The running back position has come under great debate heading into the 2012 fantasy football season as the NFL has continued to transition into a passing league. There are many theories as to how early and often running backs should be drafted and whether or not it is advisable to just wait on the position altogether and just stock up on premier wide receivers and a top quaterback, then stock up on a plethora of ‘middle-of-the-pack’ running backs and hope for one or two to have breakout seasons. Those decisions will be made on an owner-to-owner personal basis, leading to one of the most intriguing fantasy draft seasons of the past 10 years. Let’s get to the rankings.
1) Arian Foster, Houston: The perfect running back in the perfect system for his running style. He has also averaged 59 receptions and more than 600 receiving yards over the past two seasons.
2) Ray Rice, Baltimore: Solid, consistent production posting three straight seasons of more than 1,200 yards rushing while adding 217 receptions in that same time frame for another 1,962 yards. Incredibly versatile and fantasy gold in both standard and points per reception formats.
3) LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia: Led the league with 20 touchdowns in 2011 and can do it all in the Eagles offense. Has amassed 4,240 yards from scrimmage, 166 receptions and 33 total touchdowns in his three years in the NFL.
4) Ryan Mathews, San Diego: Is the feature back for the Chargers with Mike Tolbert now in Carolina. Averaged 4.9 yards per carry last season, hauled in 50 catches and scored six touchdowns. He is poised for a breakout now that he is the unchallenged No. 1 running back in San Diego.
5) Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonvile: Put up amazing stats last season on a Jaguars team that could not throw the ball. Averaged more than 100 yards rushing per game and punched in eight touchdowns on the ground and added three receiving scores. Still only 27 years old. Once his holdout ends, he will be an elite fantasy talent again in 2012.
6) Chris Johnson, Tennessee: Coming off of a forgettable 2011 campaign where a lengthy holdout led to a poor season. Managed to surpass 1,000 yards for the fourth straight season but saw a big dip in touchdown production, 12 in 2010, to four in 2011. Look for a bounceback season from a rededicated Johnson in 2012.
7) Marshawn Lynch, Seattle: Lynch had a resurgent 2011 behind a shaky offensive line and will look to build on that in 2012. He is coming off of a 13 total touchdown campaign and is another case of the perfect back for the perfect system as Seattle will look to establish the run in 2012. Also, Lynch has little competition to steal his touches.
8) Darren McFadden, Oakland: It’s all about staying healthy with McFadden as he has yet to play more than 13 games in any of his four years in the league. When he is on the field, he can be electrifying and he remains a high-risk/high-reward option heading into 2012. Early reports are that he is going to be a full go for training camp, but we have heard that before.
9) Matt Forte, Chicago: Forte had close to 1,500 total yards from scrimmage, averaging 4.9 yards per carry and 9.4 yards per reception before spraining a knee in December. He is a versatile, elite fantasy talent, and the Bears need to get him signed and into training camp on time. Michael Bush will vulture goal-line touchdowns, but Forte can break one off at any time.
10) Trent Richardson, Cleveland: The rookie will be the bell cow running back for the Browns in 2012 and will accumulate his fantasy points by sheer volume of touches. He will have to earn every yard he gets in the tough AFC North, as the Browns will struggle to throw the ball with a rookie quarterback and suspect receiving corps.
11) DeMarco Murray, Dallas: Murray will enter the season as the unquestioned starting running back for the Cowboys and will look to build on the 897 yards and two touchdowns he had in his rookie season. Injuries are the main concern with the second-year back as he returns from a season-ending ankle injury.
12) Steven Jackson, St. Louis: He has been very good for a long time on a very bad team. New coach Jeff Fisher loves to pound the rock, and look for Jackson to see a lot of carries again in 2012. He has rushed for more than 1,000 yards for seven straight seasons and should easily do so again in 2012.
13) Michael Turner, Atlanta: The Falcons have stated that they will lessen his workload in 2012, which could actually help his fantasy production. A fresher Turner will offer more consistent production, and he remains the unchallenged goal-line running back in Atlanta. He’ll get his 1,000 yards and double-digit scores again this season.
14) Jamaal Charles, Kansas City: He is on track in his recovery from the Week 2 knee injury he suffered last season. It remains to be seen how much explosiveness he lost to the injury. He averages more than six yards per carry for his career and is a receiving threat out of the backfield. Should register at least 1,300 total yards from scrimmage and 7-8 touchdowns in 2012.
15) Ahmad Bradshaw, New York Giants: With the departure of Brandon Jacobs, Bradshaw is now the man in the Giants’ running game. Potential for huge fantasy numbers if his bothersome feet will cooperate. If, and it is a big if, he can stay healthy for 16 games (he has done that once in the previous five seasons) he is capable of 1,200 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns.
16) Fred Jackson, Buffalo: Jackson is a versatile weapon that was producing at an elite level (170 carries, 934 yards, six touchdowns) last season, before suffering a season-ending fractured fibula. Forget his age as Jackson has plenty of tread left on the tires and can score on the ground as well as by the pass. He may lose some touches to C.J. Spiller, but cream rises to the top. He is the cream of the Buffalo ground game.
17) Frank Gore, San Francisco: Gore has rushed for more than 1,100 yards in four of the last six years and remains the top back for the 49ers. He may see a reduction in touches with the addition of Brandon Jacobs to the backfield, but he will still be the main weapon for the 49ers’ ground attack in 2012.
18) Adrian Peterson, Minnesota: When healthy, he is the best running back in fantasy football. Even should he avoid the Physically Unable to Perform list to start the season, he will be eased back into a full workload. Despite reports on how healthy he looks already, it is key to remember that he suffered a torn ACL, MCL and meniscus damage less than seven months ago. Minnesota will play it safe with Peterson, limiting his 2012 fantasy upside.
19) Darren Sproles, New Orleans: Despite splitting carries with two other running backs in New Orleans, Sproles retains fantasy value as a favorite weapon of Drew Brees in the Saints’ passing attack. He’ll never be a bell cow back, but as long as he is hauling in more than 80 receptions a season and is a threat to take any one of them to the house (he had seven receiving touchdowns last year), he is a fantasy weapon.
20) Reggie Bush, Miami: Boy, did Bush step up last year for the Dolphins. He ran inside, he ran outside and he continued to be a receiving option out of the backfield. He had his first 1,000-yard rushing season and enters 2012 as the primary back in Miami. Bush has struggled with injuries throughout his career, but as long as he is on the field he will produce solid fantasy points.