Let’s face it, folks. With the NFL becoming a passing league, the days of there being ten quality fantasy options at running back are long gone and they aren’t coming back.
If you haven’t ditched your two stud running back theory, it’s time to get out of the cave, return from the stone ages and quit eating leaves from tree tops. Otherwise, your fellow owners are going to have plenty of fun with dinosaur and cave man jokes at your expense.
And you don’t want that.
This year, there are four running backs that deserve to be taken before any other position and that is it. Some might argue that number should be three. Even more interesting is that you could make a strong case that this year’s 5th ranked running back should be taken no sooner than 9th overall.
With the first wave of free agency over, here are my initial 2012 fantasy football running back rankings:
The Top 30
1. Arian Foster, Texans – Foster proved in 2011 that his monster breakout season in 2010 was no fluke. A hamstring injury that caused him to miss two starts and leave early in another game and a Week 17 breather were the only issues preventing Foster from repeating as the top fantasy running back last season. A pair of key defections on the offensive line and his new contract are the only red flags.
2. Ray Rice, Ravens – With Ricky Williams backing him up, Rice still managed 2,068 total yards and 15 touchdowns in 2011, both career highs. Williams retired this off-season and while Baltimore will surely add to their running back depth chart, it is unlikely Rice’s new backup will be as talented as Williams. That means Rice figures to approach 400 touches (395 last season) again in 2012, provided he doesn’t hold out.
3. LeSean McCoy, Eagles – McCoy finished second in fantasy points amongst running backs in 2011, topping 1,600 total yards for the second consecutive season and scoring a career-high 20 touchdowns. He clearly benefited from quarterback Michael Vick’s lack of rushing touchdowns (just one in 2011 after scoring nine times in 2010). Vick’s presence, the loss of Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters to a potentially season-ending injury and McCoy’s contract status are the concerns.
4. Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars – What is there to say? MJD was gold last season even though the Jaguars featured the worst quarterback play in the league, gaining 1,980 total yards and scoring 11 touchdowns. Since taking over as the team’s starter three seasons ago, he has averaged 117 total yards per game while topping 1,600 yards every year. Imagine what he can do if Blaine Gabbert picks up his game.
5. Chris Johnson, Titans – He’s just too good and his ego too big to have two consecutive down years. Right?
Ryan Mathews is pushing to be a top 5 fantasy running back.
6. Ryan Mathews, Chargers – With Mike Tolbert and Darren Sproles having left town over the past two off-seasons, Mathews is the Big Dog in San Diego in 2012 and the only thing holding him back from being a superstar is injury. Despite missing two games and having a reduced workload in two others, he still managed 1,546 total yards and six touchdowns last season. LeRon McClain is a marginal threat to take over Tolbert’s goal line duties but the expectation is that Mathews will assume that role.
7. Darren McFadden, Raiders – Run DMC was a monster over the first six weeks of last season, gaining 610 yards on the ground, 153 through the air and scoring five touchdowns. Then the injury woes hit, again. This time it was a Lis Franc sprain that ended his season with the Raiders hiding the true extent of his injury for several weeks, keeping his fantasy owners in limbo. Super sub Michael Bush has left town so injury history is the only thing keeping McFadden out of the top five.
8. Matt Forte, Bears – Forte was on the verge of a career-year in 2011 before suffering a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee during Week 13. In his first eleven games, he ran for 987 yards, had 490 receiving yards and scoring four times. Never a strong short yardage runner, Forte will once again come out in those situations with Michael Bush taking over that roll from Marion Barber. Bush figures to eat into some of Forte’s touches this season but Forte remains a RB1 for fantasy purposes.
9. Marshawn Lynch, Seahawks – With pending free agency, Lynch had the finest year of his career in 2011, posting career-highs in rushing yards with 1,204 and rushing touchdowns with 12. He also chipped in 212 yards and another touchdown in the passing game. He will remain a workhorse back in 2012. Why not higher up, you ask? Simple. I don’t believe.
10. Jamaal Charles, Chiefs – Despite coming off a 2011 season that ended in Week 2 with a torn ACL, Charles sneaks into the top 10. Peyton Hillis signed with the Chiefs but don’t forget that Charles topped 1,000 rushing yards in consecutive seasons and posted 1,935 total yards in 2010 on just 275 touches.
11. Michael Turner, Falcons – Turner’s FF bio is littered with red flags. He turned 30 in February, he has topped 300 carries in three of the last four years and he was dreadful from Week 12 to Week 16 last year (280 rushing yards and one touchdown) before running roughshod over a decimated Bucs team in Week 17. However, he has hit double-digit touchdowns in each of his four years in Atlanta and he remains the lead back in an offense that that should be in the top 10 in 2012.
12. Fred Jackson, Bills – Sorry, C.J. Spiller owners, Fjax is too good to give up too many touches to the young speedster in 2012. This guy was a top 5 fantasy running back before suffering a broken fibula in Week 11.
13. DeMarco Murray, Cowboys – Hey, the kid can play but can he play for 16 games? Injury issues caused him to drop to the 3rd round of the 2011 rookie draft and low and behold, he ended his rookie season on injured reserve.
14. Adrian Peterson, Vikings – How did I decide to put AP at 14? I couldn’t find anybody else to put ahead of him. Peterson is on schedule with his rehab and the club remains confident he will return for Week 1 however he’s likely to be limited early in the season.
15. Frank Gore, 49ers – Persona non grata in the passing game and now facing a threat to his goal line carries with Brandon Jacobs in town. Jacobs is no sure bet to win that role but Gore is no longer a workhorse back with Kendall Hunter and Jacobs on the roster.
16. Reggie Bush, Dolphins – Coming off a career year, Bush surprised the football world by staying healthy for 15 games and topping 1,000 rushing yards for the first time in his career. The issue is whether he can do it again.
17. Darren Sproles, Saints – The diminutive one finished 2011 as the 10th ranked fantasy running back despite having just 173 touches. He is unlikely to reach the nine touchdowns he had last season but a repeat of his 1,313 total yards is possible.
18. Steven Jackson, Rams – Sjax bounced back last season after suffering through a subpar 2010 season when he averaged just 3.8 yards per carry. While he might be just 28 years old, he has had more wear and tear than perhaps any other running back that age, constantly having to face eight and nine man fronts. At least it’s nice to know that he has topped 1,000 rushing yards in seven straight seasons.
19. Roy Helu, Redskins – Helu showed plenty of upside in 2011 before missing the final three games of the season with knee and toe injuries.
20. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Bengals – It’s precarious but BJGE cracks the top 20 until we see what the Bengals do in the draft.
21. Ahmad Bradshaw, Giants – The good news is that Bradshaw’s main backup, Brandon Jacobs, has left town. The bad news is that it doesn’t mean much since the Giants don’t believe Bradshaw can be a workhorse back.
22. Isaac Redman, Steelers – With Mendenhall out, Redman looked good in a Week 17 win over the Browns and in the Steelers playoff loss against a tough Broncos defense. Basically, I don’t think he’s a big downgrade from Mendenhall, who will miss much of 2012. By opening day, Redman could move up to mid-tier RB2 status.
23. Shonn Greene, Jets – Despite a rib injury that limited him late in 2011, Greene topped 1,000 rushing yards for the first time and figures to top the 273 touches he had last season with LaDainian Tomlinson no longer on the roster.
24. Beanie Wells, Cardinals – At first glance, Wells’ numbers look good – 1,047 yards, 4.3 yards per carry and ten touchdowns. A closer look reveals some major inconsistency, with Wells having ten games (out of 15) with 67 or fewer yards and just two 100-yard performances. Add in his injury history and it seems clear that a timeshare with Ryan Williams, who missed all of his rookie season with injury, is almost guaranteed.
25. LeGarrette Blount, Bucs – There’s a nagging belief that the Bucs don’t view Blount as the answer and help is on the way in the draft, maybe in the form of Trent Richardson.
26. Stevan Ridley, Patriots – If he doesn’t fumble, Ridley figures to take over BJGE’s role in 2012.
27. Willis McGahee, Broncos – Sorry, folks, I don’t believe a repeat of his 2011 performance is in the cards. Expect the Broncos to add to their depth at running back and for McGahee to be less of a workhorse back next season.
28. Jonathan Stewart, Panthers – This ranking doesn’t reflect his talent. It is looking likely a committee approach in Carolina this season but Stewart at least figures to be the lead dog.
29. Jahvid Best, Lions – Let’s assume he plays 10 or 11 games. That should be enough to keep him inside the top 30 fantasy running backs.
30. Mark Ingram, Saints – Why is he here? I’m scared to put him any lower. My apologies to Trent Richardson, James Starks, DeAngelo Williams, Michael Bush, C.J. Spiller and Daniel Thomas.
Wide Receivers up next…