Fantasy Football 2012: Top 40 Running Backs for Standard-Scoring Leagues

Jay ClemonsFantasy Sports Lead WriterAugust 1, 2012

Fantasy Football 2012: Top 40 Running Backs for Standard-Scoring Leagues

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    The following slideshow details my top 40 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, Alex Green, Kevin Smith, Delone Carter, Pierre Thomas, Ryan Grant, Daniel Thomas, Felix Jones, David WilsonIsaiah Pead, Robert Turbin, Ronnie Hillman, Knowshon Moreno, Evan Royster, Mike Tolbert, Cedric Benson or Rashard Mendenhall gracing the list—factoring in their current situations.

    Enjoy the show!

40. Tim Hightower, Washington Redskins

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    2011 Stats: 399 Total Yards (321 Rushing), 2 TD

    Skinny: From all appearances, we have a few weeks to see if Tim Hightower or Evan Royster ends up as the primary backup to Roy Helu, the Redskins' best pound-for-pound rusher in my mind.

    Consequently, I still have time to establish Royster (304 total yards in Weeks 16/17 last year) as the No. 40 overall back in fantasy.

    Yes, I've heard the speculation that Hightower, Washington's go-to back before suffering a season-ending injury in Week 7, will open the preseason as the starting tailback.

    But even if that's the case, there will be no reaching for his services in Rounds 6-9.

    Hightower should be a fine addition in standard-scoring and Points Per Reception drafts this summer...but only at a late-round price.

39. Ryan Williams, Arizona Cardinals

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    Skinny: The day will come when Ryan Williams is the Cardinals' most bankable rushing option, regardless of down and distance.

    And the day will come when Williams is a top-15 consideration among all fantasy tailbacks.

    But for this season, fantasy owners should temper their expectations with an explosive asset who must bounce back from a ruptured patella tendon in his right knee last August.

    Bottom line: It's rare to find a non-rookie tailback with limitless potential after Round 12. But Williams is that type of back—one who could enjoy a DeMarco Murray-like impact midway through the 2012 season, if fully healthy.

    At the very least, he's a must-handcuff for those who select Beanie Wells sometime in Round 6 or 7.

38. Mikel Leshoure, Detroit Lions

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    Skinny: This respectable ranking is an equal acknowledgement of Mikel Leshoure's immense potential (1,893 total yards, 20 TDs with the University of Illinois in 2010) and the tenuous prospects of Jahvid Best getting on the field (he's yet to be cleared for training camp workouts)...and staying on the field in Detroit.

    Even if Best remains healthy and concussion-free for the entire 2012 campaign, Leshoure—the single-game rushing record-holder at Wrigley Field (college or pro)—is still a good candidate for eight touchdowns in his de facto rookie season.

    But let's see how the preseason shapes up early on before making any more bold proclamations.

37. Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints

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    2011 Stats: 520 Total Yards (474 Rushing), 5 TD

    Skinny: Mark Ingram's rookie season was hindered by injury (missed six games) and the unexpectedly prodigious numbers of Saints tailback Darren Sproles (1,313 total yards, nine TDs) last year. But is that enough reason to doubt his fantasy potential in 2012?

    At this point, I think not.

    After surveying his stout, powerful body, one might assume Ingram is a classic short-yardage or goal-line back for the pass-happy Saints. But four of his five touchdowns last season were from 12 yards or longer.

    That leads me to believe Ingram's upside as a go-to asset between the 20s is still high, so why not endorse a statistical upgrade in the same season that suspended head coach Sean Payton won't be calling the offensive plays?

36. Peyton Hillis, Kansas City Chiefs

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    2011 Stats: 717 Total Yards (587 Rushing), 3 TD

    Skinny: Peyton Hillis's 2011 campaign with the Browns was a textbook example of how not to let one season of success (1,654 total yards, 13 TDs in 2010) go to your head: contract brooding, inconsistent play, alienating teammates (allegedly attempting field goals during practice) and falling prey to the doom-filled legend of the "Madden Curse."

    But from a fantasy perspective, his final year in Cleveland wasn't a complete waste of time. In five of his 10 games, Hillis racked up at least 87 total yards, and in the first three outings, the Arkansas product was targeted 18 times (with 15 receptions).

    Fast-forward to the present, where Hillis stands as a must-handcuff to Jamaal Charles with the Chiefs.

    In fact, I am confident that Charles (torn ACL last September) and Hillis will be one of the NFL's five best rushing combos by season's end.

35. James Starks, Green Bay Packers

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    2011 Stats: 794 Total Yards (578 Rushing), 1 TD

    Skinny: I must be crazy for attaching this ranking to a player who tallied only four games of 85 total yards or more and one touchdown last year.

    Yet here we are.

    Yes, James Starks is just entering his third pro season; yes, he's an outside candidate for 40 receptions; and yes, he has a prominent role with the NFC's most explosive offense.

    But I'm still leery of his capacity for finding the end zone this season. It's the No. 1 prerequisite of a No. 4 or 5 running back who doesn't pile up yardage week after week.

    Generally speaking, no NFL back should have just one score off 162 touches.

34. Michael Bush, Chicago Bears

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    2011 Stats: 1,395 Total Yards (977 Rushing), 8 TD

    Skinny: If Michael Bush had signed with the Bengals or Packers during the offseason, he'd most certainly warrant a higher ranking in this countdown.

    But as Matt Forte's backup in Chicago, I don't foresee Bush having any chance at 900 total yards by season's end, assuming full health for Forte.

    On the flip side, since Forte has never been a beast in the red zone, Bush has a golden opportunity for eight touchdowns this season. After all, seven of his eight scores from last year (with Oakland) came from within three yards.

    Bottom line: Bush is a must-handcuff to Forte on draft day...provided he's still on the board come Round 8.

33. Ben Tate, Houston Texans

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    2011 Stats: 1,040 Total Yards (942 Rushing), 4 TD

    Skinny: The fantasy optimist would point to Ben Tate collecting 1,000 total yards in a season where Arian Foster played 13 games.

    The fantasy pessimist would remind prospective owners that Tate eclipsed 100 total yards only once after Week 9 last year, and in the season's biggest game, a loss to the Baltimore in the AFC divisional playoffs, Tate had zero carries, zero catches and zero yards.

    For me, Tate's 2012 fate probably lies somewhere in the middle. If Foster (1,841 total yards, 12 TDs) is healthy all season, then Tate just isn't a strong candidate for 1,000 total yards.

    But in games where Foster gets shelved due to injury or fatigue, Tate is a reasonable weekly bet for 90 total yards and 0.5 touchdowns.

32. Willis McGahee, Denver Broncos

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    2011 Stats: 1,250 Total Yards (1,199 Rushing), 5 TD

    Skinny: Willis McGahee 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 (280 total yards last season) and highly versatile rookie Ronnie Hillman.

    Bottom line: McGahee hasn't posted back-to-back campaigns of 1,200 total yards since 2005, and the odds of doing that on Peyton Manning's watch are remote.

    Targets: 1,023 total yards and seven touchdowns.

31. Donald Brown, Indianapolis Colts

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    2011 Stats: 731 Total Yards (645 Rushing), 5 TD

    Skinny: If you were listening to SiriusXM NFL Radio on July 31 sometime around 1 p.m. ET, you might have caught an interview with Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.

    During the segment, Arians boldly predicted that Indy would run the (heck) out of the ball this season, partly due to Andrew Luck's rookie installation at quarterback...and the burgeoning talents of tailbacks Donald Brown, Delone Carter and Mewelde Moore.

    Arians, the former offensive coordinator of the Steelers (2007-11), also compared new Colts receiver Donnie Avery to Pittsburgh's Mike Wallace. But for this stanza, let's stay focused on the running game.

    In 2011, Brown had five outings of 85 total yards and/or one touchdown, a slight improvement from his 2010 numbers of the same criteria.

    But the primary reason for Brown's lofty ranking lies with the confidence that Arians has in the Colts' running attack. With his offensive coach's help, this is the season for Brown to take a big step forward.

30. Stevan Ridley, New England Patriots

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    2011 Stats: 454 Total Yards (441 Rushing), 1 TD

    Skinny: Fantasy Football Index magazine deserves props for unearthing the following trend from the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick era with New England:

    In the last six seasons, the Patriots are a perfect 6-for-6 in racking up 17 or more rushing touchdowns.

    That's a shocking stat for one of the NFL's pass-happiest offenses; it's also a great boost for fantasy owners looking to snag Stevan Ridley sometime in Round 8.

    Can Ridley match BenJarvus Green-Ellis's averages of 960 total yards and 12 TDs from 2010 and '11? That remains to be seen.

    But from a prognostication standpoint, Ridley seems like the better bet over Shane Vereen for 220-plus touches in 2012.

29. DeAngelo Williams, Carolina Panthers

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    2011 Stats: 971 Total Yards (836 Rushing), 7 TD

    Skinny: If either DeAngelo Williams 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 by Round 6, depending on your personal preference.

    Williams' targets: 1,092 total yards and five touchdowns.

28. Toby Gerhart, Minnesota Vikings

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    2011 Stats: 721 Total Yards (531 Rushing), 4 TD

    Skinny: If Adrian Peterson had never suffered a devastating knee injury (torn ACL in Week 16), Toby Gerhart (per-game averages of 96.8 total yards, two TDs in 10-touch games last year) likely wouldn't have accrued enough touches to be known as an elite handcuff.

    By extension, Peterson (1,109 total yards, 13 TDs in 12 games last year) would be classified as a "workhorse" back in fantasy circles and would be an easy top-five selection during the August drafts (standard-scoring).

    Instead, he'll have to share the limelight with Gerhart while recovering from an injury that will likely bump him into the 31-to-40 range on draft day.

    Bottom line: This may be the most important draft-day handcuff. With no more injury setbacks, Peterson and Gerhart are both reasonable targets for a minimum of 1,000 total yards and six touchdowns (with AP garnering substantially more yards and TDs).

27. Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Skinny: The Buccaneers deserve credit 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 Doug Martin (1,554 total yards, 18 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: 1,187 total yards and six touchdowns.

26. Jahvid Best, Detroit Lions

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    2011 Stats: 677 Total Yards (390 Rushing), 3 TD

    Skinny: Yes, Jahvid Best (677 total yards 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 6/7 investor come August.

    To remedy this potential problem, owners are advised to handcuff Best with second-year bulldozer Mikel Leshoure (missed 2011 with an Achilles injury)—a sneaky-good candidate for 10 TDs this season.

25. C.J. Spiller, Buffalo Bills

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    2011 Stats: 830 Total Yards (561 Rushing), 6 TD

    Skinny: In teammate Fred Jackson's stead last year—particularly Weeks 15-17, when he racked up 405 total yards and four touchdowns (per-game average of 135 yards/1.33 TDs)—C.J. Spiller reinforced 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's targets: 1,183 total yards and five touchdowns.

24. Jonathan Stewart, Carolina Panthers

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    2011 Stats: 1,174 Total Yards (761 Rushing), 5 TD

    Skinny: Jonathan Stewart didn't have a 100-yard rushing game last year, DeAngelo Williams tallied fewer than 1,000 total yards and new acquisition Mike Tolbert may not get enough opportunities to vulture TDs from Stewart, D-Will and QB Cam Newton.

    For now, though, Stewart gets the nod over the other Panthers backs on the strength of his immense potential.

    But make no mistake: The free pass has an expiration date. At age 25, it's time for Stewart to consistently reach that next level of production.

    Targets: 1,233 total yards and eight touchdowns.

23. Beanie Wells, Arizona Cardinals

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    2011 Stats: 1,099 Total Yards (1,047 Rushing), 10 TD

    Skinny: This pick comes with a warning of shared carries involving Beanie Wells, LaRod Stephens-Howling and Ryan Williams—my choice for fantasy rookie of the year in 2011 before he ruptured a patella during the preseason.

    If Williams had never incurred a serious injury last August, perhaps he'd be the one ranked at No. 23.

    Instead, he'll likely cede the spotlight to Wells for one more season.

    Wells' targets: 1,191 total yards and nine touchdowns.

22. Isaac Redman, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    2011 Stats: 557 Total Yards (479 Rushing), 3 TD

    Skinny: Let's start with a qualifier: I have serious reservations about Rashard 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.

21. Darren Sproles, New Orleans Saints

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    2011 Stats: 1,313 Total Yards (603 Rushing), 9 TD

    Skinny: 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-caller 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 remain healthy and productive all season.

    Targets: 1,204 total yards and six touchdowns.

20. Reggie Bush, Miami Dolphins

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    2011 Stats: 1,382 Total Yards (1,086 Rushing), 7 TD

    Skinny: Reggie Bush garners inclusion at this spot for two reasons, neither of which run in concert with his desire to win the NFL rushing title in 2012:

    1. Four straight 100-yard rushing games (519 yards total) to close out the season.

    2. 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 as well.

    Targets: 1,267 total yards and six touchdowns.

19. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Cincinnati Bengals

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    2011 Stats: 826 Total Yards (667 Rushing), 11 TD

    Skinny: 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. BenJarvus 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 also 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 nine touchdowns.

18. Roy Helu, Washington Redskins

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    2011 Stats: 1,019 Total Yards (640 Rushing), 3 TD

    Skinny: On the surface, Roy Helu at No. 18 seems like a reach. But let's remember that he corralled 1,019 total yards and three touchdowns out of only 200 touches (5.1 yards per touch); with 50 to 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 his second season, he must be a force around the goal line. Let's just hope the extra touches entails a bump in red-zone opportunities.

    Targets: 1,363 total yards and seven touchdowns.

17. Shonn Greene, New York Jets

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    2011 Stats: 1,265 Total Yards (1,054 Rushing), 6 TD

    Skinny: I like Shonn 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? Round-the-clock attention during training camp?)

    But hey, Greene still can be a force between the 20s and in mid-range red-zone scenarios. Perhaps he'll even score a touchdown or two from beyond 25 yards—something he failed to do in 2011.

16. Ahmad Bradshaw, New York Giants

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    2011 Stats: 926 Total Yards (659 Rushing), 11 TD

    Skinny: If Ahmad Bradshaw 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, personal grudges aside, is probably fine.

    Targets: 1,334 total yards and nine touchdowns.

15. Trent Richardson, Cleveland Browns

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    Skinny: The best fantasy template for Trent Richardson might be Adrian Peterson's rookie campaign of 2007. During that preseason, Peterson's pre-draft value conservatively stood at 46, even though fantasy owners were aware of his immense upside.

    Richardson, for what it's worth, currently ranks 37th in my top 150.

    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. 17 fantasy back.

    Targets: 1,278 total yards and seven touchdowns.

14. Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings

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    2011 Stats: 1,109 Total Yards (970 Rushing), 13 TD

    Skinny: This ranking may seem like a cop-out since I've already made the decision to pass on Adrian Peterson (1,109 total yards, 13 TDs in 12 games last year) until Round 6 of all 12-team drafts.

    But the man has certainly earned the right to be in the top 15. He's also earned the benefit of the doubt when vowing to be ready for Week 1 action.

    When healthy, Peterson (6,752 career rushing yards, 67 total TDs) is a top-five back; in fact, he'll probably reclaim that honor in August 2013.

13. Frank Gore, San Francisco 49ers

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    2011 Stats: 1,325 Total Yards (1,211 Rushing), 8 TD

    Skinny: Frank Gore had a fantastic 2011 campaign, but things may be a little different at old/new Candlestick Park 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, Kendall Hunter and rookie LaMichael James might comprise the NFL's best (and only) four-man backfield.

    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 in Rounds 9-12.

12a. DeMarco Murray, Dallas Cowboys

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    2011 Stats: 1,080 Total Yards (897 Rushing), 2 TD

    From Weeks 7-12 last year (a six-game span), DeMarco 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 "elite" supper once again in 2012—while being flanked by a (presumably) healthy Felix Jones in the backfield.

    Targets: 1,307 total yards and eight touchdowns.

12. Michael Turner, Atlanta Falcons

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    2011 Stats: 1,508 Total Yards (1,340 Rushing), 11 TD

    Skinny: Michael 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 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: 1,305 total yards and eight touchdowns.

11. Steven Jackson, St. Louis Rams

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    2011 Stats: 1,478 Total Yards (1,145 Rushing), 6 TD

    Skinny: 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 Steven 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 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 seven touchdowns.

10. Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs

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    2010 Stats: 1,935 Total Yards, 8 TD

    Skinny: 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 low Round 2 pick. If you're worried about his capacity to carry the Chiefs offense, then wait until Round 3 or 4.

    It's that simple.

    Targets: 1,512 total yards and seven touchdowns.

9. Fred Jackson, Buffalo Bills

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    2011 Stats: 1,376 Total Yards (934 Rushing), 6 TD

    Skinny: If memory serves, Fred Jackson was the AFC's leading rusher at the time of his season-ending injury (leg), 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 offseason chatter, but Buffalo execs are probably more comfortable with a two-back attack, with Jackson 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.

8a. Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks

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    2011 Stats: 1,416 Total Yards (1,204 Rushing), 13 TD

    Skinny: Here are some fascinating bits about Marshawn Lynch, aside from last year's 11-game TD streak and 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 opponents' defensive alignments, it should help create more running lanes for a back who's been reborn (at least on the field) in the Pacific Northwest.

    Targets (16 games): 1,472 total yards and 10 touchdowns.

    (NOTE: Lynch's "8a" ranking stems from the uncertainty of his fate after a recent DUI arrest.)

8. Ryan Mathews, San Diego Chargers

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    2011 Stats: 1,546 Total Yards (1,091 Rushing), 6 TD

    Skinny: This could be a defining season for Ryan Mathews, 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: 1,587 yards and nine touchdowns.

7. Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders

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    2011 Stats: 768 Total Yards (614 Rushing), 5 TD

    Skinny: This ranking will probably draw catcalls from both ends—with some saying Darren 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 is more bankable than Matt Forte or Chris Johnson.

    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 Mike Goodson 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: 1,544 total yards and 10 touchdowns.

6. Matt Forte, Chicago Bears

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    2011 Stats: 1,487 Total Yards (997 Rushing), 4 TD

    Skinny: Of the top eight tailbacks in this countdown, Matt 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.

    On the flip side, Forte should firmly rank as the No. 5 tailback and Round 1 lock in Points Per Reception drafts. If healthy, he would have flirted with 2,000 total yards in 2011.

    Targets: 1,724 total yards and seven touchdowns.

5. Chris Johnson, Tennessee Titans

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    2011 Stats: 1,465 Total Yards (1,047 Rushing), 4 TD

    Skinny: Most fantasy owners would throw a parade for a running back with 1,465 total yards, but that was hardly the case with Chris 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 career 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: 1,787 total yards and 11 touchdowns.

4. Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    2011 Stats: 1,980 Total Yards (1,606 Rushing), 11 TD

    Skinny: 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 legend, 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 Jones-Drew 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, MJD 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.

    (For the time being, I'm ignoring MJD's contract holdout...since these things always get resolved before Week 1.)

3. Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens

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    2011 Stats: 2,068 Total Yards (1,364 Rushing), 15 TD

    Skinny: In his four pro seasons, Ray 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.

    Here are my reasons for not assigning Rice a top-two ranking:

    1. He scored more touchdowns last season (15) than in his first three NFL years combined.

    2. Baltimore will likely open up the offense to pass-catchers Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin, Jacoby Jones and tight ends Dennis Pitta/Ed Dickson in an effort to diversify the "Rice right, Rice left" approach of seasons past.

    Targets: 1,871 total yards and 11 touchdowns.

2. Arian Foster, Houston Texans

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    2011 Stats: 1,841 Total Yards (1,224 Rushing), 12 TD

    Skinny: Since there are no obvious flaws in Arian Foster's fantasy game, we'll have to nitpick our way through this rationalization of the No. 2 ranking.

    1. The Texans' offensive line 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. He might be the next member of the 2K Yards From Scrimmage club.

    Targets: 1,987 total yards and 13 touchdowns.

1. LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia Eagles

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    2011 Stats: 1,624 Total Yards (1,309 Rushing), 20 TD

    Skinny: LeSean 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 90-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.