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Pierre Thomas: Still not a reliable starter

8/6/2010

I don't know where former Washington Redskins running back Ladell Betts is going to sign, or if he will at all, but the fact that he was scheduled for a workout this week with the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints does make an interesting statement to me.

No, I don't expect Betts to have much fantasy value even if he signs with Sean Payton and Co. to essentially replace what Mike Bell did for this team -- or if another bruising north-south runner of his ilk does, like a Justin Fargas -- but I do think the Saints want someone to join forces with Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush, and that would surely affect Thomas' value.

For all the ability Thomas brings, it might surprise you to know he still hasn't rushed for as much as 800 yards in a season. Yes, his yards per touch are impressive, but are there enough touches to make him a safe top 20 running back on draft day? Thomas finished 19th in standard running back scoring a year ago, and there's nothing wrong with that, but part of me wonders if that's the best fantasy owners will see. Thomas will be more of a third running back. It's much the same way I view Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson; the ability is there, but we really depend on the touchdowns.

A friend of mine tried to compare Thomas to a light version of Brian Westbrook, but the numbers really don't bear this out. It is nice that Thomas has scored 20 touchdowns the past two seasons, and he can catch passes, but yardage-wise he leaves us lacking. Thomas is more of a "pure" running back than Bush, whatever that's worth, and it shows in how the Saints divide their rushing attempts. But still, Thomas is not someone who gets a ton of carries. Last season 32 running backs had more than his 147 attempts.

Bush is special in his own right, of course, as one of -- if not the -- preeminent pass receiver from the running back position, but he brings even less durability to the table than Thomas and a lot fewer carries. Bush has never even run for 600 yards in a season, and it sure doesn't like this will be the year. Unless it's a point-per-reception league, I can't say I've ever thought about selecting Bush in the range someone in every league reaches for him.

The other factor here is that Bell, now likely to score the short-yardage touchdowns for the Eagles, was clearly the team's desired back in this role last season. In a dynamic Drew Brees-led offense that can move the ball as if the defense isn't even trying, there are goal-line opportunities to be had. Bell scored five times last season, four of them from 3 yards or less, and he also led the team in carries. There were rumors Lynell Hamilton could step into the role, but when similarly sized options with a track record visit, it's a clear indictment that opportunity might not occur.

Frankly, I don't think the Saints want Thomas, Bush or Hamilton to be heavy ball carriers, and I'm not trying to overrate a routine early-August visit from someone like Betts. This stuff happens and I repeat, it's not really about Betts in this case. I just wonder if Thomas is more of a third fantasy back than anyone cares to discuss. In 2008 his value was saved by the 12 total touchdowns. Last season he scored a third fewer times, although his total yards went up. There were also three games in which Thomas either didn't suit up or didn't get a carry, and he's dealing with a left hand problem that has kept him from practicing.

If someone like Betts takes over the old Bell role -- Betts does make sense, actually, even though he's coming back from a serious left knee tear -- I would lower my Thomas rank a few spots. I might do it anyway. I just don't think I would trust him as much as other running backs who catch passes, like Matt Forte, LeSean McCoy and the emerging Fred Jackson (maybe Justin Forsett, too), and then there's the matter of touchdown scorers Brandon Jacobs and Marion Barber. It's odd, but Thomas doesn't really fit into either type of running back. The underused Bush doesn't either.

I's not uncommon for NFL teams to offer tryouts to unemployed veterans at this time of the summer, at the dawn of the preseason. You'll see more names visiting teams soon. The Denver Broncos signed former Tennessee Titans bulldozer -- and ever so briefly a Seattle Seahawk -- LenDale White on Thursday with Knowshon Moreno and Correll Buckhalter dealing with injuries. The Saints are doing this for a reason, and that reason might affect whether you view Thomas as a starting fantasy option.