Fantasy Football 2011 Positional Rankings: Running Backs

Nick SeroCorrespondent IIIMay 23, 2011

ARLINGTON, TX - FEBRUARY 06:  Rashard Mendenhall #34 of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrates after running for an eight yard touchdown against the Green Bay Packers in the third quarter during Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium on February 6, 2011 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

The fantasy football season is quickly approaching and it is time to get your fantasy football cheat sheets together. Although there is still a lot of time before the NFL season kicks off (IF it kicks off) it is never too early to do your homework. These are just the first round of fantasy football rankings and there will undoubtedly be some developments during the offseason that will shake up the rankings.

How the rankings work: Every year when we get together to make our fantasy football positional rankings, projections and cheat sheet we have to take a few variables in to mind. We calculate fantasy football strength of schedules for certain players and teams, decide a realistic amount of games for injury prone players, and take in to account the supporting cast for each player.

As the season progresses you will be able to see the change in rankings as we continue to tweak the projections.


Fantasy Football Positional Rankings: Running Backs 1.0

Choosing you starting running backs is the most critical part to putting together a fantasy football team. Every year the first round is dominated by running backs and rightfully so. If you are lucky enough to draft a top-five running back you will surely be in good shape, but if you find yourself at the end of the first round you may be forced to take a running back you hadn’t planned on. Knowing the situations for each running back is critically important. You might not want to invest a high pick on Mark Ingram since Pierre Thomas will be healthy and recently extended his contract by four years.

There are many running backs that will be facing change in 2011, and it is hard to determine the correct rankings without knowing who will be a starter where. In certain cases we already know who the starter will be, but in the case of the Carolina Panthers we can only speculate that DeAngelo Williams will be on another team, and that Jonathan Stewart will be the starter. In this first round of positional rankings we will only rank the likely starters if the season started tomorrow.

1.       Adrian Peterson, MIN: The last time Adrian Peterson was the focal point of the Vikings offense he ran for over 1,700 yards. That year the Vikings saw both Gus Ferrotte and Tarvaris Jackson start at quarterback, and still found a way to go 10-6. Maybe it was because AP had more carries that year than in any of his other three seasons in the NFL. This year the Vikings will have a quarterback situation just as cloudy, but will have the benefit of facing the one of the easiest schedules for running backs. Bye: Week 9

2.       Chris Johnson, TEN: Johnson will be in a similar situation as AP this year. He will face an easy schedule and again should be the main weapon for his offense. The Titans will even likely lose Kenny Britt for a few games suspension, meaning a few more games for the Titans with even fewer weapons. CJ took a few bumps and bruises last season and saw his numbers take a significant drop from his 2,000 yard rushing campaign in 2009. If CJ can run the ball a20+ times per game and stay healthy all year he could be the rushing leader again.  Bye: Week 6

3.       Jamaal Charles, KC: Charles had an unbelievable 6.4 yard rushing average last season but only scored five touchdowns. He did add another three receiving touchdowns but those are low numbers for a back expected to be in the top-five of fantasy. You just can’t expect a guy with that kind of homerun potential to only post five rushing touchdowns again. Bye: Week 6

4.       Arian Foster, HOU: Last year’s rushing champ seemed to have everything go his way. The flashy rookie drafted to play ahead of him got injured, his young offensive line turned in to one of the league’s best over the span of the season, and Foster had all that happen in a year when the Texans were facing an easy run schedule. This year things won’t be quite as easy for Foster and the Texans. Just because his schedule is tough won’t hurt his stock all that much. He still has a talented offensive line and Foster is also similar build to Adrian Peterson. Foster should do well this year, just don’t expect a repeat of 2009.  Bye: Week 11

5.       Rashard Mendenhall, PIT: His twitter account makes him look very stupid, but he will make you look very smart when you draft him ahead of some other big name backs this year. The Steelers will face one of the easiest fantasy rushing schedules in 2011 and Mendenhall saw his carries in 2009 reach 324. Mendenhall likely will take a bit of a hit to his carries with Big Ben playing a full 16, but the Steelers offensive line is getting better which means better things for Mendenhall. You can also say that the Steelers’ main red zone target, Hines Ward, is getting up there in age and the Steelers could elect to use their young workhorse to pound his way in to the end zone. Bye: Week 11

6.       Michael Turner, ATL: In Turner’s first season as a starter in Atlanta he ran the ball an unthinkable 376 times, and then was hampered by injury throughout the 2009 season. Last year Turner surpassed 1,300 yards and ten touchdowns while running the ball 334 times. Does that mean we should expect Turner to get hurt this year? No, but it is something to make you think. Turner and the Falcons will face the easiest schedule for fantasy running backs in 2011 and Turner should post big numbers on a regular basis.  Bye: Week 8

7.       Maurice Jones-Drew, JAX: Jones-Drew questioned Jay Cutler’s toughness in the NFC Championship game, but if you had Jones-Drew on your team last year you may have been thinking the same about him. The Jaguars were in the hunt for a playoff appearance at the end of the 2009 season, or as it is better known, the Fantasy Football Playoffs. Despite being close enough to the playoffs to taste it, Jones-Drew sat the last two games and could have cost you a championship. Jones-Drew still ended the season as one fantasy’s best, but only scored five rushing touchdowns, only the second time he has rushed for fewer than ten touchdowns. Bye: Week 9

8.       Darren McFadden, OAK: Well he wasn’t exactly healthy all season, but McFadden finally showed the potential the Raiders invested the fourth overall pick in. Run DMC was able to pick up 7 touchdowns and nearly 1,200 yards while sharing carries with a deep stable of running backs. Michael Bush could end up leaving via free agency this year meaning McFadden could reach 300 carries. Can his body take that though? Bye: Week 8

9.       Frank Gore, SF: Speaking of injury prone running backs, Gore will face a very easy fantasy run schedule in 2011 but he always comes with a question mark. Jim Harbaugh is credited as a very good coach to develop quarterbacks, and he is. Let’s not forget that while he was coaching at Stanford Harbaugh almost had himself a Heisman winning running back named Toby Gerhart. Gore is similar in style to Gerhart but obviously is a better running back than Gerhart. Bye: Week 7

10.   LeSean McCoy, PHL: McCoy was almost as valuable tot eh Eagles’ success as Mike Vick was in 2010, almost. McCoy is most valuable in PPR leagues, considering he ended the year with nearly 80 receptions. McCoy was a scoring machine for the Eagles last season, adding seven touchdowns on the ground and two through the air. Give him a full year of game planning with Vick as his starter and you can expect those numbers to get even better. Bye: Week 7

11.   Ray Rice, BAL: Some worried that the addition of receivers Anquan Boldin, TJ Houshmandzadeh and Donte’ Stallworth would mean a reduction of carries for Rice. Instead Willis McGahee seemed to disappear and Rice saw his carries go up 120%. One thing to worry about is that he saw a drop in every statistical category. Rice is a very god running back, but the Ravens are confused as to what their indentity is and it is affecting Rice’s value. Not to mention the Ravens will fce one of the toughest run schedules in football. Bye: Week 5

12.   Matt Forte, CHI: The Bears were hoping that Forte could turn in to the second coming of Marshall Faulk when they hired Mike Martz to take over their offense. The first game of the season made Forte look like he could end up being the best running back in football but he quickly came back to reality. Many Bear critics will tell you the offense moved better when the offense went through Forte last season, so there is the idea that the Bears could focus on Forte more in 2011. The Bears didn’t draft a wide receiver this season, so unless they go after a big name free agent you can expect the Bears to focus on the running game.  Bye: Week 8

13.   Peyton Hillis, CLE: Hillis was one of the best storylines of the 2011 season, busting on the scen in Cleveland and rushing for over 1,000 yards and ten touchdowns for the first time in his career. Hillis will undoubtedly start the season at the top of the depth chart, but the Browns will also want to see what Montario Hardesty can do with the ball in his hands. Hardesty was drafted in the second round of the 2010 draft and was expected to start. Hardesty tore his ACL in the preseason though, and never got his chance. Hardesty comes with an injury riddled past, so he doesn’t appear to be that big of a threat to Hillis’ rushes. Bye: Week 5

14.   Steven Jackson, STL: The big question with Jackson is what will his role be in the new Josh McDaniels-Sam Bradford offense? McDaniels didn’t run the ball at all last season in Denver, but that was more because of circumstance than it was by choice. Jackson is still a very good running back who brought added value with his receiving prowess. Jackson could actually become a better fantasy back if he is used more in the receiving game. Bye: Week 5

15.   Ahmad Bradshaw, NYG: Bradshaw took over as the lead back in New York last season but had the Giants fan base pulling their hair out when he lost six fumbles over the course of the season. Not even Tiki Barber lost that many fumbles in his career. Brandon Jacobs is still a good running back too, so I would think that if Bradshaw can’t get his fumblitis under control he could lose some carries to Jacobs.  Bye: Week 7

16.   Jonathan Stewart, CAR: It looks like Stewart will be the main guy in Carolina, and that he might see a lot of work considering Cam Newton and Jimmy Clausen aren’t truly ready to lead an NFL team. The bright side for Stewart is his fifth easiest schedule for fantasy running backs. When/If the Panthers and DeAngelo Williams part ways, his value will be much higher. Bye: Week 9

17.   Knowshon Moreno, DEN: Were not sure if the hype around Moreno is legit. Last year injuries kept him on the sideline, but he likely would have been devalued in the Josh McDaniels’ pass happy offense. Moreno has a somewhat decent offensive line and a coach with a good history with running backs. The biggest concern we have with the Broncos is their eighth toughest run schedule Moreno will have to face. Bye: Week 6

18.   LeGarrette Blount, TB: Blount was a knockout (get it?) waiver wire addition last year. After impressing in the preseason for Tennessee, Blount was cut and picked up by the Buccaneers. The Bucs were missing a true feature back, despite getting some heady play from Cadillac Williams and Earnest Graham over the past two years. Williams looks like he will test the free agent waters so Blount could be a three-down back in 2011. Bye: Week 8

19.   Ryan Mathews, SD: Mathews may have been the biggest bust in fantasy football last year. His situation and production in college made him a first round draft pick in some leagues last year, but Mathews didn’t produce much until the end of the season. Mathews had some injury issues after the bye week that stunted his growth, not to mention he had been sharing carries all season. In fact Mathews never carried the ball more than 20 times until the final week of the season when he ran for 120 yards and three touchdowns. Bye: Week 6

20.   Cedric Benson, CIN: In 2009 we saw the resurgence of Cedric Benson. That year Benson only played 13 games but recorded over 1,250 yards with six touchdowns. Last season was a bit of a disappointing season for Benson owners. He did improve his td count (seven in 201) but saw his rush average take a huge hit. Most frustrating for Benson owners was the five lost fumbles in 2010, as compared to zero in 2009. Bye: Week 7

21.   Daniel Thomas, MIA: What did we know about Daniel Thomas before the NFL Draft? We knew he wasn’t as good as Mark Ingram, Ryan Williams or Mikel Leshoure. Now what do we know about Thomas? We know he could end up being a three down workhorse for the Dolphins making him a great third option at running back to start the season. Thomas had the worst fumbling issues of any back in college football, however so the Fins will have to get working Thomas’ ball security immediately. Bye: Week 5

22.   Shonn Greene, NYJ: I wouldn’t call Greene the Jets’ feature back, not with LT still on the roster. Eventually the Jets will have to start considering letting Greene take the majority of the carries so that he can progress in to a full time starter. Greene seemed to frustrate the coaching staff with some poor choices last year, but his fumble count went down and he still posted an impressive 4.1 yards per carry. Bye: Week 8

23.   Mark Ingram, NO: It seems far too early to call Ingram the next Emmitt Smith, but he does become the Saints best running back option in 2011. Ingram’s main competition will be Pierre Thomas who missed the majority of 201 with a high ankle sprain. The Saints invested a new four year, $12 million contract in Thomas before the draft. Ingram will likely be sharing carries this year, but will doing so with a back that is similar in playing style. Bye: Week 11

24.   Felix Jones, DAL: Before the draft there were rumors that Marion Barber would be gone in the offseason and Jones would be the main man in Big D. Then the Cowboys invested a third round pick in DeMarco Murray. Murray is a devastating addition to any passing game, but has had durability issues plague him his entire career. Jones should still get the majority of the snaps, but look for him to be off the field in almost all passing situations. Bye: Week 5

25.   BenJarvus Green-Ellis, NE: The Law Firm was a breakout star last year, becoming the first Patriot running back to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards since Corey Dillon in 2004. Green-Ellis looked like he could be the main back for the Patriots for some time before the draft, but then the Patriots invested picks in two very skilled running backs. The fact the Patriots invested picks in a smash-and-dash combination of running backs with Steven Ridley of LSU and Shane Vereen of Cal. Looks like back to back years with 1,000 yard rushers may be out of the question. Bye: Week 7

26.   Jahvid Best, DET: Best looked like he would be an easy choice for ROY in the first two weeks of the season but significantly dropped in value from week three on. Best never carried the ball more than 20 times and this year the Lions drafted Mikel Leshoure to compliment the shifty style of Best. The Lions will face the league’s hardest schedule for fantasy running backs so don’t expect Best to impress sharing carries this year. Bye: Week 9

27.   Ryan Torain, WAS: Torrain is a young back with some decent upside potential. The Redskins invested a fourth round draft pick in Roy Helu who will push for carries, and so will Keiland Williams who almost matched Torain’s TD count and rush average last season. Torain got the majority of the carries last season and could stay that way if Clinton Portis truly does leave via free agency this offseason.  Bye: Week 5

28.   Fred Jackson, BUF: All indications are that Jackson will be the feature back for the Bills in 2010. So if you took C.J. Spiller hoping his dynasty potential would come to fruition quickly, you may swear off fantasy football all together. The Bills offense looked almost good at times last year. The Bills defense doesn’t keep them in the game, however so they are forced to throw the ball more often at the end of games. Bye: Week 7

29.   Joseph Addai, IND: Long gone are the days of Edgerrin James, Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison dominating fantasy football. Addai had his success in the past, but recently has fallen off. The Colts invested a first round pick in Donald Brown but have had little return on their investment. The Colts know they are better off with the ball being in Peyton’s hands. Especially when you face the tenth toughest schedule for running backs in 2011. Bye: Week 11

30.   Marshawn Lynch, SEA: Lynch came over to Seattle via a trade with Buffalo after a preseason ankle injury hampered Lynch’s season. By the end of 2010, however, he became the Seahawks’ primary ball carrier. Likely Lynch will share carries with his former college teammate and Seahawk teammate Justin Forsett. Bye: Week 6

31.   Ryan Williams, ARZ: In ’08 Tim Hightower was the backup to Edgerrin James in ’09 he took a back seat to then rookie Beanie Wells. In 2010 Hightower became the team’s best option at running back. And then the Cardinals did it to Hightower again. The Cardinals invested an early second round pick on Ryan Williams and it looks like they will have to choose who to give carries to between their former first round pick Beanie Wells, second round pick Williams or fifth round pick Tim Hightower. Williams should be the starter day one. Bye: Week 6

32.   Ryan Grant, GB: We may be unfairly moving grant to the bottom of the list here, but there just isn’t enough evidence to believe that Grant will again be a 300 carries back. The packers got a pleasant surprise with James Stark and may have found their third down back in the draft with Alex Green. The jury is still out on Grant, but there aren’t many reasons to believe he will return to fantasy relevance. Bye: Week 8

Notable Backups and Rookies:

Mike Tolbert, SD

Brian Westbrook, SF

DeAngelo Williams, CAR

Michael Bush, OAK

Ronnie Brown, MIA

Brandon Jacobs, NYG

LaDainian Tomlinson, NYJ

Roy Helu, WAS

Thomas Jones, NYJ

Ryan Williams, ARZ

DeMarco Murray, DAL

Mikel Leshoure, DET

James Starks, GB

Donald Brown, IND

Danny Woodhead, NE

C.J. Spiller, BUF

Darren Sproles, SD

Marion Barber, DAL

Montario Hardesty, CLE

Ben Tate, HOU

Pierre Thomas, NO