The NFL has become a passing game. While that is a true statement, top running backs will rule the first few rounds of fantasy drafts as much as ever.
In fact, a typical draft in a 12-team league this year will likely feature 10 backs, receiver Calvin Johnson, and an Aaron Rodgers or Jimmy Graham selection. Or even an 11th running back. Round 2 will see the top receivers come off the board, but you should consider backs with possibly the first and second round selections, or at the very least two of the first three picks.
It is unlikely he will even approach the 2,097 rushing yards of last year, but if you are fortunate enough to have the No. 1 overall pick, you have to roll with the Purple Jesus. Don’t over-think it too much.
2. Arian Foster – Houston Texans
The undrafted University of Tennessee product is still only four years in, and hasn’t shown signs of wear yet. Foster has 50 touchdowns his last 45 games, will be in the 1,500-yard area if he’s healthy, and has been a PPR monster. The only negative is that Foster’s receiving totals dropped last year, only catching 40 passes after averaging four catches per game his first two years. Only the presence of Peterson knocks Foster out of the No. 1 overall slot. Ben Tate is still a recommended handcuff.
3. Doug Martin – Tampa Bay Buccaneers
As I said in a previous offseason article, Martin is easily the easily the highest-ranked Tampa Bay Buccaneer fantasy prospect in franchise history. As is the case in drafting at No. 1 or No. 2, there isn’t much guesswork here. In addition to his 1,454 rushing yards, Martin was also a PPR asset with 49 receptions. You can worry about sophomore slumps and other scenarios, but going into the season Martin and Foster are a cut above the next several runners.
4. Jamaal Charles – Kansas City Chiefs
If you have a Kentucky Derby format for determining draft selection, be sure to put the fourth slot at the bottom of your wish list. The next several backs on this list are interchangeable and subject to debate depending on league format. That said, I have to go with the explosive Charles and his 5.8 yard career rushing average at No. 4. Throw out his torn ACL year of 2011, and Charles has rushed in the 1,500-yard range in both 2010 and 2012, and is usually good for 40 receptions. Bump Charles way down in touchdown-only leagues however, he has only scored 24 times in 65 career games.
5. Ray Rice – Baltimore Ravens
There are some fantasy football pundits a little down on Ray this year. Yes, he now has some tread on his tires, his carries went down some last year and Bernard Pierce figures to get a larger piece of the action in 2013. Also, Rice has always been a decent, but not monster touchdown scorer. But he can only side down so far, especially in PPR formats where his 60-70 catches per year are an additional bonus.
6. Marshawn Lynch – Seattle Seahawks
The last couple of seasons have seen Lynch reach the full potential that was expected as the 12th overall pick back in 2007, his 1,590 yards and 12 touchdowns last year were career-bests. It will be tough for Beast Mode to replicate those numbers, in part because the NFC West has become the Group of Death with four games against the 49ers and Rams. Lynch has not been utilized much in the passing game in recent years either. He also still has a case kicking around very slowly in the legal system. I would not expect much in league discipline once a resolution is made in that case, so that shouldn’t be a big concern.
7. C.J. Spiller – Buffalo Bills
From one former Bills first-round pick to another. Spiller became a major breakout performer in 2012, averaging an even six yards per carry. The ceiling could be even higher if he gets a larger workload than last year’s 207 carries. Fred Jackson is still around, but Spiller will have the bulk of the carries and will also flirt with 50 catches out of the backfield.
8. LeSean McCoy – Philadelphia Eagles
McCoy has slid a bit from the last couple of years, despite recent seasons that saw him catch 78 passes (2010) and score 20 touchdowns (2011). McCoy missed a few games last year, which gave Bryce Brown an opportunity to show what he could do. Brown is definitely worth a handcuff, but I would not be too scared off with McCoy, he is a very good selection if he slides to your team at No. 8 or No. 9. And Chip Kelly will find a way to use him.
9. Trent Richardson – Cleveland Browns
T-Rich is going in most drafts exactly where he was last year at this time, late first round. Richardson did score 12 times as a rookie, but only averaged 3.6 yards per carry. On the plus side, he caught 51 passes so he will be good in the PPR formats. The Browns also have a nice offensive line so there’s room for improvement, remember Richardson came into the 2012 campaign hurt and played through injuries during his entire rookie season.
10. Alfred Morris – Washington Redskins
Rounding out the top-10 is a back who rushed for 1,600-plus yards as a sixth-round rookie while scoring 13 times. So what is there not to like? Well, Morris is a liability in PPR formats, as he only caught 11 passes last year. Think of Alfred as Michael Turner 2.0. All of that said, this is not a bad back to have slide to the end of Round 1. I’m not into ‘tiers’, but numbers four through 10 all have similar expectations and are in the prime of their careers.
11. Matt Forte – Chicago Bears
The best of the rest starts here. Forte has always been huge in PPR formats with 50-plus catches annually, and has never rushed for fewer than 900 yards in a season. Where Forte hurts a bit is in the total touchdown number, he only has 35 scores in 75 career games.
12. Steven Jackson – Atlanta Falcons
S-Jax certainly has the resume, working on eight consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons and moving to a contending team for the first time. The concern with him is the excessive odometer reading on his legs and the fact that he has not reached double-digits in touchdowns since the 2006 season. Jackson was once prolific catching passes out of the backfield, with 90 receptions back in 2006, and landing in the 40 to 50 catch range since. At this stage in his career, Jackson will be a small upgrade over predecessor Michael Turner.
13. Stevan Ridley – New England Patriots
In normal situations, Ridley might be worth ranking a bit higher after rushing for 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns in his second year in the league. But Bill Belichick is capable of changing running backs without notice and No. 2 back Shane Vereen would not be much of a drop-off. LeGarrette Blount is also in the mix in Foxborough since the Patriots apparently haven’t had enough players character issues recently.
14. Chris Johnson – Tennessee Titans
Johnson’s stock has dropped considerably since his 2,000 yard rushing season, but he still finished last year with 1,200-plus rushing yards and a 4.5 yard average. Johnson has never been a huge touchdown scorer and will lose goal-line carries going forward to new acquisition Shonn Greene. But the Greene acquisition is actually good, since it should help keep Johnson more fresh, and he is still just 28 years old. You will not see 2,500-plus total yards again like in 2009, but Johnson is still a good late second-round pick.
MJD is one of the wildcards this season after missing the latter part of 2012 with the dreaded Lisfranc fracture in his foot. In 2011, Jones-Drew flirted with the 2,000 yard total yard mark. You worry about how much MJD can bounce back on a team that went 2-14 last year, but if he is indeed ready for Week 1, he could prove to again be a first-round talent. Jones-Drew could likely be had late in the second or early in the third round.
16. Montee Ball – Denver Broncos
I have Bell placed a bit conservatively here, but I love his situation and potential upside, especially considering he took it over the stripe 39 times at the University of Wisconsin a few years back. Some feel Ball got overworked during his time at Wisconsin, but I would not consider that a concern this year. Playing in a run-friendly offense in the AFC West, I fully expect Ball to be the top rookie back this year, if he’s available Round 3 jump on him.
17. David Wilson – New York Giants
Over the years, the names have changed in the Giants’ backfield, but the majority of them have fared very well. Wilson may be perhaps the Giants most talented back since Tiki Barber left, and is being billed as this year’s C.J. Spiller. Wilson’s ceiling is high, but remember Andre Brown is also in line for carries.
18. DeMarco Murray – Dallas Cowboys
Now to a couple of guys who were projected as first-rounders this time last year. If healthy, Murray is still the starter with the Cowboys and is capable of being a first-round type back. But Murray has repeatedly found himself injured, dating back to his days at the University of Oklahoma. The good news is that Murray can be had in Round 3 this year instead of Round 1.
19. Darren McFadden – Oakland Raiders
McFadden has been perennially over-hyped for years, and I can pull up Yahoo! footage from a year ago when fantasy pundits had Run DMC going as high as fourth overall. Last year was not just about his annual injury, but his yards per carry plummeted to 3.3 after 5.4 and 5.2 in previous seasons. McFadden is still just 26, so you can take him Round 3 and not be taking a gigantic risk.
20. Frank Gore – San Francisco 49ers
Many expected Gore to hit the wall last year and possibly be overtaken by Kendall Hunter. But Gore actually aged like fine California wine, with his yards per carry actually improving and his total carries (258) only slightly down. Now at 30 years old, a deep stable of backs lurk in the background including Hunter, LaMichael James, and eventually Marcus Lattimore.
21. LeVeon Bell – Pittsburgh Steelers
If Ball is the best rookie back, Bell sits in a not-too distant second place. The Michigan State product stands at 6-1 and 245 pounds, got heavy work over the past two seasons and is actually a receiver out of the backfield. The Steelers starting job is there for the taking, and Bell should fare well in touchdown and PPR formats.
22. Reggie Bush – Detroit Lions
The Lions have seemingly been looking for a featured back since current Madden cover athlete Barry Sanders hung it up 15 years ago. Bush could be the closest thing to Sanders, but has never been a heavy-duty runner, his 220 average carries during his last two years in Miami stands as his largest workload. With the Lions he should be in line for similar work and also do well in PPR formats. It seems like he’s been around forever, but he’s only 28.
23. Chris Ivory – New York Jets
Ivory never quite became the man with in New Orleans probably because the Saints feel too invested in Mark Ingram. The former undrafted free agent with get his shot at being the lead dog with the Jets this year. In 256 career carries, Ivory possesses a 5.1 career average with eight touchdowns. I really like him in the latter stages of Round 4 or early Round 5.
24. Lamar Miller – Miami Dolphins
Coach Joe Philbin has his Green Bay Packers philosophy, that does not focus enormously on the running game. Despite only seeing limited time as a rookie, Miller is another guy I like out of the “Tier Four” category. He has ridiculous amounts of speed, as he runs in the 4.4 range.
25. Ryan Mathews – San Diego Chargers
Another guy who awe don’t have to worry about being over-hyped anymore. After getting hurt in the first exhibition game and only scoring once in 12 games in 2012, Mathews’ stock is way down. In 2011 Mathews did rush for 1,091 yards, averaging nearly five yards per carry and he reached the Pro Bowl. So the potential remains if he can stay healthy just once. Danny Woodhead also arrives to take care of the third down work, which should keep Mathews fresh.
26. Giovani Bernard – Cincinnati Bengals
BenJarvus Green-Ellis goes into camp still as the top dog on the depth chart and coming off a near 1,100-yard rushing season. But it won’t be long before Bernard becomes the starter. The 37th overall pick from the 2013 NFL Draft is often compared to Ray Rice and will open the year as the team’s third-down back, with his role likely expanding after that. Let another owner draft the Law Firm first and then immediately snag Bernard.
27. Darren Sproles – New Orleans Saints
You know exactly what you’re getting here. He’s not a featured back, but a specialist who will catch 70 to 80 passes a year out of the backfield, and has scored 17 times in his two years with the Saints in that role. Plug him into your flex position and you should have little to worry about. Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram will split the rushing duties in New Orleans and basically cancel each other out.
28. Andre Brown – New York Giants
My first true No. 2 back on the list, consider Brown the new version of Brandon Jacobs, he scored eight times on just 73 carries last year.
29. Ahmad Bradshaw – Indianapolis Colts
Despite having another solid 1,000-yard rushing season, the Giants decided to move on in the offseason, in part due to Bradshaw’s injury history. Bradshaw should have a similar role with the Colts, and at worst he will split time with Vick Ballard.
As I said in the Bernard profile, Green-Ellis is not bad, he’s just not explosive and is a non-factor in the passing game. Just realize he figures to only be the featured back for the first month or so before falling into more of a backup role.
31. Eddie Lacy – Green Bay Packers
The Packers finally addressed running back as a significant need in the 2013 NFL Draft. In what is now a crowded backfield in Green Bay, I will pencil Lacy as the highest-rated fantasy prospect since he should get the majority of the goal-line work. There are long-term concerns about his weight, as already tipping the scales at around 230 pounds.
32. Shane Vereen – New England Patriots
Don’t let Vereen slide too far in your draft. With Danny Woodhead departed, Vereen moves up the Patriots’ depth chart. I have a feeling he will see a significant role, although Belichick won’t say it publicly.
33. Bernard Pierce – Baltimore Ravens
The first of the handcuffs, and I actually think of Pierce as being potentially much more than that. If Ray Rice were to go down, Pierce immediately becomes a top-10 fantasy back. Even in a backup role as a rookie Pierce finished with 532 rushing yards. Even if you don’t draft Rice, I’d grab Pierce in Round 8 or so just to have a chip on Rice’s owner.
34. Jonathan Franklin – Green Bay Packers
This will be a situation to obviously monitor during training camp and the exhibition season, but long-term I like Franklin the best out of Green Bay’s backs. He slid into the late fourth-round of the 2013 NFL Draft and has a bit of a fumbling problem, but he also projects to be more explosive than Eddie Lacy. I would target Franklin immediately after another owner selects Lacy.
35. DeAngelo Williams – Carolina Panthers
For years it has been hard to decipher the DeAngelo Williams/Jonathan Stewart situation. Add a running quarterback like Cam Newton into the mix along with a goal-line back in Mike Tolbert, and the waters become even murkier. Williams remains the best of the lukewarm bunch, carrying 173 times last year. He’s now 30 so we should expect diminishing returns after this season.
36. Rashard Mendenhall – Arizona Cardinals
Even in his best days with the Steelers, Mendenhall was always considered more of a plodder. Now he will face the 49ers, Rams and Seahawks all twice per year, and there are other options in the Cardinals’ backfield such as Ryan Williams. He’s at the bottom of the potential starters.
37. Vick Ballard – Indianapolis Colts
Becoming a featured back at midseason as a rookie, Ballard was serviceable, including his dramatic game-winning score in overtime at Tennessee. Ahmad Bradshaw knocks him down a peg in the Colts’ backfield, but I can still easily foresee 150 to 200 carries out of Ballard.
38. Isaiah Pead – St. Louis Rams
He’s hanging on by a thread as the Rams first-string back, in my opinion. He was drafted in the second-round last year but was beaten out for the No. 2 job by Daryl Richardson, and fifth-round pick Zac Stacy is in the mix as well. Add to the equation a suspension that will cost Pead Week 1 of the season. If Richardson or Stacy has a big opener, it will be a while before Pead works himself back into playing time.
39. Bryce Brown – Philadelphia Eagles
Another of the mandatory handcuffs, Brown filled in for LeSean McCoy last year and ripped off 178- and 169-yard rushing games. It always seemed like Chip Kelly could plug in any running back available at the University of Oregon and get results. Under that theory Brown may not be a significant drop off from McCoy.
40. Ben Tate – Houston Texans
Tate’s 942-yard rushing season came just two years ago. Tate was beset by injuries last year but still ripped off a decent average in limited action. Tate is definitely needed as a safety net to Arian Foster.
41. Darryl Richardson – St. Louis Rams
He averaged a nice 4.8 yards per carry in nearly 100 rushing attempts as a rookie. He was a seventh-round pick (as opposed to Isaiah Pead going second round), but he is my pick to be the Rams most productive back this year.
42. Jacquizz Rodgers – Atlanta Falcons
At the very least Rodgers will help you out in the PPR formats after catching 50-plus passes last year. Has done OK running the ball during his first two years but has the opportunity of being more explosive than Steven Jackson if given the opportunity.
43. Kendall Hunter – San Francisco 49ers
In limited action over his first two years, Hunter has averaged 4.6 yards per carry in 184 career carries. If Frank Gore were to miss extended time, Hunter would most likely split the load with LaMichael James
44. Mikel Leshoure – Detroit Lions
Leshoure a serviceable year in 2012, and scored nine times, but his longest rush in 215 carries was for all of 16 yards. In the offseason Reggie Bush got the big money so look for Leshoure to fall back into a No. 2 role.
Stewart is coming off surgery to both ankles and is questionable for the start of training camp, which does not bode well being in the middle of a crowded backfield.
46. Danny Woodhead – San Diego Chargers
His role is well established as a third-down, change-of-pace type back. Look for some receptions and occasional carries. If in a bind during a bye week, you know you won’t come away empty handed plugging in Woodhead.
47. DeJuan Harris – Green Bay Packers
Harris actually closed last season as the Packers featured back. With Eddie Lacy and Jonathan Franklin both on board, Harris will fall more into a change-of-pace role.
48. Michael Bush – Chicago Bears
The fears that Bush would take much of the heavy lifting away from Matt Forte last year did not really materialize. Bush does have 21 touchdowns over the last three years and he should continue to be a solid goal-line option.
49. Zac Stacy – St. Louis Rams
Stacy, a fifth-round rookie, was a two-time 1,000-yard rusher at Vanderbilt and runs very low to the ground at 5-8. I would not be surprised to see Stacy work his way into some carries and I am starting to see his name rise on draft boards.
50. Robert Turbin – Seattle Seahawks
Turbin is one of my favorite handcuffs. The Utah State product produced his first 100-yard game late last year. The Seahawks also invested a second-round pick this year on Christine Michael of Texas A&M, so the two should battle it out for the backup role behind Marshawn Lynch.