Fantasy Football Primer: Running Backs


At the top of every draft, running backs are the first to go.  Whether you are in a high or low scoring fantasy football league, the premium is always on the running backs.  It’s hard to estimate the percentage of runners taken with the first three picks in a live draft but it is likely close to 99 percent.  The truth is, there is usually a big drop off from the first three running backs and the runners you can find in rounds 2 through 5.  Sure, there are sometime gems found late, Arian Foster last season was a spectacular catch if you were smart enough to draft him in the mid-rounds.

That isn’t always the case.

About six to ten years ago, running backs were easy selections.  The top three were actually a top ten.  Over the course of the last decade, NFL teams have moved towards a two running back style of offense.  Very few NFL teams take a one back featured approach and some teams use goal line specialists.  What does all that mean?  It means that the plethora of runners you used to have to choose from continues to dwindle each year.  The list of featured runners is almost gone entirely.  Finding a starting RB for your fantasy roster is difficult when you compare some of the top ten players with the rest of the runners.  It’s a gap that is slowly closing.

Last season, I predicted that there would be an increase in the wide receiver values in the draft.  Suggesting it would be smarter to load up on the higher end talents earlier than normal and to take your second and third runner later in the draft.  That still is not bad advice however with the two back system being employed on almost all 32 teams, the running back depth in a fantasy draft is really drying up early.  Spending your first two picks on a runner is not a bad idea.

It’s easy to say this guy will run well and this team will find success in the running game but when you actually get into your draft, it’s easy to lose focus and easier to make a mistake.  This year, I have already done around 20 mock drafts.  I have selected from each of the normal 12 positions, some twice, and really wanted to get a feel on where and how most players would fall.  I found something else out interesting.  ESPN and Yahoo fantasy leagues have different ratings, while it’s definitely not uncommon, some of the runners on Yahoo are listed a good ten slots lower than on ESPN.  It really comes down to what you believe but if you are in a league with players who live and die by drafting from those ranked lists, you may want to scroll a little deeper to find some gems.

Complicating matters more is the fact that outside of the top two or three players, this years running backs come with questions ranging from injury history to splitting carries.  It makes matters worse when questions surround a teams entire offense as well.  So where should you draft a runner?  When should you look at another position higher?  That really comes down to what you view as the value in your draft.  What you as the manager of your team wants to see on your roster.

Here is a look at the running backs you will be debating on this year.

My most recent draft was done on ESPN, and if I could parlay this mock into a real fantasy football league team, I would be very happy.  I drafted at the top of the order in a snake style.  Meaning I drafted one, and then not again until 24th and 25th.  Adrian Peterson, Phillip Rivers, DeSean Jackson, Brandon Lloyd, Brandon Marshall, and Ryan Williams rounded out my top six.  I made the decision to lean towards WR with two of my first four picks because frankly, I wasn’t convinced of the value at the RB position.  In another draft, slotted towards the bottom of the first round, I found pressure in making a running back selection, simply put the value of a first round runner simply wasn’t there.

And that is really where this years fantasy football running back dillema’s arrive.

Adrian Peterson – The consensus number 1 overall in every league I have mocked thus far.  On two occasions, Michael Vick went first but I suspect they were Eagle fans.  Peterson is one of the few running backs who will not lose carries to another runner or on the goal line.  He is a no-brainer at the top of every draft.

Arian Foster – The breakout rushing leader of 2010 had over 1,600 yards last season.  He won’t come close to that this year.  There will be a drop in his production as he no longer is a surprise.  In fact, teams will game plan for him now.  Still, with the leagues top WR on his team, he will still find room which is why he sits in the top 2 of the rankings.  And it’s deserved.  Face it, you’re not going to pass up Foster if you have a top 4 pick.  Yes, there is risk but there is a lot of reward as well.

Jamal Charles – This to me is surprising.  Charles was a bright light for fantasy owners last season and another one of those runners who you were able to get in rounds 3 through 5.  In fact, some drafted former NY Jet runner Thomas Jones ahead of Charles.  That won’t be a mistake made twice.  Still, Charles really has only one breakout season and Jones is healthy heading into 2011.  He will lose carries to Jones more this year than last.  Is he worth a top 3 to 5 pick?  I’m not sold on it and was actually a bit surprised that he was ranked this high.  But in a thin market, Charles is a starter who bring value.  He just isn’t the flashy top 5 pick of years past.

Chris “C2K” Johnson – There is very few pure runners out there that can take it to the house every time they touch the ball.  Johnson is one of those players.  Yes, he is holding out for a new contract and yes the Titans are saying they won’t negotiate with him until he gets to camp, but this will all likely end before week one.  He simply is too good to pass up and if you can grab him at 4 or 5 you can consider yourself lucky.  The only real issue with CJ is the offensive line of Tennessee.  There was a lot of regression last season and that may continue this year.  New HC, new QB, and a holdout.  Still a good value and smart pick in the top 5.

Maurice Jones-Drew – For some reason, each year he is up at the top.  I still don’t understand why.  MJD has the potential to be a fantasy stud and the potential to make you cry.  He started off very slowly last year as a result of a knee injury, then went crazy becoming the runner you thought you had drafted, only to let you down at the end of the season with another knee injury that sidelined him for three games.  You will roll the dice on MJD this year.  I’m not so sure given the state of the Jaguars, that I risk a high pick on him.  Definitely not over those mentioned above.

Ray Rice – Another one of those “should you really draft him in the top 5” picks RB’s.  Rice scored 6 touchdowns all last season and his first four games netted only yardage scoring.  And that wasn’t much at all.  Rice is a solid player on a solid team but for whatever reason, his projections are higher than his output.  This is why running backs are so important and yet so risky.  Rice would be an absolute steal after pick 6 but in the top half, he could be a bigger bust.

LeSean McCoy – Value.  McCoy was a very serviceable back on a good football team.  The downside was that his goal line scores were taken away by Michael Vick and will be again.  Those are the money scores.  The first and goal situations that have you thinking it’s a slam dunk.   Vick is that wild card in the equation and he will just as soon take it himself.  Still, McCoy has value because he is a runner and a pass catching RB as well.  His blocking has improved to the point that he no longer comes off the field on third downs.  McCoy is not likely to go in the top 5 positions, and that’s o.k.

Rashard Mendenhall – If goal line scorers is what you want, Mendenhall is a guy you should seriously consider.  13 touchdowns last year made him one of the top NFL scorers.  But Mendenhall has a downside.  He isn’t fast, he doesn’t break many long runs, and he won’t get you 100 yards rushing very often.  But if your league is all about the touchdowns, then he is solid value.  He won’t likely play on third downs but you can’t beat the fact that the Steelers go to him on the goal line.

Frank Gore – The fact that Gore is a top 10 or even a top 12 runner this year is directly related to the fact that most other backs are splitting carries and Gore rarely does.  He can be a solid contributor but there are way too many questions in SF this year to risk a mid-first round pick on him.  There is a new HC in Jim Harbaugh, a new offensive system, a one year lame-duck QB in Alex Smith, a sketchy offensive line, and Gore’s own injury history.  If you are looking at Frank Gore for your first running back, you may want to consider something or someone else.

Michael Turner – Last year, Turner was a top three pick.  For the same reasons I question a guy like Jamal Charles, Turner’s stock has dropped to the bottom of round one or into high round two.  Last year he rushed for over 1,300 yards and added double digit scores, but he trailed off at the end of the year, just about the time your playoffs are starting.  Turner is being used a lot.  He is getting older and taking a pounding so his production as the year rolls on declines.  The Falcons last year began to use Jason Snelling more on short yardage situations and goal line situations to keep Turner fresh.  Still, if you can get one of the other runners in round one and Turner is on the board at your turn in round 2, it’s a great idea to double up on the running backs.

Steven Jackson, Darren McFadden, and Peyton Hillis – Rams, Raiders, and Browns…Oh My!  As a number 2 runner, these three are not bad options but for most these three will be your primary runner, or the first runner you take.  If you passed on a RB in round one, you will most assuredly feel the need to address it round 2 and the pickings start to dwindle very quickly.  None of the three are as productive as they have either been in the past or will be as they are projected.  Most of that is due to the teams they are on.  Steven Jackson may be the better option of the three.  The addition of Cadillac Williams in St. Louis will take some of the wear off of Jackson, keeping him fresh longer.  That should help his production.  Another year for Sam Bradford won’t hurt either.  Hillis may find himself on the cover of EA Sports’ Madden 2011, but let’s be real, he was the only threat the Browns had last year and it’s not likely they are going to improve greatly this year.

De’Angelo Williams – Williams was a first rounder last year and top 3 the year before.  Now, he splits time with Jonathan Stewart.  Despite the fact that Panthers invested 43 million in Williams this off-season, the team will use a platoon attack at their RB position.  So Williams’ value takes a hit.  Add to that the QB situation in Carolina, a new HC, and a suspect offensive line and Williams could be nothing of value this year, regardless of where he is taken.  But he will get his touches.

Matt Forte – Forte is holding a peaceful holdout.  He practices but is holding himself out of pre-season games so as not get injured before he can get a new deal.  The Bears have had a bit of a shake-up on the Oline this year and have lost long time center Olin Kreutz.  The Bears struggled last year along the line so it may not be a smart move to take Forte now.  Especially if you already have another runner.  Look at another position and grab another back later.

Ahmad Bradshaw – Bradshaw is the starter in NY and despite his less than stellar new contract, is glad to be staying with the Giants.  His production should improve as last year, Bradshaw evenly split carries with fellow runner Brandon Jacobs.  As the year progressed, Bradshaw got more and more of the workload.  That should occur from the start this season.  Good value in round 2.

Knowshon Mareno, Ryan Mathews, Jonathan Stewart – If you’re in my league, take one of these guys in round 2 or high in round 3.  If you’re not, then don’t take any of them.  Mathews has shown up out of shape and is struggling in San Diego, Mareno will compete with Willis McGahee, and Stewart will see his touches dwindle with the re-signing of D. Williams.  None of them are solid fantasy options this  year, and frankly there are better options later…even for your 2nd and 3rd runner.

LeGarrette Blount – Can he possibly replicate his rookie year?  Blount really didn’t get rolling until the second half of the season.  Mainly because he wasn’t played.  Then he burst onto the scene.  The Tampa offense needs work but the Oline didn’t lose anyone this off-season that will change their play.  Blount should be a solid contributor to your team and you should be able to get him at the end of round 2 or mid-round 3…but if you want Blount, don’t wait.  Someone else may want him as well and you will risk him not being there.

Jahvid Best and Ben Jarvis Green-Ellis – Best will be the Lions primary runner.  His competition with Jerome Harrison formerly of the Browns. The Lions drafted Mikel LeShoure this past April and lost him this week to an Achilles tear.  If you need a runner, Best isn’t the best option but he should get his touches.  Green-Ellis on the other hand is one of those that could go either way.  He isn’t flashy and gets none of the spotlight in New England.  But he is their running back.   He will lose goal line and short yardage situations to Danny Woodhead.

Felix Jones – And here is my prediction for this years steal.  You can get Jones in rounds 4 and 5 in over half of the drafts I did.  I will say this, by the time most real drafts roll around at the end of the month, Jones will be going higher.  The Cowboys are not likely to repeat as doormats like last year.  They improved considerably after Jerry Jones fired Wade Phillips and promoted Jason Garrett.  Gone is his primary poacher Marion Barber and Tashard Choice has been rumored to be on his way out if he doesn’t improve.  That means Jones becomes the feature tailback in what could become a high style offense.


Shonn Green, Daniel Thomas, Cedric Benson, Ryan Grant, Fred Jackson, Marshawn Lynch, and Mark Ingram – These 7 players will likely be their teams opening day starters and their play and thus their production will be dependent on what their teams do in other areas of their offense.  All of them can be had in rounds 4 through 6 and make ideal 3rd running backs on your squad.  IF you are looking for your second runner, these guys will still add value to your team because you obviously would have drafted higher end WR’s instead.

Filling out your roster:

There are still plenty of running backs left on the board in all likelihood, but you shouldn’t be looking in their direction as your starters.  They are solid flex options, hand-cuffs, and young guys with upside but risks.  Guys like Ryan Williams, the rookie in Arizona could be this year Arian Foster so he may be worth a flier in the mid-rounds.  The Cardinals are nearing their end with tailback Beanie Wells.