Ranking the quarterbacks for fantasy football is far and away the easy part. With the exception of a Michael Vick here or there, or injury complications, you pretty much know what you’re getting from each player. Running back, however, is way more complex than that. There are many reasons that attribute to the rise and fall of running back stats from one season to the next. The offense could have drafted a back to use in a running back by committee situation. Perhaps the head coach was let go and a new offensive philosophy is in place. The mere fact that running backs are hit on a far more regular basis than quarterbacks leads to a larger chance of missing time for injury.
Running backs could go from nothing to No. 1 in just a single season, like Chris Johnson in 2009 or Arian Foster in 2010. The other side of that coin is that a back can go from being an undisputed Top 3 selection to absolutely worthless just as quickly. There are far more cases of this as exemplified in players like Edgerrin James, Shaun Alexander or Priest Holmes. The biggest thing that I preach is to not use last season as your player expectations. Use it as a measuring tool and try to gauge potential statistical outcome. With all of the rising and falling in player value since 2011 NFL draft to this point, here’s what the running back rankings look like to my eyes.
1 – Adrian Peterson –
He didn’t have the kind of season that most were expecting in 2010. Brett Favre absolutely destroyed the passing game, which allowed defenses to stack up opposite of Peterson. Sidney Rice wasn’t available for a long period of time, which allowed the secondary to pay more attention to purple No. 28 as well. Added onto that, Peterson missed time to injury. With all of that in mind, Peterson was still one of the best options at his position. Peterson’s injuries from 2010 shouldn’t be a concern for the 2011 season. Donovan McNabb demands attention thanks to his resume as a rusher and an elite passer. Still, the Vikings should rely heavily on Peterson, setting him up to have the most carries he’s had since entering the league. Fantasy is all about opportunity leading to production and Peterson will get plenty of both in 2011. Peterson has also been noted discussing how he expects to be more involved in the passing game, furthering expectations in 2011.
2 – Chris Johnson –
Again, much like Peterson, Johnson didn’t have the kind of season that most were expecting. That being said, his numbers were still fantastic. Though he didn’t have the record breaking year some expected, he was still a top performer. Any lack in statistical output can be directly related to the quarterback circus that Tennessee rolled out with last season. The three quarterbacks that the Titans put out last season were third string quality quarterbacks at best on any other roster. Johnson will be relied on heavily due to the learning curve that Jake Locker will be experiencing in his rookie season. Johnson will have double-digit touchdowns and put up massive yardage in both the receiving and rushing categories. While Peterson is the best rusher in the NFL, Johnson is the more complete package at the position. I’m not expecting Johnson to fully meet his expectations from 2010, but I am expecting him to come pretty close. (As long as he doesn’t hold out, that is.)
3 – Arian Foster –
He was completely unstoppable last season. Foster put up yardage in both categories and found the endzone on a well-above-average basis. While Foster is an incredible talent, the biggest asset to his value is the six games he gets to play against his divisional opponents. You can pretty much pencil in 300 total yards and at least three scores for the two games against the Indianapolis defense alone. Foster plays on what should be a high-octane offense in Houston with solid play under center and the best wide receiver in football drawing coverage away from the line of scrimmage. Though it does scare me to have seen a running back within the same system fall off dramatically after a stellar season (Steve Slaton), it doesn’t scare me enough to skip him with the third pick overall. The only thing keeping Foster outside of the Top 2 is the fact that we’ve only seen his show once. If Foster can maintain his dominance in 2011 he could propel himself into the No. 1 spot in 2012.
4 – Jamaal Charles –
Over the past decade or so, if you’re a running back for the Kansas City Chiefs you’re pretty much guaranteed a Top 5 positional ranking. Charles has seemingly taken the torch that was passed to Larry Johnson from Priest Holmes and has (no pun intended) run away with it. Though Charles is the replacement for Johnson, his talent resembles more of Holmes. Charles is one of the fastest backs in the league and is also one of the best receiving backs, much like Holmes in his prime. Due to his versatility, he’s one of the biggest homerun threats at his position, tied for first with Chris Johnson. Though Matt Cassel had a solid season and the Chiefs spent a first-round pick on Jonathan Baldwin, there is still no question as to who the Kansas City offense revolves around. A smaller percentage of carries for Thomas Jones would mean tons more production from Charles. There’s one stat that speaks much louder of Charles’ value than any combination of words I could conjure from the English language. How does 6.4 yards per carry sound? That’s pretty much all you really need to know.
5 – Ray Rice –
“Double R” could be in for his most productive season to-date. Last season, Rice took the job of short yardage carries away from Willis McGahee. With McGahee leaving town, Rice becomes the unquestioned goal line back and could be in line for a fantasy football MVP award. The chances of Rice breaking a long score added with the probability of getting the ball in close should mean big time scoring for the Baltimore back. Rice will need to avoid the bumps and bruises suffered last season, but should be completely capable of doing so. Rice will be the offense’s biggest focus and should pay back patient owners for his down season last year. The Ravens are extremely well-balanced, but their focal point is without question their well-rounded running back. Rice will contribute greatly in both offensive aspects and could lead all running backs in yards from scrimmage.
6 – LeSean McCoy
– Though McCoy is extremely young in his career, he’s already established himself as one of the best all-around backs in the league. McCoy will be the back on all three downs and in close which is a rarity in the NFL today. McCoy will be the check down option for a quarterback who loves to roll out and draw attention off of his receivers. With linebackers pulling away from McCoy to contain Michael Vick, McCoy will be able to turn a quick out route into a 20-yard gain on a regular basis. Vick’s extremely strong arm mixed with the speed of DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin will prevent defenses from eyeing McCoy as well. One of the upsides to McCoy’s value also happens to be a downside though. Vick’s rushing ability that draws attention from the Philadelphia running back will also lead to stolen touchdowns from McCoy in the red zone on an almost weekly basis. Regardless, McCoy is a huge contributor on what is expected to be the most powerful offense in the league. Take the loss of 5-8 touchdowns to Vick and watch McCoy make up the points in receiving yardage.
7 – Rashard Mendenhall –
Pittsburgh went through a quick experiment with a speedy running back in Willie Parker but returned to what the Steelers have been known to do best for decades – tough defense and power running. Mendenhall may not be able to outrun everyone on defense but he’s certainly capable of running them right over. Mendenhall’s bowling ball style of running makes him a perfect fit to hand the ball when the offense is in close to the goal line. Mendenhall reminds me of a young Michael Turner, and like Turner the rushing touchdowns should come by the bucket full. Having Ben Roethlisberger under center for the entire season and having Mike Wallace established as an elite deep threat takes defensive pressure off of Mendenhall. The Pittsburgh back should eclipse last year’s numbers and move up the ranking list for next season. The Pittsburgh defense should limit opposing offenses, and the Steelers will be extremely interested in maintaining the clock with the running game. Mendenhall will undoubtedly be the beneficiary of the club’s historic scheme.
8 – Michael Turner –
If Rashard Mendenhall is the “young” Michael Turner, I guess that makes Michael Turner the “old” Michael Turner. Though Turner is relatively young in age, his workload over the past few seasons has taken a toll on him. Though Turner does sport the label of “injury prone,” his statistical output does still outweigh the risk. Turner is a massive threat to win the rushing title. He’s also a massive threat to finish with the most rushing touchdowns. He’s not, however, a threat to do anything outside of the running game. There will not be a single game where Turner gets shut down for 30 yards rushing but manages to catch for 60 or 70 additional yards to help you out. That’s kind of known as “Knowshon Moreno Syndrome” in which the Denver back made up for his lack on the ground production by putting up good receiving numbers. Turner is on the older side and doesn’t do much, if anything at all, in the passing game, but he’s still a threat to hit the endzone three times during a game regardless. That alone keeps him inside the Top 10.
9 – Maurice Jones-Drew –
Once preseason starts and we begin to find out more about Jones-Drew’s knee, the Jacksonville back could be in for a slight move up the charts or a huge move down them. Much like Michael Turner, Jones-Drew has been extremely overworked over the past few seasons. Unlike Turner, Jones-Drew doesn’t have a ton of help to take defensive pressure off of him. Turner has Roddy White taking pressure off while Jacksonville is attempting to do the same without any form of a big threat in the passing game. Jones-Drew is still a workhorse type of back, and in today’s NFL that’s a dying breed. When healthy, Jones-Drew is one of the best overall backs in the league. At this point in the draft you need to select him due to what he can do, knowing all the risk, and keep your fingers crossed. He will muscle out more than 1,000 yards on the ground and could possibly add another 500 through the passing game. Jones-Drew should be in for a big campaign once again as long as his knee is a non-issue. Losing a few carries to Rashard Jennings wouldn’t be the worst thing, but that’s what most will make you think. If Jones-Drew’s workload is lowered a bit, his yards per carry average should go up, balancing out his production over a full 16-week season.
10 – Frank Gore –
It seems as though once Rashard Mendenhall is off the board, we go through a stretch of Pro Bowl talent who have injury concerns. Gore definitely continues with that theme here at No. 10. You know that Gore is going to miss some time during the season. No question about that. What we don’t know is how much. Last season’s hip injury was a big one. Gore is entering next season with an injury that could carry over into 2011, much like Maurice Jones-Drew. But even knowing that Gore will miss some time added to that possible injury carryover, we also know what he will do for the other 14 games of the season. Gore was an animal during 2010 when healthy. He finished the season with more than 1,300 combined yards from scrimmage and with five touchdowns. And all of that was done in just 11 games. The 49ers have first-round offensive talent all over the field, including several on the offensive line. Perhaps San Francisco has also figured out their quarterbacking issues, which would benefit No. 21 as well. Gore is worth the risk due to the massive amount of production we’ve seen over the last couple of years. Select Gore as the 10th running back and pray that he only suffers a small injury and misses minimal time. Braylon Edwards at wide receiver should provide a little more of a threat for defenses to pay attention to, adding to Gore’s value in 2011.
11 – Darren McFadden
– Rounding out the run of injury prone backs is McFadden. It absolutely makes my skin crawl to have any Oakland Raider ranked this high, regardless of position. We do have to take several things into consideration with McFadden, including quarterback concerns, offensive line issues, injury concern, and a capable back in line behind McFadden to truly see all of the risk involved here. But at this point in the draft premier talent at the position is starting to get shallow. Chances are if you’re looking at McFadden at this point then he’s probably going to be your first running back selection. You’re going to need someone who is capable of putting up elite numbers to match up with owners who selected the other top options. McFadden does provide that type performance when on the field. McFadden is the best college prospect since Adrian Peterson entered the league. The Raiders back is an extreme threat whenever on the field, no matter the play call. Just be completely sure you know what you’re getting yourself into when taking McFadden – the potential to dominate matched evenly with the potential to be a complete bust. (The orbital bone issue that he already succumbed to isn’t helping his case.)
12 – Matt Forte –
Everyone talked last season about how Jay Cutler being the quarterback in a Mike Martz offense would lead to huge things. What was lost in the Kurt Warner and Marc Bulger discussions were the past successes of Marshall Faulk and Steven Jackson in the Martz offense. Now let’s get things straight here – I am in no way comparing Matt Forte to Faulk or Jackson in terms of overall talent. What I am saying is that Forte provides some of the same skills that made Faulk a future Hall of Famer. Forte’s ability as a receiver is undeniable. He’s a great yards-after-the-catch receiver and provides a mismatch opportunity every time he runs a route. Forte will be used like Faulk was used with the Rams, and that alone is worth being ranked just outside the Top 10. He’ll be running, catching and scoring on a regular basis. Cutler’s strong arm added with the Bears speed at wide receiver will keep defenses on their toes enough for Forte to have a really good season. Marion Barber will provide some touchdown thievery from Forte but he’ll also keep the starting back fresh and able to perform more efficiently on a weekly basis.
13 – Steven Jackson –
The fact that Jackson is ranked this low doesn’t rest solely on his shoulders. Players like Darren McFadden and LeSean McCoy have jumped up the rankings and in doing so have moved some of the veteran running backs down a peg or two. I have no problem ranking Jackson anywhere from 10th through 15th. Arguments won’t be proven to be incorrect or ignorant until Week 17. Until then both sides of the debate will continue to make valid points. Yes, he is a workhorse back and the opportunity alone deserves high consideration. I agree. Yes, he has more miles on his tread at this point in his career than anyone at the position should have. Yes, I agree to that as well. I’m also puzzled by the fact that over the past two seasons Jackson has had a relatively tough time finding the endzone, given his talent, added with the abundance in opportunity. Jackson is a riddle in which we will take a season to get the answer to. Having Jackson as your No. 2 back to start 2011 would be something that I would be extremely happy with. The days of selecting Jackson as your first-round pick or making him your No. 1 back, however, are sadly in the past. Jackson will be the one Sam Bradford leans on while he continues to learn the NFL game in 2010, becoming the young quarterback’s safety blanket in the passing game.
14 – LeGarrette Blount –
The Tampa Bay big man rumbled and bumbled his way from worthlessness to a complete monster within a matter of days. The Tennessee Titans breathed a little life into the Blount project, but it wasn’t until he joined the Buccaneers did people learn what a steal he truly was. Blount’s biggest knock coming out of college was his personality. He came back at his critics with SportsCenter Top 10 running plays, leaping over defenders like the high hurdles in high school track. Blount displayed his unique mix of size and athleticism over the better portion of 13 games for Tampa Bay, rushing for more than 1,000 yards, though he only started in seven of those games. The Buccaneers are a growing franchise with elite, young talent at both the quarterback and wide receiver positions. With the passing game calling for attention, Blount will be able to utilize his size, strength and speed against less defensive attention than he should get, furthering his ability to obtain dominant statistics. Barring injury, it goes without question that Blount will more than out do his 2010 output.
15 – Peyton Hillis –
Madden Curse be damned! Hillis showed us what kind of beast he can be in the 2010 campaign. Not only that, but looking at his short career it’s apparent that Hillis maintains his high yards per carry average and touchdown potential no matter the amount of carries going back to his Denver days. The Cleveland Browns are starting to finally get things together. Colt McCoy looks poised to take the passing game to places it hasn’t been since Derek Anderson’s out of body experience in 2007. At the same time, Hillis may be the best running back the Browns have had since Jim Brown himself was breaking tackles way back in 1965, no exaggeration.(Spare me the Reuben Droughns, Jamal Lewis and William Green arguments, please.) Hillis began to wear down towards the end of the season, but that wasn’t his fault. Hillis was overused in the same way players like Maurice Jones-Drew and Larry Johnson have been overused. The rehab of Montario Hardesty isn’t the end of days that some would lead you to believe. Hillis will remain in charge of primary carries, goal line carries, and get his fair share of receiving targets too. Don’t skip over what could be the last elite running back left in the draft due to a video game cover run by an 80-year-old with a turkey gobble. Remember in 2001 when John Madden suggested that Tom Brady kneel the ball against the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI and to “hope for the best in overtime?” The moral of the story is to not base your personal fortune on the warning of an octogenarian.
Costco Bargain Bin Running Back
Felix Jones –
Don’t be afraid to reach for Jones on draft day. His age, situation and talent make him a prime breakout candidate. Now that Marion Barber is stealing scoring opportunities in Chicago, Jones should be in for an uptick in both carries and scores. Jerry Jones once referred to Jones as the “best running back he’s ever seen.” Coming from an owner that won a couple of Super Bowls with Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith, I’d say that’s pretty serious praise. Jones is a stellar performer in both aspects of the offense, and Jason Garrett shouldn’t have a hard time finding ways to exploit Jones’ abilities. Dallas is an offensive juggernaut that plays in a weak division with an offensive guru calling the shots. All three of those aspects added to Jones’ overall talent should lead to a massive season for him in 2011. The only bugaboo that comes with Jones is his injury history. As long as he’s on the field, the stats will pour in like the constant rumors of Brett Favre’s return. Jones is an injury concern, but after Peyton Hillis is gone, most running backs left seem to carrying that designation. Be sure to take the one with the most upside in Jones and hope for the best.