While the quarterback may be the most important position in the NFL, the running back is the most important spot to fill in fantasy football in most standard scoring leagues.
The running back is the backbone of your fantasy team. Depending on the offense, a starting running back touches the ball as many as 20-25 times per game. Now, with many teams switching to a two-back style of offense to preserve their players from both injury and fatigue, the ever-more rare feature back becomes that much more valuable.
If your lucky enough to land the first pick in your team’s fantasy draft, we recommend you take a running back, no question. But which one should you take? Here are our top 10 fantasy football running backs for 2011.
1. Adrian Peterson — One of the most explosive running backs of the decade as well as a model of consistency. Peterson had one of his worst seasons last year and still made the pro bowl, rushing for a shade under 1300 yards and 12 touchdowns on 4.6 yards a carry.
Stemming from distractions with Brett Favre, a botched Randy Moss trade, and a loathing for their coach, the Vikings locker room was a mess last season and Peterson still produced. Peterson is healthy, still in his prime, hasn’t rushed for under 1,000 yards in his entire career, and the chemistry with a new coach and Favre’s absence leaves the team in his hands once again.
The Vikings may not be the best team in 2011, but Peterson still has a lot in the tank and along with veteran quarterback Donovan McNabb, should be hungry to rebound after a disappointing 2010. He’s the safest pick, and also has unlimited potential. He’s our No. 1.
2. Chris Johnson — While he is currently holding out from Titans camp because of contract issues, Johnson’s value shouldn’t nose-dive just yet. Like Peterson, he enters 2011 with a veteran quarterback in Matt Hasselback and a new coach.
The first three years of Johnson’s career have been nothing short of brilliant, as he rushed for more than 4500 yards highlighted by an incredible 2,006 yard campaign in 2009. He’s also a bit more effective in the passing game than Peterson, and should be a high value in PPR leagues.
3. Arian Foster — One of last season’s biggest surprises, Foster anchored a stellar Texans offense that struggled late in the season. The third-year player out of New Mexico won the 2010 rushing title with 1,616 yards to go along with 66 catches for 600 yards. His combined 18 touchdowns both rushing and receiving were second to none.
Despite all he did, trends show the likelihood of Foster repeating these numbers dismal. The last player to lead fantasy in scoring was Ladainian Tomlinson nearly five years ago. He also plays in an erratic offense with a quarterback in Matt Schaub who has consistency issues. Foster also displayed some character flaws after a few sideline blow ups last season, so despite his talent, he poses some risk.
4. Jamal Charles — As of part of the NFL’s best rushing attack last season, Charles was the most efficient rusher in the NFL. With veteran Thomas Jones seeing the bulk of the red zone carries, Charles rushed for 1,467 yards on just 230 carries in 2010.
He also caught 45 passes for 468 yards. Charles is a Chris Johnson clone in terms of his explosiveness. He’s got the fifth gear almost no running back has. He can score from anywhere on the field, and should see more carries in 2011 with Jones due to turn 33 in late August.
5. LeSean McCoy — Rounding out our Top 5 is Eagles running back LeSean McCoy. McCoy made his first pro bowl last season after rushing for more than 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns. But where he really did damage was in the passing game. McCoy caught a team-leading 78 passes for two touchdowns, making him monster in PPR leagues and one of the most versatile backs in the league. The Eagles are coming in to this season as one of the most hyped teams in the league, and if their star-studded defense lives up to expectations, McCoy and company should have plenty of time to reek havoc on the field.
6. Rashard Mendenhall — After a shaky start in the first two seasons of his NFL career, Mendenhall broke out in 2010 and proved he could be the tough, downhill runner Steelers fans are accustomed to seeing. He also answered questions regarding his intelligence, as he played his way back into the starting lineup after a series of mental lapses led to his benching in 2009. Mendenhall has major upside.
He’s played in all 32 games the past two seasons, accumulating more than 2,000 yards combined. He’s on a winning franchise with an offense tailored to his style of play. He’s got Ben Roethlisbeger for an entire season. It’s the perfect storm for another solid season. Now if he could just stay off twitter.
7. Darren McFadden — Critics be damned. McFadden is no Reggie Bush. After two mediocre years that had fans hailing the former first-round pick as a bust that couldn’t be an every-down back, McFadden silenced doubters with his first 1,000 plus-yard season, helping the Raiders to their best record in nearly 9 years.
With a young, improving receiving core behind him, the Raiders are a team on the up-and-up and should only get better in a weak division. McFadden is also a great safety valve for the weak-armed but accurate Jason Campbell, who should be more comfortable as he enters his second year in the Raider offense.
McFadden battled some minor injuries last season, but they shouldn’t affect his value going forward.
8. Ray Rice — Rice picked up steam late last season after a slow start, rushing for more than 1,200 yards and five touchdowns. While Rice’s value as a PPR receiver is unprecedented (he caught 63 passes in 2010), he needs to score the ball at a more efficient rate to have a shot as your first overall pick.
I’d even go as far as to avoid him in the first round entirely if you can snag one of the first seven guys or draft a top quarterback. The Ravens also signed running back Ricky Williams, which shouldn’t detract too much from Rice’s production, but is still something to keep an eye on.
9. Maurice Jones-Drew — Last year, Jones-Drew was easily a Top 5 running back, but knee issues this past off-season hampers his fantasy value.
After suffering a torn meniscus Jones-Drew underwent knee surgery shortly after the 2010 season and didn’t even start running with the ball until early July. Fantasy players are avoiding Jones-Drew early in first round, drafting him as the 11th overall pick on average, which shows a lot of players feel he isn’t worth the risk.According to CBS Sports, Jones-Drew is currently practicing on a limited basis and is easing his way into camp.
He might get off to a slow start in 2011, but should reassert himself. If your still not convinced, take Rashad Jennings for insurance in the later rounds. Jones-Drew too talented to be avoided early.
10. Michael Turner — A healthy Turner turned in a 1300 yard season last year along with 12 touchdowns. Turner is on the verge of the dreaded 30-year-old mark next February, so this may be the final year he produces big numbers.
Despite that, he’s still a focal point of one of the best offenses in the NFC and also gets the ball on the goal line. He’s a safe pick for this season but will probably see a slight drop in production, making him a bad pick in keeper leagues