2011 fantasy football: Top 30 running backs with lengthy analysis

Pop quiz: Over the past decade, how many different backs won the annual rushing yardage crown?

Nine. That means that nine times out of 10, we had a different back lead the league in rushing. The only repeat “offender” was LaDanian Tomlinson, and we know just how special he was. Gone are the days of the Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smiths, Eric Dickersons and Earl Campbells. All of which made the list numerous times.

Many suggest backs nowadays are too pansified. That the bazillion dollar contracts have something to do with it. Whatever the case, there is little doubt that backs these days are not built for long-term consistency atop the RB heap.

Which doesn’t bode well for certain backs that have already had their statistical day in the sun, so to speak.

Just some food for thought heading into my 2011 RB redraft rankings, which are based on how I think players will finish, not where you should snag them on draft day. My rankings at QB, WR and TE are already available.

1. Arian Foster, HOU. Like I suggested above, backs nowadays that are coming off career statistical seasons tend to trail off somewhat the next season.

Foster won’t eclipse 1,600 yards again, or notch 16 rushing TDs. But even a decent backpedaling still puts him in elite company. His offense is a prime spot for running backs – if Steve Slaton can break out in that offense, anyone can.

2. Chris Johnson, TEN. I was all ready to put Johnson as my top back in 2011 until the contract talks spiraled out of control and we’re looking at the possibility of CJ missing some regular season action. Smart money would suggest that cooler heads will prevail and he’ll get back on the field.

When he does, Johnson provides a unique blend of speed and elusiveness to rebound from a somewhat disappointing 2010. Tennessee has committed to making CJ their centerpiece of their offense and it isn’t as if the receiving corps will take too many catches/carries away from Johnson.

3. Rashard Mendenhall, PIT. Remember, this is not a PPR list. Mendenhall showed last season that he can handle a full season of action and continue to produce throughout. He’s at an age (24) where many backs seems to “break out” and is one of just a few anymore that carries the full load for his offense.

Talk out of Pittsburgh suggests that Mendenhall will be upgraded in the passing game this year, too, meaning he’ll add passing yardage and perhaps a few dump off TDs to a resume that basically guarantees double-digit TDs (he had 13 last year) and an uptick in yardage.

4. Jamaal Charles, KC. Leary of this selection. I had him all over the place. I love the potential for yardage and contribution in the passing game. Concerned about his pretty dismal TD total and coach-speak-esque maneuver to have Thomas Jones listed officially as the RB1 ahead of Jamaal. We all know that is a joke and that Charles will be the top option. I also am not sold on Matt Cassell as a guy who can keep defenses totally honest, despite some impressive showings by Dwayne Bowe last season and the addition of Jonathan Baldwin.

5. Adrian Peterson, MIN. I’ve been hard on Peterson every year, and he continues to produce solid numbers. And yet, I can’t stop my dislike for Peterson in fantasy drafts. I can’t explain it totally.

Perhaps it is the steady decline in rushing yardage over the past three years or the downtick in TDs in 2010 compared to 2009. His receiving yardage also took a hit in 2010 vs. 2009.

I also worry about a receiving corps that is more horrific than ever. Whenever you are counting on Bernard Berrian to be your No. 2 and a headache-prone Percy Harvin to be the top option, you can’t get too excited. Defenses will be stacking the box more than ever.

And, perhaps the biggest reason to worry about Peterson in 2011 includes the fact that he’ll be rushing behind arguably the worst O-line in the NFL.

Still, I can’t drop him lower than this. As much as I find reasons to not like Peterson, there is no denying he’s been a boon for fantasy the past couple years.

6. Darren McFadden, OAK. If it weren’t for injury concerns, McFadden would be a top five back without question based off his breakout 2010 campaign. He averaged 5.2 yards per carry, played an important role in the Raiders passing game and turned in some monster games. One could argue that he did so mostly against poorer defenses, but it isn’t like his 2011 slate is a defensive minefield outside of a few NFC-North matchups.

7. Ray Rice, BAL. It is a flip of the coin between Rice and LeSean McCoy here. Both are very talented out of the backfield. Both play on offenses striving not only for a playoff berth, but a deep run into the postseason.

What may save Rice this year is the departure of Willis McGahee, making Rice the goal line back despite the addition of Ricky Williams. Rice’s one fantasy Achilles heels has been his inability to consistently score TDs, and that could change this year.

8. LeSean McCoy, PHI. Tough one, as I mentioned above. McCoy handled the primary ball carrying job all season for Philly, although he did still manage 100 carries less than Rice during the campaign.

Part of that is due to Michael Vick, who usurps a number of runs that typically the feature back would receive in an offense. McCoy is a PPR stud, but in non-PPR scoring, expectations should be tempered a bit.

9. Maurice Jones-Drew, JAX. A stud fantasy RB for quite some time, Jones-Drew is still only 26 and young enough to have a bounce back 2011. However, injuries that hampered him in 2010 are still affecting him this preseason to a degree.

When he does carry the football, he makes things happen. His yards per carry in 2010 was right along his career average and while he did see a downtick in the passing game, he still can make some noise out of the backfield.

The issue with Jones-Drew is the risk based on the lingering injuries. If you draft him, be sure to make Rashad Jennings a priority in a later round.

10. Frank Gore, SF. Tempting to go with a younger back with less of an injury concern tagged to him, but Gore is just too productive when he’s on the field to ignore.

New coach Jim Harbaugh has admitted the offense will go through Gore this season, and considering the mess at QB, that isn’t exactly a surprise. This will likely mean more defensive pressure for Gore, but also more opportunities to break a big one.

11. Peyton Hillis, CLE. Coming out of no where last season and finishing as a top 5 fantasy back, Hillis is due for a decline. Any bust list would suggest that, although, like I mentioned recently, guys who are over worked on bust lists can become sneaky-good values.

Hillis’ overall stats may suffer somewhat, but his 4.4 yards per carry is more than sustainable looking at his career stats. So is the 7.8 yards per catch he averaged in 2010. While he likely won’t see double digit TDs in 2011, someone has to carry the load for an offense starved for a playmaker.

Many figured Montario Hardesty will eat into his carries, but Hardesty has been struggling with injuries this preseason so far and one wonders if it will linger well into the regular season. New acquisition Brandon Jackson has some people worried, but if Jackson couldn’t make it work when he had opportunities to start on an offensive juggernaut like Green Bay, than why should we expect him to blow things up in Cleveland?

Hillis should continue to get the lions share of the carries, just watch recent developments about a possibly tweaked hammy. More on Hillis and his potential value here.

12. Shonn Greene, NYJ. Remember, I pointed out that this is where I feel guys will finish, not where you should draft them. Greene is going a lot later than this in most drafts, mostly because he’s still largely an unknown quantity.

However, the Jets are prolific rushing team that relies heavily on the ground game. LaDanian Tomlinson had a rejuvenation of sorts last year in New York and has admitted that his time is past and Greene will be the bell cow in the offense.

Of course, the AFC-East is tough, but Greene should be in line for a lot of carries and enough opportunities to produce some solid fantasy stats this year.

13. Michael Turner, ATL. Some would argue he should be higher on this list based on TD potential alone. However, he continues to be mostly non-existent in the passing game and while his 1,371 yards rushing were the second highest of his seven-year career, his yards per carry took a noticeable drop.

Then comes news that the Falcons will be committing to a pass-heavy downfield type offense. They’ll still need a power back to pound the ball into the end zone, but things aren’t as rosy as they were for Turner.

14. Steven Jackson, STL. According to Jackson, he feels better this preseason than any other outside of his rookie campaign. Not a bad sign from someone who’s been in the league as long as he has.

There is little doubt that Jackson can make some noise in fantasy circles – doing so numerous times despite a sorry state of passing affairs in the Rams offense. This year, St. Louis looks to be very potent in the passing game, which will both take some opportunities away from Jackson, but also open up more lanes.

Josh McDaniels is more of a passing type coach than an RB connoisseur, still Jackson should fare well if he can stay healthy. Especially playing in the NFC-West.

15. Felix Jones, DAL. Call me crazy, especially since I drank the Felix Jones Kool Aid last preseason and wasn’t totally satisfied. This time around, however, the Cowboys brass is not holding back in their praise for and plans to use Felix in a featured role. Owner Jerry Jones, in fact, went as far as to suggest that the Cowboys overall success this season rests on the shoulders of Felix.

Injuries were a common theme for Jones in the past, but he stayed fairly healthy all of 2010 and if he can continue and capitalize on his talents, he could be a very sneaky top 10 RB in 2011. Tempering expectations a bit, he winds up 15th here. More on his value upside here.

16. Matt Forte, CHI. Streaky at times last season, Forte did post good totals against some tough defenses, including a 113-yard game against the Jets in what was the 2010 fantasy championship week in most leagues. His ability to catch the ball out of the backfield helps his overall stock, especially in PPR formats.

17. DeAngelo Williams, CAR. Rumored to be going elsewhere this offseason, many wondered what value DeAngelo would have. Staying in Carolina, Williams’ value is still somewhat questionable.

In raw talent and numerous 5.0 yards per carry seasons past, Williams was a fantasy force. Injuries last year and an overall miserable Panthers offense made running room sparse. Williams got a hefty contract, so there is little doubt he will get the primary number of carries.

18. Jahvid Best, DET. Posting some amazing numbers last season as a rookie, Best was slowed by turf toe and his yards per carry plummeted to 3.3 by the end of the season.

The Lions drafted talented rookie runner Mikel LeShoure this past offseason, only to lose LeShoure for the season due to injury. Jerome Harrison won’t be as big a threat to Best’s workload and word is that Best is fully healed from the dreaded turf toe situation.

There is no doubt Best is talented and able to break some big runs. The Lions offense looks very dynamic on paper and Best could capitalize on that for a solid season if he can stay healthy.

19. Ahmad Bradshaw, NYG. The 4.5 yards per carry and overall 1,235 yards were nice in 2010. So were the eight TDs and decent receiving stats. However, look at his game log for the year and you’ll realize that many of those stats came earlier in the year before Brandon Jacobs became more integral in the offensive scheme.

The two basically split carries down the stretch, and the Giants have indicated that the timeshare is likely to continue into 2011.

There is plenty of potential here, but Jacobs’ presence will be felt.

20. LeGerrette Blount, TB. An impressive rookie campaign has put Blount into the drivers seat for the Bucs, especially with Cadillac Williams now out of town. There is much to be learned by Blount in his sophomore season, and he’s nonexistent in the passing game. However, his stock is headed in the right direction.

21. Ryan Grant, GB. The Packers backfield looks sort of crowded on paper, but from all accounts, Grant is going to be the primary option for this season. James Starks tweaked an ankle recently and the lost reps should solidify as Grant as the A1 option for the time being.

Grant has been productive when the primary option, racking up 1,253 yards and 11 TDs in 2009. In his four seasons in the NFL, Grant has played the full season all but once – last year when he went down in Week 1 vs. the Eagles.

Starks will take some carries from Grant down the stretch, but for the time being, Grant should be a good fantasy producer, especially at the price he’s going for in drafts.

22. Daniel Thomas, MIA. The official depth chart for Miami at the moment has Reggie Bush as the top back in the offense. We know that will change sooner than later.

Thomas is a wrecking ball (230 pounds), yet has shown in recent workout that he has really good hands. He has the best chance of the rookie RBs to be productive this season, in my opinion.

23. Knowshon Moreno, DEN. The arrival of John Fox means a more run-minded offense. However, I have some serious doubts on Moreno. More about that can be found here.

24. Mike Tolbert, SD. Higher than most would imagine, I think Tolbert will be a very solid option in 2011. More on my 2011 Tolbert love affair here.

25. Mark Ingram, NO. Already showing some solid balance and overall explosiveness, Ingram will be the starting RB in New Orleans at some point, ifg not in Week 1.

My only drawbacks with Ingram involve the offense being pass-heavy, the presence of at least a partially viable Pierre Thomas and a turf surface that some have theorized causes earlier injury concerns in some backs.

26. Marshawn Lynch, SEA. Could be an interesting sleeper, Lynch had the full offseason (minus the lockout) to better learn Pete Carroll’s plans for the offense. It isn’t like Justin Forsett or Leon Washington will be major threats to Lynch’s playing time and he’s a downhill runner that suits my theory for this season.

27. Joseph Addai, IND. Another sleeper option, Addai has been productive when healthy in the prolific Colts offense. He’s healthy at the moment and going late enough in drafts to be worth the risk of another injury.

28. Tim Hightower, WAS. The current No. 1 back for the Redskins, Hightower did have some productive days with Arizona and could have some upside. The problem is that Mr. Shanahan can never commit for any real length of time to one official back. Expect a mixture at times during the season of Hightower with Ryan Torain and rookies Roy Helu and Evan Royster.

29. Ryan Williams, ARI. Some debate that Beanie Wells is going to be the guy this year, but the games he’ll start will be more the fault of the lockout taking away Ryan Williams’ early learning curve than anything. Beanie proved he can’t be trusted and someone has to produce out of the backfield for an offense that may be fairly productive if Kevin Kolb can develop chemistry with Larry Fitzgerald quickly.

30. Cedric Benson, CIN. Ho-hum. That’s how I feel about Benson, who averaged a pathetic 3.5 yards per carry and the Bengals offense will be less than stellar with young leadership taking over. Still, he’s the starter until Bernard Scott starts getting his turn (if that day ever comes).

2 Responses to “2011 fantasy football: Top 30 running backs with lengthy analysis”


  1. Mike

    Arian Foster at #1 sets the pace for this list… Vonta Leach is gone and they have a converted back-up TE sitting atop the FB depth chart.

    Listing Mendy over AP is wild too. Super Bowl hangover and the “curse of 370″, make me weary of him in 2011. He has stud potential, but no way is he better than AP or Charles…

    Peyton Hillis won’t be relevant for long this year, is will be overdrafted in every league this year. On the flip side, Knowshon Moreno definitely will be relevant, and at a cheaper price.

    I like the Felix Jones ranking, as he should go under the radar with a ton of upside. I also like Ryan Williams in keeper leagues. Don’t sleep on a “finally healthy” Ahmad Bradshaw even with Jacobs in the mix. Bradshaw is as tough as nails and is scary good.

    Sorry to break down your list! Every has their perspective on strategies and that’s the beauty of fantasy football!

    Good luck this year fellas

  2. jzak

    No need to be sorry. That’s how make ourselves stronger as fantasy players … to have opinions and be willing to look at things from a different perspective at times.

    If anyone last year would have suggested that Arian Foster would be the NFL rushing leader last year or Peyton Hillis a top-5 fantasy RB, most everyone would have considered that writer downright crazy. I don’t see Mendenhall at No. 3 as that far of a reach, especially when you consider just how few times Jamaal Charles actually hits paydirt and how Adrian Peterson has consistently dwindled stat-wise for the past several years. A bold prediction? Sure. But not as bold as what really happens in the NFL on a yearly basis it seems.