Monday, May 14, 2012

Positional Breakdown: Running Backs

Welcome to the second part of my positional breakdown series where I have profiled my thoughts on the running back position. Part one, Positional Breakdown: QBs, can be found here. Once again, I will begin at the top with the elite players, work my way down to FLEX options and then finish with a few backups. The injury risk is always high with RBs, which has led some owners to move QBs and WRs up their draft boards.
Is Ryan Mathews this years' LeSean McCoy?

I think there are four RBs cemented in the very top tier: Arian Foster, LeSean McCoy, Ray Rice and Maurice Jones-Drew. I also have Ryan Mathews knocking on the door of that tier although he hasn't completely broken out yet. Foster, McCoy, and Rice are the top three players because they have enough of a resume and seem to have a lot of tread left on their tires. Foster dominated among all RBs in 2010, with no RBs even close to his points total. He battled through an injury last season, missing 3 games, but still finished as a top 5 back. His patience as a runner is unrivaled and I think he should be the top option. Tied for second, I have LeSean McCoy and Ray Rice. McCoy teams up with Michael Vick to make the most exciting backfield in the NFL. He is incredibly elusive and is a big-time playmaker. Rice is the do-everything type who should stack plenty of fantasy points up as he shoulders the load for Baltimore's offense. Maurice Jones-Drew has been an incredibly productive for all six of the years he's been in the NFL. He just set his career high in yards (1606) had his highest YPC (4.7) since his rookie year, which leads me to believe there's a few very good years left. His past workload does drop his value in dynasty/keeper leagues though and could mean that his career will start its descent soon. Mathews has all makings of an elite back and has great surroundings. He finished 8th among RBs in points last season, while joining Rice and Foster as the only players with 1000+ rushing yards (1091) and 400+ receiving yards (455). I expect him to improve on both of those totals and come close to doubling his TDs (only 6 last season).
Don't let the ACL injury scare you from drafting Jamaal Charles.

The next group of RBs consists of a couple of workhorse backs and a handful of injury risk players with high rewards. They should all be viewed as mid-to-low end #1 RBs. The two workhorse players are Marshawn Lynch and Michael Turner. After a few down years, Lynch jumped back into the public eye with a terrific TD run in the 2010-11 playoffs. He then rode that momentum and turned it into a career year. His modest career 4.0 YPC should be noted. I don't see him matching last season's numbers and will probably be over-drafted. Turner put up another solid year, but his upside is diminishing every year. The continued development of Matt Ryan also cuts into his value. I think he can have another solid year, but don't expect greatness. Jamaal Charles is a major target of mine. The addition of Peyton Hillis to the backfield doesn't scare me because Charles' talent will force the Chiefs to make him the offense's focal point. He led all RBs in points during the second half of 2010, which turned him into a top 6 fantasy pick going into last season. Rehabilitation from ACL surgeries no longer scare me and I don't think his value should be too far off from where it was last offseason. I won't say much about Adrian Peterson other than he is making tremendous recovery time and stated himself that he would be "very surprised" if he missed week 1 of the upcoming season. Darren McFadden was putting up another great season and then got stricken with the injury bug yet again. If he can make it through an entire season then you have an elite RB. If he comes out the gates strong again, you may be best served to capitalize and leave another owner to worry about him. Chris Johnson, formerly known as CJ2K, was a terrible headache for his owners last season. A lot of analysts want to place much of the blame on his lockout, but his YPC already dropped from a ridiculous 5.6 in 2009 down to a more humble 4.3 in 2010 before settling down at 4.0 last season. I do expect him to rebound, but closer to his 2010 numbers than 2009 numbers. 

This next group of RBs should be considered low end #1 or high end #2 RBs going into the fantasy season. DeMarco Murray took a strong hold of the Cowboys' starting role with a 253 yard game. He then put together a great stretch of starts until succumbing to an injury. The small sample size may cause him to be slightly undervalued and could be a great pickup in drafts. Matt Forte and Fred Jackson are in similar positions. Both players were having terrific years that ended prematurely due to injuries. Both of their teams also added a little depth to their backfield. However, both should still be the lead RBs and put forth very productive seasons if they remain healthy. Reggie Bush finally got his chance to be the every-down RB and seized the moment. I know Miami has a couple of other players ready to fill in, but Bush should get a similar amount touches to begin the season as he got to end last season. I expect him to succeed and maintain his role throughout the year.
Expect Browns to lean on T. Richardson.

My #2 RBs include Steven Jackson, Trent Richardson, Darren Sproles, Ahmad Bradshaw and Frank Gore. Jackson is an absolute warrior and I highly recommend his short film, A Week In the Life with Steven Jackson. He has taken a beating over his career and his touches should take a dip this year even if he does remain healthy. Richardson is a tremendous talent and rookie RBs don't need much adjustment when entering the NFL. The Browns will ride him just as the Vikings did Peterson when he entered the league. Sproles had a stellar year and got better towards the end of the season. However, the Saints did draft Mark Ingram last year who should see an increased role. Sproles has his niche and will get enough touches to make him worthy of a starter, but I think last season may have been his peak. Bradshaw would be very promising if it wasn't for his chronic foot injuries. The Giants also drafted David Wilson in the first round and must plan on giving him a fair share of touches. Gore had a great career, but is on the wrong side of the career arc. The 49ers also now boast a deep stable of RBs with Brandon Jacobs, LaMichael James, and Kendall Hunter.

Roy Helu, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Shonn Greene and Beanie Wells round out my #2 RBs. Green-Ellis is the safest among this group because he should be the clear cut RB in Cincinnati and put up stats eerily similar to what Cedric Benson did. Helu has the most upside of the group and would shoot up the rankings if the Shanahans allowed him to be the feature back. He had a solid second half, which including a stretch of 3 consecutive 100 yard games. Wells showed potential as he just broke 1000 yards and reached 10 TDs, but must fend off Ryan Williams and did have some sort of knee surgery over the offseason. As for Greene, he should still be the lead back even with the presence of Tebow and get enough carries to warrant his use as a starter. The upside just doesn't seem to be present with Greene.

Two borderline starters and FLEX options are Stevan Ridley and Willis McGahee. Ridley's value is limited in the Patriots' offensive scheme, but he should get enough touches to be used as a starter. McGahee had quite the resurgence, but his value is limited as I can't imagine he will receive touches close to his total last season.

Every season, there are plenty of enterprising running backs whose value would rise if given a bigger opportunity. The more talented players in this group are Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams, Isaac Redman, Rashard Mendenhall, Doug Martin, Mark Ingram, CJ Spiller, Ryan Williams, Mikel Leshoure and David Wilson. The Stewart/Williams situation has been around for awhile and there is not much you can do besides hope one of them gets injured. Redman and Mendenhall are in a similar situation where either can become very valuable if they begin to get the lion's share of touches. Martin impressed NFL scouts and draftniks throughout the offseason, which combined with the disappointment of Blount last season should account to a great opportunity for him. I mentioned earlier that Ingram's draft spot from last season leads me to believe the Saints will like to give him the ball more often. Spiller quieted the "bust" whispers after Fred Jackson was injured. Ryan Williams, Leshoure and Wilson are all talented runners waiting for their chance to assume a starting role.