Hello Speak Easy readers, Judd Manning here and I’ll be covering fantasy football for the site. As a 3-time league champ in A League of Their Own, my fantasy league in Central PA, I will write about random fantasy topics that I feel are somewhat relevant or useful to the average player. Today, I am going to get into covering the running back position.
The running back spot on your fantasy depth chart may ultimately be what ends up making or breaking your season. It is important to adapt your draft strategy as the NFL and its teams change the way that they use their backs. Gone are the days when most teams have a workhorse back that takes 25-30 touches a game as your eyes widen looking at your live scoring screen. There were only 7 running backs in the league in 2011 that averaged more than 20 touches per game, making the position the most premium in fantasy football. I understand there may be leagues that have more differentiated scoring, but I am talking about the vast majority. Most teams have gone to a committee in their backfield, having a different back for each role (between the 20′s, third down, goal line, etc.). So it takes a little more studying on your part to get the scoring that you want. Here’s a look at the names you might want to write down of players that may be featured in offenses rather than by committee:
*MJD – I have an asterisk beside him, of course, because of his relationship gone sour with the Jags front office and question whether he will be on an NFL field this season. Quite honestly, I would be pissed too if my teams owner thought of my absence as “not a major concern” after being the only semblance of an NFL player on the team last year. As 2011′s leading rusher, he has the ability to repeat as the rushing champ, he just has to get on the field first. Draft with extreme caution as a top 10 pick could end up losing you major production.
Foster - Arian may have led the league in rushing last year had he not missed 3 of his team’s games. Their backfield is now completely healthy with bruiser Ben Tate and newly acquired Justin Forsett. Don’t expect this to hurt his production though, as he has defined himself as one of the elite backs in the league. His pass catching ability also makes him very valuable to fantasy owners as he will still be seeing plenty of 3rd down opportunities. Tate still remains a somewhat productive option as a bench player.
*Lynch – Another asterisk as a situation to watch out for with his pending DUI arrest, we will see what action is taken by Goodell. One of my fantasy saviors from my championship team a year ago, I expect Lynch to return to beast mode form again once he gets on the field. With career highs in yards and TD’s last year, Lynch is the centerpiece of the offense. He should reach his 19 carries per game average from last year. However it remains to be seen if Russell Wilson can continue his success in the preseason to the regular season. The opportunity will be there for a solid fantasy season.
McCoy - Shady is an explosive back that I loved watching locally at Pitt. A great 3 down back that also led the league in 2011 with 17 carries of 20 yards or more, McCoy figures to have another great fantasy year with all of the attention that Philly’s playmakers must receive. His 48 receptions last year were among the top for running backs and that number could rise with the play extending ability of Vick. Fellow Pitt grad Dion Lewis should see some carries, but I still consider McCoy to be a top of the line fantasy back this year.
Rice – Ray Rice may arguably be the most valued fantasy back in the game today, and is definitely worth that top 1st round pick. With an ESPN average draft position of 3.5, he is clearly a sought after asset to any roster. The fact that he added 700+ receiving yards to his 1300+ yard rushing season adds that much more to his overall value. Having one of the best fullbacks in Vonta Leach in a league where they are hard to come by only increases his fantasy value. The rock and stability of the offense in which Joe Flacco’s play can be somewhat questionable, have no hesitation to draft Rice if you have the opportunity.
Johnson - While it seemed to many that Chris had a big drop in production in 2011, I am not sure that it was as bad as people think. While his TD numbers were down, he still managed at average 4 YPC and went over 1000 yards on the ground despite only getting 262 carries, almost 100 carries less than his spectacular 2009 season. Johnson also posted a career high in receptions in 2011 with 57. He could also provide some experience and stability to an offense that is going through a quarterback transition to second year player Jake Locker. Expect him to return back to peak form and secure his spot in people’s minds as a top 10 fantasy pick.
Forte – He is still the Bears workhorse even after the offseason in which Chicago acquired big back Michal Bush from Oakland. While many in Chi Town don’t think that Bush will pan out, I believe that he will get a considerable amount of goal line carries, slightly taking away from Forte’s fantasy production. He still remains a valuable early second round pick in most leagues, as he finished 3 yards away from 1000 last year despite only playing in 12 games. He is also a threat to go out and snag 500 receiving yards out of the backfield.
F. Jackson – Fred was one of the great stories in the league last year before going down with an injury after 10 games. Through those 10 games Jackson compiled 934 yards and 10 TD’s that had fantasy owners drooling. An impressive 442 receiving yards in those 10 games had him on pace for a ridiculous season and I would have loved to see his stat sheet after a full 16 games. While he is still the man in Buffalo, speedy C.J. Spiller is expected to have an increased role in the offense after performing well as a replacement for Jackson. As he looks like he is fully recovered from last season’s injury, I expect him to have a solid fantasy season worthy of a late second to early third round pick.
S. Jackson – It has been tough to get heard as a player in St. Louis, but Jackson has done about as much as he can to become known. With a raw, young offense, he has seen an enormous amount of carries and nothing this year should change that. Having two rookie backs on the depth chart behind him I expect Jackson’s numbers to get even better this year with the increased development of QB Sam Bradford. I look for him to get back to having a 1200 yard and 8 TD type season. Draft Jackson with confidence.
Some other notable backs and their fantasy position for 2012:
DMC - After Bush left, expect McFadden to see more carries and continue his stellar play. If he can stay healthy all year, look for him to have top 10 running back numbers.
McGahee - My biggest running back sleeper this year, he will be a pounding running back that helps Peyton set up his play action passes in Denver. Still a consistent, hard runner, I see him exceeding expectations.
DeAngelo - He has been the lightning for the offense with J Stew being the thunder. To my surprise, they added Tolbert from San Diego to add more punch to the offense. With the addition of weapons and Cam Newton’s running ability, I expect his production to take a decrease this year, especially around the goal line where Stewart and Tolbert are both good options. Expect his yardage to drop slightly, but he should still be the primary back between the 20′s.
Gore - Gore-While he is still first on the depth chart, Gore is one of the backs that I expect to see suffer as a result of the committee being built in San Fran. They brought in Brandon Jacobs for the tough yardage situations that we have seen him have success at and electric back LaMichael James to provide a spark in the return game as well as certain screen and draw plays. Kendall Hunter also remains an option.
Mendenhall - Steeler fans are excited to see him off the PUP list, but he still may not play the first couple weeks of the season. With Redman taking over on third down and goal line situations, his TD numbers will go down and his carries might too if Redman does well prior to Mendy returning.
AP - Coming off of his knee injury, I see the Vikes being a little bit cautions with him coming back. Toby Gerhart provides a tough runner to eat up some tough yards and the progression of Ponder will see him throwing more. I may get surprised, but I don’t see Peterson having his usual numbers that we are used to seeing.
There seems to be somewhat of a common factor between the top rated fantasy backs these days and that is the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, which goes hand in hand with being on the field for 3rd down situations. Stay tuned to Speak Easy Sports and my fantasy football insight. Also, follow me on Twitter @juddmanning24 and let me know any feedback you may have.