How valuable is Ricky Williams from here on out?

With the news that Ronnie Brown is out for the season, the fantasy world’s eyes are focused intently on 32-year-old former Toronto Argonaut Ricky Williams tonight. And why not? Williams finds himself the only healthy skilled tailback on a team built to run the football. For the time being, the Dolphins’ only other available rusher is Lex Luthor Hilliard, who has zero career NFL carries to his name. Expect Miami to take a hard look at free agents like Edgerrin James and Dominic Rhodes in the coming weeks.

Despite previously being behind Brown on the depth chart, Williams was already a top-15 fantasy RB, making him a rock-solid RB2. Now I think there’s little question that he’s an every-week RB1. There simply aren’t many running backs in the NFL who will touch the ball as much as he will the rest of this season, and you certainly can’t complain about the schedule:

Week 11: Carolina (ranked 25th vs. the run)
Week 12: Buffalo (dead last)
Week 13: New England (17th)
Week 14: Jacksonville (22nd)
Week 15: Tennessee (16th)
Week 16: Houston (14th)
Week 17: Pittsburgh, best in the league, but most fantasy leagues don’t play this week.

The only obvious concern is whether Smokey McCoughsalot can handle the workload, but as we’ve pointed out before, he’s got relatively low mileage on his 32-year-old legs. It’s hard to imagine that the Dolphins won’t bring in an experienced free agent RB to give him a breather here and there.

So where does all this put Ricky in terms of his fantasy value? Let’s roughly define two tiers of fantasy RBs at this point in the season:

Tier 1: Chris Johnson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Adrian Peterson, Ray Rice, Thomas Jones, DeAngelo Williams, Frank Gore, Cedric Benson
Tier 2: Steven Jackson, Joseph Addai, Matt Forte, Rashard Mendenhall, Pierre Thomas, Ryan Grant

Right now, I’d put him at or near the top of that second tier. Even as a backup, he was keeping pace with that group statistically, so his production can only improve now that he’s the focal point of the Miami offense. But you do have to wonder whether he’s still capable of carrying the load for an entire game. Certainly the Dolphins can’t expect to be able to wear down opposing defenses with the rush like they did when Williams shared the load with Brown. They’re almost surely going to throw the ball more. I do have some fear that without Brown, Ricky Williams will suddenly start to resemble Jamal Lewis – plenty of touches but not much production. But Miami’s offensive line is far better than Cleveland’s, so…

What it all boils down to is this: tonight is huge for Ricky Williams owners. Carolina’s defense is fairly representative of the kind of mediocre opponent Ricky will get to face from here on out. If he goes out there and parties like it’s 1999 (when he was 22), I think we can all agree that he’ll belong in that top tier with the rest of the elite fantasy RBs for the rest of the ’09 season. If Carolina shuts him down, we’ll know that Ricky can’t hack it on his own, and his owners had better hope the Dolphins can find a free agent capable of doing a halfway decent Ronnie Brown impression for the rest of the season.