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Even though NFL teams are just starting “voluntary” team activities, we are already seeing a lot of activity with mock drafts on a variety of websites. A lot has been written over the past couple years concerning the evolution of draft strategy now that the passing game is being orchestrated on a level never seen before in the NFL. Last year continued to put dents in the old tried-and-true running back heavy early-round selections as three quarterbacks surpassed 5,000 yards and the Top 5 leading scorers from last year were all quarterbacks in standard scoring leagues. Add in the monster seasons by Calvin Johnson, Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham, and you can see why the fantasy landscape has changed so much in the past few years regarding draft strategy and the dying concept of going running back early and often.
Although opinions vary widely on draft strategy for the 2012 fantasy football season, I believe this year will be more important than ever to land at least one, if not two, stud running backs early to pace your team. The general consensus seems to be that we have three running backs who should go in the first five picks of most standard leagues in Arian Foster, Ray Rice and LeSean McCoy. After those three, however, we see a wide range of running backs who are being drafted in the first 2-3 rounds who have major questions that need to be taken into account. If you miss out on the Top 3 running backs and want to avoid hanging your hat on lower quality backs such as BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Reggie Bush and Chris ‘Beanie’ Wells as your starters, you will need to take some gambles on a group of backs that could make or break your season. I don’t know about you, but if I surveyed my roster at the end of my draft and saw that my Top 2 backs were Shonn Greene and Isaac Redman I might just start game-planning for next year even if I did have Tom Brady and Larry Fitzgerald.
No owner wants to miss out on the air-attack in the NFL when they draft but I am confident that you can land a solid quarterback and a collection of Top 2 wide receivers with your later picks in Rounds 3-5. That being said, I think an early preview of the next echelon of running backs after the fantasy football Holy Trinity can be helpful to prepare your early rankings and be useful in developing a strategy so that you can again take home that god-awful trophy and retain bragging rights over your league-mates for another year.
Maurice Jones-Drew : Jones-Drew came through for owners in a big way in 2011, leading the league in rushing and finishing the year with 1,980 total yards and 11 touchdowns in an absolutely wretched offense that boasted Mike Thomas as their top wide receiver and a rookie quarterback in Blaine Gabbert who looked like he might pass out before every snap. Jones-Drew put any concerns over his bum knee from the previous season by carrying a league-high 343 times. While the true workhorse back is somewhat of a dying breed in the NFL, Jones-Drew showed that he can still carry an offense. The hazards of this heavy workload has to be taken into account as we have seen time and time again running backs struggling the following season with either injury or a dropoff in production once you go north of the 300-carry mark. And although the Jaguars have made an effort to add weapons to an anemic offense with the addition of wide receivers Justin Blackmon and free agent Laurent Robinson, I still don’t think the quarterback combo of Gabbert/Chad Henne is enough to stretch the field and reduce the amount of defenders Jones-Drew will see in the box. You may also have to pay attention to his contract situation as he is looking for an extension and any holdout needs to be closely monitored. Even with these questions Jones-Drew should probably the fourth or fifth running back off your draft board.
Chris Johnson : Over the past two years, Johnson is most likely going to be one of the most polarizing players to be discussed in the first two rounds for the upcoming 2012 season. Since his breakout year of 2009 when he ran for 2,006 yards and 14 touchdowns, we have seen his yards per carry drop from 5.6 in 2009 to 4.3 in 2010 and finally 4.0 last year. The 2011 season was an extremely disappointing year for his owners, many of whom ended up frantically trying to deal him by mid-season or simply had to put their first-round pick on the bench. Much like the 2010 campaign, Johnson was very inconsistent on a weekly basis and many people attributed that to his holdout, offensive line and absence of Vince Young at quarterback. On a positive note, Johnson was used heavily in the pass game in 2011, setting a career high with 57 catches although he never scored through the air and his four rushing touchdowns were fewer than fantasy juggernauts Shonn Greene, Pierre Thomas and Donald Brown. This year, Johnson will be a full participant in organized team activities and mini-camp, so he should be in better football shape to start the year. Personally, I won’t touch Johnson in any of my drafts this year unless he somehow falls into the third round, maybe second round in a 12-team draft. Not only do the stats tell me something is wrong, but watching the Tennessee Titans play last year he just didn’t seem to have the explosion he displayed in 2009 as evident in the fact that in 2011 he had only one touchdown run of greater than 9 yards when in comparison he had nine touchdowns of at least 30 yards. Something isn’t right, and I’d advise buyer beware with Johnson in 2012.
Ryan Mathews : The third-year pro from Fresno State has been a hot commodity in the early mock drafts with an average draft position placing him in the first round in 10-plus team leagues. He came into the league with lofty expectations of taking over for LaDainian Tomlinson, but the presence of touchdown vulture extraordinaire Mike Tolbert, nagging injuries and difficulty picking up the rush on passing downs have limited his production over his first two seasons. Mathews did finish the year with his first 1,000-yard season and was very productive in the passing game with 50 grabs. The loss of Tolbert to Carolina in free agency clears one hurdle for the young running back, but if he is to capitalize and become a true lead back he must stay healthy and continue to be an asset on passing downs. Mathews came into the strike shortened camp last year out of shape so a full offseason could help him endure the pounding of a full NFL season. Although he does carry risk, I feel that Mathews has a high-ceiling potential and 2012 could be the year he joins the elite ranks of fantasy running backs.
Darren McFadden : There is no other running back on this list that is more boom or bust than McFadden, and 2011 was a perfect example of why he is the most maddening running back on this list. McFadden had a breakout year in 2010, rewarding owners who took a chance on the former Arkansas Razorback by averaging 17.4 fantasy points over 13 games in standard scoring leagues. It appeared that 2010 was no fluke as he came out on fire to begin 2011. At one point last season he was the NFL’s leading rusher and was averaging a ridiculous 17 fantasy points per game, but once again we were reminded why you just can’t count on McFadden to contribute to your team over an entire season. Two carries into the Week 7 matchup against Kansas City, McFadden was knocked out for the year with a Linsfranc sprain. What made matters worse was that he wasn’t placed on Injured Reserve immediately and the Oakland coaching and training staff kept mum on his status to the enjoyment of his owners. The obvious risk with McFadden is the fact that he has never played a full 16-game season since coming into the league in 2008, and no matter how explosive he looks he could always end up on the Injured Reserve due to a hangnail or a pillow-fight gone wrong. With Michael Bush signing as a free agent in Chicago, owners will no longer have to curse the loss of goal line carries or use a valuable pick on the most valuable handcuff over the past two seasons, but is not having a solid backup to help shoulder the load a good thing with McFadden’s injury history? Simply put, McFadden is the ultimate gamble, and, even though you could bust, you might also take the house in 2012.
Marshawn Lynch : Lynch has found a home in Seattle, and his bruising play in 2011 is the reason he re-signed with them with $17 million guaranteed. Lynch rushed for a career-high 1,204 yards last year, his best as a pro. While Seattle certainly seems sold on Lynch being the back for years to come, many owners still don’t trust Lynch to be their RB1 heading into 2012. Lynch is called “Beast Mode” for a reason, and his most memorable runs from the past two years are bruising, punishing runs that deal out as much damage to defenders as he takes himself. While every fan can appreciate this effort and style, you have to worry about the amount of wear-and-tear on his body he endures on every run. The other fact that makes people apprehensive is while even though he showed extraordinary effort last year in his first full season in Seattle, he was also in his contract year. Lynch was rewarded for his play, but you have to be wary of players coming off contract years because too often we have seen these backs score big with contracts and then start to look to bounce runs outside and instead of plowing ahead for that extra 2 yards they might start eying the sideline. Lynch makes his living off of a brutal running style and maximum effort last year as he rumbled through defenses for six 100-yard games. This effort and wear-and-tear is what worries me with Lynch now that he has a new contract and a lifetime supply of Skittles. Are we going to see the same effort and tenacity next year? We won’t know until the season kicks off, but Lynch may have finally become the running back we thought he could become.
Trent Richardson : The rookie from Alabama is a hot commodity in recent mock drafts and he has been even ranked in the Top 10 of running backs by some analysts. Richardson certainly looks the part of a stud running back as he flashed his amazing potential after the departure of Mark Ingram last year to the NFL. Richardson was the key cog to Alabama’s run to the championship last year, showing an impressive display of both power and agility as he ran through, over and around opponents. Recently we have seen the running back position devalued in the NFL Draft as teams feel that the position has too short a shelf life to be worth a first-round pick. This strategy has been successful with the emergence of many late-round picks and even undrafted running backs such as Arian Foster. The fact that Richardson was taken in the Top 5 of this extremely deep and talented draft should speak volumes about what his potential can be in the NFL. While optimism is high based purely on his talent, you have to check your expectations based on the fact that he landed on a poor Cleveland offense in flux in a division that is considered the toughest in the NFL. Cleveland will most likely be lining up a 28-year-old rookie in an offense that lacks a big play threat, so Richardson will see a lot of defenders in the box, but he is the unquestioned starter and his versatility and explosiveness could pay big dividends for an owner who rolls the dice on him early.
DeMarco Murray : Murray burst onto the scene last year in a big way with a Dallas record 253 yards on 25 carries in a win over St. Louis in Week 7. This performance was basically the deathblow to any hopes that Felix Jones would someday be “the man” in the Dallas backfield. In the five games that Murray received at least 20 carries, he racked up an impressive line of 687 rushing yards at 6.0 yards per carry and two touchdowns. He was also heavily involved in the passing game with 20 catches for 156 yards but he did fail to score a receiving touchdown. These stats are a bit skewed due to his monster game in Week 7, but when he did get a sizable workload he did produce and added another dimension to the Dallas Cowboys offense that frankly has been missing for the past couple of years. The one knock on Murray is that he has been plagued by injuries in both college and now the NFL, so even though we have seen that he can be extremely productive, you have to be wary of a back who seems to constantly battle injuries.
Matt Forte : Since coming into the league in 2008 out of Tulane, Forte has been one of the most effective and versatile backs in the league. Under Mike Martz’s offense in 2010 and 2011, Forte continued to excel in both the running and passing games and Forte was averaging a career-best 4.9 yards per carry before he was lost for the season with a sprained MCL in Week 13. Forte should not be considered an injury risk, however, because he has played full 16-game seasons his previous three years with a significant workload in each of his four years in the NFL. The real issues that may cause owners concern are his on-going contract dispute concerning a long-term commitment from the team and their signing of free agent Michael Bush from Oakland, in which they ponied up $14 million to sign the bruising back. Not only did this signing finally set Forte off, but it also provided a legitimate threat to steal even more red zone and goal-line opportunities away from Forte who has never excelled on short-yardage situations. Owners should be keep close track of his contract situation as we move closer to mandatory team activities because a holdout is never good news for fantasy owners. A long-term contract or a change of scenery are the best options fantasy football owners can hope for at this point, but the talent and production of Forte may be too tempting to pass him by this year.
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