Running backs are commonly referred to as the lifeblood of fantasy football. While that’s a little cliché, it’s also pretty true. Having a true scoring machine as your No. 1 running back keeps you competitive week in and week out. While lesser runners have their ups and downs throughout the year, a top tier running back tends to put together a couple of special performances each year that win you crucial games.
Last year, Ray Rice and Chris Johnson had incredible seasons and vaulted themselves into the indisputable first tier of running back commodities in dynasty leagues. While the order in which they’re drafted or valued may vary from league to league, it’s difficult to argue with Rice, Johnson, Adrian Peterson and Maurice Jones-Drew as being the top four at their position.
The question on the minds of many dynasty league owners is pretty simple. Who’s fifth? The list of candidates to be the next great keeper running back is ripe with players full of talent, many of them with new opportunities for playing time this season. Finding the way to uncover the next big thing is a mystery every dynasty league owner is desperate to solve.
Keep in mind that while there are many great veteran running backs, this article is intended to consider the candidates for a long-term keeper at running back for a rebuilding or building team. For that reason, any running back over the age of 25 has been disqualified from consideration.
Realistically, it would be difficult for a truly building or rebuilding team to have one of those backs as their lone pillar to build around. That takes out the likes of Steven Jackson, Frank Gore, DeAngelo Williams, Michael Turner, and a host of others. By the time a building team gathered talent to build around them, those players would likely be pushing 30.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the young running backs all vying to join Johnson, Rice, MJD, and Peterson to be “the fifth dimension” in dynasty league fantasy football.
The Five Most Likely
Jamaal Charles, KC (23 years old)
Charles was simply incredible with 1,120 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on just 190 carries in 2009. Add another 300 yards receiving on 40 catches and this young dynamo is here to stay.
The addition of Thomas Jones clouds his short-term future, but his big play ability is apparent. He seems to be in the exact same position as Chris Johnson was last year—a player whose workload is in question, but whose talent isn’t. It worked out well for CJ2 last year, eh?
Chris Wells, ARI (21)
Wells had 793 yards while playing second fiddle to Tim Hightower much of last season. His talent is undeniable, though.
With Kurt Warner gone and Tim Hightower likely moving to the bench, it’s going to be Wells’ time to shine as the centerpiece of the Cardinals offense. If he can maintain his 4.5 yards per carry average, he could have a huge breakout season in the desert.
Ryan Mathews, SD (23)
There aren’t many places a running back could go with a better chance to score fantasy points. The Chargers offense is loaded with talent and defenses are simply going to load up to stop the pass. That should open up some running lanes for Mathews.
Blessed with an excellent blend of speed and power, Mathews enters the year as the unquestioned bellcow for San Diego. The sky’s the limit for this young back from Fresno State.
Jonathan Stewart, CAR (23)
Stewart was simply amazing down the stretch when DeAngelo Williams was injured, exploding for 440 yards and 3 TDs in the last three games of 2009. For the season, he led Carolina with 1,133 rushing yards and 10 rushing TDs, with a yards per carry average of over five.
If and when he gets the chance to be the undisputed featured back in Carolina, “The Daily Show” has the elite talent and situation to vault into the upper echelon of the running back class.
Shonn Greene, NYJ (24)
The Jets have a great defense, receivers to keep defenses honest, a massive offensive line, and a coach who wants to pound the football. That sounds like a pretty good formula for Greene.
After his playoff run that featured 304 yards and two touchdowns, the Jets felt comfortable letting Thomas Jones go. Considering Jones was able to post 3,833 yards, and 28 touchdowns behind that Jets offensive line the past three years, the future looks very bright for Greene.
The Five Who Wouldn’t Shock
Knowshon Moreno, DEN (23)
Moreno was the No. 1 pick in many rookie drafts at this time last season. His 947 yards and seven touchdowns left dynasty owners disappointed, as did his 3.8 yards per carry average. After a year of seasoning, Moreno returns as the undisputed No. 1 running back in Denver.
There’s a big difference in the Mile High City this coming year, though. With Brandon Marshall gone, he’ll now be the centerpiece of this offense. Moreno has the explosive ability to be a true fantasy star. His owners hope this is the year he maximizes his potential.
Rashard Mendenhall, PIT (23)
Mendenhall was nowhere close to this list after a disappointing rookie season.
Last year, Mendy turned it around and produced a workmanlike effort that included 1,108 yards, and seven rushing touchdowns to go along with another 261 receiving yards, and one more touchdown. With Willie Parker out of the mix, it’s clearly Mendenhall’s team.
The Jonathan Dwyer addition may keep him from moving any higher up the list for the moment, but there’s little doubting Mendenhall has the ability to put up some very nice numbers on a consistently excellent team.
LeSean McCoy, PHI (22)
McCoy is a sneaky bet for a great season in 2010. His rookie season was solid and featured 637 yards on 155 carries, and 308 yards on another 40 receptions.
The key to McCoy’s success is the way he’ll be used in the offense. Andy Reid loves to get his runners open in space and McCoy excels in the open field.
Remember, Brian Westbrook won many dynasty owners a championship trophy or two as the centerpiece in this system. It remains to be seen if McCoy has that type of ability, we’ll certainly know soon enough.
Felix Jones, DAL (23)
Jones is poised for a major breakthrough in 2010. In his career, he’s averaged a ridiculous 6.5 yards per carry. If he can beat out Marion Barber and stay healthy, the numbers he could post in a full season as a starter could be mind boggling.
There are questions about how all the Dallas runners will be used, but the explosive Jones could make it very difficult for the team to take him off the field. The questions surrounding his durability and number of anticipated carries stop him from moving higher on this list, not his elite talent.
Pierre Thomas, NO (25)
Ironically, Thomas was likely higher on this list going into last season. His 793 yards were a big disappointment as it was Mike Bell, not Reggie Bush, who stole most of his thunder.
On the plus side, Thomas showed playmaking ability and averaged 5.4 yards per carry, which tied him for fourth in the NFL.
With Bell gone, Thomas may just get the opportunity he needs to become a star. We already have a pretty good idea of what Reggie Bush can produce and Lynell Hamilton may not be quite ready to be an integral part of this offense.
This year is Thomas’ time to pounce.
The Five Sleepers
Jahvid Best, DET (21)
With Kevin Smith recovering from his injuries, Best has a legitimate chance to stake his claim as an elite back in the NFL. While his durability is a major question mark, Best is an explosive athlete who can make plays as a runner or a receiver.
The Detroit offense has been desperately searching for a dynamic running back and second receiver to pair with Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford.
One of those needs might just be filled.
CJ Spiller, BUF (22)
Spiller is becoming a bit of an afterthought in rookie drafts this Summer as some owners have forgotten just how talented he really is. While there were many more desirable places for Spiller to land, he still possesses a skill set unmatched by many current NFL runners.
While Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch are in his way, it’s conceivable Spiller could rise to the top of the depth chart and provide Buffalo and dynasty owners with an explosive young building block.
Ben Tate, HOU (21)
Tate is in a similar position with Spiller as a back with a lot of other runners to go through to gain prominence.
The Houston offense provides a perfect opportunity for him. As a one cut and go runner with 4.4 speed, and above average size, he should eventually rise to the top of the depth chart.
The Texans have been looking for a premier runner since the days of fantasy hero Domanick Davis. They thought they had it in Slaton. They may just have it with Tate.
Montario Hardesty, CLE (23)
There aren’t too many young running backs in the league who have this much hope pinned to them.
After producing 1,345 yards, and 13 touchdowns last year at Tennessee, the Browns passed on many other backs in the draft and free agency to pounce on Hardesty. He’s been great in practice so far and the Browns seem determined to have him start on opening day. The injury risks need to be weighed, but so does Hardesty’s ability.
The Browns offense has been abysmal, but they seem to have things headed in the right direction under Mike Holmgren. Stud running backs tend to produce despite their surrounding talent and Jerome Harrison simply isn’t made for a featured role.
It’s obvious the Browns want Hardesty to produce sooner rather than later and that could lead to early success.
Matt Forte, CHI (24)
After a rookie season that featured 1,238 yards and eight touchdowns, Forte WAS one of the five best keepers on many lists last year.
His Sophomore season was a total disaster after he produced just 929 yards, with an average of just 3.6 yards per carry. Forte has yet to show the consistency to make owners believe he can be an elite back, but it’s easy to forget he’s just 24 years old.
While Chester Taylor and Mike Martz may take some of his short-term value away, Forte should have another opportunity to show he can be the player the Bears hoped he’d be when they drafted him out of Tulane.
Every dynasty league owner is looking for the next great running back to build around. Having an elite talent like Chris Johnson, Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, or Maurice Jones-Drew can accelerate your team’s chances for a championship faster than anything else in dynasty leagues or fantasy football in general.
If this coming year is anything like we’ve seen in the past, there will be one or two running backs who exceed our expectations. In fact, chances are you just read about “the fifth dimension.”
Now you just have to guess which one it was and go get him.