The following slideshow details my top 30 running backs right now—a painfully subjective exercise that reflects the 2012 market for runners in standard-scoring leagues, not necessarily Points Per Reception outfits.
Even with a thorough assignment like this, there are bound to be omissions (or snubs). But ultimately, it was difficult to make a case for LeGarrette Blount, Mikel Leshoure, Toby Gerhart, Ryan Williams, Stevan Ridley, Evan Royster, Alex Green, Kevin Smith, Delone Carter, Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas, Ryan Grant, Donald Brown, Joseph Addai, Cedric Benson or Ben Tate gracing the list—factoring in their current situations.
Enjoy the show!
Philly's LeSean McCoy (1,546 total yards in 2011) racked up 20 total touchdowns last year (17 rushing), tops among NFL rushers.
The following slideshow details my top 30 running backs right now—a painfully subjective exercise that reflects the 2012 market for runners in standard-scoring leagues, not necessarily Points Per Reception outfits.
If Bush (1,365 total yards, eight TDs last year) had signed with the Bengals (before BenJarvus Green-Ellis joined Cincy) or if Bush had simply re-upped with the Raiders (as Darren McFadden's backup), he'd likely be a fixture in the top 30.
But right now, there are too many unknowns, too many variables with the situation in Chicago to prioritize Bush (16 TDs in the last two seasons) ahead or behind some of the best backs in fantasy.
Will Matt Forte re-sign with the Bears before training camp? Or will his season be more about contract disputes than 20-plus touches per game?
If Forte signs before training camp, will the Bears do a good job of ingratiating Bush into the offense? In 2010, Chicago promised to blend Chester Taylor into the mix with Forte; but Taylor ended up with only 132 touches (and 168 yards).
Let's start with a qualifier: I have serious reservations about Mendenhall (torn ACL in January) being at 100 percent to start the season and subsequent concerns about Mendy resembling his old, dynamic self anytime before November.
So, that'll put a lot of pressure on Redman (142 total yards vs. Denver in the playoffs last year) and No. 3 tailback Jonathan Dwyer (113 total yards in Week 5)—especially since the pass-happy Steelers have been preaching the need for offensive balance throughout the offseason.
Bottom line: It's imperative for Redman (above), Dwyer and Mendenhall to make the most of their touches, just like it's vital for new offensive coordinator Todd Haley to maximize the trio's capabilities...especially in the red zone.
The Buccaneers deserve major props for sticking to their plan of drafting an elite running back in Round 1...even if they didn't land Trent Richardson.
But Boise State's Martin (1,554 total yards, 16 TDs in 2011) may, in time, prove to be the perfect back for head coach Greg Schiano's power-rushing attack.
For now, Martin will likely split carries with incumbent LeGarrette Blount, but one look at Martin's highlight reel tells us his day as Tampa Bay's feature back will come sooner than later. It's difficult to project great college backs into the pros, but you'd be hard pressed to find anything about Martin's game that won't translate well to the next level.
If he wants the ultimate real-world and fantasy respect, Martin must evolve into a 40-catch talent within the first two seasons.
Targets: 1,078 total yards and six touchdowns.
If either Williams (971 total yards, seven TDs last year) or Jonathan Stewart were given a full-time role in the Carolina offense, they'd be reasonable bets for 1,400 total yards and 10 touchdowns (even with Cam Newton siphoning their red-zone opportunities).
But in a time-share agreement where the backs are randomly featured from week to week, their successful partnership simply serves the greater good.
Both assets should be drafted in Round 5 or 6, depending on your personal preference.
Williams targets: 1,132 total yards and five touchdowns.
McGahee (1,250 total yards, five TDs last year) deserves some props here, even though the Broncos' new approach to the running game may be drastically different from 2011.
Luckily for McGahee, his greatest competition for consistent touches comes in the form of veteran Knowshon Moreno (not necessarily a John Fox favorite) and highly versatile rookie Ronnie Hillman.
Bottom line: McGahee hasn't posted back-to-back campaigns of 1,200 total yards since 2005; the odds of doing that on Peyton Manning's watch are remote.
Targets: 1,023 total yards and seven touchdowns.
In teammate Fred Jackson's stead last year, particularly Weeks 15-17, Spiller racked up 405 total yards and four touchdowns (per-game average of 135 yards/1.33 TDs), reinforcing the notion that he was finally ready to carry the Buffalo offense.
With Jackson (137.6 total yards per game in 2011) and Spiller healthy and ready to lead the Bills to their first playoff berth since the 1999 season, the duo has a realistic shot at 200 combined yards per game.
Spiller targets: 1,127 total yards and five touchdowns.
Stewart didn't have a 100-yard rushing game last year; DeAngelo Williams tallied fewer than 1,000 total yards; new acquisition Mike Tolbert may not get enough opportunities to vulture TDs from Stewart, D-Will and QB Cam Newton.
For now, though, Stewart (1,174 total yards, five TDs in 2011) gets the nod over the other Panthers backs on the strength of his immense potential.
But make no mistake: That free pass has an expiration date. At age 25, it's time for Stewart to reach the next level of production.
Targets: 1,128 total yards and eight touchdowns.
This ranking is considerably lower than the top-10 status Sproles enjoyed at the end of last season.
But there is one obvious factor working against Sproles replicating 1,300 total yards or 86 receptions (a career high): the yearlong absence of Saints head coach/play-call extraordinaire Sean Payton.
Regardless of who replaces Payton on the play-calling end—even QB Drew Brees—it's hard to imagine Sproles being as explosive this year.
Plus, Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram will hopefully be ready to go full bore from day one of training camp.
Targets: 1,204 total yards and four touchdowns.
The Bengals deserve credit for targeting only one premium free-agent back and landing him at a reasonable rate...even if I thought the runner would be Kentucky native Michael Bush.
But enough about Bears backups. Green-Ellis (24 TDs the last two seasons with New England) has a great opportunity to put up sizable numbers with the Bengals. The club has a solid offensive line, and opposing defenses should have their hands full confronting Andy Dalton, Jermaine Gresham and receiver A.J. Green, a top-25 fantasy talent.
Bottom line: The door is open for Green-Ellis to collect 1,170 total yards and eight touchdowns.
Bush (1,393 total yards, seven TDs) garners inclusion here for two reasons, neither of which run in concert with this desire to win the NFL rushing title in 2012:
– Four straight 100-yard rushing games (519 total) to close out the season;
– The Dolphins have no big-time receiving options to steal the spotlight from Bush and No. 2 back Daniel Thomas.
(Sorry, fans of Davone Bess, Legedu Naanee, Brian Hartline and Clyde Gates.)
But then again, perhaps Bush should be downgraded for having no other Miami stars to distract opposing defenses. It's important to remember that 2011 was Bush's first 1,000-yard rushing campaign; he only had two outings of 50-plus receiving yards, too.
Targets: 1,267 total yards and six touchdowns.
Yes, Best (677 total yards, three TDs in six games last year) is a virtual lock for 90 total yards every time he takes the field. Yes, few defenders can match his top-end speed in the open field. And yes, Best (85 career catches) could be a top-seven running back in Points Per Reception leagues this year.
But none of this will occur if Best continues to be plagued by concussion problems...and that should be a big concern for every Round 5/6 investor come August.
To remedy this potential problem, owners are advised to handcuff Best with de facto rookie Mikel Leshoure (missed 2011 with a knee injury)—a sneaky-good candidate for eight to 10 TDs this season.
I like Greene's chances of finishing at or above 1,265 total yards (last year's figure), but I'll be shocked if he registers seven or more touchdowns.
That's the consequence of the Jets needlessly trading for backup QB Tim Tebow, who will undoubtedly be used in short-yardage and goal-line situations this season. (Why else would the club want him?)
But hey, Greene still can be a force between the 20s and mid-range red-zone scenarios. Perhaps he'll even score a touchdown or two from beyond 26 yards—something he failed to do in 2011.
Newbie quarterbacks Robert Griffin and Andrew Luck will likely clear Richardson's stats this year, but from an impact standpoint, Richardson should be the most coveted rookie asset in standard-scoring leagues.
The best fantasy template for Richardson might be Adrian Peterson's rookie campaign of 2007. During that preseason, Peterson's pre-draft value consistently stood at 46, even though fantasy owners were aware of his immense upside. Richardson, for what it's worth, currently ranks 49th in my top 75.
My philosophy on rookie backs is quite simple: They need the least practice time to prepare for NFL games, and their fresh legs, comparatively speaking, make them more attractive than tailbacks approaching 30 years old.
In other words, if you have the means to grab Richardson (2,017 total yards, 24 TDs with Alabama last year) in Rounds 4 or 5...take a deep breath, free yourself of all negative thoughts and boldly grab a major talent who's no worse than the No. 20 fantasy back.
Targets: 1,248 total yards and eight touchdowns.
This pick comes with a warning of shared carries involving Wells (1,099 total yards, 10 TDs last year), LaRod Stephens-Howling and Ryan Williams—my choice for fantasy rookie of the year in 2011, before he blew out his knee in the preseason.
If Williams had never incurred a serious injury last August, perhaps he may have warranted primary mention for this countdown.
Instead, he'll likely cede the spotlight to Wells for one more preseason.
Wells targets: 1,251 total yards and seven touchdowns.
If Bradshaw (926 total yards, 11 TDs last year) hadn't committed the unpardonable sin of (allegedly) missing curfew and getting suspended for a good chunk of Giants-Cowboys in Week 14—the first week of the fantasy playoffs—he would have scored a higher ranking.
But that's the price one must pay for being unreliable during crunch time; and Bradshaw's 19-yard effort against Dallas was a game-changer on the trust end.
Bottom line: Avoid having Bradshaw as your RB1 in 12-team leagues. Anything beyond that is probably fine.
Targets: 1,334 total yards and nine touchdowns.
On the surface, Helu at 17 seems like a reach. But let's remember that he corralled 1,039 total yards and three touchdowns out of only 200 touches (5.02 yards per touch); with 50-60 more touches—an ultra-conservative estimate for a high-end back—that's 1,300 easy yards.
I am supremely confident that Helu can take a big leap forward this season, but I'm also aware of Evan Royster's development in the Redskins offense. I'm also cognizant of how many skilled offensive pieces Washington has...including QB Robert Griffin III.
For Helu to gain the ultimate respect in year two, he must be a force around the goal line. Let's just hope the extra touches entails a bump in red-zone chances.
Targets: 1,363 total yards and eight touchdowns.
From Weeks 7-12 last year (a six-game span), Murray amassed 915 total yards and two touchdowns. If he had finished the season with that stellar run, he'd be a top-10 pick in August.
But that's not how the world of fantasy works sometimes.
Instead of being a Round 2 selection and gracing the cover of fantasy magazines everywhere, Murray will have to sing for his supper once again in 2012—while being flanked by a healthy Felix Jones in the backfield.
Targets: 1,307 total yards and eight touchdowns.
This ranking may seem like a cop-out, since I've already made the decision to pass on Peterson (1,112 total yards, 13 TDs in 13 games last year) until Round 6 of all 12-team drafts.
But the man has certainly earned the right to be in the top 20. He's also earned the benefit of the doubt when vowing to be ready for Week 1 action.
When healthy, Peterson (6,752 rushing yards, 67 total TDs) is a top-five back; in fact, he'll probably reclaim that honor in August 2013.
Gore (1,325 total yards, eight TDs) had a fantastic 2011 campaign, but things may be a little different on Walton Mountain this fall.
For starters, the 49ers have upgraded the receivers, adding Mario Manningham, A.J. Jenkins and Randy Moss to the mix.
Next up, Gore, Brandon Jacobs and Kendall Hunter might comprise the NFL's best three-man backfield. And if that weren't enough, there's the little matter of playoff hero Vernon Davis (tight end) reclaiming his standing as a premium red-zone target.
Bottom line: If you're going to draft Gore in Round 4, reward yourself with the handcuff of Jacobs or Hunter sometime during Rounds 8-12.
The Rams should be commended for drafting University of Cincinnati standout Isaiah Pead (1,578 total yards, 15 TDs last year) in April, creating the illusion that Jackson's per-game workload would be reduced in his ninth NFL season.
But we all know where things are headed for 2012.
While the Rams sort out their huddled mass of receiving candidates—it's anyone's guess for Nos. 1 through 7 on the depth chart—they'll ultimately lean on S-Jax (1,478 total yards, six TDs last year) for another season.
And why wouldn't they? Jackson is easily their most reliable weapon in the red zone. He'd also be a good bet for 50 catches, if the Rams chose to prioritize him in the passing game.
Targets: 1,421 total yards and six touchdowns.
Turner may be at the autumn stage of his NFL career, but he's still a comfortable Round 2 pick in standard-scoring drafts.
Heading into his age-30 season, we already know that Turner (1,508 total yards, 11 TDs last year) will have little impact on the Falcons' passing game and that he won't break off too many long touchdown runs (the 81-yarder against Tampa Bay was the exception to the rule).
All things considered, Turner's positives far outweigh any concerns that he'll suddenly morph into Shaun Alexander or Larry Johnson (superstars turned overnight mortals) and become a drag on the Atlanta attack.
Targets: 1,368 total yards and nine touchdowns.
On pure talent alone, Charles is a Round 1 fixture, but some owners may be skittish to reach for him on draft day, citing his ACL tear in Week 2 against Detroit last year, while also wondering how RB Peyton Hillis (free-agent acquisition) might cut into Charles' rushing and receiving attempts.
Of course, these may be the same owners champing at the bit for Adrian Peterson's return—even though Charles had a three-month head start of recovery time. Go figure.
Bottom line: If you believe Charles (1,935 total yards, eight TDs in 2010) can quickly recapture his old speed, quickness and explosion, you'll be happy to invest a Round 3 pick. If you're worried about his capacity to carry the Chiefs offense, then you'll wait until Round 4, if not later.
Targets: 1,512 total yards and seven touchdowns.
This could be a defining season for Mathews (1,546 total yards, six TDs in 2011), in terms of his capacity to fill the numbers void of Vincent Jackson (Tampa Bay) and Mike Tolbert (Carolina) leaving San Diego for greener pastures.
Mathews can notch 1,300 total yards in his sleep for the Chargers, but can he rack up double-digit touchdowns for the first time in his career?
Can he produce long scoring runs or catches, fueling San Diego's need for a big-play, quick-strike attack? And can he be the week-in, week-out centerpiece of an offense that's developing largely untested wideouts on the fly?
I believe the answer to all three questions is "yes," but Mathews has to get past all the durability concerns before entering the elite strata of fantasy backs. There's more to greatness than being a weekly lock for 90 total yards.
Targets: 1,461 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Here are some fascinating bits about Lynch, aside from last year's 11-game TD streak or his celebrated affinity for Skittles candy: He recorded career highs in rushing yards (1,204), total yards (1,416), carries (285), touches (313) and total scores (13) in 2011—on the strength of only one game of 30-plus touches.
That tells me the 26-year-old Lynch has the potential for yet another leap in his fantasy development this season, complementing the Seahawks' savvy offseason signing of QB Matt Flynn.
The key to Lynch's success may depend on another addition of years past: wide receiver Sidney Rice. If Rice can stay healthy and continue to stretch the opponents' defensive alignments, it should help create more running lanes for a back who's been reborn in the Pacific Northwest.
Targets: 1,472 total yards and 10 touchdowns.
If memory serves, Jackson was the AFC's leading rusher at the time of his season-ending injury (foot), a setback that helped perpetuate the Bills' late slide in 2011. Backup C.J. Spiller filled the void admirably, leading some to wonder if he was finally ready to assume the No. 1 rushing duties.
That sounds great for sports-talk radio, but Buffalo execs are probably more comfortable with a two-back attack, with Jackson (1,376 total yards, six TDs) having the bigger name on the marquee for now.
After all, that should always be a courtesy extended to backs averaging 137.6 total yards per game—a figure that's eerily similar to the No. 3 asset in our countdown.
This ranking will probably draw catcalls from both ends—with some saying McFadden (768 total yards, five TDs in seven games last year) is too injury-prone to be a top-10 asset, with others declaring that, when healthy, D-Mac's more bankable than Matt Forte or Chris Johnson.
And for the most part, both sides would be correct...although I would classify Lisfranc foot injuries as freak occurrences, not the calling card of players who can't stay on the field.
Assuming full health, McFadden should have a monster season with the Raiders. Michael Bush is gone (no more vulture TDs) and Taiwan Jones currently stands as the main backup.
Throw in the fact that opposing defenses will have to respect a Raiders quarterback for once (Carson Palmer), and McFadden should be a fantasy force.
Targets: 1,567 total yards and 10 touchdowns.
In any other year, Forte would be an easy top-five asset at his position.
However, given the seemingly never-ending contract dispute with Bears management and arrival of ex-Raider Michael Bush (the No. 9 running back last year), it's foolish to go overboard with 2012 projections.
Here's another reason for the mild disrespect: Of the top eight tailbacks in this countdown, Forte is the only one who endured a four-game stretch without 100 total yards last year. Normally, that wouldn't be such a deal-breaker, but we're talking about Forte—and his 7.1 TDs per season.
Targets: 1,624 total yards and seven touchdowns.
Most fantasy owners would throw a parade for a running back with 1,465 total yards, but that was hardly the case with Johnson's 2011 campaign.
From his high-profile holdout and lack of conditioning during the preseason to the September slump and four total touchdowns, it was a turbulent season full of sound and fury, but ultimately signifying nothing.
But the year was not a total loss. Johnson posted seven games of 100 total yards or more; he also recorded season highs in targets (79) and receptions (57).
Put it all together, and it's enough to make one believe the 26-year-old speedster will rebound in a major way this season. He simply has too much talent to be...just above average.
Targets: 1,817 total yards and 11 touchdowns.
MJD's insane finishing kick in the Jaguars' final 11 outings (10 games of 100-plus total yards, nine TDs) was the stuff of fantasy legends, but it might have prompted unrealistic expectations for 2012. Seriously.
Let's start with opportunities. You have a better chance of winning the lottery in the next 10 days than MJD has of replicating last year's 386 touches (343 carries).
Let's talk scheduling. Instead of terrorizing the hapless Bucs for 136 total yards and four TDs during Week 14 last year, Jones-Drew will have to contend with physical defenses from the AFC East and NFC North in 2012.
Let's talk coaching. New head man Mike Mularkey did wonders with Michael Turner's running success in Atlanta (offensive coordinator), but he was hired by Jacksonville to develop QB Blaine Gabbert and bolster a passing attack that's been anemic, at best.
Targets: 1,687 total yards and 10 touchdowns.
In his four pro seasons, Rice has developed a pattern of 2,000 total yards and 70-plus catches in odd-numbered years, with totals short of that in even-numbered ones.
Using that convoluted logic, Rice likely won't become just the 10th running back in NFL history to cross the 2,000-yard threshold in consecutive years. There are two key factors driving this prediction:
1. Rice may stage a contract holdout until the end of Ravens training camp—the first indicator of a promising season gone awry;
2. Baltimore will likely open up the offense to pass-catchers Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin, Jacoby Jones and tight end Ed Dickson, in an effort to diversify the Rice-right, Rice-left approach of seasons past.
Targets: 1,871 total yards and 11 touchdowns.
Since there are no obvious flaws in Foster's fantasy game, we'll have to nitpick our way through this rationalization of the No. 2 ranking.
1. The Texans' offensive line (now without Eric Winston) is largely anonymous to NFL fans living outside the metro Houston area.
2. A healthy Andre Johnson (hamstring woes all of last season) will get his fair share of red-zone opportunities once again.
3. Despite catching 53 balls and attracting 72 targets last season, Foster has a zero percent chance of collecting two receiving TDs of 78 yards or more in 2012.
But all is not lost for Foster (1,871 total yards, 12 TDs in 2011). He might be the next member of the 2K Yards From Scrimmage club.
Targets: 1,966 total yards and 13 touchdowns.
McCoy is not likely to replicate his 20 total touchdowns (17 rushing) from last year, but he is a great candidate to eclipse 1,624 total yards—which included 11 games of 100-plus total yards.
In fact, I'll be shocked if "Shady" comes in under the 1,750-yard threshold, a testament to his expanding role in the Eagles offense.
Of course, there were springtime reports that head coach Andy Reid wanted to restrict McCoy's touches, a supposed random act of kindness, even though Arian Foster (331 touches), Ray Rice (367) and Maurice Jones-Drew (386) crushed McCoy (321) in that category last season.
Bottom line: Taking Reid at his word...let's target McCoy for (only) 1,786 total yards and 17 touchdowns.