Think of the current state of NFL running backs as your living room after an all-night party.
We all agree it's a mess, but not everybody agrees what to do about it.
In modern professional football, there may never have been fewer definitive "starting" running backs than there will be in 2010. Franchises are getting the hint that working one rusher to the brink of exhaustion doesn't make for a very long professional career. As a result, the number of 300-carry backs has diminished while the number of 100-carry backs goes up. Check it out:
Platoons are hip. Platoons are the wave, and the NFL is riding it. Platoons make the fantasy world go round.
Now, what you do about this trend in your fantasy draft is open to debate. Do you worry less about getting primo rushing options and stock up on studs at other positions, under the assumptions that (a) top receivers and quarterbacks are easier to project and generally don't have playing-time concerns, and (b) far fewer of your league rivals will have truly dominant RBs? Or do you go the other way, and make sure you've got one of those runners who will be a plow horse and get you 300-plus carries, since there are so few of them?
More on that debate later, but first, let's check out the running back landscape for 2010:
By and large, our ESPN crew of experts likes Chris Johnson as the No. 1 overall pick in fantasy this year, and I understand why. Last season, he became one of only six men in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards; he forced more missed tackles than anyone in football; he scored seven rushing touchdowns of 30 yards or longer and added two long receiving scores to boot. And now he's without much competition for carries, as LenDale White has been jettisoned from Tennessee. Personally, I'm worried about CJ2K's usage last year; the history of backs who touch the ball 400 times or more from scrimmage isn't pretty (as you can see in my column about the No. 1 overall draft pick. I think defenses will key on Johnson more than ever before, and I worry about that because he's not a big man. But he sure is fast, and it's hard to argue too stridently against him in the top spot. … However, my man for the No. 1 pick is Adrian Peterson. He's not quite as fast as Johnson, but he's no mere plodder. More importantly he's 6-foot-1, 217 pounds. No other running back in fantasy has finished inside the top five at this position over the past three years, and here I must repeat my mantra: If you've got the first overall pick, your task isn't just to unearth the guy who'll produce the season's most fantasy points, you also must minimize risk. In 2009, of the eight running backs taken in the top 10 according to Average Draft Position, three (Matt Forte, Michael Turner and LaDainian Tomlinson) failed to finish better than 17th at their position. And of the top 15 running backs selected last year (again, according to ADP), an incredible nine failed to finish better than 17th. If that's not an argument to be as safe as possible with your first pick, I don't know what is. … Some were concerned that Maurice Jones-Drew wouldn't be the same guy once Fred Taylor left Jacksonville. They were right: He was better. He topped 200 carries and 1,000 rushing yards for the first time in his career and scored 15 TDs on the ground. The Jacksonville Jaguars' offensive line should be better this year, and MJD (aka Pocket Hercules) will continue to be a tiny workhorse. … Ray Rice led NFL running backs in targets and catches last season, easing the sting of having him rush for "only" seven touchdowns, while Willis McGahee vultured 12. I have a suspicion that the Ravens will lean less on McGahee in his contract year and give Rice the rock more in close. … Frank Gore is talented, I'll admit, but I don't love him as much as some of my ESPN colleagues. It's true he set a career high with 10 rushing scores, and he continues to be a top-five receiving threat out of the backfield. But he hasn't made it through a season injury-free since '06, and when the San Francisco 49ers went pass-heavy last year, he was a bit of a forgotten man. Take away three rushing scores of 64 yards or more (two of which happened in the same game), and Gore would've had a sub-4.0 yards-per-carry average. Of the guys on this "elite" list, he's the one who makes me the most nervous. … Michael Turner had a great fantasy first half in '09, with 10 touchdowns and 720 rushing yards through eight games. But a high-ankle sprain ruined his second half of the season and crushed his fantasy owners' hopes. He's mostly healthy now, and it seems as though the Atlanta Falcons want to keep him right around 300 carries this year (as opposed to the 377 he had in '08). I'm buying a return to first-round quality.
Not Sexy, But They Get The Job Done
Cedric Benson has reignited his career behind an underrated offensive line, producing 837 yards rushing and six scores in the first half of '09. Then he hurt his hip and never got in the end zone again. You won't get much by way of receptions from Benson, and he's not what you'd call a very explosive runner, but he should have room to run. As long as your expectations are in check, Benson looks like a decent pick. … Speaking of guys who don't bowl you over with athleticism, there's Ryan Grant. Like Benson, he's not much of a pass catcher, but he's a tough downhill runner who can take advantage when the Green Bay Packers get close to an opponent's end zone. There's nothing exciting about Grant, but he's an unquestioned feature back in a sea of platoons. Being able to bank on 250-plus carries is valuable. … If the New Orleans Saints would give him a traditional full-time gig, Pierre Thomas would probably excel at it, because he does everything well. But Frenchy's lack of sexiness comes mostly from his lack of touches. He finished 34th in the NFL in carries last year (with the same total as Ronnie Brown, who missed half the season) and 31st in total touches from scrimmage. Reggie Bush and Mike Bell each stole some goal-line work, too (though Bell is gone now, meaning Thomas could benefit). Despite all this, Thomas produced the 19th-most fantasy points among rushers in '09. … Reports of Joseph Addai's demise were greatly exaggerated. When the Indianapolis Colts drafted Donald Brown, I and many others worried it might spell the end for Addai's fantasy value. But Addai led Brown in carries 219 to 78 and scored 13 total touchdowns last year. Addai is a pure plugger: In his four-year career, he has one carry longer than 30 yards. He is in a contract year, and the Colts most certainly want to see if they have a decent replacement in Brown. Still, you'd have to believe that Addai will earn enough red-zone work to be in the mix as a fantasy starter or flex.
As a group, we have Clinton Portis as our No. 31 running back, and I'm actually lower on him than that. Maybe we'll look back on this and say it was stupid to worry about how many carries Portis has in his career (2,176, 28th on the NFL all-time list) and the concussion that ended his '09 season after Week 9. Maybe we'll see that he had one more great year in him at age 29. Maybe. But I'm skeptical. I think you'll never go broke betting against guys who've worn most of the tread off their tires. Heck, Larry Johnson doesn't look like a terrible end-of-draft option, only because I think he could wind up stealing significant touches at some point in '10. … It's probably harsh to include Cadillac Williams on the "Falling Down" list, because he really came back from the fantasy dead last year to become the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' starter and produce a top-25 running back season when nobody believed his knee could hold up. But Tampa's offensive line is sub-par, Derrick Ward is still around to steal touches and nobody is likely to be afraid of the Bucs' passing game. Put it this way: I'm betting heavily against a second straight top-25 season for Williams. … I warned you not to draft LaDainian Tomlinson last year, and I'm warning you again this year. I'm guessing you're less tempted this year. LT will be the backup to Shonn Greene with the New York Jets and could steal some goal-line looks, especially considering that in another life he was one of the greatest short-yardage backs in the league. I'm not ruling out the possibility that Greene owners get angry at Tomlinson every so often. But in general, he just doesn't have much left in his legs. It's sad, but true. … Don't be fooled by Willis McGahee's 12 touchdowns in 2009. Eight of those came from inside the opponent's 5, and I have a notion that Ray Rice will be given more chances to clean up his own drives going forward. Think of what happened to LenDale White after his big '08. McGahee is entering a contract year, but I'm guessing he falls out of the top 40 fantasy rushers this year. … Probably nobody in the NFL needs a trade more than Marshawn Lynch, but the Buffalo Bills are reportedly holding out for an early-round draft pick (though they claim they have no plans to deal him at all), and so far nobody's biting. As the Bills' third-stringer behind Fred Jackson and rookie C.J. Spiller, Lynch has no fantasy value whatsoever. Whether he can reclaim some of his lost glory would depend on if he gets traded, and where.
With Ben Roethlisberger suspended for at least a month to begin the season, Rashard Mendenhall figures to be the centerpiece of the Pittsburgh Steelers offense. Willie Parker is gone, so there are no real threats to Mendenhall on first and second downs, and he actually stayed in on many more third downs as '09 wound down. I'm concerned the Pittsburgh offensive line is no longer very good at run blocking, and I'm also worried defenses will be keying on Mendenhall from the opening whistle. Still, he's got a full-time job for the first time. … I like Beanie Wells a lot this year, more than many of my ESPN colleagues. True, if Matt Leinart is a disaster under center for the Arizona Cardinals, nobody in that offense figures to be a fantasy star. But I don't expect Leinart to be rancid, and I do think Ken Whisenhunt will shoot for a more balanced offense post-Kurt Warner. Wells scored six times in last season's second half and often looked like a bulldozer doing it: He's 240 pounds of bad intentions, and he is surprisingly nimble for his size. I know Tim Hightower did a good job in his role last year (catching passes, converting short scores), but Wells is obviously the better player. I think he asserts himself in '10. … Shonn Greene wasn't even a top-50 fantasy back last year (for the record, he finished 55th in fantasy scoring), yet he's got the experts buzzing that he'll easily finish inside the top 10 this year. It's easy to understand why: Thomas Jones has moved on, so the Jets will look to Greene to be their lead back. He was so good in three playoff games (304 yards rushing, two scores) and the New York Jets are so strong along the offensive line that it's natural to assume Greene can at least duplicate Jones' impressive seasons these past couple of years. However, I'm not 100 percent convinced Greene can hold up to the banging. He was injury plagued throughout college, and he was hurt on a couple occasions last season, including in the AFC title game. Put it this way: He's not quite the slam dunk some would have you believe. … Doesn't it seem like a long time has passed since Brian Westbrook was with the Eagles? LeSean McCoy took over from the concussed Westbrook in Week 7 last year, and the results were mixed. McCoy never eclipsed 100 yards rushing and only scored four times, but he did prove that his quickness and catching skills translate well to the NFL. With Westy gone, the job is McCoy's now, and the fact that the Philadelphia Eagles didn't bring in another starting-quality back (Mike Bell and, to some extent, Leonard Weaver figure to spell McCoy) makes this second-year player a relatively clear starter.
Ryan Mathews figures to lead the rookie runners this year, simply due to where he landed. LaDainian Tomlinson is gone from San Diego, and the Chargers have made it clear they don't view Darren Sproles as an every-down back. That leaves Mathews. He'll run behind an offensive line that was banged up in '09 but should be better now. I think the hype on this kid is overdone; he's a do-everything kind of player but isn't especially dominant in any single area. Plus, this is Philip Rivers' team now. While I won't wind up with Mathews on many of my teams, I do have him as my top rookie fantasy rusher this year. … Because of the carnage in the Detroit Lions backfield, Jahvid Best has a very good chance to be a rookie Week 1 starter. There's no doubting Best's bona fides: He is ankle-breaking quick, has good top-end speed and can catch the ball very well. His biggest drawback is durability. In college, he needed surgeries on his elbow, shoulder and hip, plus he missed the end of his final year with a serious concussion. He'll be a big-play threat when he's on the field and probably turn in some fantasy-altering games in '10. But he'll probably miss some times as well. … C.J. Spiller was my favorite rookie before the draft, but the Buffalo Bills took him and things went downhill from there. You see, Buffalo already has Fred Jackson as a starter on his way up, as well as Marshawn Lynch (at least for the moment). Spiller will line up all over the field during his rookie year, and I've no doubt there'll be some Sunday evenings where folks will be chirping about the incredible run Spiller made. But I worry there'll be some games where Spiller gets about five touches from scrimmage, and that's behind an offensive line that could be one of the worst in the NFL. … Ben Tate wound up in a fairly decent spot for his fantasy value -- a Houston Texans offense that forces opposing defenses to play the pass first. Tate is a big back who was a workout warrior at the combine, and the Texans would like nothing more than to have him take over their early-down work. Unfortunately, Tate battled a hamstring problem throughout minicamp, and one wonders if he's fallen behind a bit. … The Cleveland Browns drafted Montario Hardesty to complement Jerome Harrison. Hardesty is big and thumping while Harrison is very elusive. This could work into a platoon that would probably make Hardesty the touchdown maker. However, he's a one-year collegiate wonder who battled injuries throughout his career. He'll be up-and-down in '10. … The 49ers drafted Anthony Dixon this spring, a tacit admission that Glen Coffee wasn't a very good backup to Frank Gore last year. At 245 pounds, Dixon is a battering ram, but he did fall into the sixth round because of concerns about his slow feet. It's likely that Gore stays his own goal-line back, but it's possible Dixon gets into the touchdown mix. … The Minnesota Vikings lost Chester Taylor to the Bears and drafted Heisman runner-up Toby Gerhart to take Taylor's place as Adrian Peterson's understudy. Gerhart has it in him to be a banger, and it's conceivable he could take some of the short-yardage burden off AP. At the very least, he's Peterson's handcuff. … The Jets traded Leon Washington to Seattle, then drafted a replacement in the mercurial Joe McKnight. McKnight never lived up to his hype at USC and should be the third option behind Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson. If he shows up to training camp with the right mentality, it's possible he insinuates himself into third-down work.
The Carolina Panthers have two starter-quality backs in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. How things work out between them in '10 is anyone's guess. To add to the confusion, each guy had surgery this offseason. With some combination of Matt Moore and Jimmy Clausen under center, expect Carolina to continue to be one of the NFL's run-heaviest teams, but expect Williams and Stewart to frustrate on a week-to-week basis. … Jamaal Charles was fantasy's second-best running back in the second half of last season, but he's not a particularly big man, and the Kansas City Chiefs decided to pair him with Thomas Jones for '10. Charles is one of my favorite "sleepers" (he's my No. 10 running back), but it's quite possible to imagine a scenario where Jones steals some close-in carries. … Knowshon Moreno was a disappointing in his rookie campaign, while Correll Buckhalter looked like the younger, spryer runner. That said, Moreno's powerful style should fit with the Denver Broncos' new power-blocking scheme. Certainly the team views Moreno as a bigger part of its future than it does Buckhalter. … If you believe the reports out of Dallas, Felix Jones will be the Cowboys' starter and will lead the team in carries, while Marion Barber will be used as a "closer" with Tashard Choice as the third-stringer. I prefer Jones a bit more than ESPN's other fantasy writers, but I acknowledge he's a perpetual health risk, and this rotation could work out in any of a number of different ways. … Last season, Matt Forte was a consensus top-five pick. This year, he has to battle Chester Taylor for touches in Mike Martz's new Chicago Bears offense. Listen, Forte was banged up last year, so maybe he re-asserts himself as a clear No. 1. But the Bears offensive line was terrible in '09 and probably won't be a lot better in '10. These two runners may cancel each other out to an uncomfortable degree. … Darren McFadden has the big name, but Michael Bush was the better player in '09. Run-DMC is a good player when he gets the ball in space, but he hasn't developed as the power runner we all thought he'd be when he came out of college as the No. 4 overall pick. Meanwhile, Bush is 245 pounds of nastiness. Justin Fargas is gone from Oakland, so these two figure to battle for touches. … Jerome Harrison got a whopping 106 carries in the Cleveland Browns' final three games last season, not coincidentally three wins. He's a big-play threat with quickness to burn, but the fact that the Cleveland Browns drafted Montario Hardesty, traded for Peyton Hillis and have James Davis on hand doesn't bode well for Harrison's tenure as a feature back. … Last year, Fred Jackson became the first player in NFL history to eclipse 1,000 yards rushing and on kickoff returns, but the Buffalo Bills drafted C.J. Spiller to muddy their backfield waters.
Steven Jackson belongs on the Elite list if we can convince ourselves that the surgery he had on a herniated disc in his back won't affect his '10 performance. Reports out of St. Louis seem to indicate the Rams are hopeful Jackson will perform as normal this year. Still, Jackson was limited by injuries in '07 and '08, and it would be foolhardy to claim he doesn't come with more risk this season. That said, Jackson is still one of my favorite NFL players, and I have him ensconced within the first round. … Ronnie Brown suffered a Lisfranc fracture in Week 9 last season, and he still wasn't 100 percent in Miami Dolphins minicamp this spring. Because Ricky Williams is still on hand, Brown's fantasy value is very much up in the air. He could wind up carrying on at his '09 first-half pace (746 yards from scrimmage, eight touchdowns), or he could accept a lighter load as Williams shares the rock. Brown is entering a contract year, so he certainly has incentive to play through any foot pain. … Brandon Jacobs followed up a 15-touchdown '08 season by injuring a knee meniscus early in '09. He never eclipsed the 100-yard mark in any single game and scored just five times. It's possible Jacobs will be undervalued as we wait for the other injury shoe to drop this season, but really, what indication has he ever given that he can make it through a full season intact? To make matters dicier, Ahmad Bradshaw is coming off surgeries to both of his feet. … Steve Slaton was a surprise fantasy star in '08 but sunk back down into the morass in '09, damaged by a nerve issue in his neck that probably contributed to his reputation as a fumbler. Slaton had spinal fusion surgery this winter. While his prognosis is supposedly pretty good, nobody can be sure until he starts taking hits. It's possible he's nothing more than the Houston Texans' third-down back this year. … Leon Washington suffered a compound leg fracture in Week 7 last year and was traded to the Seattle Seahawks this April. If he is healthy and can retain his speed and quickness, Washington is a threat to lead the team in fantasy points by a running back. But we're nowhere near knowing whether that's going to happen and won't until training camp. Some reports have indicated he's a candidate for the PUP list. … Kevin Smith was a workhorse for the Detroit Lions in his rookie year, but he suffered a torn ACL in Week 14, which directly led to the team drafting Jahvid Best this April. It won't be a surprise to see Smith on the PUP list to begin the '10 season.
When the Seattle Seahawks traded for LenDale White on draft day, it looked like a body blow for Justin Forsett's fantasy value. When the team axed White in late May, though, Forsett took a step forward. I'm not a big believer in Julius Jones, and I just mentioned that Leon Washington could begin training camp on the PUP list. Forsett seems to be the best man standing here. While Alex Gibbs' new one-cut blocking system doesn't suit Forsett or Washington, I'm not going to be shocked to see those two guys post some fine fantasy games in '10. … I mentioned Michael Bush when I discussed Darren McFadden, but the simple truth is that if you took the names off the backs of the jerseys, Bush would win the Oakland Raiders' starting job, hands down. He was a significantly better player in '09. If Tom Cable is running a meritocracy, Bush will lead the team in carries in '10. … Just because Donald Brown didn't show much during a rookie year that was significantly affected by a chest injury doesn't mean you should forget about him completely. Sure, Joseph Addai is coming off a better year, but he's also a free agent in '11. If Brown earns Peyton Manning's trust in pass protection (which he failed to do in '09), I won't be surprised to see more of a timeshare than you might initially expect. … Arian Foster isn't a dynamic talent, but he did well with his one-cut-and-go style late in his rookie season for the Texans. Steve Slaton is a big-time injury question, and '10 draftee Ben Tate has had hamstring problems all spring. I think Foster still could play himself into the Texans' backfield picture. … Don't completely write off Brian Westbrook. As of this writing, Westy still hadn't chosen a new team, but he has offers. A concussion ended his '09 season, but teams are reportedly more concerned about his knees, which would make a team that plays on artificial turf a bad fit. Once he signs, you could probably do worse than spend a very late-round pick on him.
So which is it? Does the fact that there are so few "true" No. 1 backs mean the pressure is off to draft a running back with your first pick? Or does scarcity make it all the more important that you make sure and get the top guys? Honestly, I think it's impossible to sound intelligent while weighing in wholeheartedly on either side of this debate. Hard-and-fast draft strategies are for the narrow-minded. It depends on the players.
I will say this: In the middle part of the last decade, the debate was whether you were crazy not to take running backs with your first two picks. The trend toward committees in the NFL seems to have definitively settled that debate, at least circa 2010. Few fantasy owners should feel obligated to go RB-RB.
My preferred strategy of drafting this year will be almost entirely based on where I'm picking. If I have one of the first four picks, I'm not going to be overly clever: I'm grabbing one of the top four runners (in my mind, the order goes: Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson, Maurice Jones-Drew and Ray Rice), eschewing the "surer thing" quarterbacks or wide receivers. I just find that the true No. 1 backs about whom I have little doubt provide more value over the "average" running back than even the best QBs or WRs have over the "average" players at their positions. Would I deem it ridiculous for you to decide that Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers is a safer bet than Rice, and therefore should go fourth overall? I would not. My preference would be to go Rice/Peyton Manning rather than Brees/Ryan Grant with my first two picks. But I understand arguing the other way.
Once you get past those first handful of picks, I think you're under far less of an obligation to stick with a runner, because (as I've detailed above) all of them have warts. Some are injury-prone. Some have potential committee issues.
My rule of thumb for the first round continues to be: I don't have to win my league with my first pick, but I'd better not lose it. One thing is for certain, though: If you decide not to get a running back in the first, you'll be making up for it with "high-upside" picks through much of the rest of your draft. You'll have to grab back halves of committees, injured players, and runners on bad teams, with the hope that one of those guys will break out of the pack and outdo expectations. If you luck out and grab such a player, you'll do just fine. If you don't, though, you'll feel like you're behind the eight-ball at running back the entire season.
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 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 & Duds" strategy). 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.