Deviating from the old rule of taking a running back with your first two fantasy draft picks often left fantasy owners without many viable options to fill their RB2 spot.
The days of the workhorse back are not completely dead, but the majority of teams now employ a rotation of backs to help maintain their collective health.
If you look at the rushing attempt statistics over the past 10 seasons (see image below), there have been an average of six running backs with 300-plus carries in the past four seasons.
From 2001 to 2006, however, there was an average of more than 10 running backs that reached 300 carries per season. In addition, the difference between the average number of carries between the Top 20 rush-attempt leaders and the next 20 has narrowed in that same time frame.
For our initial rankings, we ranked our top 30 fantasy running backs; we will rank our top 40-50 backs with our next update in mid-July. These rankings are based on standard scoring (i.e., not point-per-reception (PPR) leagues), but we will release PPR rankings by next week.
Here are our fantasy running back rankings for 2011:
1. Adrian Peterson, Vikings: New offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave recently said, "We'll major in giving the ball to Adrian." Those words are music to fantasy owners' ears as Peterson has seen a three-year decline in rushing attempts (363 to 314 to 283).
Although Peterson missed a game last year, he needed 31 rushing attempts (which would have been a season high) in the missed game to have reached his 2009 levels. That said, Peterson ranks second in yards-from-scrimmage over the past three seasons (5,239) and has scored 54 touchdowns in 61 career games.
2. Chris Johnson, Titans: Over the past three seasons, no running back has more yards-from-scrimmage than Johnson, who set the single-season record in 2009 when he became the sixth running back to eclipse the 2,000-yard rushing mark.
While his numbers dipped last year, Johnson still has "the same goal" of 2,500 rushing yards, which he describes as "very realistic." However, Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean thinks Johnson will be a no-show to training camp if he doesn't get a new contract.
3. Arian Foster, Texans: Foster led the NFL in rushing (1,616 yards), rushing touchdowns (16) and all running backs in receiving yards (604) in 2010. In addition, he was second amongst running backs in receptions, with 66.
If there's any concern about Foster, it's the return of a healthy Ben Tate, who was the team's second-round pick in 2010, but there's no doubt that Foster will remain an elite fantasy running back in 2011.
4. Jamaal Charles, Chiefs: Despite ranking 14th in the league in rushing attempts (230) and second on his own team (Thomas Jones had 245), Charles ranked second in the league in rushing yards (1,467) and yards-from-scrimmage (1,935) in 2010.
While fantasy owners have been frustrated by Charles' less-than-deserved share of the workload, Charles is expected to get a larger share of the workload in 2011.
5. Ray Rice, Ravens: To some degree, Rice disappointed fantasy owners in 2010. While setting a career high in rushing attempts (307), Rice saw a year-over-year decline in most of his stats and set a career low with 4.0 yards per rush attempt. Even so, Rice still managed to finish in the Top Three in yards-from-scrimmage in 2010.
With the Ravens unlikely to keep Willis McGahee, who has a total of 27 touchdowns (24 rushing and three receiving) in the past three seasons, Rice could see the end zone more often in 2011.
6. Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars: Despite playing through a "bone-on-bone" knee condition last year, Jones-Drew rushed for 100-plus yards for six consecutive games before missing the final two games of the season. A couple of months ago, "Pocket Hercules" said he was ahead of schedule on his rehab and that it was "going to be fun" proving "a couple of people wrong," according to Tania Ganguli of the Florida Times Union. Rashad Jennings, who rushed for 359 yards in the final six games, is likely to cut into MJD's workload a little more in 2011.
7. Michael Turner, Falcons: Injured for a good portion of the 2009 season, Turner led the NFL in rushing attempts in 2008 and 2010. There are some concerns with Turner—he turns 30 next offseason, he averaged a career-low 4.1 yards per rush attempt and he doesn't help out in the passing game at all. That said, 16 active players have more carries than "The Burner," so I'm not as concerned about his workload as others. Turner also has a nose for the goal-line (39 rushing touchdowns in the past 43 games).
8. LeSean McCoy, Eagles: McCoy, the Eagles' second-round pick in 2009, had only one game with more than 20-plus carries in Andy Reid's pass-first offense. Even so, McCoy finished fourth in the NFL in yards from scrimmage (1,672).
9. Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers: Mendenhall set career highs in rushing attempts (324), yards (1,273) and touchdowns (13) after his breakout season in 2009. And, fortunately for fantasy owners, you don't get penalized for Mendenhall's tweets. (And that actually applies to the other professional running back that plays half of his games in the state of Pennsylvania.)
10. Darren McFadden, Raiders: After two largely disappointing seasons, McFadden broke out in 2010. McFadden missed three games, but he finished second in the NFL in yards-from-scrimmage on a per-game basis (128.0), behind only Foster.
To see our full list of top 30 fantasy running backs for 2011, click here.
Over the next two weeks, we will release our PPR rankings and keeper rankings in addition to expanding the number of running backs included in our standard-scoring rankings.