Cedric Benson was the second of three running backs draft in the top five picks of the 2005 draft (Ronnie Brown, No. 2; Benson, No. 4; and Carnell Williams, No. 5). All three have flashed potential while posting disappointing performances, and Benson is the least productive of the trio. This year he's finally the clear No. 1 in Chicago, but his questionable pro resume makes him one of the key decisions for fantasy owners in this year's fantasy offseason.
The basics: Benson is a powerful, explosive runner with a better-than-adequate running skills and speed. His between-the-tackles style attracted Bears' scouts because it matched the new offense they were installing for 2005, but Benson missed training camp in a contract holdout, worked his way into the rotation late, brooded, got hurt, spouted off to the press and flirted with the ghost of Curtis Enis. He entered the 2006 season as 1A in the Bears RBBC, but injured his shoulder in training camp and fell back to the second option behind Thomas Jones. In two years he has rushed for 919 yards, though he finished the 2006 season on something of a roll. It ended with his early exit from the Super Bowl due to injury.
The bright side: Benson is a great athlete (he was also drafted as a baseball player) with the perfect skills for Ron Turner's offense. He's had two years to adjust to the pro game and showed signs of progress in 2006. The Bears run the ball (5th in attempts), score points (tied for 2nd) and would love to turn Benson into the kind of clock-killing, sustaining runner that would support their defense. With Jones gone, Benson is the focus of the running game, and while his backups are good, they pose no significant risk of forcing an RBBC.
The dark side: Fantasy experts tend to focus on his injuries, but they're missing the bigger issue with Benson: He lacks the emotional maturity of a steel-eyed professional. Bears fans got their first glimpse of his personality during one of the most bizarre and wince-inducing draft-day interviews of all time, and Benson's strange mixture of open-hearted vulnerability and victimhead bitterness put him in strange positions with his teammates, the media and the coaching staff. The injuries are also a concern, particularly with his running style and the weight of the offense on his shoulders.
Keeper factors: With only one start and 224 carries in the NFL, Benson enters his third year with the mileage of a rookie. His talent and situation are excellent, but 2007 will likely determine whether Benson can be a franchise running back.
Other choices: RBs: Thomas Jones, New York Jets; Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville; Brandon Jacobs, New York Giants. QBs: Carson Palmer, Cincinnati; Tom Brady, New England. WRs: Torry Holt, St. Louis; Terrell Owens, Dallas; Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona; Reggie Wayne, Indianapolis; Roy Williams, Detroit. TEs: Antonio Gates.
Dan's take: Benson is dropping into the early third round, though he's gone as high at 15th overall. What makes him so difficult from a draft perspective is that he's falling as the last of the franchise-talent backs who enter the season with fairly resolved, high-quality team situations. That makes him one of the biggest "boom-or-bust" picks of 2007 and accounts for his Standard Deviation of 5.82.
In other words, at the point in the draft where Benson becomes relevant, the issue really isn't whether Benson is the best RB prospect on the board -- it's whether you want to roll the dice on him putting up 1,500 yards and 17 touchdowns instead of taking Carson Palmer or one of the elite wideouts.
If you're in a redraft league, I suggest that you pass on Benson unless he drops into the 4th or the elite talent from the other positions is all gone. There's just too much valuable WR/QB/TE talent in the third to risk it on Benson. However, if you're in a keeper league, a 3rd-round pick makes sense because Benson at least has the potential to become a four-to-five year protectable franchise runner.
I expect to see Benson evolve into a steady two-down back this season, boost his YPC to about 4.5, rush for 1,200 yards and score 10 times in 14 starts. I'd be happy to get that production out of my 3rd round pick -- but I also know that he could just as easily windup up with 700 yards, four scores and a series of injuries.
In other words, if you take Benson as your second RB, keep that RB board handy. You're going to need to invest some more mid-round picks in the position.