If you haven't noticed, NFL teams are playing a bit more like, well, teams these days. This ends up being quite useful in keeping your running game and offense fresh for the playoffs and a potentially long playoff run.
However, a favor to fantasy football owners, it is not.
You don't need stats and situational numbers to paint the picture. The days of multiple running backs like Shaun Alexander, LaDainian Tomlinson, Clinton Portis, and so many others ruling fantasy leagues is slowly coming to an end.
Quite specifically, Alexander is out of the league, LT is a back-up, and Portis isn't even guaranteed the starting gig in Washington.
So, the question is, who is a truly elite feature back in fantasy football , and where/when can you get them? Honestly, there only are about 11 "featured" backs in the NFL right now, at least in terms of fantasy football.
Here's a breakdown of the top backs that are sure-fire first and second-round pick candidates, as well as an explanation about the guys who missed the cut.
Note: List is in no particular order.
Shonn Greene (New York Jets)
Greene still enters 2010 as a slight question mark, simply because he's now sharing the football (at least to a degree) with newly acquired LaDainian Tomlinson.
However, LT isn't in town to tote the ball 300+ times, and it's unlikely he gets close to 200 carries. It's not even all that likely that LT is the bonafide goal-line carrier.
Greene will be taking over for the departed Thomas Jones as the team's starter, and after seeing what Greene was capable of at the end of the regular season and in the playoffs, that's some pretty nice news. Still, LT is a factor, and there is a chance at him stealing touchdowns and situational carries.
Regardless, Greene should easily get the ball 300+ times and is a legit fantasy stud at the running back position for 2010.
Ryan Mathews (San Diego Chargers)
It seems that every year brings in another stud rookie back who shocks the league. With LT out of the picture and only Darren Sproles as a legit threat for touches on offense, Mathews is primed to have a huge rookie season.
With great vision, speed, strength, and agility, Mathews is a complete back and is perfect for the Chargers' offense.
Head coach Norv Turner has already stated that Mathews is the starter and will get somewhere in the neighborhood of 250+ carries, which suggests Mathews could be an unexpected early pick.
With the increasing disappearance of stud fantasy backs, it may be wise to pull the trigger on a young guy like Mathews, rather than take a chance on a committee attack featuring Ronnie Brown, Ricky Williams, Marion Barber or Felix Jones (and others similar to those paired committees).
Ray Rice (Baltimore Ravens)
Ray Rice burst onto the scene in 2010 as the Ravens' official starter and feature back, and there was little that Willis McGahee could do to stop it.
While McGahee, and possibly Le'Ron McCain to a lesser degree, could still steal goal-line carries, there's no argument against Rice putting up huge numbers for a second-straight season.
Rice put up 1,300+ yards on the ground, while adding 78 receptions and 700+ yards through the air in 2009. With a growing quarterback and leader in Joe Flacco, along with a revamped receiving corps (Anquan Boldin and Dante Stallworth), there really isn't any reason to think Rice can't be a top-five back in 2010.
Cedric Benson (Cincinnati Bengals)
Benson proved two things to us in 2009: that he can be an elite running back in the NFL, but also that his running style can make him a serious injury liability.
Regardless, Benson is a threat for 100+ yards in any game, and gets the carries near the end-zone that make him an elite fantasy option.
With only Bernard Scott as his top competition for carries, there's no reason to think Benson isn't right back where he was in the middle of the 2009 season. As long as he stays healthy, he's a top-10 fantasy back.
Rashard Mendenhall (Pittsburgh Steelers)
Mendenhall proved immediately that he can be the full-time starter for the Steelers, and impressed the organization so much that they had no ill feelings about letting their former starter, Willie Parker, depart to the Washington Redskins.
Mendenhall will be back as the feature back once again, and currently doesn't even have a cemented number two guy to worry about stealing carries.
With Ben Roethlisberger out for the first 4-6 weeks to start the season, Mendy will be relied upon early even more than in 2009, and could have fantasy owners reaping all the benefits.
Chris Johnson (Tennessee Titans)
The guy went nuts last year, rendering a solid back (Lendale White ) useless in the Titans' rush offense.
With White completely out of the picture, and no one firmly planted to compete for serious carries, Johnson is set-up for another huge season.
Sure, teams will key in on the run game, and Johnson's contract situation should be heavily monitored, but there's little doubt that he gets well over 350 total touches on offense for the second straight season.
Maurice Jones-Drew (Jacksonville Jaguars)
Much like Johnson in Tennessee, Jones-Drew is the focal point (and arguably the only point) in his team's offense. That, and he doesn't have a legit back-up competing for major carries.
MJD is Jacksonville's offense, and this is even more magnified by the fact that the Jaguars' passing game isn't very strong (yet again).
With excellent speed, versatility, and the touches in place, Jones-Drew (providing his small figure can continue to stay healthy) is one of the top fantasy backs in all of football.
Ryan Grant (Green Bay Packers)
Grant isn't especially fast or physically gifted, but Green Bay likes him, and the team doesn't shy away from giving him the ball.
The team drafted James Starks to push Grant for some carries, but don't buy on the sixth rounder giving the balanced and reliable Grant much trouble.
He's not going to blow you away, but there's little doubt you'll be disappointed with his touches and consistency. He may not paint the ideal picture of what an "elite" fantasy back is, but in terms of touches and involvement of the offense, few fantasy owners can complain.
Adrian Peterson (Minnesota Vikings)
Some of his success may hinge on whether or not Brett Favre is coming back (he is, by the way), but either way, AP is still the feature back in Minnesota, and his stats will still end the year among the top 1-3 backs in the league.
He may have fumbling issues, but his receptions took a major leap from 2008 to 2009, and with another year with Favre at the helm, Peterson could enjoy another great season if the focus can be shifted off of him.
Then again, it's Adrian Peterson we're talking about. The guy doesn't get hurt, he makes plays, he scores, and he's constantly improving his game. Toby Gerhart is a fine addition through the draft, but with Chester Taylor going to Chicago, there's reason to believe that Peterson will be even more involved in Minnesota's offense in 2010.
Michael Turner (Atlanta Falcons)
Turner got worn down by carries and nagging injuries in 2009, and it surely showed. We can't blame it all on him, though, as just about everyone on Atlanta's offense was nicked up at some point in 2009, and Turner wasn't getting much help from his back-ups, either.
Turner should be returning at 100% in 2009, and while the Falcons will likely be a tad more judicious with his total touches, he's still an elite fantasy back. Look for another season
Steve Jackson (St. Louis Rams)
Jackson has been battling back issues for the past two years, and is it any surprise? Not only has he been the only competent offensive option in St. Louis, but he's also been the most productive.
Quite possibly more than any other player in the league, Jackson is his team's offense.
That likely won't change too much in 2010, which could obviously be bad in the injury and fatigue department, but in terms of his role and potential as a fantasy back, he is easily once again among the league's top fantasy backs.
If you have faith in the Rams actually making progress on the offensive line and in the passing game, S-Jax's fantasy stock could easily start to rise.
Frank Gore (San Francisco 49ers)
Head coach Mike Singletary keeps talking about getting Gore some help and using his back-ups more, but I'll believe it when I see it.
Gore hasn't done much to live up to his ridiculous 1,600+ yard rushing season a few years back, but he is still one of the best backs in the league, and is still the bonafide starter for the 49ers.
Gore has excellent speed and strength, and has progressed over the years in becoming an elite receiver out of the backfield. If Gore can nip the nagging injuries that have ship-wrecked past seasons, he could easily realize the fantasy potential that fantasy owners have been gushing over for the past three seasons.
Considering Glen Coffee and Anthony Dixon (a rookie) are his top competition for carries in the offense, Gore has yet another solid chance at putting up top-10 fantasy numbers.
The Committee Approach
Okay, so now you're balking at the absence of guys like Ricky Williams, Felix Jones, Jamaal Charles, Jahvid Best, DeAngelo Williams, LeSean McCoy, and so many others.
Well, as solid as some of these backs in paired approaches have been, they simply cannot be relied on every single week. Whether it's their offense, supporting cast, role, or injury, the remaining backs in the league have something working against them, and are not currently bonafide feature backs on their team.
There's no doubt that guys like DeAngelo Williams and Brandon Jacobs (and so many others) could have huge seasons in 2010, but when factoring in all the variables, they are all greater risks than the players listed above.
In the end, you'll have to go with your gut. But if you're choosing between potential/upside and reliability, sometimes in fantasy football , it's good to swallow a decent dose of reality.