For years, the running back position was the key to any successful fantasy football team. That has changed in recent years. With the overwhelming popularity of the “running back by committee” approach by teams around the NFL, fewer and fewer feature backs get a bulk of their teams carries/touches. In fact, in 2011 only two backs (Maurice Jones-Drew and Michael Turner) had 300 or more rushing attempts. The number of backs carrying such a load has steadily dropped since the 2005 and 2006 seasons, in which ten RBs toted the ball 300 or more times in each of those seasons. So, while the carries become more evenly distributed, the elite feature backs are much harder to find. With that in mind, we look at 2012 fantasy football running backs.
Tier One: The No-Brainers (with 2011 stats)
1. Arian Foster – Houston Texans: 1,224 rush yds, 10TD, 53rec. 617 yds, 2TD
No matter how you look at it, Foster, Rice, and McCoy are the three elite level fantasy backs in 2012. Why does Foster get the edge, in this case? You can make the case that Rice is actually used a bit more out of the backfield, but in the end, Foster gets a much more consistent workload on the ground. His only game with less than 15 carries came in week 2 versus Miami, when he left early with an injury.
2. Ray Rice – Baltimore Ravens: 1,364 rush yds, 12TD, 76rec. 704 yds, 3TD
In contrast to what we just mentioned about Foster, it seemed at times in 2011 that Baltimore completely forgot Rice was on the field. One of the most dynamic backs in the league, he carried the rock 13 times or less in five games. However, Rice still managed to approach 300 carries, while posting career highs in rushing yards, receiving yards, rushing TDs, receiving TDs, and total TDs.
3. LeSean McCoy – Philadelphia Eagles: 1,309 rush yds, 17TD, 48rec. 315 yds, 3TD
Despite just five games with 20+ carries, McCoy failed to score a rushing TD just three times in 2011. The fact that he touched the ball four times per game less than Foster and almost two times per game less than Rice, is why McCoy is third on my list. Although many would argue it decreases his fantasy value, coach Andy Reid has done a great job of limiting McCoy’s touches, especially in the passing game, to keep him fresh. His 20 TDs were 11 better than his previous career high.
Tier Two: Beware – Draft with Caution
4. Maurice Jones-Drew – Jacksonville Jaguars: 1,606 rush yds, 8TD, 43rec. 374 yds, 3TD
MJD was his usual workhorse self last season. His 343 carries in 2011 were 42 clear of anyone else in the league and he led the league in rushing, as a result. Throughout his career, MJD has found himself on a team without many other weapons. With the offseason additions of WRs Laurent Robinson, Justin Blackmon, and Lee Evans, the Jaguars are trying their best to help MJD. However, as this column is being written, his biggest concern is restructuring his contract, the reason he has yet to report to training camp.
5. Ryan Mathews – San Diego Chargers: 1,091 rush yds, 6TD, 50rec. 455 yds
After a disappointing 2011, Mathews comes with great risk, but what I like about him are two things. Mike Tolbert is no longer in San Diego to steal away all of his goal-line touches and he has Philip Rivers, along with a respectable receiving corps, to keep defenses honest. In his third season, should he stay healthy, the Chargers could finally realize why they spent the No. 12 overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, to take Mathews.
6. Chris Johnson – Tennessee Titans: 1,047 rush yds, 4TD, 57rec. 418 yds
Johnson showed flashes of what we saw in 2009, but was wildly inconsistent for much of the season, after holding out late into training camp. His No. 6 ranking is based almost solely on potential of what we know he is capable of doing, even though we haven’t seen much of it the past two seasons. If he slips on draft day, he could be of great value, but don’t reach for Johnson early or overspend on him in auction drafts. Let him be somebody else’s headache in 2012.
7. Matt Forte – Chicago Bears: 997 rush yds, 3TD, 52rec. 490 yds, 1TD
If you shy away from Forte, now that Michael Bush is also in the Chicago backfield, you are shying away for the wrong reason. Goal line carries or rushing TDs in general have never been Forte’s strongpoint, as he has just 21 rushing TDs in 60 career games. Forte is a flat out yards from scrimmage guy, who you can be sure will catch 50+ balls and top 1,000 yards rushing. Long scoring plays are icing on the cake for Forte owners.
High Risk/High Reward
Adrian Peterson – Minnesota Vikings: 973 rush yds, 12TD, 18rec. 139 yds, 1TD
Jamaal Charles – Kansas City Chiefs: 1,467 rush yds, 5TD, 45rec. 468 yds, 3TD (2010 stats)
Darren McFadden – Oakland Raiders: 614 rush yds, 4TD, 19rec. 154 yds, 1TD
Three of the most talented backs in the game, this trio could come at bargain rates in 2012. All coming off their own injury problems, Charles and Peterson suffered ACL tears in 2011, while McFadden was all sorts of banged up, like usual. While it will take guts to draft any of these guys in early rounds or at a high dollar amount, the rewards could be massive, should they stay healthy. Always the risk taker, I would much rather roll the dice on one of these three, than draft a DeMarco Murray, Fred Jackson, or Steven Jackson, all of whom have limited upside.
Don’t reach for: DeMarco Murray – Dallas Cowboys: 897 rush yds, 2TD, 26rec. 183 yds
Far too many people are too high on Murray. Sure, he’s the primary back in Dallas, but with his injury concerns and lack of play-making ability out of the backfield, I don’t feel you’ll get the return from Murray on your investment. 527 of his 897 rushing yards came in three games, against St. Louis, Seattle, and Buffalo. This season, Dallas faces just three defenses that ranked 20th or lower in rush defense last year.
Sleeper: Stevan Ridley – New England Patriots: 441 rush yds, 1TD, 3rec. 13 yds
If Ridley can simply hang on to the ball, he could show huge fantasy value in 2012. New England liked what they saw from Ridley, so much in his rookie season, that they let BenJarvis Green-Ellis leave for Cincinnati. The Patriot offense scores like crazy, so it wouldn’t be absolutely absurd to see Ridley rack up 10 rushing TDs.
Deep Sleeper: Doug Martin – Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Rookie in 2012
Owners poised on making LeGarrette Blount their No. 2 or even No. 3 RB in 2012 are setting themselves up for disaster. The Bucs have had about enough of Blount and unlike Blount, Martin provides Tampa with an every down back. Don’t expect eye-popping numbers from Martin, but he could be a steal late and is a gem in keeper formats.