Fantasy Football Extravaganza: Top-30 Running Backs

Josh GalliganCorrespondent IAugust 5, 2008

With approximately 75 fantasy football magazines currently available at any given supermarket and the preseason officially underway, it's safe to assume that the fantasy football season has officially begun.

In order to get myself ready, and because I’m so nice, I have ranked the top 30 skill-position players and then provided the in-depth commentary on why I have done so.

Will my rankings differ from yours or many of the other rankings out there? Uh, is an apple different than a stapler?

Opinions on all rankings will vary, but just remember that all of the rankings out there are just that, opinion and speculation. The rankings reflect the author's knowledge and, most importantly, his gut.

The major benefit we get from reading someone else's rankings is the discussions that follow. Some will have you nodding your head, while others will have you wishing the guy was in your money league because he would basically be a bye week.

You'll all likely be doing so after you read who's No. 1, but I'm ready to defend it. I just think he's going to have the best year out of anyone on the list.

As always, enjoy and feel free to disagree vehemently while calling for my head in your replies!

30. Jonathan Stewart (CAR)

Although my support for DeAngelo Williams is well documented, even I can’t deny that the talented rookie will win the Panthers' starting job. He has power, he has speed, and he apparently has the support of nearly every single person in the Panthers' organization, save for Williams himself.

Barring a major setback in his recovery from a turf-toe injury, Stewart should be the new rusher in town, as well as provide your team with a decent amount of fantasy points.


29. Julius Jones (SEA) 

Even though Jones never did stand out in the Cowboys' offense, playing second fiddle to Marion “The Barbarian” Barber and all, a change of scenery and a new offense that will favor the running game might be just what Julius needs.

T.J. Duckett will take most of the goal-lines carries away, but Jones should be given the bulk of the overall workload. He’s definitely an upside pick, so don’t put too much stake in him, or you may regret it when he puts up similar stats from when he was in Dallas.

28. Rashard Mendenhall (PIT)

Regardless of Willie Parker’s rankings free-fall due to his broken leg and low 2007 TD total, he will still be the go-to guy in Pittsburgh. Mendenhall, on the other hand, is an upside pick with not a lot of risk since he’s going to be getting most of the goal-line carries and spelling an often fragile Parker, anyway.

27. LenDale White (TEN)

Despite playing in an offense with hardly any passing game, White sprung upon the scene last year with 1,108 yards and seven TDs. With this being Vince Young’s second year with his primary receivers, White should enjoy an increased amount of defenses dropping more people back to defend the pass.

Or at least that’s what the Titans organization hopes. Regardless, even though rookie Chris Johnson may spell him, White should see the majority of carries and goal-line attempts.

26. Thomas Jones (NYJ)

The fact that T.J. had a total of two TDs last year has overshadowed that he managed to rack up 1,119 yards behind one of the worst lines in the league. The offseason signings of Alan Faneca and Damien Woody should ensure that he will at least have a competent offensive line.

It’s a risky pick because he’s either going to excel with his improved blockers or flop and show everyone that he just doesn’t have what it takes to be a starter. That decision is up to you.

25. Darren McFadden (OAK)

Despite being touted as the best back in the NFL draft, McFadden is not the top back in most running-back rankings. This is likely due to the fact that McFadden will be lining up behind JaMarcus Russell, who is still technically a rookie himself.

Since it takes inexperienced quarterbacks a lot longer to get acquainted with the game than their running-back counterparts, McFadden will get a plethora of carries and an official diploma from the NFL’s rookie running-back university.

24. Fred Taylor (JAX)

The past couple years have seen Fred Taylor do the exact opposite of what everyone had predicted him to do, with that opposite being him producing. Taylor has had more than 1,100 yards and at least five TDs in each of his last two seasons. While it’s hard to imagine him just suddenly dropping off, he is 32-years old and it is going to happen eventually. The question is, when?

With Maurice Jones Drew entering his third season and maturing all the while, Taylor may still be productive this year but not enough to warrant a key RB spot on your roster. He is a solid and safe late-round pick. Do with it what you will.

23. Matt Forte (CHI)

With news of the release of team castoff and Ricky Williams-esque Cedric Benson, Forte’s stock has soared. Even before he was the unanimous No. 1 back on the roster, Forte had created a buzz that was not heard during the draft due to his emergence from Conference USA.

Although the Bears themselves have proclaimed the rookie as their starter, he still finds himself on the Bears' offense, which has question marks at quarterback, wide receiver, and pretty much every single position except for running back.

So, despite him getting the majority of all the carries, don’t expect his rookie year to be Adrian Peterson-esque. Think more along the lines of a poor man's rookie Marshawn Lynch.

22. Michael Turner (ATL) 

How Michael Turner will turn out can likely be put in a better perspective when you take into account his performance last year when he filled in for an injured L.T. in the playoffs.

Although 3.8-yards per carry isn’t necessarily bad, it was a bit worse than his career average that he’d racked up by shredding fatigued defenses as Tomlinson’s backup until that point. That was then.

Now, Turner finds himself on a Falcons team that is in the process of rebuilding with inexperience at many key parts of the offense. Although you wouldn’t know it by looking at his contract, Turner’s quarterback Matt Ryan is actually a rookie, who will go through the learning curves that plague all rookie signal callers.

21. Edgerrin James (ARI)

Edge has officially turned the magical yet dreadful age of 30, which is the benchmark age for when running backs will begin to decline. After a largely disappointing 2006, considering his success in Indianapolis, Edge improved slightly in 2007 in yards, average and TDs.

Although 1,224 yards and seven TDs isn’t necessarily bad, it is safe to say that it may be very close to his ceiling now that he’s turned the big three-oh. Even with promise of a more balanced attack, the Cardinals' offensive line is still unfortunately the same and it is likely Edgerrin’s stats will stay that way as well.

20. Willie Parker (PIT)

With Parker’s 11 TD decline from 2006 into 2007, breaking his leg late in the season didn’t help his fantasy stock. The arrival of rookie Rashard Mendenhall also didn’t bode well for his future TD total either.

What Parker does bring to the table is the yardage that he racks up. He is still an incredibly skilled rusher that can put up big numbers on the ground, no matter how TD-less or injury prone his season may be.

19. Brandon Jacobs (NYG)

The heir to Tiki Barber’s throne after his retirement, Jacobs proved he could handle the job when healthy. Unfortunately for Jacobs, so did Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw. Bradshaw’s recent court troubles could get him suspended if the event in question happened post-draft.

A Bradshaw suspension could be all Jacobs needs to claim the starters spot once and for all, so it would behoove you to keep an eye on the situation.

18. Jamal Lewis (CLE)

Even though the Browns' offense and, more importantly, offensive line have largely remained the same, many are still doubting Lewis can repeat his 2007 success. Without a suitable backup or a threat to steal some of his goal-line carries, the only thing that could stop Lewis from continuing upon last year’s success is either injury or age.

Lewis is approaching 30, and the enormous amount of carries he has on his odometer has to take its toll at some point. It’s hard to imagine his decline happening so quickly and suddenly without some type of injury, though.

17. Lawrence Maroney (NE)

Being the RB on one of the best passing games of all time doesn’t leave you in a position to get tons of carries. Nor does it help having a coach that likes to spell his backfield every two downs or so.

Entering his third season, and with Kevin Faulk likely to see a decreased role, Maroney is a prime candidate to breakout this year. Unfortunately, “breaking out” for a running back on the Patriots' offense means about 1,100 yards and eight TDs.

On the bright side, that’s still better than Rudi Johnson, who you targeted last year.

16. Reggie Bush (NO)

Reggie Bush is a classic case of too much hype due to college performance. Although Bush has proven he is a worthy complementary rusher and a skilled receiving back, the Barry Sanders-like expectations have left many disappointed after his first two seasons in the league.

With his rushing skills likely to improve over time, it may just take him a few more years until he’s a suitable starter. Even in his current complementary situation, his rushing yards and receiving yards combined equal enough points to make him a worthy target in your draft.

Not to mention his ceiling would have him turning into a Brian Westbrook type back. Not bad. I think we can finally chill on comparing Hall of Fame players to rookies that are being drafted, though. No?

15. Earnest Graham (TB)

Graham proved to be one of the most valuable, out-of-the-blue, waiver-wire pickups of the 2008 season. The only option after injuries to Cadillac Williams and Michael Pittman, Graham nearly rumbled himself to 1,000 yards, finishing instead with 898 and 10 TDs.

With Warrick Dunn’s return to Tampa, Graham will likely lose some carries, but he can easily claim the starting spot if he can prove that last year wasn’t a fluke. 175 fantasy points if you can guess correctly!

14. Ronnie Brown (MIA)

Although his recovery from an ACL tear is a major concern, Brown benefits from sustaining the injury early in the season last year, as well as returning to a vastly improved Dolphins offense.

With Ricky Williams back in town, he likely won’t need to carry all of the load immediately, as long as Williams stays away from the reefer. Brown is still a risky pick, but as 602 yards and seven TDs in seven games last year showed, not one without a potential hefty reward.

13. Willis McGahee (BAL)

Even though the Ravens have major question marks on offense, the rushing game is not one of them. A top-notch rusher and capable receiver, McGahee should top 300 carries for the first time since 2005, due to the subpar and inexperienced options at quarterback.

Although his new and improved ACL will be tested under such a workload, if he can handle the strain and put up his usual numbers, then his fantasy numbers will be just fine. Even if he is in on one of the worst offensive units in the game.

12. Larry Johnson (KC)

A slow start, poor passing game, and foot injury all contributed to Johnson’s worst season as a starter last year. Even if he can avoid the slow start and injuries this year, the Chiefs still have no passing attack, and the shoddy offensive line remains the same.

Although he‘ll get his carries, he will also be the focal point of every defense the team plays. Good thing we’ve seen what he can do before, so you can make an educated decision on whether or not to take the gamble. The upside is high, although the downside is low. Take your pick.

11. Maurice Jones-Drew (JAX)

Even with Fred Taylor still going strong, Jones-Drew should slowly but surely take over primary-back duties. With a rushing average of a bit more than five-yards per carry in his first two years, superb hands out of the backfield, and game-breaking ability, Jones-Drew’s low touches are overshadowed by his supreme upside.

Whenever he takes over the reigns in Jacksonville and gets more time on the field, expect his value to skyrocket up the charts. Even if this year is not his year, he still pumps out a solid amount of fantasy points and presents upside that is hard to pass up on.

10. Ryan Grant (GB)

Grant won biggest out-of-the-blue honors in 2007 and helped many teams win championships, if they had the clarity to pick him. I, for one, ended up taking Priest Holmes over Grant with my last waiver-wire pick up in my keeper league. Suffice to say, I did not make the playoffs and will probably never forgive myself.

Grant placed a firm hold on the starter position with his end-of-the-season performances last year and isn’t realistically threatened by anyone, as long as he can continue production and stay away from injuries.

Therein lies the catch, however. The question is if Grant will be able to continue his breakout year last year and stay away from the injuries that can plague a starting RB. All aren’t huge concerns, but they are worth taking into account should you find yourself about to draft him.

9. Marion Barber (DAL)

Anyone with the nickname “The Barbarian” had to have earned it somewhere down the line, and it’s no surprise if you’ve seen Barber run. He is a powerful, agile back that doesn’t stop running until the whistle blows.

He has a reckless abandon for anything but positive yardage and, ultimately, the end zone. Even with Jerry Jones' favorite rookie Felix Jones being plugged into the offense and taking some carries away, Barber will be the goal-line back, and Barber will get the majority of the carries. You can’t be the best back on one of the best offenses in the league for nothing, you know.

8. Frank Gore (SF)

Gore’s 1,102 rushing yards, 436 receiving yards, and six total TDs isn’t very impressive at first glance, but take into account that he did it all on the worst offense in the league, and you’ve got yourself a better picture.

Gore was the only bright spot on an otherwise anemic 49ers offense last year. Having brought in Mike Martz to fix the offense has caused many people to declare Gore a sleeper for next year.

Since I still don’t know the correct definition of sleeper, all I will say is that if Martz can turn Alex Smith into a competent QB, then Gore has the talent to reap all of the rushing and receiving rewards a Martz system has to offer the starting RB.

His rushing total may go down, but his receptions, receiving yards, and total TDs should all go up. Cha-ching!

7. Marshawn Lynch (BUF)

Lynch is another RB that put up impressive stats on a not-so-impressive offense. In 13 games last year, he ran for 1,115 yards and seven TDs. With Trent Edwards looking to be everything J.P. Losman was not, Lynch at least has a suitable and blossoming passing game to take some attention away from him.

Rumor has it that the Bills will also be utilizing Lynch’s pass-catching skills a lot more this year, which, in layman‘s terms, means he‘ll be on the field even more. An injury last year is a small concern as to his dependability, but a year through the gauntlet should have taught him what it takes to be a starter in the NFL.

6. Clinton Portis (WAS)

Portis returned to pre-2006 form last year, finishing in the top-five for fantasy points accrued. A new system has turned some people off of Portis’ 2008 potential, but he is too talented a player not to utilize half of the offensive play-calling on.

Though he’ll likely see less carries, Portis should still fare just fine, especially considering his pass-catching skills. Portis caught 47 balls for 389 yards last year, and, although he’ll get less carries, he’ll get more receptions. It all evens out. Trust me.

5. Joseph Addai (IND)

Although Addai didn’t get as many yards as the top RBs last year, he more than compensated with his end-zone trips. Addai had 15 total TDs last year to pair with a solid 1,072 rushing yards and 364 reception yards.

He’s the top back on one of the most prolific offenses in the game, but his total upside keeps him out of the upper-echelon. If your looking for a safe pick that will have plenty of opportunities to score TDs, then Addai is your guy. Although enjoying Peyton Manning’s commercials also helps.

4. Stephen Jackson (STL)

In only 12 games and behind one of the worst offensive lines in the game, Jackson still managed to amass just over 1,000 yards and tack on six total TDs. With a healthy offensive line, and a more run-heavy offense, Jackson could very well return to pre-2007 form, where he was in the conversation for top running back overall.

He gives you rushing yards, he gives you reception yards, and he scores TDs. Injuries are a problem, due to last year, but should his offensive line remain healthy, he should cruise through the season with little to no problems.

3. Adrian Peterson (MIN)

As fantastic as Peterson was last year, and as much hype as he caused, I still find it hard to rank a back who’s had one fantastic year over a back that has had them for his entire seven-year career.

Peterson very well could prove that he’s the top running back in the game this year; however, his quarterback is questionable and his backup running back proved he could do a suitable job if given carries.

If A.P. can have an equally impressive year two, he’ll not only win over just me, he’ll likely win over the entire game of professional football. We’ll be watching!

2. LaDainian Tomlinson (SD)

Tomlinson has basically been a machine until he showed us his mortality with an MCL injury in the playoffs. He has been the face of fantasy football since he stormed upon the league in 2001 and with good reason: He can run, he can catch, he can score, and if you haven’t heard—he’s awfully classy!

With the birthday cake reading 29 this year, L.T. may finally see the decline we thought impossible for so many years. Even so, he’ll still likely put up top-notch numbers this year and many years down the road. His upside is way too high to not warrant him at least a No. 2 ranking.

1. Brian Westbrook (PHI)

After gaining sole control of the Eagles' RB spot sometime in 2005, Brian Westbrook has made a steady improvement in his game and, more importantly, his fantasy points. The year 2006 saw the biggest jump, while Westbrook showed us in 2007 then he can run for more yards, as well as improve on his already ridiculous reception numbers.

Going into 2008, he is the whole package. He does everything you could want from your featured fantasy running back, and he does it while proving his injury critics incorrect. Having played in 15 games in each of the last two seasons, Westbrook is slated for perhaps the finest season of his career in 2008.

At age 28, he could very well have his peak season this year. Even if he has peaked and he backpedals a bit, 240 fantasy points isn’t too bad for a RBs low side, is it? Is it? Hello? Is anyone still reading this?


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