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Fantasy Football 2011: A look at running backs

08.02.11 at 12:03 pm ET
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Same as it ever was. … Running backs have always dominated the top of fantasy drafts and they probably always will. In recent years, receivers have forced their way further into the first few rounds, but the elite running backs aren’t going anywhere. Why? Because in typical fantasy football formats, you need to start at least two running backs. Even in smaller leagues, there are 20 starting running backs on a weekly basis, and that number expands quickly in bigger leagues with flex positions. The elite backs will always be the most valuable commodity, and 2011 is no exception. What has changed is the devaluation of second tier of backs.

With that, we present you with Rotobahn’s 12 RB1s for 2011. For the sake of clarity, these rankings are based on performance scoring. You could argue for a few adjustments to the rankings if you play in a PPR format.

1.  Adrian Peterson, Vikings

He is back to being the heart of the offense, and that just feels right. If we liked his offensive line a little more, he’d be head-and-shoulders above the pack. Still, Peterson is the most proven and most consistent running back in the game today, and he is our choice at the top of performance drafts. He is going to give you yards and he’s going to find the zone. And, if history is any guide, he’s going to stay healthy. Draft AP with confidence.

2. Chris Johnson, Titans

His spot could be in jeopardy if he holds out too long, but we love CJ’s skills. He is second-to-none as far as pure playmaking ability is concerned, and we like the idea of Mike Munchak as his head coach. Munchak knows a few things about creating holes for running backs, and he knows Johnson’s strengths. Assuming that the Titans do the right thing and pay their best player, we like Johnson to be among the league’s leaders and bounce back to the form we saw in 2009. The addition of Matt Hasselbeck is also a plus as the offense now has a chance at some balance.

3. Jamaal Charles, Chiefs

Charles has some questions as far as how large his share of the carries will be, but we are going to tell you what we told you in 2010, don’t fear the RBBC when it comes to Charles. He can do an amazing amount of damage with twenty touches, and we expect his touches to go up in 2011. He is an incredibly dynamic back, and at his size, the Chiefs are wise to keep him from getting worn down. We expect a slight bump over last year’s numbers. He’s a rock-solid RB1.

4. Arian Foster, Texans

You could reasonably rank him higher, but we expect the Texans to throw more in 2011, and we expect Foster to give up some carries to Ben Tate as the year wears on. Foster missed some time with a knee cartilage issue last year, and we expect they will not lean on him quite so heavily this season. We are also concerned that he is going to find slightly tougher sledding in 2011 without fullback Vonta Leach leading the way. Leach was easily the best lead blocker we watched in 2010. Just watch what happens in Baltimore this year when they run “blast.” Foster’s still a top-notch back, and we’re happy to take him at the fourth or fifth spot.

5. Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers

So much of what makes a great fantasy back has nothing to do with the player, and Mendenhall is a prime example. He’d be high on any fantasy list even if he was an average back … think Willie Parker. The Steelers are always a good team and they always make a commitment to running the ball. Now let’s look at what this player brings to the table:  He’s big, he’s fast, he can break tackles, and he creates his own space.  Look at what he did to the Jets in the AFC championship game. Mendenhall made some huge plays to single-handedly extend drives. This guy has the skills AND the opportunity, which makes him a safe pick high in drafts. What’s amazing is that he may presently be picked as late as round two.

6. Ray Rice, Ravens

Rice wasn’t as good for fantasy as many expected in 2010, but he was still a top ten back in performance scoring, and top eight in PPR scoring. We expect better things in 2011 with Willis McGahee having moved-on to Denver. Rice should see more action near the stripe, which ought to raise his touchdown total. We also expect a modest overall increase in touches, so we are bullish on Rice for the upcoming season. Take him with confidence once the top five are gone. As we noted earlier, the addition of All-Pro fullback Vonta Leach is another big plus. Rice is a viable pick just about anywhere in a PPR draft, and you could seek him a few spots higher in performance too. We don’t see a ton of separation among the top six backs. In the words of Greg Marmalard, “They’re each outstanding in their own way.”

7. LeSean McCoy, Eagles

It’s sort of ironic. When you hear people talk about the 2011 Eagles, you don’t hear a whole lot about LeSean McCoy. That may change a little this season, because McCoy is going to shred teams when he gets his chances. The Eagles may not run it a ton, but when they do, McCoy will have his way with teams who cannot afford to load the box.  Philly is simply too loaded on the outside (not to mention all the attention teams must pay to Mr. Vick and his ridiculous wheels) for defenses to key on McCoy. McCoy is the fourth thing teams think about when Vick drops back, and that makes him very effective in the passing game, too. He’s going to be very productive in any scoring format. McCoy may lack the name appeal of some of the other first rounders, but, like Mendenhall, this guy is in a great situation. Draft him and enjoy.

8. Michael Turner, Falcons

This is a tentative ranking. If his surgically-repaired groin acts up, we may downgrade him. But as long as he’s healthy, he should get a ton of scoring chances in Atlanta’s offense. Turner’s also a lock to get his carries, so he’s a good bet to finish in the top ten again in 2011. He’s a safe pick for those who hate risk.

9. Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars

We could move MJD up or down over the next month depending upon how he looks in preseason. We want to see him on the field. If he is kept completely under wraps, he could become too risky in light of his knee problems. If healthy, the little man is potentially the best back in fantasy. We’ll be watching him closely over the next month, but he’s been limited in practice by the coaching staff thus far.

10. Darren McFadden, Raiders

If you could promise me sixteen starts out of McFadden, I would move him up into the top five … that’s how good he looked last season when he was on the field. Sadly, RUN-DMC missed three games, and it was still the healthiest season he’s ever produced–by quite a bit. Having said that, we like the mini-trend and we really liked what we saw as far as performance goes. McFadden was a far better player in 2010 than he was in his first two years. He’s our tenth back for the time being.

11. LeGarrette Blount, Buccaneers

His season didn’t even begin until week three, yet he still topped a thousand yards as a rookie, while giving up touches to Carnell Williams. In 2011, Blount will have an even bigger role which he will own from week one. And, defenses can’t stack the box all day with Josh Freeman’s downfield abilities. Blount is a solid power back and he’s got a sweet role mostly to himself. His 2011 prospects are outstanding.

12. Frank Gore, 49ers

His skills are beyond question. If Gore took LeSean McCoy’s spot on Philly, we’d move him up six spots. Gore is so good that being in Frisco hasn’t really slowed him down. Only injuries can slow this guy down, and he had a serious one in 2010 that ended his season in week twelve. He’s healthy now and we like what he could do in Jim Harbaugh’s offense. It should be a big step-up from Jimmy Raye, who was overmatched as a coordinator in 2010. They are saying all the things you want to hear as far as getting Gore space more often and getting him involved in the passing attack. It’s common coach-speak, but it also makes a lot of sense in this case. One other potential positive is that Gore has no contract for 2012, so he might be playing for big bucks — which is a good thing.

Honorable mentions: Steven Jackson, Matt Forte, Peyton Hillis, DeAngelo Williams, Ahmad Bradshaw

For our complete rankings, join us at Rotobahn.com.

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