I hear it more and more each year: the NFL is a pass-happy league, and running backs are nowhere near as important as they used to be. This is hogwash, I tell you! In this age of quarterbacks slinging the ball like there’s no tomorrow and running back committees, a good stable of backs is a rarer and more precious commodity than ever. You can find quality starting quarterbacks and wide receivers in Round 7 of standard drafts, while the best you can get at running back is a backup behind an injury-prone starter.
Since it is my firm belief that quality backs are still the difference between “the Shiva” and “the Sacko,” I wish to share with you my rankings and analyses of the Top 40 backs that the glorious game of fantasy football has to offer.
1. Arian Foster: He is a stud. Shout it from the mountaintop. He’s been the best player in all of fantasy two years running. He’s a big, durable, complete back who gets the goal-line carries, breaks open huge plays, and he does tons of damage in the passing game. Put a Top 5 back behind a Top 5 offensive line and you get as obvious a first overall pick as you can get.
2. Ray Rice: He’s always been a strong fantasy player, but Willis McGahee getting out of town has increased Rice’s touchdown total considerably and taken his fantasy production to the next level. Rice is durable, tough to bring down, possesses great speed in the open field, and he’s one of the best receiving backs in the league. He also has arguably the best blocking fullback in the sport in Vontae Leach. Some are worried about four dates with the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers, but that’s alleviated by two dates against the hapless Cleveland Browns defense. Honestly, he’s a top stud even with a bad matchup because with his goal-line touches and receptions. He doesn’t need a good rushing average to have a stellar fantasy day.
3. LeSean McCoy: Drafting him with the expectation of a repeat of 20 touchdowns isn’t reasonable, but a double-digit total is still all but assured, seeing as how coach Andy Reid seems to be committed to reducing Vick’s hazardous goal-line carries. Even with the touchdown total likely to go down, he’s still very young and an absolutely fantastic dual threat, and I expect him to increase his receiving yardage from last year’s surprisingly pedestrian 315.
4. Maurice Jones-Drew: What more can you say? He’s an absolute beast, and I think he has another top season in him before the inevitable decline. Despite being supported by the absolute joke known as Blaine Gabbert and his merry band of no-name receivers, Jones-Drew barreled through perpetually stacked boxes and rushed for a ridiculous 1,606 yards in 2011. He will continue to put up quality yardage, and with the addition of respectable wide receiver talent, the Jacksonville Jaguars offense might actually get into the red zone enough to get Jones-Drew back to the double-digit rushing touchdowns he regularly gave fantasy owners in the first half of his career.
5. Ryan Mathews: He’s been running very well, he catches lots of passes, touchdown vulture Mike Tolbert is gone, and while the pass-happy nature of the San Diego Chargers offense can at times limit his carries, the high number of scoring opportunities provided by a Philip Rivers-led squad certainly helps. He’s struggled with a few injuries, but so have the majority of backs on this list.
6. Chris Johnson: Many owners will be wary of drafting Johnson after his disastrous 2011 season, but I think he’ll reward the owners who take a chance on him. His extended holdout last season clearly left him horribly out of good football shape, but this year he’s shown up for organized team activities for the first time in his career, and with the benefit of a full training camp and preseason, and the extra incentive to silence his critics, expect him to be faster, leaner and meaner than he was last year. Over his career he’s had three monster seasons and one disappointing one, so I’m betting on last year being the exception rather than the norm.
7. Matt Forte: This ranking will drop dramatically the longer his messy contract situation and potential holdout drag on. I wouldn’t be overly worried about the Michael Bush factor. Forte has always produced stud numbers despite high-profile, goal-line vulturing backups. You will not see another back more perfectly suited to his system. I expect him to eventually cave and play on his franchise tender. Despite his anger toward the Chicago Bears, 2012 will also be his last chance to earn a rich long-term contract, so he’ll still run every bit as hard and angry as he did last year.
8. Marshawn Lynch: He should run well again in 2012. He runs harder than any other back, and respect for Matt Flynn and a healthy Sidney Rice could mean less stacked boxes and more running room. He also racks up carries inside the 5-yard-line like nobody’s business. He has certain red flags since his ridiculously hard rushing style makes him an injury risk, he isn’t much of a receiver, and he got lazy back in Buffalo after getting paid. Let’s hope he’s older and wiser this time around and history doesn’t repeat.
9. Michael Turner: For all the talk about him being old and an injury risk, he has only missed five games in four seasons in Atlanta, and if getting old means rushing for more than 1,300 yards and double-digit touchdowns, sign me up. He will be turning the dreaded age of 30 this year, but I think he’s physically younger than your typical 30-year-old back since he got very little work in his first four seasons in San Diego. However, his production did fall off late in 2011 and he’s still a minimal contributor in the passing game.
10. Steven Jackson: He doesn’t have the upside to be the highest scoring player in all of fantasy seeing as how he’s never been much of a touchdown machine, but his ability to give you somewhere in the ballpark of 1,500 yards from scrimmage year-in and year-out is something you rarely see in fantasy’s most frustrating and unpredictable position. He’s an extremely boring and safe pick, but knowing exactly what you’re getting is worth something.