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Position Primer: Running Back

Brad Evans
Yahoo Sports

Also see: Handcuff Hierarchy | RB Ranks | QB Primer | WR Primer | TE Primer

If Charles Darwin was in his intellectual prime and the NFL gridiron replaced the Galapagos as his natural observation lab, running backs, not finches, would've been the central subject of evolutionary science.

Evidence of the constantly changing backfield landscape is overwhelming and practically undebatable.

Even most staunch counter-evolutionists in Kansas, sans a certain diamond-cutting back located in the northeastern part of the state, would agree.

The traditional RB-RB-Best available strategy is experiencing a slow, painful death. Because of the implementation of numerous platoons and spread systems, along with general injury concerns, the will of obtuse running theorists is being tested, and largely defeated. Don't expect the tide shift to decline anytime soon.

More and more teams are turning to committees as a preventative measure from player fatigue and excessive "questionable" labels. For example, the Dallas Cowboys, which planned for Marion Barber(notes) to dominate carries heading into last season, are likely to institute a three-headed timeshare this year. Running backs coach Skip Peete's words summarized the reason for the switch best:

"It's based on packages and plays. I think it's more about series. It could be the start of the game and we say we want to do this, and if Felix (Jones) or Marion (Barber) don't fit that, they might not be in there. Now, to have a true starter, we more than likely will have a true starter, but I will probably say they will all play. Hopefully, they will all play equal, so they will all be fresh."

Pete's "fresh" perspective is relatively common throughout the league. Maybe someday coaches will force players to rest in vacuum-sealed chambers to guarantee optimal readiness.

In fantasy terms, the change in popular perception is completely justifiable. Just six short years ago, a mere six of the first 24 players selected in average drafts were something other than a running back. Last season, 11 weren't of backfield origin. Industry pundits and game novices alike steadfastly believe running backs outside the elite tier are becoming increasingly risky investments. Most concur volatility is the norm at RB, not the exception.

As examined in last year's RB Primer, with '08 the exception, the extinction of 300-carry backs directly correlates with a downturn in the position's overall production. Check out the chart below:

Year 300C 250C RBBCs 13.0 FPPG TDiff
2002 9 19 9 14 -15.2
2003 13 16 12 14 -13.7
2004 9 17 11 17 -13.4
2005 10 17 14 16 -12.6
2006 10 17 13 12 -15.2
2007 6 12 13 10 -8.8
2008 5 16 13 14 -7.6

300C = Number of backs with 300-plus carries
250C = Number of backs with 250-plus carries
RBBCs = Number of running back by committees in given year
13.0 FPPG = Number of RBs that averaged 13.0-plus fantasy points per game
TDiff = PPG difference from the No. 1 to No. 24 rated back
*Based on standard yardage scoring (6 pts/rush TD, 1 pt/10 rushing/receiving yds, 0 points per reception)

Based on the information above, two concrete observations can be made: 1) Across-the-board running back scoring has become more balanced, 2) Due to workhorse scarcity, top-flight rushers (i.e. Peterson, Forte, Turner and Jones-Drew) are more valuable at their position, but when compared to quarterbacks and receivers their value has decreased somewhat.

As a result of the more leveled playing field, mid-round bargains have become more prevalent. For example, nine of the top 20 backs form '08 – Thomas Jones(notes), Ronnie Brown(notes), LenDale White(notes), Matt Forte(notes), Kevin Smith(notes), Pierre Thomas(notes), Steve Slaton(notes), DeAngelo Williams and Chris Johnson – were selected on average in the fourth round or later in standard 12-team drafts. Obviously, last year's rookie RB class was arguably one of the finest to enter the professional ranks in several years, but multiple unheralded rushers, regardless of experience, could catapult into the upper-ranks this year. Notable names Knowshon Moreno(notes), Derrick Ward(notes), Felix Jones(notes), Ray Rice(notes), Cedric Benson(notes), Donald Brown(notes), Rashard Mendenhall(notes), LeSean McCoy(notes) and Fred Jackson(notes) are just a few pigskin handlers who could surprise.

Ultimately, in this survival-of-the-fittest game, strategic evolution is imperative. It's time to abandon the outdated running theory.

Here are the flames, lames and poppin' hot fresh names at running back this season:

Running Back – Tiers
Adrian Peterson, Michael Turner(notes), Maurice Jones-Drew(notes), Matt Forte
Steven Jackson, LaDainian Tomlinson(notes), DeAngelo Williams(notes), Frank Gore(notes), Steve Slaton, Brian Westbrook(notes), Brandon Jacobs(notes), Chris Johnson
Clinton Portis(notes), Ronnie Brown, Marion Barber, Ryan Grant(notes), Pierre Thomas, Kevin Smith
Thomas Jones, Joseph Addai(notes), Larry Johnson(notes), Reggie Bush(notes), Marshawn Lynch(notes), Willie Parker(notes), Darren McFadden(notes), Jonathan Stewart(notes), LenDale White, Derrick Ward, Knowshon Moreno
Ray Rice, Chris Wells(notes), Jamal Lewis(notes), Felix Jones, Cedric Benson, Donald Brown, Le'Ron McClain(notes), Fred Jackson, Julius Jones(notes), Darren Sproles(notes), Rashard Mendenhall, Chester Taylor(notes), Earnest Graham(notes), Ahmad Bradshaw(notes), Jerious Norwood(notes), LeSean McCoy, Leon Washington(notes)
Michael Bush(notes), T.J. Duckett(notes), Tim Hightower(notes), Shonn Greene(notes), Sammy Morris(notes), Fred Taylor(notes), Laurence Maroney(notes), Kevin Faulk(notes), Correll Buckhalter(notes), Jamaal Charles(notes), Willis McGahee(notes), Ricky Williams(notes), Jerome Harrison(notes)
Top 5 Running Backs – Overall

Andy Behrens

Brandon Funston

Brad Evans
1.) Adrian Peterson – All Day is the game's most talented back, period. He should be winnin' this thing 80/20. 1.) Maurice Jones-Drew – You'll find my 250 words on why Jones-Drew should be the top RB here. 1.) Adrian Peterson – Not nearly the clear-cut top taco many think he is, but explosiveness and galactic week-by-week upside unmatched.
2.) Maurice Jones-Drew – MJD has averaged 13 TDs per season while in a job-share. The projected workload increase in '09 vaults him into the top-three, easy. 2.) Adrian Peterson – In baseball, he'd be considered the ultimate five-tool talent, but I worry a bit about injury risk, lack of receiving work and good, but not great, TD production. 2.) Matt Forte – Expected decrease in workload a positive after joint-punishing 379 touches a season ago. Even with 300 total touches, he's a true Monster of the Midway with Jay Cutler(notes) spreading defenses thin.
3.) Matt Forte – His second season will absolutely be better than the first. Cutler changes the game plan for opposing Ds. 3.) Michael Turner – He cashed in on a huge workload last year and, considering his low mileage after serving four years as LT's backup, there's no reason to think he can't do it once again in '09. 3.) Michael Turner – 370-carries curse inapplicable due to previous light workload. He'll surrender a few totes, but should exceed 300 carries easily.
4.) Michael Turner – Don't be distracted by the other enhancements in Atlanta. The Burner remains a high-volume ball carrier with 15-20 TD potential. 4.) LaDainian Tomlinson – Despite nagging turf toe in '08, finished No. 7 among RBs in fantasy, and he played 16 games for seventh time in eight seasons; Norv Turner touting him for a big role in '09, and you can count on LT being ready (I'm not sure that anyone better prepares than LT). 4.) Maurice Jones-Drew – Oompa Loompa dumpa dee doo, MJD is tastier than chicken cordon bleu. Extrapolate last year's totals with 275 touches: 1,475 total yards, 16 touchdowns
5.) Steven Jackson – You can't deny the talent, you love the workload. The big problem: Injuries. S-Jax has missed eight games over the past two seasons. 5.) Matt Forte – He jumps to No. 2 on my list in PPR formats, and he'll be rock solid in non-PPR formats too, especially with Cutler diverting some attention away from him. 5.) DeAngelo Williams – More difficult schedule definitely worrisome, but rigid offensive line and electric versatility will do significant damage with roughly 17-20 touches per game.
Top 5 Running Backs – Overvalued

Andy Behrens

Brandon Funston

Brad Evans
1.) LaDainian Tomlinson – LT2 is an all-time talent. Let's be clear about that. But he's suffered three significant injuries over 18 months and suddenly presents risk. 1.) Derrick Ward – He's often being drafted as a RB2, but the set-up isn't as good as it was in NY, he'll continue to share the load and he remains unlikely to get goal-line totes. 1.) Joseph Addai – Because he would likely leave a touch football game on a gurney, the former fantasy first rounder is completely avoidable. Donald Brown permanently replaces him by midseason.
2.) Thomas Jones – He's the No. 18 running back in terms of ADP, yet only 23 in the ranks. Shonn Greene is the future here. 2.) Thomas Jones – Given that he's grumpy about his contract, there's stiff competition (Washington/Greene) for carries, and there's extreme inexperience at QB, there's no way I'm buying this soon-to-be 31-year-old coming off a career year. 2.) Chris Wells – Already living up to doughboy soft reputation after failing to survive his first full practice as a pro. Delicate downside and Cardinals' air-heavy system scream pass at pick 60.
3.) Marshawn Lynch – Beast Mode will be suspended until Week 4, giving Fred Jackson a significant opportunity. Lynch could return as a committee member. 3.) Willie Parker – Simply not built for the prolonged pounding that he's absorbed the past four years (already dealing with a sore shoulder in camp); I'll put his over/under on games played at 11. 3.) Marion Barber – Implementation of Smash, Dash and Tash, could curtail workload dramatically. Closer task laudable, but he's overvalued in the mid-second.
4.) Julius Jones – Every year, people find a reason to get interested in Julius. How's that worked out? There's no way he'll be the goal line back. 4.) Joseph Addai – Addai is coming off knee surgery and the Colts took a RB in the first round of the draft – there's a very good chance he'll be in a straight platoon by the holidays, a time when it matters most for fantasy owners. 4.) Thomas Jones – Geriatric age and presence of Leon Washington/Shonn Greene major deterrents. Netting his fifth-straight 1,000-yard season is highly improbable.
5.) Cedric Benson – Wherever you ranked him, it's too high. We've covered this ground before. 5.) Marshawn Lynch – There's already a three-DNP guarantee; if Fred Jackson and Dominic Rhodes(notes) impress in the Beast's absence, expect them to continue factoring into the mix at Lynch's expense. 5.) Willis McGahee – Former RB2 reputation the only reason why owners are clinging to the past. McCoy, Ray Rice, Jackson, Rashard Mendenhall more formidable options going after McGahee.
Top 5 Running Backs – Undervalued

Andy Behrens

Brandon Funston

Brad Evans
1.) Ronnie Brown – The O-line has improved, it's a contract year, Brown will have a featured role, and he's been an elite fantasy back before. It's an ideal set-up. 1.) Ronnie Brown – Now a safe distance removed from the ACL injury, he's expected to take on a larger role (at Ricky Williams' expense) in a season in which he'll be playing for a new contract. 1.) Pierre ThomasAdded lower body bulk, work ethic and entrenched goal-line role means the PT Cruiser turned Bruiser will yield a Round 1 value at a Round 3 price.
2.) Darren McFadden – He's a forgotten man in drafts, but he'll be a do-everything back for Oakland. Don't forget: 4.3 speed, 230 total yards in Weeks 1-2 in '08. 2.) LaDainian Tomlinson – Trust me, he's gonna burn those that don't believe there are exceptions to the 30-year-old-RB-falling-off-a-cliff rule. 2.) LeSean McCoyDrawing rave reviews early in camp, the well-rounded rookie is in a pristine situation. Brian Westbrook's magnet for the injury imp should net the Pitt product at least 2-3 starts. That's serious value for a Round 8-9 asset.
3.) Larry Johnson – LJ has had a refreshingly quiet offseason. With an ADP in the 50s, there's little risk. He averaged 4.5 YPC last year, not that anyone noticed. 3.) Ray Rice – Going undrafted regularly in Yahoo! drafts, Rice is running as the top dog in camp for one of the most run-heavy teams in the league. 3.) Felix Jones – Flashed glimpses of future stardom averaging an insane 8.1 ypc on 30 carries last year. Frenetic Felix should entire '09 netting at least 12-15 touches per contest. - 80.7 ADP is highway robbery.
4.) Ray Rice – No team ran more than the Ravens last year, and you can expect a similar game plan in '09. All the offseason reports on Rice have been stellar. 4.) Rashard Mendenhall – As mentioned (above) in the "Overvalued" section, I just don't see Parker being able to physically own the Steelers' backfield role. 4.) Fred Jackson – Upholding of Marshawn Lynch's suspension rubber stamps three week starting gig. Matchups are tough (at NE, TB, NO), but his spectacular versatility can be difficult for defenses to contain.
5.) Rookies – There's always a rookie (or three) who breaks out and becomes a first-rounder in his second season. We're too conservative in the ranks, every year. (Not a bad segue, eh? Read on...) 5.) Earnest Graham – Very solid, useful veteran will likely factor into backfield mix more than many expect, and he could be the one TB turns to at the goal line. 5.) Kevin Smith – Unfairly sliding into fourth round simply because of the jersey on his back. Scott Linehan's revamped power game and Smith's prominent role in passing attack arrows to potential 1400 total yards 7-11 TDs.
Top 5 Running Backs – Rookies

Andy Behrens

Brandon Funston

Brad Evans
1.) Knowshon Moreno – He's the most talented back in the rookie class, though he'll need to emerge from a pile-up of former handcuffs and waiver adds. 1.) Knowshon Moreno – He has a full fantasy toolbox, but I'm not going to fool myself into thinking he'll be fully-featured by a former New England offensive coordinator. 1.) Donald Brown – Balanced game, intelligence and favorable situation enticing pluses for any owner. Based on his situation and skill set, he will exceed mid-round ADP by Week 10.
2.) Chris Wells – Getting injured in your first NFL practice is hardly the ideal way to shed an injury-prone label. Still, Wells is the most talented back in town. 2.) Donald Brown – Has a very well-rounded game and should pick up the NFL game quickly; Addai not suited to a fully-featured role. 2.) Knowshon Moreno – Needs to sign quickly to solidify presumed No. 1 job. But Josh McDaniels' slue of options and general shiftiness are unsettling. Still, athleticism and well-roundedness are excellent traits.
3.) Donald Brown – Beginning in Week 1, Brown should be considered more than just an Addai handcuff. He's a multi-purpose talent sharing touches in a great system. 3.) Chris Wells – You have to consider his questionable durability. the presence of Tim Hightower and the Cards' serious issues running the ball last season. 3.) LeSean McCoy – Former Panther already on-the-prowl in training camp. If Westbrook misses 5-plus games, he will be an Offensive ROY frontrunner.
4.) LeSean McCoy – He's almost a Westbrook clone, but without the mileage or the injuries. 4.) LeSean McCoy – McCoy's an exciting talent, one you'd be giddy about with a big-time role in the Philly offense, but don't let Evans fool you into believing that Westbrook's injury is overly serious or that his days of being the center of this offensive universe have come to an end. 4.) Shonn Greene – The Jets' Greene Machine is a between-the-tackles Clydesdale who pounds the hole with marked ferocity. Unless you're in a draft with Andy Behrens, the former Hawkeye should be available after pick 150.
5.) Gartrell Johnson(notes) – OK, so he's not really my No. 5 rookie RB, but I wanted to get the name out there. The Chargers' fourth-rounder could be a sneaky secondary handcuff to LT2. 5.) Glenn Coffee – Considering how run-heavy the 49ers plan to be, if I drafted Frank Gore, Coffee is a handcuff that I'd be very serious about securing. 5.) James Davis – Jamal Lewis' exhausting workloads over the years bound to take a toll on his soon-to-be 30-year-old body. Davis' strong opening impressions and the Browns stiff O-line lends insight into impact potential.
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