(EDITORS NOTE: 8/22, I have changed several rankings at the top of this list based on major events which have occurred during training camp and the exhibition season.)
Arian Foster is a top running back, but Ben Tate actually performed statistically better last season.
Maurice Jones-Drew led the league in rushing last year, but he figures not to get nearly as many attempts this year.
Ryan Matthews is slated to get a significantly larger role, but durability remains a huge question mark.
Matt Forte is a PPR monster and was headed for a career year in 2011 but does not score much and will now be replaced in goal-line situations.
Expectations are enormous for No. 3 overall pick Trent Richardson, but remember he is a rookie.
And the production of all of the above can fall to zero with one wrong twist of a knee.
If you are still one of those who clings to the theory that running backs should be taken early and often in fantasy football drafts, you are quickly falling behind.
It isn’t just the fact that the NFL is now geared towards the pass more than ever – it’s that running backs have become like starting pitchers in baseball, almost all basically now have what you amont to a pitch count.
With the exception of Maurice Jones-Drew, no NFL back saw more than 301 carries last year. The age of mega-touchdown seasons is becoming rare as well – LeSean McCoy scored 20 times last year, but no other back scored more than 15.
The evolution makes sense, what is going to be work heading into the fourth quarter – a tired back approaching 30 carries, or a committee (first-second down/’change of pace’/third down back) each running 10 times.
Never mind Bill Belichick–if Tony LaRussa were an NFL coach you might be seeing six different backs getting five touches each.
There are still a handful of backs worth first-round picks and several others in the second round. But also remember the attrition rate at the position is much higher than at quarterback/receiver/tight end, and there will be some expensive targets throughout the season in FAAB formats and be mindful of handcuffs. There’s a good chance that someone not even close to the top of this list may win a fantasy title for a lot of owners.
See Ryan Grant, 2007… On to the Fantasy Football 2012 Running Back Rankings.
1. Arian Foster (HOU)
I’ll be honest, I am not bananas over Foster but have him here because he is the consensus #1 overall pick on most boards. If I were drafting first overall this year, I would seriously consider trading down. With 30 touchdowns in his last 29 games, Foster owns the best TD per game ratio over the past two years.
But backup Ben Tate got more than a nice size sample last year, rushing 175 times for 942 yards, a nice 5.4 average. If I was drafting first, I’d have to draft Arian, but I would also make absolutely certain to handcuff him with Tate, as in selecting Ben over another warm body in the middle rounds and well higher than any ADP ranking you may see – I would say Round 7 for Tate, before a rival owner even thinks of it.
2. Ray Rice (BAL)
This is almost who I want to select number one overall. Not only does Rice have 850 touches the past three seasons, he has also averaged over 70 receptions per season, and there is also not an experienced backup on the Ravens roster. Last year’s 15 TD effort was his first foray into double figures, and although Baltimore could find a goal-line specialist, I can still conservatively pencil him in for 12-14 scores. As I ranked this Ray had just inked up to a 5-year/$40 million contract, which makes him the third-highest paid back in the league – there are no holdout worries here.
3. LeSean McCoy (PHI)
If one of the three top running backs are still on the board when you are drafting, congratulation – because as of August 8 events have separated the top three from the rest of the field, and I now expect the top three RB’s to go with the top-four, or at the very latest top five overall picks. .Although not that highly regarded coming out of Pitt a few years back, LeSean has proven to be the real McCoy coming off a 20 touchdown season. Only downside is his receptions dropped from 78 to 48 last year, which may be more of an aberration. As a number three or four overall pick I would look for 1,500 total yards/60 catches/and conservatively 12 or so touchdowns.
4. Darren McFadden (OAK)
8/22 UPDATE: Many people are now aggressive and bullish on D-Mac as he has been healthy through camp and has looked very impressive in limited pre-season reps, and I’ve heard other fantasy football experts now ranking McFadden as high as #4 overall. I wouldn’t put McFadden over my original top three but is justified at No. 4 and very much worth the roll of the dice at #5 or #6. I was originally high on Taiwan Jones as a handcuff, but he is behind the eight ball after missing much of camp with a hamstring and is getting his own rep as an ‘injury prone’ player. As of now, Mike Goodson is emerging as the #2 and could even end up being a dreaded goal-line vulture.
5. Chris Johnson (TN)
8/22 UPDATE: You may have caught my recent article about a draft I participated in where I took Chris seventh overall and added that I wasn’t very comfortable being in that slot and drafting Johnson. What Johnson does bring to the table is that he does not have anyone breathing down his back for carries and has no injury concerns going into the season. CJ also carries additional value in PPR formats, where I see him going as high as #5 overall. I still worry that he may have left too much tread back in that 2009 season, but you can still make that mid first-round pick with confidence.
6. DeMarco Murray (DAL)
8/22 UPDATE: The only thing worrying me about DeMarco right now is that the Cowboys offense is a mess going into the 2012 campaign. Two wide receivers down, and also problems with the offensive line. However one bright spot is DeMarco, who camp observers are absolutely raving about. Reporters in particular have been taking note of his inside running skills, his receiving, and perhaps most importantly his willingness to block (which keeps him in good graces and keeps him on the field). Many are souring on Felix Jones these days so for the first time since seemingly the days of Emmitt Smith the Cowboys may finally have a solid RB1. The only downside, DeMarco has his injury issues in the past and has missed time every season going back to his OU days. Still, go ahead and grab DeMarco late first-round.
7. Adrian Peterson (MN)
8/22 UPDATE: I admit I am reaching a little bit on AD at #7 on this list, but he appears on target to play Week 1 and I look at this as a chance to grab an elite talent this year at a discounted price. In the recent draft I participated in Peterson went early third-round which I would had loved to jump on if I had the chance. Don’t be alarmed about the Vikings not using him in the exhibition season, they are playing it smart there. Go ahead and draft Adrian mid-Round 2, and also go ahead and handcuff Toby Gerhart in case Adrian does wind up being an inactive for a week or two early on, then you should be covered.
8. Marshawn Lynch (SEA)
8/22 UPDATE: I have Lynch back on the rise because (a) he has looked good in camp and is actually slimmed down and (b) it appears the league will not hand out punishment for Marshawn’s most recent scrape with the law until the legal process runs its course, which likely will not be until after the season. Unless Marshawn does something else silly off the field, I have him back in my top-ten RB’s.
9. Trent Richardson (CLE)
8/22 UPDATE: Way back in the early July rankings I was uncomfortable with Trent being ranked as high as mid-first round, and am actually glad that his recent knee scoped has cooled his value a bit, and he also lasted early-third round in the draft I was personally involved in. It may now take the rookie part of the season to get back up to speed, and also consider the forgotten Mario Hardesty who is so forgotten that he may even be available on the waiver wire if you have already drafted.
10. Matt Forte (CHI)
Slot him a couple slots higher in PPR leagues, lower in leagues focusing heavily on TDs. Forte was putting up a career year for two-thirds of 2011 before getting hurt. Michael Bush has been brought in and projects to do the bulk of the goal-line work. Despite his public venting over the Bush signing, Forte ended up inking a 4-year/$32 million contract, which will keep him in Chicago. $18 million is guaranteed.
Click here to find out how far Maurice Jones-Drew has fallen in the top 50.