2011 NFL Season Preview: 6 Under-Appreciated RBs Heading into 2011

Collin McCollough@cmccolloNFL Deputy EditorMay 26, 2011

2011 NFL Season Preview: 6 Under-Appreciated RBs Heading into 2011

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    TAMPA, FL - DECEMBER 19:  Running back LeGarrette Blount #27 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers straight-arms safety C.C. Brown #39 of the Detroit Lions during the game at Raymond James Stadium on December 19, 2010 in Tampa, Florida.  (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Im
    J. Meric/Getty Images

    Fanfare is not distributed equally amongst NFL players.

    I know that's a shocking revelation to those of you planning on drafting Adrian Peterson with your first overall pick in your 2011 Fantasy Football leagues, but gather yourselves for a moment, ease your eyeballs back into your sockets and stay with me.

    It seems every year there's at least one player who has almost everyone scratching their heads, asking why they didn't see the breakout performance coming.  The exception to "everyone," of course, are the guys in your office pool who spend their days buried in Rotoworld and KFFL in lieu of conference calls and spreadsheets.

    2010 saw players like Houston Texans running back Arian Foster and Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back LeGarrette Blount explode in fantasy leagues after being drafted in fringe rounds, if drafted at all.

    So who will be the surprise playmakers in 2011?  Who is not getting the respect he deserves from fans and fantasy circles?

    Let's take a look. 

Houston Texans RB Ben Tate

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    GLENDALE, AZ - AUGUST 14:  Runningback Ben Tate #43 of the Houston Texans rushes the ball against the Arizona Cardinals during preseason NFL game at the University of Phoenix Stadium on August 14, 2010 in Glendale, Arizona. The Cardinals defeated the Texa
    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Houston Texans runningback Ben Tate didn't exactly have a memorable 2010 NFL season.

    Of course, that's probably because Tate didn't have a 2010 NFL season.

    The gifted Auburn playmaker, selected in the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft by the Texans, broke his ankle in Houston's preseason opener and was consequentially placed on injured reserved. 

    This, of course, helped to propel Arian Foster to the monster 2010 season he produced, facing no serious competition for carries from any other backs on the roster.

    Don't let Tate's nonexistent 2010 season or Foster's Pro Bowl status deter you from drafting Tate in your 2011 fantasy football draft, though.  Tate has too much talent to keep off the field.  He's a big play threat any time he touches the ball and should be able to add some versatility to an already-talented Texans offense in 2011.

Buffalo Bills RB Fred Jackson

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    EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - JANUARY 02:  Fred Jackson #22 of the Buffalo Bills runs down field against the New York Jets at New Meadowlands Stadium on January 2, 2011 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Photo by Michael Heiman/Getty Images)
    Michael Heiman/Getty Images

    I know what you're thinking: how the heck is Buffalo Bills runningback Fred Jackson considered even remotely unheralded?

    Two word answer for you folks: C.J. Spiller.

    When the Bills drafted Spiller with the ninth pick of the 2010 NFL Draft, it was supposed to be the end for Jackson's featured back status.  

    Spiller was the playmaker.  Spiller was the future of the Bills backfield.  Jackson was just a guy who had exceeded expectations in his career and would prove a useful rotation back, but nothing else.

    Except that's not how 2010 unfolded.

    Last year, Jackson ran for 927 yards at 4.2 yards per carry, compared to Spiller's 283 yards at 3.8 yards a pop.  It's also worth noting that, while Jackson had five rushing touchdowns on the year, Spiller had none.

    Fans might not necessarily be erroneous in touting Spiller heading into the 2011 season; he's only going to get better.  But it would be quite unwise to forget Jackson altogether when he's proven to be the rock in a transient Bills backfield for a few seasons now.

Green Bay Packers RB Ryan Grant

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    PHILADELPHIA - SEPTEMBER 12:  Ryan Grant #25 of the Green Bay Packers rushes after a catch during a game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on September 12, 2010 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    Green Bay Packers running back Ryan Grant is scheduled to make $5.25 million in 2011, a number that has some Packers fans worried.

    It shouldn't.  Even if James Starks had an impressive postseason run, Grant is worth keeping on the roster at that price.

    Over his four-year (for all intents and purposes, three-year) NFL career, Grant has racked up 3,457 rushing yards, 23 rushing touchdowns and averaged an impressive 4.4 yards per carry all the while.  

    Numbers that merit $5.25 million for one year, and potential re-negotiation when his contract expires after the 2011 NFL season.

    Grant isn't really underrated, but it seems that a lot of fans want to write him off after suffering a season-ending ankle injury in the first game of the Packers' 2010 season and being scheduled to receive a sizable salary.

    They shouldn't.  Grant will be an effective weapon for the Packers in 2011. 

San Francisco 49ers Kendall Hunter

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    STILLWATER, OK - SEPTEMBER 5: Running back Kendall Hunter #24 of the Oklahoma State Cowboys carries the ball six yards as Rennie Curran #35 of the Georgia Bulldogs tries to stop him during the fourth quarter of the game at Boone Pickens Stadium on Septemb
    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    San Francisco 49ers rookie runningback Kendall Hunter will not be a feature back in 2011, but should prove to be an effective alternative.

    The Niners never really seemed to get consistently effective play from feature back Frank Gore's backups in 2010.  

    Brian Westbrook and Anthony Dixon were alright, but obviously San Francisco felt the backup running back position could be improved, hence their selection of Hunter in the fourth round of the 2011 NFL Draft.

    This list doesn't include many rookies, but I have faith in Hunter, who should be a tremendous playmaking option and explosive compliment to Gore's bruising style of play.

San Diego Chargers RB Ryan Mathews

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    DENVER - JANUARY 02:  Running back Ryan Mathews #24 of the San Diego Chargers rushes against the Denver Broncos at INVESCO Field at Mile High on January 2, 2011 in Denver, Colorado. Mathews rushed for three touchdowns and 120 yards as the Chargers defeate
    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    When the San Diego Chargers traded up to land Ryan Mathews with the 12th pick of the 2010 NFL Draft, most football fans figured that he was LaDainian Tomlinson's designator successor, that he would receive the lion's share of carries in the Bolts' backfield.

    So when Mike Tolbert outrushed Mathews (735 yards to Mathews' 678), some were surprised. Further suggestions that the Chargers love what Tolbert brings to the team seem to shade some doubt around Mathews' role going forward.

    But rest assured, Mathews will be the Chargers' featured back in 2011, if not to begin the season then by some point midseason.  

    They'll likely employ a rotation which brings into question the "featured" label anyway, but Mathews should be the most effective back in that rotation.  He finished the 2010 season strong and should look to pick up exactly where he left off.

    San Diego certainly paid a high price to land Mathews, but he's already started to provide some return on their investment and will continue doing so in 2011.

Washington Redskins RB Ryan Torain

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    JACKSONVILLE, FL - DECEMBER 26:  Ryan Torain #46 of the Washington Redskins dives for a touchdown over Don Carey #22 of the Jacksonville Jaguars during the game at EverBank Field on December 26, 2010 in Jacksonville, Florida.  (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Gett
    Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

    Like Fred Jackson and Ryan Grant, Washington Redskins running back Ryan Torain isn't so much underrated as he is unappreciated heading into the 2011 NFL season.

    Most NFL fans don't realize how effective Torain was after replacing Clinton Portis as the Redskins featured running back.  

    With just 164 carries, Torain racked up 742 rushing yards, averaging an impressive 4.5 yards per carry.  His strong, slashing style rarely provided any breakaway runs, but proved extremely effective in moving the chains and getting the bruising back into the facemasks of opposing linebackers.

    Torain isn't an oft-used name on the topic of effective NFL backs, but when on the field, he always had a tremendous impact.  I look for more of the same from Torain in 2011, and potentially a Pro Bowl nod in the fourth-year player's first year as a starter.