The New Class of Fantasy Football First-Round Running Backs: Part II

Chris DiLeoCorrespondent IJanuary 29, 2009

With the end to an era of top fantasy running backs, comes a new class of young running backs looking to overtake the fantasy rankings.

There are many talented new running backs currently in the NFL. The following is a list of running backs I believe will dominate in fantasy football for the next several years.

Those players include Adrian Peterson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Marshawn Lynch, Matt Forte, Michael Turner, DeAngelo Williams, Chris Johnson, and Pierre Thomas.

Below I will breakdown each player. This is a great list for anyone who is getting into the first year of a keeper league. I do assume points per reception.

Please note: Young running backs such as Steven Jackson, Frank Gore, Marion Barber, and Joseph Addai are certainly going to be quality running backs for years to come, but I do not consider them "new" to the scene, being that I have seen them as first round picks the past two years.

Adrian Peterson

It doesn't take a fantasy football guru to come up with this one. A strong, powerful running back with great speed and quickness who runs behind one of the top offensive lines in the NFL. He is always a threat to break a long TD run.

With only 40 receptions in 30 games played, there is a little to be desired in that respect, but A.P. should definitely be at the top of fantasy drafts for years to come.

Maurice Jones-Drew

The time is now for MJD.

He exploded on the scene his rookie year in 2006 with 15 TDs and almost 1,400 total yards.

There was a decline in production in 2007, where he managed nine TDs and nearly 1,200 yards of total offense. This decline was attributed to a rejuvenated Fred Taylor, who managed to have his best season since 2004.

In 2008, Fred Taylor began to show the wear and tear on his 33-year-old legs, ultimately ending his season on injured reserve after Week 14. MJD again put up very good numbers—14 TD's and just under 1,400 total yards.

He also hauled in 62 receptions after averaging 43 in each of his first two seasons.

Jones-Drew is entering a contract year in 2009. Rumors have it that either Fred Taylor will be released, or he will agree to a major pay cut. This leaves MJD as the primary option, and he only has 530 carries in three years, so his legs are still very fresh.

At 5' 7" and 212 pounds, he has the strength to run inside and the speed to run outside. He is tough, having missed only one game to injury in his three-year career.

When you figure that MJD has averaged about 13 TDs and over 1,300 yards of offense as a secondary option in Jacksonville, imagine what he can produce as a featured running back.

Throw in the fact he is a popular target in the passing game, and that should solidify his place in the top of the rankings for quite some time.


Matt Forte

If I had the first pick in a keeper league this year, Forte would be my choice. Besides having the perfect build for a running back at 6'1" 224lbs., he also has strength, good speed, and exceptional hands. Most of all, I appreciate his exceptional attitude.

It takes more than talent to succeed long-term in the NFL. Everything I have read about him from coaches and players tells me he is the epitome of a team player.

As far as I am concerned, that is just as valuable as talent.

For those who care more about fantasy production than good attitudes, consider this—Forte accounted for the highest percentage of his team's offensive production than any other running back in 2008. That amounted to 12 total TDs and just over 1,700 total yards.

His receiving skills really put him over the top, catching more passes than any other running back (63 receptions).

Forte is an every-down running back who gets the goal line carries. That makes him an extremely valuable commodity. There are rumors in Chicago that GM Jerry Angelo wants to reduce Forte's workload in 2009. I wouldn't buy too much into that, it is common for coaches and GMs to talk like that in the off-season.

But when the games are played, it is always the best player who gets the action.

In Chicago, the best player is clearly Matt Forte.


DeAngelo Williams

This is another pick I do not expect to surprise many people. Williams averaged 5.5 yards per carry, gained over 1,500 yards rushing, scored 20 total TDs, and even tallied 22 receptions. All this in only his third year in the NFL.

However, there are some analysts who think it is a matter of time before Jonathan Stewart takes over the primary role in the backfield.

I remember when the Giants drafted Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne. Despite the popular "Thunder & Lightning" nickname, many felt Tikki Barber was only there to eventually give way to Dayne.

I am not predicting Stewart's career to end up like Dayne's, but I do believe DeAngelo Williams will be the Carolina workhorse for years to come—similar to Tikki Barber's role in New York.

Carolina kept true to their word when they said they would go back to being a smash-mouth, running football team. They restructured their offensive line for that purpose. They drafted behemoth tackle Jeff Otah, and started their 2007 second round pick Ryan Kalil at center.

Add left tackle Jordan Gross (drafted 2003) alongside talented run blocking guard Travelle Wharton, and this O-Line is built for pushing around opposing defenses.

Need proof? The Panthers finished the year ranked third in the NFL in rushing, averaging 152.3 yards per game.

During the preseason of 2008, I remember hearing a few interviews with DeAngelo in which he claimed to have matured  both personally and professionally.

He said the game has begun "to slow down." I found this very interesting at the time because, as I mentioned with Forte, I highly value personal maturity and attitude in players. I must confess, however, that I didn't buy into what he was saying. I figured he was trying to save his job.

Well, after his performance in 2008, I am convinced he meant what he said, and he will continue to be a top player for many years. 


Marshawn Lynch

Already a (late) first-round pick in many drafts in 2008, Lynch should continue to be a valuable running back for fantasy teams for years to come. I like his running style, he always has his legs moving, and refuses to go down easily.

I don't see Lynch as a running back who will put up huge numbers, but he will consistently produce 1,000-1,300 rushing yards and 7-10 TDs every year.

His receiving skills should add another 40 or 50 receptions for 300 to 500 receiving yards. If the Bills can improve as a team, these projections can be bumped up 10 percent.

It is hard to talk about a player's consistency when he has only played two years, but I have not been able to shake the feeling Lynch is the next Rudi Johnson in fantasy football.

Johnson was always solid, yet was unspectacular, and for several years he was always drafted in the first round after all the other high-profile running backs were off the board, usually between pick No. 9 and pick 12. I believe this is where Lynch is destined to end up.


Michael Turner

When the Falcons signed "Turner the Burner" before the 2008 season, I thought it was a waste of good talent. I wasn't alone in thinking the Falcons would be a bad football team.

They were coming off a bad year filled with turmoil following the Michael Vick debacle. Their solution?

Hand the team over to a rookie quarterback who would play behind a shaky offensive line. As much as I was always a fan of Turner, I felt his new situation would severely hinder his potential.

Well, the Falcons surprised everyone. The so called "shaky offensive line" paved the way for Atlanta's second-ranked rushing offense at a clip of 152.7 yards per game. Turner rushed for 1,699 yards and 17 touchdowns.

Matt Ryan will only get better, and as he improves, so will the Falcons. Turner will continue to be the workhorse on the ground, as evidenced by his 377 carries last year. He still has plenty in the tank, given his previous four seasons in San Diego where he had just 228 carries.

In leagues that do not award points per reception, Turner belongs among the top three running backs. However, when receptions count, Turner's value takes a slight hit. He only managed six receptions in 2008, and totaled only 11 in four years with the Chargers. 


Chris Johnson

The bad news? The Titans are a full blown running back-by-committee offense. The good news? The Titans love to run the ball. Despite a near 50-50 split with LenDale White, Johnson still rushed the ball 251 times.

Normally I would never consider such a running back as a first round pick. However, Johnson is such a special talent. He is so fast. Every time he touches the ball it looks like he can break a long touchdown. He also has excellent hands, accounting for 43 receptions in 2008.

Despite playing with a touchdown vulture like LenDale White, Johnson still managed nine rushing TDs—and added another by reception. He is more than capable of punching in a short touchdown run inside the 10-yard line, but he just doesn't get the opportunity very often.

As long as Johnson is part of a committee, I would not draft him early in the first round, but I would definitely take him over any quarterback or wide receiver when it comes to the last few picks of the first round. Being that he is part of a committee, his lighter load should extend his career, giving him many more productive years ahead.


Pierre Thomas

I admit, this one may be a reach. It is hard to come up with concrete numbers to make my case here. When I watch Thomas play, I just think he will be a special talent for years to come. He showed a glimpse of his talent week 17 in 2007 where he rushed for 105 yards and had 12 receptions for 121 yards and 1 receiving TD against the Bears.

In 2008, he didn't get a real opportunity until Week 11. From Week 11 through Week 16, Thomas rushed for 475 yards (5.1 yards per rush), scored six TDs, and caught 19 passes. These numbers are very good, but it is always wise to be cautious about statistics over a short time span.

Thomas' durability has been questioned, adding further hesitation for fantasy owners. I do not expect Thomas to be drafted in the first round this year. If Thomas takes over the starting role in New Orleans in 2009, I believe his production will make him a first-round pick come 2010 and beyond.

This could be the last year to draft Thomas while he is under the radar.


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