2011 running backs fantasy preview

Running back is the fantasy position where the rubber meets the road. Grab the top producers at this position, and you'll perpetually be operating from a weekly advantage; you may lose fantasy games, but it will often take an heroic effort from your opponent to beat you. Grab big-time busts, and you're headed for a season of muttering epithets under your breath.

Why are your running back slots so important? Because while the difference between a "top" fantasy quarterback or wide receiver and an "acceptable" one isn't particularly great, the difference between the best RBs and their positional brethren tends to be vast. If you merely look at the raw fantasy points scored in 2010, you'll see a QB-dominated list:

2010 fantasy football scoring leaders

But if you look at a comparative analysis, where we compare each player's point total to a baseline player at his position (called "Value-Based Drafting" or "VBD"), you'll see that RBs are really where it's at:

2010 fantasy football VBD leaders

Of course, picking which RBs to select early can be a quandary. Grab the wrong guys, and you're behind the eight ball. Unearth this year's Arian Foster, and you're golden. So there's a real dichotomy here: On one hand, the best RBs are clearly still the most valuable commodity in fantasy, but on the other hand, they're getting harder and harder to locate. That leads to the ultimate drafting dilemma. Do you take, say, two RBs in your first two or three picks, hoping to strike it rich at the game's most important position and knowing you can find "acceptable" options at other positions later in your draft? Or do you look at the frazzled nature of the RB position -- with its ever-growing number of committee backs, injuries and week-to-week variability -- and decide instead to lock down the safest, biggest-total players at QB and WR, and take your RBs later, knowing that RB is a crapshoot anyway?

I'll get into the strategy implications of this quandary in a bit. First, though, let's look at the running back landscape for the 2011 season.

The elite
Adrian Peterson has never finished as fantasy's No. 1 running back, but that's where we rate him this year. What gives? Well, he's the only RB in fantasy who's been a top-five point-gainer in four consecutive seasons, and if you've got your draft's first pick, you're looking for the best possible combination of upside and safety. That's All Day. Yes, he's got questions at QB, where Eagles and Redskins castoff Donovan McNabb and rookie Christian Ponder are all the Vikings have. And yes, that Minnesota O-line is looking somewhat long in the tooth. But Peterson is a monstrous monster; at 6-foot-1 and 217 pounds, he's probably one of the NFL's five fastest backs, and a hard man to tackle. Plus his much-ballyhooed fumbling problems from '09 didn't carry over: He went from six lost fumbles two seasons ago to one in '10. … Our ESPN panel of experts had no compunction rating Arian Foster No. 2 overall, and I guess I understand it. He was dominant from start to finish last year, winning the rushing yardage and TD titles, and finishing tops in receiving yards by a RB. Clearly, though, there's a bit of a "one-year wonder" worry when it comes to Foster. While the other guys at the top of our list have done it over multiple seasons, Foster hasn't. He won't sneak up on anyone in '11, and opposing defenses may decide to change their focus from stopping Matt Schaub to stopping Foster. How have unexpectedly massive RB fantasy point producers typically fared in their follow-up seasons lately? Larry Johnson held up well from '05 to '06. DeAngelo Williams dropped off significantly from '08 to '09. And Chris Johnson was somewhere in-between from '09 to '10. Myself, I'd probably take CJ2K second overall, because I trust his track record a bit more. He's also still the game's premier home run hitter and produced well (No. 5 in RB fantasy points last year) despite a lingering thigh issue. But I understand if you prefer Foster. … Jamaal Charles averaged a massive 6.4 yards per carry last season and notched double-digit fantasy points in 12 of 16 games, and I'm guessing there's a fairly strong fantasy contingent that's considering taking him first overall this summer. After all, Thomas Jones vultured an annoying amount of J-Mail's work last year, and the Chiefs simply have to know that Charles gives them the best chance to win. That said, I'm not convinced Todd Haley wants to treat Charles like a workhorse, 20-touch-per-game back. So while I love the guy, I think Charles will likely have the fewest carries of any elite back in fantasy again in '11.

Not sexy, but they get the job done
After getting selected third or fourth overall in most fantasy drafts last summer, Ray Rice was awful in September, registering zero TDs and averaging only 76 total yards per game. That's the kind of dreadful performance that can get you blackballed in fantasy leagues, but Rice proved his mettle thereafter: He averaged 123 total yards per game from Week 5 forward. Rice still hasn't become the TD machine I hoped, though that could change since Willis McGahee has moved on to Denver. Rice is a lock to touch the ball 20-plus times just about every week, has a fierce new lead blocker in Vonta Leach, and will be a top-five receiving back. … LeSean McCoy doesn't fit the typical mold of "unsexy" RBs, because he's a fast-twitch, explosive athlete who thrives on big plays, and because he finished just 19th in rushing attempts last season. But McCoy is so involved in the passing game -- last year he had an NFL-high 78 catches out of the backfield -- that it all evens out. What Shady lacks in goal-line chops and high-volume rush games, he makes up for in big plays in the receiving game. Of course, if Michael Vick stays healthy all year, McCoy isn't a great bet to repeat his nine total TDs from last season, because Vick tends to be his own rush-TD maker. … Rashard Mendenhall isn't elusive and he doesn't have escape speed. But he benefits from a Steelers offense that likes to pound with the running game near an opponent's end zone: Nine of his 13 rushing scores last year came from inside the 3. Mendy was fourth in the NFL in carries in '10, so while his per-tote average (3.9) is thoroughly uninspiring, you can feel fairly safe that barring injury, he'll be a week-to-week steady player with great TD upside. … Personally, I'm worried about treating Peyton Hillis like a top-15 RB this season. I think we forget too easily that, in addition to his decline at the end of last year, Hillis was injury-prone in his first two years in the NFL, with the Broncos. But my ESPN colleagues view last season's 13 total TDs with salivary glands activated. It's true that through 11 games, Hillis had averaged 4.6 yards per carry and had scored at least one TD in 10 contests. He slowed down precipitously thereafter, though, and the Browns noticed. They'll try and cap his workload this year, to keep him fresh for December. Hillis doesn't get enough credit for being a very proficient receiver (he finished fourth in catches by a RB in '10) and at 250 pounds, he's a banger. I have to admit, though, I won't own him on many of my teams in '11. … It seems clear now that Matt Forte's subpar '09 season was related to a knee injury. Healthy again last year, Forte was one of only five backs to finish with at least 1,000 yards rushing and 500 yards receiving. Also, behind a spotty-at-best O-line, he managed a sweet 4.5 yards per carry. Forte's drawbacks come near the goal line, where the Chicago offense perpetually stalls and where Marion Barber may be a drain this season. But Forte is a fantasy starter. … I'm not sure I consider LeGarrette Blount a fantasy starter in 10-team leagues, but our panel of experts does. There's no doubting the thump he brings to the table: Blount is 250 pounds of hard-to-tackle meanness. There's also little doubt that he'll be Tampa Bay's lead dog in '11. Whether or not he builds on his impressive rookie year comes down to if he improves in short yardage. In '10, he scored just twice on nine tries inside an opponent's 5.

Falling down
In last season's RB positional preview, I warned you off Clinton Portis, Cadillac Williams, McGahee and Marshawn Lynch. This year, I'm aiming even higher. I'm nervous about two perennial fantasy studs: Michael Turner and Steven Jackson. Listen, I still put The Burner and Action Jackson in my top 15 RBs, so it's not like I'm promising they'll fall off a cliff. But I can almost guarantee you those two big names will get taken before the range where I would draft them. Turner finished third in the NFL in rushing yards last year and tied for fourth in rushing TDs, but his usage in two of the past three seasons scares me (346 touches in '10, 382 in '08 and of course he was hurt for much of '09). He's 29 and wore down significantly in last year's final six games, plus he has no margin for error, because he comes off the field on most third downs. Jackson has more carries than any NFL back over the past five seasons and is 28, and his per-carry average dropped to just 3.8 yards last year. Neither veteran has much early-down competition, which is good, but each has significant recent injury history, which is bad. Hey, if I could get Turner late in the second round, he'd be worth the risk. And if I could get Jackson late in the second or early in the third, ditto. But I doubt they'll last that long, and I'm going to let someone else take on those headaches. … BenJarvus Green-Ellis was a shocking addition to fantasy's top 15 RBs last year: He ran for a whopping 13 scores, tied for second most in the league. But I rate him outside my top 25 rushers this year. What am I so nervous about? First, I just don't think BJGE is a particularly special talent. And as a result of that, I don't think the Patriots are particularly committed to him. They drafted a couple of RBs this past April, they have Danny Woodhead around, and frankly I don't think you'll see a repeat of last season's play calling, when the Pats ranked No. 7 in the run-heaviness of their offense. In most other years when Tom Brady has been healthy, the Patriots passed at a far greater rate, but they got into clock-killing mode a bunch during its great '10 regular season. … We rated Cedric Benson as a top-10 fantasy back last year. That was a mistake. Benson regressed to his pre-'09 form; it's not that his cumulative numbers look bad (1,289 total yards, eight total TDs), it's that his ratios stunk. Two seasons ago, he averaged an impressive 4.2 yards per carry, but last year he went right back to 3.5, which is more in alignment with his career mark of 3.7. Benson is coming off back-to-back seasons of 300-plus carries, which makes his legs susceptible to injury or lack of explosiveness, and he doesn't have much explosiveness to spare. He's back with the Bengals after dipping his toe in the free-agent waters. But I'm not drafting him. … Joseph Addai re-signed with the Colts and for as long as he's healthy figures to lead Indy in carries. But he's played a full season just once in his five-year career and hasn't topped seven TDs in two of his past three campaigns. The Colts drafted Delone Carter to be a potential short-yardage option and Donald Brown is still kicking around. Plus Addai has exactly two runs of 30 yards or longer in his entire career. There's not enough upside here to warrant the risk.

Opportunity knocks
Ryan Mathews was supposed to pick up the role left behind by LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego, but he battled a bad ankle throughout his rookie season and Mike Tolbert actually became the TD maker for the Chargers. But in the team's final two games last season, with Tolbert hurt, Mathews had 44 touches from scrimmage for 222 yards and four TDs, giving a glimpse of the skills that made him a first-round draft choice. Tolbert is still around in San Diego and should be the favorite for goal-line work, plus could be Philip Rivers' pass-catcher out of the backfield. But Mathews is the more talented player, and if he stays healthy, his stats should reflect that. … The Cowboys have moved on from Marion Barber, giving Felix Jones an inside look at dominating RB touches in Big D. For sure, both Tashard Choice and rookie DeMarco Murray will be in the mix, but each has already suffered an injury early in training camp. Meanwhile, Jones was impressive in the Cowboys' final eight games of 2010, registering at least 77 total yards (and averaging nearly 99 total yards) in those contests. He may not be a true No. 1 back -- he topped 16 carries in a game only once last season -- but his receiving prowess and big-play ability give him inroads to bigger fantasy value. … I'm higher on Shonn Greene than my ESPN cohorts. I'm intrigued by the possibility that he'll take a larger chunk of the workload from Tomlinson this season. And just as clearly, drafting Greene on the basis of last year's numbers (766 yards rushing, 2 TDs) would be foolish. Reading the tea leaves, it seems likely that LT's role will shrink -- he'll be a goal-line specialist and third-down weapon -- while Greene should finally begin to dominate early-down work.

… The ESPN summit group likes Fred Jackson more than I do, but I have to admit Jackson has his first full-fledged chance at being the Bills' unquestioned Week 1 starter. C.J. Spiller was a big disappointment in '10 and Jackson was solid, if unspectacular; expect to see Spiller concentrate on special teams work to begin the year. That said, Buffalo mustered only eight carries inside an opponent's 5 last year, so even if you dislike Spiller and love Jackson, I question how much this full-time gig is really worth. Jackson is a good soldier and a slightly-above-average talent, but in truth I think Spiller's the guy with the upside and is worth a late-round gamble.

Rookie crop
It was hard not to love Mark Ingram as a collegian at Alabama; he won the Heisman in his sophomore season, and battled through injury to play well as a junior. But he was drafted into a potential nightmare situation, also known as the Saints backfield. No New Orleans runner has registered more than 230 total touches in any of the past four seasons, and only one (Reggie Bush in 2007) has bested 186 touches. Pierre Thomas is still on hand and newly signed Darren Sproles will take on Bush's old role. (Chris Ivory is still around, too, though he might not be physically ready to go Week 1 after offseason foot surgery.) Ingram would probably be the guy I'd draft first out of this gang, but it's close: I actually think Thomas is quite undervalued right now, as he's excelled in the past in a part-time role. … Although as a group we rated Ingram our favorite rookie rusher, I prefer the Dolphins' Daniel Thomas because of his combination of skills and opportunity. He's a 230-pounder with soft hands and strong downhill-running skills. Sure, the Dolphins signed Bush to pair with Thomas, but I have little faith in Reggie's ability to stay healthy or come anywhere near full-time carries. I'd bet on Thomas to easily lead the team in TDs and touches out of the backfield. … The Lions said all the right things about drafting Mikel Leshoure: They couldn't pass on his talent, they were only looking for a complement to Jahvid Best, etc. However, Leshoure tore his Achilles early in training camp and has been ruled out for the season. … Ryan Williams is another kid whose skills I love, but who will be lost to injury this season with a torn knee tendon.
… Watch out for Roy Helu with the Redskins. If Ryan Torain and Tim Hightower wind up being the only guys between Helu and a starting gig, well, sign me up. Helu has experience in the kind of one-cut, downhill scheme that Mike Shanahan prefers, and we all know Shanny loves to shake up his backfield situation and isn't afraid to throw rookies into the fire. Torain produced well while healthy last year, but he's an injury waiting to happen, and Hightower is best-served as a third-down and perhaps a goal-line back. … The Cowboys couldn't resist DeMarco Murray's measurables. He's 213 pounds and ran third fastest of any RB at February's combine. In fact, he reminds me quite a lot of Felix Jones. But Murray doesn't break many tackles and battled leg injuries in each of his two final seasons at Oklahoma (and has already injured a hamstring early in training camp this summer). Jones will have to bust for Murray to have much fantasy value in '11. … The 49ers drafted one of my favorite rookie rushers, Oklahoma State's Kendall Hunter. Of course, Frank Gore is San Fran's unquestioned starter, but Gore does get hurt a bunch, and while Anthony Dixon has it in him to be an impressive thumper, Hunter has a wider variety of every-down-back skills. He's lightning quick and has great hands, though he did have fumbling problems in college. Hunter isn't likely to be a fantasy force this season, but I'm stashing him in dynasty leagues. … Into the Patriots' backfield mess steps Shane Vereen, who's in line not only to take over some of Kevin Faulk's production, but could take some of Danny Woodhead's looks, too. (Faulk is back with the Pats in training camp after last year's torn ACL, but I have a feeling it's an emeritus role.) Vereen is a much better playmaker than BenJarvus Green-Ellis, but BJGE will still be a preferred choice in the red zone; Vereen will likely struggle to see double-digit touches each week. … I'm not automatically assuming that Jordan Todman will succeed Sproles in San Diego, but I do think he'll get some looks on third downs. Todman isn't exactly a burner nor is he likely to break tons of NFL tackles, but he catches it well. … The Colts took Delone Carter in the fourth round this April, and if he can stay healthy (not always a given in his Syracuse days) his fire-hydrant physique makes him a natural to compete for short-yardage work.

Unsettled situations
Jonathan Stewart looked like a fantasy starter all summer, because most assumed DeAngelo Williams would leave as a free agent. Maddeningly, it didn't happen. D-Willy re-signed for huge dollars, and now it's Stewart who looks like the short-timer in Carolina: His rookie deal is up after this year. If one of these guys gets hurt again (and both missed significant time in '10), the other instantly vaults into the fantasy stratosphere. But as the situation is, Williams is the favorite to lead the Panthers in carries, while Stewart will play a supplemental role and perhaps vulture touchdowns. Mike Goodson is, for the moment, reduced to an afterthought. … Because the Broncos didn't sign an in-his-prime free agent RB, Knowshon Moreno is the clear favorite to lead Denver in backfield touches. But Willis McGahee is now on hand, and Ray Rice owners know that can sometimes play havoc with a starter's TDs. No, McGahee isn't a threat to suddenly take over on first and second downs. But we're talking about a big, bruising player who, during his four years in Baltimore, scored eight, seven, 14 and six times. I consider it quite likely that McGahee leads the Broncos in TDs this year. … Ahmad Bradshaw re-signed with the Giants, and thus will settle back into his vexing partnership with Brandon Jacobs. Last year, Bradshaw unexpectedly won the lead role in Gotham and stayed mostly healthy, but Jacobs siphoned off nine TDs and nearly 900 yards from scrimmage. If Bradshaw's fumbling becomes an issue again this season (he led all RBs with six lost fumbles last year), Jacobs could reclaim a bigger part of the backfield pie. … Maybe the Packers will figure out their backfield before opening night, but I'm betting that Ryan Grant and James Starks owners will start investing in voodoo dolls of the other guy come mid-September. Grant suffered serious ankle and knee injuries last season, but that happened in Week 1 and he's long since healed. Meanwhile, Starks is getting pub for a strong playoff run, but he actually really only played well in Green Bay's first win, in Philly. Then again, Starks is probably the better pass-catcher, has similar size to Grant and has less tread worn off his tires, so he figures to be in the mix. Unless one of these guys gets hurt, I fear we're looking at a straight platoon.

Injury concerns
We justifiably have Maurice Jones-Drew ranked as our No. 5 RB; despite a lingering knee injury last year, he produced six consecutive midseason games of at least 100 yards rushing. But that knee problem is potentially worrisome. MJD underwent serious meniscus surgery this winter, and while he's painted a rosy rehab picture, multiple stories have come out of Jacksonville that he was facing a "bone-on-bone" condition. I thoroughly expect the Jags to treat MJD with kid gloves throughout camp, so we may not know the truth about him for a good long while. He'll either be a complete steal in a lot of drafts, or an albatross. … Frank Gore rightly carries an injury-prone label; he hasn't made it through a full season since '06, and he missed last season's final five games with a fractured hip. However, until '10, he'd never missed more than two games in a season, as his wounds have mostly been of the nagging, non-surgery variety. My guess for this year is that Gore does miss more time, but doesn't wind up sitting out more than a couple of contests. … Darren McFadden finally illustrated why the Raiders drafted him No. 4 overall in '08: He led the league with 14 carries of 20 yards or more, caught the ball brilliantly and scored 10 overall TDs. Unfortunately, he also missed more games because of a bad hamstring, and also reportedly re-injured his troublesome toes near season's end. In three NFL campaigns, Run-DMC has missed 10 of his 48 possible games. If you take him in the second round of your draft this summer, be aware his downside is as scary as his upside is enticing. … If I ranked the five most explosive RBs in the NFL, Jahvid Best would be on that list. But he was injured throughout his collegiate career, suffered turf toe injuries early as a rookie with the Lions and managed just 3.2 yards per carry. I truly believe Best has Jamaal Charles-level ability. But it's just so hard to ignore how often the dude gets hurt. … Ryan Torain is a bruising guy with good speed, and I can see him as the Redskins' Week 1 starter. But he lost a full month in '10 to a bad hamstring, tore an ACL in '09, fractured an elbow in '08, broke a toe in college … he's just not a very good bet to stay healthy, and there are viable alternatives on the roster in Roy Helu and Tim Hightower.

I did just write that I'd take Mark Ingram ahead of any Saints rusher, but I nevertheless think Pierre Thomas is a fine sleeper. He was overhyped last season then suffered an ankle injury that cost him 10 games and required surgery, so I'm guessing he won't be a fantasy darling come draft time. Nor do I wish to sell Frenchy to you as an under-the-radar possible starter. Sean Payton views Thomas as a Swiss Army knife, a guy he can use five or 15 times per game depending on the flow, a good blocker, a tough inside runner and a terrific receiver. In other words: He's a committee back. But that role was enough for Thomas to average 1,002 yards from scrimmage and 10 TDs in '08 and '09, and I don't put that kind of solid production past him here in '11. … Michael Bush is one McFadden injury away from quite a valuable role. I put Bush on this "sleeper" list last season, and he responded with 849 yards from scrimmage and eight scores. Granted, his week-to-week workload can be frustrating (six games with six touches from scrimmage or fewer), but when Oakland saddles him up and pounds defenses with him, he usually responds. … I was as big a Beanie Wells booster as you could find last summer, and that was a pretty huge mistake. When the Cardinals drafted Ryan Williams in April, it was first and foremost Beanie insurance, in case the injury-prone Wells suffers a recurrence of the knee issues that dogged him last year, or suffers any other breaks or sprains. However, it's Williams' whose knee gave out first, and if Beanie stays healthy, he's the starter. Players with his size and speed don't come around very often, and this year you won't have to pay much to acquire him. … Montario Hardesty and Ben Tate endured shockingly similar rookie years. Hardesty tore an ACL in the Browns' final exhibition game and watched Peyton Hillis go crazy. Tate tore ankle ligaments and broke his fibula in the Texans' first preseason game and saw Arian Foster become fantasy's MVP. Now each guy will try to stay healthy while backing up a fantasy starter, and each is at the very least a valuable handcuff. Because of his collegiate injury history, I give Hardesty a worse chance at sustained health than Tate, but I also think Hillis is likelier to need a tapered workload than Foster. … With MJD's knee a question mark, the Jaguars will keep Rashad Jennings at the ready. I actually like third-stringer Deji Karim's skill set a bunch, but Jacksonville will keep him as its primary kick returner and give Jennings full-fledged backup duty. He occasionally played brilliantly as a spot-starter in the fantasy playoffs last December.

Draft strategy
So which is the wiser path? Take your pick of the litter among the "best" RBs and fill in with the "acceptable" QBs and WRs, or get the sure-thing guys at those other positions and grab a bunch of "maybe" RBs in later rounds under the assumption that it's dang hard to predict which RBs wind up breaking out of their committee woes?

I don't have a definite answer for you. My instinct is to go RB first, but last year if you'd tried that strategy and taken, say, MJD, Frank Gore or Ray Rice, you'd eventually have been frustrated. And that's not as unusual as you might think. Over the past three years, here are the top 10 RBs in terms of average draft position (ADP), and where those players have wound up ranking in fantasy points among RBs:

2010 RBs, ADP versus final rank

2009 RBs, ADP versus final rank

2008 RBs, ADP versus final rank

The variability you see among the RBs presumed to be among the best in the business isn't replicated among QBs (WRs are closer), which validates the urge to draft an Aaron Rodgers in the middle of the first round, as the remaining available RBs begin to make your tummy hurt. Yes, I'm still leaning heavily toward taking a RB in the first round, because it's so important that you perform well at fantasy's most vexing position. But I'm not going to be overly dogmatic about it.

Auction strategy
Each fantasy auction is its own animal, so it's tough to give absolutes about how much you should spend on running backs. In a league that gives you $200 to spend on your players, a decent rule of thumb is that in an average draft, if you budget about $100 for rushers, you'll be fine. Your starters will eat up the vast majority of that budget, clearly, while your reserves and sleepers will come on the relative cheap. Now, this "median" budget doesn't account for the variations in strategy that occur in every fantasy football auction. If you've decided you're going to pay for two elite rushers, for instance, you're probably going to have to spend upwards of 75 percent of your money on two players (i.e., the "Studs and Duds" strategy). However, no matter what, make sure you've got a nice long list of potential $1 or $2 rushers for your auction's end game. As in snake drafts, I like to wind up with a bunch of lottery-ticket running backs in an auction, because rushers who come out of left field to be significant contributors are sweet.

Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy.