The 2012 NFL football season is almost here. If you’re looking for exclusive, expert fantasy football content, you can find that at RotoExperts.com. If you’re looking for advice from an NFL scout, read on below, because it’s time now to dive into my positional fantasy rankings.
I’ll begin with the top 20 fantasy running backs. When deciding the rankings, I rate each player in 20 different categories. The categories range from projected workload, diversity of the back, running style, injury history, priority of the offense, off-field issues, red zone attack, weapons around them, history against the elements, and much more. After each back’s score is tallied up, I tweak the scores based on my opinion of possible growth vs wear & tear. It’s obviously not an exact science, but it will give you a firm base on the direction that you should be headed when your fantasy team is on the clock.
2012 Top 20 Fantasy Running Backs
1. LeSean McCoy – Last season I mentioned that McCoy was the most overlooked back heading into fantasy drafts. He paid off huge dividends for me in almost every league. After I tallied up the points for this year’s running back rankings, to my surprise, the widest margin of separation came between the first and second place backs. It was McCoy and then everyone else. I wouldn’t hesitate to make LeSean McCoy the first overall selection in any fantasy draft. McCoy will get the bulk of the workload. He’s still effective in the red zone despite his size. Mike Vick and the offense built around him, prevents defenses from having the luxury of focusing on McCoy. He’s not a victim of the elements or a certain pattern of effective running. Lastly, he’s definitely a dual threat that stretches defenses in the receiving game. As DeSean Jackson stretches out the back of the defense, McCoy can weave through the middle of the spaced out defense with Barry Sanders-esque agility.
Fear Factor: Athletic quarterbacks increase the effectiveness of their running backs. If Mike Vick goes down, which is worth mentioning due to his style of play, McCoy’s value takes a hit. Even in this worst case scenario, McCoy would still be capable of getting his production, but it would be naive to think Vick doesn’t add any value.
2. Ray Rice – The competition for second place in these rankings was split by a hair. Rice is coming off his best year and doesn’t have a proven second tier guy to push him for reps. All Rice does is produce. There is zero inconsistency in his game. The team selected Bernard Pierce in hopes that he can keep Rice fresh and develop into a second option and even a security plan in the event of an injury. This offense feeds off of what Ray does and I don’t see them forcing the issue early on by getting Pierce heavily involved. Rice has proven that he’s built to sustain a 300 carry season and an additional 70 receptions every season. Even if his role reduces, it’ll be too minimal to fear a severe falloff in production.
Fear Factor: Anytime that there is change in the offensive line, like the departure of Ben Grubbs, there should be concern over the moving pieces. Many times through the history of the NFL, extraordinary backs have seen a huge decline in performance after having three straight seasons of heavy work. Ray Rice has averaged 356 total touches per season, over the last three years. Steven Jackson has bucked the trend and stayed healthy + productive throughout his 2,000 NFL carries. That is the exception, not the rule. Even with the fear of these situations, I would still bet on Rice.
3. Arian Foster – I consider Arian Foster to be one of, if not the best running back in the NFL. The reason he slides to third in my rankings has to do with Ben Tate. His backfield counterpart is the caliber of a quality NFL starter. When a guy runs for almost a 1,000 yards and does so by averaging 5.4 yards a carry, you take note. Foster doesn’t have a me first personality and the Texans could use the duo to maximize each others NFL life expectancy. I view the pair as a newer version of what the Carolina Panthers have. Two guys that gel perfectly with each other and don’t make a ruckus about wanting more touches. Arian runs so effortlessly and his fluid style is like running water. His ying and yang blend of vision and cuts also appears during his open field running after receptions. The third place ranking has more to do with Tate and even newly acquired Justin Forsett, who will have a niche in this offense. Foster will be fresh for the full season and this makes him even more deadly. He’ll also still be the primary back and put numbers up that will be worthy of a top pick in any fantasy league.
Fear Factor: Arian enjoyed running inside and off the right side of the Houston Texans line last season. He will be following different numbers through those holes in 2012. The concern will be about how big are those holes that he’s running to. Eric Winston and Mike Brisiel have both departed for new zone schemes in the AFC West. The split in carries and a brand new right side of the offensive line will give any owner room for concern.
4. Michael Turner - Yes, Turner is a thirty year old running back, but he’s a young 30. He only totaled 228 carries over his first 4 years in the NFL. Since coming to Atlanta in 2008 all of that has changed. He’s rushed over 300 times in a season for three out of the last four years. At almost 250 pounds, he’s built for the wear and tear. Turner doesn’t contribute much to the receiving game, but when he’s averaging 4.5 yards per carry and double digit touchdowns year after year, it’s easy to overlook the one-dimensional side of his attack. Having Julio Jones progress in year two, Roddy White catch more consistently, and Tony Gonzalez not run out of gas, could all pay huge dividends in the overall scheme of Turner’s value.
Fear Factor: If the offense gets creative with the use of Jacquizz Rodgers and rookie fullback, Bradie Ewing, Turner could take a major hit in production on a fantasy level. Quizz has the elusiveness to give a defense massive headaches. It’s easy to see the Falcons getting him more involved, especially as a receiving threat. If Atlanta wants to save some of the tread on Turner’s tires, we could see a lot of fullback dives in short to-go distances and more importantly on the goal line. As the Falcons offensive coordinator, I would look to do exactly that. Keeping Turner fresh could be huge for the Falcons playoff run, but certain doom for fantasy owners.
5. Ryan Mathews – It’s hard not to open up with the fear factors on Ryan Mathews. It’s easy to see his potential and what he could become. He averaged almost 5 yards per carry and tacked on 50 receptions for good measure last year. Mathews has an incredible explosiveness that jumps off of the screen when watching him play. He keeps defenses on their heels for fear of missing on the anticipation of the running lanes. Their tendency to overreact actually leads to bigger breakdowns in the defense. I could easily list Mathews as the number 4 fantasy back, but Turner’s track record edges out the fears associated with Mathews. The potential of Mathews’ season is huge. He should see 80% of the carries, but the major question will be if the Chargers use Le’Ron McClain in a Mike Tolbert type of role. McClain had 10 touchdowns back in 2008 and wanted to see more time at halfback.
Fear Factor: Injuries, injuries, injuries. Can Ryan Mathews stay healthy for 16 games and have a season with 275-300 rushes with 60 receptions? There are several running backs that will be kept out of the top 10 due to injury concerns. Mathews still gets a top 5 ranking due largely to his potential, share of the carries, and complete offense outweighing the concerns of him getting nicked up again. I won’t lie though, if it’s time for me to draft a running back and the top four are gone, I’m clicking Mathews’ name with my eyes closed, butt cheeks clinched, and a prayer on the way up.
6. Maurice Jones-Drew – MoJo is as tough as they come. He had 386 total touches last season and is coming up on 1,500 carries for his career. He’s distracted with wanting to get a huge payday. I fear a long term holdout may be on the horizon. Every year when an elite player holds out, they come back after getting their new contract and get hit with an injury in training camp or one of the very first games of the season. I don’t blame Maurice for wanting to get his money adjusted. He realizes that the running back position is a young man’s game and this could be his last shot at a contract that can set him up for retirement. While he’s only 27, he has 6 years of NFL wear and tear on his 5’8 body. He may be in shape, but that’s still a lot of hits from mammoth 300 pound linemen and athletic, monster linebackers. Jones-Drew has only had “every down back” type carries over the last three years of the six he’s spent in the NFL. He still averaged 177 carries a season over the first three years though. MoJo is an extremely strong, compact, back that finds the holes and makes it difficult for the defense to locate and take down with a square hit. If he can get his contract worked out on time and come to camp ready, he still has the ability to duplicate what he did in 2011.
Fear Factor: I’ve been preaching the Rashad Jennings gospel for the last few years. If he can come back from his knee injury to the tune of at least 90% of the man he was, he will be in line for an increased workload. MoJo doesn’t want to open the door for Jennings to see increased first team reps. A lengthy holdout could force the Jaguars to see what they actually have in Jennings. Even if MoJo comes back before training camp ends, Rashad may have already impressed enough to earn a chunk of the minority share of carries.
7. Chris Johnson - This is a great spot to draft Chris Johnson. All of the CJ2K BS has died down, along with his ego. He was ready to place himself in the Hall of Fame after his first two seasons. He needed a touch of reality to brush across his career. He was in the same place a year ago that MoJo is in now. It seems that his work ethic may have come back and now he has that chip back on his shoulder. Good, good for him. That’s what he needs to play with to be successful. You could make a case for CJ to be above MoJo, but until I see his decisive running style come back, I’ll take Jones-Drew’s risk over Johnson’s. It takes about three full years before an offense really clicks, when switching to a zone scheme. The Titans had a partial year last year and this whole offseason to prepare. I don’t think we will see the full extent of what the scheme could be in Tennessee, this year, but I believe having Mike Munchak and Bruce Matthews in-house may expedite the growth period. Chris is a given for 50 catches and if he can get better at the one cut and go, along with the linemen developing into better initial and second level blockers, we could easily see a 1,500 rushing yards / 500 receiving yards type of season.
Fear Factor: It goes along with what was mentioned above. If Chris Johnson continues to take the snap and gauge the defenders, instead of exploding and making a single cut out of the backfield, then he will have another disappointing season in which he only averages 4.0 yards a carry again.
8. DeMarco Murray – He needs to continue to develop on the rookie success he had. Coming in and averaging 5.5 a carry when he rushed for almost 900 yards is crazy. If Murray becomes a complete back and plays as well in all aspects, despite the conditions, like field type and other variables, he could become one of the top backs in this league. The veteran staff of Tony Romo, Jason Witten, Miles Austin, and Dez Bryant will give Murray a comfort zone. He doesn’t have to be the face of the offense. In year two he can still feed off of that talent and shave the rough edges off of his game.
Fear Factor: The knock on Murray coming out of Oklahoma was the old injury question. Can he stay healthy in the NFL? While he did play the majority of his rookie season, it was still stopped short due to an ankle injury. Anytime that there is a history of a problem, it’s worth noting. Murray would be a great back to tie up on your fantasy team for the future, but you always have to wonder how much of the season will you be playing with him. Lastly, he had almost 200 touches last season, but only put up two touchdowns. That has to change if you’re thinking about drafting him as a fringe first rounder.
9. Matt Forte – In his four NFL seasons he has never had one with less than 50 receptions or 900 rushing yards. Despite only playing in 12 games last season he kept that streak going. This year he’ll get to play with last year’s first round selection, Gabe Carimi. The offense gets an overhaul as Jay Cutler no longer will be making seven step drops and has some height to finally throw to. Speaking of Cutler, him and Brandon Marshall have been reunited and it should feel so good. If the Bears can keep Marshall down to one personality and Alshon Jeffery to one helping at the buffet, this offense could create a ton of mismatches that Forte will be bound to feast off of.
Fear Factor: While Michael Bush may be more of a Brandon Jacobs type of back than a Michael Turner, he’s still capable of stealing some red zone touchdowns. Bush will get carries as the short yardage back, used as insurance, and to keep Forte fresh during the game. The running game will still be centered around Forte, but those red zone carries for Bush could be costly for Forte’s owners, seeing how he’s only averaging five rushing touchdowns a season as is.
10. Marshawn Lynch – Seems to be getting better with age. If he can get more help around him, we will see his best season to date. Marshawn may not be the flashiest type of player or biggest name, but he’s definitely worthy of his top ten ranking. It seems that the way Lynch ended 2010 vaulted him into a fresh, new beginning in 2011. Lynch has been fighting for every yard he’s earned ever since entering the league. The Seahawks’ offensive line looks to be improved this year and if Marshawn can get some help from his receivers and quarterback, he could be tasting the rainbow a lot more in 2012. No two players are identical in the NFL and all take a different path to success. Some hit their peak early in their career, Lynch looks like he’s more of a twilighter. I expect to see another double digit rushing touchdown season in 2012.
Fear Factor: If the offense doesn’t play well around him, his heightened celebrity status and recent success could lead to more defenses seeing him as the focal point. While his style makes for exciting highlights of broken tackles, it would be more ideal for him to not have to face a ton of eight man fronts.
11. Trent Richardson – I have no problem telling you that this has been the most puzzling player to rank. He has the talent of one of the top backs in the NFL, but the team surrounding him should prevent him from being in the top 20 rankings of fantasy backs. I figure that with his natural ability and no one competing with him for reps out of the backfield, he should still put up a fringe top ten showing. He’s more talented than Doug Martin, but he doesn’t get to play with the offensive line of Martin or the receiving options to draw attention away from his presence. I seriously doubt that he ends the season with a better yards per carry average than Martin, but he should put up better fantasy numbers due to more carries in general and more specifically, the goal line.
Fear Factor: I wonder if he can hold up to the eight man fronts that he will see week in and week out. I’m also concerned that his fellow rookie counterpart quarterback Brandon Weeden won’t be able to do enough to draw the pressure off of Trent. Richardson is too talented to not perform, but his workload against the defenses in that division scares me as a potential drafter of his services.
12. Doug Martin – Doug gets to run behind a great offensive line and has plenty of weapons around him to distract the defense. Past rookie running backs have proven that early success at the position is attainable. Martin is the ideal build, speed, and style of back that the team needs in Tampa Bay. He’s a workhorse and in the next year or two should earn his way up into top five consideration. I’m more cautious on the value of young, fantasy running backs as a lot of them get injured in the preseason, before getting their first NFL carry. LeGarrette Blount will get touches, but he’s always most effective after the defense is worn down. Martin should see the bulk of the carries and he’ll be smiling all the way to the end zone, while running behind Tampa’s offensive line.
Fear Factor: I always fear that rookie backs won’t make it out of camp without an injury, as there is an adjustment period to NFL hitting. The Bucs may want to bring Martin along slowly and start the season with Blount getting a bigger share of the carries. If they go that route, LeGarrette will be successful, as he may not have the talent of Martin, but he’s athletic and would also benefit from the increased line play. I don’t see it playing out that way though. Doug should take the reins day one and never look back. He should receive 17-20 carries a game and sell a ton of jerseys in southwest Florida.
13. Adrian Peterson – Has recorded double digit touchdowns every season that he’s been in the NFL. It seems ungodly to place Adrian Peterson out of the top five fantasy rankings and even more so the top ten. With that said, I understand the risk of even selecting him as the 13th back off the board, but the worst mistake you can make is judging Peterson by human standards. He’s a different animal. I don’t see his streak of double digit rushing touchdowns ending this year and I believe that he’s improved his football IQ every season. After having fumbling issues over the first three seasons, he’s limited it to only one lost fumble for the last two years combined. Peterson missed the last four games of the season and still had almost a 1,000 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns.
Fear Factor: He may not return as the same player and what’s more he may miss the beginning of the season. The ultimate fear factor is if the team feels that he won’t be 100% until week four or five and decide to place him on the PUP list, making him untouchable for six weeks. These are legitimate fears, but once again, Peterson isn’t made like you and me. He’s cut from a different cloth, a cloth like the cape of Superman. When he’s determined, there is no stopping him. I think he will be back at the beginning of the season and at least 80% of his old self. Even if he misses the first 2 or 3 games of 2012, he’ll still be better than any other fantasy back outside of the top ten rankings. Look at what Arian Foster did last year after missing the first three games.
14. Jamaal Charles – It pains me to not place Charles higher on this list. Any guy that has an average above 6 yards a carry for a career with almost 500 carries in it, is deserving of a top five fantasy ranking. Jamaal averaged 6.4 yards a carry two years ago, in a season which he ran the ball 230 times for 1,467 yards. Some still believe he’s just a track guy, but he gets his yardage up the middle, between the tackles, and outside. This year he will have the same type of success as Arian Foster, when it comes to running behind right tackle Eric Winston. The newly implemented zone running scheme is ideal for the decisive, fleet of foot Charles.
Fear Factor: There is a chance that Charles doesn’t come back as the same player after the ACL injury. As mentioned before, the switch to a zone usually takes a few years to be fully complete. The new addition of Peyton Hillis could eat up all of the red zone carries and Charles could be looked at as a “between the twenties” type of runner. I think Charles is young enough to bounce back from this injury and the Hillis situation may turn out more beneficial than expected. Peyton is also coming back from injury and if he doesn’t perform well or goes he back down, Charles will be in line for even more touches.
15. Darren McFadden – McFadden may be the best back in the NFL, but he’s always injured and the team is switching to a new running scheme. I would almost give anything to be able to watch and see what Run DMC could do for a full, uninterrupted season. McFadden has ended the last two seasons with averages over 5 yards per carry. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been able to play in all 16 games in a season, ever. It would be a travesty to watch his career end in a couple of years and to never have seen what he’s fully capable of. He lands at 15th in my rankings based off of potential and my own stubbornness. I’m betting on black…and silver.
Fear Factor: Here is another offense that is making the switch to a zone running attack. The main fear with McFadden is injuries, but the secondary cause for concern lies in how quick he can mesh with his offensive linemen in the ZBS. The Raiders decided against moving McFadden this offseason and are going all-in on him staying healthy. I’m not as committed as they are, but I would still make him a fairly high selection at running back.
16. Steven Jackson – He deserves to be in the top 10, but with over 2,000 career carries I’d exercise caution when drafting Steven. He has seven straight 1,000 yard seasons, about 40 receptions a season, and averages around 7.5 total touchdowns per year. Sounds very consistent, but at what point does he breakdown? It seems ironic that after listing so many people with concerns surrounding their injuries that I would question the health of a guy that has basically played through everything for 8 NFL seasons. In fantasy football you have to stay ahead of the curve. A guy who’s about to turn 29, has played 8 NFL seasons, has over 2,500 career total touches, and his team drafts their running back of the future…doesn’t sit well as a top running back selection.
Fear Factor: Many times we have seen guys have hall of fame careers and then when they come back for the next season, they just don’t have it anymore. When does that time hit for Jackson? The team is under new leadership and they have a youth movement throughout the entire roster. If they aren’t playing for the 2012 season, Jeff Fisher may want to build on the offensive chemistry of the future, with Sam Bradford, Isaiah Pead, and the young receiving core. I think that the Rams come out and try to play competitive ball early on in the season and Jackson will be an integral part of that attack, but I fear that at the halfway point, they will look to rest Jackson more, than they do over the first half of the schedule.
17. Fred Jackson – Over 30 years old, coming off an injury, and CJ Spiller proved capable in his absence. How reduced will his role be this season? It’s hard not to pull for Fred Jackson. He took the path not taken to get to the NFL. But, you don’t get fantasy points for sympathy. He will still be able to play when he comes back. He was having his best season by far and will be a major part of the Bills offensive attack. While Spiller had success, the team didn’t after Jackson went out. Through 10 games Jackson had 39 receptions for over 400 yards to go with his 900+ yards of rushing at a clip of 5.5 a carry and 6 touchdowns.
Fear Factor: That he doesn’t come back as the same player at his age. CJ Spiller still hasn’t hit the peak of his talent and the team could look to keep the younger, fresher legs on the field more. How will Buffalo split the carries? Despite the injury and Spiller’s success, I honestly believe that the Bills have all intentions of running the offense through Fred Jackson.
18. Shonn Greene – If Tim Tebow is named the starter early on in the season, Greene will put together numbers similar to Willis McGahee in 2011. I believe that Tim Tebow is an ideal match for the blueprint of a Rex Ryan dream offense. The pairing of Tebow and Greene is perfect for a run first, ball control, time of possession offense. I think that the Jets will name Tebow the starter at some point of the 2012 season and Greene will surpass McGahee’s stats from 2011. If that’s the case, Greene is worthy of taking much higher on this list.
Fear Factor: The Jets stick to their guns and keep Mark Sanchez as the starting quarterback. Sanchez wouldn’t create an advantage for the running game and Greene would be led to make his own way. Greene isn’t the caliber of a top ten back, he needs the Tebow factor in the rushing attack. That element will convert his skill set into top five fantasy numbers. I do believe that Tebow will be named starter in 2012, but I’d be guessing at the date they would make the move.
19. Isaac Redman - Redman will be getting his carries behind an offensive line that is made up of four out of five guys that have been drafted in the first or second round over the last three years. Two of those guys, Mike Adams and David DeCastro, are rookies but all of them are extremely talented. If the whole group develops together, this offense could be deadly for the coming years. Redman will get his time to shine in 2012 and I don’t expect him to disappoint. In his limited action last season he played well. Redman has the ability to be a Michael Turner type of runner. I expect to see Redman make a living by following behind DeCastro. If the rest of the line plays up to the level that they are capable of, then Redman will become the steal of your fantasy draft.
Fear Factor: It’s a young line and Redman is an inexperienced back. If the whole blueprint falls apart, it could get ugly. If it takes half the season before the rookies get acclimated to the NFL speed and/or play well as a unit with Maurkice Pouncey and Marcus Gilbert, then Redman may not see the daylight he needs to shine. I feel that there is too much young talent on this line for Redman to not become a household name after the season is all said and done.
20. Jonathan Stewart - Deciding between Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams for the last spot in the top 20 fantasy running back rankings is like picking your favorite kid. They have co-existed in harmony for several years now and that is to be commended. Either back could carry the bulk of the workload, but the team chooses to lengthen their NFL life and max out each others’ value. DeAngelo depends more on off-tackle running, while Stewart is the more complete back. Stewart will add value to your fantasy team by rushing the ball and as a receiver out of the backfield. Stewart has the ability to bounce the ball outside, but he’s also very effective up the gut as well. Stewart is also four years younger than his backfield partner. Jonathan is setup for a big year in 2012. Cam Newton had 14 rushing touchdowns last year, but I expect to see that number come down and be spread out more between Stewart, Williams, and even Mike Tolbert.
Fear Factor: When you have this much talent in the backfield, a coach could tend to go with the hot hand. If DeAngelo gets in a grove and runs off a few home run type plays, then Stewart could be watching from the sideline. If the team gets comfortable with a Newton/Tolbert package inside of the five yard line, fantasy owners of Stewart or Williams could be sitting helplessly by on Sundays as their backs contribute nothing in the touchdown category. I see the Panthers spreading the ball around to keep all of their backs happy. They may not get the touches you would like, but the fresh legs of Stewart could be deadly in the fourth quarter. The scariness for fantasy owners could come on late Sunday afternoons when Stewart is sitting on 7 rushes for 42 yards and 3 receptions for 30 with no touchdowns, before he gets his late game touches. If the Panthers are winning comfortably, owners may not see Stewart get his increased workload late in games.
Jayson Braddock is an NFL Scout / NFL Writer & On-Air Personality. Jayson is also a football insider for the Dylan Gwinn show on 790 AM in Houston, TX - Listeners NOT in the Houston metropolitan area can hear Jayson on iheart radio or sports790.com. You can also catch Jayson on Sirius XM Fantasy Sports Radio with Scott Engel and the morning crew every Thursday at 10:30am ET. You may email Jayson directly @ email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @JaysonBraddock