Generally, your running backs are the key to your team's success or failure. The problem is that over the past couple of years, teams are moving towards a running back by committee.
This has not made it easier for fantasy owners setting their lineups each week.
This year is probably one of the hardest I can remember in ranking running backs as almost every running back has a major question or concern. On the flip side, every running back has a reason they are going to break out and stake their claim as a top fantasy back.
I have come up with my top 20 fantasy running backs for 2011 as well as some sleepers.
Every year, there are running backs who break on to the scene that no one saw coming.
Last year was Arian Foster and Peyton Hillis. Looking at the running backs this year, there are three players who I think will greatly exceed their draft position and expectations heading into 2011.
First has to be one of the new Denver Broncos, Willis McGahee. He is heading to a Broncos team led by coach John Fox, who has some experience using two quality backs from his time in Carolina. Coach Fox has already come out and said McGahee will be the goal-line back for the Broncos.
I would not be surprised to see him get a few starts as the season moves on. I am not sold on Knowshon Moreno as a No. 1 back, and McGahee is a talented veteran back who can start to steal carries if Moreno starts slow.
Second is rookie Mark Ingram, who joins the very powerful New Orleans Saints' offense. Pierre Thomas is still there, but with Reggie Bush gone and Thomas' injury history, I think Ingram will get plenty of chances early on and could take over as the No. 1 quickly.
My last sleeper is Tim Hightower. He has always been that borderline starter, popular sleeper pick in Arizona but now joins Mike Shanahan. Mike has given fantasy owner's nightmares with his running back rotations but also made some fantasy stars.
From the sounds of it, Hightower is the guy and has been playing pretty well this preseason.
Jahvid Best started his rookie season on a tear and racked up a ton of points early on for fantasy owners. He became a headache for owners with nagging injuries by the end of the season.
He has not helped his draft stock any as he has already suffered a mild concussion this preseason. The injury is thought to not be that bad, but it has to raise concerns for owners heading into a draft.
On the flip side, Detroit doesn't really have any other options at the position with second-round pick Mikel Leshoure going down with a torn Achilles.
They have brought in Jerome Harrison and Mike Bell to compete, but as long as Best stays healthy, he will be the feature back and finding a running back who you know will be getting the majority of the carries is hard to find these days.
In my opinion, Ryan Grant is the featured back of the Packers, and as long as he can stay healthy, he will be seeing the majority of the carries out of the Packer's backfield.
The question with Grant is if he will be the same running back coming off a severe ankle injury he suffered last September.
James Stark had one good game against the Eagles in the playoffs, running for 123 yards, but was mediocre the rest of the way. Grant has proven he is a top back in years past, but the injury will scare owners away.
Now, I am not saying to use a top draft pick on him, but he will most likely be the featured back on a high-powered offense, and that is hard to find in later rounds. He could be a decent steal in the later rounds.
Marion Barber is gone, and there isn't much competition behind Felix Jones, so the question is can he handle the workload of a featured back?
If this preseason is any indication, the answer is yes, and owners won't be disappointed.
Last year, the Cowboys offense looked completely different under Jason Garrett, and that shouldn't change now with Romo under center.
If anything, this should only help the offense and between Jones' ability to catch the ball and his determination to run between the tackles early this preseason, he could be a steal.
Ahmad Bradshaw became the Giants' featured back last year getting a lot more carries than his backfield teammate, Brandon Jacobs.
2011 should be no different for No. 44 even though he does have to worry about Jacobs stealing the goal-line scores.
Bradshaw would be a few spots higher, but he does have a bit of a problem holding onto the ball, fumbling seven times last year. With the loss of Steve Smith and Kevin Boss, defenses could start to key in on the run more, making it a bit tougher for Bradshaw in 2011.
He is a good option as a second running back, but I think he may regress a bit from his 2010 numbers.
Before the 2010 season, LaGarrette Blount was remembered for an unfortunate incident after a game between Oregon and Boise State. The Bucs gave him a chance to redeem himself, and he didn't disappoint fantasy owners.
Blount had over 200 carries on the season after only playing in 13 games and averaged 18 carries a game over the last 10 games. Now that Cadillac Williams is out of Tampa, Blount is the unquestioned starter for them.
Of course there is the concern that he could be a one-hit wonder. There is the chance he may regress a bit, but he is still the featured back.
Draft him as your No. 2 running back and you won't be disappointed.
Peyton Hillis was traded to the Browns in the Brady Quinn trade, and many people, myself included, felt like Hillis was just a throw in to the trade.
Man, did he prove people wrong by racking up over 1,500 total yards and 13 touchdowns.
So why is he this low? Two words, Madden Curse. I am not very superstitious, but it is hard to argue with the history.
All kidding aside, I think defenses start focusing on Hillis more this year, and he did struggle a bit down the stretch. He only rushed for over 100 yards once in his final five games, and it is hard to put a guy higher who goes against the Steelers and Ravens four times in a season.
If these rankings were based purely on talent, DeAngelo Williams would be top three. A few years ago, he was considered a top overall pick in many drafts, but missing 13 games over the past two years won't help your cause.
Not to mention he is back splitting carries with Jonathan Stewart on a Carolina team that has questions in the passing game. Defenses will stack the line and make Cam Newton or Jimmy Clausen beat them through the air. This does not add up to a big season for Williams.
Like I said though, he is one of the more talented running backs in the game and is worth the risk in the mid-rounds of a draft because he has the potential to have a big game every time he steps on the field.
Another talented running back who put on another team would be a top five pick. The problem is that his offensive line is a mess and finding running lanes will be very tough for Matt Forte. Not to mention, he shares a backfield with Marion Barber and Chester Taylor.
Forte had over 1,000 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards, but the offensive line and the added talent will most likely drop his numbers.
The fact that he can catch the ball so well out of the backfield is the reason he is as high as he is.
Darren McFadden finally showed owners what they were hoping to see during his rookie year in being a dual threat rushing and receiving the ball. He had over 1,600 yards and 10 touchdowns between the two.
The problem with McFadden is that he has battled injuries over his entire career with turf toe his first year and a knee injury in 2009. Even with a solid year last year, he missed two games due to injury.
Drafting McFadden is a risk because of the injuries, but as long as you draft a good third running back, he is worth it because of his explosiveness and the potential when he is on the field.
Speaking of great fantasy running backs but even greater injury risks, let's welcome Frank Gore. Gore ran for over 850 yards last year before missing the final five games of the seasons with a fractured hip.
Gore has played a full 16-game season only once in his six-year career, but he has averaged 4.7 yards a carry in his career. He also has accumulated over 200 carries each of the past five seasons.
Gore is a talented running back, and as long as owners draft him with the mindset that at some point this season they will need a running back to fill in for Gore, he is worth the gamble.
Let's continue the run of extremely talented running backs that are huge injury risks with St. Louis Ram's running back Steven Jackson.
Last year was the first time since 2006 that Jackson played in all 16 games. Even playing every game, he seemed to always be battling one injury or another.
The guy still rushed for over 1,200 yards and six touchdowns, and it may get easier for him in 2011 with the emergence of Sam Bradford last year. Defenses will need to respect the passing game more in 2011 which can only help Jackson.
I don't think anyone has more job security at the running back position than Rashard Mendenhall. Running back Jonathan Dwyer could steal carries, but for the most part, Mendenhall is the running game in the Steel City.
Mendenhall is not flashy and will generally not make the highlight reel, but what he will do is find his way into the end zone? The guy had 13 rushing touchdowns last year with 1,324 rushing yards.
Now, the Steelers have a number of issues with their offensive line which won't make the running any easier for Mendenhall, but the game plan has been, and will be for 2011, to run the ball.
Mendenhall is one of the safer picks at the running back position.
I don't like putting McCoy this high for three reasons, but it is hard to argue with the numbers. First, he plays in Andy Reid's offense which seems to be allergic to running plays. Second, McCoy's value is very closely tied to Michael Vick and his ability to stay on the field. Third, the Eagles added Ronnie Brown to their backfield, and you don't add a talented runner like that to sit on the sidelines.
On the other side of the argument, McCoy still had over 1,000 rushing yards and 592 receiving yards on 78 receptions. He had a total of nine touchdowns and became the featured back for the Eagles last year.
If you are in a league that gives points per receptions, this is a no-brainer, and McCoy is an easy first-round pick. If you are in a league that doesn't add points for receptions, I would be hesitant to use an early first-round pick on him and instead go with a running back like this next player.
Burner Turner is purely a runner, and that's about it. He will rack up rushing yards and touchdowns but not much else.
He is no exception to the rule that every running back has questions, and some wonder if Turner is starting to slow down due to over-usage.
He has had three straight years of over 300 carries, and while 1,371 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns looks nice, he only rushed for over 100 yards once in the final five games of the regular season.
He falls into the Rashard Mendenhall category of a bruising back who doesn't have much breakaway speed.
I still think he is a first-round back, but I would proceed with caution.
Yes, I have the league-leading rusher and one of the top fantasy players last year as the sixth-best back primarily for two reasons.
The first is that he has only done it one year and could be a one-hit wonder. If I have a top three draft pick, I generally go with a safer pick of a player who has been successful for a few years.
Second reason is that Houston has a very crowded backfield, and the horrible images of Steve Slaton still are burned in my fantasy draft day memory.
Houston has Derrick Ward, Steve Slaton and Ben Tate in their backfield who are all talented running backs. On the positive, Foster is on a very explosive offense with Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson and a good offensive line which will make it easier on him finding lanes because defenses can't stack the box. Not to mention, he had a monstrous year last year.
Part of me wants to say he is a surefire No. 1 pick again because it is hard to argue with over 2,200 total yards from scrimmage and 22 touchdowns, but for some reason, I am limiting expectations because he has done it only one year.
I would move Chris Johnson all the way up to No. 2 on my rankings if it wasn't for a contract dispute that I think could roll into the season. The two sides don't sound very close to a new deal, and Larry Fitzgerald's new huge contract only made things tougher.
Add in the fact that the Titans have a new head coach, which means a new offense and a new quarterback. Every day Johnson misses sets him back a little bit more.
The sooner he gets into camp, the better his chances of being that top three running back, but until he is practicing, I would be very hesitant drafting Johnson.
Maurice Jones-Drew will be the Jaguars offense in 2011 with Jason Hill and Mike Thomas as the starting wide receivers there. But is that really any different than any other year.
The 5'7" running back has been fantasy gold for a few years now and generally doesn't get the recognition he deserves.
The problem is he is an injury concern with surgery this winter to repair his meniscus. He has been in camp and going through practice no problem but has yet to play in a game and hasn't really been hit yet.
To get MJD, you will most likely have to use a first-round pick, but I think owners need to be prepared that he could miss games if not completely healthy.
Ray Rice has one question heading in to the season, and it is a good one to have.
Can he handle the workload of a featured back? Willis McGahee and Le'Ron McClain are both gone, and I can't see the new addition, Ricky Williams, stealing many carries.
The guy is a dual threat in the rushing and receiving game and as Joe Flacco continues to develop, it will only make Rice's job easier.
Rice's numbers did drop a bit from 2009 to 2010, but he hasn't missed a game in two years, and the upside is pretty great for this running back.
I say draft with very little concern.
Jamaal Charles is a rising star in fantasy football and can be drafted in the top three with very little hesitation. He does split carries with Thomas Jones, but he is so explosive, he can score from almost anywhere on the field.
He has had back-to-back years of 1,000-yard seasons and had over 1,900 yards from scrimmage last year.
The Chiefs are one of the teams on the rise, and Charles will be a big reason for that. I expect another big year with similar or better numbers than he put up last year.
As far as I am concerned, All Day is back on top of the fantasy football world. Maybe not necessarily because he got any better but he is arguably the safest pick this year.
There are concerns with the Viking's offensive line, but they added Donovan McNabb who adds more credibility to the passing game than the other potential option of rookie Christian Ponder. Last year, he rushed for almost 1,300 yards and 12 touchdowns with 341 receiving yards and one more touchdown.
He is only 26 years of age and has missed one game the past three seasons. When you have the top pick in your fantasy football draft, it is not necessarily about grabbing the top player but minimizing risk because you do have to wait so long to grab your next player.
I expect him to have another Adrian Peterson-type season, and that is pretty good for a top pick.