Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Fantasy Football 2011 Running Back Rankings

And we're back.  After the quarterback rankings dropped yesterday, I'm back here today with my running back rankings.

As you may expect after yesterday's quarterback rankings, these running back rankings aren't going to look like your average fantasy draft list.  Don't worry about how to integrate these lists yet.  I'll be releasing a integrated top 200-something list with a guide on how to draft from it, on Friday.

Anyways, right onto today's list...

1. Arian Foster - Foster was the number one back in fantasy by far last year, and should be the first back off the board this year.  While some will tell you to take All-Day here because he's sure to finish as a top five guy, I'm telling you that Foster is just as likely to finish in the top five and is also the most likely number one overall fantasy player again.  The offense and offensive line are still there around Foster, and people are far overstating the loss of Vonta Leach.  While Leach is an elite lead blocker, the Texans ran better last year from a one back set.  According to football outsiders, the Texans were the best team in the league in terms of  running the ball from a one-back formation.  They averaged over six yards per carry from a one back set and had the best single back DVOA (Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average - Football Outsiders advanced stat that takes into account down/distance/defense and other factors to better value players.  Full explanation here) in the whole league.  Foster is going to continue to get the majority of the carries and plenty of receptions on one of the best offenses in the league.  You will be able to ride him towards a fantasy title as a great first overall pick.

2. Adrian Peterson - Here, at number two, is where you take Peterson.  He's probably not going to end the season as the number one back, but he's guaranteed to finish as a top five fantasy running back and if you aren't getting Arian Foster, All-Day is the way to do.  He moves the ball no matter who is behind center, it doesn't matter if it's against nine-man fronts.  He's a lock for the top five, so just grab him and enjoy anytime after Foster is on the board.

3. Jamaal Charles - Charles probably has the highest overall upside of any running back available.  The 6.4 yards per carry average last year is very real, as he had a 5.9 yards per carry average in 2009.  If you could say for sure he was going to get 300 carries, then he would easily be the number one overall pick this year.  The problem is that no one really knows how many carries the Chiefs plan to give to Thomas Jones this year.  It's easy to figure that Charles will get even more of the workload this year, but how many carries and touchdowns Jones vultures will make all the difference in Charles' value.  Even if Jones vultures all of the TDs, Charles is still going to be a top ten fantasy back based on yards alone.  Draft him at three with confidence and hope for the upside.

4. Chris Johnson - Johnson would be higher on the list if not for his training camp hold out.  While I'm fairly sure he will get paid and report before the season start,  Johnson missing camp is going to hurt him at least a little bit.  Anything they install this off-season with Mike Munchak having taken over as head coach will pass Johnson right by.  He also will have had no work at all taking hand offs from either of his new quarterbacks out in Tennessee.  He's still Chris Johnson, but a bad opening game or two are enough to separate him from All-Day and Charles.

5. Ray Rice - Simple and easy here.  They brought in Vonta Leach to play fullback, who should more than replace the departed Le'Ron McClain as a lead blocker and they let go of touchdown vulture Willis McGahee.  While new addition Ricky Williams will bite into his carries some, Rice has proven hes a great fantasy option even while sharing carries.  He catches the ball and runs the ball very well, and should continue to be a top fantasy option.

6. Maurice Jones-Drew - Other people are down on MJD this year, but they shouldn't be.  Jones-Drew was playing poorly with a torn meniscus during last season, but he has since had surgery and is recovered.  He is being held out of preseason games as a precaution, but has been running and cutting at full speed throughout training camp.  He will continue to be Jones-Drew again this season.  Don't worry about the injury concerns and be happy to take him as a solid value pick as other league members over draft other backs ahead of him.

7. Frank Gore - Gore is another guy who ended last year injured, but just like MJD, Gore is fully recovered and ready to go.  He is another top back who you shouldn't be worried about, especially with the addition of Jim Harbaugh out in San Fran.  Harbaugh wants to use Gore as the center piece of his offense, knowing that he doesn't have a reliable quarterback.  Gore is going to see a lot of carries, screens, and check downs.  He might be a curse of 370 worry next year, but this year ride him as a fine first rounder.

8. Darren McFadden - Run DMC finally made a big leap forward last year, and I'm not worried about Michael Bush really hurting him this year.  McFadden has shown himself to be a huge home run threat and Al Davis has loved his speed since he drafted him.  DMC ended the year as the number six overall fantasy running back last year despite missing three games.  You could easily make the argument for him to be ranked higher based on his potential, but with just one year under his belt (and not a Foster 313 point year), I'd prefer the track record of a Gore or MJD over him.  Draft him if those other guys are off the board though, and enjoy the big days.

9. Michael Turner - Turner managed to produce coming back last year from a curse of 370 season, and you have to expect him to be just as consistent this year.  He is on an elite offense that loves to run the ball to set up good third down situations and set up the play-action pass for Matt Ryan.  Julio Jones should help keep the eighth man out of the box this year, and that should help open things up even more for Turner.  I expect a slightly better season than last year, and another top ten fantasy showing from Turner.

10. Matt Forte - What? Forte? Yeah, Forte.  I know most places have him ranked as a middle of the road number two running back, but he's really a number one in disguise.  He racked up 1000 yards rushing and 500 yards receiving last year, and Marion Barber isn't really a threat to eat into either.  Greg Olsen's departure might actually get him even more short looks, and running backs in Mike Martz offenses just always produce fantasy points.  It's not called the Marshall Faulk Strategy for nothing.  His yardage totals mean he will get you fantasy points week in and week out, and was the best thing about the Bears offense last year.  The offense as a whole should improve this year and avoid stinker games like the ones against the Giants and Patriots last season, and that should be enough to move Forte's points scored even higher than his 11th ranking among running backs last season.

11. LeSean McCoy - McCoy falls right in behind Forte because he is another back who had over 1000 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards last season.  McCoy ended as number seven overall running back last season, but the difference between him and Forte was just 70 yards.  McCoy saw 20 more pass targets than Forte last year, but it didn't translate into many more yards, and his biggest receiving game of the year was the game against Washington that Kevin Kolb finished.  He'll produce almost as much this year, just not as much as Forte.

12. LeGarrette Blount - Blount managed 1000 yards last year in basically just half a season as a starter for the Buccaneers.  Another year later with a full training camp under his belt, I expect Blount to perform even better this year.  He's doesn't contribute too much in the passing game, but neither does Michael Turner.  Blount will get fed the ball often in the Tampa offense, and will get goal line carries as well.  There is 2008 Turner upside here, so be willing to draft him this high and have a chance to ride him to a title.

13. Steven Jackson - Jackson has been getting the job done for years, and is the perfect guy to have as a second running back.  His upside isn't there any more after the pounding he's taken so far in his career, but the consistent output year in and year out has been his trademark.  He'll get over 1500 yards once again this year and has high touchdown output potential with the Bradford growing offense.  He's the guy you want at this point in the draft, because his output is a sure thing.

14. Peyton Hillis - Hillis came out of nowhere to be the fourth best fantasy running back last year, and while I think he will continue to be a productive fantasy back, his best year is already behind him.  He wore down towards the end of last season, and last year's second round pick Montario Hardesty will be back from injury this year to help carry the workload.  Hillis will continue to be productive, but won't hit the big 30 point games again like he did twice last year.  He'll lay off from last year, but still show up as a solid number two fantasy running back.

15. Ahmad Bradshaw - Bradshaw tried to go out and get a big deal this offseason, but the market for running backs isn't what it used to be.  He ended up going back to the Giants, which is probably the best thing for him, as he'll return there as the featured back in a two headed running back attack.  He ended last year as the fourteenth best fantasy running back, and I expect similar results again for Bradshaw this year.  He is explosive enough to make up for some of his awful plays and will topple the thousand yard mark again this year no problem.

16. DeAngelo Williams - Williams got a big payday this offseason, but wasn't that amazing before he was hurt last season.  He scored just one touchdown in 5 games and didn't break 90 yards in any of those games.  He's an injury risk and is back in a platoon with Jonathan Stewart.  That said, he just got a huge payday and is going to get the majority of the carries.  He is explosive and the best back there in Carolina.  It's just between the platoon and Cam Newton taking over at quarterback, I don't expect Williams to be more than a number two fantasy running back.

17. Rashard Mendenhall - Most people have Rashard ranked much higher, but I think this might even be too high.  He was the ninth best fantasy running back last year, but he wasn't very effective in getting there.  He averaged just 3.9 yards per carry last year and most of his value came from his touchdowns.  He also scored 31.7% of his points last year in the first four games when Ben Roethlisberger was out, only running for 100 yards once with Ben in the lineup.  He also is a borderline curse of 370 back, as he totaled 385 carries last year when you add in his playoff games.  I'm basically saying not to draft him this year, as he'll be gone in your draft long before some of the guys above him on this list.

18. Jahvid Best - Look, He was a huge disappointment last season, but that was mostly because of his turf toe injuries in both feet.  This season, he is back in the high powered Detroit offense and should be fully healthy.  His main competition for carries this year was going to be Mikel LeShoure, but he was lost for the season earlier in camp.  Best is going to be a bit boom or bust at times, but is going to end the season as a top twenty running back easily as long as he doesn't get hurt again.  Its high risk high reward here, but we just slid right into that part of the draft.

19. Felix Jones - Another risk reward pick here, but another one who could pay off big for you because of his high power offense.  He should be getting the majority of the carries finally, and Jason Garrett has always seemed to support him.  If Murray and Choice weren't around, he would be higher on this list, but his upside makes him a valuable pick here.  He could end the season as a top five fantasy back, or get hurt or lose his job and end up out of the top 30.  Just know what you are getting into with this pick.

20. Knowshon Moreno - Moreno is in an odd situation this year that makes his fantasy value hard to predict. On one hand, John Fox is coming in, a defensive minded head coach who will run the ball more than Josh McDaniels did last year.  On the other hand, Willis McGahee was also brought in, a huge touchdown vulture who is also a good timeshare back for a two headed rushing attack.  Fox spread the ball to all of his running backs in Carolina, and I expect more of the same here.  Moreno is still the better back, and will probably end the year in the middle of the running back pack, right where you're drafting him.

21. Shonn Greene - Post-Hype Sleeper alert here.  Greene was a huge fantasy sleeper last year, as we all predicted that Tomlinson had little left in the tank, we were wrong.  However, towards the end of the year, Tomlinson looked worse and worse, so expect Greene to get much more work this year throughout the season.  He's done a great job so far whenever he's got carries in his career, and if this is the year that Tomlinson is done, Greene will be a top ten guy for a cheap price.

22. Ryan Mathews - Post-Hype Sleeper part two with Mathews here.  Injuries derailed his fantasy season last year, but by the end of the year he was stringing together a few good games.  Tolbert might be a touchdown vulture again this year, but Mathews is the better back of the two of them and should get most of the carries.  This is the same system that Tomlinson used to play in, and running backs can score fantasy points in bunches in Norv Turner's offense.  If he gets all the carries he'll be a great fantasy option and I'll risk drafting him here for that potential.

23. Daniel Thomas - Rookie running backs are always a scary proposition, but Thomas looks like he is going to be a strong pick this season.  Reggie Bush won't really hurt Thomas too much in terms of his carries, as Bush has proven his ineffectiveness running inside throughout his career.  However, he's still just a rookie and won't see many third downs, so don't expect too much either.  Thomas should become a punishing inside presence and get up around 1000 yards while seeing plenty of goal line work.

24. Cedric Benson - Everyone at your draft is probably going to laugh at you when you take Cedric Benson.  Don't worry about it.  Just nod and deal with it, and enjoy the week in and week out points from hopefully your third running back.  He doesn't bust out big runs, but they feed him enough carries that he churns out points for you team week in and week out.  He's the definition of an average fantasy running back, but he's a good flex play.

25. Ryan Grant - Grant was a top pick last year, and should take back his starting role with Brandon Jackson gone to Cleveland and James Starks limited in the passing game.  Grant will lose some carries to Starks overall, but Grant's abilities in the passing game should bring him back into being a top fantasy back assuming he gets most of the carries.  Grant is a bit of a risk because of the injury, but is a great pick as a flex running back.

26. Joseph Addai - Addai isn't a flashy pick either, but he's another one of these flex plays that will just plain produce for you.  He hasn't been very productive since his rookie season, but he has proven himself to be the best of the Colts' options at running back.  He posts big yardage and touchdown totals even if he doesn't look good doing it.  Draft him here and love the consistency at the flex position.

27. Brandon Jacobs - Jacobs is the best of the secondary back options, as he's the one with the clearest timeshare and job.  He's obviously one of the better backs in the league still and will get playing time just for that purpose to go along with obvious short yardage and goal line duties for the 260 pounder. He'll get you yards and touchdowns as a strong flex running back play, just don't count on much more than that.

28. Tim Hightower - Look, I know Mike Shanahan hates fantasy owners.  He is out to screw with us.  Just because Hightower looks like the guy now, doesn't mean he'll be getting the carries come week 1, or 5, or 10.  However, as the projected starter in a Shanahan offense, he should have no problem racking up yards and touchdowns if he keeps the job.  He's by far the biggest risk versus reward option in the draft.

29. Pierre Thomas - I'm a sucker I guess.  I like Thomas year after year, because he produces when he gets the touches, but he hasn't had a breakout year yet between injuries and Sean Payton switching up running backs.  He's the best option in the saints backfield though, and that's why he shows up here.  I'm not happy to be taking him, but we've run out of picks you want to be making at running back.

30. Fred Jackson - Just like with Benson, Jackson isn't an exciting fantasy pick, but he is another very good flex play.  He's going to continue to lose touches to C.J. Spiller, but until Spiller takes over as the number one back full time Jackson is going to continue to produce for fantasy players.  His value might wear off by the end of the year, but we are running out of running backs.

31. BenJarvus Green-Ellis - I know Green-Ellis finished fifteenth among running backs last season, but I don't expect similar results again this year.  You can't trust anyone to be getting carries in New England, and with Woodhead, Vereen, Faulk, and Ridley around to take the carries away, who knows what will happen with the workload this year.  I don't want a piece of any of them early, so this is as high as I'll take Green-Ellis.

32. Marshawn Lynch - Lynch should play all 16 games this year, and if he does he should have no problem getting closer to 1000 yards this year with a handful of touchdowns starting out there in Seattle.  I wouldn't be happy to be drafting him at all, but he's a starting running back in the NFL, and thats just got value.

33. Beanie Wells - The Ryan Williams section of these rankings was originally up around the 20 spot and featured a big sentence about how he was well.. not Beanie Wells.  Wells has proven himself bad in this starting job despite being given every opportunity to be the guy in Arizona.  He's another guy who is going to be starting so has some value, but you can't be too excited about him doing anything like this here.

34. Willis McGahee - Willis has looked good so far in the preseason, and John Fox has proven himself to be a fan of the two back system back when he was with Carolina.  McGahee should get change of pace work throughout the year and should become the goal line back quickly in Denver.  He's going to provide sneaky value this season, so grab him here if you can.

35. Thomas Jones - Jones is a bit forgotten here with all the Jamaal Charles hype, but Jones still managed almost 900 yards along with his 6 touchdowns.  The Chiefs seem to want to ride him to keep Charles fresh, so expect to see plenty of work go his way again this year.  If you are scrounging for a flex play, this is where you'll find it.

36. Mike Tolbert - Tolbert was a huge fantasy surprise last year, but he isn't going to carry it over to this season.  Mathews is fully healthy and is going to get the majority of carries for the Chargers because of the work he can do in the passing game.  Tolbert will still get some goal line and short yardage work though, and in with the Chargers scoring the amount of points they are expected to Tolbert will be useful in fantasy with because of his touchdown totals.

37. Mark Ingram - I don't trust the Saints backfield like I said in the Pierre Thomas section, but Ingram is going to get a solid number of carries after being drafted in the first round in the off season.  He's not explosive as Thomas though, and probably won't contribute much to the passing game.  Don't expect too much out of the rookie going into this year.

38. LaDainian Tomlinson - LT isn't going to be as strong of a fantasy play as he was early last season, but he should continue to get goal line carries and be involved in the passing game for the Jets, which should give him plenty of value this season.  No upside here, just steady points.

39. Reggie Bush - I'm not dumb enough to believe in Bush these years.  He's shown himself to be effective in the preseason in the past, but has never had extended regular season success.  Even with Miami now, I don't expect much to change this season.  Bush will continue to tantalize him with flashes but not translate it to sustained success.

40. C.J. Spiller - Spiller might start getting more of the carries this year, as they spent a first round pick on him before last season.  Spiller is explosive, he just can't be counted on in the Buffalo offense at this point.  The Bills offense is still one of the worst in the league, and Spiller doesn't even have a starting job on it.  There is some high upside here, but he can't be counted on for points.

41. Ryan Torain - Torain was my original pick as the best option in the Redskins backfield, before he seemed to lose his hold on the starting job to Tim Hightower.  Of course, as long as Shanahan is around, you'll never know who will get the carries at any point.  Torain might not start the season atop the depth chart, but could move there any given week.

42. James Starks - Starks looked good in the one playoff game last year, and that has caused some people to overestimate his value for this season.  Ryan Grant is going to be back starting, and Starks isn't the ideal change of pace back.  He might get some goal line work, but it's not likely to be enough to make a big fantasy impact.

43. Michael Bush - I'd love to rank Bush higher because of his skills, but he hasn't got the carries up to this point for the Raiders.  McFadden is an injury risk though, and if he goes down, Bush will get the majority of the carries out there in Oakland.  He'll produce greatly if DMC goes down, and even if not he'll still get your team some points in a pinch.

44. Danny Woodhead - Woodhead produced last season for New England because of his versatility.  He'll likely keep himself in the running back rotation moving forward, and should once again make himself into a useful flex play again at some point this season.

..... From this point on the list is all about sleepers and handcuffs.  Depending on your team and what you need moving at this point, you'll be going in different directions.  I'll rank them all, but am not going to write player briefs for all of them.  Just going to be a list.

45. Ricky Williams
46. Rashad Jennings
47. Roy Helu
48. DeMarco Murray
49. Jerome Harrison
50. Darren Sproles
51. Montario Hardesty
52. Mike Goodson
53. Jason Snelling
54. Bernard Scott
55. Toby Gerhart
56. Ronnie Brown
57. Stevan Ridley
58. Ben Tate
59. Anthony Dixon
60. Justin Forsett
61. LaRod Stephens-Howling
62. Cadillac Williams
63. Brandon Jackson
64. Tashard Choice
65. Marion Barber
66. Alex Green
67. Donald Brown
68. Javon Ringer
69. Derrick Ward
70. Earnest Graham

Anything after that and you really are just throwing darts.  You can have a strategy and it might work out, but anyone from this point on could blow up.  It's basically random chance.  Just stockpile handcuffs and backups if your are in a super deep league and hope that someone pans out.

-Fred "Big Derf" Tobin

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