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Benson could be a fantasy bargain

8/31/2011

Perhaps jailed Cincinnati Bengals running back Cedric Benson is not someone you would choose to dine, vacation or even have a chat with. I get that. His exploits off the field have been well-chronicled, and late Tuesday night, with a 20-day prison sentence planned for October's bye week pending, he checked himself into a Texas jail for what he hopes is only a week. You know, it's kinda like heading to a hotel, but the free breakfast provided is a bit different.

Anyway, this is an odd story, and I'm here to play devil's advocate and remind people that while Mr. Benson is not practicing with his Bengals teammates, and his availability for Week 1 against the Cleveland Browns remains somewhat problematic, he was a top-20 fantasy running back (16th actually) a season ago. He was also fifth in the league in rushing attempts. He's not a star, but he's not as bad as you think. I mean, on the field.

I think most fantasy owners are wise enough to see this situation for what it is, but then again, some clearly aren't. If people looked past the jail hiccup and the fact that the Bengals are likely to be awful this season, then Benson wouldn't be the No. 27 running back selected on average in ESPN live drafts. Benson remains the team's starting running back. The team wasn't good last season, either. The fantasy season lasts longer than September, so even if he misses a week or so -- and I don't think he will -- there's nice value here. Benson is going to be busy. And hey, he's not likely to pull a hammy on the practice field in the next week, so he's got that going for him.

In a recent draft I was able to procure Benson's services in the ninth round, which seems like crazy value for a potential top-20 running back to me. Again, as bad as this guy appeared to be last season -- he plodded his way to 3.5 yards per carry, but got so many carries that the counting stats were there -- he scored more fantasy points than Knowshon Moreno, Frank Gore (injured, I know), Jahvid Best and many others. Benson played every game for the 4-12 Bengals. He certainly could do this again as his choice to serve the prison sentence now is actually a good sign. Imagine how often the media would be discussing "the pending prison sentence" with him after each 100-yard game in September and early October. Now it's not really an issue. And while I won't compare Benson to Michael Vick -- you've gotta be kidding, message board people! -- this certainly should be a motivated player.

When I chose Benson recently after seeing his name out there in Rounds 6-8, and he still fell to the ninth round, there was the requisite snickering and joking on the message board, but it was also a sign that the situation is probably being misjudged. Hey, I like that. This is not a sexy pick by any means. Benson isn't a joy to watch. While he rushed for better than 100 yards only three times all of last season and actually topped 60 yards only seven times -- less than half the season -- ultimately the production was there.

While it's true I've got backup Bernard Scott on my list of top five interesting handcuffs, that doesn't mean I can't recommend Benson as well. There are 26 running backs being selected in ESPN average live drafts before Benson, including New Orleans Saints rookie Mark Ingram, Carolina Panthers backup Jonathan Stewart and a few upside-laden West Coast youngsters who have proven little in Beanie Wells and Ryan Mathews. I've got Benson ahead of Ingram and Stewart, and a tad behind Wells and Mathews. If this prison sentence serves to lower Benson's value in drafts further, don't hesitate to choose him. While mediocre, he's better than you think ... well, you know what I mean.

Three other brief Bengals thoughts, if you don't mind:

• There's no way I can recommend rookie quarterback Andy Dalton as a top-25 fantasy option, no matter what he looks like in preseason games. Nor could I do so with veteran backup Bruce Gradkowski. However, I'd feel better about the wide receivers if Gradkowski was at the helm.

• Rookie WR A.J. Green is currently being selected in the 10th round of drafts, which works for me. People seem surprised that he's going ahead of fellow rookie Julio Jones of the Atlanta Falcons, but I'd do the same thing.

• I won't make second-year tight end Jermaine Gresham a top-15 option at his position, but it's a name to file away for when Dalton is productive, probably by late next season. There's upside there.