If you are looking for insider information on fantasy football running backs, I have one suggestion: draft early, because this position is thinner than a Ben Roethlisberger “apology.”
It is worth noting that only 15 backs in all of football rushed for more than 1000 yards last season. It is also worth noting that 1000 yards in a 16-game season is only 65 yards per game, which means that seven of the aforementioned 15 aren’t worth spit in the ocean.
In other words, if you are counting on production from, say, Joseph Addai, let’s just say that you are probably the target of the smack getting talked on your league forum rather than the instigator.
In the following rankings, I considered three things. The first is the Jim Brown Standard; when Brown broke the 1000-yard barrier, it was during a 12-game season, which translates to 83 ypg or better.* The second is wear and tear: one should see red flags whenever one finds a 300-carry season (or close to 2000 carries) on a running back’s resume. This is not to say that an RB is automatically off-limits, only that caveat emptor should apply.** The final arbiter was age: most backs over 30 have already had their best seasons. Again, this is not absolute, but there’s a reason why two-owner used cars are cheaper than brand-new models.
The Top Three
Chris Johnson – Don’t let last season’s 358 carries (or his threat to hold out) scare you. He still hasn’t had 1000 carries in his brief career, he’s still shy of 25, and he will report to training camp in time for this season to count toward his walk year. (ProFootballTalk’s Mike Florio believes that a holdout is still possible for Johnson, if Johnson is willing to pay the fines for missing camp and/or foregoing game checks; I disagree because Johnson’s current contract doesn’t include some massive, guaranteed signing bonus to tide him over.) Moreover, for a guy that pounded the rock so often, he was rarely pounded; he led the league in rushes over 20 yards with 22. Basically, he ran away from the defense untouched at least once a game last year. This guy is the number one pick, hands down, bar none, end of discussion.
Ray Rice – In his second full season, Rice put up Jim Brown-esque numbers (over 1300 yards rushing) in less than 300 carries. Add brand new tough guy WR Anquan Boldin occupying linebackers over the middle, and suddenly there’s one less guy in the box. Barring injury, Rice looks great to duplicate or even exceed last season’s production. Possibly the only RB with no baggage in the entire draft.
Maurice Jones-Drew – The Jags finally let their running back run the ball, and all MoJo did was respond with 312 carries for 1391 yards and 15 TDs. Don’t worry about wear and tear – the Jags have been careful with Drew throughout his career and, as a result, he will enter his fifth season with less than 1000 carries on his wheels.
The Next Ten (As Good As It Gets)
Adrian Peterson – Why do I have All Day so low? Back-to-back 300-carry seasons, that’s why. The stats from his last seven games (five regular season games and two playoff games) are the kind of uneven numbers you normally get from a waiver-wire injury replacement, not from the league’s best RB, which tell me that he’s probably wearing out. Don’t believe me? See Larry Johnson, or the next guy…
Steven Jackson – Jackson is, frankly, a beast, but even bad men like him (see Earl Campbell) have a limit for how much pounding they can take. Jackson is only 26, but his history is worth noting. He had a 346-carry Pro Bowl campaign back in 2006, good for over 1500 yards; he barely cracked 1000 yards in either of the next two. Last season (which saw him in his second Pro Bowl), he logged 324 rushes for 1416 yards. Worse, he’s put up over 1500 carries in his career thus far. I still like the guy, but I’m scared that he’ll blow a gasket this season.
Ryan Grant – Ryan Grant is good. He’s not great, but he’s very, very good. As long as Aaron Rodgers continues to make people forget about Purple Jesus, Grant is going to get a chance to tote the pigskin. He followed a 300-carry, 1200 yard season with a 282-carry, 1200 yard season, and he’s young. It sez so right here that Grant might be sneakily durable, just under the radar like Curtis Martin was until you look up and hey! when did he get 12,000 yards in his career? Draft Grant high and laugh your way to the playoffs.
Felix Jones – Okay, I’m getting the stink-eye from some of you right about now. And I’ll play along. Why, oh, why do I have the brittle Felix Jones ranked so high? Because I look at him and I see low career carries (M.Jones-Drew) and breakaway speed (Chris Johnson) on an offense that is loaded at WR, meaning any defense that crowds the line gets to watch Miles Austin and Dez Bryant imitate Drew Pearson and Tony Hill. Now that the job is certifiably his, a 250-carry season (Marion Barber is still there to occasionally vulture TDs) and a Pro Bowl berth is not out of the question.
Jahvid Best – You heard it here first. This kid will be the best RB that the Lions have drafted since Billy Sims. It should tell you something that the Lions drafted Best even though Kevin Smith (actually not that bad) was still on the roster. These are not Matt Millen’s Lions, and when they turn things around, Jahvid Best will be one of the reasons. Look for 200 carries and 1200 or more yards from the rookie, who will get better as the season progresses.
Ryan Mathews – What’s not to like about this rookie? He’s going to get every chance to fail in SD, and likely won’t, as he is much bigger than Darren Sproles, thus able to hit linebackers in such a way that they will remember him with some trepidation. Factor in Philip Rivers (a/k/a The Best Current Quarterback Not To Have Won A Super Bowl) and the biggest complement of big receivers this side of Brobdingnag (read a book!), and Mathews might look like something of a steal.
Cedric Benson – This is not an illusion. Benson might actually warrant a higher ranking. He won Cincinnati’s job in part-time duty in 2008, and laid permanent claim to it in 2009 with 301 carries for 1251 yards. In fact, he might be the best player on that roster who hasn’t changed his surname into a bastardization of Spanish. Aside from the ill-named (if entertaining and productive) Chad Ochocinco, Benson was the focus of every defense last year and still managed to produce. The clock is ticking on the former Longhorn (he’s 28 this season and will break the 1000-carry barrier by Week 5), but, again, he’s probably better than his ranking indicates.
Michael Turner – Remember what I was saying about 300-carry seasons? Michael Turner put up 376 carries for 1699 yards in his first full season as a feature back for Atlanta. He followed that with 178 carries for 871 last year. There might be some tread left on the tires – after all, it’s not like there are any other full-time options on the Falcons’ roster – but Turner is creeping uncomfortably close to 30 years old (he’ll be 29 after this season). This might be the last season that he will be in or near the top ten RBs.
Frank Gore – I want to rank Gore higher. I really do. I just can’t. He had one monster season back in 2006 (312 carries for 1695 yards), and since then he’s been a little better than a platoon back. He hasn’t broken 1200 yards in either of the last three seasons, and he’s the only option in the backfield; it ain’t like he’s getting vultured by Marion Barber. Critics can point out the fact that the 49ers haven’t exactly torn the world up during his tenure, and I’d remind them that great backs (or even good ones) will often outperform their sorry teams (see: Barry Sanders). Steven Jackson managed 1416 yards last year despite being the only guy with a pulse on last season’s Rams, so don’t cry for Gore, Argentina.
Matt Forte – The jury is still out on Forte. Is he the best Bears RB since Thomas Jones, or Neal Anderson? Or is he the second coming of Curtis Enis (or Rashad Salaam)? Having Mike Martz on board to run the offense will certainly perk his numbers up, because Martz isolates more people than the flatulence caused by lactose intolerance. The upside of Matt Forte is that he could become Brian Westbrook under Mike Martz; the downside is that he could become Reggie Bush. At this point in your draft, you’re looking for backs who still have the use of both legs, and Forte looks like Jayne Mansfield compared to what’s coming after him.
The Only Other Guys Worth Mentioning
If any of the following are the first running back you draft, you’re already on the clock for next season.
Rashard Mendenhall – The Steelers will be without Ben Roethlisberger for much of the first part of the season, and without their best receiver (Santonio Holmes, now of the New York Jets) for all of it. Mendenhall wasn’t bad last season, but he wasn’t great. Anyone expecting more will be disappointed.
Shonn Greene – Anyone else wanna bet that Greene welcomed LaDainian Tomlinson at the Jets training facility? Me neither. I liked it a lot better when LT’s numbers were bigger than his head, but his mere presence demands that Greene give up the rock that he deserves to tote. This is not to say that Greene is bad, far from it, only that he’d have been a lot farther up the list if Rex Ryan didn’t have to split his carries with the old guy in Tomlinson’s jersey.
DeAngelo Williams – Jonathan Stewart. Period. Stewart isn’t good enough to take the job from Williams outright, and Williams isn’t good enough to keep Stewart from taking major bites out of the available carries. As it is, Williams rushed 216 times for 1117 yards last season, and Stewart rushed 221 times for 1133 yards. Five carries and 16 yards separate them. If you have never understood the concept of the Handcuff Back, you will never find a better example than in the Carolina Panther backfield. Basically, if you draft one, you’d better draft the other and pick up any two warm bodies for the Bye Week.
Thomas Jones – The absolute worst thing that could have happened to Jamaal Charles in Kansas City was the arrival of Thomas Jones. Jones is not human. Jones is a Cyberdyne Systems model T-101. He can’t be bargained with. He can’t be reasoned with. He doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And he absolutely will not stop, ever, until he has taken Charles’ starting position. Don’t take my word for it; take a look at Jones’ last five (!!) seasons of work: 314/1335, 296/1210, 310/1119, 290/1312, 331/1402. That’s three (!!) 300+ carry seasons in the last five. Did I mention that Jones is 31? Did I mention that he doesn’t seem to care how friggin’ old he is, as long as there are still linebackers to humiliate and yards to be gained? He’ll be back…
Jamaal Charles – see Thomas Jones.
Beanie Wells – His best quarterback is calling games for the Iowa Barnstormers. His most physical receiver is playing catch with Joe Flacco. It’s going to be a loooong season for this Buckeye.
LeSean McCoy – Both Brian Westbrook and Donovan McNabb are gone. Be careful what you wish for…
Ronnie Brown – I look at Ronnie Brown and I see Terry Metcalf, a back that is somehow memorable despite never having dominated anyone for any extended period of time. Did you know that Brown has broken 1000 yards exactly once in his career, an extremely pedestrian 1008 back in 2006? Truth be told, for all of the Wildcat’s treachery, the Dolphins have profited more from Ricky Williams’ bull-rushing than Brown’s alleged versatility.
Jonathan Stewart – see DeAngelo Williams.
Joseph Addai – Nothing to see here. Move along. That’s how bad it is for Addai. He’ll likely be surpassed by Donald Brown (who ain’t that good himself) in an offense where everyone is staring at Peyton Manning.
Knowshon Moreno – Moreno’s position might be even more precarious than Joseph Addai’s, because the best QB on Denver’s roster is probably better at Moreno’s job than Moreno is. It sez so right here that if your tailback is only going to rush for 947 yards, he’d better be wearing a WWJD bracelet on the wrist that can toss the occasional TD pass out of the pro option…just sayin’…
Pierre Thomas – The man is a fraud. He has yet to break 800 yards rushing in any of his three seasons, and it’s not like Reggie Bush is so much better between the tackles. Anyone drafting Thomas gets to crow about his one great game every season, as long as they understand that they only get one, and that they are always going to fall one good running back’s production short of winning every week.
Take It From Me
If I didn’t mention someone, it’s because he wasn’t worth mentioning. If you are drafting anyone who isn’t among the above, well, I am commissioner of a league that’d be glad to have you.
*Brown actually rushed for over 104.3 yards per game for his career. Since no one can be reasonably expected to duplicate that Herculean feat, I toned the number down to something more attainable by mere mortals.
**Brown failed to rush for more than 1000 yards in a season only twice: his rookie year, and the year immediately following the only 300-carry campaign of his remarkable career.