Answer: You should. Even if you don’t need to decide on who you keep until draft day, you should have a close eye on all of your keeper potential to see whose stock is dipping and whose is taking off. Here’s my 2011 keeper list based on the first six games of the season for the running back position. (quarterbacks and wide receivers to follow)
1. Chris Johnson – Tennessee Titans
It really comes down to him or Adrian Peterson for the No. 1 spot, but Johnson has more touchdowns, so he gets the early edge. It doesn’t matter if it’s Kerry Collins or Vince Young under center, Johnson is the running back fantasy MVP. How many first-round picks haven’t performed up to expectations this season? With Johnson you know, barring injury, exactly what you’ll be getting. He’s the goal line back, the receiving back and a threat to go the distance on each carry. As long as Javon Ringer doesn’t work his way into LenDale White’s old role, Johnson will continue to dominate defenses and put points up in bunches.
2. Adrian Peterson – Minnesota Vikings
‘All Day’ is an absolute beast, with or without Brett Favre. In actuality, I’d personally love it if Favre didn’t come back next season. That way, the offensive coordinator could start doing what he should have been doing all season – run Peterson like crazy. I’d imagine that the trade for Randy Moss wasn’t just a one-year fix. The Vikings will try to tie Moss into a contract for a couple of seasons. With Sidney Rice, Percy Harvin, Moss and Visanthe Shiancoe drawing coverage, Peterson should see a lot less defensive attention. It really doesn’t matter if it’s Tavaris Jackson or Favre, Peterson will continue to impress. In terms of his receiving capabilities, Peterson has shown to be very effective when given the chance. The unsure quarterback situation shouldn’t affect him as a receiving threat as Peterson’s taking dump off passes and not attempting to run too many routes or stretch the field.
3. Ray Rice – Baltimore Ravens
Rice may not be posting the numbers that owners were expecting, but there are several reasons as to why that is. First off, the Ravens were dealt one of hardest schedules in the league this season. Secondly, Rice suffered a knee injury early in the season which limited his overall numbers so far. Lastly, Willis McGahee has sniped away a couple of the sole red zone attempts this season. Hopefully next season the schedule will be a little more ideal, Rice won’t suffer any early season injuries, and McGahee will be in a running back by committee in a different area code. The value for Rice next season should be even higher than expectations going into this year. Having such a talented receiving group should draw attention away from Rice and he’ll be able to both get open for passes and run with more open space.
4. Rashard Mendenhall – Pittsburgh Steelers
Mendenhall’s numbers have been almost MVP like so far this season. Imagine what they could have been if he had Ben Roethlisberger calling the shots for the first five games of the season. He has breakaway speed and enough bulk to be used as a primary goal line back. Pittsburgh will continue their historic philosophy of overbearing defense and pound the rock football. Mendenhall will be given every opportunity to again be a Top 5 back in terms of production for next season.
5. Ahmad Bradshaw – New York Giants
Yes, I’d rather have Bradshaw over Arian Foster. The Giants have been transitioning from Brandon Jacobs’ style of smash mouth running to Bradshaw’s elusive and electric style of play. This ranking is based on the assumption that Jacobs will not be back for ‘Big Blue’ next season. Bradshaw is a Top 5 back in terms of yardage already and that includes being spelled by Jacobs at times. If given the opportunity to be the lead back next season, Bradshaw could post Chris Johnson-like numbers. Meaning he could be a league leader in terms of rush yards, have 500 receiving yards and hit double digit touchdowns.
6. Frank Gore – San Francisco 49ers
This offense is in complete shambles, yet Gore has managed to still put up good numbers. Alex Smith hasn’t been the same quarterback that finished off the 2009 season on a high note and the offensive coordinator obviously wasn’t impressing Mike Singletary. With Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree, Gore and three members of the offensive line being former first-round selections, the issue obviously doesn’t have to due with offensive talent. The 49ers need to bring in a quarterback that can balance that offense. They need to admit they were wrong selecting Smith over Aaron Rodgers and move on. I heard that Eagles have a quarterback or two that might be able to fit that role. Once balanced, Gore will be the focal point of the offense that we were expecting to see this year.
7. LeSean McCoy – Philadelphia Eagles
He’s been better than advertised. McCoy has shown that he was the perfect selection to replace Brian Westbrook. McCoy can catch the ball, break off long runs and find the end zone on a frequent basis. The offensive situation in Philadelphia is almost unmatched in terms of production and youth. Jeremy Maclin, DeSean Jackson, Brett Celek and McCoy will continue to complement each other for the next decade, regardless of who is playing quarterback. Don’t be afraid of keeping McCoy for next season any more than you should have been afraid of keeping Mendenhall last season. Though he isn’t a household name just yet, he’ll eclipse numbers put up by bigger, more noticeable names.
8. Maurice Jones-Drew – Jacksonville Jaguars
If Jones-Drew were on any other team, he’d be a Top 3 player. But Jacksonville hasn’t been able to find what they’ve been looking for year in and year out in the draft. The Jaguars have tried numerous times to find a true receiving threat to add to the offense. Sadly selections like Reggie Williams and Matt Jones haven’t worked out as expected. Mike Sims-Walker isn’t consistent enough for defenses to pay close attention to. He has too many zero catch games this season to be considered a threat. ‘MJD’ put the team on his shoulders last season and produced. This season with the passing game stuttering so badly that Trent Edwards was brought in it has been too much for Jones-Drew to handle. Defenses can stack the box and in effect take Jones-Drew out of the game. Case in point was the Monday Night game against Tennessee where Jones-Drew might as well have been holding a clipboard on the sideline. He’s still a Top 10 back due to his lone back workload and based on his past production, but next season could be a repeat of this season if Jacksonville doesn’t find some help.
9. Arian Foster – Houston Texans
Let me explain as to why Foster isn’t higher up on my board. First off, Matt Schaub really hasn’t looked himself so far this season which leads to a higher workload on the running game. One would think that once Schaub finds his groove from last season that the team will stop leaning so heavily on the running game. Secondly, Andre Johnson has been slowed by injury, again increasing the workload on the running game. Third, Ben Tate will be back next year following his season-ending injury. Fourth, we’ve seen this before. Steve Slaton did the same just a few seasons ago. Slaton was taken ahead of Chris Johnson in many drafts based on one season’s production. Foster’s value will never be higher than it has been so far this season. He’ll still be a No. 1 back, but are you willing to take him over established runners? Drafting solely on potential isn’t always the best way to do things. Just ask Ryan Mathews‘ owners.
10. Steven Jackson – St. Louis Rams
The situation around Jackson is starting to get better. The Rams’ selection of Sam Bradford was one of the best things that could have happened to Jackson. Bradford is doing enough to keep defenses from totally loading the box and keying on Jackson. Jackson’s injury history is always something to keep in mind. But there are a limited amount of running backs that get as much opportunity as Jackson. He’s one of the last true workhorse backs in the league. If he were proven to be more durable, he’d be much higher up on the list. Hopefully each step that the passing game takes toward improving will increase Jackson’s value because four touchdowns a season doesn’t cut the mustard. Jackson makes the Top 10 based on his large workload and his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.
11. Matt Forte – Chicago Bears: Apparently Chester Taylor isn’t as big of a factor as we thought. We’ll have to wait and see if Forte follows each up season with a down season. Forte’s ability to put up big numbers in both the run and pass game offers worlds of potential.
12. Michael Turner – Atlanta Falcons: Injuries and a looming Jason Snelling present issues, but he’s still a double-digit touchdown threat. He could be the steal of the draft next season if he returns to form. But didn’t we say that this season?
13. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart – Carolina Panthers: Hopefully they won’t be stuck splitting the carries with each other again and will be lead backs on two different teams. We’ve seen what they can do but the 2010 season hasn’t offered much to brag about so far.
14. Jahvid Best – Detroit Lions: Lead back on a young, productive offense. Injury concerns will carry over into his sophomore campaign. The offensive line needs some new talent before Best can reach his full potential.
15. Darren McFadden – Oakland Raiders: He was a top contender for the rushing title before his injury. But injuries have always been McFadden’s issue. It would be nice if Oakland could find a quarterback to take pressure of the running game too.
16. Ryan Mathews – San Diego Chargers: He could have worked himself into a running back by committee. Needs to establish himself as the best back on the team in order to excel.
17. Cedric Benson – Cincinnati Bengals: He hasn’t really picked up where he left off last season but there isn’t any true competition on the roster. His workload gives him value.
20. Pierre Thomas – New Orleans Saints: He will hopefully be given another shot as the lead back next season but will have more competition with Reggie Bush, Ladell Betts, Chris Ivory and Julius Jones.
21. Knowshon Moreno – Denver Broncos: He needs to avoid the injury bug and needs to bring that average yards per carry up by an entire yard. Luckily Laurence Maroney and Correll Buckhalter aren’t threatening.
22. Chris “Beanie” Wells – Arizona Cardinals: He also needs to avoid the aforementioned injury bug. But unlike Moreno, stiff competition looms in the form of Tim Hightower.
23. C.J. Spiller – Buffalo Bills: He could jump up 10 spots if he makes good on his added opportunity. But based on six games, he’s stuck behind the more established backs on the list.