifth round ahead of backs like Felix Jones and Cedric Benson.
We think Ingram is going to have a productive career, but we still like Williams’ chances even more. The Saints are all about splitting carries, while head coach Ken Whisenhunt has only split carries recently because he has been forced to.
While the offensive coordinator with the Steelers, Whisenhunt rarely split carries in the backfield. Then, it was Willie Parker that did all the heavy lifting and it worked out pretty well. When Whisenhunt first came to Arizona he had Edgerrin James to rely on and didn’t split carries then.
In 2008, James broke down paving the way for Tim Hightower to lead the offense. Coach Whisenhunt wasn’t settled on Hightower, however, and went out and drafted Beanie Wells in the first round hoping to have a feature back he could rely on again.
The Beanie Wells experiment never panned out, and the Cardinals were forced to go with the hot hand in the backfield in 2009 and again in 2010. Neither Hightower nor Wells were the solution, but each was given ample chances to prove their worth. In the past two years there has been about a 50/50 split between two backs in the Cardinals’ offense, with both running the ball around 150 times.
This season the Cardinals had more to worry about than the running game. Probably knowing they would have to part with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in a trade that gave them a franchise quarterback, the Cardinals elected to draft cornerback Patrick Peterson in the first round.
Peterson filled a hole, but was also too great of a prospect to pass up and will likely be a corner stone in the new Ray Horton led defense. The Cardinals were always high on running back Ryan Williams, however. The Cardinals later admitted that Williams was their 15th-ranked rookie on their draft board, so when he fell to them at the 38th overall pick they had to strike.
The Cardinals then proceeded to trade Hightower to the Redskins this offseason. The Cardinals grew increasingly frustrated with Hightower’s fumble-itis and, since Williams hadn’t fumbled in his previous two collegiate seasons, elected to go with a rookie back as their backup.
Well, we’re not sure Williams will remain a backup for very long. So far in training camp Williams has been by far the most impressive running back on the team, even displaying great value as a receiver out of the backfield. The Cardinals will try to throw the ball more often this year now that they have a reliable starter in Kevin Kolb so Williams represents added value in PPR leagues.
Wells can’t compete with Williams on third downs, so you can already expect Williams to be on the field for 95 percent of third-down plays where a running back is installed. Williams is showing flashes of brilliance as a runner so far this training camp as well, however.
Although we do expect Williams to share carries with Wells to begin the season, we think the Cardinals rookie will assume the majority of the workload by seasons end. Not only will he help make a push for you in the fantasy football playoffs, but Williams also represents a nice keeper option as well.
We suggest you pay close attention to how quickly rookie running backs Daniel Thomas and Mark Ingram go in your draft, it could hint to when Williams will go, too. Williams may be a bit of a reach in the seventh or eighth round, and you would have to pass up options like Austin Collie, Sidney Rice and Chad Ochocinco.
If you like the team you drafted to that point, however, we see no reason why you shouldn’t take a leap of faith on Williams this season.
See all of our fantasy football sleepers 2011 here.