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Exit Interview: RBs’ ongoing decline leaves many questions

Throughout the week, the Yahoo! fantasy team will review each of the four major positions, with an eye toward 2012 drafts. The plan is to take a Q&A approach. We're looking at trends, sleepers, rookies, free agents, potential busts and breakouts ... it's like an early draft of a position primer, basically. Today we analyze running backs, a group currently undergoing an identity crisis.

Unsurprisingly, in a league where quarterbacks reigned supreme, the devolution of the fantasy running back continued in 2011. Rushers, kingly commodities that recently ruled over the virtual sports world, wore tarnished crowns. As usual, catastrophic injuries (e.g. Jamaal Charles), ineptitude (Chris Johnson) and Lucifer Shanahan, altered team depth charts. So did a continued reliance on timeshares. However, none was more influential than the league's widespread passing obsession.

The NFL's 228.1 passing yards per game per team average was the highest in league history. Clubs threw more, ran less. Teams' 27.3 rushing attempts per game was the second-lowest in nearly 90 years of professional football. Suffice it to say, workhorses remained a vanishing breed.

Of course, new production sources rose from obscurity. They always do. But despite the heroic playoff contributions of August unmentionables, Kevin Smith, Kahlil Bell and Evan Royster, RBs largely took one on the chin, leaving many owners wondering if another beat-down is inevitable in 2012.

Step into the interrogation room, running backs. Enraged fantasy owners demand answers.

Q: Looking at the position as a whole, what's the biggest takeaway from this season?

A: As detailed over the past two years in the RB Primer, the Running Theory (An owner going RB-RB in Rounds 1-2) is deceased. So dead is the outdated strategy, Jimmy Hoffa, allegedly buried somewhere under a mountain of concrete, has better odds of rising from the grave. Not convinced? Check out the chart below:

Exit Interview: RBs’ ongoing decline leaves many questions

Clearly, RB is a position in transition. As the evidence shows, this year marked its lowest point in a decade. The tier-to-tier drop-off, historically the central reason for drafting a RB over a QB, shrunk dramatically. And 300-carry Clydesdales, plentiful just six years ago, continued to inch their way toward extinction. No shock, among Yahoo! MVPs (Players who appeared most often in the top 500 Public League teams), only five of the top-20 were running backs. In other words, diversifying the portfolio early on draft day has become imperative for remaining competitive over the long haul.

That doesn't mean you should completely circumvent elite rushers in Round 1. Because most RBs are largely unreliable after the top-five, value of guys like Arian Foster, LeSean McCoy and Ray Rice is higher than ever. Each deserves strong consideration at No. 1 next year. However, Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton and Drew Brees also need to be included in the conversation.

Q: Similar this season to what Reggie Bush accomplished on South Beach and Darren Sproles on Bourbon Street, what old faces could thrive in new places in 2012?

Michael Bush: Outside Ray Rice, Matt Forte and Marshawn Lynch, Bush will be the most coveted free agent acquisition this offseason. Equipped with rhinoceros brawn, plus burst and excellent hands, he is one of the most underrated three-down backs in the league. With Darren McFadden felled by a sprained foot, the elevated backup took advantage, likely making himself the mint. His 3.8 yards per carry over eight starts was nothing to write home about, but, due to a burdensome workload, he mustered 121.1 total yards per game and splashed pay-dirt five times. Extrapolate that over a full season, and he would've easily ranked inside the position's top-three in per week average. He certainly benefited running behind Oakland's outstanding offensive line, but as the featured player elsewhere (Cleveland anyone?), he would undoubtedly be at the worst a midrange RB1. Pay the man.

Peyton Hillis: It was a forgettable season for the Madden cursed rusher. A balky hamstring, contract distractions and ineffective Browns offense all contributed to his downfall. Picked in Round 2 of most drafts, Hillis didn't even achieve RB2 status. His 9.7 per game average in standard formats ranked No. 25 among rushers. Still, his consecutive 100 total yard efforts against Arizona and Baltimore in Weeks 15 and 16 offered encouragement. In those contests, his locomotive power resurfaced, a trait that was virtually nonexistent for much of the year. Many will label him a one-hit wonder, but he's not quite the Gary Numan of RBs, yet. No doubt he'll slide into the middle rounds next draft season, but, depending where he ends up, Hillis is capable of turning a sizable profit for bargain seekers. It's unlikely, given his style, he'll regain a featured back role. However, even in a platoon, he could be quite useful. Many teams, including fantasy, would covet a goal-line bulldozer with above average hands.

Jason Snelling: Do you Snell what this rock is cooking? The converted fullback, trapped behind Michael Turner for the past four seasons, is definitely a player to keep tabs on during free agency. Like Hillis, he would probably lose a foot race to a corpulent basset hound, but Snelling is a mound mover who's also played well as a dump-off receiver. When pressed into lead duties, he hasn't disappointed. In three career starts, he averaged 67.3 total yards per game and tallied three touchdowns. Because of his lack of explosiveness he will never be a featured back, but in the right system, he could develop into a Mike Tolbert-like goal-line vulture. If he pens a different zip code next season, he'll be one of the more interesting late-round stabs in TD-heavy formats.

Q: DeMarco Murray and Roy Helu made significant splashes in their inaugural campaigns. What rookies should owners keep an eye on in next April's draft?

Trent Richardson, Alabama: Like his former backfield partner, Mark Ingram, Richardson will likely be the first rusher off the board in April. At 5-foot-11, 224-pounds, he is an absolute load to bring down. His weighty frame and above average speed will make him a yards after contact behemoth at the next level. A 6.0 yards per carry and 131.9 yards per game against in the nation's premier collegiate conference says it all. Also equipped with adequate hands and breakaway capabilities, the Doak Walker winner will be an instant upgrade at RB for just about any NFL franchise. Depending upon where he ends up, Richardson will likely be the most desired rookie RB in fantasy drafts next year.

Exit Interview: RBs’ ongoing decline leaves many questionsRobert Turbin, Utah St.: Overlooked because he played in a small conference, Turbin, the WAC's Offensive Player of the Year, is a potential monster in the making. His highlight reels on YouTube are pure fantasy porn. At 5-foot-10, 220-pounds he's an absolute rock who can drive piles, obliterate would-be tacklers and handle a rigorous workload. He's also an above average receiver. Essentially, he's Beast Mode Jr. Turbin, tabbed a Round 3-4 talent according to scouting services, might be the finest NFL draft bargin this April. Watch him closely.

Lamar Miller, Miami: Tough, speedy and strong, the 'U' standout could follow in the footsteps of Edgerrin James and Willis McGahee. The junior rusher is an excellent downhill runner who fights for extra yards and, when given space, is capable of kicking in another gear. He's also an invaluable asset on special teams. Though a shoulder injury marred his early career and he only has two years of college experience, his thick tread shouldn't be viewed as a deterrent. After averaging 106 rushing yards per game and 5.8 yards per carry this season, he is primed for the highest level. In the right situation, he could produce instantly.

Chris Polk, Washington: Polk, one of the more seasoned backs in this year's projected class, is a prototype beast of burden. He's eclipsed 1,100 yards on the ground in each of his past three seasons, averaging 5.1 yards per carry during the stretch. An attacker known for his sharp vision, pounding style and break-tackle ability, he's very difficult to upend. Not to be overlooked, he's also a solid receiver and pass blocker, additional attributes which should help him transition smoothly to the pro game. With one year of eligibility left, Polk is still undecided about his future. But if he comes out, expect his name to climb up team wish-lists as the draft process unfolds.

Montee Ball, Wisconsin: Ball isn't your typical tubby Wisconsin back. He's strong, versatile and explosive. As the Badgers' workhorse he averaged 6.4 yards per carry, accounted for over 2,000 total yards and scored a staggering 38 touchdowns, one shy of tying Barry Sanders' all-time mark for an FBS player. Expect him to shatter it against the Ducks in the Rose Bowl. Simply, the man was an uncontainable TD machine. If the All-American decides to forgo his senior season, he will be one of the most sought after backs in the draft. He doesn't possess elite speed, but he certainly has the make-up of an every-down RB at the next level.

Q: Every late-season a rusher seizes opportunity by the horns then carries momentum over into the following year (e.g. Arian Foster in 2009, Marshawn Lynch/LeGarrette Blount last year). What Decembers should owners remember most?

Roy Helu, Was: Yes, Lucifer Shanahan drinks gasoline and (expletive) fire, but it's hard to dispute the effectiveness of the man's zone-blocking system. When Shany gifts a rusher the full workload, he typically thrives. The rookie is a prime example. Before ankle/foot injuries derailed Helu's breakthrough stretch in Week 16, he pummeled the competition. In five starts, he averaged a sensational 130.2 total yards per game. He also chipped in two scores. Explosive, extremely versatile and strong interiorly, he is a complete back. Tim Hightower's expected departure combined with Shany's confidence in Helu suggest the youngster will enter camp atop the depth chart, though Evan Royster will also be in the mix. Many will avoid him like the plague, but in Round 3, you won't find a rusher with more upside.

Kahlil Bell, Chi: Contract negotiations between Matt Forte and the Bears front office are at a standstill. It's quite possible given the club's general frugality it will apply the franchise tag or, most disturbingly, cut its most important asset loose. Insiders claim some within the organization believe the drop-off from Forte to Bell isn't worth Chris Johnson money. If that happens, Bell could enter 2012 as Chicago's lead back. The undrafted product from UCLA performed admirably down the stretch, displaying great hands and surprising brawn. In two starts he averaged 111.5 total yards per game netting a hefty 5.0 yards per carry. In a featured role, he would be deserving of a mid-level RB2 label, particularly in PPR formats.

Exit Interview: RBs’ ongoing decline leaves many questionsC.J. Spiller, Buf: Earlier in the season, Spiller would've had difficulty penetrating a light fog. But when Fred Jackson was placed on injured reserve in November, the second-year back remarkably transformed into Thurman Thomas circa 1990. He exhibited terrific versatility and, shockingly, ran with conviction between the tackles, picking up large chunks of yards after contact. His 3.0 yards after contact per attempt was ninth-best among rushers. From Weeks 12-16, his 15.5 per game output in standard formats checked in at No. 9 among RBs. Without a doubt he was a playoff-difference-maker. Jackson's return combined with Chan Gailey's view of Spiller as a 12-15 touch back certainly dampens the rusher's 2012 outlook. Still, he silenced his critics and likely carved out a larger offensive role for next season. He will be one of the more intriguing mid-round RBs in 12-team drafts come August.

Donald Brown, Ind: About midway through 2011, Jim Caldwell noted Brown had found his "niche." The former first-round pick, previously hindered by myriad injuries and a nagging case of fumbilitis, finally tapped into potential. Featured more prominently in Weeks 12-15, he averaged 96.5 total yards per game and scored three touchdowns, a laudable output considering the Colts' miserable offensive situation. With Peyton Manning expected back next year, Brown should enter 2012 as the primary back. Joseph Addai is just about cooked and Delone Carter, though talented, is still rough around the edges. Because of Indy's devotion to a RBBC, Brown isn't without risk, but he will be a heavily discounted "starter" capable of turning a massive profit.

Toby Gerhart, Min: For Adrian Peterson to return to action Week 1 his rehab must be seamless. It's very likely the former rush king will wind up on the PUP list. If that happens, Gerhart could open 2012 as the Vikings starter, a role he excelled in late in 2011. In four starts he compiled 95.8 total yards per game and scored two touchdowns. He also averaged a stout 4.4 yards per carry. Strong between the tackles, deceptively quick and sure-handed, he's better than advertised. Peterson will be the unquestioned starter when healthy, but Gerhart is a more than serviceable RB2 who could pay a handsome early season dividend.

Finally, here's an insanely early look at the RB top-30 heading into the Year of the Dragon.


Follow Brad on Twitter @YahooNoise.

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Images courtesy of US Presswire and AP

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