In a league with fewer and fewer workhorses, finding a running back that will carry most of the load for his team is more difficult than ever before. Though the passing game is sweeping across the NFL and the quarterback position is becoming more and more important in fantasy football, having a quality stable of running backs that can give you 100 yards and a score any given week is still crucial to building a championship-quality roster.
This season, the running back can be broken down into a few categories that separate the elite from the consistent and the risks. Being able to identify which combination best fits your draft strategy can make the difference in your league.
1. LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia Eagles
Average Draft Position: 4.4
A year after totaling 20 touchdowns and over 1,600 yards from scrimmage, McCoy enters the 2012 season as the top fantasy football running back.
His combination of a nose for the end zone, an ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and playing in an offense with no other legitimate red-zone targets will give him a chance to replicate his 2011 production.
Though the Eagles offense will likely throw the football a bit more than last season, McCoy is still the only true running threat in Philadelphia and will almost certainly see over 300 touches for the second straight season.
2012 Projections: 265 carries, 1,250 yards, 50 receptions, 450 yards, 16 total touchdowns
2. Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens
Average Draft Position: 3.1
Coming off of his first season with double-digit touchdowns, Ray Rice has never been more more valued as a fantasy commodity.
After totaling over 1,750 yards from scrimmage each of the last three seasons, Rice signed a five-year extension that will keep him in Baltimore for the entire prime of his career.
He's on an offense that is still built around the running game and passes to the back. Though it might be unrealistic to expect to see him score 15 times again this year, the fact that he is almost a lock for 260 carries and 65 receptions a season makes him a top fantasy option year in and year out.
2012 Projection: 270 carries, 1,275 yards, 65 receptions, 500 yards, 11 total touchdowns.
3. Chris Johnson, Tennessee Titans
Average Draft Position: 9.6
A year after the first truly disappointing season of his career, CJ2K has a number of things working in his favor heading into 2012.
First, an improved offensive line featuring free-agent acquisition Steve Hutchinson and new center Fernando Velasco should add a bit more power to a unit that struggled to keep Johnson on his feet past the line of scrimmage.
Second, a passing game that should be more potent will allow him to see fewer eight-man boxes when he is given the opportunity to run.
Though he will likely never see the touches needed to hit 2,000 yards again, all reports coming out of training camp have said that the full offseason with the team has allowed CJ to return to his old form.
2012 Projection: 260 carries, 1,250 yards, 45 receptions, 450 yards, 10 total touchdowns.
4. Arian Foster, Houston Texans
Average Draft Position: 1.8
There is a decent chance that I have Foster a bit lower than he deserves to be, but the ever increasing role of Ben Tate combined with a new right side of his offensive line makes me worried that while he'll remain a great option and a true No. 1 running back, he simply may not be able to match the production of the other three top backs that have little competition for snaps on their own roster.
Foster's value can be increased in leagues which reward a point-per-reception, and his per-game numbers were simply too good to ignore last season. His combination of burst and power makes Foster one of the best backs in football, and he should produce another big year for fantasy owners.
2012 Projection: 250 carries, 1,200 yards, 45 receptions, 425 yards, 10 total touchdowns.
Consistent, Productive Running Backs
Average Draft Position: 15.8
As an all-around running back, it's possible to make a case for having Matt Forte in the top five. Prior to a knee injury, Forte led the league in yards from scrimmage and was breaking long runs at an alarming percentage.
Possibly the only thing that keeps Forte out of the top tier is his general lack of touchdowns. Though he is great in between the 20s, he simply doesn't rack up the touchdowns that most elite running backs are able to put up, scoring just four in 2011.
With an improved passing game, expect Forte to contribute in different ways and still put up yardage numbers on a near weekly basis.
2012 Projection: 250 carries, 1,225 yards, 50 receptions, 500 yards, 7 total touchdowns
2. Michael Turner, Atlanta Falcons
Average Draft Position: 33.7
Though rarely discussed as one of the best running backs in the game, his numbers speak for themselves since signing with the Falcons.
Over the last four seasons, Turner has scored 10 or more touchdowns each year while rushing for 1,300-plus yards in three of the years. Though his 300-plus carry seasons may start coming to an end, he plays in an explosive offense and is still the unquestioned No. 1 running back.
He isn't someone you want to take in the first round, but he is a player you can ride week in and week out in your starting lineup.
2012 Projection: 290 carries, 1,300 yards, 15 receptions, 125 yards, 10 touchdowns
3. Ryan Mathews, San Diego Chargers
Average Draft Position: 13.2
Though it may be a little early to refer to Mathews as a "consistent" running back, the fact that he is in position to receive the majority of the carries and red-zone touches for the Chargers makes him someone who you can target if you need consistent points from the running back spot.
With Mike Tolbert out of the picture, Mathews will move into the goal line back role that saw a number of his touchdowns vultured away last year. Matthews also can catch out of the backfield, and though certainly not an elite back at this point in his career, he has the potential to be a No. 1 running back in fantasy football this season.
2012 Projection: 265 carries, 1,200 yards, 40 receptions, 325 yards, 10 touchdowns
Average Draft Position: 53.6
After finally establishing himself as a potential every-down running back, Bush enters 2012 as the established starter in Miami. Though he may not run for a huge amount of yards, his combination of big play ability as both a runner and a receiver should enable him to be a potential fantasy starter throughout the year.
2. Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Average Draft Position: 76.7
Though LeGarrette Blount is currently the starter in Tampa Bay, Martin has impressed in camp and seems like the favorite to win the starting reps by the end of training camp. Martin has quickness and an ability to catch the ball out of the backfield that Blount simply is unable to offer the Buccaneers.
Martin may not get a ton of touches early on, but expect his numbers to only improve as your team heads towards the fantasy playoffs.
3. Kevin Smith, Detroit Lions
Average Draft Position: 130.6
Smith is far from a lock, but as an 11th-round option, he presents a potential starting running back on one of the most potent offenses in the NFL.
If Jahvid Best is able to pass a concussion test in the coming weeks, Smith may fall off this list. However, as reports have indicated that Best is not near returning to the practice field, Smith appears in line to get the majority of the carries for Detroit early on.
Top 40 Running Back Rankings
1. LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia
2. Ray Rice, Baltimore
3. Chris Johnson, Tennessee
4. Arian Foster, Houston
5. Matt Forte, Chicago
6. Ryan Mathews, San Diego
7. Jamaal Charles, Kansas City
8. Demarco Murray, Dallas
9. Darren McFadden, Oakland
10. Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville (Subject to change if he enters camp by Week 2 of the preseason)
11. Michael Turner, Atlanta
12. Trent Richardson, Cleveland
13. Marshawn Lynch, Buffalo
14. Steven Jackson, St. Louis
15. Adrian Peterson, Minnesota
16. Reggie Bush, Miami
17. Steven Jackson, St. Louis
18. Doug Martin, Tampa Bay
19. Darren Sproles, New Orleans
20. Willis McGahee, Denver
21. Fred Jackson, Buffalo
22. Frank Gore, San Francisco
23. Ahmad Bradshaw, New York Giants
24. Shonn Greene, New York Jets
25. Roy Helu, Washington
26. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Cincinnati
27. Jonathan Stewart, Carolina
28. Ben Tate, Houston
29. Beanie Wells, Arizona
30. Stevan Ridley, New England
31. Mark Ingram, New Orleans
32. C.J. Spiller, Buffalo
33. DeAngelo Williams, Carolina
34. Donald Brown, Indianapolis
35. Toby Gerhart, Minnesota
36. Michael Bush, Chicago
37. Kevin Smith, Detroit
38. Peyton Hillis, Kansas City
39. Isaac Redman, Pittsburgh
40. Jahvid Best, Detroit