The biggest fantasy football story of 2011 was how the NFL had officially become a passing league and the impact that had on the fantasy landscape. Suddenly, the teams that had superstars such as Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Cam Newton, players who could score half a team’s points many weeks, gave their fantasy owners a distinct advantage.
As a direct result of this, the running back position is getting a lot less love and respect than it usually receives. Another thing that has hurt the perceived value of running backs is the prevalence of running backs by committee. It’s getting to the point that you could count on two hands, with a number of free fingers on that second hand, the paltry number of teams with one primary workhorse running back.
Bearing that in mind, there are only four running backs who are worthy of betting the house on. After these four are off the board, it’s time to start looking at the Big 3 quarterbacks (Rodgers, Brees, and Brady) and Calvin Johnson. For the owners with the Top 4 picks, though, they have to look towards Arian Foster, Ray Rice, LeSean McCoy and Maurice Jones Drew. This fantastic foursome is several cuts above the rest of the players at the running back position.
In the second round you won’t be able to get a running back close to those four. You’re going to be looking at guys like Matt Forte, still holding out and now having to contend with Michael Bush for carries, and Jamaal Charles, recovering from ACL surgery and now dealing with Peyton Hillis as the latest Kansas City goal line vulture, to name a few. Maybe you could get lucky and get a guy like DeMarco Murray or maybe even Marshawn Lynch.
Still, in the best case scenario where you’d land Murray or Lynch, both of those guys have big questions coming into the 2012 season. Can Murray stay healthy for a full season or will he get injured again, just like he did his rookie season and all throughout his college career? Will Marshawn Lynch still be in Beast Mode this year after finally getting the huge contract for which he’s been pining? We’ve all seen Lynch quit in the past and not play up to his potential. How will he perform now that one of his biggest motivators is gone? Do you really want to spend a first-round pick on guys with these many questions when you can have one of big three quarterbacks, who you know exactly what you’re going to get? And these two players are, by far, the best case scenarios for the strategy of waiting until the second round for your first running back.
On the other hand, once the big four running backs are off the board, it’s time to start thinking about quarterbacks. No way am I picking risky guys like Ryan Mathews or even Chris Johnson over any of the top three quarterbacks. Johnson averaged 65 yards a game last season, ranking 20th among running backs. He was ranked 14th in rushing yards and easily had the worst season of his career.
Now don’t get me wrong, you can still count me as a believer that Chris Johnson will have a bounce back season. His season was so horrid last year that he has nowhere to go but up. Am I going to trust him with a first-round pick over proven game changing fantasy quarterbacks like Brees, Brady and Rodgers? Nope.
Once the big four running backs are gone and then the big three quarterbacks are off the board, now you’ll need to focus on running backs for the rest of the draft. Let’s start by ranking the Top 10 fantasy football running backs for the 2012 season at this admittedly early stage of the offseason.
1) Arian Foster
Despite missing two games, three games if you count Week 2 where he reinjured his hamstring, Arian Foster somehow still ranked fifth in the league in rushing yards (1,224). With more than 1,800 yards from scrimmage last year, 12 touchdowns and 53 receptions, Foster is the consensus No. 1 overall pick of all fantasy drafts this summer.
2) Ray Rice
Arian Foster might be the consensus first overall pick, but Ray Rice is only a couple footsteps behind him. Even though Foster did miss two games to injury, Rice still outrushed him by 140 yards, finishing the season with 1,364 rushing yards. Rice is also a much more significant threat catching passes than Foster, catching more than 76 passes and being targeted an astonishing 104 times last season.
Rice is involved in a contract dispute with the Baltimore Ravens right now but has promised that he’s keeping in shape in the offseason, something Chris Johnson was unable to do in his holdout last year. I’m confident that Rice will eventually sign with the Ravens; after all, he’s practically their entire offense. The relationship between Rice and Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome seems to still be on solid footing, which gives credence to the fact that this won’t be en epic holdout like Johnson’s holdout was last summer.
Rice is a rock solid safe pick and everything an owner could want in an early-round pick. Over the last three seasons, he’s averaged 1,300 rushing yards, 70 receptions and 650 receiving yards. While he’s not as explosive as Foster, he is less of an injury risk. Also, he doesn’t have Ben Tate breathing down his neck. Owners will be forgiven if they choose Rice over Foster with the No. 1 pick.
3) LeSean McCoy
McCoy scored 20 touchdowns last season, 17 on the ground and three through the air. The closest any running back came to McCoy’s ridiculous touchdown count is Ray Rice, who had 15 total touchdowns, still five behind McCoy. He’s part of one of the best offenses in the NFL (fifth in rushing, eighth in passing), and he’s featured in every facet, including catching nearly 50 receptions last season.
Last year was his breakout season, but for him to move up the rankings, he needs to show us he can do it again. And there’s room for improvement. McCoy’s receiving yards dropped dramatically from 592 in 2010 to 320 last season. He’ll need to improve on that total if he wants to catch Foster and Rice.