The difference in running back rankings this season from site to site is going to fluctuate, and it will fluctuate a lot. I’ve already seen five No.2 running backs and we’re only in March. With that note, remember it is only March, these can and will change. It’s just a baseline of rankings that will combine two things: 2012 production and offseason story lines that will affect each player’s value.
One more thing to remember. This year’s running back pool is like an inverted sandwich. Think about it. Another sandwich comparison would be the 2013 NFL Draft, which is like a regular (rather than inverted) sandwich. The draft has plenty of talent and lots of gems that will shine through the middle rounds. It’s the opposite for this year’s running backs. At the top, it’s stacked, in the middle rounds — that’s the worst place you can take a running back, and at the end of teh draft you can get some high-upside players.
That’s my take on it, for now anyways. Keep in mind we’re still six month away from the season and a lot can change. With that being said, and being sure you’re taking all of this with a grain of salt, let’s jump into it.
1. Adrian Peterson - Do I need to explain why Peterson is the first running back in my rankings? Second highest elusive rating per PFF and caused the most missed tackles of any running back. Oh, and he was nine yards away from breaking the record for most rushing yards in a single season. He should go No. 1 overall in every league.
2. Jamaal Charles - Charles is going to be on the field a lot in 2012. He averaged 5.3 yards per carry in 2013 coming off an ACL injury and 6.2 yards per carry in 2011. Unfortunately, he didn’t get a chance to reach the end zone very often. He finished ninth in fantasy points on ESPN. When you take out the touchdowns, he is fourth. With Peyton Hillis a free agent, Charles should be getting a lot more touches inside the red zone, which is going to mean more touchdowns. I’m excited for Charles in the new and improved Andy Reid Chiefs’ offense. Expect the Chiefs to hang around more, and that’s going to mean more late-game touches for Charles.
3. Arian Foster - A couple of things I’m concerned with with Foster. His yards per carry has declined from 4.9 in 2010 to 4.1 in 2012. He rushes the ball well over 300 times a season, a dangerous amount for a running back if he wants to stay healthy for long. He was 93rd in missed tackle per touch, according to Pro Football Focus, as he forced a missed tackle once on 12 rushes. The next guy on this list averaged one missed tackle per 3.8 carries. His value also relies heavily on finding the end zone, which is the difference between Foster and Charles in fantasy value. Don’t be surprised if Foster breaks down this season, but he’s this high because he gets so many touches.
4. C.J. Spiller - In a fairly small sample size, Spiller was outstanding. He forced 66 missed tackles on 250 touches. While Peterson led the league in missed tackles with 71, he did it on 388 carries. He also ran for 15 or more yards on about 7.7% of his carries. Foster rushed for 15 or more yards on just 4.8 percent of his carries. The biggest concern has to be Fred Jackson, who will still be a part of the team in Buffalo and will take carries from Spiller at times. Although I do expect him to be more limited at this point in his career (Jackson is 32 years old)
5. Marshawn Lynch - Lynch touched the ball 338 times in 2013, and almost all of those touches came via the ground. He also had the fifth most rushing touchdowns in the NFL and averaged 5 yards per carry. He’s still relatively young at just 26 years old, so it’s likely that he can put up those same numbers again.
6. Ray Rice - My concern with Rice is minimal, but there is some concern, primarily because of his backup, Bernard Pierce. Pierce is a complete stud, and Rice has been just average. Rice averaged just 4.4 yards per carry in 2012, and none of his stats really jump out at you. His top asset to his fantasy owners is his week-to-week consistency. You know what you’re getting — about 15 points a week — whether is be through the air or on the ground. I could see Pierce expanding his workload if he does what he did in his rookie season again.
7. Alfred Morris - I’m very, very close to putting Morris at fifth. If you think Morris is a product of the system, you’re wrong. He forced the second most missed tackles in the NFL and rushed for 13 touchdowns, good for second in the NFL, all as a rookie. He does all of his work on the ground, but might just increase his work through the air next season, as he wants to improve that aspect of his game. As long as he is not Shanahan-ed by Roy Helu coming back into the picture, Morris is as solid as they come.
8. Doug Martin - Two things that worry me here. The first is the inconsistency that is the Buccaneers offense. Week-to-week you can never know how the Bucs will play, and when the Bucs get down, like most teams, they don’t run the ball. Second, Martin slowed down at the end of the year. In fact, in Week 11 to Week 16 he didn’t even record a 15 yard rush and didn’t go over 5 yards per carry, which is concerning. That being said, he lost both starting tackles mid-season and will get them back in 2013, which is something to note.
9. LeSean McCoy - McCoy’s yards per carry average has gone down since averaging 2010 when he rushed for over 5 yards per carry. He rushed for only 4.2 yards per carry in 2012. His yards after contact has also gone down since 2010, from 3.0 to 2.5, per ProFootballFocus. My point: he seems to be declining. We’ll see if a new coach can fix that or not.
10. DeMarco Murray – If Murray can stay healthy, I wouldn’t put it past him to be a top five running back in 2012. Nothing really flashes about Murray, but he gets the job done when the Cowboys want to put the ball on the ground. Going to get you 15 points almost every time he plays, but the main concern is him staying healthy. If can do that, he’ll be a great pick.
11. Trent Richardson - Didn’t do anything to excite me in 2012. His numbers rely on his amount of touches. He only averaged 3.6 yards per carry and relied heavily on his 12 total touchdowns. On the bright side, he did force 59 missed tackles and caught 51 passes, which is more than I would have expected.
12. Reggie Bush - I’m excited to see Bush in Honalulu blue and silver. He fits in nicely with the offense in Detroit and should be the lead back. He is an average running back that can show some major flashes at times. He rushed for 15 yards or more on 7% of his rushes, the 19th highest average in the league. He should be highly favored over Mikel LeShoure.
13. Chris Johnson – I don’t particularly like the inconsistent running backs, and that’s exactly what CJ?K is. Johnson had eight games under 60 rushing yards with only one touchdown in those games. He didn’t reach the end zone until Week 7. That’s why Chris Johnson isn’t in the top 12.
14. Stevan Ridley - Don’t look now, but Ridley received around 15-20 carries per game on a consistent basis last season and averaged 4.4 yards per carry. He received the sixth most carries in the NFL last season at 290. He also proved durable. If Belichick continues to lean on Ridley (he should), then he is a solid RB2, even borderline RB1.
15. Matt Forte - Forte is going to usually get you around 1,100 rushing yards and around five touchdowns a year. That’s my expectation. Injury is the biggest concern with Forte, but he’s only missed five games in his last two years of his career, and didn’t miss any games in the three years before.
16. Maurice Jones-Drew - Can MoJo come back from the foot injury and surgery? He’s supposed to shed the walking boot this week and should participate come training camp. Has upside if you can get him late enough. We know his potential.
17. Steven Jackson - A very intriguing pick. Falcons offense is explosive, and they are expecting to use Jackson in more ways than one. Jackson can still do his thing, and he will get around 20 touches a game on a regular basis, which warrants a RB2 spot.
18. Frank Gore - Gore and Jackson are good comparisons. They are grinders and each will get a hefty amount of carries. A solid Rb No. 2, but you know what you’re getting.
19. David Wilson - This might be a little big high, but I don’t like anyone under him. I think Andre Brown is going to steal a lot of carries and touchdowns from Wilson, but Wilson will rack up yardage. He is explosive. He averaged 5 yards per carry and rushed for over 15 yards on 8.5 percent of his carries. As long as Ahmad Bradshaw doesn’t return via free agency at a cheaper price, Wilson should be the starter, but keep your eye on Brown too.
20. Darren McFadden - 3.3 yards per carry and forced a missed tackle on less than a tenth of his carries. Those stats along with the injury make for a dangerous concoction. I’m staying away if I can.
21. Ryan Mathews – Mathews has missed ten games in his first three seasons in the NFL. That’s over 20 percent of his games. That’s the first concern when drafting him. He can show flashes when he is on the field, like he did at the end of 2011. On the bright side, Mathews essentially has the starting job locked up. He will get the carries when he is on the field. Danny Woodhead was brought in and could steal some touches on the side, however.
22. Rashard Mendenhall - Mendenhall seems to be healthy after tearing his ACL in 2011. He’s just an average running back at a 4.1 yards per carry average in his career. Mendenhall should carry the ball extensively for the Cardinals after they cut Beanie Wells. He’s a solid RB2, but his value is going to depend on TDs.
23. Darren Sproles - Seven receiving touchdowns is the reason Sproles is here, not what he does on the ground. He was targeted 93 times in 2012, the same amount of targets as Packers wide receiver James Jones. The dual threat is hard to pass up.
24. Lamar Miller – He’ll be the biggest beneficiary of Reggie Bush departing. Daniel Thomas should take some carries, but Miller was much more effective in 2012. Miller averaged 4.9 yards per carry in 2012 against Thomas’ 3.6. Expect Miller to tart and touch the ball 15-20 times a game.
25. Vick Ballard - If the Colts stick with Ballard as their starting guy, he should continue to improve. He had an average season in 2012 as a rookie, but flashed a bit. He only found the end zone all year, but as the team grows, Ballard’s production should grow as well. A bit of a risk, but he has upside to be a high end RB2. He doesn’t have any competition for the starting job at this point.
26. Daryl Richardson - Richardson had 88 more carries than Isaiah Pead in 2012. It’s clear the coaches like him more, but I think Pead’s talent is greater than Richardson’s. Both backs are explosive and have bright futures. It’s going to be a situation to watch as we head into offseason workouts.
27. Mike Goodson - As long as the Jets don’t acquire another running back, Goodson is going to be big. Bilal Powell won’t even compete with Goodson’s talent. Injuries have had an effect on Goodson’s career, but if he can stay on the field he will make waves around the league. Likely will move up in my rankings before the season starts. For more on Goodson, I highly recommend the reaction to Goodson signing with the Jets from ProFootballFocus’s Allen Bassett that compares him and Powell. If you’re wondering where Shonn Greene is in this New York running back mix-up, he is now a member of the Tennessee Titans and will backup Chris Johnson.
28. Andre Brown - This is another guy I like a lot, furthering my inverse sandwich comparison. We’re getting to the good stuff. He averaged more yards per carry, had more touchdowns, and had a higher 15+ yard rush per carry average than David Wilson. There’s reason to think Brown could be higher. This is another duo to watch as we start getting into camps.
29. Jonathan Dwyer - Dwyer isn’t too exciting, but nor is Isaac Redman, and those are currently your options at running back in Pittsburgh. Dwyer has much more upside than Isaac Redman, and I do expect him to get more carries, that’s why he is higher.
30. Jonathan Stewart - I’m so burnt out on these Carolina running backs. Stewart had his worst year of his career in 2012 as he averaged just 3.6 yards per carry. He also scored just two total touchdowns. The Panthers tried tot turn to Stewart as their lead back in the middle of the season, butt hat never happened. Stewart is too inconsistent to trust in your lineup. Niehter Stewart or DeAngelo Williams will be on any of my teams.
31. DuJuan Harris - It seems as if the Packers will bring someone in on top of Harris, James Starks and Alex Green (expect one of those last two to be cut before the season). If they do, Harris’ value goes down. But he should still be in the fold no matter what.
32. Willis McGahee - Just like the Packers, I see the Broncos drafting or picking up a running back (Cedric Benson?). McGahee should still be in the plans, but limit expectations. Currently the starter, but could be a three-headed monster with Knowshon Moreno and Ronnie Hillman.
33. Isaiah Pead - See Richardson, Daryl.
34. BenJarvus Green-Ellis - Cincinnati clearly wants to bring in another back, or at least there are rumblings that they want to. They re-signed Cedric Peerman in the offseason, but that shouldn’t limit the Law Firm. As of now, expect what you got from Green-Ellis last year, but the outlook could change within a couple of weeks.
35. Shane Vereen - Vereen should be more involved this year. Danny Woodhead is now with the Chargers, so Vereen should find himself on the field more often. Stevan Ridley is a much better back, but he’s not ready carry the full workload. Expect Vereen to touch to ball around 10-15 times a game. Solid stash for your bench.
36. DeAngelo Williams - Like Jonathan Stewart, I’m tired of Williams. They are both very talented backs, but they’re too inconsistent for me. There’s no rhyme or reason to Williams’ success. I’m staying away.
37. Mark Ingram – Another guy I’d like to stay away from. I don’t see how he even keeps his job with Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory right on his tail. Only relevant fantasy wise when he scores.
38. Bilal Powell - See Goodson, Mike. Definitely a name to watch in preseason camps.
40. Ben Tate – Tate is one of the beast backup running backs in the league. If Arian Foster goes down, Tate would become a top 15 running back. He’s that good. He gets more chances then other backups of lead backs.
41. Daniel Thomas – I think Lamar Miller is the guy, as I’ve already said. Thomas has played two years in Miami and has just a 3.5 yards per carry average. That’s just not going to cut it.
42. Pierre Thomas - Thomas is a better back than Mark Ingram, but the Saints have made it clear that they want Ingram in the game plan. I don’t like it, but that’s how it’s going to be. Thomas becomes a sold RB2 if Ingram goes down.
43. Ronnie Hillman - As of now, I see Hillman beating out Knowshon Moreno and being hte No. 2 running back for Denver.
44. Bernard Pierce - After just one year in the league, I can say with confidence that Pierce is a top 32 running back in the league. In other words, he should be starting. But he’s not, and the Ravens don’t give him much run behind Ray Rice.
45. Isaac Redman - Redman is another average running back. I’ve never been excited about him, and there’s no reason to be real excited. He’ll back up Jonathan Dwyer and will get some run here and there. Don’t get excited.
46. Bryce Brown - Lots of upside, but another guy who won’t get enough run to have fantasy value. Would be very valuable if LeSean McCoy goes down, though.
47. Fred Jackson - I expect the Bills to heavily favor C.J. Spiller over Jackson this season. Jackson’s career is winding down — he’s 32 years old — and Spiller is just too talented to keep on the bench.
48. Mikel LeShoure - Could still get touches in short-yardage situation behind Reggie Bush, but I wouldn’t expect much else. I think the fact that the Lions wanted Bush so bad shows how little they value LeShoure, but that’s just me.
49. Justin Forsett - Forsett is a very quality back. He hasn’t had a chance to really be in a featured role yet, but if Maurice Jones-Drew can’t stay healthy, Forsett is going to be that guy. He’s averaged 4.9 yards per carry as a role player in a limited role everywhere he has gone. I’m excited to see him in a Jaguars jersey.
50. Cedric Peerman - Shouldn’t get much run behind BenJarvus Green-Ellis, but I do like his chances if he gets a chance to showcase himself. He was just re-signed by the Bengals, which makes me think they won’t go out and sign another free agent running back.
Top Free Agent Running Backs Still Available
Ahmad Bradshaw (age 26)
Beanie Wells (age 24)
Cedric Benson (age 30)
Michael Turner (age 31)
Peyton Hillis (age 27)
Felix Jones (age 25)
Kevin Smith (age 26)
La’Rod Stephens-Howling (age 25)
Chris Rainey (age 25)
Javon Ringer (age 26)
Brian Leonard (age 29)
The free agent list above is in order of my preference. I hope you enjoyed my running back rankings. Also be sure to check out my quarterback rankings and give me a follow on Twitter for all of the latest news from around the league. Wide receivers are next!