Projecting the Top 10 Running Backs in Fantasy Football

Zach Warren@@ZachWWarrenFeatured ColumnistAugust 23, 2012

Projecting the Top 10 Running Backs in Fantasy Football

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    How many running backs does it take to make a successful team? If you’re Mike Shanahan, I'm not sure because I can't count that high. If you’re a fantasy owner, the answer’s usually about three solid backs.

    There are always injury concerns with every running back—as a Jamaal Charles owner last season, I gained 10 pounds between Weeks 2 and 5 thanks to my feel-better friends Ben and Jerry. And in many systems, there are concerns about the dreaded “C Word”—committee. This is especially true in Rounds 1, 2 and early in Round 3, where all of the backs on this list should be drafted.

    The key then is to minimize that risk. Go ahead, take a chance on Matt Forte if he’s there in the late third round. But do you want to sacrifice your first- or second-round pick for a guy you can’t trust? I’m not so sure.

    (Warning: Math alert. Skip ahead if you want to see the predictions.)

    What follows are the top 10 fantasy backs this year according to numberFire.com’s draft kit. NumberFire draws their numbers very heavily on the idea of Net Expected Points (NEP) and successes.

    The idea of NEP is simple. You want your back to help the team score points, right? The guys who put their team in a better position to score when compared to the average NFL back get bumps, while the guys who are only successful in leading to three-and-outs get knocked down. Often, this is measured in NEP per play; for instance, DeMarco Murray increased his team’s chance of scoring by 0.04 points per time he rushed the ball last season.

    Successes are similar. What percent of the time did your player increase your team's chance of scoring when compared to the average player? For Murray, that number was 44 percent of the time. Then, with the players ranked from there, numberFire can predict how that will affect fantasy teams.

    So with that out of the way, let's start scoring fantasy points.

Guys You Won't See

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    DeMarco Murray

    On many fantasy draft boards, DeMarco Murray has emerged as an ultimate sleeper (including ranking as the No. 8 on ESPN's top 300).

    The reasoning makes sense. The guy who rushed for almost 900 yards last season in only seven games started seems poised to break out.

    But the problem with Murray is touchdowns. His total of two from last season actually led the Cowboys; they only had five rushing TDs all season last year as a team. That indicates more of a system priority than anything having to do with Murray's skill—the Cowboys love to throw in the red zone.

    And especially with Witten and the freakishly athletic Dez Bryant in the fold, that trend's unlikely to change. I wouldn't be surprised if Murray hit 1000 yards this season, but I would be surprised if he hit much more than five touchdowns rushing the ball.

    That isn't good enough for my top 10.

     

    Darren McFadden

    Darren McFadden has had some people calling him a potential top-five back because of his upside, but he simply hasn't had consistent success running the ball.

    Remember that NEP value that I had on the opening slide, where players are scored based on whether their team has a better or worse scoring chance after they touch the ball when compared to the average rusher? McFadden fails hard at that checkpoint. Every time he rushed the ball, he actually lost his team 0.02 points per play.

    That may not seem like much, but when that's compared to the average NFL rusher, you can see that McFadden didn't play close to a top-ten back last year. In fact, McFadden wasn't even the most successful back on his team last year. Only 30 percent of his rushes could be considered "successful" in increasing the Raiders scoring chances over the average back, while teammate Michael Bush had a 33 percent success rate.

    Simply put, even if he gets the increased carries this year that everyone is expecting, it might not automatically translate into scores for Run DMC.

     

    Matt Forte

    In general, I'm on the Matt Forte bandwagon so far as that whole "Not concerned about him being concerned" part goes.

    Players have contract issues; it happens. Why then do I not like his No. 7 ranking overall on ESPN's top 300? For starters, his success rate is absolutely dreadful. He only increased the Bears scoring chances on 29 percent of his runs last season, a total that looks anywhere between awful (Peyton Hillis, 36 percent) and dreadful (Rashard Mendenhall, 34 percent), depending on who you're comparing him to.

    The other reason is Michael Bush. I fully expect the man to poach at least a few goal-line carries from Forte.

10: Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs

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    NumberFire Projected Stats: 1118.9 rushing yards, 7.0 rushing TDs, 202.4 receiving yards, 0.4 receiving TDs, 171.33 fantasy points

    Remember that beautiful time last year when Jamaal Charles was a top-five fantasy pick and the streets of Kansas City were flowing with happiness like a never-ending BBQ parade? That was a fun game.

    But just because he got injured last season, I wouldn't stray from Charles right away. He was never a workhorse back during his two seasons of heavy play in Kansas City, and at under 20 touches per game in his heaviest workload (2010), I'd trust his legs to still be fresh. His production in 2010 was undeniable as well.

    His 40.69 total NEP value was highest among all starting running backs that year, and an outrageous 47 percent of his touches were successful in increasing Kansas City's chance of scoring. He's also the undisputed No. 1 back; don't expect Peyton Hillis to take too many carries.

    The injury issues should be the only thing keeping him out of the first round.

9: Michael Turner, Atlanta Falcons

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    NumberFire Projected Stats: 1123.4 rushing yards, 9.3 rushing TDs, 100.1 receiving yards, 0.5 receiving TDs, 175.95 fantasy points

    Check out that angry scowl. Does that look the face of a guy who's soon to go downhill to you? There's always been the myth of the "Curse of Age 30" for NFL backs, but I subscribe to the much more logical theory of "Why jump off a sinking ship when it's working?"

    Turner has reached 1,300 yards in three of his past four seasons, and the one time he didn't (2010), he hit 871 in only 11 games played. In every single one of those seasons, he had over 10 touchdowns, and last year, he hit 100 receiving yards as well—just in case you didn't have enough reason to draft him already.

    He was only successful in raising the Falcons scoring opportunity on 30 percent of his rushes, but that's offset by the sheer number of carries he gets. With over 300 attempts in three of the past four seasons, there may be some wear and tear, but not enough for the Falcons to go away from the rush.

    NumberFire doesn't see as many TDs this year (only nine, run for the hills!), but they think the yards (1,123 projected rushing) will still be there.

8: Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks

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    NumberFire Projected Stats: 1100.6 rushing yards, 7.9 rushing TDs, 181.5 receiving yards, 0.8 receiving TDs, 176.21 fantasy points

    Leaping his way into your hearts and minds, Marshawn Lynch represents one of the riskiest fantasy plays at the top of draft boards. On one hand, he had 220 fantasy points last season on the back of an incredible 1,204 rushing yards and 13 total TDs. On the other lime-green-gloved hand, how easily do you forget those 2009 and 2010 seasons with the Bills and Seahawks where Lynch rushed for 1,023 yards and eight touchdowns combined in 29 games played?

    The numbers indicate that last season was an outlier. His NEP per play (-0.08) and his successful carries percentage (33 percent) were the best totals of his career by a good margin. Remember one thing about Lynch as well—he still has some legal trouble hanging over his head due to a July DUI charge. He isn't likely to be suspended during the NFL season, but the Seahawks could have him on a short leash if he does struggle.

    I'm not sure I trust him with a first-round or high second-round pick.

7: Steven Jackson, St. Louis Rams

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    NumberFire Projected Stats: 1264.7 rushing yards, 6.6 rushing TDs, 276.0 receiving yards, 0.7 receiving TDs, 192.87 fantasy points

    "Hey smart one," I can hear you saying sarcastically through my magic sportswriter powers, "ESPN has Jackson all the way down at No. 13 on their top 300! Do you think you know better than them?"

    Well, not saying that ESPN's wrong, but there's a good deal of stats to back me up. For instance, who's the only guy with over 1,000 yards rushing every year since 2005? S-Jax. Who hasn't missed more than two games combined the past three seasons? S-Jax. Who is only actually 29 years old, despite everybody knocking him due to perceived "age issues?" S-Jax. Who has at least 300 receiving yards in each of his past four seasons as an extra bonus? I don't even think I have to say it at this point.

    The only possible argument for knocking down Jackson is that his team won't offer him much in the way of help (entirely true). But the fact that he's easily the best offensive player on his team could help in this case—the Rams can't afford to not get the ball in his hands 20-plus times a game.

6: Chris Johnson, Tennessee Titans

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    NumberFire Projected Stats: 1246.7 rushing yards, 7.1 rushing TDs, 314.4 receiving yards, 1.0 receiving TDs, 199.51 fantasy points

    There's a lot of breath wasted on whether Chris Johnson can get back to his "Old Form." As if his 2011 season consisted of him tripping over Matt Hasselbeck's feet every time he got the ball and rolling around helplessly on the ground.

    That gives off a sorely wrong impression of Johnson.

    In fact, here was his actual 2011 stats in a vacuum: 16 games started, 1,047 rushing yards, 418 receiving yards and four total touchdowns. Not bad for a potential No. 2 back on your fantasy team, right? At the very least, he didn't fall flat on his face like some people think; he was still serviceable.

    But the numbers indicate that was an outlier. His -0.21 NEP per play and 29-percent success rate on increasing the Titans scoring chances were easily the worst totals of his four-year career. There's no reason to think that he won't get back to form—maybe not his 2,000-yard form of 2009, but likely somewhere in a happy middle yardage-wise.

    Even the touchdown total seems to be a fluke. Before putting up eight rushing touchdowns last year, the Titans as a team hadn't had below 13 rushing scores since 2005, when Chris Brown (not that Chris Brown) was their starting RB.

5: Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings

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    NumberFire Projected Stats: 1159.4 rushing yards, 9.9 rushing TDs, 316 receiving yards, 1.6 receiving TDs, 212.94 fantasy points

    I've been told that I should be worried about AP's ACL. I'm still not quite sure why.

    I assume that it might have something to do with an ancient Viking curse where the waters of Lake Minnetonka dry up if Toby Gerhart gets more than 25 carries in a game—or something. It can't have to do with fantasy football.

    With the talent the Vikings have on offense (according to numberFire, the third-best Vikings fantasy player is kicker Blair Walsh), they might not have a choice but to play AP from Week 1 and hope for the best.

    Gerhart was solid yet unspectacular as a starter. He had no 100-yard games and a big zero touchdowns in his four games with at least 15 carries, and his only 100-yard game on the season was helped dramatically by a 67-yard rush.

    Peterson, meanwhile, was 30 yards short of 1,000 last season, even while missing the final four games. And he still finished with 189 fantasy points (an average of over 15 per game). Before that, his lowest fantasy total in a season was 239 points—in his rookie year. Even if you're still concerned about the ACL, 75 percent All-Day is better than 100 percent most other backs.

4: Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville Jaguars (?)

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    NumberFire Projected Stats: 1396.1 rushing yards, 8.9 rushing TDs, 345.6 receiving yards, 1.6 receiving TDs, 231.57 fantasy points

    How large and bold can I make an asterisk for this one? * That's not helpful, but I'm not sure I could make one large enough anyway. If there's anybody that deserves a giant asterisk this fantasy season, it's MJD.

    IF Maurice Jones-Drew comes back and plays for the Jacksonville Jaguars, then he's a top-five pick in most drafts as long as quarterbacks don't have some insanely overpowered stat mechanism (here's looking at you, six-points-for-passing-TD leagues).

    As of this writing, that Jaguars thing is not a certainty. It's all about how much risk you're willing to take on. One consolation is that if Jones-Drew gets traded, it's likely that it will be to a team in desperate need of RB help, and with his talent, he'll be the clear No. 1 back no matter where he goes.

    But I would be a bit worried about him not being in camp. From Chris Johnson last year (worst year of his four year career) to Larry Johnson in 2007 (559 yards in eight games after two straight 1,700-plus-yard seasons), the NFL landscape is littered with backs who didn't perform as well after holding out. Watch this one with caution, and if you want to pull the trigger, I'd place him probably right under Chris Johnson in his current day-to-day status.

3: LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia Eagles

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    NumberFire Projected Stats: 1179.5 rushing yards, 11.9 rushing TDs, 398.8 receiving yards, 2.0 receiving TDs, 237.43 fantasy points

    There are definite tiers to the running backs this season. It's Foster at the top, McCoy and Rice in the second tier, then there's everybody else lagging behind.

    If you have one of the top-three picks, consider yourself lucky. But at the second pick, it's tough to make that decision between Rice and McCoy. Rice has the yardage down, but McCoy's 17 rushing touchdowns last season are very hard to ignore. Ultimately, though, I'm putting McCoy down at No. 3 for three (sense a trend?) main reasons.

    1. The Success Factor: 43 percent of McCoy's rushes last season were considered successful in increasing the Eagles chances to score. That's an incredibly good number, almost too good if you ask me. In the two seasons prior, McCoy had held steady right around 35 percent of his rushes being considered successful—good, but not FedEx Ground Player of the Year good.

    If McCoy reverts back closer to that 35 percent number, it will hurt most in the red zone. Because if McCoy can't get in, the Eagles have other players who can.

    2. Poachers: Michael Vick only had one touchdown last season on the ground despite playing in 13 games, his lowest rushing touchdown total since pre-jail 2003 Atlanta (when he got injured and only played in five games). If (BIG IF) Vick stays healthy, that low touchdown total won't happen again. And every rushing TD Vick gets is one that McCoy doesn't.

    3. Receiving Yards: It's a well-known fact that the Eagles offense relies heavily on passing to the back. That's why you want the back that has almost 2,000 receiving yards total over the past three years and two seasons with over 700 yards receiving.

    And that player is... Ray Rice? Indeed.

    McCoy's three-year total is almost 800 yards less, and he's only had one season receiving above 400 yards.

2: Ray Rice, Baltimore Ravens

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    NumberFire Projected Stats: 1330.9 rushing yards, 9.3 rushing TDs, 564 receiving yards, 2.3 receiving TDs, 253.89 fantasy points

    I already covered a lot of what makes Ray Rice special in the previous slide, but one other thing to note is the sheer number of touches Rice gets in a game.

    Not only has he reached at least 250 rushes in each of his three seasons starting, but he's hit at least 60 receptions in every single one of those seasons as well. He has averaged over 20 touches per game each of those past three seasons. That may catch up to him eventually, but not right now. He hasn't shown any past indication of injury in the NFL, playing in each of Baltimore's 48 regular-season games over the past three years.

1: Arian Foster, Houston Texans

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    NumberFire Projected Stats: 1384.7 rushing yards, 11.7 rushing TDs, 647.1 receiving yards, 2.3 receiving TDs, 280.78 fantasy points

    And now we're to the man who should be every fantasy league's No. 1 overall pick: Arian Foster.

    Often in fantasy leagues, quarterbacks score significantly more than running backs as a whole, and teams with good running backs gain their points only in comparison to other backs. It's almost unheard of, especially in the current 5,000-plus-yard-throwers climate, to have a back keep up.

    Well, numberFire projects Arian Foster to have 281 fantasy points this year in a standard Yahoo! league. That projection is beat by a few QBs, including Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Cam Newton—and that's it. More than Matthew Stafford, more than Calvin Johnson, more than everybody else. NumberFire projects Foster to have about 27 more points than Ray Rice on the back of an incredible 2000-plus all-purpose yards.

    Nobody can touch him when he's firing on all cylinders.

    The only conceivable reason to hold off would be hamstring concerns, but with Foster's level of production the past two seasons, that's a weak argument. I wouldn't be worried about Ben Tate either; the job's clearly in Foster's hands.

     

    Zach Warren is a writer and editor for numberFire.com as well as Bleacher Report. And he's here to bring the Fire to your fantasy team (and by Fire, I mean stats and facts and such). NumberFire specializes in predicting stats for players and teams through their prediction models.