Even the best running backs in the league need a little help from the outside. Just because your starter was a top-five back last year doesn’t mean he can put up the same production if he’s facing top defenses all year.
After some careful stat-crunching based on the amount of points allowed by defenses last year (and the inevitable enhancements and losses defenses face), I have determined which running backs have the easiest, and worst, schedules versus the run in 2010.
Adrian Peterson was a great pick-up in his rookie season considering his average draft position was around the eighth round, but it didn’t hurt that he played half of the season versus the top-10 worst run defenses. Here is a list of guys who are break-out candidates thanks to an easy run schedule and a few poised for fantasy disappointment.
1. Jamaal Charles (Kansas City Chiefs)
The Chiefs have the easiest schedule versus the run, which means that Charles might actually have another stellar year. The addition of Thomas Jones to the Chiefs' back-field means that the team may not be totally sold on his abilities, but it is his job to lose and with the schedule he has ahead, the odds appear to be in his favor.
The Chiefs will be playing in a very porous run defense division in the AFC West (the Chiefs are actually the second easiest to run against overall behind the Oakland Raiders). The Chargers were the best team against the run in the division last year, but still let up an average of 17 points per game to running backs. The Chiefs will also try their hand versus the NFC West this year which, besides the San Francisco 49ers, have some of the worst fantasy run defenses in the league.
KEY WEEKS: 2 vs. CLE, 8 vs. BUF, 9/17 vs. OAK, 12 vs. SEA
2. Frank Gore (San Francisco 49ers)
If he can stay healthy, Frank Gore is one of the most explosive backs in the game. This season it looks like fantasy owners will sleep easy knowing that Gore could make it through a whole season thanks to his favorable fantasy matchups. Not only will he get to play against his own NFC West (best defense vs. run in fantasy: Arizona, 17th), but he will take on the AFC West, which also sports the two worst fantasy football run defenses in football. Throw in games versus Tampa Bay and Denver and you have a solid schedule.
KEY WEEKS: 1/14 vs. SEA, 3 vs. KC, 6 vs. OAK, 8 vs. DEN, 10/16 vs. STL
3. Ryan Mathews (San Diego Chargers)
Are you starting to see a trend here with AFC and NFC West backs? Mathews has the most upside of just about anyone on this list, as he is a very valuable keeper selection in the right fantasy league. Not many people are believing his top-ten ranking hype, but his upcoming schedule against all those teams I listed above will make it a little easier to believe.
I am not ready to crown him as the next AP or Chris Johnson, because he doesn’t have their athleticism, but Mathews could have a very solid season for his fantasy owners. The Chargers face five top-11 worst fantasy rush defenses in the first half of the season.
KEY WEEKS: 1/14 vs. KC, 3 vs. SEA, 5/13 vs. OAK, 6 vs. STL
4. Beanie Wells (Arizona Cardinals)
Wells isn’t really a fantasy sleeper this year, since everyone knows the Cardinals will run more without Kurt Warner under center. He may prove to have an even better season than expected, thanks to an increased run load against weak rushing defenses. Wells will help you make a great late season push, playing five top-12 worst fantasy defenses between weeks 10 through 15.
KEY WEEKS: 1 vs. STL, 3 vs. OAK, 5 vs. NO, 7/10 vs. SEA, 11 vs. KC,
5. Maurice Jones-Drew (Jacksonville Jaguars)
Like the “Human Bowling Ball” needed anymore reason to have a great fantasy season. Jones-Drew’s AFC South rivals are all middle-of-the-road fantasy rushing defenses, but Jacksonville will host Cleveland and Oakland. The Jags will also play an early road game at Buffalo (before the snow falls) and Kansas City.
KEY WEEKS: 7 vs. KC, 11 vs. CLE, 14 vs. OAK
6. Steven Jackson (St. Louis Rams)
S-Jax will undoubtedly be the most used fantasy weapon in the Rams' offense yet again, especially considering Sam Bradford probably won’t be able to turn the lowly Rams into the Greatest Show on Turf again just yet. His body is his worst enemy considering his workload, but if he stays healthy he is poised for a sixth consecutive 1,000 yard season and to stay at the top of the fantasy list.
Although the two 49ers games will be tough on Jackson, his remaining NFC West schedule and subsequent games against Kansas City, Oakland, Detroit, and Carolina will help his case.
KEY WEEKS: 2 vs. OAK, 4/17 vs. SEA, 5 vs. DET, 7 vs. TB
7. DeAngelo Williams/Jonathan Stewart (Carolina Panthers)
Whoever your Carolina running back is, you can always bank on a solid fantasy performance. It helps that the Buccaneers and Saints usually allow their opposing backs to score good numbers, and the best team in the division, the Falcons, allow an average of 16.8 pts to opposing backs. Not to mention the Rams will face seven of the 10 worst rush defenses in fantasy football in 2010.
KEY WEEKS: 2/10 vs. TB, 12 vs. CLE, 13 vs. SEA
8. Rashard Mendenhall (Pittsburgh Steelers)
Mendenhall had a breakout season in 2009 and is poised for another great season in 2010, with a lot of thanks to a question-riddled quarterback situation. Mendenhall will have a serious test against teams like the Ravens, Patriots, Jets, and even the Bengals. However, Mendenhall and the Steelers will also get to play eight of the top-11 worst rushing defenses in 2010.
KEY WEEKS: 3 vs. TB, 6/17 vs. CLE, 12 vs. BUF
9. Knowshon Moreno (Denver Broncos)
Moreno was the 18th best running back in fantasy football last year. This season you can expect that Moreno will have more carries not only because he has progressed to a reliable starter but also because Brandon Marshall is gone and the passing game could be dismal. If that is the case Moreno will likely exceed the 1,000 yard mark and possibly become a top-ten fantasy back. The Broncos will play four games versus the top-10 worst rush defenses between Weeks Seven through 13 (Week Nine is their bye week).
KEY WEEKS: 2 vs. SEA, 7/15 vs. OAK, 10/13 vs. KC
10. Justin Forsett (Seattle Seahawks)
I’m not saying that Forsett will have a great year, not even a good one. His value as a back-up running back in case of injury or bye week is increased greatly, however, thanks to a weak schedule. The Seahawks will play against the NFC South and AFC West (the two divisions with the worst fantasy rushing defenses in 2009).
KEY WEEKS: 4 vs. STL, 8 vs. OAK, 12 vs. KC
5. Brandon Jacobs (New York Giants)
The NFC East is just a tough division against the run in the first place, but add games against Minnesota and Green Bay during the fantasy playoffs and Jacobs’ owners are, politely put, screwed.
4. Matt Forte (Chicago Bears)
The Bears last four games (New England, Minnesota, New York Jets, and Green Bay, or the seventh, first, sixth, and second toughest rushing defenses respectively) make trusting in Forte a difficult choice in 2010.
3. LeSean McCoy (Philadelphia Eagles)
See: Brandon Jacobs, plus having the 49ers on your schedule instead of the Seahawks.
2. Jahvid Best (Detroit Lions)
The toughest two teams to run against? The Packers and Vikings. The Bears were 15th last season without Brian Urlacher.
1. C.J. Spiller (Buffalo Bills)
There is no guarantee Spiller will be the starter, but I will guarantee that any back playing half of their season against teams in the top eight toughest rushing defenses will have a bad year.