Refreshed from a nice long vacation and freed from the confines of my team-by-team format, I'm going to go nuts and make a really off-the-wall prediction. And it's a long one - took me two days.
Today's absurd prediction:
At least three of the following running backs will be traded before the deadline: Michael Turner, Clinton Portis, Julius Jones, Kevin Jones, Najeh Davenport, Kevan Barlow, Chester Taylor, LaBrandon Toefield, Mewelde Moore.
I have broken the teams of the NFL into four categories regarding their running back situation. Four teams have "Abundant" status - they are overloaded with running backs. Ten have "Safe" status - they are set as long as there isn't a disastrous spree of injuries. Fourteen have "Stable" status - they can withstand minor injury to their starter(s) and survive. And only four have "Gambling" status - they're in real deep if their #1 guy misses games. For any other position in the league, there'd be a fifth category - "Searching" - as in searching for a capable starter. But running back is the one position in the NFL where there are more than enough guys who can start in the right situation.
Injuries happen all the time, it's the cost of playing a violent game. Undoubtedly, someone from the top 20 projected running backs will miss significant time. A few of them will suffer nagging injuries that hinder their production. And it could be many more than that. So here's a look at the four categories and what each team will do in the case of injury.
Gambling - The Browns, Colts, 49ers, and Bears really don't have much behind Jamal Lewis, Joseph Addai, Frank Gore, and Cedric Benson, respectively. If any of these four has a season-ending injury before the deadline, they'll be frantically searching the market for the best back available, and should be able to find a good one. And if one sprains a knee or ankle, they'll probably try to trade for a decent backup, because the bench options they have are only good for spelling a starter, and shouldn't be expected to start themselves.
Stable - Some are in better shape than others in this large group; the Cardinals, Ravens, Bengals, Broncos, Packers, Patriots, Seahawks, and Rams could afford to be without their starter for 4 games or so without needing to pull a trade. All but the Packers have a top-12 back who is important to their game plan, but there's a guy or two behind him who could do in a pinch. As for Green Bay, Brandon Jackson's looking like a nice option thus far, and he or Vernand Morency can handle the load while Brett Favre does most of the work. The other teams have suspect starters for one reason or another, and the next option isn't ideal. Miami and Tennessee have to worry about injury-prone guys named Brown, Oakland is dealing with the questionable Lamont Jordan and the suspended Dominic Rhodes, Kansas City's star is holding out and may have taken too much abuse in recent years, and Houston has an aging and injury-prone Ahman Green. Atlanta barely squeezes into this category; they have two capable starters in Warrick Dunn and Jerious Norwood. However, Dunn is old and dealing with a calf injury, and Norwood's impressive numbers came as an unexpected weapon when defenses were gameplanning for Michael Vick and Dunn. We'll see what he can do as a starter.
Safe - Most of these teams love their running back situation and should not be involved in any trade talks. The Bills, Panthers, Jets, and Saints have two solid backs whose complementary styles make both better (okay, the Bills' Anthony Thomas is a stretch, but Dick Jauron seems to like him). The Giants will be playing around with Brandon Jacobs and Reuben Droughns and won't want to give up either this season. Philadelphia and Tampa Bay well know that they need Correll Buckhalter, Ryan Moats (Eagles) and Michael Pittman (Bucs) as injury insurance behind Bryan Westbrook and Cadillac Williams. However there are three teams that may throw a name into the trade market: Dallas, Minnesota, and San Diego. Dallas has a platoon of Julius Jones and Marion Barber which worked well last season. However, I have believed for some time that owner Jerry Jones is disenchanted with his fellow Jones and loves Barber and wants to make the latter a full-time starter. So if offers come for Julius, Jerry will listen. Minnesota may trade either Chester Taylor or Mewelde Moore if the right deal comes along; Taylor played well last year, benefiting from being the only option. His trade value is as high as it will ever be. If they want to keep Taylor, however, Moore is a #2 back in a #3 slot, and could be traded to a team from the Stable list who wants a better backup option. San Diego has the most marketable back in the league, the Matt Schaub of running backs, in Michael Turner. Turner has been stuck behind the electrifying LaDainian Tomlinson, but has shone when he's gotten chances. He's cheap, and his contract runs out this year, so he's as tradeable as they come.
Abundant - the four teams who have more RBs than they know what to do with are Washington, Detroit, Jacksonville, and (to a lesser extent) Pittsburgh. When the first devastating RB injury happens somewhere else in the league, these are the teams who will get called first (or maybe second after San Diego). If the team needs a serviceable starter for the remainder of the year, they're likely to go to Detroit and ask about Kevin Jones, who has been made expendable with the additions of Tatum Bell (who has looked good) and T.J. Duckett (who complements Bell very nicely). Jones has struggled for various reasons, but he's not too expensive, and can do it all, just not especially well. If the team needs a backup to compete as a fill-in starter, they should look to Jacksonville, whose LaBrandon Toefield is buried behind Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew and hasn't gotten the chance to show what he can do in his four years in the league. If they're particularly interested in a bruiser, they should give the Steelers a call-eventually Mike Tomlin will decide on either Najeh Davenport or Kevan Barlow as his short-yardage back and the other will be a decent tradable commodity. And if it's a stud they need, it might not be as hard to pry Clinton Portis from Washington as one might think.
First of all, Al Saunders has loved Ladell Betts from the moment he arrived in Washington, and Betts pulled off an amazing 2006 after Portis' injury. Second, behind Betts is Derrick Blaylock, whose best work came under Saunders in Kansas City. Third, Portis' idiotic remarks regarding dogfighting cost him significant popularity among the fan base. Fourth, Marcus Mason has seen considerable action in the preseason and shows good instincts. They can do quite well without Portis, and if they can get a decent defensive tackle and/or draft pick, he'll be gone.
So why do I think three of these guys will be traded? I'm playing the odds. I wanted to predict some specific trades, but different teams would have different needs and I already decided I'm not predicting any individual injuries. However, I will say what I think the four Gambling teams will do if their gambles blow up in their faces:
If Jamal Lewis gets injured - Cleveland will either try for Turner or trade for a Toefield or a Barlow to compete with/complement project backs Jason Wright and Jerome Harrison. They probably aren't expecting to make the playoffs so they can afford to experiment a little.
If Frank Gore gets injured - it's panic time. San Francisco needs a top-tier back to free Alex Smith to develop his game. They might go for Turner, or they might go for Portis, depending on the severity of the injury.
If Joseph Addai gets injured - again, Turner's the best option, since they'd only be committed to him for one year. However, unlike the Niners, Indy could get by with Kevin Jones.
If Cedric Benson gets injured - I'd say they make a play for Najeh Davenport, and if the Steelers won't let him go, they try for Kevan Barlow. Then they can use a combination of Davenport/Barlow as a power back and Garrett Wolfe and Adrian Peterson the Lesser for a change of pace.
Then there's the slew of "Stable" teams, who still might make a play for Turner if they face an injury, particularly if the injured player is a veteran. And since only one team can get Turner, the others should get some calls once he's off the block.