Position Preview #2: Running Backs

“Petey Jones, running back. THE running back, y’all”

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Fantastic quote from a fantastic movie, but not something you will come across that often in the NFL this year. Teams have transitioned from feature back offenses to a running back by committee (RBBC) approach. This limits how much you can rely on running backs in fantasy football nowadays. There are only a few RBs that are truly feature backs, without a backup that steals touches. Even Arian Foster, ESPN’s top rated running back, has Ben Tate to worry about. There are so few feature backs that even though running back is a crucial position in fantasy football, there are very few backs that you can rely on every week. You really need at least one RB from the elite or near elite on your team; otherwise you will have no idea what you’re getting on a week-to-week basis from your backs.

Note: for the most part, these players are in order. But some fit in certain tiers better than others and are put out of order to make more sense. For example, I know Donald Brown isn’t going to be the 27th running back drafted, but I could see him going around there and he fits that tier better than the next one. Now you can start reading the important stuff:

The Elite:

1. Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens

You could make an argument for any of the top three to be the top back in this year’s draft. I go with Rice for a few reasons: his team relies on him both on the ground and through the air (76 receptions last year, most on the Ravens), and his backup is nonexistent (Ricky Williams, second in carries last year, retired). Think of it this way: his team is very run oriented. When they pass, he is their most frequent target as well. And, he doesn’t have a backup to steal touches from him. Sounds like a winning formula for his owners this year.

2. LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia Eagles

Holy Real Slim Shady Batman! 20 TDs is unheard of these days with time-shares and RBBC’s everywhere, but McCoy did it last year, and gained almost 1700 yards to boot. Now, I understand that those TD numbers will naturally regress this year, but McCoy also didn’t make as big of an impact in the passing game as he normally does last year. All in all, McCoy is a dual threat back without a backup that’s going to be a touchdown vulture. Don’t hesitate to draft him in the top 3.

3. Arian Foster, Houston Texans

Everyone is convinced he is the clear #1 back this year, but I see things a bit differently. Yes, he had a monster campaign last season, but he is the only top 10 running back that has a backup that could cut into his workload. I’m not saying that he’s going to split carries with Ben Tate, but Tate will definitely be spelling Foster more often than McCoy and Rice will be taken off the field for their backups. Foster is in an otherwise great situation on a team that was top 5 in both percentage of rushing plays and percentage of rushing touchdowns last year, but those numbers could also take a bit of a hit with Andre Johnson coming back healthy.

Am I being picky? Absolutely. But if you’re going to use a top 5 pick on a guy, you have the right to be picky. He is still a phenomenal RB; he just has some minor flaws that give me reason to draft Rice and McCoy ahead of him.

The Next Best Thing

Rice, McCoy, and Foster have separated themselves from the pack thanks to consistency across the board in workload, touchdowns, and health. This next group of guys all have the potential to make their way into the elite, but have some characteristics that make them bust candidates.

4. Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville Jaguars

Yes, he proved all of the nonbelievers wrong last year when he had yet another spectacular season, but this year he has given us reason for concern once again—how long will this contract holdout last, and will it affect his level of play? There is no doubt that MJD is a force to be reckoned with when he is on the field at 100% or even close to 100%. But he has given fantasy owners headaches over worrying about whether he’ll actually be at full strength all of the time, and that knocks him from the top ranks for me.

5. Matt Forte, Chicago Bears

I have to admit I am a very big Matt Forte fan. So be aware that some man crushing might come out in this assessment. But level with me here: Matt Forte is fantastic. He is a force when healthy, and as long as he stays healthy he is easily a top 10 back. He may have been a bit lacking in the touchdown department last year, but he consistently impresses both rushing and on the receiving end, and he has big play potential every time he touches the ball. Now that he FINALLY has a contract with the Bears, that won’t be looming over him for the whole year and he can get back to focusing on getting to the end zone.

6. Chris Johnson, Tennessee Titans

CJ2K wasn’t even close to worth his draft pick last year. And any of his owners will most likely be putting him on their personal “do not draft” lists. Understandable, but I think that puts Johnson at around where he should be in drafts. He got overhyped last year because of how well he played the year before, and disappointed so much that he is back where he is worth drafting. I think the real Chris Johnson is somewhere in between the insane 2000-yard performance and the indecisive and slightly above average performance last season. He added 8 pounds of muscle and is apparently looking great in training camp, so as long as he actually runs North/South this year rather than dancing around behind the line, he’ll be a solid fringe 1st/2nd round pick.

7. Ryan Matthews, San Diego Chargers

Matthews has been a trendy pick heading into 2012, and for good reason. If he can avoid injuries, he has shown flashes of the back he can be, and now TD vulture Mike Tolbert is out of the picture. Matthews On top of that, the Chargers have the 3rd easiest strength of schedule for running backs this year. Look for him to have the breakout year people have been projecting for him since he was drafted.

8. Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks

The Mayans may have been a bit right about the apocalypse… Beast Mode has gotten Lynch all the way up to being a top 10 RB in fantasy.  He definitely comes with baggage, and is prone to falling off the grid from time to time, but look at the top 20 RBs this year and you’ll see that Lynch is a great option. Lynch proved last year that he is one of the toughest backs to take down in this league, and Seattle has no real backup to steal his carries, so his only real question mark is the shaky o-line Seattle has, and though that is an issue, it didn’t bother him too much in 2011, did it?

9. Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings

Now… what do to with Adrian Peterson… He is the best back in the league when he’s healthy, but is coming off an ACL tear. So how far does he drop? I wouldn’t wait long after the end of the second round/start of the third round for him, but I am an optimistic guy. I hear the reports that he is ready to play now and they’re just being cautious with him and I think that I’ll be rewarded with fantasy riches when I get him in the second or third round as opposed to the first round price tag he usually carries. I don’t care about the Toby Gerhart conversation, the second season after an ACL injury argument, none of that. AP has proved that he’s an exception to most laws of physics, why can’t he come back from an ACL tear at near full strength too?

10. Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders

There is no denying how incredible of a year Run DMC was having last year before catching the injury bug. He has a chance to make a huge play every time he touches the ball, and is both a talented runner and receiver in an offense that relies on him heavily. Injuries have plagued him every year, making him an obvious risk/reward guy, but this year, the Raiders have added to the chances of a big reward. They got rid of backup Michael Bush, who was always a threat to steal red zone touches, and they are implementing a zone-blocking scheme that better suits their offensive line. All things considered, McFadden will be a fantastic back whenever he’s on the field. If you draft him, you either need to hope that he stays healthy long enough for you to win, or trade him at the peak of his value right before the inevitable injury gets him.

11. Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs

Yet another first round pick from just a year ago with major injury concerns. Charles was a surefire top 5 pick last year thanks to his insane burst and quickness, but an ACL tear just 2 weeks into the season ended his chance to help your team in any way. This year, most people’s first reaction to Charles is that he does not have great circumstances to succeed in. He is a speed rusher that is coming off a knee injury, bringing his best attribute into question, and the Chiefs brought in Peyton Hillis, who will at the very least steal all red zone carries from Charles. But honestly, Charles doesn’t have the build to not share carries at least in part with somebody, and if his speed is close to 100%, he will still be worth a high draft pick. I wouldn’t expect top 5 production out of him, but he’ll still be able to carry you a few weeks this season thanks to his ability to make any carry a huge gain.

12. Fred Jackson, Buffalo Bills

People seem to be down on him this year, but I can’t figure out why. I like Fred Jackson. Especially compared to the guys you’d take if you pass on him. Jackson was a huge asset before getting hurt last year (see the trend forming?), and I don’t see CJ Spiller stealing enough playing time to warrant passing on Jackson this year. Jackson is too talented to not be a guy to target in the draft this year.

13. DeMarco Murray, Dallas Cowboys

Huh. This time last year, I was gushing about Felix Jones and how good he’d be in a lead role on the Cowboys offense, and how Murray’s talents would be wasted on the bench. That changed pretty fast. Murray exceeded all expectations and racked up almost 1000 total yards in his time filling in for Jones. That said, injuries are, once again, a concern here. So is the fact that he has 7 games of experience. The risk is definitely there, especially with the price tag he has this year, but if those 7 games were a sign of things to come, Murray has first round potential.

The Other Guys

This next grab bag of players range anywhere from former first round picks that aren’t what they used to be, to former fantasy football afterthoughts that now deserve your attention. This is the last group of running backs you are going to be happy with drafting. Trust me, if you wait past these guys for your #2 running back, you are going to be living on the waiver wires trying to find someone to fill in almost every week.

14. Michael Turner, Atlanta Falcons

Turner had a monster year in 2011, there is no denying that. And sure, he might be able to approach to those numbers given the opportunity, but the Falcons have other ideas. They plan on limiting his workload, which doesn’t help his cause. Giving Turner more breaks, in addition to the Falcons offense relying more on Matt Ryan and his receiving options, means his yardage and touchdown numbers will go down. Boooooo. Turner is still a useable option, and he will get his share of fantasy points, but he will be more limited this year than in the past.

15. Darren Sproles, New Orleans Saints

If you told me you saw it coming that Sproles would break out last year and be in the top 10 for running backs, I’d call you a liar. Sproles had as many catches as he did carries (86/87), and seems to have found his perfect fit. He made the most of every single touch he had, so despite what roles Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas have in the Saints offense, Sproles’ value will stay high. As long as the Saints use him like they did last year, he is one of the most dynamic backs in the league and a bona fide fantasy starter.

16. Reggie Bush, Miami Dolphins

Holy crap. If Darren Sproles performance last year was shocking, what Bush did was similar to when Pythagorus discovered that the Earth was round. Reggie finally showed why he was drafted second overall and I think, if this wasn’t an aberration, that he can do more. Say he regresses a bit rushing with Miami’s quarterback situation. Fine. But he’ll be targeted MUCH more on check downs once Ryan Tannehill comes in, and that is where Bush is at his best. I like me some Reggie Bush this year.

17. Trent Richardson, Cleveland Browns

He will be good, eventually. He has the talent to be a feature back in the NFL. HOWEVER—he is a rookie on the Cleveland Browns. A Cleveland Browns team that has a ton of unproven youth on their offense and scored 80% of their touchdowns last year through the air. That will change with Richardson in the backfield, but the moral of the story is temper your expectations for him this year.

18. Frank Gore, San Francisco 49ers

Similar to Michael Turner, Gore can be a good fantasy RB, but his coaching staff is interfering. With the additions of Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James, along with Kendall Hunter proving he could be a good backup all on his own last year, there’s not a ton for Gore to do in that offense anymore that someone else couldn’t. If it’s a short yardage situation, Jacobs is the guy. James is a change of pace back and a receiving option, and Hunter is there to do anything in between. Gore is still a serviceable back in fantasy, but I wouldn’t be comfortable with him as a starter with so many backups on his team.

19. Steven Jackson, St Louis Rams

I have a passionate hatred of Steven Jackson. Every year this guy pops up near the top of RB rankings because he is the feature back in St Louis and has talent. Fine, but no more. He has injuries all of the time, that offense is less reliable than the Mets bullpen (read: not reliable at all), and more often than not lately, it seems like he just rolls forwards a few yards thanks to the worst offensive line in football.

Phew, done with my rant.  Moral of the story: don’t waste an early draft pick on him. Just… don’t.

20. Ahmad Bradshaw, New York Giants

I’m a big Bradshaw fan, but injuries are no fun, and he has a history of being no fun at times. He is a very skilled back, but there are a lot of those in the league. The difference makers are offensive line play, injury risk, and backups that steal carries. The Giants offensive line isn’t bad, but David Wilson, their first round draft pick this year, is extremely talented and will no doubt be getting his share of carries every week. I’m not saying I wouldn’t draft Bradshaw, I’m just saying to be weary of the potential drawbacks to owning him.

A Few In Between

There comes a point in every fantasy draft when you come to the terrible realization that there is nobody left that you could possibly imagine starting in a week that you’re going to win. When you start seeing these next few guys drafted, you know that time is coming very soon for the running backs. These few guys are in between being flex starters and the first guy off your bench, and now you can start to see how thin the running back position is. After this group, there are a lot of backups with upside that belong on your bench until someone gets hurt. These then, are in between the guys you seek out drafting to start, and the guys you draft for their potential. These players are just… eh

21. Beanie Wells, Arizona Cardinals

If only… Wells could be a great option in fantasy if his knee would just cooperate. His backup, Ryan Williams, also has injury concerns, and the Cardinals quarterback situation is by no means reliable, so Beanie could be in line for a ton of work. Unfortunately, his knee doesn’t like the sound of that, and he will most likely miss time, something that no owner likes to hear.

22. Ben Jarvis Green-Ellis, Cincinnati Bengals

I have a feeling one of the Bengals running backs will be very helpful in fantasy this year. Bernard Scott has always been given the opportunity to perform in Cincy, but has never really done much with it. Now, Law Firm comes in after having an 11-touchdown season with New England, but you have to wonder how inflated his TD numbers were while on the Patriots ridiculous offense. They both have their potential to be a bust, but I like BJGE as a decent RB this year.

23. Willis McGahee, Denver Broncos

Yes, that Willis McGahee. He is still a serviceable back in this league somehow. And Denver doesn’t really have another option in the run game with Tebow gone and Moreno hurt. But this year’s Denver team has Peyton Manning at quarterback. And he throws a lot. McGahee is not a passer friendly running back, so I am not expecting a great year out of him, but he’s going to be the feature back on his team, and there are few enough of them right now that it makes McGahee a serviceable back in fantasy football.

24. Stevan Ridley, New England Patriots

Before I start, I do think Ridley has talent and could be a good running back. Its his situation that worries me. He is a New England Patriots running back. Since Corey Dillon left the team in 2006, there has only been one 1000-yard rusher on the Patriots, and it was BenJarvus Green-Ellis two years ago. I’m not saying Ridley isn’t better than BJGE, I’m saying that the system does not allow for running backs to reach their potential. The Patriots spread the ball around, its kind of their thing. Everybody will share playing time and their RBs will be only average fantasy backs because of the lack of consistent play. Sure, Ridley will probably have 9 or 10 TDs, but his yardage won’t be great and Shane Vereen is a much better receiving option for Brady, gaining him more playing time.

25. Jahvid Best, Detroit Lions

The ultimate boom or bust pick this year. Best is an injury nightmare waiting to happen, especially after a concussion ended his season last year. But he was also a monster when he played, in part thanks to the high octane Lions offense, and also thanks to his lightning quickness. His status entering this year is, as expected, up in the air. Nobody really knows what we’re going to see from him in 2012. So there is only one question you have to ask yourself: Do you feel lucky? (Well, do ya?)

26. Shonn Greene, New York Jets

So many questions. Will he get red zone carries, or will Tim Tebow/Joe McKnight steal them? Will the quarterback “controversy” affect the Jets offense? Greene, to me, does not deserve much attention because he isn’t worth the trouble. He has 1000 yards and 6 touchdowns last year, but those numbers could drop dramatically if any of a dozen things go wrong, and even those numbers aren’t that great if you consider that he only had two 100 yard games and three of his touchdowns came in one game. To sum it all up, I am not going to be drafting Shonn Greene this year.

27. Donald Brown, Indianapolis Colts

Probably the least sexy RB option out there, but Brown is actually in a pretty good situation in Indy. With a rookie quarterback taking over and no more Joseph Addai to worry about, Brown will see his workload increase this year, and maybe we’ll finally see what he’s capable of. Sure, he’s got a crappy offensive line in front of him, but why do you think I took this long to put him on the list? He isn’t going to carry your team, but he’s got a chance to be a regular contributor as long as he stays healthy.

The Backups

Because of the leagues trend towards backfields by committee, the second running back on teams are important to pay attention to. Depending on how the carries are split up on each team, these mostly younger backs will get opportunities to prove themselves and steal carries from the guy ahead of them on the depth chart. Some of these guys are just hand cuffs that you want if you take an injury prone back early in the draft, some bring something totally different to the equation than their counterparts, and others are stuck in camp battles that are still undecided. But they all deserve some sort of attention heading into the year.

28. Ben Tate, Houston Texans

Here’s what you need to know about Ben Tate: despite being a backup, he is one of the most talented running backs in the league. 1.) When he gets opportunities, he makes the most of them (almost 20% of his rushes went for 10 or more yards last year). 2.) Even when he isn’t the starter, he can produce numbers worthy of being a fantasy difference maker (four 100-yard games while backing up Foster last year). And 3.) He’s going to be good this year. So keep an eye on him in the middle to late rounds of your draft.

29. CJ Spiller, Buffalo Bills

Spiller is such a versatile player that he was eligible at wide receiver by the end of last season, which is why I rank him this high as a backup. The Bills will be doing some interesting things with their offense to get both Spiller and Fred Jackson on the field, and I think they can both contribute to fantasy teams. I do think Jackson will get the lion’s share from the backfield, and he is a good target in the passing game, but Spiller is more dynamic and will pick up yardage in bigger chunks, making him an interesting flex play this year.

30. Doug Martin and LeGarrette Blount, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay is in an interesting situation. They drafted Martin because Blount fell out of favor with the coaching staff. But now Greg Schiano has come in and Blount is apparently working hard again. For now, Blount is at the top of the depth chart despite some claiming that Martin looks as good as MJD and Ray Rice did in their early years, but I’m taking that with a grain of salt until he proves it in a game. I would be happy with either of these guys on my bench until one or the other steps up and takes the job outright.

31. Roy Helu, Washington Redskins

Helu is a skilled RB in a system run by Mike Shanahan, a system that has done wonders for running backs in the past, even mediocre ones. Even Reuben Droughns, current assistant coach for a Serbian team in the Central European Football League (I swear, I couldn’t make that up if I tried), rushed for 1000 yards in the Shanahan system. Helu didn’t get a ton of work last year, but he did break 100 yards in 3 of the 4 games that he was given 20 carries. Of the group of backs in Washington, and yes there are a bunch of them, I think Helu will be the best pick for fantasy owners.

32. David Wilson, New York Giants

I was a very big fan of David Wilson coming out of Virginia Tech. I think he is going to be a very good NFL running back some day. I also know that Ahmad Bradshaw has a history of injuries and the Giants tend to use other running backs with him to lighten the load. If/when Bradshaw goes down with an injury, Wilson will be there to reward the fantasy owner that kept him on his bench waiting for the opportune moment.

33. Shane Vereen, New England Patriots

Oh look, another Patriots running back. And this is why I don’t like owning them. Ridley is a bigger back, which means that he is going to probably get the short yardage touchdowns. But Vereen is more explosive, and a better option in the passing game. Isn’t that a good thing when your QB is Mr. Check Down himself? I think Vereen has a chance to earn a spot on your fantasy roster, but I don’t think he’s going to get consistent enough playing time to be much more than an end of the bench/waiver wire guy.

34. Toby Gerhart, Minnesota Vikings

Toby Gerhart is the ultimate handcuff this year. For those brave souls that will draft Adrian Peterson early, Gerhart is the guy you want to draft just in case its two days before the season starts and you still don’t know if AP is going to be activated from the PUP list in time. Nobody wants to deal with that. If AP is healthy, then Gerhart is just another benchwarmer that never has to be played. But in reality, that’s the point of a guy like him. You don’t want it to come to the point where you are playing him. He stays tucked away like the airbags in your car until it’s absolutely necessary to use him.

35. Peyton Hillis, Kansas City Chiefs

Hillis had a very bizarre season last year. He was hurt, sure, but even when he was playing he usually wasn’t the 2010 Peyton Hillis, the one from the Madden cover. He only had 3 games when he had over 90 yards, and yeah he missed 7 games but that’s still pretty weak for a guy that was drafted relatively high. Now, he’s essentially this year’s version of Thomas Jones for Kansas City. He’ll spell Jamaal Charles in certain situations to make sure Charles stays healthy, and he’ll be the short yardage guy. Now, should Charles reinjure his knee or prove to be less than 100%, Hillis could become a very interesting mid to late round fantasy pick.

36. Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints

He’s the highest actual running back on the Saints depth chart, sure. But since when do the Saints run the ball like a normal football team? Running the ball in New Orleans means throw a screen to Darren Sproles, or maybe Lance Moore if they’re feeling daring. Ingram has talent, but also has injury concerns, and will have to share the ball in a crowded backfield on a team that throws the ball over 60% of the time (4th in the league). Not a very good combination.

37. Bernard Scott, Cincinnati Bengals

Another year, another near end of the draft ranking for Bernard Scott. He has been given a ton of chances to prove that he is more than a backup in Cincy, but has never done much with those chances. He’ll get those opportunities again this year, but with the arrival of BenJarvus Green Ellis, those opportunities won’t happen often in the red zone and Scott isn’t exactly known for his pass catching abilities. So be aware of the limitations.

Not Even With A 10 Foot Pole

You know the type. These guys will probably get some points, sure, but they are not even close to worth the trouble for a few 15 point weeks. They may have talent, but their situation renders them useless. So don’t kid yourself and draft these guys if you want to win.

38. Jonathan Stewart/DeAngelo Williams/Mike Tolbert, Carolina Panthers

Seriously, what is with this coaching staff? Do they just hate fantasy football or something? Most teams would kill for a guy as talented as Stewart or Williams to give the ball to 20 times a game. But the Panthers had to be greedy and take both of them. But wait, they’re not done ruining their running backs’ value yet. Even though they got rid of TD vulture Mike Goodson, they added Mike Tolbert. And if you don’t know how big of a touchdown vulture Tolbert is, just ask any Ryan Matthews owner for the last 2 years. Add the mobility of Cam Newton to the mix, and rushing yards and touchdowns will be spread out so much that none of these backs can be reliable on a week to week basis.

39. Isaac Redman, Pittsburgh Steelers

Don’t do this to yourself. Yes, Pittsburgh is historically a run first team. But seriously, Isaac Redman is not Rashard Mendenhall. The Steelers will be transitioning to a pass first offense thanks to Mendenhall’s torn ACL and the bounty of speedy receivers on their roster. Redman is going to be an afterthought for the Steelers, so the less you think about him this year the better.

40. James Starks, Green Bay Packers

Do you like winning? If you answered yes, then don’t count on James Starks for anything. The Packers are in a throw first mindset up until the one yard line, and even then you probably won’t get the points as a Starks owner. Green Bay is so passing oriented that only 12 of their 63 offensive touchdowns were scored on the run. That’s 19%. If you think that’s a small number, of those 12 touchdowns, 4 were scored by a quarterback, another 4 were by John Kuhn, and one was BJ freaking Raji. So that leaves 3 touchdowns scored by running backs last year. Not even 5% of their total touchdowns. I’m making this as simple as I can—move on, nothing to see here.

So there you have it. Running backs get shaky pretty fast this year, so my recommendation is to get at least one, hopefully both of your starters by the 4th round. Seriously. I know quarterback is a popular position this year, and some of the stud wide receivers are tempting, but at least there are options at those positions later. Do you really want to get stuck with Shonn Greene starting for you every week? Didn’t think so.

Coming soon will be my wide receiver preview, and then my tight end preview after that. Also coming out before the season starts will be my team profiles on all 32 teams in the NFL, breaking down changes made in the offseason, as well as strength of schedule and other useful stats. I will attempt to cover around 50 wide receivers to take flex plays into account, but no promises. While you wait for another 5000-word post from me (yes, that’s how long this was—I like fantasy football), you should probably start doing mock drafts to see what I mean about how quickly some positions just run out of useable options and how others you’re surprised about how long you can wait on this year. Aside from Allen Iverson, everybody can use some practice every now and then.

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One thought on “Position Preview #2: Running Backs

  1. Update: one carry, one injury for Ryan Matthews, who is now out 4-6 weeks with a broken collarbone. Remember that whole “if he can avoid injury” thing? Right. I’m dropping him to #12 in my rankings, just behind Fred Jackson and ahead of DeMarco Murray. I still think he can be good if he heals up from this, but its not a good sign that a guy who we were already worried about getting hurt did just that in his first preseason appearance. Tread lightly here if you’re not a fan of risk taking with your early picks.

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