Position Primer: Running Back

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Survey the fantasy landscape and it’s impossible not to notice how far and wide ripple effects created by the RB apocalypse have stretched. The once lush range, handsomely populated with well-fed, burly beasts of burden only a few short seasons ago, lays virtually barren. Today, fewer than 10 tireless workhorses dot the landscape. The days dominated by Curtis Martin, Edgerrin James(notes) and Priest Holmes(notes) are long in the past.

Mathews steps into a fantasy-friendly system.
(Gregory Bull/AP)

As pundits and experienced players have continuously stressed over the past few seasons, the dramatic shift across the league from traditional balanced offenses to pass-centric systems has attacked conventional draft concepts. Due to an emphasis on versatility and durability, common blue collar backs, gas guzzlers who work tooth and nail to move the chains and wear down opponents, have been replaced by more efficient hybrid models. To coaches calling the shots from the sidelines it’s a move necessary to preserve vitality over a prolonged season. However, to the Cheetos-consuming fanatic watching Red Zone from the couch, platoons are the bane of their fantasy playing existence.

Enter first-round picks Ryan Mathews(notes) and Jahvid Best(notes).

In a post-apocalyptic world dominated by timeshares and spread offenses, the Lightning Bolt from heaven is John Connor, Mad Max and Tallahassee rolled into one – a man destined to save the virtual game from the clutches of quarterbacks. Fellow rookie sidekick Best, an explosive, multipurpose back who Jim Schwartz admitted moves his man meter, could also help in the rescue. They are the youthful, hard-working saviors the position sorely needs.

Mathews and Best, both blessed with All-Pro pedigrees, enter into ideal circumstances where carries and scoring opportunities will be aplenty. Though high-profiled rookie rushers are often times a crapshoot (see Beanie Wells(notes) last year), 2010’s ballyhooed tandem could leave an indelible mark similar to Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch(notes) in 2007. Based on the pair’s aggressive ADP numbers (Mathews: 16.47, Best: 37.20), it’s understandable why many owners are drooling over their RB1 upside like tween girls at a Justin Bieber concert.

But can this dynamic duo really save the position?

Look at the chart below:


*Bust#= Number of preseason top 12 backs that failed to finish in the RB top 15
*FRate% = percentage of RBs that failed to fulfill RB1 (or close to) expectations

As you can clearly see, selecting either unproven rusher, or any back for that matter, doesn’t come without risk. The failure rate over the past five seasons among declared RB1s is close to 50 percent. Early round running backs outside the established aristocracy (e.g. Chris Johnson, Adrian Peterson, Maurice Jones-Drew(notes), Ray Rice(notes), Frank Gore(notes) and Michael Turner(notes)) are volatile assets one fumble, shredded tendon or Kubiak encounter away from fantasy bankruptcy. Ask any owner who shells out significant greenbacks for a mid-to-late-first round plowshare (e.g. Steven Jackson, Rashard Mendenhall(notes), Jamaal Charles(notes) or Mathews) and they’ll tell you an unforeseen collapse is certainly a possibility. Essentially, RBs, the foundation of outdated draft strategies, are the ultimate high-risk, high-reward picks. This explains why handcuffing has been a popular drafting tactic for decades. There simply aren’t any guarantees.

Due to these uncertainties and the abundance of mid-to-late round gems that are always uncovered – top 15 performers Charles, Mendenhall, Ricky Williams(notes) and Cedric Benson(notes) were selected between picks 80 and 160 in average 12-team formats last year; Arian Foster(notes) (ADP: 112.9), Michael Bush(notes) (88.0), Ahmad Bradshaw(notes) (80.4) and Montario Hardesty(notes) (102.0) could reach similar heights this year – it’s no wonder many owners are diversifying portfolios earlier in drafts than ever before. Dependability has become the measuring stick for assessing a player’s true overall worth.

Mathews and Best have the skills and, most importantly, the situation to inject new life into the position. But in an ever-growing RB wasteland, going QB or WR after pick No. 6 might be the key to survival.

Running Back – Tiers
 – Chris Johnson, Adrian Peterson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Ray Rice, Michael Turner, Frank Gore

 – Steven Jackson, DeAngelo Williams(notes), Rashard Mendenhall, Shonn Greene(notes), Ryan Mathews

 – Jamaal Charles, Cedric Benson, Beanie Wells, Ryan Grant(notes), Pierre Thomas(notes), Jahvid Best, Jonathan Stewart(notes), Ronnie Brown(notes)

 – Knowshon Moreno(notes), LeSean McCoy(notes), Joseph Addai(notes), Matt Forte(notes), Felix Jones(notes)

 – Thomas Jones(notes), Michael Bush, Reggie Bush(notes), Brandon Jacobs(notes), Justin Forsett(notes), Ricky Williams, Ahmad Bradshaw, Marion Barber(notes), Fred Jackson(notes), Jerome Harrison(notes), Montario Hardesty, C.J. Spiller(notes), Ben Tate(notes), Arian Foster, Carnell Williams(notes), Clinton Portis(notes)

 – Donald Brown(notes), Steve Slaton(notes), Laurence Maroney(notes), Tim Hightower(notes), LaDainian Tomlinson(notes), Chester Taylor(notes), Willis McGahee(notes), Darren McFadden(notes), Darren Sproles(notes), Marshawn Lynch, Larry Johnson(notes), Correll Buckhalter(notes), Derrick Ward(notes), Mike Bell(notes)

Top 5 Running Backs – Undervalued

Brad Evans
1.) Jahvid Best – An absolute beast in the making. His explosiveness and versatility should thrive in an improved Lions offense. True RB1 upside at RB2 cost.
2.) Jonathan Stewart – 11 total TDs pushed him to the cusp of the RB top 10 last year. In the name of Tim Biakabutuka, why is he going on average at pick 43.6?
3.) Arian Foster – It’s hard for owners to forget his Week 14 disaster, but he possesses better than advertised skills to emerge from Houston’s backfield fray.
4.) Michael Bush – McFadden is a McFake. Bush’s brawn and flexibility label him an ideal fit for the Raiders’ smash-mouth system.
5.) Fred Jackson – Competition for carries, bad O-line, awful passing game are unattractive, but he totaled over 1,400 yards in a similar situation a year ago.

Brandon Funston
1.) Marion Barber – Barber has shown us that less can be more, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he produces more fantasy points than Felix Jones despite a “backup” role.
2.) Michael Bush – In the words of Dick Vitale, the Michael Bush vs. Darren McFadden position battle is a “NC – no contest, baby!”
3.) Justin Forsett – He’s cat quick, sneaky strong and does all the little things that coaches love. He should wind up pushing 15 touches per week.
4.) Clinton Portis – He’s now a draft-day afterthought, but he’s running as the clear lead in the Redskins backfield, and he’s only a year removed from a 1,487-yard rushing campaign.
5.) Joseph Addai – He’s averaged right at 1,200 yards from scrimmage and 11 TDs in his four seasons, yet you can consistently land him outside the top 20 RBs on draft day.

Scott Pianowski
1.) Michael Bush – Every time I see him play, I come away impressed. And I have absolutely no faith in his running mate, Darren McFadden.
2.) Ryan Grant – He’s not really outstanding in any one area, but he’s good at a lot of things and the Green Bay offense is a great one to tag along with.
3.) Cedric Benson – He’s proven his mettle and the offensive line here is still excellent. Stop the hate, Benson is (egads) a safe pick.
4.) Justin Forsett – Hopefully it won’t take the new regime that long to figure out that Forsett is its best back.
5.) Clinton Portis – He came to camp like a guy who knows it’s his last shot. Don’t worry about chasing him on draft day – most of your opponents have written him off. I have a gut feeling he’ll be one of the veteran surprises of the year.

Top 5 Running Backs – Overvalued

Brad Evans
1.) Rashard Mendenhall – My unhealthy feelings for Rashard are obvious, but Big Ben and Colon’s absences along with tough schedule are Round 1 deterrents.
2.) DeAngelo Williams – Stewart’s expanding role and influence at the goal line imply D-Will is more of a top-flight RB2, not mid-level RB1.
3.) Cedric Benson – He’ll once again shoulder a bag of bricks, but can we trust he will stave off the injury imp? Count your lucky stars if he plays 13 games.
4.) Ronnie Brown – Only Brett Favre’s(notes) ego is more fragile. Missed four games per season in injury-plagued career. No thanks, even in Round 3.
5.) Knowshon Moreno – Another back quickly gaining a brittle reputation. Hamstring setback could linger. Broncos offensive line/passing game lackluster. Pass.

Brandon Funston
1.) Jamaal Charles – Let me just say this: I’m a huge fan of his talent. But I loathe a situation in which he is being forced into a RBBC with Thomas Jones.
2.) Knowshon Moreno – Looked pedestrian for Denver last season – had just two runs of 20-plus yards despite 247 carries. I don’t see a lot of upside to his game.
3.) C.J. Spiller – Unfortunately, his collegiate highlight reel doesn’t count for anything in the NFL. Fact is, Buffalo is a horrible landing spot – cold weather, brutal division, loaded backfield, awful passing game.
4.) Jerome Harrison – What he did in the final three weeks of ’09 is something that a multitude of NFL backs could have done given the same matchups and number of carries (35 per game average). Once Hardesty gets his health back, I expect him to overtake Harrison on the depth chart.
5.) Felix Jones – Easy to understand the fascination with his speed and expected starting role, but he’s getting a bit too much love given that he’s missed 12 of 32 games in his career because of leg injuries – and his knee has already flared up once in camp.

Scott Pianowski
1.) Shonn Greene – I love him as a runner and obviously the Jets line is outstanding, but Greene has no pass-catching skills and LT will steal some of the sugar.
2.) Steven Jackson – He’s played one full season out of six, isn’t that supposed to worry us?
3.) Beanie Wells – Those breakaway runs look so good but there are issues here. Can he hold onto the ball? Can he pass block well enough to play on third down? Can he stay healthy? And will Arizona’s offense be any good without Kurt Warner(notes) and Anquan Boldin(notes)?
4.) Jonathan Stewart – He’ll be a stud if DeAngelo Williams gets hurt again, but I don’t understand why Stewart is being drafted ahead of so many starting backs.
5.) Brandon Jacobs – He’s a round more expensive than Ahmad Bradshaw, which still doesn’t look right to me. Jacobs can’t catch the ball and can’t seem to stay healthy.
Top 5 Running Backs – Rookies

Brad Evans
1.) Ryan Mathews – Hidden in Fresno he dominated the college scene, averaging over 6.0 ypc. Despite O-line concerns, he will be a studly RB1.
2.) Jahvid Best – Excellent blend of speed and versatility could lead to 1,400 total yard, 7-9 TD season.
3.) Montario Hardesty – Knee setback only a temporary derailment. His between-the-tackles muscle is a natural fit in Cleveland. Sorry Harrison supporters.
4.) C.J. Spiller – Prolonged holdout further hurt his already suspect value. If only he was anywhere but Buffalo. Still a fine RB3 in PPR leagues.
5.) Ben Tate – Far behind Foster and Slaton on the Texans depth chart, but interior strength should push him into goal-line work at some point this year.

Brandon Funston
1.) Ryan Mathews – Not much to be said here. He inherits a featured job for a head coach that is fantasy-friendly to RBs.
2.) Jahvid Best – He’s electric in a Barry Sanders kind of way. The big question is if he can take an NFL lickin’ and keep on tickin’.
3.) Montario Hardesty – The twisted knee is a setback, but he was drafted with the idea that he could be the Browns’ featured back.
4.) C.J. Spiller – Simply put, he’s in a less-than-ideal situation in Buffalo.
5.) Ben Tate – This all about potential/upside because, frankly, none of us know what Gary Kubiak is going to do.

Scott Pianowski
1.) Ryan Mathews – Norv Turner loves to feed stats to his featured back and Mathews is working hard to be a full-purpose player as well. I’ll be stunned if Mathews isn’t very good in his first year. Go get him.
2.) C.J. Spiller – He signed late, the line in Buffalo sucks, and Fred Jackson isn’t a bad back. Otherwise, everything’s fine.
3.) Jahvid Best – Love the skill set here, they just need to keep him healthy. The Lions will take a modest step forward in 2010, largely due to the offense.
4.) Ben Tate – Remember, Gary Kubiak is from the Mike Shanahan school; the muddled Houston backfield might be a thorn in our side all year.
5.) Montario Hardesty – Hate to see a knee setback during his first camp, a critical time for a rookie. Jerome Harrison looks like a reasonable value to me, and he’s more versatile as well.