Running back, although perhaps not the highest scoring position in fantasy football, is likely the most important.  Those who have played fantasy football for years already know this, so I know this intro isn’t actually earth shattering.  However, even experienced players fall into certain traps from time to time.  The biggest of those is not paying attention to your league’s scoring system, and this mistake is most strongly felt with running backs.  Let’s look at an example.  Most leagues use a scoring system which grants points only for yardage, either on the ground or receiving, and touchdowns.  In these leagues backs who catch passes out of the backfield aren’t valued any more or less than their counterparts who get the bulk of their production on the ground.  However, a minority of leagues use a point per reception (PPR) format or some modification thereof.  In those leagues running backs like Chris Johnson, Ray Rice, or Arian Foster suddenly become more valuable than they otherwise would be.  To put it more concretely, in a PPR format the three previously mentioned players would have had 44, 63, and 66 extra points respectively.  So even though this is probably the 12th time I’ve said it in 2 years, pay attention to your scoring system.  You don’t want to be the guy that passed up Arian Foster because you didn’t factor in his receptions in a PPR league.

 

Just for clarification purposes, these rankings will be for a standard scoring system.  So, let’s get to it.

 

1.  Adrian Peterson, MIN:  I really like AP…almost as much as Hondo likes offensive linemen.  OK, maybe that’s ridiculous, nobody likes anything as much as Hondo likes the offensive line.  He is absolutely the most reliable back in the league, going for more than 1,200 yards and double digit touchdowns each of his 4 season in the NFL.  He also scored in the double digits in terms of fantasy points in 10 out of the 15 games he played last year.  From speaking with other fantasy players this offseason I’m noticing quite a bit of worry about what Brett Favre leaving the Vikings will do to Peterson’s production.  I’m not even remotely worried.  I actually think AP’s numbers will get better without number 4 on the roster.  The Vikings fell in love with the pass in the last two seasons, and didn’t use AP to his full abilities.  With a clearly slowing Donovan McNabb under center this season I think AP will once again become the full focal point of theMinnesota offense this year.  Expect monster numbers along the lines of 1,500 yards and 16 touchdowns for Peterson this season.  I know those are ridiculous numbers to expect, but that should show you how much faith I have in Peterson.  If you have the first pick in your fantasy draft, pick AP and don’t look back.

 

2.  Arian Foster, HOU:  Foster was a fantasy sleeper for nearly every fantasy prognosticator last year, and he absolutely delivered.  He exploded for a ridiculous 1,614 yards rushing, 604 yards receiving, and 18 total touchdowns.  Let’s just get this out of the way, if you expect him to repeat those numbers you’re probably setting your sights a tad high.  However, I still expect very big things from Foster.  There are so many weapons on the Texans’ offense that no defense can fully focus on stopping Foster.  But that is really a double edged sword, because it means that several other players will be competing for touches.  He should be drafted in the top 2 or 3 picks in any draft, and I anticipate he’ll be around 1,300 rushing yards, 400 receiving yards, and 14 touchdowns in 2011.

 

3.  Jamal Charles, KC:  Charles is a trendy pick to be a stud this year, and I fully support that trend.  While sharing touches with Thomas Jones last year Charles proved to be the best big play back in the league, going off for 1,467 yards on only 230 carries.  That’s good for an absolutely insane 6.4 yard per carry average.  With Jones a year older I think that Charles touches, in both the running and passing games, will see an up-tick this year.  Giving a homerun hitter like Charles more opportunity should only mean good things for his fantasy owners.  One word of caution, however.  Charles is undersized for an NFL running back, so his owners should have a reliable insurance policy behind him just in case of injury.  He should be off the board within the first 5 picks, and if you can snag him later than that in the first round consider it a gift.

 

4.  Chris Johnson, TEN:  Weren’t we in this position of worrying about his holdout last year?  He’s still one of the most explosive backs in the league, and should be drafted in the top 5 picks, but I honestly would be sweating if I was that guy.  It’s even scarier when you consider the reports that the Titans are VERY high on former Michigan State Spartan, Javon Ringer, even with his recent injuries.  This may just be posturing to get his contract demands lower, but my gut (and my nature as a Spartan homer) tells me that the team is being serious.  If Johnson plays the entire season he should be in line for similar numbers to last year, around 1,300 yards rushing and double digit touchdowns.

 

5.  Maruice Jones Drew, JAC:  I don’t understand the hate I see for this guy from fantasy players and “experts” alike.  All that he’s done is go over 1,300 yards each of the last 2 seasons on a below average offense, where defenses could exclusively concentrate on stopping him.  Sure, he only scored 4 times last season, but he’s scored 12 or more times in 3 of his 5 seasons in the NFL, and his previous low prior to 2010 was 9 scores.  I think his low touchdown total last season was an aberration, and I fully expect him to be above 10 touchdowns again this year.  Look for numbers around 1,250 yards and 11 touchdowns this season.

 

6.  Ray Rice, BAL:  Fantasy players seem to be down on Rice just like they are on Jones Drew.  In this case they can’t seem to get weeks 1-4 of last season out of their minds, and rightfully so.  He was horrendous in those 4 games, and at that point many owners simply cut bait and traded him.  However, through the next 12 games Rice scored double digit fantasy points 8 times.  He also scored all 5 of his touchdowns in those 12 games.  I think that Rice will have very similar yardage numbers, 1,200 rushing and 650 receiving, this season and should score more touchdowns, somewhere in the neighborhood of 8 or 9, in 2011.  However, if you’re in a PPR league, his value will skyrocket because of his high reception totals.  He should be drafted in the middle of the 1st round in standard leagues, and slightly higher in PPR formats.

 

7.  Frank Gore, SF:  Gore has quite a few questions surrounding him right now.  He’s in the middle of a nasty contract dispute, and recovering from a serious injury suffered near the end of the season last year.  However, he’s still the best weapon in the entire 49er offense, and should see tons of touches again this year.  Sure, those touches cause him to constantly be listed as questionable, and give fantasy owners massive headaches, but the production just can’t be denied.  I expect him to rack up around 1,200 yards rushing, 450 yards receiving, and 10 total touchdowns this season.  If you can get him at the end of the first round, most likely after the elite quarterbacks and Andre Johnson are off the board, snatch him up.

 

8.  Michael Turner, ATL:  Turner will put up big numbers if he stays healthy, bank on that.  In each of his 2 injury-free seasons as a Falcon he’s gone for over 1,300 yards and double digit touchdowns.  He’ll see enough touches to get him to those numbers this season as well, but therein lies the potential problem.  Turner touches the ball so often, and runs so aggressively that he leaves himself open to injury.  With that in mind, numbers similar to 2009 could be a possibility if he doesn’t stay healthy this year.  However, I’m banking on him staying nearly 100% all year and amassing around 1,300 yards and 10 to 12 scores this year.  I may have ranked him higher if it weren’t for the sheer number of hits he’ll take, but he’s still a late first round type of player.

 

9.  Rashard Mendenhall, PIT:  Mendenhall is a tough runner, who is a force on the goal line.  What’s more, the Steelers always make their running game a focal point.  However, their offensive line hasn’t been up to the usual Steeler standard the last few seasons.  I know that’s a bit of a shock to most, especially with how the media has portrayed the Steeler’s line, but just look at the pressure Ben Roethlisberger was under last season, as well as the relatively low YPC that Mendenhall had last year.  He has the ability to be a 1,500 yard rusher, but with those questions I can’t see him racking up more than 1,200 yards.  He will see plenty of goal line carries however, and could score anywhere between 10 and 15 times this year.  He’s a borderline 1st round player, and could be a great value somewhere in the high to middle second round.

 

10.  Steven Jackson, OAK:  The guy rushed for 1,200 yards on a bad offense with a rookie quarterback last season.  On top of that he was shockingly durable for a player who has a reputation as being injury prone.  With Sam Bradford in his second year in St. Louis, and showing some significant promise last season, I expect Jackson to be a very good option this year.  I think his yardage numbers will improve to around 1,300 yards, but his touchdowns will also improve to around 8.  He should also figure prominently into the Rams’ passing game, as Bradford continues to develop as a passer.  He will probably fall into the middle to late 2nd round, and will be an outstanding value at that spot.

 

11.  LeSean McCoy, PHI:  I don’t quite have the faith in McCoy that most fantasy writers do.  Yes, I still consider him a number 1 fantasy option, but not the elite talent that most see.  I just genuinely don’t like the fact that the Eagles don’t use the ground game that often.  McCoy only saw 207 carries last season, so even though he averaged 5.2 yards per carry he still only ended up with 1,080 yards.  Sure, he’ll catch plenty of passes, but for my elite running backs I’d prefer they see at least a few carries between the tackles in the red zone.  And that just isn’t what McCoy will be doing.  Keep in mind that he’ll be a PPR force however, as he racked up and impressive 78 receptions last season.  He may be overdrafted by some owners, but if he’s still available in the late first round or early second and you want to draft a running back he should be a good option.

 

12.  Matt Forte, CHI:  I’ll say this, the Bears would be a better team if Mike Martz would just reign in Jay Cutler and force him to get the ball to Forte more than he did last year.  After a disappointing 2009, many fantasy writers (including me, I’m embarrassed to say) wrote off the Bears’ running back.  But despite one of the worst offensive lines in the league last season Forte still managed to average a solid 4.5 yards per carry.  It’s that line, however that keeps him from being an elite option.  It hurts his goal line value, and keeps him as a lower tier number 1, or a very good number 2 fantasy running back.  Look for Forte to get around 1,000 yards rushing, 500 yards receiving, and 7 total touchdowns this year.

 

13.  Darren McFadden, OAK:  Put McFadden into the “show me you can do it again” category.  He just couldn’t seem to get it together in his first two seasons, but then exploded last season, going for double digit fantasy points 9 out of the 13 games he played in 2010.  That included two games in which he went over 35 points.  Don’t get me wrong, I think McFadden has all of the tools to repeat his performance from last season.  I just want to see him do it again before I move him into the top 10 fantasy running backs.  Plus he’s a Raider, and Al Davis should be able to find a way to mess up any value McFadden has to fantasy players.  He’s King Midas in Reverse.  Yeah, I referenced The Hollies in a fantasy football article, I’m a geek, and I don’t care.

 

14.  Ahmad Bradshaw, NYG:  Bradshaw finally broke out last season, going for more than 1,200 yards and 8 scores.  However, the question remains whether he can repeat, especially considering he totaled more carries in 2011 than he had in the previous 3 years in the league.  When you see a spike in carries of that nature you have to worry about whether or not that player will be able to handle the increased work load for another year and if he’ll stay healthy.  However, I think Bradshaw should be a very nice number 2 option in any format, and could probably be had anywhere from the late 2nd round into the middle of the 3rd.

 

15.  DeAngelo Williams, CAR:  I don’t think there is any more frustrating situation than the Panthers’ running backs in fantasy football.  Both Williams and Jonathan Stewart are capable of being number 1 fantasy backs, if they just would receive the majority of the carries.  Williams is really the more talented of the two backs, but has been particularly injury prone the last two seasons.  He missed 10 games in 2010, and 3 games in 2009.  However, if he plays 16 games he should see around 250 carries, so that means even with the sub-par talent in Carolina he should be able to get to around 1,200 yard and 6 to 8 scores.  Those numbers seem like he should be higher, but there are just too many question marks surrounding his health, the state of the Panthers, and just what the carry split will be in that backfield to recommend him any higher.

 

16.  LeGarrette Blount, TB:  Blount probably helped a lot of teams win down the stretch last season.  In only 7 starts, and 13 total appearances, Blount managed to rush for 1,007 yards and 6 touchdowns.  He should be seeing every carry this season now that Cadillac Williams is no longer a Buc, so that plus a full season as the starter should only improve his value.  My biggest problem with Blount is that he doesn’t use his 250 pound frame as effectively as he could.  He wasn’t as effective on the opponent’s goal line as one would expect, only getting 2 of his 6 scores from that distance.  If he improves his ability to smash defenders on the goal line he could produce like a number 1 fantasy back.  But as it stands right now Blount should be a mid-level number 2 option.

 

17.  Knowshon Moreno, DEN:  You have to believe that theDenver’s new run-happy head coach, John Fox, should be a boost toMoreno’s value.  The problem is that the Bronco’s picked up Willis McGahee in the offseason, and it appears that he will see the bulk of the goal line carries.  Also, anybody who has followed the Panthers in recent years should know Fox’s tendency to employ a platoon system with his backs.  This seems particularly likely this season, asMoreno is a smallish back, and having another runner to absorb some of the hits would benefit Knowshon in the long run.  Unfortunately, fantasy football isn’t really a long run type of game, so this could hurt his value for this year.  He’s still a solid number 2 option, while rushing for around 1,000 yards and 5 scores.

 

18.  Peyton Hillis, CLE:  It may seem like blasphemy to rank a guy like Hillis this low, especially considering the stats he put up last season.  Yes, his total numbers are incredible, but to see the full story you need to look at what happened with Hillis as the year went on.  In his last 5 games Hillis wasn’t able to get any more than 9 fantasy points.  Worse yet, he rushed for fewer than 60 yards in 4 of those 5 games.  Some may say that Hillis wore down as the season went along, but I think it goes deeper than that.  From watching those games it looked to me like defenses had finally figured him out.  His game really isn’t that complex, he doesn’t have exceptional speed or moves, but has very good size and soft hands out of the backfield.  Good defensive coordinators should be able to game plan for that skill set this year.  He still has a lot of value in PPR leagues because he should catch quite a few passes out of the backfield, but just don’t come into this year expecting anything like what happened in 2010.  If Hillis gets 900 yards rushing, 300 yards receiving, and 7 total touchdowns you should be happy.  Unfortunately, he’ll probably be drafted higher than those numbers warrant in most leagues, and will probably be unfairly labeled a bust.

 

19.  BenJarus Green-Ellis, NE:  If the Pats would stick with one back it would be Green-Ellis, and he’d be a stud.  But hoping New England will do that is like hoping Ron Zook will win a national championship atIllinois, it just isn’t going to happen.  No matter how many carries he sees, however, Green-Ellis is still the best option the Patriots have on the goal line.  Essentially, I expect him to have similar fantasy points to last year, seeing a slight dip in rushing yards and a slight increase in touchdowns.  Look for him to be close to 850 yards rushing and score 14 times.

 

20.  Felix Jones, DAL:  I’d call him a sleeper, but I think too many people already know about his potential to call him that.  It looks like Jones will be the main man inDallas this season, and should improve upon his numbers from last year.  I also fully expect Tony Romo’s return to aid Jones this season.  He’s a great receiver out of the backfield, and having a better quarterback throwing him the ball should only help that.  Jones should go for about 1,000 yards rushing, 400 yards receiving, and about 4 or 5 touchdowns on the year.

 

21.  Jonathan Stewart, CAR:  So I already said a lot about Stewart in my write-up for DeAngelo Williams, and I’m kind of strapped for things to say.  He should still see more than 200 carries this season and get to somewhere around 900 yards and 7 or 8 touchdowns.  Certainly respectable numbers for a lower tier #2 fantasy running back.

 

22. Ryan Mathews, SD:  Mathews is really kind of a mystery.  He was overdrafted based solely on potential last season, and is still be highly valued by many players simply because of that potential.  There’s one big problem, and his name is Mike Tolbert.  Tolbert looked very good last season, especially in goal line situations.  This is looking like it will be about a 60/40 split with inSan Diego with Mathews getting the 60%.  He won’t see goal line duty, however so his touchdown numbers should be fairly low.  Expect him to get around 950 yards and 5 touchdowns this year.

 

23.  Cedric Benson, CIN:  He doesn’t look very good doing it, but he racks up the yards.  He went for 1,111 yards despite a horrendous 3.5 yards per carry average.  Benson isn’t going to light the world on fire, and unless he sees 321 carries again this year should see his yardage numbers taking a dive.  He still should see a fair number of goal line carries, but that isn’t going to be enough to vault him out of the lower-tier number 2 fantasy backs.  If you’ve filled both WR positions, your number 1 back and your QB Benson could be a good option for you in the middle rounds, but don’t pick him any earlier.

 

24.  Fred Jackson, BUF:  I really think if he was on a better team he’d be a very good fantasy option.  As it is he’s stuck on a team with no real quarterback, so opponents can stack the box consistently and stop the run. Jackson may also have difficulty this season if C.J. Spiller manages to take a step forward from his sub-par 2010 outing.  I thinkJackson could be a nice value pick in the middle rounds for those who aren’t making their second RB a priority.  I think he’ll be around 900 yards rushing this year with 5 or 6 scores.  Nothing to sneeze at, but nothing to write home about either.

 

25.  Jahvid Best, DET:  Best is going to be the “high risk, high reward” running back on this list.  He really didn’t live up to much of the hype last season, averaging only 3.2 yards per carry.  However, a toe injury slowed Best for nearly all of 2010, and if he’s fully healthy this season he could be a break-out player.  With defenses being forced to keep tabs on the Lions’ passing game it should open some holes for the speedy Best.  Just understand that if you do draft Best he could blow up in your face with numbers similar to 2010.  He’s all potential at this point, and don’t forget that.

 

 

FOOLS GOLD PLAYERS:

All Green Bay Packer Running Backs:

This looks like the nastiest committee in the league to me.  James Starks was 2010’s playoff hero, Ryan Grant was a 1,200 yard rusher prior to being injured in week 1 last year, and Alex Green has impressed coaches in the preseason.  I don’t think any of these guys will get enough carries to warrant starting on your fantasy roster.  Each may be worth a late round flyer, but don’t draft them anywhere prior to the last 3 or 4 rounds.

 

-Beanie Wells, ARI:

-Anyone who has watched him recently sees a player who is tentative when he hits the holes, and that is a recipe for fantasy disaster.  His inability to win the starting job from Tim Hightower the last two seasons may be a reflection of his inability to run with real authority.  In speaking with other fantasy players, many people are ranking him in the top 15 or 20 running backs.  I don’t buy it, at least not until I see him run with some authority.

 

 

DEEP SLEEPER

Daniel Thomas, MIA:

I may be cheating here in calling him a deep sleeper.  Most fantasy players have heard about Thomas by this point, but I think I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention him in my article.  First, let me get this out of the way, I don’t think Reggie Bush will see many carries with the Dolphins, and will be used primarily as a receiver out of the backfield.  The Dolphins love to run the ball, and with both Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown taking their talents somewhere besides South Beach I think Thomas could have a similar impact to what we saw from Matt Forte in 2008.  If he adjusts quickly to the speed of the game in the NFL I think Thomas could be a 1,200 yard rusher this season.  He should be available relatively late in most drafts and if you can get your hands on him I’d suggest it.