We touched on the changing nature of the running back position in the introduction to last week's Quarterback rankings. Given the profundity of committee backfields, the short shelf-life of the position, and the success teams have had with undrafted (Arian Foster, Fred Jackson, Pierre Thomas) and mid-to-late round (Darren Sproles, Michael Turner, Ahmad Bradshaw) backs, the reigning philosophy in NFL war rooms is: barring an Adrian Peterson-level talent, never draft a running back early. It's hard to argue with the evidence. While the Giants, Packers, Saints, and Patriots have enjoyed playoff success with the late-round tandem approach, the NFL's leading rushers (Peterson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Steven Jackson, Chris Johnson, and Turner) have combined for just two postseason victories over the past five years. It's fitting that the last death throes of Turner's career signal the end of the volume runner.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy defined the backfield transformation last November, insisting he's not interested in a 1,700-yard back because "it takes a pounding" only to run on fumes come the "most critical time of the year." The Bengals provide the latest example. While prototype volume runner Cedric Benson rails in vain against the changing times, coordinator Jay Gruden is fully embracing the committee concept: "It's not a bad way to go. Keep guys fresh. They play longer, they're involved," explained Gruden. "If something happens to one, you know you've got a guy that can come in there and be productive. Where you're not relying heavily on one guy and if something happens to him, you’re like, 'Oh God, this guy doesn't have many reps.' I think it's important to have guys touch the ball, I believe, as a committee."
Take the Saints backfield as our paradigm in Dynasty circles. It's easy to second-guess the move to trade up for potential three-down back Mark Ingram in the first round. But Reggie Bush was on the outs, Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory were both sidelined by severe foot/ankle injuries, and Darren Sproles was three months away from the free agent market. Despite missing six games, Ingram still led the backfield in carries only to finish behind both Sproles and Thomas in fantasy points per game. The lesson that should be ingrained in every fantasy owner's mind is that a back's receiving chops now rank with the ability to navigate the trenches up front.
Sign of the times? If fellow Alabama star Trent Richardson follows Ingram's lead as the lone first-round back, it will mark the first time since the 1970 merger that only one running back was selected in the first round in consecutive of years.
On to the rankings.
Note: Age is listed as Years_Months as of September of 2012. The final two columns indicate Rotoworld's rankings from February of 2011 and 2010 respectively. This is the first year that rookies have been included in the rankings prior to the NFL draft.
DLFMock: McCoy 1.03, Foster 1.04, Rice 1.01
The qualifications for tier one are youth, durability, demonstrated 16-game production, and versatility. Only three backs age 26 and under fit the bill heading into the 2012 season. McCoy has the slight edge due to his age and the explosive Eagles offense, which quietly finished in a virtual tie with the Packers as No. 3 in total yardage -- in a down season. ... Foster's five-year deal to stay in Gary Kubiak's perfectly suited zone-blocking scheme lends the stability to leapfrog Rice, who isn't without workload concerns.
DLFMock: Johnson 2.06, Mathews 2.07, Jones-Drew 1.07, Peterson 2.11, McFadden 3.06, Forte 1.11, Charles 2.08
As you can see, I'm chalking up CJpreK's fantasy-sabotaging 2011 season to playing out of shape behind the least effective interior run-blocking trio in the NFL. Flush with salary cap space, new GM Ruston Webster has made it a priority to fix the running game this offseason. Call me a sucker, but I'm buying into Johnson's prediction that he will lead the league in rushing this season. ... Mathews finished seventh in fantasy points last season despite missing two games and parts of others due to nagging injuries and a fumbling problem. With free agent Mike Tolbert likely out of the picture, Mathews should pick up goal-line totes and receptions as a dark horse candidate to top all backs in fantasy points in a true breakout season. ... MJD is one of my favorite players in the league, but he's about to enter the decline phase in a low-rent offense coming off the highest carry total of his career.
Fully acknowledging the risk associated with a back coming off ACL, MCL, and meniscus damage, I picked up Peterson with the 2.11 pick in the DLFMock. Wes Welker's career season two years removed from his own reconstructive surgery bodes well for one of the most talented and committed players in the league. I'm still swinging for the fences with Peterson. He's one of the exceptional players worthy of that risk. ... McFadden's missed games can drive a fantasy owner crazy, but I accept the premise that tailback injuries are widespread enough that players who score the most when they are in the lineup must be valued highly. The loss of Hue Jackson is counterbalanced by vulture Michael Bush's exit via free agency. ... Forte is a rock with one-to-two more years in his prime. ... Charles sees his ranking drop for the first time in three years due to the ACL injury. Should he regain pre-injury form by mid-season, he's still one of the position's unique talents.
DLFMock: No. 3 Rookie 4.07, Stewart 3.02, Sproles 5.02, Lynch 4.01, Murray 3.12, Wells 5.07, Mendenhall 6.10, Spiller 4.04, Ingram 4.12
Described by one scout as the most complete player in the draft, Richardson has also been praised by NFL Network's Mike Mayock as the best running back prospect since Adrian Peterson due to his size-speed ratio, balance, vision, toughness, and quick feet. The pre-Combine knee scope couldn't have been more minor in nature. ... As you can see by Stewart's rankings the past two years, I've long been a believer in his top-five talent at the position. Only the superstar trio of McCoy, Peterson, and Jones-Drew earned a higher running grade from Pro Football Focus in 2011, and Stewart forced more missed tackles in the passing game than any other NFL back. The Panthers will be reluctant to pay two high-dollar backs with Stewart due to hit free agency next offseason, leaving DeAngelo Williams as the odd man out at the age-30 barrier.
The poster child for the new-age fantasy back, Sproles led the position in receptions (86), receiving yards (710), and receiving scores (7) while finishing 10th in standard-scoring points and fifth in PPR formats. With Marques Colston and Robert Meachem hitting the open market, Sproles' role isn't going to be reduced any time soon. ... Lynch's value gained stability with the four-year contract extension, but he's a prime candidate for a dropoff with a career YPC average just below 4.0 and an inflated touchdown total last season. ... Murray will enter the season as the lead back in Dallas, but he has to prove he can stay healthy and hold onto the reins for 16 games.
On rushing talent alone, Wells merits a higher ranking. Unfortunately, he falls into the dreaded "volume runner" category with little responsibility in the passing attack and an inflated 2011 touchdown total of his own. ... Mendenhall will be back as the age-25 starter in a high-scoring offense by mid-season. ... Spiller is a reminder not to throw in the towel on elite running back talents, but his true fantasy impact may still be another two-to-three years away. The Bills plan to lock up respected team leader Fred Jackson with an extension this offseason. ... Ingram is a true foundation back even if the Saints won't utilize him as such for the remainder of Sproles' productive years.
DLFMock: No. 5 Rookie 6.02, No. 6 Rookie 8.12, Jackson 6.08, Best 6.03, Bradshaw 4.10, Helu 6.09, No. 7 Rookie 9.01, Gore 6.12, M. Bush 8.08, R. Bush 8.09
Drawing comparisons to Clinton Portis, Miller earns the No. 2 spot among the rookie prospects. ... S-Jax is looking down the barrel of age 30, but there's hope for a short-term revival in Jeff Fisher's run-oriented offense. He's been a Hall of Fame talent stuck in a wasteland for his entire career. ... Martin and Wilson are neck-and-neck for No. 3 spot among the rookies. ... Best has a Sproles-like ceiling in Detroit's high-powered offense if he can follow Austin Collie's lead and alleviate the concussion concerns for a season. ... Bradshaw is a tandem back with chronic foot problems, not a perennial fantasy stud.
Any owner once bitten by Mike Shanahan's fickle backfield attacks, should be twice shy in giving Helu a high ranking. While there's plenty of potential, Helu offers very little long-term stability as a fantasy starter. ... Gore is ranked six spots below S-Jax due in part to the late-season fade, but mostly because he's no longer a major factor in the passing game. ... Michael Bush has gained his freedom just in time for the decline phase of his career. Ideally used as a complementary back, Bush failed to top 80 yards in his last six starts and managed to hit 3.50 YPC just once in the final month and a half. ... Reggie Bush finally stayed relatively healthy and productive as the lead back for the first time in his six-year career. Forgive me if I remain skeptical.