Not long ago, basic fantasy strategy started with taking the best available running backs in rounds one and two. Yet, the rise of running back committees and pass-happy offenses has limited the number of franchise running backs, while increasing the value of quarterbacks and wide receivers. For the running back position, this has meant two things:
1. Franchise backs became more valuable - The lack of dominant bell-cow backs has made the remaining few more valuable. Our rankings feature six such backs (seven if your league is not PPR).
2. The depth has never been greater - A side effect of the committee attacks is quantity of runners available to plug into your lineup in a given week has increased. The difference between the 7th - 20th running back is not as big as in previous seasons. Further, breakout candidates are plentiful especially among players ranked between 21 - 32.
NFLDraft101 Running Back Rankings:
Tier I: The Franchise Backs
1. Chris Johnson, Tennessee—Johnson had 2,509 total yards last season, including 2,006 on the ground. The 408 total touches (including 50 receptions) is concerning, but he is just 24. He has tremendous big play ability, but also showed remarkable consistency (11 straight 100+ yard games.). Don't expect another 2,000 yard season, but as the Titans look to manage his workload for a playoff run, he is still the odds-on favorite to lead the league in total yards.
2. Adrian Peterson, Minnesota— Peterson is more of a 1b than a number two. He has had 1,800+ total yards for consecutive seasons. He also led the NFL in rushing touchdowns with 18 in 2010. Expect his receptions and yardage to increase, but touchdowns to decrease as power back Toby Gerhart replaces shifty Chester Taylor.
3. Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville—Jones-Drew proved he was capable of carrying a full-time load with 312 carries in 2009 while gaining 1,765 total yards. He is tremendous around the goal line with 30 combined TDs the past two years. His value increases in PPR league as he has caught 40 or more passes every year of his career. One of our staff members gave MJD a No. 1 vote.
4. Ray Rice, Baltimore—Rice won't catch anyone by surprise this season. He was one of fantasy football's best values in 2009, and he will look to build on that success in 2010. A runner/receiver who puts up Brian Westbrook-like stat lines, Rice put up 2,041 total yards (including 1,339 on the ground) while only having more than 20 carries twice. On the flip-side, he caught three or more passes in 14 games. On the negative side, he plays in a time share which limits his touches, especially at the goal line. Rice is most valuable in PPR leagues.
5. Steven Jackson, St. Louis—Jackson is a top-three talent trapped on a mediocre offense. Jackson is a tremendous combination of power and speed who managed to gain 1,416 rushing yards (1,738 total yards) in 2009, despite playing against defenses geared to shut him down. The Rams' offensive struggles have resulted in just 19 touchdowns the past three years. Jackson's physical style also makes him an injury risk, as he has missed 10 games since 2007. Expect the Rams offense to be slightly better this season, but not enough to move Jackson up the draft board.
6. Frank Gore, San Francisco—Gore is a good runner and underrated receiver who is poised for a big year behind a revamped offensive line and playing for a coach who prefers a strong ground attack. He is more good than great, and has missed two games each of the past two seasons.
Tier II: Good But Not Quite Elite (Yet)
7. Michael Turner, Atlanta—After rushing for 1,699 yards and 17 TDs in 2008, Turner succumbed to the Curse of 370 in 2009 as injuries limited him to 871 yards and 11 games. Expect a bounce-back season from Turner, but keep in mind he exceeded 20 carries in just three of the 11 games in which he played last season. Turner's value drops in PPR leagues as he has caught just six passes the past two years.
8. Shonn Greene, NY Jets—Greene is the most popular breakout back this year. He had 520 yards and averaged 5.0 YPC as a rookie, but it was his 304 playoff yards (5.6 YPC) and departure of Thomas Jones that has generated the buzz. Greene is the clear top back on a run-first team. The lack of track record is a mild concern, but the presence of LT is not. He is a Michael Turner type—good runner, but did not catch a pass in 2009.
9. Rashard Mendenhall, Pittsburgh—Mendenhall gained 1,108 yards in 2009 sharing time with Willie Parker, and will look to show he is the man this season. The Steelers will turn to the ground game early due to Ben Roethlisberger's suspension. But remember, the Steelers offensive line has not been as good in recent years. While Mendenhall has a bigger role and has shown flashes, 503 of his 1,108 yards came against the AFC West (vs. 282 in five AFC North games).
10. Ryan Mathews, San Diego—The Chargers gave up a lot to get their replacement for LT. Mathews is a powerful runner who will look to bring balance back to the Charger offense. Expect him to be the team's lead back from day one. The biggest concern is not Darren Sproles in this case, but the offensive line, which has struggled the past two years. Mathews is as sure a thing as you will find in a rookie.
11. Cedric Benson, Cincinnati—Benson averaged 96 yards per game as he asserted himself as one of the league's workhorse backs in 2009. He wore down late in the season though, and only scored six touchdowns despite the team's focus on the ground game. Benson is not a factor in the passing game, reducing his value in PPR leagues. The 2010 season is also a contract year for Benson.
12. DeAngelo Williams, Carolina—Williams is a game-breaker who has averaged 5.0 yards per carry each of the past three years. Splitting carries with Jonathan Stewart limits his upside and results and generates feast or famine-like results.
Tier III: The Breakout Candidates
13. Beanie Wells, Arizona—The loss of Kurt Warner will likely result in a renewed focus on the ground game in Arizona. What percentage of the carries (and touchdowns) Wells can wrestle away from Tim Hightower will determine whether Wells challenges for 1,200+ or remains below 1,000 yards.
14. Pierre Thomas, New Orleans—Thomas is a good, instinctive runner who is stuck in a time-share, playing on a pass-happy Saints offense. Has the potential for more, but will he get the touches? He only had more than 15 carries just once in 2009.
15. Jamaal Charles, Kansas City— If not for the signing of Thomas Jones, Charles would rank much higher. He is a dangerous playmaker who can go the distance on any play. Look for him to push for 1,600+ total yards, but cede the goal line carries to Thomas Jones. He's an ideal scheme fit in KC.
16. Jonathan Stewart, Carolina—Like DeAngelo Williams, Stewart is a top 10 back who slides due to his time-share status. Williams is the flashier of the two, but Stewart is the more powerful runner, and more likely to get the goal line carries. His power running game could begin to swing the carry pendulum in his direction in 2010. In keeper leagues, Stewart is more valuable than Williams, as he is entering his prime at age 23.
17. LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia—McCoy is shifty runner/receiver, and an ideal fit to replace Brian Westbrook. Andy Reid's offense could limit his carries and goal line touches, but McCoy has the talent to emerge as one of the league leaders in total yardage. He is most valuable in PPR formats.
18. Joseph Addai, Indianapolis—Addai has underachieved for three straight seasons and while a bounce back is possible, losing playing time to Donald Brown is more likely.
19. Knowshon Moreno, Denver—A sleeper candidate, Moreno should get an opportunity to shine as the Broncos lean more on the ground game after the departure of Brandon Marshall. Moreno is also a tremendous receiver out of the backfield in a pass happy offense, thus increasing his value in PPR formats.
20. Ryan Grant, Green Bay—Grant is not flashy and is hardly a factor in the passing game, but he is clearly the number one option for the Packers. He will quietly get you about 1,200 yards and eight to 10 TDs. Grant lacks the upside of some of the players listed ahead of him, but is as safe a No. 2 back as you will find.
Note: NFLDraft101 rankings are based on: one point per 25 yards passing, one point for per 10 yards rushing/receiving, six points per TD (passing, rushing or receiving), one point per reception and minus-two per interception or lost fumble.
Rankings were done by using the averaging of our staff's individual rankings and were based on a single season not a dynasty league.