Compared to quarterback or receiver this year, the running back position is about as thick as a one-ply piece of industrial-grade toilet paper. And that is being generous.
This is the age of the running back by committee. Teams don’t feel the need to invest super heavily in an elite back and ride him as the only option until his wheels fall off. The stud running back has become extinct faster than Shaun Alexander.
So the RB position is an important one on draft day. My personal rankings at the moment, before the gauntlet of preseason games are factored in, includes the following:
1. Ray Rice, BAL. Stud back without any real competition for carries on a team that can pass enough to keep defenses honest but not enough to take the offensive focus away from him.
2. LeSean McCoy, PHI. Proved he can carry the offense on his back, and while the scrambling of Michael Vick may eat into his stats at times and the passing game is more legit than that of Baltimore, McCoy is used in so many different ways he’ll maintain solid value.
3. Arian Foster, HOU. The top back for many, you got to love how his team has refocused itself on smashmouth, run-heavy schemes. My only detractor is that Ben Tate is a legit powerhouse behind him and the team doesn’t have to pound Foster into the dirt.
4. Chris Johnson, TEN. In a good year, he is the top RB in the game. In a bad year … well, just look at last season. This time, he doesn’t enter the campaign with bad blood over a contract dispute and early reports are that he’s showing signs of rejuvenation.
5. Maurice Jones-Drew, JAX. Proved he can produce no matter how horrible the offense is around him. So very Barry Sanders of him. The red flag here is the contract holdout. Backs lately haven’t done so well after coming back from a lengthy holdout over a contract. Chris Johnson is a recent reminder of that. If the holdout carries close to the regular season, I would steer clear short of a value pick.
6. Darren McFadden, OAK. See Chris Johnson, just replace the contract stuff with injury concerns. McFadden is a beast when healthy, and selecting him may mean going a little early on Mike Goodson as a handcuff. Still, his talent is real.
7. Steven Jackson, STL. Much higher here than most would admit, we all know SJax will fall off the end of the NFL earth a la Shaun Alexander at some point. However, his track record of staying relatively healthy and the Rams’ new OC Brian Schottenheimer’s focus on a “physical running” scheme makes me like Jackson’s chances to keep plugging along in 2012. The bonus is that you can draft him in the second, and even third in some cases, round of your draft.
8. Matt Forte, CHI. Few backs can take an offense on his back like Forte. This year he won’t have to. The passing game should be light years better after several offseason upgrades and backup RB Michael Bush is good enough to be a starting RB in his own right. My only concern is just how much MBush is used.
9. DeMarco Murray, DAL. We saw what he can do when healthy … we just need him to stay on the field. Felix Jones doesn’t provide much competition for Murray, which means he should get plenty of carries. We just don’t know if we can count on him for the full season.
10. Marshawn Lynch, SEA. Players that have a career year and cash in with a lucrative new contract have a tendency to disappoint the following season. So do players who have numerous off-field issues, such as Lynch does. However, it is hard to ignore that Lynch is the primary back with little competition on a team with big question marks at QB and receiver. The fairly soft NFC-West schedule helps, too.
11. Jamaal Charles. KC. These next two backs are very similar. Two guys that can easily dominate the position when healthy. Both coming off major injury. They can be interchangeable, and I find myself flip-flopping on them daily. Charles has had more time to heal and I think gets on the field in a big role sooner than Adrian Peterson, hence the ranking here. Be sure to watch Peyton Hillis’ role though during the preseason. He may eat enough out of Charles’ workload to make me change my mind here.
12. Adrian Peterson, MIN. See Charles, Jamaal. Peterson goes a spot later because he is still not officially off the camp PUP list, but signs point toward Peterson being a solid option within the first quarter of the season. Toby Gerhart is less a threat to Peterson than Hillis to Charles in my opinion. Either way, if you get Peterson, see if you can snag Gerhart later for insurance.
13. Trent Richardson, CLE. The talent is immense, but we’ve had very talented rookie backs in the recent past who have disappointed. The concern for me at the moment is the utter desolation around Richardson in that offense. Short of being the next Barry Sanders, Richardson is going to struggle blasting through an 8-man box play after play.
14. Doug Martin, TB. Another guy you’ll see much later on many lists, Martin has the potential to really surprise people. He’s already on the verge of knocking LaGarrette Blount out of the top RB slot in Tampa and Martin has been drawing comparisons to Ray Rice and MJD. What I like is that when he does take over as the team’s top back, I fully expect him to get the lion’s share of carries for an offense that is much better passing-wise than Cleveland. In fantasy many times, opportunity can dwarf talent, and I think that will be the case in Martin vs. TRich this year.
15. Ryan Mathews, SD. (Previously 8) Some will cry foul that I moved Mathews down this far, but you’re lucky I didn’t drop him further. He already was tagged with injury red flags after NEVER completing an NFL season without some sort of ailment, and now he’s starting the season injured, will likely miss the first two weeks at least and you think I’m going to draft him higher than this? The upside is sweet, but not worth the risk any higher than this slot in my opinion.
16. Fred Jackson, BUF. When healthy, Fjax can be hard to slow down. However, health has become a concern for him, as has the semi-emergence of CJ Spiller in the offensive scheme. Reports are that both backs will split carries nearly 50-50. Time will tell, but it is harder to get excited about FJax for me than it was a year ago.
17. Darren Sproles, NO. Few backs surprised more in 2011 than Sproles, and a large part of that was thanks to the receptions he added out of the backfield. In PPR leagues, he moves up these rankings. My concern with Sproles is that there are just so many mouths to feed in the Saints’ backfield. Mark Ingram is expected to get an uptick in usage and Pierre Thomas is a good enough back to merit his own share of plays. I don’t think Sproles falls off the fantasy map this year, but I do expect him to fall back to earth at least somewhat.
18. Willis McGahee, DEN. We all know McGahee is playing on borrowed time – at least it feels that way – however the reality of the situation is that he’s still the primary ball carrier on an offense that will suddenly draw much more pass defense attention. Yes, Ronnie Hillman will be factored into the equation to a degree, but if Willis can stay upright … which can be a big if … he could provide some decent value.
19. Michael Turner, ATL. Ranking Turner here just because he has to be ranked somewhere … he’s a back that everyone is expecting a major dropoff from. The Falcons’ offense is converting to a pass-heavy scheme and Turner offers nearly no value to the passing attack. His value comes from TD potential. He is a back that I don’t see myself drafting this season considering he is going much earlier than I feel comfortable taking him.
20. Frank Gore, SF. I actually think Gore has more left in the tank than Turner and could easily switch the two on this list. My concern with Gore is that he has much more intense competition in the backfield. Kendall Hunter is better than many, including Harbaugh it seems, gives him credit. Brandon Jacobs is trying to carve out a niche in the offense. Rookie speed sensation LaMichael James could bypass everyone on the depth chart by the end of the season.
21. Ahmad Bradshaw, NYG. Another guy I have to rank somewhere, and who I find myself very unlikely to draft when the time comes short of a major value drop, Bradshaw has just been too inconsistent for my liking and will be pushed from Day 1 by rookie David Wilson. And one wonders just how far Bradshaw goes into the season before the injury bug bites again.
22. Isaac Redman, PIT. Another case of opportunity trumping talent, Redman is the primary ballcarrier on a team that has little upside depth. He’ll have value in TD leagues and will be used enough to keep defenses honest. I don’t expect Redman to be the fulltime starter by midseason – either due to a return from Rashard Mendenhall or Jonathan Dwyer or some other player the Steelers bring in.
23. Jonathan Stewart, CAR. The oppose end of the spectrum on the opportunity vs. talent spectrum. JStew is easily one of the most talented backs in the league, but I challenge you to find a back who is buried on his roster more than Stewart. He’s been losing carries galore to DeAngelo Williams for quite some time. Now Cam Newton takes a fair share of the goal-line jaunts, too. And this offseason, Carolina added Mike Tolbert to the mix as a fullback/tight end (yes, they say he’ll replace Jeremy Shockey’s production) who will demand at least a handful of Stewart’s receptions out of the backfield. Still Stewart is just too talented to fall any lower on this list.
24. Benjarvus Green-Ellis, CIN. The Bengals like to run the ball, and BJGE is the primary ballcarrier for them. Many reports are suggesting that Bernard Scott will split carries with BJGE and that it will be a committee. I just remember how pitiful Cedric Benson was for the Bengals (his yards per carry were somewhere near the toll you pay to leave New Jersey at the Delaware Water Gap.) If the Bengals didn’t find a way to incorporate BScott then, I have my doubts now.
25. Shonn Greene, NYJ. Many people are higher on Greene than I am. The Jets are saying all the right things about expanding Greene’s role. However, how many other offseason promises have you heard from clubs promising certain players a larger role? How many of those promises come to fruition? Greene could put together some decent games, but I get a feeling that the addition of Tim Tebow could carve into Shonn’s upside, especially around the end zone.
26. Donald Brown, IND. Many people remember how solid Brown looked last year as the season winded down and if you extrapolate those stats over a full season, Brown could be something special. The problem is that Brown won’t play over a full season. He’s basically guaranteed to get injured and I have a gut feeling that Delone Carter and perhaps even Vick Ballard will factor into the workload more and more as the season progresses. Still, you have to draft the upside and the fact he’s the bonafide starter (at the moment) on a team that has a rookie QB and will likely be running it a decent amount.
27. Stevan Ridley, NE. Ridley is looking like the potential primary runner for the Patriots this year. No running back outside of Corey Dillon has been a fantasy stud and worked out of the New England backfield at the same time. Ridley is not Corey Dillon. However, he is young and has more talent than guys such as James Starks. Shane Vereen may sneak a few carries away from Ridley and Tom Brady will keep the passing attack atop the Patriots’ priority list. Ridley still has potential to work as a decent RB3 off the bench of your fantasy roster.
28. Reggie Bush, MIA. More of a finesse back who needs to be heavily involved in the passing game to provide elite stats, Reggie had a great year last year. And while some may be OK basing their 2012 rankings on 2011 stats, I am not. The Dolphins didn’t draft Lamar Miller to not use him. Daniel Thomas is healthy and trying to carve out a role in the Dolphins backfield. Reports from Miami have Reggie splitting out in more of a wide receiver role. The Dolphins need WR help, so that makes sense. I just don’t feel comfortable drafting Reggie higher without knowing his role.
29. James Starks, GB. Sort of forgotten in many mocks, Starks isn’t a super talent by any stretch of the imagination. However, he still projects as the top back on a high-powered offense. The passing game will likely keep Starks from having any true monster games, but the holes will be there when he does tote the rock. His inability to really capitalize on his situation may leave an opening for the arguably more talented Alex Green to take a bigger role as the season progresses. However, at the moment you’ll be hard-pressed to find a legitimate starting RB still alive in your respective drafts.
30. Roy Helu, WAS. Outside of the seven wonders of the world, Mike Shanahan’s RB plans rank a close eighth in terms of sheer unpredictability. Helu is the obvious stud in the backfield but the coaching staff continues to play musical chairs. Evan Royster has been the flavor of the month in preseason practices. Tim Hightower, a favorite of Shanny, should be fully healthy at some point, too. I love Helu’s potential, I just don’t trust his playcallers.
As ep suggests in his “Trust Yourself Drafting” post, we encourage you to consider rankings such as these as a stepping off point in determining your own personal rankings. There will be debate and we welcome that when publishing rankings or other opinion pieces. Feel free to leave your comments below.