In fantasy football drafts, top running backs are chosen early and often. While running backs often offer the biggest opportunity to gain points in your draft, the risk of choosing a star running back is often difficult since injuries are usually a major factor. Except for Brain Westbrook, 4 of the consensus top 5 running backs missed significant time last season so it is important to choose a running back who not only puts up big numbers, but can stay healthy as well.
1. Ladainian Tomlinson, San Diego Chargers: 2007 Stats 315 Carries, 1,417 Yards, 15 Touchdowns, 60 Receptions, 475 Yards, 3 Touchdowns, 0 Fumbles
Although our final memory of L.T. last season was seeing him sitting on the sidelines with a torn MCL at the end of last season, he remains arguably the top fantasy choice this season (despite pressure from Adrian Peterson) because he provides big yards running, catching and sometimes throwing the football. All reports indicate that Tomlinson has recovered from his knee injury and with the Chargers’ passing game poised to improve this season, there is no reason to believe that Tomlinson will experience a significant drop-off in production.
If there is one concern about Tomlinson, it is that he will be 29 (an age were some running backs begin to experience a decline) and playing without former back-up Michael Turner who signed with Atlanta in the off-season. San Diego needs rookie Jacob Hester or Darren Sproles to emerge as reliable back-up RB’s to keep Tomlinson fresh and injury free next season.
2. Brian Westbrook, Philadelphia Eagles: 2007 Stats 278 Carries, 1,333 Yards, 7 Touchdowns, 90 Receptions, 771 Yards, 5 Touchdowns, 1 Fumble
Although Adrian Peterson has emerged as the most likely successor to Tomlinson’s fantasy crown, Westbrook remains one of the most versatile fantasy players because he has so much success as both a rusher and a receiver. In many ways, the Eagles game plan of regularly using Westbrook as a receiver has prevented him from taking the same pounding as other RB’s and Westbrook has played in 15 games the past two season. Even with a couple of missed games, Westbrook is the most important player on the Eagle’s offense so look for him to enjoy another strong season as the go to guy for both Donovan McNabb and coach Andy Reid.
3. Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings: 2007 Stats 238 carries, 1,341 yards, 12 Touchdowns, 19 Receptions, 268 Yards, 1 Touchdown, 4 Fumbles
I will be honest, I doubted Peterson would have anything close to the impact he had last year considering his injury history. In addition to missing two games last season with a torn LCL in his right knee, Peterson missed time in college with a high ankle sprain and broken collar bone. As a result of his big play potential and history of injuries, I think Peterson is going to make or break a lot of fantasy leagues this season.
He has put up big up numbers everywhere he has played and his numbers should only get better this season (if he avoids injuries) so he could easily justify being the number one pick in any draft. However, injury concerns and the reality that defenses will be focused upon stopping him (and forcing Tavaris Jackson to throw the football) could also mean Peterson will struggle to match his excellent rookie season.
1. Selvin Young, Denver Broncos: 2007 Stats: 140 Carries, 729 Yards, 1 Touchdown, 35 Receptions, 231 Yards, 0 Touchdowns, 2 Fumbles
With Travis Henry released and suspended, the door is wide open for Young, an undrafted free agent a year ago, to become the next 1,000 yard rusher in the Broncos backfield. Although Young’s numbers are nowhere near L.T. or A.P., he impressed the Broncos enough that the team passed on talented RB’s Rashard Mendenhall and Johathan Stewart in the draft. With Rookie RB Ryan Torain injured and WR Brandon Marshall suspended for at least the first two games of the season, expect the Broncos to hand off early and often to Young. Even with the Bronco’s offensive line weaker than it was in the past, Young will break off big runs once he hits the open field.
2. Michael Turner, Atlanta Falcons: 2007 Stats: 71 Carries, 316 Yards, 1 Touchdown, 4 Catches, 16 Yards, 1 Fumble
The aforementioned former back-up to Tomlinson, Turner finally gets the chance to start in the NFL and should form a solid one-two running back tandem with Jerious Norwood. I am not a big fan of choosing RB’s forced to split carries, but Norwood could help Turner in his first season as a starter as opposed to hurting him by providing him with rest when needed. Turner did not get many touches playing behind L.T. but we do know that he is explosive as evidenced by the 147 yards (including a 74-yard run) he put up against Denver in week 5 last season.
What we don’t know is he if he will be durable playing a full season as a starter or if he will get a lot of carries if Atlanta is throwing the ball to catch up next season. Turner has a lot of potential on a weak team in a weak division. If the small flashes of explosiveness he displayed during his limited action in San Diego project over a full season, he could be the steal of your fantasy draft this season.
3. Matt Forte, Chicago Bears: 2007 Stats (with Tulane NCAA): 361 Carries, 2127 Yards, 23 Touchdowns, 32 Receptions, 282 Yards, 0 Touchdowns, 0 Fumbles
After a superb senior season in which he was the only non-BCS player nominated for the Maxwell and Doak Walker Awards and to be put on the Walter Camp Player of the Year list, Forte becomes the man for Da Bears. With Cedric Benson off the team for repeated off the field incidents, Forte’s ability to gain yards after the initial hit have made him the likely starter in the Windy City. Often compared to Edgerrin James, the 6’2”, 222 LB Forte has the potential on a veteran team to put up better numbers than many of the running backs chosen ahead of him in the 2008 Draft.
1. Justin Fargas, Oakland Raiders: 2007 Stats: 222 Carries, 1,009 Yards, 4 Touchdowns, 23 Receptions, 188 Yards, 0 Touchdowns
To paraphrase Rodney Dangerfield, Justin Fargas gets no respect. Despite putting up career numbers and signing a contract that guarantees him at least $ 6 million dollars, the Raiders drafted running back Darren McFadden in April. With McFadden reducing Fargas’ touches, expect to see a decline in stats for the Huggy Bear’s kid as his short time as a starter is reduced to what ESPN described as “play[ing] the Chester Taylor to McFadden’s Adrian Peterson.” As a Raider’s fan, I love the depth at the position but you have to feel bad for Fargas as McFadden becomes the centre of attention for both the Raiders and Fantasy Footballers alike.
2. Ahman Green, Houston Texans: 2007 Stats: 70 Carries, 260 Yards, 2 Touchdowns, 14 Catches, 123 Yards, 0 Touchdowns, 0 Fumbles
A prime example of a talented running back who can hurt your fantasy team because of injuries, Green received a four year, $ 23 million dollar contract in 2007 but only appeared in 6 games last season. Green will most likely start for the Texans (if healthy) but Houston will most likely rely upon a “running back by committee” approach that includes Chris Brown and rookie Steve Slaton. If Green is healthy, he can produce as evidenced by the 1, 883 yards he put up for the Packers in 2003 but that was five years ago. Despite the big contract, injuries and shared carries will prevent Green from making an impact for your fantasy team this season.
3. Laurence Maroney, New England Patriots: 2007 Stats: 185 Carries, 835 Yards, 6 Touchdowns, 4 Receptions, 116 Yards, 0 Touchdowns, 0 Fumbles
Before you starting posting that I am a complete idiot for including Maroney on this list, let me explain why I don’t believe he is a good choice as a TOP FANTASYrunning back. For one, Maroney missed three games with injuries last season, and had less than 15 carries in 7 other games. In addition, the Patriots added LaMont Jordan in the offseason to a backfield that already saw Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk, Heath Evans and Kyle Eckel get over 30 carries last season. I should also mention that coach Bill Belichick gives many of the other RB’s carries in short yardage (i.e. goal line) situations that take crucial fantasy touchdowns away from Maroney. I will be the first to admit that Maroney could have a breakout season this year, but if Belichick keeps splitting carries and calling for Tom Brady to throw to Randy Moss or Wes Welker, touchdowns and yards might be tough for Maroney.
This preview only begins to scratch the surface of the NFL’s running back talent. Steven Jackson, Frank Gore, Fred Taylor, Clinton Portis, Willie Parker and Marshawn Lynch have all proven their fantasy worthiness in past seasons and rookies McFadden, Kevin Smith and Jonathan Stewart are all looking to be this year’s Adrian Peterson. Will this be the year Reggie Bush finally explodes? Can Ryan Grant put up big numbers with Farve playing for the J-E-T-S?
There are lots of questions that are answered but if you can only remember one thing, remember to pick safe and have viable options in case of injury.