I used to play in a touchdown-heavy fantasy league with ESPN pals in which someone producing like Chicago Bears running back Marion Barber would be in high demand. In an ESPN standard league, Barber doesn't offer much. He's the clear backup to Matt Forte, currently accounting for nearly half of the Bears' entire offense, and Barber doesn't get much work. But as ESPN's cool new backfield chart shows, Barber gets opportunities to score touchdowns near the goal line (rushing or receiving), and in leagues where that sort of thing is worth more than the yards, it can be critical, and underrated.
Barber doesn't rank among the top 40 running backs in ESPN standard scoring. He's been given 32 carries all season (though his first game was Week 4), gaining 122 yards, and he has caught a mere three passes. There are 61 running backs -- and five quarterbacks -- with more rushing attempts. But only 11 players -- Cam Newton included -- have more touchdown runs than Barber. That's significant. As the backfield chart, powered by underrated colleague Tristan H. Cockcroft shows, Barber has converted three of five rushing/receiving attempts inside the opponent's 5-yard line, all since October.
It's a trend, not a fluke. Forte owners don't like it, of course, but Barber has scored touchdowns in four of his five games. He's owned in 6.4 percent of ESPN standard leagues, and it's understandable why the figure isn't higher. Barber still hasn't reached double digits for standard fantasy scoring in a game. However, goal-line vultures can matter in deeper leagues or those with different scoring. In the league I used to play in, touchdowns were worth a cool 10 points, so what Barber did in Week 9 (31 rushing yards, TD) was worth 13 points there, not the nine for standard formats. Willis McGahee led running backs with 28 standard fantasy points in Week 9, but in my old league, it was a sweet 46 points (10-point bonus for high-rushing games; don't ask!).
As for Forte, entering Week 10 fifth in running back scoring, it's not as if he was scoring touchdowns before Barber entered the picture. In fact, he's 0-for-4 on rushing attempts/receiving targets inside the 5-yard line. Enjoy what you have; even if Barber weren't around, let's not assume Forte would be on his way to 20 touchdowns at this point. He's doing just fine.
I surveyed the backfield chart with interest, and a few other things caught my eye:
• Starting right at the top, how much more could Arizona Cardinals running back Beanie Wells be a tease? He runs well on the Baltimore Ravens, disappears against the St. Louis Rams and is 6-of-8 overall on scoring touchdowns in close. Wells is a workhorse and his team's goal-line back. Only the Minnesota Vikings feature a second running back with fewer opportunities (player's total number of rushing attempts/receiving targets inside the 5-yard line) than Arizona's backup, Alfonso Smith. It's Wells' game; if he could stay healthy, based on his propensity for scoring touchdowns, this could be a 15-touchdown guy.
• Other than Barber, I don't see too many strict goal-line vultures. I think Green Bay Packers bowling ball John Kuhn is essentially like Barber, but he has few in-close opportunities. Like Barber, Kuhn has scored on three of five close chances. The Packers as a team are second to the New Orleans Saints in points (and the Packers have had their bye week), but Aaron Rodgers doesn't hand the ball off much inside the 5-yard line, or throw to his running backs. James Starks and Ryan Grant have one opportunity each. It's a rare situation.
• There are only two teams that feature one player -- regardless of position -- bestowed with all of his team's inside-the-5 opportunities. One of those players is Chris Johnson of the Tennessee Titans; he's 1-for-2. Last season, Johnson got 19 such rushing opportunities. Yeah, the former 2,006-yard fella is struggling, but his workload has changed, as well. As for Denver Broncos veteran McGahee, he has all five of his team's opportunities, scoring twice. One has to think Tim Tebow will infringe on his chances soon, but I still like McGahee moving forward. He's 16th in running back points this season, ranking that high despite playing in essentially six games.
• Finally, there are some names on this list I feel could be like Barber if given the chance, starting with thick Kansas City Chiefs fullback Le'Ron McClain. He scored 10 rushing touchdowns for the 2008 Ravens. He leads the current Chiefs with two opportunities, converting one. Give him more! He could be like Jerome Bettis in 2005 (9 touchdowns, 110 rushing attempts). I'd also keep an eye on Mewelde Moore, Ronnie Brown, Marcel Reece, John Conner and Jed Collins. The Saints feature four other running backs fantasy owners have to deal with, but Collins has more close-in touchdowns than all the others combined. He's Barber Lite!