It used to be that running backs were the unquestioned kings of the roost in fantasy football, but since the NFL has become more pass-happy than ever and fantasy leagues that award points for receptions and require three starting wide receivers have grown in popularity, times have changed.
However, it's also true that as the number of committee backfields in the National Football League has grown the number of true "bellcow" running backs is dwindling, which can make targeting the right fantasy ballcarrier essential for your team's success.
Taking all that into consideration, here's a look at the top 25 running backs in fantasy football in 2012 for PPR leagues.
1. Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens: the fifth-year pro topped 2,000 total yards last season en route to being fantasy football's top running back last year, and Rice's 75+ receptions and durability (he hasn't missed a game in three years) give him the edge over McCoy and Foster.
2. LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia Eagles: McCoy racked up an eye-popping 20 touchdowns last year, and while that gaudy statistic may not be sustainable, he's as dangerous as they come as both a runner and receiver.
3. Arian Foster, Houston Texans: After posting top-three fantasy numbers two years running, an argument can certainly be made for selecting Foster first overall, but three missed games last year and the cost of handcuffing Ben Tate drops Foster into the third spot.
4. Chris Johnson, Tennessee Titans: Even after an incredibly slow start borne of last season's holdout Johnson still finished 2011 as a top 10 running back in PPR leagues, and there's a very good possibility of a bounceback of sorts in 2012.
5. Matt Forte, Chicago Bears: There were a number of question marks surrounding Matt Forte just a few weeks ago, from the fifth-year pro's contract impasse (now settled) to last year's MCL injury and the arrival of Michael Bush in the Windy City.
However, Forte has posted top 10 fantasy production at his position in three of his four NFL seasons and was top 10 in points per game a year ago, and as The Chicago Tribune recently reported new Bears offensive coordinator Mike Tice can't wait to unleash Forte on opposing defenses.
"Matt is going to have plenty of opportunities to be explosive in our offense," Tice said. "Not only running the ball but catching it."
6. Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs: Charles missed most of the 2011 season with a torn ACL, but if Kansas City's preseason opener was any indication then the fifth-year veteran should be all systems go for week one.
7. Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings: After tearing both his ACL and MCL last December Peterson came off the PUP list over the weekend, and while he may get off to something of a slow start it's hard to overlook his immense potential.
8. Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders: There's likely no bigger risk/reward pick among the top 10 running backs than Darren McFadden, who is incredibly talented but has yet to make it through a full 16-game slate in his NFL career.
9. Ryan Mathews, San Diego Chargers: A fractured clavicle in the preseason opener places Mathews' availability for the season opener in question, but if he can return to the field fully healthy Mathews should be in line for a heavy workload with the Chargers in 2012.
10. Darren Sproles, New Orleans Saints: The eighth-year veteran was an offensive force in his first season in the Big Easy a year ago, tallying over 1,300 total yards spurred on by nearly 90 receptions for the Saints.
That production was enough to merit a top-five fantasy finish among running backs for Sproles in 2011, and as WWL-TV recently pointed out nothing has changed to indicate that Sproles' numbers will tail off this season.
In 2011, he led the team with 603 rushing yards, which was a career high. He was second in the NFL in yards after contact receiving with 724. And he was 7th in the NFL on third down receiving (tops among running backs) with 25 catches for 225 yards and two touchdowns. He had at least 175 all-purpose yards in seven of the team’s regular season games. And there’s no reason to believe that there will be a big drop-off this season. From 2007-10, Sproles averaged 2,065 all-purpose yards.
11. DeMarco Murray, Dallas Cowboys: Murray burst onto the NFL scene with a 253-yard rushing performance against the St. Louis Rams last October, and although a broken ankle he suffered last year is certainly a concern, the fantasy upside is there.
12. Steven Jackson, St. Louis Rams: No active NFL running back has more career carries than Jackson, and concerns about that workload have led to the 29-year-old slipping in drafts despite the fact that he's topped 1,400 total yards each of the past four seasons.
13. Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Martin has yet to "officially" be named the starting tailback in Tampa, which makes this pick a bit of a gamble. However, there's no denying that the rookie from Boise State is, quite simply, a more talented player in all facets of the game than LeGarrette Blount.
14. Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville Jaguars: Speaking of risky picks, Jones-Drew is engaged in a contentious contract holdout with the Jaguars, so fantasy owners that spend a second-round pick on 2011's leading rusher could end up with a top 10 back or a fat pile of nothing.
15. Ahmad Bradshaw, New York Giants: After topping 1,500 total yards and finishing the year as a top 10 running back in 2010 Ahmad Bradshaw struggled with injuries and inconsistent play a season ago, averaging a career-low 3.9 yards per carry.
However, with Brandon Jacobs now in San Francisco Bradshaw is the unquestioned lead back for the G-Men this season, and while rookie David Wilson will steal some touches the 26-year-old is ready to take on a leadership role in the Big Apple this year according to Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN.
"There's something to prove for us as a running back group," said Bradshaw, who was limited to 12 games last regular season due to a foot injury and had 659 rushing yards and nine rushing touchdowns. "We love to prove everybody wrong and that's kind of the attitude we take offensively. Being in the leader role, I just take advantage of it and try to help the young guys as much as I can."
16. Trent Richardson, Cleveland Browns: The rookie from Alabama gained over 2,000 total yards for the Crimson Tide last year, but a woeful Cleveland offense and recent arthroscopic knee surgery are major reasons to worry about Richardson's fantasy prospects.
17. Frank Gore, San Francisco 49ers: The eighth-year pro has gained more than 1,300 total yards in each of his past six seasons, but worries about wear and tear and the potential for a decreased role in the 49ers offense in 2012 have led Gore to drop into mid-fantasy RB2 territory.
18. Fred Jackson, Buffalo Bills: Before breaking his leg last year Fred Jackson was a top-five fantasy back, but at 31 years old and with youngster C.J. Spiller nipping at his heels Jackson may be hard-pressed to repeat that production this season.
19. Michael Turner, Atlanta Falcons: A lack of production in the passing game and 300+ carries in three of the past four seasons have led Turner to drop in many fantasy drafts this summer, but the ninth-year veteran has four straight years with double-digit scores.
20. Reggie Bush, Miami Dolphins: After five up-and-down seasons with the New Orleans Saints Reggie Bush joined the Miami Dolphins last year and went on to have the best statistical season of his career, topping 1,000 rushing yards for the first time.
Bush gained an even five yards a carry last season and is a very dangerous receiver out of the backfield, and as The Orlando Sun-Sentinel recently reported Bush has set his sights even higher this season.
“I believe in setting the highest goals possible,” he said. “If you’re not setting the highest goals and standards for yourself, then you don’t belong in this game. This is a game of all-stars, every team is equally good at the beginning and even the bad teams on any given Sunday can beat you. So I always try to set the highest goals for myself and hopefully the other guys follow suit.”
21. Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks: A career-high 1,204 rushing yards led to a fat contract extension for Lynch, but an offseason arrest and the possibility of a suspension clouds the sixth-year pro's early season fantasy value.
22. Jonathan Stewart, Carolina Panthers: Stewart's future appears set in Charlotte after the Panthers inked him to a five-year extension over the weekend, but the present is still somewhat cloudy with DeAngelo Williams still in the mix in the Carolina backfield.
23. Isaac Redman, Pittsburgh Steelers: With starter Rashard Mendenhall on the shelf indefinitely with a knee injury, Redman will be the man in the Pittsburgh backfield, and if the fourth-year pro performs well Mendenhall may not have a job to come back to.
24. Willis McGahee, Denver Broncos: McGahee topped 1,100 rushing yards last year for the first time since 2007, and the 10th-year veteran has reported to training camp in phenomenal shape in the hopes of duplicating that feat.
25. Shonn Greene, New York Jets: The fourth-year pro topped 1,000 rushing yards for the first time this season, and while the former Iowa standout should be set for a big workload this season his lack of explosiveness and receiving ability caps his fantasy upside.
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