The NFL has become such a pass loving sport that the running back position has almost taken a backseat to the quarterbacks. Not long ago, in the fantasy world, drafting anything other than a running back in the 1st round was downright absurd. Now we live in a pass-hungry world, where quarterbacks and even tight ends are being drafted ahead of running backs. However, this does not mean you should shy away from ball carriers early on in drafts.
The reality is, there are still a limited amount of “elite” backs that will be gone if you wait too long. In return, you will suffer in later rounds trying to compensate for going early on a quarterback or wide receivers. Anyway you look at it, running backs are a key to being a successful fantasy team, no matter who you have throwing the ball on your roster. When drafting/ranking running backs, I factor in any change of personnel from the following year, injuries (past or present), strength of schedule, and of course their offensive scheme.
Let’s take a look at the top 10 running backs for the 2012 fantasy football season.
= upside = injury risk
1.) Arian Foster – Houston Texans
If you own the first pick in you’re fantasy draft this season, the consensus says you will draft Aaron Rodgers or Arian Foster. On a personal basis, if I own the first pick, I’m drafting Foster over Rodgers every time. I guess, it’s just the old school, conventional wisdom in me I guess. First, the negative on Arian. He does have an injury risk tagged to him, and his back-up, Ben Tate, is as good as half the starters in the league. Being a Foster owner last season was so aggravating, yet so rewarding. He put up 3 goose eggs due to injury, and sat out week 17 which, depending on your league, was devastating.
Now the positive. Ten games of double digit fantasy points, despite missing three games due to a hamstring injury. He ranked fourth in fantasy points among all running backs, and finished the season with 12 total touchdowns. For those in PPR leagues, it gets even better. Foster had 53 receptions for 617 yards last season. Last but not least, Arian’s strength of schedule for the playoff weeks is beyond weak. He sees the Indianapolis Colts twice (week 15 & 17) who he tore up last season for 158 yards in week 16. As long as the hamstring holds up, this guy will lead you to victory each and every week. Unless you have a top three pick…just move on, he won’t be there.
2.) Ray Rice – Baltimore Ravens
If anyone has a chance to put up the same type of production as Arian Foster this season, it’s Ray Rice. Considered the top fantasy back last season. Ray had an impressive fifteen all-purpose touchdowns, 12 of them coming from the ground. He recorded just under 1,400 rushing yards on 291 carries with a very impressive 4.7 yards per carry. Again, for the PPR leagues, Ray is another dual-threat back who hauled in 76 receptions for 704 yards. No Baltimore receiver even came close to 75 receptions this season. The Baltimore Ravens operate around Ray Rice. They will go as far as he goes, and that could be pretty far for the Ravens, and for your fantasy team. Should be the second running back taken off the board in all drafts.
3.) LeSean McCoy – Philadelphia Eagles
LeSean McCoy was a scoring machine in 2011, crossing the goal-line a whopping 20 times. Seventeen of those from the ground, three receiving. I DO NOT expect LeSean to duplicate those numbers, but he’s still a very valuable fantasy running back. Head coach Andy Reid has acknowledged that he probably overworked McCoy last year. Not great to hear from an owner’s standpoint, but it really can’t make you that nervous since the Eagles offense runs through him first, and the depth at running back is mediocre.
A more realistic approach to this season for LeSean would be around fifteen total touchdowns. Add the 1,200+ yards he rushes for, and the 40-50 receptions he will haul in from the dual-threat qb, Mike Vick. I’d say, a ranking of #3 for LeSean McCoy is accurate. His current ADP is 4.4. If he drops to sixth or later, don’t hesitate to grab him.
4.) Chris Johnson - Tennessee Titans
If you are going to draft Chris Johnson, you have to have a short memory. Forget the last two miserable seasons, and visualize yourself getting the ’09 version of CJ2K. Funny thing is, I was a Chris Johnson owner in ’09, but avoided him the last two seasons. He fell under my golden rule, which I’ve stated in previous articles. Stay away from players involved in contract holdouts, or players coming off a contract year. It’s a norm for athletes to try and put up monster stats the year before an extension is due. Then they receive the payday, which they respectfully deserve, but the following year fall of drastically.
Those days are over I think, and CJ2K has reported to Titans camp looking like his “old self” according to teammates and coaches. According to Titans running backs coach, Jim Skipper, Johnson and himself have been watching tape together all summer. Tape of ’09 and earlier, when Johnson was one of the more dominant runners in the NFL. Put this all together, and I think we have a dedicated, in better shape, Chris Johnson for the 2012 season. He should bounce back in a big way. His current ADP of 9.6 puts him as a late first-round selection. If he falls to the 2nd round, consider it as a gift.
5.) Ryan Mathews - San Diego Chargers (OUT 4 weeks with a broken clavicle, will update rankings)
The fantasy hype around Ryan Mathews has been ongoing for 2 years now. Despite missing time because of leg injuries, Mathews was last year’s 9th ranked fantasy running back. Mathews recorded only 7 touchdowns last year, but the situation in San Diego has changed. Mike Tolbert aka the touchdown vulture, scored ten times for the Chargers last season, stealing a good chunk of Ryan’s production. Tolbert is now in a Carolina Panthers uniform, and only Ronnie Brown stands in the way of Mathews becoming a top five fantasy football running back.
Ryan Mathews had an average of 4.9 yards per carry last season, better than any other back in the NFL. He also hauled in 50 receptions last season, which was seventh highest in the league for running backs. Last season, Mathews produced five straight double-digit fantasy performances to start the season. Then the wheels feel off for him and his owners. From week 7 to week 11, here’s what his fantasy point production looked like: Five, Eight, Zero, Five, and Two Points. That’s a disaster for owners, and most were scrambling to find a replacement. Just when you thought he was officially a bust, Mathews revived himself and scored a combined 66 fantasy points from week 12 to week 15. You can blame the inconsistency on the injuries, and the fact that the Chargers loved Mike Tolbert in goal-line situations.
As long as Ryan stays healthy this season, he should end up a top 5 fantasy running back. One big negative I did find when drafting Mathews this season, is his playoff schedule. He has to visit the Pittsburgh Steelers in week 14, at home against the Carolina Panthers in week 16, and finish the season, on the road, against the New York Jets. That’s not a very favorable schedule heading into the fantasy playoffs, and I highly suggest you factor this in when drafting the third-year back out of Fresno State. His current ADP is 13.3, and while he might warrant a first-round selection, I’d target him in the 2nd round.
6.) Maurice Jones-Drew - Jacksonville Jaguars
Two gigantic negatives if you are targeting Maurice Jones-Drew this season. First one, is obviously his contract situation. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reports MJD and the Jaguars have been in “constant contact” during his holdout, and talks remain “cordial.” Sources close to the situation maintain that the holdout will last until the end of the month, possibly even into September. The Jaguars have also publicly said they will not “cave” into any of Maurice’s demands.
The other negative, is the fact that MJD has carried the ball 954 times since the ’09 season. That’s by far the most carries by any back, the past three years. MJD had knee concerns heading into last season, but still mustered 1,600 rushing yards and 8 touchdowns. The lack of a legit quarterback, and a threatening passing game in Jacksonville, is most likely the culprit for his low touchdown total. He has recorded 13 touchdowns the past two seasons, but scored 15 total touchdowns in 2009, so you can see he has been on a decline.
He’s still a workhorse, and if he stays healthy, he should easily be a top ten running back. The risk of him holding out though is real, and should not be ignored. Drafting a running back that doesn’t suit up week 1 will do you no good. MJD also has a tough playoff schedule, starting with the Jets in week 14, and the Miami Dolphins on the road in week 15. Like I’ve mentioned before, drafting a player involved in a contract situation is a big no-no for me. If you are targeting him, make sure you monitor the holdout, and don’t reach too early for him. MJD is a very high-risk selection this season.
7.) Matt Forte - Chicago Bears
Matt Forte was electrifying last season for the Chicago Bears. After 11 games, he was on pace to lead the NFL in yards from scrimmage. 14.3 of his carries went for 10 yards or more, and his 6.9 targets per game were second best to Darren Sproles. Then disaster struck for Forte owners (including myself) when he went down with a knee sprain and missed the final four games of the season. The knee has since healed, and shouldn’t worry anyone at this point, but the addition of Michael Bush from the Oakland Raiders should be something to consider when drafting Forte.
Matt has never been a high touchdown total back. He only mustered 3 rushing touchdowns last season. Scoring touchdowns has always been a struggle for him, and Michael Bush should be a flat-out vulture this season for the Bears. Not to take anything away from Matt’s production last year, but the offensive scheme, ran by Mike Martz, had Jay Cutler tossing screens to Forte almost every down. I expect a more balanced approach by Chicago this year, and maybe even more of a passing team even though the Bears have long been regarded as a run-first team. A repeat of last season is highly unlikely, but Matt is still a very productive back. If you do target/draft Matt Forte, I’d highly suggest you handcuff Michael Bush, who will more than likely be the featured back in goal-line situations.
8.) Marshawn Lynch – Seattle Seahawks
Marshawn started the 2011 season at a snails pace. In the first three games, he combined for a lousy, 12 fantasy p0ints. However, after week 8, Lynch was in beast mode. He recorded double-digit points each and every week, minus week 17, where he recorded 8 points against the Arizona Cardinals.
Yes, Marshawn comes with a little bit of risk. He has had character issues in the past, and recently was arrested in July for investigation of drunk driving. Lynch has pleaded not guilty in the case. I wouldn’t tag the recent arrest as a risk when drafting Lynch this season.His lawyer has publicly said he will appeal, and go as far as taking the case to trial, if need be. Without a guilty verdict, the NFL cannot suspend Marshawn, so I believe he will not miss any games this season due to his legal issues.
Lynch isn’t a valuable PPR back, as he only recorded 28 receptions last season. He did however, surpass 1,200 rushing yards on 285 carries, and combined for 13 total touchdowns. With virtually no other legit back on the Seahawks roster, Lynch should have himself a very productive year. His current ADP is 20.1, and drafting a RB1 in the 3rd round or later, is always a positive.
9.) Darren McFadden – Oakland Raiders
This is the biggest risk in terms of the top ten running backs. In each of his four seasons, Darren McFadden has sustained an injury. Last year was no different, as Darren pushed straight to the top of the rankings after five weeks. In that span, he combined for 761 yards and five touchdowns. And then just like his team colors….he faded to black because of a mid-arch sprain, and did not play for the rest of the 2011 season.
It’s a new year, and Darren insists he is not injury prone. ”I can’t worry about last year,” he said. “Or that people say I always get hurt. I am always in shape and I work hard. … If anyone has any answers as to how I can avoid getting hurt, with these fluke-type injuries, I would love to hear them.” I don’t know if getting injured four seasons in a row can be called “flukes,” but his words are encouraging. The potenital and talent is there for “Run DMC,” he just needs to stay healthy for his owners. Because of his history, Darren has a current ADP of 25.2, and ESPN has him ranked as the 11th best running back. I will give him the benefit of the doubt, and say he deserves a top ten ranking. Just stay HEALTHY, Darren!
10.) Adrian Peterson – Minnesota Vikings
Amazing that I was honestly considering leaving Adrian Peterson off the top ten list. That’s the harsh reality however for a guy that many considered the best back in the game not too long ago. We all know what AP is capable of, but the injury bug has officially entered his system. Adrian tore his left ACL late last season, and according to reports, he is experiencing ”numbness” in the patellar tendon area of his surgically reconstructed knee. Beat writer Tom Pelissero cautions that the numbness “isn’t unusual” for a player coming off surgery to repair a torn ACL, MCL, and both meniscuses.
The Vikings will not allow Adrian Peterson to practice, and the earliest they are targeting him to resume play, is their third preseason game. Hard to project what AP will do this year, and when he will actually be 100%. I do know that Toby Gerhart is waiting in the wings if called upon, and he played quite well in AP’s absence last season. Drafting AP is a HUGE risk this season, and even if he comes back, there’s no telling if his reconstructed knee will hold up. I still can’t leave him out of the top ten though. He’s just that good. If he didn’t tear his ACL last year, he would most likely be considered one of the top backs in the rankings. He has a current ADP of 24.9, but I suspect you will find him dropping farther than that because of the injury risk, and the fact that he’s not playing contact football at the moment. If/When he does come back, it may take a few games for AP to catch up to his normal self. Huge risk, but you may reap the rewards later on in the season.
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