When May hits, my thoughts turn to scheduling the fantasy drafts before people get to busy over the summer, and of course, beginning to formulate my thoughts on the season that hopefully will occur. Today, I’m going to start with the Running Backs and try to cover other positions over the next several weekends. This list is entirely based on my own initial projections and thoughts. There are many excellent people that I like to compare, like the guys at Footballguys and Evan Silva, Gregg Rosenthal and Chris Wesseling at Rotoworld, but I didn’t want to pollute this list with anyone else’s ideas or by seeing where the consensus was placing players before I took a crack at it.
Age, team productivity out of the running back position, and my early guesses on how the opportunities will be divided play a role here, but we obviously don’t know several free agent situations and teams that may release players for contractual reasons. This list will change as we learn more, but here it is, these are the first 24 running backs, and I’ll run 25-48 separately because I spent too much time on these comments. Oh, and these rankings are based on yardage leagues but no points per reception, so adjust guys slightly if they are reception dependent.
- Adrian Peterson, Minnesota (age 26; Last year: #3). Hard to go wrong with Adrian Peterson at the top, still in his prime, with little competition, and on pure running ability, I like him to shine even with a rookie quarterback.
- Jamaal Charles, Kansas City (age 25: Last year: #4). I’ve been bullish on Charles since before he took over for LJ, and while I think KC’s overall rushing numbers will decline a little with the schedule and just because they were so outlandish last year, I expect the bigger dropoff to come for 33 year old Jones. Charles actually has upside to get more touches, and score more touchdowns. Despite having numerous long runs and being a first down machine, he only had one rushing touchdown in the regular season over 5 yards. Expect a few of those breakaways to turn into more than 5 rushing td’s in 2011.
- Arian Foster, Houston (age 25, Last year: #1). He was the clear #1 back last year following his opening day explosion, and I just want to see how he follows it up. I wouldn’t blame anyone for having him #1 on their board. High percentage of touches and a receiver on a good passing offense with a poor defense is a great combo.
- Chris Johnson, Tennessee (age 26, Last year: #5). He struggled at times last year as teams loaded up on him. This is another situation where a rookie quarterback is stepping in, which would ordinarily mean a downgrade, but the QB situation was so unstable last year it should be improved (Rusty Smith game, anyone?)
- Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville (age 26, Last year: #12). Still in his prime, still likely to see lots of action and useful as both a runner and receiver.
- Darren McFadden, Oakland (age 24, Last year: #6). My last back in Tier 1, McFadden has tremendous upside and I could easily make an argument for him being the first back taken based on his age, talent, and receiving numbers.
- Ray Rice, Baltimore (age 24, Last year: #11). Rice is steady, the lower touchdown numbers keep him a tick below for me, but the top back of the next tier.
- Ryan Matthews, San Diego (age 24, Last year: #30). Matthews was the hot pick last year, and I thought he was overvalued entering the season. I suspect he has a chance to be on my roster this year, though, as the Chargers put up great rushing numbers in an underachieving season, but Matthews himself was slowed by injury in his rookie year. Big Upside Play.
- Peyton Hillis, Cleveland (age 25, Last year: #2). I don’t believe in Madden Curses, but I am concerned that the Browns were the only team to have only one rusher gain more than 100 yards all season. That probably won’t continue, and I also tend to worry about big backs declining faster if they take alot of punishment and deliver it.
- Johnathan Stewart, Carolina (age 24, Last year: #34). This projection is based on DeAngelo Williams leaving and Stewart, who has battled nagging injuries the last two years, becoming the clear lead guy for the Panthers. Still a huge talent and still only 24 years old.
- Rashard Mendenhall, Pittsburgh (age 24, Last year: #7). I suspect I’m lower than most on Mendenhall, but a) he’s not a great receiver or heavily utilized in the passing game, and b) his value is somewhat tied in opportunities, where he ranked 4th in attempts in 2010. If the Steelers regress at all in the number of games in which they are holding leads, he falls off out of the elite tier.
- LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia (age 23, Last year: #8). McCoy is probably a pretty safe pick to get a decent amount of yards, but I don’t think he has top 5 upside as a dynamic talent.
- Steven Jackson, St. Louis (age 28, Last year: #14). Jackson has been such a workhorse, and just as he is about to enter the age when many backs begin to decline and not be able to carry as heavy a load, his team is improving. He may get more TD opportunities but see his touches reduced.
- Ahmad Bradshaw, NY Giants (age 25, Last year: #13). I would have Ahmad higher if I didn’t have downside concerns about his ability to stay out of the dog house from time to time.
- DeAngelo Williams, Likely Free Agent (age 28, Last year: #61). I’m a big DeAngelo fan, and I’ll be interested in seeing where he ends up. This is a place holder spot pending finding out what team he is playing for in 2011, as I don’t think the foot injury last year should be a long term concern, and wherever he ends will have to have a better quarterback situation than the interception fest that was Delhomme in 2010, and the abyss that was 2011.
- Jahvid Best, Detroit (age 22, Last year: #23). Best played through a turf toe injury that limited him as a rookie, and is still only 22. If healthy, he can be explosive, and I expect the Lions to continue to improve, and the addition of Leshoure to expand the yardage total in Detroit even if it cuts into the touches a little.
- Knowshon Moreno, Denver (age 24, Last year: #18). Denver really struggled to run it last year, but Moreno is the clear starter, and is still young enough to emerge, and has a new coaching staff that likes to run the ball.
- Michael Turner, Atlanta (age 29, Last year: #9). Here’s another where I suspect I’m lower than most. My issues are his age, as a lot of big backs have tended to decline at about 28-29, along with the fact he is non-existent in the passing game, and Atlanta is coming off a 13 win season and likely to regress in number of rushing attempts. Add in the addition of a different back like Jacquizz Rodgers who could provide a different dimension, and I think there is alot of downside risk to relying on Turner as more than an RB2 in 2011.
- LeGarrette Blount, Tampa Bay (age 25, Last year: #24). I don’t trust Blount enough to have him higher, but Tampa should, on the whole, produce above average running back production.
- C.J. Spiller, Buffalo (age 24, Last year: #60). Here’s one I’m probably higher than the consensus. Some will write him off after his rookie year, and this projection obviously assumes that Spiller, and not the 30-year old Fred Jackson, gets the majority of the production in 2011, which is something to keep an eye on in camp. Spiller had a disappointing rookie year as a runner, but is a good receiver, and was explosive as a returner. For what it’s worth, only three other first round picks in the last 30 years had fewer than 400 rushing yards as a rookie, but more than 800 return yards: Deuce McAllister, Troy Stradford, and Paul Palmer. While Stradford and Palmer weren’t great by any means, those three combined to finish as RB7, RB9, and RB23 in their second seasons. I think Spiller joins that group and becomes a bigger part of the offense.
- Mark Ingram, New Orleans (age 22, Rookie). I’m guessing that he is going to have a lot of hype by draft time. I think he will be the #1 back in New Orleans, but I am concerned about projecting any rookie to get 300+ carries, and I don’t know how the breakdown will be yet. It’s a good offensive situation, but we don’t know if, like a lot of rookies, he will go through some growing pains with injuries and getting used to the grind of the NFL, and whether he will be utilized enough in passing game to justify going higher. This is one that I will watch in the preseason.
- Matt Forte, Chicago (age 26, Last year: #10). Forte is who we thought he was. He’s a safe pick in this range, as no one else on that roster will displace him barring a serious injury. He also is a bad goalline runner, which limits his touchdowns, and is a middling talent that isn’t getting any younger. I had him last year because he was undervalued, but I’m guessing not this year. He’ll probably go as a late RB1, but I wouldn’t want him there.
- Felix Jones, Dallas (age 24, Last year: #26). Dallas should put up decent rushing numbers, and Jones is still young enough to take over as the guy to get a majority of that.
- Frank Gore, San Francisco (age 28, Last year: #20). He’s been slowed by injuries in recent years, is turning 28, and the team just drafted Kendall Hunter as a guy who I really like to make an impact at some point in the NFL. Oh, and there’s a new coaching staff. He’ll stil be the starter and can be a matchup start from week to week, but I think there is downside risk to expecting more than that.
I’ll get to #25 through #48 next time. The four guys who were top 20 last year but not on this list are Benjarvus Green-Ellis (questions about NE distribution in 2011), LaDainian Tomlinson (age and concerns about more reduced role in 2011), Cedric Benson (2nd in carries means heavily reliant on opportunity to hold value, turning 29, wasn’t very good in 2010), and Mike Tolbert (those numbers are going to Mathews if healthy).
[photo via Getty]