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Tuesday, June 5, 2012
Updated: August 10, 5:57 PM ET
2012 running backs fantasy preview

By Christopher Harris
ESPN.com

Has fantasy football changed forever?

Long ago, conventional fantasy wisdom had it that those fantasy owners who acquired the best running backs would win their league titles. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the notion of drafting any position other than RB in the first round of your fantasy draft was considered silly. Even as NFL offenses (and pass interference rules) evolved throughout the 2000s, and grabbing a WR or QB in the first round under some circumstances became acceptable, it was still preferable to get the bedrock-solid RB. But did that change in 2011?

After all, last year five of the top 10 overall performers in terms of Value-Based Drafting were quarterbacks, which is unprecedented in recent years. We hear tons of talk about ACL tears for RBs, about the prevalence of backfield platoons, and about the escalating arms race of the pro passing game. Is it officially too risky to spend your first-rounder on a ball carrier?

I don't think so. Honestly, I'm not sure all that much has changed. Check out ESPN's top 20 RBs heading into 2011, and how they finished the season:

Anyone who drafted Johnson, Charles or Mendenhall in the first round certainly felt the scorpion's sting, and probably stood little chance of winning a fantasy title, but that's not so different from previous seasons, is it? In '10, Gore, Williams and Ryan Grant were all consensus top-10 RBs, and they finished 20th, 42nd and 124th in RB fantasy points, respectively. In '09, we saw Turner, Forte, LaDainian Tomlinson and Brandon Jacobs similarly spit the bit. Frankly, I think you can argue that despite the high-profile knee injuries to Peterson, Charles and Mendenhall, last year's top-10 RBs acquitted themselves rather well, historically speaking.

No, what stands out to me is what came after the RB top 10. I'll write about this at greater length this summer, but the RBs ranked 11-20 from last year's preseason turned into a nauseating carnage that should raise hackles. Only three of those 10 rushers (Mathews, Jackson and Forte) turned out to be no-doubt fantasy starters most of the season (Bradshaw was borderline), and even Mathews and Forte had season-altering injuries along the way. The others? What a mess.

My thesis isn't so much that you need to veer away from taking the RB elites if they're available when you pick in the first round. It's that you should no longer feel compelled to play catch-up at the RB position if you don't get one of the top guys. Everything after the best RBs looks like a big mess. Let's look at the specifics heading into '12, and then reconvene for some strategy talk.

The Elite

Arian Foster had the first three games of '11 wrecked by a hamstring injury and he sat out the season finale, but still finished fourth in fantasy points among all RBs. This just in: He's good. If I held the No. 1 pick in a fantasy draft this summer, Foster would be my guy. Certainly there are always concerns as a RB gets more and more tread taken off his tires, and having the Houston Texans lose run-mauling right tackle Eric Winston is a small red flag, but in Foster I trust. … Ray Rice was fantasy football's '11 MVP, and there's little reason to expect he can't turn in a similarly spectacular year in '12. Yes, he's unhappy with his contract, but at the very worst he'll play under the franchise tag, which is a hefty chunk of change, and Rice is coming off a season in which he delivered 15 all-purpose TDs, seven better than he had ever done before. He's a great receiver (second in the league in RB catches last season) and led the league in yards from scrimmage in '11. … No, I don't consider it likely that LeSean McCoy will match his ludicrous 20 TDs from last season, but if you took away eight scores, Shady would still have finished as a top-five RB. Every RB has health concerns just by the nature of his job, and McCoy isn't a rugged, strapping type, but the Philadelphia Eagles' offense is geared around getting Shady the ball in space, and he's a handful to tackle in the open field. His career 4.8 yards per carry makes me believe copious yardage will be there for McCoy, even as the TDs abate. … Entering '11, Maurice Jones-Drew was considered an ultra-risky pick because of knee problems, and all he did was lead the NFL in carries, rushing yards and touches from scrimmage. Eventually, that kind of whopping workload is going to work against MJD, but it's arguable that he'll be healthier entering this season than he was last. At age 27, Jones-Drew figures to have a couple more high-output seasons in him before the breakdowns become too hard to handle.

Not Sexy, But They Get The Job Done

Marshawn Lynch
Marshawn Lynch had at least 86 yards rushing in eight of his final nine games last season.

Marshawn Lynch finds himself in the untypical (for him) position of looking like a fairly reliable No. 1 fantasy back this season, but believe me, I shuddered when I wrote the first part of this sentence. Lynch is a former first-round draft pick whose behavioral problems and lack of explosiveness got him tossed onto history's ash heap, only to rise into a double-digit-TD season in '11. The Seattle Seahawks are committed to Lynch, if the $17 million guaranteed they handed him this winter is any indication, but one wonders if having finally struck it rich might lessen Mr. Skittles' motivation, which seemed shaky from '08 to '10. That said, even if Lynch hovers around 4.0 yards per carry, the Seahawks don't have any legit alternatives in their backfield. … Has Steven Jackson been on my "Not Sexy" list for the past dozen or so years? No, it only seems that way. But here S-Jax is again, coming off yet another very decent season for a terrible St. Louis Rams squad. He'll be 29 when the season begins and he's averaged 286 carries per season over the past seven years, so a sudden breakdown is a possibility. But Jackson's performance hasn't given any indication of that so far. His ceiling is low, but his floor should be pretty high. … Before you worry that a 50-50 Fred Jackson/C.J. Spiller platoon is coming for the Buffalo Bills, realize that before Jackson broke his leg in Week 11, Spiller had averaged 3.1 offensive touches per game. Considering Spiller's fine work thereafter, certainly he'll be a bigger part of Buffalo's game plan, but Jackson should be the lead dog. He's as steady as they come; he had at least 98 yards from scrimmage in each of his first 10 starts last season. Touchdowns may not arrive with abandon, but yardage shouldn't be a problem for the 31-year-old Jackson.

Falling Down

Michael Turner returns to my "Falling Down" list for a second straight year; he finished as fantasy's No. 5 back (tied with Lynch) in '11, so citing him as a candidate for implosion last season wasn't a good call. But I'm doubly nervous about the Burner in '12. Take away Week 17 last season when he eviscerated a Tampa Bay Buccaneers D that had completely quit, and Turner's other final six games (including the playoffs) look like a guy nearing the end: 321 yards on 99 carries (a 3.2 per-tote average) with one score. The Atlanta Falcons have spoken openly about limiting Turner's carries in his age-30 season in the name of preserving whatever explosiveness he has left, meaning guys like Jason Snelling and Jacquizz Rodgers could see their workloads expand. I won't be shocked if Turner hits the eight-TD mark, but my guess is that he's a candidate to struggle to exceed 1,000 yards rushing. … After averaging 20-plus offensive touches per game for the past five seasons (including 22.6 per game in '10), Frank Gore was given 18.7 in '11, and in the second half of the season that number dropped to 15.9. That strategy helped keep Gore relatively healthy all season, but it limited his upside. Considering the San Francisco 49ers signed Brandon Jacobs and drafted LaMichael James to go along with Kendall Hunter, one imagines this will turn into a trend. Gore's per-play production may not dive at age 29, but I'm not sold he sees the pumpkin enough to be the kind of fantasy workhorse we've seen in the past. … After Michael Bush subbed for Darren McFadden to such excellent effect last year (1,395 total yards from scrimmage and eight TDs), fantasy aficionados salivated at the idea of the free-agent Bush landing someplace where he might start full-time. Alas, Bush signed with the Chicago Bears, and the likeliest scenario is that he'll back up Matt Forte. Unless Forte's contract nastiness extends into the regular season, it's extremely unlikely that Bush can come close to matching his '11 output, which saw him tie Steven Jackson for 10th among RBs in fantasy points. True, Forte is legendarily inadequate in goal-line situations, so Bush may score a bunch of short TDs, but the yardage doesn't figure to be there for him.

Opportunity Knocks

Ryan Mathews has the potential to be one of the most overrated fantasy players in '12. He's missed six games outright in his two-year NFL career, will likely miss more as a result of a preseason collarbone fracture and has been limited by injuries in other games, and the notion that an increased workload will be good for his health is, shall we say, scurrilous. But his workload should increase once he's healthy. The San Diego Chargers lost Mike Tolbert to free agency and added Le'Ron McClain, a downgrade in backup talent. Mathews has a terrific all-around game and his 4.9 yards per carry was highest in the NFL among any back with at least 220 totes last season. He has never scored more than seven TDs in a season, but that could easily change in '12. I'm not buying Mathews as a top option, but I do see plenty of upside in him. That optimism is based on his talent and potential workload, however, and not his worrisome health prospects. … Speaking of worrisome health prospects, how about that DeMarco Murray? Murray arrived from Oklahoma with a reputation for leg injuries, and he suffered a doozy in '11, a nasty broken leg that knocked him out for the season. But he runs a 4.41 at 213 pounds and catches it well, and he proved explosive in his first month as a starter last season. Felix Jones is incapable of being a lead back, so the opportunity should be there for Murray to stake a claim as the Dallas Cowboys' top rusher, and his 5.5 yards per carry in '11 bodes well. If he stays healthy, a giant leap forward is likely ahead. … Woe betide the fantasy owner who trusts Mike Shanahan to do the expected thing with his backfield, but it's impossible to argue Roy Helu doesn't have a big opportunity ahead of him. Helu will have to fend off Evan Royster, Tim Hightower and whatever practice-squad chaff Shanny might fall in love with, but Helu was impressive in his five starts last season. He matches the one-cut style the Washington Redskins desire, getting downhill decisively and generating yards after contact. But don't forget he also missed time late in the season due to toe and knee issues. As a No. 2 fantasy back with some upside, I can get behind Helu, but I wouldn't go higher than that. … When Rashard Mendenhall tore an ACL in Week 17, it seemed likely that the Pittsburgh Steelers would have to acquire another RB for the '12 season. But even with Mendy still on the mend, the Steelers appear likely to stand pat with Isaac Redman as their starter. Redman brings enough size (6 feet, 230 pounds) to duplicate Mendenhall's goal-line successes, but he's extremely untested, and the Steelers have many moving parts on their O-line. Jonathan Dwyer may recover from his broken foot in time to contribute, but for the moment Redman gets a chance to overachieve in a pretty good offense.

Rookie Crop

Trent Richardson
Trent Richardson has been a third-round pick in many early fantasy drafts.

One rookie stands above all others for '12: Trent Richardson. The Cleveland Browns traded up to get Richardson at No. 3 overall in April's draft, and allowed Peyton Hillis to walk, thereby clearing a mammoth path to a big workload for the big rookie. However, outside of Joe Thomas, the Browns' O-line is potentially awful, and the fact that fellow rookie Brandon Weeden will likely be starting under center with few legitimate receiving weapons puts a ton of pressure -- and defensive attention -- on Richardson. There's great upside for this all-around talent, but that was Hillis' story last year, too. T-Rich will have to be a rising tide that lifts all boats to reach No. 1 RB status in his rookie campaign. … The Tampa Bay Buccaneers rightly decided that LeGarrette Blount was not a legitimate answer as their starting RB, and spent a first-round pick on Doug Martin this April. Martin's skill set compares favorably to Ryan Mathews', but Blount is still in town and the Bucs weren't exactly an offensive juggernaut in '11 themselves, so once again it's wise to limit your expectations. Still, I think Martin splits much of the early-down work with Blount and gets third down for himself, making him at worst a fantasy flex. … The New York Giants lost Brandon Jacobs to free agency but drafted David Wilson in April's first round, a tradeoff that probably represents an overall upgrade in backfield talent. What's most interesting about Wilson is his sprinter's speed and his aggressiveness as a runner; what limits him in his first season is the presence of starter Ahmad Bradshaw, and Wilson's own tendency toward big-time hits and the fumbling that sometimes arises therefrom. Still, Wilson looks like a fairly secure second-string back in a very good offense. … Lamar Miller fell in April's draft because of concerns over his surgically repaired shoulder, and he landed behind both Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas in the Miami Dolphins backfield. That makes Miller a long-shot candidate for fantasy contribution in '12, but I still think he should be drafted in all leagues, because of his game-breaking speed. Bush hasn't been the picture of durability in his NFL career, and Thomas didn't show much in his rookie campaign. If called upon at some point in the season, Miller could provide a spark. … The Denver Broncos probably needed another potential workhorse back to go with 31-year-old Willis McGahee, a player who doesn't catch the ball or block well. Instead, they drafted Ronnie Hillman, a productive college player at San Diego State who has size concerns and isn't quite the burner some might believe. Hillman could be an interesting fit with Peyton Manning in a revamped Denver offense, perhaps catching the ball a bunch and getting used on specialty plays. But while he does initially look to be the Broncos' No. 2 back as a rookie, I'm not optimistic he'd hold up to the pounding if he inherits the full-time gig. … Bernard Pierce (Ravens), Isaiah Pead (Rams) and Robert Turbin (Seahawks) all factor as potentially useful handcuff candidates for their respective starters, because they look like clear backups in their rookie years, too.

Unsettled Situations

The nature of Chris Johnson's unsettled situation has nothing to do with the Tennessee Titans' depth chart. Instead, CJ1K must answer questions about his awful production in '11. Considered a top-three fantasy RB heading into last season, Johnson was awful, exceeding 64 yards rushing only once in his first eight games. That badness was due in large part to a contract holdout that saw Johnson report out of shape, but there are also concerns about the interior of the Titans' O-line. I rate Johnson as my No. 5 fantasy back this year and a definite first-round pick, so obviously I'm willing to forgive, if not necessarily forget. (The Titans signing stallion left guard Steve Hutchinson should help.) But if your team was submarined by CJ1K last season, you're forgiven for considering him too risky to draft again. … Matt Forte will be the Bears' clear starter if he decides to grace the team with his presence, but Forte is angry about being franchise-tagged and is threatening to hold out of training camp. In the end, Forte will almost certainly decide to play this season, because if he doesn't, he won't accrue the year of service time he needs to hit unrestricted free agency in '13. But he could pull a Vincent Jackson and hold out until Week 8 (whereupon he would get that year of service time), or he could pull a Chris Johnson, and report out of shape in time for Week 1. With Michael Bush in place, the Bears do have alternatives. The likeliest scenario is that Forte plays this season, and plays well. But the added risk is, well, unsettling. … Darren Sproles was a fantasy revelation last season, finishing eighth in fantasy points among RBs in standard leagues and fifth in PPR leagues. Sproles caught a whopping 86 passes, while carrying the ball only 87 times, but he scored nine TDs from scrimmage and one in the return game, making him a starter in all fantasy leagues. He won't sneak up on anyone in '12, though. Pierre Thomas is healthy and still in the Big Easy, and while Mark Ingram is coming off knee surgery, he's expected to be ready Week 1. This New Orleans Saints backfield is as much a mishmash this year as it was last, and Sean Payton's season-long suspension doesn't allay my worries. I think all three Saints backs will be useful in '12 (and Chris Ivory could also have a day or two in the sun), but there's potential for week-to-week frustration. … Finally, there are the Carolina Panthers, who appear to be amassing RBs for the sheer sport of it. They already had Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams, and acquired Mike Tolbert this winter. Tolbert will do a lot of lead-blocking as the team's fullback, but considering he has 12 TDs from inside an opponent's 2 over the past two seasons, I expect him to be a vulture. And that's to say nothing of Cam Newton, who thieved an unprecedented 14 TDs himself. Stewart will be a free agent at the end of '12, and that could alleviate this logjam once and for all. But in '11, expect more vexation.

Injury Concerns

Jamaal Charles and Adrian Peterson will each seek to return from torn ACLs. The reason I'm more hopeful for Charles is that his injury came in Week 2 last season, whereas AP's happened in Week 16. I know that the reports about Peterson's recovery have been glowing, but historical evidence suggests that even if he pulls off the unlikely and is ready to play Week 1, All Day may not fully be himself. I expect Toby Gerhart to pick off quite a lot of his early-season work, and I don't rule out the possibility that the incredibly fast recovery could increase Peterson's susceptibility to further injury. Frankly, I'd rather take a chance on Charles, though J-Mail does have depth-chart worries of his own, as Peyton Hillis is now employed by the Kansas City Chiefs. But Charles has proven that he doesn't have to own a full-time job to be a devastating fantasy back; his best season came when Thomas Jones was anchoring the Chiefs' backfield. … At this point, Darren McFadden's injury history as a pro no longer looks like coincidence. He's missed 19 games in his first four seasons with a variety of foot, ankle and leg injuries, including the nine he sat out in '11 while tantalizing his fantasy owners with a seemingly constant "week-to-week" status. But one of these years, McFadden probably will put together a healthy season, if only by accident, and when that happens he's got the potential to be a fantasy MVP. His 5.3 yards per carry over the past two seasons is breathtaking, he's a wonderful receiver and he's no fun to tackle. But he's a huge risk. … Beanie Wells earned a reprieve from a potential platoon when the Arizona Cardinals' 2011 second-rounder Ryan Williams ruptured a patellar tendon, and Williams is no sure bet to be his old self entering '12. But Wells' right knee is apparently held together by bailing wire, and he needed another surgery on it this winter. The Cardinals play a bunch of late games during the season, and it's brutal having to wait to find out whether Wells will survive his "questionable" tag to play. He scored 10 times last season, so the reward for drafting Beanie can be high. But relying on him to make it through the entire season now looks foolish. … Jahvid Best is a breathtaking open-field runner with amazing quicks and strong acceleration, but he suffered a season-ending concussion in Week 6 of '11, which harkened back to his collegiate career, which was also ended because of a concussion. The Detroit Lions claim Best is healthy again and ready to be their starter, and if he could ever make it through a full season, he, too, has No. 1 fantasy back upside. But privately the Lions have to be concerned that they'll never get that full season out of Best.

Sleepers

Arian Foster deserves to be drafted No. 1 overall, in my opinion, but that doesn't mean I don't consider Ben Tate a legit sleeper in all leagues. He netted 5.4 yards per carry in '11 and produced an average of 3.3 yards after contact (third-best in the league among qualifiers), and if Foster wasn't around, Tate would be a first-round fantasy draftee in all leagues. Alas, in games where Foster was healthy last season, Tate averaged a mere 7.5 touches from scrimmage, a workload that prevents him from being a fantasy starter. At the very least, however, Tate is fantasy's most important handcuff. If you get Foster in the first round, make sure you reach and take Tate early, too. … BenJarvus Green-Ellis left the New England Patriots for the Cincinnati Bengals, which means a whole bunch of short TDs could be available in the Pats' high-octane offense. Physique-wise, Stevan Ridley seems best-equipped to benefit. He's 5-foot-11 and 225 pounds of slashing muscle, and he averaged 5.1 yards per carry in his rookie campaign. Alas, the Patriots typically can't be relied upon to use their RBs in consistent ways from week to week. Shane Vereen has a chance to crack the rotation, Joseph Addai (if he makes the team) is a proven player in short-yardage situations, and Danny Woodhead is also still around. Ridley is my favorite of the bunch to be a TD hog, but I don't feel good enough about him to count on him as a fantasy starter. … I mentioned that Jamaal Charles is a medical red flag because of his torn ACL, and that Peyton Hillis is the Chiefs' insurance policy. Whereas last year I considered Hillis among the most overvalued of players on draft day, I like him in '12. Expectations are so much lower. The dude scored 13 TDs back in '10 and he's 26 years old. In an ideal situation, KC will take the ball out of Matt Cassel's hands and allow each of their RBs to produce. I can easily see Hillis returning flex fantasy value at minimum. … For that same reason, I endorse Toby Gerhart as a possible sleeper. He impressed during his late-season stint as the Minnesota Vikings' starter, and overall averaged nearly five yards per carry. I'm a reluctant skeptic on the subject of Adrian Peterson's return to form, so I think Gerhart is likely to be undervalued in drafts this summer. … I just mentioned that BJGE has come to Cincinnati, and by dint of his short-yardage chops and his refusal to fumble, I do consider him the Bengals RB you'd most like to own. But overall, I consider Green-Ellis a pedestrian talent who'd be exposed with too much work, and I expect Bernard Scott to see the most touches from scrimmage in this his fourth season. Scott hasn't proven durable enough to handle a starter's carries, nor has he improved enough as a blocker to be a rock-solid third-down specialist, but he does feature elusiveness and speed BJGE doesn't have.

Draft Strategy

Looking at my overall draft board and seeing "only" five RBs in the top 10, you might conclude that I've changed my draft philosophy based on '11, but I don't think I have. I think unique circumstances have conspired to create the illusion of a heightened number of "terrible" RBs. If Peterson and Charles were healthy, they'd easily merit inclusion; their catastrophic injuries -- which are fairly atypical for the truly elite backs over the past 10 years -- tilt the first round away from RBs. Anyway, If I have a shot at any of the top four rushers (Foster, Rice, McCoy or Jones-Drew), I'm leaping at it with an early pick. They offer upside and as much relative safety as any RB can.

But because Peterson and Charles are such question marks and thus are pushed down draft boards, and (perhaps more importantly) because the second and third tiers among RBs have grown less attractive lately because of platoons and/or injuries and/or pass-heavier offenses, everything after Chris Johnson at No. 5 among RBs looks shaky to me. If you can't get any of the top five RBs, I'm in favor of a draft strategy that nets you reliable big points at QB, WR and TE, with many bullets fired at non-elite RBs in later rounds. There are several RBs in the No. 6 through No. 30 range who may wind up winning you your league. It's just really, really hard to tell which ones. If you and a few of your league mates acquire reliable-seeming options at other positions in early rounds and then collect several "maybe" RBs later, someone is going to hit a home run. Maybe Shonn Greene goes nutso. Maybe DeAngelo Williams recaptures his old magic. Alas, if you swing-and-miss on your RBs (and more teams who try this strategy will swing-and-miss than will hit homers), you'll likely be playing catch-up all season. That, I think, is the real change in fantasy football.

Auction Strategy

Each fantasy auction is its own animal, so it's tough to give absolutes about how much you should spend on running backs. In a league that gives you $200 to spend on your players, a decent rule of thumb is that in an average draft, if you budget about $100 for rushers, even in today's wacky RB world, you'll probably be OK. Your starters will eat up the vast majority of that budget, clearly, while your reserves and sleepers will come on the relative cheap. Now, this "median" budget doesn't account for the variations in strategy that occur in every fantasy football auction. If you've decided you're going to pay for two elite rushers, for instance, you're probably going to have to spend upwards of 75 percent of your money on two players (i.e., the "Studs and Duds" strategy). However, no matter what, make sure you've got a nice long list of potential $1 or $2 rushers for your auction's endgame. As in snake drafts, I like to wind up with a bunch of lottery-ticket running backs in an auction, because rushers who come out of left field to be significant contributors are sweet.