It's all about the matchups.
That's the reality of fantasy football. Your players are only as good as the defense they are playing against. So while we rank running backs by their expected potential, we should also keep in mind something a little more predictable:
Strength of schedule.
There are a number of variables to consider when analyzing strength of schedule based on running production: How good was the opposing defense last year? How many fantasy points per game did they allow? What has changed since? Is it a game that the host team can win? Will they build a lead and run the clock out or will they be playing from behind and abandon the run completely?
I applied those factors to the average draft position of all running backs and developed a top 10 list. From there, I studied their respective matchups and ranked them based on potential minus toughness of schedule.
So, while the crew over at ESPN has Maurice Jones-Drew ranked as their fourth overall running back, I have him ranked much lower.
The general outline of these rankings isn't based solely on strength of schedule. If that were the case, Michael Turner would probably be towards the top, as the Falcons face a lot of teams that last year struggled against the run. Rather, this is a list that considers talent plus the upside of a friendlier schedule.
And, as always, the purpose of this exercise is to win championships. If you're struggling to decide which running back to draft (especially in the first round), this should help you get off of the bubble.
I eliminated Trent Richardson from these rankings, despite him having an ADP of nine (among running backs), simply because we have no idea how he'll perform in the NFL.
Furthermore, I have no faith in the offense he plays for.
Removing Richardson made room for Adrian Peterson who, for the first time since his rookie season, is falling to the second round.
It's hard to find any "strengths" on the Vikings schedule with as much uncertainty there is around their quarterback and team as a whole. They certainly have some run-friendly matchups, such as Week 2 when they travel to Indianapolis to face a team that gave up the fourth most points to running backs last year.
Or in Week 8 when they host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who allowed more rushing touchdowns and more yards per game than any other team in the NFL.
Unfortunately, we have no idea how far along Peterson will be at season's open or how much of a work load he'll get. By the time he returns to normal (assuming he does), he'll face a tough stretch of games that could very well be blowouts in favor of his opponents, especially during the second half of the season (the Lions and both the Bears and Packers twice).
That being the case, the Vikings staff may elect to take it easy on him this year and limit his snaps. I can't, in good conscience, recommend drafting him before the third round.
But then again, it's Adrian Peterson. If he's healthy, you don't want to be playing against him regardless of the team he's facing.
Here's a fun fact: of the 4,149 yards the Jaguars offense produced last season, MJD was accountable for 47.7 percent of them (1,980 from scrimmage).
Maybe that's why ESPN has him ranked in their top five.
He averaged a career-high 100.4 rushing yards per game and added another 23.4 receiving. What's truly impressive about those numbers is that they came on a team whose offense was dead last in yards per game and 28th in points scored.
I expect the Jaguars to improve on those numbers, but they won't do so by being the one-note offense they were in 2011.
There's no question that Jones-Drew is the heart and soul of this team. With a second-year quarterback who may have a short shelf life in the NFL, the question becomes whether the Jaguars will be efficient enough to justify fantasy fans using a first-round pick on him.
Their schedule suggests no.
As if two games against the Texans aren't enough. Toss in the NFC North and AFC East—which features a much-improved Bills team—and we can make a case that MJD will be in for the hardest year of his career.
I smell a first round bust.
Fire up the hype machine ladies and gentlemen!
Chris Johnson has been a full participant at OTAs and looks better than ever. He's gained some weight. He's gain some confidence.
And he's gained some stock in fantasy football.
Johnson may have been the biggest fantasy draft bust of all time in 2011. He blames last season's lockout and impending holdout for his lack of production. I blame his awareness and boom-or-bust style of running.
With a back of his nature, you're going to have some good days, and you're going to have some bad days. 2011 was full of bad days.
2012 promises even more.
The Titans are staring down the barrel of an 0-4 start, as they open the season against the Patriots, Chargers, Lions and Texans. From there they face stretches of impending doom, such as Weeks 9-13, which feature three of the league's top-five run defenses.
It's a transition year that will most likely see a change at quarterback during some point of the season. That's not necessarily a bad thing for CJ; Jake Locker could provide a dynamic the Titans offense desperately needs.
Johnson's value is hurt more by Chris Palmer's tendency to abandon the run in high-scoring games. Although, that philosophy may change when they lose Kenny Britt to whatever suspension Roger Goodell hands down. It'll be up to Johnson to follow his blocks and not look for big plays on every snap.
No matter what, I warn against drafting him anywhere near his current ADP of 7.1.
Show me the money.
Matt Forte locked up the contract he'd been looking for with the Bears and can finally put aside all financial distractions.
Fantasy GMs can finally put aside whatever doubts they have about his ability to be a feature back. Forte proved last year that he has the speed and pass-catching ability to put together enough weekly production to justify a second-round pick.
The Bears have a tough schedule—as any team that plays in the same division with the Packers and Lions would—but fans can take comfort in that Chicago plays three of the top-five worst running defenses in the NFL (Colts, Rams and Panthers). Beyond that, the Bears play a number of games in which they'll be favored and will most likely choose to run out the clock (Titans, Vikings twice, Jaguars and Seahawks).
The biggest obstacle facing Forte owners this year is the acquisition of Michael Bush.
The theory being put forward is that the Bears brought in Bush due to Forte's inability to close on goal-to-go situations. Last year he failed to make good on every single opportunity, scoring zero touchdowns in 12 attempts.
Bush is in position to get most of the goal-line work, and this definitely handicaps Forte's value.
Please stay healthy. Please stay healthy. Please stay healthy.
I won't lie to you, the Raiders' schedule isn't exactly a dream come true for an offense that routinely falls apart. But if Run DMC can stick around for 15 games of it, his fantasy production could win you a championship—especially in Weeks 13-17 (vs. Browns, Broncos, Chiefs, Panthers and Chargers), the most important weeks of the season.
Please stay healthy. Please stay healthy. Please stay healthy....
Red-zone efficiency is a not a stat synonymous with the Cowboys of recent years.
In fact, they were ranked 20th in that category last season.
But that could change in 2012 as the Cowboys coaching staff knows the best way to keep the high-flying NFC East grounded is by pounding the ball on the ground.
Obviously, in keeping with the league-wide epidemic, the Cowboys are a pass-first offense. Tony Romo is coming off of the best season of his career and with a much-improved offensive line, he will be even better in 2012.
That trickle-down effect could have a major impact on the most surprising running back of last year.
DeMarco Murray was terrific when he took over as the starter in Week 7, compiling 1,080 yards from scrimmage. His only shortcoming, as mentioned, was the lack of touchdowns. He scored only twice on 19 carries inside the red zone.
It will be great to see what he can do as the starter from Week 1. There's no doubt that Felix Jones will get his fair share of snaps, but Murray will be the goal-line back.
And with the Cowboys registering as one of the best-looking offenses in the NFL, Murray could be in line for a lot of goal-to-go opportunities.
The schedule doesn't bode well from a pure yardage standpoint, especially with a full slate of games against the AFC North. But matchups against the Browns, Bucs and Panthers leave me with plenty of confidence that Murray will provide RB1 numbers in 2012.
Anyone that took a risk on LeSean McCoy in the first round of last year's draft was handsomely rewarded with the best season ever by an Eagle's running back.
With 20 total touchdowns and 1,624 total yards (in 15 games), McCoy was one of the most reliable fantasy players week in, week out.
Despite losing lot of close games and not living up to the offseason hype, the Eagles finished fourth in yards per game and still boasted one of the most well-rounded offenses in 2011.
2012 is already being labeled as a make-or-break season for Michael Vick.
The schedule doesn't help his cause. The NFC East is shaping up as one of the toughest and most competitive divisions in football. But if Vick manages to stay healthy, and the Eagles defense can plug the holes that sunk the ship last season, the team will find its way into the playoffs.
McCoy, on the other hand, will have a very hard time repeating the numbers he put up last year, especially since Andy Reid acknowledged that he probably gave him too many touches.
Still, McCoy's value as a first-round pick is justified by the fact that the Eagles are one of few teams to not employ a running back-by-committee approach.
Even if his carries are reduced from the 273 he had last year, I expect a much more competitive Eagles team and I have no trouble drafting him in the top five.
I can pretty much guarantee that this is the lowest you'll see Arian Foster on any top-10 list.
The truth is—if this ranking were solely based on SOS—he would be even lower.
We give a lot of credit to the Texans offense and basically expect them to blow out teams like Jacksonville and Miami. But the reality is, both of those teams have fielded very tough run defenses.
Miami allowed the third least amount of points to running backs last year, and Jacksonville was ninth.
Regardless, Foster fared well against the Jaguars last season, running for 177 yards and two touchdowns (in two games). He carried that production into the postseason where he exploded for another 285 yards and three touchdowns in two games against the feared AFC North.
If you consider that he added 53 receptions for 617 yards to his 1,224 yards on the ground, all in 13 games, it's not out of line to crown him as the No. 1 pick in every format.
Without question, he is a special player and very gifted runner, but the Texans will face a much tougher road this year
And there's always the fear that Ben Tate will start cutting into Foster's carries as the season wears on.
2011 featured the Ray Rice that everyone has been waiting for.
With Willis McGahee finally out of the picture, Rice exploded with 2,068 total yards and 15 total touchdowns. At age 25, he is in his prime and poised to have the best season of his career.
I'm not naive enough to say that the Ravens have an easy schedule. But from a running-production standpoint, it's not crazy to think that Rice can improve upon his 2011 numbers.
Like all running backs, his fantasy value will be largely dependent on the efficiency of his team's offense. Unlike most teams, the Ravens are not a pass-first, run-second system. With 544 pass attempts to 459 rush attempts last season, they were as balanced as any team out there.
What makes Rice especially valuable is his every-down production. Regardless of the play called, Rice will be a big part of it, which is why he was second to Darren Sproles among running backs with 76 receptions and third in rushing attempts with 291.
There's a big debate about whether Rice or Foster should be the number-one overall draft pick.
It's really a win-win situation. Both backs will produce the kind of numbers necessary to win your league's championship. But, because of Rice's durability, the lack of a running back committee in Baltimore and the slightly easier schedule (not to mention the fact that Rice just signed a five-year, $40 million contract), I give the edge to Rice.
Put simply, Ray Rice should be the first overall draft pick in every format.
We may never again see the kind of fantasy dominance that LaDainian Tomlinson provided for a better part of a decade.
Looking over his numbers they almost seem mythological. How is it possible that one player could run for 1,815 yards and 28 touchdowns in one season, plus record 56 receptions for another 508 yards and three more touchdowns? He even threw three touchdown passes. That's a total of 34 touchdowns by one player in one year.
To put those numbers into perspective, only four quarterbacks had more than 34 passing touchdowns in 2011.
How many fantasy football championships was LT single-handedly responsible for in 2006? Or over the course of his career?
It's fair to say that the days of single-player dominance are far behind us. But, when the San Diego Chargers selected Ryan Mathews in the first round of the 2010 draft, they did so with the hope that he could replace a legend.
So far those hopes have been marred with injuries, fumbles and—from a fantasy standpoint—vultures. 2011 showed some promise, with Mathews scoring six touchdowns and 1,546 total yards.
That's definitely a step in the right direction.
2012 shows even more promise. Mike Tolbert is gone and so is the committee system. Mathews will see 20-plus carries a game and has proven to be a reliable receiver on screens and play-actions. He has good speed and good vision, and now he'll have what fantasy football GMs have always wanted for him: goal-line carries.
But it's not just his skill set that makes Mathews one of the best first-round values in 2012: it's also his schedule.
The Chargers have been a tough nut to crack in recent years, as they can't seem to live up to their hype. Regardless, it's hard not to be excited about a running back that has six games against the AFC West.
According to FFToolbox, the Chiefs allowed 20.4 points a game to running backs last year, ranking them eighth, and the Raiders were 10th allowing 20.1. Even against a stingy Bronco defense, Mathews managed a combined 274 yards.
Then you add four games against the NFC South, which allowed a combined 65 rushing touchdowns and features two of the worst running defenses in the NFL (Tampa Bay and Carolina).
The AFC North will be a little harder, but it's sweetened by a late-season game against the Browns who allowed the third-most rushing yards in 2011. And there's no guarantee that the aging defenses of the Steelers and Ravens will be as effective as they have been in the past.
Will Mathews put up LT-type numbers in 2012? Of course not. No one ever will. But when it's all said and done, he will finish as a top-three running back.
Is it a sin to suggest drafting him first overall? Not if you consider his schedule and upside.
But obviously Rice and Foster (not to mention two or three quarterbacks) make it easy to shuffle him down in the rankings.
Still, don't wait around. Draft Mathews in the top five.